Wednesday, June 27, 2012

First 10 - Amazing Spider-Man

I went into the first 10 issues of Amazing Spider-Man fully expecting to love it, and I was right. One of the most amazing things about Stan Lee and Marvel comics of the 1960s is that they were constantly churning out iconic characters. In his interview with Kevin Smith, Stan Lee says he created Spider-Man because the Amazing Fantasy series was going to be cancelled and he wanted to try this Spider-Man idea he'd been kicking around for a while. Of course Amazing Fantasy #15 (pictured on the left) sold like hotcakes and fans clamored for a dedicated Spider-Man series.

I tend to love Marvel comics of the 1960's because Stan Lee wrote such fun and exciting stories and his artists (most notably Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby) were all top notch. When I read the first 10 issues of Amazing Spider-Man (starting, of course, with Amazing Fantasy #15) I found I couldn't get enough. One of the things I really love about Marvel is that their continuity tends to be a little more static than DC's (not that I dislike DC, it's just that DC has to deal with 30 more years of continuity than Marvel does, so things get a little convoluted. In another 30 years it'll pretty much be a wash). Everything you know and love about Spider-Man is all laid out in those first 10 issues. His early costume is not so different from his current one (especially when you consider the changes that have come over the years with a character like Iron Man). Many of his classic villains make their first appearance in the early issues (Vulture, Sandman, Doc Oc,  and The Lizard). Peter Parker is still the awkward teenager than can't catch a break, and his escapades in the Spider-Man persona don't make his personal life any better. He has exactly the sort of character depth that can carry multiple titles as a solo superhero character. He's Marvel's Superman and I don't see him running out of interesting stories anytime soon. I loved the First 10 issues of Amazing Spider-Man. From now on I'll keep a running tally of the standings of my First 10 series. When my First 10 series is done, the comic on top will be the next comic I read...assuming I'm done with X-Men (I've caught up to the present day with Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Legacy, Wolverine and the X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, and X-Men Forever. Now all I need to read is X-Men Unlimited, X-Men Vol. 3, X-Treme X-Men, and Ultimate X-Men). Anyway, here are the first ever First 10 standings:

  1. Amazing Spider-Man
  2. Fantastic Four
  3. The Punisher
  4. Golden Age Green Lantern

I am currently working on my next First 10 series and I can already tell you we'll have a new slot on the bottom of the totem pole. Look for that in days to come.

Ray Stevens - Box Set

This Ray Stevens box set aptly titled Box Set is a little disappointing. There are three discs and at face value it has almost every Ray Stevens Song you would ever want. The thing you need to know is that half of the songs are re-recorded. This set does not include the original version of "The Streak," or "Ahab the Arab" you remember from the 60's. These are re-recorded tracks which may have been done specifically for the set. I don't know if Ray Stevens lost the rights to the original recordings when he left MCA or if he just wanted to mess with me. Anyway, after buying this set I found myself going back to download the original versions of the offending songs. So yeah, if you're looking for the real best of Ray Stevens, look elsewhere.

Ray Stevens - #1 With a Bullet

I think I can safely say Ray Stevens is the guiltiest pleasure in my collection. I'm rarely ever in the mood for his music. Most of the time it seems juvenile and ridiculous, but I feel juvenile and ridiculous every now and again.

#1 With a Bullet has some of my favorite Ray Stevens songs from back in the day. "You Gotta Have a Hat" "Tenneage Mutant Kung Fu Chickens" and "The Pirate Song" are among the best tunes the man has ever written. Of course now that I'm an adult I can see the xenophobia and racism in songs like "Working for the Japanese." I can't excuse all of the man's sins, but I can still laugh at the songs I enjoy.

Ray Stevens - Crackin' Up

Here's the thing: when I started this project, I promised I would review all the albums in my collection regardless of how guilty a pleasure or how odd a choice. I think Ray Stevens is the point at which most people say, "I can handle your Air Supply fascination and your man crush on Neil Diamond, but Ray Stevens is a bridge too far." You're not necessarily wrong.

Here's the thing: when I was in 6th grade, there was nothing funnier to me than Ray Stevens (you read that right, not even The Smothers Brothers, who were a close second). Ray Stevens has exactly the cheesy humor I was into at the time. My friend John and I would sing Ray Stevens albums in their entirety from memory. By the time I got to 8th grade, I had figured out the fact that girls aren't impressed if you can perform "Teenage Mutant Kung Fu Chickens" from memory and I taped over all my Ray Stevens cassettes with whatever it was I was listening to at the time. Fast forward to the time I went to Country Thunder in 2007 (saw Reba and she was awesome) and reconnected with my roots and decided not to be ashamed of my musical past just so I could impress the people behind the counter at the record store (who tend to not be impressed by anything). I started buying some of the pivotal country albums from my youth, wearing my Air Supply fandom on my shirt sleeve, and taking my Neil Diamond out from under a bushel. The next logical step was to make amends with Ray Stevens. This is one of three Ray Stevens albums I picked up at that time.

This album, and all Ray Stevens material, sounds dated. He uses a lot of cheesy synths in his backing tracks, and his sense of humor is cheesy as well. There's a part of me that can't stop loving some of these songs, but I'm not going to pull them out very often. I think this album and the next two Ray Stevens entries I do are more a proof to myself that I'm still basically the same person I've ever been. Anyway, Crackin' Up is pretty standard Ray Stevens fare. If you like any Ray Stevens, you'll probably like it all (except for the whacko tea party crap. He got political in the last couple years and it's a major disappointment).

Various Artists - Steady Sounds from the Underground

So I know I've mentioned that there aren't many ska compilations worth owning. If you already own Ska Sucks and feel like your life won't be complete until you've brought another ska comp into it, may I suggest Steady Sounds From the Underground. Ska Sucks is alread the greatest ska compilation there can ever be! This makes Steady Sounds the second greatest ska compilation there can ever be! So take that for what it's worth.

There are plenty of great bands on this compilation, many of whom are also on Ska Sucks. Most of the songs are strong, but there are a few duds in the mix (I'm looking at you, Buck-o-Nine). The Dance Hall Crashers put out great material as usual, The Mad Caddies tune is one of my favorites in their catalog, and the Hepcat song gives me another reason to wonder why I don't own of their albums yet. There's plenty to like here, some to love, and only a couple to shrug your shoulders about.

The Starting Line - Say It Like You Mean It

This album starts off with a bang and has every promise of being a pop punk pleasure as good as Midtown's Living Well Is the Best Revenge. Once you get through the first couple songs, it devolves into blandness. I like the cover art, so there's that.

SR71 - Now You See Inside

SR71 is the fakest and most commercial of pop punks. They make Good Charlotte look like Rancid. And yet, even though I hate them out of obligation, I do like the two hits from this album ("Politically Correct" and "Right Now"). I could take or leave (mostly leave) the rest of this album, but those two hits take me back to this girl I used to like. I was wasting my time with her, but she did introduce me to a lot of awful music. The aforementioned two songs are pretty much the best things she ever led me to, and when I think about it there's really no reason for me to like them anymore. Let's just say this album gives me complex emotions. Much more complex than the album itself expresses.

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Perennial Favorites

Squirrel Nut Zippers third album is presented as an old-timey seed catalog, which is an awesome choice for a band so steeped in old timey ways. As with all other Squrrel Nut Zippers albums, the design and packaging of this album is fantastic, which is right up the alley of a guy like me who has a borderline liner notes fetish.

Perennial Favorites brings a bit of Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz to the Squirrel Nut Zippers formula. It works every bit as well as you'd think it would if you're the sort of person who believes in the powers of Squirrel Nut Zippers, which I am. Everything about this album is conceptually perfect. It's as if Wes Anderson had a hand in it (he didn't).

Squirrel Nut Zippers - The Inevitable

As I was going through the S's in my CD collection I found it a bit odd that I own two Squirrel Nut Zippers albums and neither of them is Hot. I really need to pick that one up, but I think I always put it off because I think I already own it.

Anyway, with all the swing jazz bands in the 1990's, Squirrel Nut Zippers arrived on the scene as a different animal entirely. While most 90's jazz revival bands were trying to churn out 1940's and 1950's-ish big band jazz in the style of Count Basie, Squirrel Nut Zippers were fiddling around with 1920's and 1930's Dixieland. Also departing from their peers, Squirrel Nut Zippers strikes a much more authentic sound while also managing to bring a certain tongue-in-cheek humor to their music. It's really no wonder that they outlived nearly all the other jazz revival bands from the era.

The Inevitable is Squirrel Nut Zippers debut, but you would hardly know it. They sound like an old jazz band that has played together for decades. Bend an ear to a tune like "You're Driving Me Crazy" and you'll know what I mean. It's a song so perfectly crafted in its intent you can practically hear flappers dancing to it. There really is nothing like Squirrel Nut Zippers in modern music, so you owe it to yourself to give 'em a listen.

Spinal Tap - Break Like the Wind

This is what happens when a band that was created for a single comedy film decides to keep the joke going. This album suffers from two problems: 1) It doesn't have a hilarious cult film to support it and 2) It takes itself much more seriously than it should. There are some serious shredding solos on this album from the likes of Slash, Joe Satriani, Dweezil Zappa and Jeff Beck as well as a vocal performance by Cher(?!). One of the things that made This is Spinal Tap so funny is that they weren't very musically talented and had the lyrical sensibilities of a 13 year old metalhead. When you try those same jokes again with a much more technically proficient backing band, you lose a lot of the charm that made the first album work.

With all that said, I have to admit that "Majesty of Rock" always makes me happy for some reason, so this album is not entirely without merit. Just don't expect too much from this album and you just might find reasons to enjoy it.

Spinal Tap - Soundtrack

Here's the question you may be asking: Did I really go looking for the actual cover of this album or did I merely cut and paste a black square onto this page? What you see on the left is the actual cover of this album (the vinyl release had Spinal Tap's logo on the front, but the CD release restored the all black glory of Smell the Glove).

This is Spinal Tap is one of the greatest mockumentaries of all time in that it pretty much invented and defined the genre. The soundtrack is slightly less interesting than the movie itself, but cuts like "Big Bottom" never fail to make me laugh. It's a juvenile sense of humor filtered through late 80's metal. I don't recommend this album to anyone who hasn't seen the movie, but if you really love the movie there's no reason to not own this album.

The Specials - Guilty 'til Proved Innocent

This is the album The Specials were touring to support when I saw them on the Warped Tour back in 1998. The Specials are the godfathers of ska, and as such my mind was pre-blown when I saw them in 1998 and I was inclined to like this album a little more than might've otherwise. When I bought Guilty 'til Proved Innocent I had not yet heard any of their late 70's and earl 80's output, so I didn't really know how much better their old stuff was.

Even though The Specials sound a little tired and a little out of ideas on this album, there are still some fine tracks. "Call Me Names," "It's You," and "Bonediggin'" are as strong as anything else The Specials ever did. There are three hidden live tracks tacked onto the end of this album, but Guilty 'til Proved Innocent is a bit too long as is, so it's hard to enjoy three live cuts from The Specials prime by the time you get to them. This album is not required listening for the casual fan, but will provide a few delights for the hardcore two-tone faithful.

The Special Goodness - Land Air Sea

Land Air Sea was the major label debut for Weezer drummer Pat Wilson's solo project. Two independently-released Special Goodness albums preceded this one and many of the Weezer faithful like myself already knew what to expect from The Special Goodness.

Pat Wilson has a certain fascination with slightly off-kilter chord progressions and melodies. He generally eschews the straightfoward fuzzed-out leanings of Weezer and opts for something a little more off the beaten path. My brain does not currently have the ability to appropriately describe The Special Goodness, so I point you to this link where you can hear the first track of this album. It's good. I didn't have the palate for it at first, but I grew into it and now I dig it bunches.

Sparta - Wiretap Scars

I had the great pleasure of seeing Sparta before this album came out. They played a few dates with Weezer, presumably to iron out any wrinkles in their live show and prepare to headline their own tour. If I remember correctly, I saw them at their very first big live show ever. I was very pleasantly surprised by how awesome Sparta was. They could outright wail as hard as At the Drive-In, but could also lay back into some spacey jams and mellow tunes. Wiretap Scars is exactly the album I wanted from Sparta after seeing their live show. "Collapse" is a perfect example of why Wiretap Scars is great. It has a gorgeous melody, a perfect spaced-out meandering arrangement, and it rocks when it needs to. Sure, it doesn't require me to do math when I listen to it and it doesn't split the atom, but it's a good song on a good album. Fie on the Mars Volta fans who say I can't dig Sparta as well.

Sparta - Austere EP

Here's the thing: I know I'm not supposed to like Sparta. When At The Drive-In broke up, they split into two pieces: the artistically virtuous Mars Volta which aspired to be the next Pink Floyd or Rush, and the shameful sellout Sparta which aspired to be basically a much more commercially successful At the Drive-In. That's how the two bands were presented to the world, but I don't know that we got it right. Did we really know that The Mars Volta hated money and fame as much as we wanted to believe (I think in the long run they made a lot more cash and were generally much more famous than Sparta). I also don't think Sparta were the gold diggers they were made out to be. Maybe they just didn't want to be Rush.

Anyway, as a discerning lover of music, it is my duty to dislike Sparta and champion The Mars Volta, but I tend to like both bands. As a matter of fact, I prefer Sparta's debut EP and album to The Mars Volta's. Yes, heresy.

So the Austere EP is a four track introduction to Sparta. Three of the tracks on this EP are on the full length Wiretap Scars, but that doesn't matter too much. People were clamoring (at least the people I know) to hear what the two post-At the Drive-In bands would sound like, and Austere gave a better idea than Tremulant did. Sure, you won't really need this EP if you have Wiretap Scars, but it was a crucial buy when I picked it up.

Sparkle*Jets U.K. - Bamboo Lounge

I don't know how I've missed this in the 6 years that I've owned this album, but Bamboo Lounge has a little cocktail umbrella trapped inside the CD case. That's just awesome.

Random accoutrements aside, Sparkle*Jets U.K. are a highly talented power pop band which, despite the name, hails from Los Angeles. Bamboo Lounge has a lot of sugary sweet power pop with Beach Boys-esque harmonies and a general beachside tiki-bar vibe. The only songs that really don't fit into this mold, oddly enough, are the ones in which Susan West, the lone female member of the band, is singing lead. Her songs tend to have more of a Veruca Salt-ish sound, which isn't a bad thing aside from messing with the flow of the album a bit. Jags aside, there are a lot of really great songs on this album. It's exactly what I want from the albums my power pop forums recommend.

Space Twins - The End of Imagining

Space Twins is the side-project of Weezer guitarist Brian Bell. The End of Imagining was their very long-awaited debut LP after a string of somewhat odd yet highly enjoyable 7" singles. The 7" singles were long out of print by the time I found out about Space Twins, but the MP3's of those singles were made available on the many Weezer fan pages, and I fell in love with the band mainly on the charm of "TV, Music, and Candy."

The End of Imagining isn't nearly as quirky as the Space Twins 7" vinyl output, but that same statement could be made for literally dozens of other bands. Although it doesn't have the same quirky indie flavor, The End of Imagining is a highly enjoyable album. "Rings of Saturn," "There's Always Tomorrow," and "Trudy Trulove" are all fantastic pop ditties. "Rust Colored Sun," "Running Out of Time," and a few others are nice spaced-out songs that sound exactly like what you'd expect from a band named Space Twins. The only song on the album that doesn't fit is "Yellow Camero," which was part of a number of post-Maladroit demos which Weezer scrapped before going in a completely different direction on Make Believe. "Yellow Camero" is an all-out rocker that could've easily been a part of Maladroit, so it doesn't fit with the mostly pop-centric delights on The End of Imagining. Anyway, setting that one little jag aside, this is a very cohesive and highly enjoyable album.

The Sounds - Living in America

The Sounds are Blondie for a new generation. I don't know if they set out hoping to become Blondie or if the sum of the band's parts dictated that they must be Blondie, but Blondie they are. Oh, and also Blondie. From this point onward, I will cease with the Blondie references.

The Sounds take an old school new wave sound and marry it to a modern Swede-punk sound (think Hives, Sahara Hotnights, etc.). At times they sound like they just as well could have been from the late 70's as the early 00's. Their songs are a pulsing perpetual motion of highly danceable retro rock. I know I have mentioned albums before that have absolutely no filler, and the sentiment gets a little less meaningful over time. Even so, this album has 0% body fat. A friend of mine listened to this album and nothing else on a 6 hour drive to Coachella. Living in America is just a superb album that hearkens back to a certain similar band from the late 70's that was also fronted by a flaxen-haired bombshell.

Soundgarden - A-Sides

The first Soundgarden album I ever owned was Down on the Upside, so I was a bit late to the party. I always remember wanting to like Soundgarden. They have a great name and they look exactly as crazy as I want my grunge bands to look. I can remember guys much cooler than I who owned Soundgarden T-shirts and had opinions on whether Superunknown was better than Badmotorfinger. So yeah, this is another band I sought out for coolness purposes.

I bought this CD on the black market in Cambodia because until that point, I only owned Down on the Upside on cassette. I wanted to know more Soundgarden and a singles compilation seemed like a good way to do it. Now here's the point where I knock Soundgarden a bit. Their early work was pretty much all the same. Until you get to "Rusty Cage" this album is a blur of samey sameness. So basically, Soundgarden didn't really hit their stride until Badmotorfinger. Because this compilation reflects albums that predate Badmotorfinger, you have to take a few points off. Once you hit the backside of this album, you're rolling in great grunge. If you buy this album, don't expect to be blown away by anything before track 8. Everything past that point is pretty much awesome, but everything before is fairly unremarkable.

Soul Asylum - Let Your Dim Light Shine

Aaaaand this is where we get off the Soul Asylum bandwagon. Let Your Dim Light Shine isn't a very good album. Sure, it's weird, dark, and prickly which are normally qualities that I like, but it's just not a good album. The music is bad and Dave Pirner should feel bad.

One of the major problems of this album is that it is almost as lyrically shallow as an album can get without involving the black eyed peas. "String of Pearls" is a boring story about how a freaking necklace gets passed around a little bit. It's uninteresting and mildly insulting to the listening audience. If Soul Asylum thought we wouldn't know where the song was going before the end of the first verse they were kidding themselves. The big single from this album, "Misery," is also lyrically challenged. Lines like "We could build a factory and make misery" and "Frustrated incorporated" (the most repeated phrase in the song. Every time I hear it, I can't help but want to yell, "Frustration and misery are not the same thing!") are both boring and dumb. The one positive thing I can say about this album is that by the end of it, I was kind of zoned out and the last few songs blended together into a relatively inoffensive lump. So yeah, that's the big upside of this album.

If you think I'm being unjustly harsh to this album, I encourage you to listen to it back to back with anything else Soul Asylum has ever done. I'm generally a Soul Asylum fan and apologist, but even I know where to draw the line.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Soul Asylum - Grave Dancers Union

This was one of the first cool albums I owned. I was raised on stuff like Lionel Richie and Neil Diamond who, while absolutely awesome in their own right, aren't winning you points in 8th grade when people ask you what's on your walkman. My first cool album was Nevermind, but my Dad outlawed the album and smashed my copy as punishment. Grave Dancers Union was much more forgivable because I never let my parents see the real cover (I flipped it to show the picture of the band on the front). I vividly remember the first time someone asked me what I was listening to and I told them it was Soul Asylum. They nodded their approval and I felt like I had my first taste of actual coolness (I was a huge nerd who didn't hit his true stride until college).

It's amazing to me how great this album still sounds after all the years. I keep having to remind myself that the 90's weren't just a year ago. It's been 20 years since this album was released and it hasn't really dated at all. Sure, the kids today aren't clamoring for more alternative rock (what they want are robots who sing about how great tonight is going to be) but there's still something timeless about this album. Maybe my own nostalgic tendencies are leading me to love the first (and really only) album to ever bestow a hint of coolness on me. Oh, and there was a certain connection between me, this girl I liked and "Runaway Train." I'm basically unable to see the album objectively because of the tall nostalgic pedestal I put it on, so take my review for what it's worth. I still think this is one of the greatest albums of the 90's and won't be talked out of thinking so.

Something Corporate - North

Here's where Something Corporate messed with something that was working fine. Normally that's bad news, but somehow North is still very enjoyable. My main problem with this album is that Something Corporate tried to go for a pop-punk anthem with every track. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but in doing it they slapped an All-American Rejects-style glossy sheen on the album and it killed some of the more nuanced elements of the band (specifically, the piano on North is only half as interesting as the piano on Leaving Through the Window). So instead of being the greatest pop-punk meets piano-rock album ever, North is merely a very good pop punk album. That's not a bad thing, but knowing what could have been makes it a slight disappointment.

Something Corporate - Leaving Through the Window

Around the time that this album was released, I came to the realization that nearly every band on Drive-Thru Records had a lead singer that sounded exactly like every other lead singer on Drive-Thru Records. This phenomenon even went a little outside the Drive-Thru stable as every pop punk band started to sound exactly the same. So when I bought this album, I bought it because I saw something in it that was more intriguing than the fact that you could replace Andrew McMahon's vocals with Jordan Pundik's (of New Found Glory) and nobody would be the wiser.

Andrew McMahon's VORP (yeah, I went Sabremetric) is better than average, not because of his singing, but because of his piano chops. I won't be the first to say it, but Andrew McMahon is to pop punk what Ben Folds is to whatever genre it is that he's a part of. Leaving Through the Window is the perfect blend of pop punk and piano rock. Sure, it's a little cheesy in places because it's part of a genre that trades in cheese, but it's also a really really solid album that should appeal to the non-pop punk loving crowd (which is pretty much everyone over the age of 20 at this point). Oh, and "I Kissed a Drunk Girl" is in the top 3 best songs pop punk has ever produced. It might be #1, but I've still got a few more CD's to review before I can state that definitively.

Something Corporate - Audioboxer

This EP was a dandy of a thing to own before Leaving Through the Window came out. Nearly all of the tracks on this EP are on Leaving Through the Window and are the exact same recordings presented on this EP. So yeah, Audioboxer is fun but highly unnecessary now that Something Corporate has been around, broken up, and gotten back together for reunion shows.

Social Disctortion - s/t

A bunch of the best punk bands tend bring a little something of their non-punk influences to the table. The Ramones had a touch of bubblegum pop, The Clash dabbled in reggae, The Jam were practically mods, Rancid has remnants of ska, and Social D has a certain rockabilly lilt.

Social Distortion is my all-time favorite Social Distortion album. Every song is musically and lyrically exactly what it should be. It's punk enough to please the punks, but rock enough to be enjoyed by the un-mohawked masses. There aren't many bands that could carry a cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and not sounds like the fakest of poseurs, but Social D lays down that particular track with gusto. I think that's really all you need to know. They're good enough on this album to take a Johnny Cash song and legitimately make it their own. Case closed.

Various Artists - So I Married an Axe Murderer Soundtrack

There's really only one reason to own this soundtrack: "There She Goes." Both The La's original version and the Boo Radleys cover are worth owning. It's an all-time great power pop song.

Aside from the one real reason to buy this album, there is a fine Toad the Wet Sprocket Song which is available in their studio catalog, and an unrelreased Soul Asylum track which could have been a b-side for any of the Grave Dancers Union singles. Aside from that, there's not much. It's sad to see how much of this 90's music has dated poorly because it's the era in which I really started to love music. I don't think I ever need to hear "Two Princes" by Spin Doctors ever again. The same can be said for "Rush" by Big Audio Dynamite II. Other tracks on the album are ok, but nothing stellar. All in all it's not that great of a soundtrack. You'd be better off with The La's self-titled album.