What’s new for October 7th, 2017:

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This playlist, a mash-up of Dave Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary and Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust, attempts to best represent what a Rockpile album culled from those sessions would have looked like. The songs were all recorded in the same time frame, but because of Edmunds’ and Lowe’s recording contracts, had to be released on separate albums.

  1. “Sweet Little Lisa” (Repeat When Necessary)
  2. “Cracking Up” (Labour of Lust)
  3. “Crawling from the Wreckage” (Repeat When Necessary)
  4. “Born Fighter” (Labour of Lust)
  5. “Switchboard Susan” (Labour of Lust)
  6. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (Repeat When Necessary)
  7. “Queen of Hearts” (Repeat When Necessary)
  8. “Cruel to Be Kind” (Labour of Lust)
  9. “Girls Talk” (Repeat When Necessary)
  10. “Home in My Hand” (Repeat When Necessary)
  11. “Love So Fine” (Labour of Lust)

Only one true problem exists with this project, which is that Labour of Lust is worth hearing in its entirety already, so cutting up that album feels like a poor exercise. With that in mind, I tried to create a different kind of experience, with a few principles in mind:

  • Edmunds’ songs—90% covers—were chosen somewhat on the basis of more relevant songwriting personnel, such as Graham Parker (“Crawling from the Wreckage”), Elvis Costello (“Girls Talk”), and Rockpile member Billy Bremner (“The Creature from the Black Lagoon”). Coincidentally, these are the best songs from his album anyway, for the most part. This approach seems to mesh better with Lowe’s output.
  • Conversely, I put Lowe’s more rock-oriented songs on there, including cover “Switchboard Susan” and band-penned “Love So Fine” because they flow better with Edmunds’ rock ‘n’ roll.
  • I put “Sweet Little Lisa” in the beginning as a nod to it often being used to open Rockpile’s shows, and buried “Cruel to Be Kind” because I thought maybe Lowe might appreciate that.
  • The “A-side” (songs 1–6) is focused mainly on frenetic songs, while the “B-side” (7–11) is more glossy, melodic, and soppy to begin with, although it does devolve into the crass “Home in My Hand” and debased “Love So Fine.”
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Yeah, sure, it’s fun, but is it art?

GWAR’s first album, although not as mythologized as their later releases, fits in fairly well in their discography. After all, hardcore punk and thrash metal hold hands from time to time, so the transition makes sense—more sense than the Bee Gees going disco, if you think about it. But Bee Gees this is not; Hell-O is a nasty affair, ranging from sodomy to bestiality to—hold your hat—anti-patriotism. On this album, these things are presented more as general statements than as part of the GWAR story, but I’m sure you can consider the things in here to be retroactive continuity. My personal favorites are “Slutman City,” which should be self-explanatory, the raging “U Ain’t Shit,” “Je M’appelle J. Cousteau,” a lurid new chapter to the famed explorer’s life, and the eponymous “GWAR Theme.”

Maybe I don’t know if I should change
A feeling that we share
It’s a shame
Number me with rage
Number me in haste
This eagerness to change

It’s My Life isn’t an upper-echelon album. As far as Talk Talk goes, it’s not far beyond The Party’s Over. Like that album, it’s front-loaded, but even those songs have problems. Take “Renée” for example, the most off-putting song they ever did. Musically, it’s an OK little lament, but Hollis just sounds so ridiculous during the chorus. And with “Dum Dum Girl,” another song I hate to hate, I appreciate the irony, but that doesn’t make me enjoy its dopey melody. That song and two others were co-written by Tim Friese-Greene, the band’s new producer and unofficial fourth member. You’ll never see him listed as such, but that’s what he was, playing keyboards, sharing writing credits, and even sitting in on tour at times. I’m sorry, but what do you call that?

He replaces original keyboardist Simon Brenner, although Ian Curnow plays keyboards on at least one song on It’s My Life. But it’s Friese-Greene I have to give credit for the interesting bits on “Dum Dum Girl” and “It’s My Life,” a hit in its own time on both sides of the Atlantic but mostly famous today because of No Doubt (at least in the U.S.). Who knows, though; Hollis wrote the best song, “Such a Shame,” on his own, as well as the excellent “Tomorrow Started.” The former begins with a lengthy, precipitous intro on the album version before veering into a The Dice Man-inspired story. What really makes the song for me, though, is a stroke of genius that lasts all of five seconds during the chorus—that keyboard line just after “This eagerness to change.” That little bit of melody just says it all; it elicits such strange and wonderful emotions both in cadence and texture that foreshadows the genius to come on later Talk Talk albums.

The rest of the songs range from forgettable (“It’s You,” The Party’s Over holdover “Call in the Night Boys”) to pleasant (“The Last Time”). Is “Does Caroline Know?” some kind of answer to the Beach Boys? Somehow I doubt it, but there’s lots of diehard fans of theirs throughout the music industry, so I’m not ruling it out. In any case, that’s about as much thought the B-side provokes from me. But when the album shines, it really shines.

Here we are at Sparks’ 20-somethingth album, depending on whether or not you count the radio opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman or the Franz Ferdinand collaboration FFS, or for that matter the redux album Plagarism. When you get to that kind of number, it’s really no longer anything notable to point out. The only interesting thing to note is that even as Ron and Russell enter a point in their lives when many musicians would be doing music by rote, with Sparks you can still see and hear new patterns emerging. I begin this review of Hippopotamus by mentioning the first thing that grabbed my attention, which is a song titled “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?”

I found that to be an damnably cumbersome title, even before I’d heard the song it belongs to. And speaking to the pattern of it, Sparks have been doing this since, I want to say, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins—1994. And while you can say, yes, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974) did exist, that was more of an idiomatic thing. At some point, Sparks started to just make songs that were just random phrases: “I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car,” “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold,” “As I Sit Down to Play The Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral.” And I’ll be damned if Ron and Russell aren’t having a laugh about it, considering there’s also “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song.” But they just ruin the patter of the songs, because a title is one thing but Russell tends to sing them as well, sometimes cramming as many syllables into a basic measure as is humanly possible.

And you know what? Sometimes that makes for good, quirky fun, but “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?” is the last straw. What kind of a line is that? At least “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” had a sort of structure to it, but for “Lincoln” they just machine-gun it. And the worst part? It’s not even a “Talent Is an Asset” or “Here in Heaven”-esque story about Mary Todd Lincoln giving a darkly funny interview after her husband’s assassination. The line has nothing to do with the rest of the song, unless there’s some kind of allusion I’m missing, which I don’t think I am. This is symptomatic of much that is the Sparks of the last 25 years, which is to think up a killer concept and proceed to milk it into utterly enervated submission over 4–7 minutes.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate these songs musically, necessarily. With the Maels back to a format more in line with their classic period, I would say Hippopotamus is possibly the peak of their powers. They haven’t lost their enthusiasm for music, and 45 years of practice will make you a pro at just about anything. Russell took care of his voice—maybe he can’t do exactly the same falsetto he could in ’74, but he sounds not old, and Ron’s twisted persona still looms large, not having lost its edge. I say this because not all the lyrics are duds (“Live fast and die young/Too late for that”) and because he still looks sharp on stage. Sometimes Sparks don’t live up to their name, but Hippopotamus has the spark, and with a seemingly self-conscious effort to keep songs under four minutes, I can get on board. Maybe not with a hippo lurking in the pool—those things are nasty.

Back to Sparks hub

How do you follow one of the most auspicious debuts in all of popular music? Dial it down, spruce it up, make it shine, and put the band’s two pretty boys on the cover. Had Cheap Trick been released in the era of compact disc, In Color (and even parts of subsequent albums) probably wouldn’t have even existed. It’s not an unusual story: Cheap Trick had so many songs already in their repertoire that it took years just to release them all on record—Cheap Trick was released in 1977 and principal songwriter Rick Nielsen had been playing music since at least 1961.

The only substantial difference between Cheap Trick and In Color is in the production; the former was handled by Jack Douglas, whose résumé included kindred spirits like Blue Öyster Cult, New York Dolls, and Aerosmith (not always as producer but sometimes engineer or both). It’s the better record any day of the week, and that’s not to say In Color‘s Tom Werman is necessarily a poor producer, just that his own credits—mostly campy hair metal acts like Poison and Twisted Sister—didn’t make him a keen choice for a raw rock group like Cheap Trick.

Cheap Trick’s seminal concert opener “Hello There” opens In Color, which almost doesn’t make sense on a studio record, and Nielsen’s guitar doesn’t really roar like it should, nor does it on the should-be-menacing “Big Eyes.” The more sensitive “Downed” actually benefits from the setting, and “I Want You to Want Me” is at least interesting and cute arranged like a pop-country song, but “You’re All Talk” feels neutered. “Oh Caroline” is more faithful to the Cheap Trick sound, but “Clock Strikes Ten” is too slow compared to its live counterpart. “Southern Girls” is their triumph here, a “California Girls”/”Back in the U.S.S.R.” tribute that arguably does those songs one better.

Back to Cheap Trick hub

I’ve always thought Monster was sort of middling, and relative to their other albums of the period, it might be. Over time I’ve realized that it’s a more interesting and twisted album than I gave it credit for. Everyone thinks of it as R.E.M.’s “rock album,” and it is, but that’s a reductive statement. To me, the album seems to subvert emerging pop conventions, like with the distorted vocals and halting guitar on “King of Comedy,” or mocking hard rock of “Circus Envy.” Maybe that’s giving it a little too much credit. They probably were just doing whatever they felt was right at the time, which when you’re coming off four platinum albums you’re at complete liberty to do.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” continues the “Man on the Moon” trend of pop-culture subjects, this time focusing on a dark if oddly humorous true story of Dan Rather being accosted by a schizophrenic murderer. “I Took Your Name” and “Circus Envy” are the riffers that go along with it, and all three are satisfying in that way, if not necessarily by virtue of their messages. The druggy “Crush with Eyeliner” features Thurston Moore, and the Leonard Cohen tribute “King of Comedy” features a singer from Disney movies. “Bang and Blame” I find trite.

The dirge “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and plea “Strange Currencies” provide an odd dichotomy as the former is a resigned tale of perfunctory romance and the latter seems to basically be a heartfelt love song. “You” lies somewhere in the middle, sounding more obsessive. “Star 69” is a case of split personality from a criminal deal gone wrong. “Tongue” is a song I can never quite decide if I love or am reviled by it; on one hand its melodies are actually really, but on the other Stipe’s vocals give me the creeps. “Let Me In” is an epitaph for Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain, fittingly buried under several layers of distortion.

Back to R.E.M. hub

The bruises they will fade away
You hit so hard with the things you say
I will not stay to watch your hate as it grows
You’re not in love with someone else
You don’t even love yourself
Still I wish you’d ask me not to go

Since Madonna’s first eight albums were all multi-platinum, and even the ones after that made more money than you or I will ever see in our lifetimes, it feels kind of absurd to compare any of them that way. What I can tell you for sure is that Like a Prayer was Madonna’s last earth-shattering album, as her two follow-ups sold less than half what Like a Prayer did worldwide (Ray of Light in fact sold even more, but its sales were more evenly spread, and it had fewer enduring singles). However, Like a Prayer didn’t sell as well as True Blue before it, which sold less domestically than Like a Virgin before that, so there was a clear trajectory and apex for Madonna’s fame, though she’s always been hanging there ready to strike, even now.

She was poised for success with Like a Prayer even if she pulled a Metal Machine Music, so it’s hard to tell what people really thought of it. Compared to True Blue, its brand of pop is classier and less girlish. The ballads are more adult-oriented, and “Dear Jessie” even has strings, a song which I assumed was sarcastic (“Rub his magic lantern/He will make your dreams come true”) but apparently is not. However, I do believe Like a Prayer is still colored by a sort of darkness in stark contrast with the carefree, naive True Blue. This is made most explicit on “Till Death Do Us Part,” a forgotten non-single about the horror of Madonna’s failed marriage to Sean Penn. A frantic piece of new wave/country weirdness, it’s the best song on the album, and more effective emotionally than intended tearjerkers “Promise to Try” and “Oh Father.”

Aside from that, “Express Yourself,” “Cherish,” and “Like a Prayer” still hold up, and lesser singles “Keep It Together” and “Dear Jessie” are solid as well. There’s also “Love Song” with Prince, which isn’t (and I don’t know what it is, either), and “Spanish Eyes,” which plays like an outdated True Blue holdover, but I like it. The whole thing is far from being a masterpiece, but it has so much pop goodness that you’ll find yourself playing it more often than some of your classics.