Quick Review (LP): Something About Airplanes by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Something About Airplanes
Barsuk; 1998

My Rating: B (66/100)

Best Tracks: "Bend to Squares", "President of What?", "Pictures In An Exhibition",
"Amputations"

For those about to mope…

TRACK NOTES

  • Love "Bend to Squares." That mournful cello makes this one of the more definitive opening tracks that come to mind.
  • Prefer the Chords version of "President of What?", but this one is decent enough. Cool tune regardless. The keyboard sounds niftier here.
  • "Champagne from a Paper Cup" gets the mood right, clouded, confused, and dark.
  • "Your Bruise" continues the moody vibe. Gibbard’s vocals are great there.
  • On "Pictures In An Exhibition", Death Cab threatens a pulse. 
  • "Sleep Spent" reminds me of the work of the band Retsin, especially The Sweet Luck of Amaryllis. Pleasant, rainy day, sleepy sort of vibe.
  • "The Face That Launched 1000 Sh*ts" is a waste.
  • "Amputations" = muy bueno. Great guitar work there, even if it is a little amateurish. Solid drumming too.
  • "Fake Frowns" is pretty good. I like the breakdown in the middle. Good that they are picking up the tempo later in the record.
  • "Line of Best Fit" is dull. Not a great closer, or maybe too typical?

ALBUM NOTES

  • There’s a certain mopey glory here, something like a bedroom version of The Smiths’ debut.
  • Sounds like Seattle, except not like grunge. In case you were wondering, Sunny Day Real Estate is the missing link between these guys and Pearl Jam.
  • I’d say this album’s a grower. It doesn’t grab you as quick as some of their later material (say, Transatlanticism), but the songs are actually quite strong, and Chris Walla has an ear for atmosphere.
  • In keeping with their debut EP, this reminds me a lot of Modest Mouse’s early stuff for UP Records, which is high praise. The main difference is the urban dreams versus Modest Mouse’s backwoods existentialism.
  • All in all, while the record hints at the great things that were to come (particularly in the lyrical and atmospheric departments), this is a debut offering from a band that is still finding its way. Nothing wrong with that.
  • DELUXE EDITION: "There’s lots of people here…" The band’s first show sounds great. Nice Smiths cover. "State Street Residential" is nice live. Also, I wonder who The Revolutionary Hydra are, and how funny it must feel to hear themselves headlining on the back of Death Cab as an opening act back in the day.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4/5)

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Quick Review (LP): The Life Pursuit by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
Jeepster; 2006

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Act of the Apostle", "Another Sunny Day", "Dress Up In You", "Funny Little Frog", "To Be Myself Completely"

A sunny day in Glasgow?

NOTES

  • They’re still doing the power-pop thing. In fact, they sound like old pros at it by this point.
  • "Acts of the Apostles" is one of their top 10 tunes. The chorus is incredible, lyrically and melodically: "Oh if I could make sense of it all/I wish that I could sing/I’d stay in a melody/I would float along in my everlasting song/What would I do to believe?"
  • "Another Sunny Day" comes off like a no-brainer, but again, it’s one of their best tunes without a doubt.
  • "White Collar Boy", "The Blues Are Still Blue", and "Song for the Sunshine" all have a very strong 70’s vibe. A little funky, a little glammy, know what I’m saying?
  • "Dress Up In You" is gorgeous. A personal favorite.
  • "Sukie In The Graveyard" comes off a bit like a tribute to The Smiths’ "Cemetry Gates." Pretty catchy, but nothing really special.
  • "We Are The Sleepyheads" – I’ve never been sure about this one. Intriguing, but a bit too sun-shiney or something?
  • "Funny Little Frog" – one of the best tracks of the last decade.
  • "To Be Myself Completely" is a sleeper hit here. It’s Stevie Jackson penned and sung, and it ranks up there with some of the band’s finer tunes.
  • Gotta slam "Act of the Apostle II." It’s a strange sort of theatrical reprise thing, and it completely disrupts the flow of an otherwise strong record.
  • The last 2 tracks are okay, but for the most part forgettable. "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" is the better of the two, but any merits are obscured by the complete confusion "Act of the Apostle II."
  • The last track is really the only one here in the vein of nineties B&S. Even then, it’s sub-par.
  • Overall, this is a strong album that could have been 2 tracks shorter and great. Concept? Well, if Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the band’s refusal to grow up in the face of reality, then The Life Pursuit is the band accepting adulthood and looking forward into the sunshine. I certainly prefer it to the band’s mopier work. No looking back now, eh?

ATTRIBUTES
Concept (5/5)
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
If You’re Feeling Sinister
Jeepster; 1996

My Rating: A+ (100/100)

Best Tracks: “The Stars of Track and Field”, “Seeing Other People”, “Me and the Major”, “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, “Mayfly”

Pathetic and delicate. Breathtaking, gorgeous, and grand.

NOTES:
– What was I listening to when I first heard this record in 1996? Oh, some Fugazi, some Snapcase, a lot of local hardcore bands with hoarse vocals and dropped-D “chugga chugga” guitars. As a general rule, it had to be distorted, ugly, muscular, and angry. Enter If You’re Feeling Sinister.
– The thing is, the songs here are INCREDIBLE. I mean, every time I hear “The Stars of Track and Field”, I envision these guys filling a stadium with the sounds of trumpets and twinkling pianos.
– That opening piano line on “Seeing Other People” is one of the greatest things ever. It’s got that Charlie Brown sense to it, and that’s about the right starting point for Belle and Sebastian.
I remember watching the cartoon when I was a kid. I’d love to see it again.
– The other thing: this is a great ROCK record. In contrast to their other early albums, this one sounds REALLY powerful. I mean, listen to “Me and the Major” on full blast. It sounds like it would have been at home on The Bends.
– “We’re the younger generation/We grew up fast/All the others did drugs/They’re taking it out on us!”
– The instrumentation is brilliant throughout, right up to the trumpet and recorder fest that ends the album on “Judy and the Dream of Horses.”
– Apparently Murdoch thinks this is his best collection of songs, but doesn’t think they are recorded very well. Perhaps, but I think that lends the record a certain edginess that their other early LPs didn’t have. This sounds pretty punk.
I agree with AMG that logically reducing this album to the perfect blend of The Smiths and Simon & Garfunkel doesn’t really do the album justice, but it’s probably the most accurate short description of this record that I can think of. Oh yeah, and this: “beautifully out of time.”
– Or maybe it’s this: If You’re Feeling Sinister re-defined indie rock.

ATTRIBUTES:
Cohesion (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Songs (5/5)

My review of Tigermilk

Quick Review (LP): Headbangers In Ecstasy by Puro Instinct

Puro Instinct
Headbangers in Ecstasy
Mexican Summer; 2011

My Rating: C+ (60/100)

Best Tracks: "Lost At Sea", "Stilyagi", "Luv Goon"

NOTES:
– Sadly short on new material, and the KDOD thing comes off like a record stretcher rather than a clever theme.
– "Lost at Sea" is pretty glorious.
– The vocals are maddeningly over-dense and mumbly, in the vein of Wild Nothing. 
– A nice 80’s sound in places
– "Stilyagi" is a real treat.
– A bit reminiscent of The Smith’s debut, esp. on the front end.
– I can see Puro Instinct being a really great singles band, but for some reason I feel like they will always struggle with the album format.
– "Luv Goon" was better in its EP form, but it still sounds good here.
– "Escape Forever" is the sort of drivel they must avoid if they are going to keep making coolish pop music.
– My message to Puro Instinct: focus on writing dreamy, hyper-melodic pop songs. Retain the playful sense of humor.
Ian Cohen of Pitchfork says: "You can tell by the intentional garishness of that airbrushed cover that Puro Instinct have both the youth and self-awareness for more promising things, but right now Headbangers in Ecstasy is the image’s sonic embodiment: pretty, vacant." I think that’s right. These girls have the potential to pack a lot of punch into 3 minute pop songs, but for the time being, we just need to remember that Skylar, the guitarist, is only 16.

ATTRIBUTES:
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Consequence (3/5)
Concept (4/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

My review of Something About The Chapparals EP
My review of Puro Instinct EP

Career-In-Review: The Smiths

the smiths Overview
I like to think of The Smiths as Britain’s answer to R.E.M. After all, The Smiths released the “Hand In Glove” single right about the same time as R.E.M. released Murmur, and both bands feature ridiculously influential boy-wonder guitar players and controversial anti-frontmen. Unfortunately, The Smiths were never quite able to gel personally and artistically the way R.E.M.’s core members have over the years (it all might have been different if Andy Rourke had covered “Monster Mash” at the end of Strangeways, eh?), and the band died after four or five incredibly productive years.

The Smiths only released four proper LP’s (not gonna cover any of their live releases), and they never really made a defining statement in that format, which is unfortunate, especially for a band that was otherwise fantastic. For my money, I recommend beginning with the Singles compilation. While it is apocryphal, it’s pretty much a great listen from start to finish, and allows you to get a good feel for what The Smiths are all about. Their catalog of singles and toss-offs runs deep though, and in this age of MP3 downloads, there’s probably a couple of CD-R’s worth of great tracks in addition to the stuff on Singles to feast upon.

My personal favorite aspect of The Smiths’ music is Johnny Marr’s layered and luscious guitar playing, but there is no denying that The Smiths would not be The Smiths were it not for the utterly unique vocals and persona of Stephen Morrissey. Additionally, the work of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce often gets overlooked, but tracks like “This Charming Man” bear testimony to the fact that they were far more than bricklayers in the band’s creative endeavors.

Five Track Intro

1) How Soon Is Now?
2) This Charming Man
3) There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
4) Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
5) Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

Studio Albums and other selected releases (*** = recommended album)

The Smiths (1984) — B — After releasing a couple of classic and hard-hitting singles, the band dials it back a few notches for their full-length debut. Spotty and uneven, but holds a few highlights. (R: “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Still Ill”) (see my original review)

Meat Is Murder (1985) — B — The first definite sign that when it comes to albums, The Smiths didn’t quite get it. Not bad, but its Morrissey at his most obnoxious, and the title track is ridiculous. (R: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”) (see my original review)

The Queen Is Dead (1986) — B+ — Almost a classic, but it suffers from poor production. Features a number of “might have been great” tracks. (R: “Cemetry Gates”, “I Know It’s Over”) (see my original review)

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) — B — The best side of vinyl the band ever committed from “Rush” to “Stop Me” – all down hill after “Last Night.” (R: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Girlfriend In A Coma”) (see my original review)

Other recommended tracks: “These Things Take Time”, “Sweet & Tender Hooligan”, “Half a Person”, “Please Please Please…”, “Wonderful Woman”, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”

Wikipedia article

Quick Review (LP): The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

decemberists king is dead The Decemberists
The King Is Dead
2011

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All”, “Rox In The Box”, “January Hymn”, “June Hymn”, “Dear Avery”

Were it not for the bleating timbre of Colin Meloy’s voice, I’d probably own every Decemberists record. Surely there has to be a better way to create a hybrid of Morrissey and Stipe, no? As for this here slab o’ wax, while it’s certainly no masterpiece, it’s nonetheless an exceptionally strong set of songs, featuring all of the things that folks have loved about The Decemberists from the beginning. There are a few instances where it seems they might be loafing – “This Is Why We Fight” for instance – but otherwise The King Is Dead finds the band embracing Americana, with several of the tracks getting help from the vocals of Gillian Welch (who I hope has learned a thing or two from Master Meloy’s productivity, ahem). While there’s nothing so lovely as “The Engine Driver” (though the pair of hymns come close) or as soaring and accessible as “16 Military Wives”, this is a well-rounded folk-rock record that will please fans of The Decemberists and might even convert a few Welch fans.

Random observations:

– “January Hymn” recalls the pastoral college rock of late 80’s / early 90’s REM, and even The Smiths
– “Dear Avery” reminds me of Fleetwood Mac

Wikipedia article
AMG review
Metacritic reviews
Pitchfork review

Quick Review (LP): Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths

The Smiths
Strangeways, Here We Come
Rough Trade; 1987

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours”, “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”, “Girlfriend in a Coma”, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

Truth is, The Smiths were quite adept at producing strong album sides. Unfortunately, they could never put two solid ones together in the same album, and that holds true here, where side A is one of the best they’ve done and side B stinks like the second half of Meat Is Murder. It’s all downhill from “Last Night…”, but the first six tracks do leave you wondering what might have been a little further down the road. The production sounds the best it has, and creatively, they do seem to be branching out, although the decision to de-emphasize Marr’s guitar work is questionable. Speaking of Marr, his work is fabulous on “Girlfriend in a Coma”, and “Last Night…” is the second best epic ode to self-pity they recorded, right next to “How Soon Is Now?” All in all, they sound fresh out of great ideas, so it was probably the right move to call it quits here. That being said, this is a decent record.

Wikipedia article
AMG review
mbbarton blog review

Quick Review (LP): The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths

The Smiths
The Queen Is Dead
Rough Trade; 1986

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “I Know It’s Over”, “Cemetry Gates”, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”

Not quite the masterpiece that most people insist it is, The Queen Is Dead is still the band’s best album-proper. None of the tracks dominate so much as on the band’s other albums, and the record is overall highly consistent. The biggest problem, however, is the production. The instruments are tinny and uneven, and Morrissey’s vocals are so high in the mix that many of the tracks sound like they were recorded in a karaoke bar (see “Never Had No One Ever”). “Cemetry Gates” suffers the most, being as it is an example of a great song poorly engineered. On a positive note, even the “filler” this time around comes off right (see “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” and “Vicar in a Tutu”). Finally, this is the album that contains “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, and that’s a major statement right there. Thought not quite a classic, The Queen Is Dead is nevertheless one of the best rock records of the era and The Smiths record that every rock fan should hear.

AMG review
Wikipedia article
Love Songs On The Radio review
BBC review

Quick Review (LP): Meat Is Murder by The Smiths

The Smiths
Meat Is Murder
Rough Trade; 1985

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “I Want the One I Can’t Have”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

First things first: the title tracks SUCKS. Second, adding “How Soon Is Now?” to later copies of this record is like adding Han Solo to The Wrath of Khan. Just think about it. Otherwise, the band sounds musically strong here, if not quite brilliant. These aren’t the strongest melody/riff combinations they produced, but they are enough to keep me coming back for more. I think this record deserves a little more credit than most critics give it, but at the same time, the band hasn’t quite shaken its tendancy to drag things out too long. Case in point: “Barbarism Begins At Home.” The most important things is that Marr’s genius riffs are abundant. Delicious.

AMG review
BBC review
Wikipedia article
Thorn Brain Music review

Quick Review (LP): The Smiths by The Smiths

thesmiths The Smiths
The Smiths
Rough Trade; 1984

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Reel Around the Fountain”, “You’ve Got Everything Now”, “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, “Still Ill”

The problem for The Smiths is that they were a great singles band, perhaps the best of the 80’s. As a consequence, their debut at times feels padded around the tracks that preceded the record, the classics “Hand In Glove” and “This Charming Man” and the great “What Difference Does It Make?” These tracks are pop supernovae, and everything that surrounds them pales in comparison, but not necessarily for want of brightness. Opener “Reel Around The Fountain”, as well as the propulsive “You’ve Got Everything Now” reveal quite a different side to the band, and the album’s second half is nearly perfect. As a debut, this one feels a lot like Murmur, plaintive out of the gate rather than charging. I’d argue that if they’d left the singles off of this, they might have achieved a masterpiece. Instead, they created an interesting debut, but one that is ultimately forgettable.

AMG review
Wikipedia article
BBC review