Thursday, April 30, 2009

DJ Shadow - "Funky Skunk" (LP review)

Released in 2005, "Funky Skunk" is a DJ mix LP released as a "DJ Shadow / Obey Reconstruction". Obey Giant is a pseudonym for Shepard Fairey, now best known for the Barrack Obama Hope Poster. I believe the LP is self-released (it is not clear what label, if any, it is actually on) and Fairey handled the artwork. Presumably a limited number received posters, stickers, etc., but my copy came in a jewel case without any bonus items -- or any information on the insert card.

Of course, half the fun of a mix LP is trying to determine all the various tracks. At the time of this writing, the Wikipedia page for "Funky Skunk" has only 9 sources identified, and they are mostly the easily identifiable songs (recent and novelty songs). The entire LP is a single track of approximately 66 minutes. Assume an average of 1 song per minute, and less than 15% of the sources have been identified.

DJ Shadow does a great job on this mix -- easily weaving some new hip hop songs with mostly old school hip hop, with just a sprinkling of novelty (e.g., Dennis the Fox's "Mothertrucker"), funk, and rock songs. This mix stands out from the previous mix LPs he's done with Cut Chemist, "Brainfreeze" and "Product Placement" (whose sources are now identified). Those LPs featured only 7" 45 RPMs, collaboratively mixed in real-time, and as a result of choosing 7" records they had more humor and camp (e.g., "Rappin' with Gas"). "Mothertrucker" is the only campy song on the LP. It's the Jar Jar Binks of this mix, but mercifully more like "Revenge of the Sith" and not "Phantom Menace". Aside from (I believe) only 1 song from "The Outsider", these songs represent new beats and samples that DJ Shadow has not used before in previous releases.

Standout Tracks: N/A since it is only 1 track, but 19:56 -- 41:13 is the strongest part of the mix. It is mostly 80's era hip hop.  Edit: here is the entire LP on soundcloud.

Skip 'em Tracks: N/A

Final Score: 8/10

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dntel - "Dumb Luck" (LP review)

"Dntel" is one of the personas of James Scott Tamborello, another one being "James Figurine" (of Figurine). Although he's had other projects/bands as well, Tamborello is probably best well-known for creating The Postal Service, along with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. In fact, The Postal Service was created because of how well Gibbard's guest vocals were received on "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan" from Dntel's 2001 LP, "Life is Full of Possibilities". I have Johan to thank for introducing me to The Postal Service and Dntel.

Conventional wisdom states that Dntel's 2007 follow-up, "Dumb Luck", is not as good as LIFOP. Perhaps this is because of high expectations resulting from the 6 year wait, or comparison with The Postal Service's acclaimed releases in the interim. Perhaps the fact that Dntel switched labels from the tiny Plug Research to "major-indie" Sub Pop. I, however, think "Dumb Luck" is an extraordinary LP that surpasses LIFOP. On the whole, Dumb Luck's songs are slightly less experimental than those on LIFOP, but for me it makes for a more enjoyable start to finish listen.

It begins with
Tamborello enlisting the help of a veritable who's who of indie, electropop, alternative country, electroacoutistic and related genres. Some of these artists he's collaborated with before, but some are new. Pulling the track listing from Wikipedia:

  1. "Dumb Luck"
  2. "To a Fault" [ft. Grizzly Bear]
  3. "I'd Like to Know" [ft. Lali Puna]
  4. "Roll On" [ft. Jenny Lewis]
  5. "The Distance" [ft. Arthur & Yu]
  6. "Rock My Boat" [ft. Mia Doi Todd]
  7. "Natural Resources" [ft. Andrew Broder of Fog]
  8. "Breakfast in Bed" [ft. Conor Oberst]
  9. "Dreams" [ft. Mystic Chords of Memory]
  10. "Everything's Tricks"

FYI: my copy (and perhaps yours too) does not have the last track "Everything's Tricks".

The title track, which does not feature a guest artist, is very much in the "Glitch" sound of LIFOP. But even this song, despite its surface noise, is very listenable even to those that don't like electronica noise. And while there are no tracks I skip on my iPod, there are two amazing songs that I often rewind and play again and again before continuing with the rest of the LP. "Roll On" with Jenny Lewis is the most captivating combination of electronica and country you'll ever hear. In a perfect world, this song would be a cross-over hit on the pop charts.

The other track is Conor Oberst's "Breakfast in Bed", which tells a touching, if dark and disturbing story of a new relationship. The lyrics "If this is all a game can you just say it is / I'll do it anyway so it makes no difference" make me think of Lloyd Dobler in "Say Anything": "One question: do you need... someone, or do you need me?... Forget it, I don't really care."

Standout Tracks: Roll On, Breakfast in Bed, Rock My Boat, Dumb Luck, Natural Resources, The Distance. (Find the rest of the audio tracks at

Skip 'em Tracks: None.

Final Score: 10/10

Sunday, April 12, 2009

(Various) - "The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young" (LP Review )

This review goes out to Daryl, a HS/college friend that turned me on to this LP as well as various others by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and similar artists. "The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young" is a 1989 tribute LP released on Caroline Records featuring various artists (mostly 80s college / alternative rock) covering songs originally by Neil Young. The LP supported The Bridge School, which teaches communication skills to children with severe impairments. The Bridge School was co-founded by Neil's wife, Pegi: their two sons have cerebral palsy and their daughter has epilepsy. See also the concert benefit series the "Bridge School Benefit". Neil has said that the prominent use of a vocoder on the commercially unsuccessful "Trans" LP in 1982 was inspired by his efforts to communicate with his son.

As I explained in an earlier review I really like covers, so naturally I like tribute LPs. The only problem with tribute LPs is they often have wildly uneven quality. Some of the artists and/or song choices really work and some don't. While Neil Young's canon is hard to reduce to 15 songs, the only song that is arguably missing is "Heart of Gold " from 1972's "Harvest" . "Heart of Gold" is too popular, and there seems to be an unwritten rule on tribute LPs that nobody wants to cover the artist's most popular song (presumably choosing a more obscure song to cover demonstrates your depth of knowledge).

Lifting the track listing straight from Wikipedia:

  1. "Barstool Blues" – Soul Asylum – 2:51
  2. "Don't Let It Bring You Down" – Victoria Williams – 2:53
  3. "After the Gold Rush" – The Flaming Lips – 4:14
  4. "Captain Kennedy" – Nikki Sudden – 4:01
  5. "Cinnamon Girl" – Loop – 2:50
  6. "Helpless" – Nick Cave – 4:32
  7. "Mr. Soul" – Bongwater – 3:30
  8. "Winterlong" – Pixies – 3:11
  9. "Computer Age" – Sonic Youth – 5:13
  10. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" – Psychic TV – 6:08
  11. "Lotta Love" – Dinosaur Jr. – 2:41
  12. "The Needle and the Damage Done"/"Tonight's The Night" – Henry Kaiser – 5:54
  13. "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" by B.A.L.L. – 2:16
  14. "Words (Between The Lines Of Ages)" by Henry Kaiser – 6:19

Tracks 13 and 14 were bonus, CD-only tracks. Listening to them, it is clear why they did not make the cut for the vinyl or tape version of the LP. The LP would have been stronger without track 12 as well: Henry Kaiser's medley of "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Tonight's the Night". But the worst offender is Victoria Williams providing the guest vocals on "Words", who transforms probably my favorite song from "Harvest" into a shrill, unlistenable wreck of a song. Her version of "Don't Let it Bring You Down" is not very good, but on "Words" she is just terrible.

But the LP provides some truly sublime covers as well, some that arguably transcend the originals. Soul Asylum's version of "Barstool Blues" is up-tempo and brassy and it captures a type of franticness and desperation missing from Zuma's more honky-tonk version. The Pixies do an incredible version of "Winterlong" (released only on the compilation triple LP "Decade"). But Sonic Youth's version of "Computer Age" is the gem of the collection. Sonic Youth has the ability in their cover songs to both honor the original version and at the same time completely make the song their own (cf. their transformation of the protagonist from helpless victim to stalker in "Superstar" on The Carpenters tribute LP "If I Were a Carpenter"). "Computer Age" was released on the above-mentioned "Trans" LP and Sonic Youth reconstructed it from a puzzling vocoder/disco version it into an amazing song. I'm a pretty big fan of Sonic Youth, but I'd also love to see them do a covers LP like Yo La Tengo's "Fakebook".

While the above three songs are probably my favorite on the LP, Bongwater, Nick Cave, Psychic TV and Dinosaur Jr. all do enjoyable versions of their songs as well (note: Dinosaur Jr. went to great lengths to ensure their version of "Lotta Love" sounds nothing like the Nicolette Larson version).

Standout tracks: "Barstool Blues", "Winterlong", "Computer Age", "Helpless", "Mr. Soul", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Lotta Love" (Not many canonical versions since this LP is not well represented online; I welcome suggestions for additional links).

Skip 'em tracks: "The Needle and the Damage Done"/"Tonight's the Night", "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)", "Words (Between the Lines of Age)"

Final Score: 8/10. This might be the best start-to-finish tribute LP in my collection.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Cribs - "Men's Needs" (the song remains the same)

It's been several weeks since I've featured The Cribs so its clearly time for another installment. "Men's Needs" is the first single and partially the title track from their third LP, 2007's "Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever".

Wichita Recordings has posted the censored version of the video on YouTube; you've probably seen it by now. (As an aside -- with respect to YouTube etc., Wichita Recordings completely "gets it".) But there are also two different versions: one with a digitally added leotard on the woman (instead of strategically placed black bars) and an uncensored version. The "brooklynvegan" blog has links to the leotard version (now broken due to WMG no longer "getting it") and the uncensored version (new link) (new new link).

Kate Nash, the girlfriend (or perhaps wife, I'm not sure since all the articles I could find are written in future tense) of The Crib's guitarist Ryan Jarman, has recorded a version of Men's Needs. I believe Nash is more of a presence in the UK and judging from what I've read, her rapid rise to success (her debut LP "Made of Bricks" went to #1 in the UK) seems to have caused a bit of a backlash. I'm not familiar with her work, but this version is an enjoyable, slightly folky version of the song.

In addition, there is the minimalist, even more folky version by Lightspeed Champion (aka Devonte Hynes). I was also unaware of Lightspeed Champion; apparently he's big in the UK as well. But not so big that his alternative credentials aren't intact...

When will we see a US band cover a Cribs song?

Bonus link: "Fairer Sex" is the B-side to the CD version of the "Men's Needs" single.  Live version of "Fairer Sex". 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Husker Du - "New Day Rising" (LP Review)

Having already reviewed "Flip Your Wig", it's only right to return to Husker Du's "New Day Rising". NDR was released in early 1985 and FYW was released in late 1985. Most bands can go their whole career and never produce an LP of the caliber of NDR or FYW; for Husker Du to release two such LPs in less than a year is remarkable.

As discussed in the FYW review, NDR finds the band in transition from strictly hardcore punk to punk tempered with conventional pop music structure. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it really just means there are strong vocal hooks to go with their blistering sound. This ain't Gap Punk...

After reading the FYW review, Danette observed that I had not really dealt with the musicians themselves. Husker Du was a trio, consisting of guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart. Mould and Hart were the principal songwriters. They occasionally collaborated, but most of the songs are individually written with Hart's contributions slowing increasing with each LP. Like any good songwriting tandem (e.g., Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards), there was a great deal of friction and competition between Mould and Hart and it (exacerbated by substance abuse) would eventually split up the band. While Mould would go on to have a successful post-Husker Du career (both as a solo artist and in Sugar), Hart's output is more limited (solo and as Nova Mob). Norton apparently left the music industry altogether. But neither Mould nor Hart have since equaled their banner year of 1985.

While I consider FYW to be a slightly better LP than NDR, I would also argue that NDR has better individual songs, even if they don't form the cohesive unit that FYW does listening from start to finish. Whereas FYW has "Makes No Sense At All", NDR has the title track "New Day Rising", "I Apologize", "Folk Lore", "Celebrated Summer" and "59 Times the Pain" that are all nearly as good as "Makes No Sense At All". The title track proves that it is possible to write an amazing song whose lyrics consist of simply repeating three words: "new day rising..." Listen to it and you'll be hooked.

But why I give FYW the nod over NDR is because tracks like "Perfect Example", "Powerline" and "How To Skin A Cat" are easily forgettable. The latter is punk/psychedelic noodling (in comparison, "Plans I Make" or the "Dreams Reoccurring"/"Reoccurring Dreams" pair from Zen Arcade are better examples of the sound they were after). The former two songs are not really bad, but they're not really good either. They're just there.

Random observation #1: The LP cover art surely has to be in the top 10 of all time. The cover captures the feel of the songs in a way I can't put in words.

Random observation #2: Yes, they have modish heavy metal umlauts over the "u"s in their name. They formed in 1979 and that's just how things were done then. The board game from which they took their name has macrons instead of umlauts.

Standout Tracks: "New Day Rising", "I Apologize", "Folk Lore", "Celebrated Summer", "59 Times the Pain", "Books About UFOs"; the full LP in a single video.

Skip 'em Tracks: "Perfect Example", "Powerline" and "How To Skin A Cat"

Final Score: 10/10. I thought about giving them a 9/10 because of the three weakest tracks, but the strength of the other tracks makes up for those three.

P.S. YouTube user SUICIDEVOM has uploaded a "New Day Rising"-era concert in seven parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7. The sound quality is good and it is well worth checking out.