Album Review: Encore by The Specials


Album: Encore
Artist: The Specials
Release Date: February 1, 2019
Favorite Tracks: B.L.M, The Lunatics, Blam Blam Fever, 10 Commandments, The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression)
Thoughts:

The Specials, the 2 Tone UK ska revival band from the 1970s and 80s, are back with a new album!  I remember back in the 1990s, the band released Today’s Specials, which was good enough but since it was all covers it felt more like UB40’s Labor of Love than anything The Specials had done before.  Encore has three covers, but the rest of the album is new material.  And just as they did back in the Thatcher Era, The Specials have something to say to our times with tracks focusing on Black Lives Matter, gun violence, and women’s rights (the latter with guest vocals by Saffiyah Khan).  The opening track is firmly in the disco genre which made me wonder what I was in store for, but the rest of the album falls into the more expected ska/reggae/punk sounds.  I’d say overall, that the album is hit and miss, but tracks like “B.L.M” and “10 Commandments” make the whole thing feel more relevant than one would expect from a 40-year-old band.  The deluxe version of the album features live versions of The Specials’ classic tunes.

Rating: ***1/2

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Album Review: The New Normal by STL GLD


AlbumThe New Normal
ArtistSTL GLD
Release Date: February 1, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Burns, Gon’ Shine, Burns
Thoughts:

The Boston hip hop act STL GLD is well-regarded as one of the best groups in the area by local media.  Boston isn’t a notable location on the hip hop map compared with other cities, but The New Normal should draw attention to our city. Moe Pope, Christopher Talken, and Jonathan Ulman perform songs that speak to the present moment of the Trump era, and all the political and personal turmoil that entails, but also offering a positive alternative vision.  And STL GLD is not shy about getting their message out, including holding a listening party for the album’s premier in the unlikely setting of the Museum of Fine Arts.  I admit that I don’t know enough about hip hop to write a thorough review, but I know what I like, and The New Normal, lyrically and musically, is worth listenin to.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Better Oblivion Community Center


AlbumBetter Oblivion Community Center
ArtistBetter Oblivion Community Center
Release Date: January 24, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Didn’t Know What I Was In For
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Dominos

Thoughts:

Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Obserst have made a career of collaborating with other artists, so it’s natural that they ended up working with one another.  Their new album is ten tracks of indie folk rock with sweet harmonies. The pair of singer/songwriters invest the lyrics with raw emotion that holds out hope for redemption.

Rating: ***

Monthly Mixtape – January 2019


Welcome to a New Year of new music!

Cochemea :: “All My Relations”

Cochemea Gastelum, long-time saxophonist with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, explores his roots, blending jazz with rhythmns of his Native American ancestors.

Abby Jeanne :: “Pleasures Pain”

Abby Jeanne is a young soul singer from Milwaukee.

Georgia Anne Muldrow :: “Play It Up”

Georgia Anne Muldrow of Los Angeles performs hip-hop with heavy jazz influences.

The Gods Themselves :: “Girl Crush”

The Gods Themselves are a disco punk band from Seattle.

Mdou Moctar :: “Kamane Tarhanin”

Mdou Moctar of Niger plays a modern, electronic take on Tuareg trance music.

 

Previous Mixtapes:

Album Review: Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten


AlbumRemind Me Tomorrow
ArtistSharon Van Etten
Release Date: January 18, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • I Told You Everything
  • No One’s Easy To Love
  • Comeback Kid
  • You Shadow

Thoughts:

Van Etten’s first album in five years features folk song arrangements over synthesizers with lots of oscallation and distortion. The effect is atmospheric and emotionally piercing, especially the lyrics the focus on surviving trauma, falling in love again, and muddling through the ever-messy present. This is a terrific work that is worth multiple listens.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: What Will We Do by Lula Wiles


AlbumWhat Will We Do
Artist: Lula Wiles
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: “Love Gone Wrong,”  “If I Don’t Go,” “Good Old American Values,” “Shaking as it Turns,” “Morphine,” and “What Will We Do.”

Lula Wiles is the folk/roots music trio of  Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin, who met at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  Their harmonies and spare arrangements are reminiscent of The Be Good Tanyas and Crooked Still (and the various bands and solo acts that have emerged from those bands). Their music has a melancholy sound that makes me want to weep happy tears. It’s also steeped in the fine folk tradition of melding the personal and political, such as songs like “Good Old American Values.”

  The full album is currently available via NPR’s First Listen.

Rating: ***1/2

Baby Shark: An Appreciation


This week, the Billboard Top 40 chart included an unusual debut song, with “Baby Shark” ranking at 32 on the list for January 12.  If you’re not familiar with “Baby Shark,” it is a children’s song sung at camps and preschools about a family of sharks accompanied by appropriately shark-y hand gestures.  I first heard this song in the early 1990s on a college beach trip, and since the people singing the song remembered it from their childhood, it goes back to at least the 1970s.  Stranger still, the version of the song on the chart is not by a famed popstar, but is from a video made by the South Korean education company Pinkfong in 2015.  The popularity of the song has been aided by the viral meme of the  where people film themselves performing the song’s choreography.

I’m tickled by the “Baby Shark” song’s chart success, because we expect the Top 40 to be filled with finely crafted pop recordings from internationally famed musicians.  “Baby Shark” instead is a song performed everyday by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, especially children.  It turns everything we know about chart success on its head.

More personally, when my son was a baby, my wife & I sang a version of this song we called “The Magic Shark Song,” because sometimes it was the ONLY thing that would soothe him when he was fussy.  Our version had a slightly different tune and lyrics.  Most significantly, instead of the famed/notorious “doo doo doo doo doo doo” chorus, we sang:

“Baby shark, baby shark, ba, ba. Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,
Mommy shark, mommy shark, ma, ma. Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma…”

And so on, with the repeated sound being the first syllable of each member of the shark family.  As time went by, I varied the song to sing it in the style of Ethel Merman and Carol Channing (RIP).  Trust me, singing “shark teeth are a girl’s best friend” was a hit with the infant!

So, I lift a fin to “Baby Shark” this week.  Long may it chomp!

 

Music Discoveries: The Beatles Go Solo, Finale


I managed to listen to every album that George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney released between 1968 and 1980 as documented in part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.  But my review of ex-Beatles’ musical output was missing something, including some of the best songs they recorded during this period, and that is the non-album singles.  So, to complete this music discovery, I listened to the following songs:

1969 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Give Peace a Chance”

One of John’s political anthems that is more fun than preachy.  It still resonates today even if I can’t understand the

1969 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Cold Turkey”

I’m surprised I’ve never heard this one before.  It has a rockin’ riff, but otherwise is dull.

1970 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Instant Karma!”

An all-time classic, and one with a great backstory of how it was created in (nearly) one day.

1971 – Paul McCartney – “Another Day”/”Oh Woman, Oh Why”

“Another Day” is a perfectly fine McCartney ballad, but feels a bit watered down compared to his best love songs. The b-side is just blah.

1971 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Power to the People”

More anthemic but less resonant that “Give Peace a Chance.”

1971 – George Harrison – “Bangla Desh”/”Deep Blue”

The charity single is born, and like “We Are the World” later on, it has good intentions with cheezy lyrics.  Harrison should be remembered for his dedication to the cause though, that likely had greater real world effect than Lennon’s sloganeering.  “Deep Blue” is a folksy-blues tune about Harrison grieving his mother that ties in personal tragedy with the global catastrophe of the A-side.

1971 – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

The reuse of the tune for “Stewball” and its frequent repetition every December since its release makes this song feel an oddity.  But the Harlem Community Choir is genuinely charming and it works as both a Christmas pop song and an anti-war anthem.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”

I find it interesting that Lennon & McCartney both recorded political songs about the Irish Troubles at this time.  The Irish issue didn’t seem to be much of interest to either of them at any other point in their life.  McCartney is not known for political anthems and it humors me that Great Britain actually banned the song despite its milquetoast lyrics.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Mary Had a Little Lamb”/”Little Woman Love”

Holy crap, an ex-Beatle totally recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and released it as a single!  The B-side is a fun rockabilly number, but nothing special.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Hi, Hi, Hi”/”C Moon”

More mediocrity.

1972 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Live and Let Die”

McCartney at his most bombastic perfectly suits the UK’s bombastic James Bond film series.  I like this one despite myself.

1974 – Paul McCartney & Wings -“Junior’s Farm”/”Sally G”

McCartney tries on 70s arena rock and it’s not too shabby. The b-side is a nice bit of twangy country.  This is McCartney at his competent, okay-ness.

1974 – Paul McCartney & The Country Hams – “Walking in the Park with Eloise”

An instrumental ragtime tune with country twang.  Not bad, but sometimes I wonder if McCartney ever wanted to be a rock star.

1977 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Mull of Kintyre”

Another song that I never heard until recently despite that fact that it was one of the biggest singles in UK history. I’ve heard better pop songs with bagpipes.

1978 – Paul McCartney & Wings – “Goodnight Tonight”/”Daytime Nighttime Suffering”

Wings does disco, fulfilling an ancient prophecy.

1979 – Paul McCartney – “Wonderful Christmastime”/”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae”

I’ve actually successfully made it through this holiday season without ONCE hearing “Wonderful Christmastime” for the first time in decades, so I’m certainly not going to listen to the Worst. Christmas. Song. Ever. on purpose.  I listened to the B-side so you wouldn’t have to. It’s an instrumental reggae version of “Rudolph” played on violin.  For realz!


Ex-Beatle Superlatives

George Harrison:

Best AlbumAll Things Must Pass
Runner Up – Wonderwall Music
Worst Album – Extra Texture (Read All About It)
Best Song – “What is Life?”

John Lennon:

Best Album – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Runner Up – Imagine
Worst AlbumMind Games
Best Song – “Instant Karma”

Ringo Starr:

Best AlbumRingo
Runner Up – Goodnight, Vienna
Worst Album – Ringo the 4th
Best Song – “Photograph”

Paul McCartney:

Best Album – Back to the Egg
Runner Up – Venus and Mars
Worst AlbumLondon Town
Best Song – “Maybe I’m Amazed”


The Ex-Beatles Greatest Hits

To finish off, here are the 22 best songs by former Beatles up to 1980:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band :: Give Peace a Chance

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band :: Instant Karma!

Paul McCartney :: Maybe I’m Amazed

George Harrison :: What is Life?

John Lennon :: Working Class Hero

John Lennon :: Imagine

John Lennon :: New York City

George Harrison :: Living in the Material World

Ringo Starr :: Photograph

Ringo Starr :: You’re Sixteen

Paul McCartney & Wings :: Live and Let Die

Paul McCartney & Wings ::Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five

John Lennon :: #9 Dream

Ringo Starr :: No No Song

Paul McCartney & Wings :: Silly Love Songs

George Harrison :: Not Guilty

Paul McCartney & Wings :: Getting Closer

Paul McCartney :: Coming Up

John Lennon & Yoko Ono :: (Just Like) Starting Over

John Lennon & Yoko Ono :: Watching the Wheels

John Lennon & Yoko Ono :: Woman

 

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 5th


The Anthropocene Reviewed :: Teddy Bears and Penalty Shootouts

John Green reviews the history of the teddy bear and offers a solid defense of penalty shootouts in soccer games through the story of AFC Wimbledon.

Code Switch :: America’s Other Anthems

Songs that are unofficial anthems including “This Little Light of Mine,” “Whittier Avenue” by Chicano rock band Thee Midniters, and two songs called  “Fight the Power” by The Isley Brothers and Public Enemy.

Fresh Air :: ‘Punishment Without Crime’ Highlights The Injustice Of America’s Misdemeanor System

How the American criminal justice systems tangles up the poor in Kafkaesque web of debts and punishment.

This American Life :: The Room of Requirement

Stories about libraries and librarians.  I’m particularly touched by the woman is reunited with the children’s librarian who helped her when she was a homeless child.  I’m also a fan of Richard Brautigan and W.P. Kinsella, so I liked that story of the Brautigan Library.


 

Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Music Discoveries: The Beatles Go Solo, part 5


Heading into the home stretch on the first decade of post-Beatles music, and I’ve not been all impressed with the mid-to-late 70s offerings of Paul, George, & Ringo and John has gone on sabbatical. Entering the period covered by this period, they can all be relieved that the then most popular band in the world – the Bee Gees – decided to put together an all-star cast to make a film and album based on Beatles’ songs called Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  And it BOMBED!  So the former Beatles could rest assured they would not make to most embarrassing music tied to the Beatles in the late 1970s.

AlbumLondon Town
Artist: Paul McCartney & Wings
Release Date :31 March 1978
Favorite Tracks: none
Thoughts:

Paul McCartney ventures into yacht rock by literally recording parts of this album on a yacht.  The band is down to a trio once again with McCartney and Denny Laine collaborating on a number of songs. It’s awfully yawn-ful.


AlbumBad Boy
Artist: Ringo Starr
Release Date: 21 April 1978
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts:

Ringo cuts back the disco flourishes (thankfully!) and eschews famous guest artists, focusing on an album of mostly covers with the same backing band behind him.  Unfortunately, the world didn’t need Ringo’s renditions of these songs.


AlbumGeorge Harrison 
Artist: George Harrison
Release Date:20 February 1979
Favorite Tracks: Not Guilty,
Thoughts:

And now George releases a yacht rock album, with Steve Winwood going overboard on the cheezy synths on many tracks.  “Not Guilty” is good, but I like the version recorded for the White Album better.


AlbumBack to the Egg
Artist: Paul McCartney & Wings
Release Date: 8 June 1979
Favorite Tracks: Getting Closer, Spin It On, Old Siam Sir, So Glad to See You Here
Thoughts:

With an album title this dumb, I braced myself for the worst, only to be surprised that this is the most enjoyable McCartney album released thus far! Part of the reason is that this album rocks harder than McCartney & Wings have ever done before.  Songs like “Spin It On” even approach a punk rock sound, albeit one that will never be confused with The Ramones or Sex Pistols.  It seemed like McCartney had been creatively stuck for some time, with his previous 8 albums all sounding like they could’ve been outtakes from the Beatles recording sessions circa 1967-1969.  Blending in punk and new wave influences helps reconnect McCartney with his own rock & roll roots, and create something original for the first time in ages. The album slows down on the backside and lyrically it’s not strong, but definitely an improvement on the McCartney oeuvre.


AlbumMcCartney II
Artist: Paul McCartney
Release Date: 16 May 1980
Favorite Tracks: Coming Up, On the Way,
Thoughts:

So, Paul McCartney releases his second album, disavowing everything that was released over the previous 10 years.  I jest.  With McCartney playing every instrument, experimenting with synthesizers, and drawing some influence from synth-pop, this album is quite odd, sometimes delightfully so.  Even “Temporary Secretary” is a fun track, albeit not one I’m going to listen to over and over. It’s not all good, but McCartney experimenting is better than McCartney repeating the same old dreck in my book.


AlbumDouble Fantasy 
Artist: John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Release Date:  17 November 1980
Favorite Tracks: (Just Like) Starting Over, Watching the Wheels, Woman
Thoughts:

John & Yoko record their first album together since 1972, and John’s first recording at all since 1975 on the album set up as a conversation between the once-again happily married couple.  The critics don’t like it, they never like anything with a lot of Yoko Ono on it, but I think it was a pretty good comeback and a sign of possibilities to come (never realized).  Besides, Yoko’s music is now no weirder than some new wave music being released at the time, like the B-52s.  This album was released just before my 7th birthday and I distinctly remember it as among my earliest memories of knowing anything about the Beatles, so it holds a particular nostalgia.

 

 

The 1980s would not see a Beatles’ reunion.  John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980.  The surviving members of the band all continued on in their own ways, but made fewer waves than in the previous two decades. Paul McCartney would work to drag down the careers of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and then perform with a frog chorus, before re-rediscovering that he’s a rock star at the end of the decade.  Ringo Starr retreated from recording for most of the 80s, spending some time narrating Thomas & Friends, before getting back on the music bandwagon in 1989 with His All-Starr Band, that has served him well.  And George Harrison also retreated from making music for a time before returning with some big solo hits and then forming the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.