The iJAMMING! HITLIST
OCTOBER 2004

THE FIERY FURNACES – BLUEBERRY BOAT (Rough Trade)

More idiosyncrasy from Chicago-raised, Brooklyn-based brother and sister team Matt and Eleanor Friedberger: those who found debut album Gallowsbird's Bark hard work won't get joy from Blueberry Boat. But for those who enjoy cerebral, challenging – yet ultimately celebratory - rock music, this is a triumph. It's also the second contemporary American album on this page to show the imprint of Pete Townshend's late Sixties mini-operas. (See Green Day's American Idiot for the other obvious example.)
Several songs on Blueberry Boat push alarmingly close to the ten minute mark, but there's so much going on in every one of them that tedium is never on the menu. Eleanor continues to write entire globe-trotting novellas – the lyrics to the eight-minute long 'Chris Matthews' take up an entire three pages of the CD booklet - and when Matt runs rampant with bright piano, suspended fourths on the acoustic guitar, fairground keyboards and David Muller throws in some symphonic Moon-like flourishes, anyone who's heard The Who's 'Rael' and 'A Quick One' will recognize the influence. They may be too unconventional for the mainstream, but The Fiery Furnaces are equally too big – in character, in ideas, in ambition and scope – for any underground niche you try to box them in.
Highlight: Those who find 'Chris Matthews' too sprawling may prefer the delightfully engaging, self-explanatory, blues-ridden 'My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found.'

GREEN DAY – AMERICAN IDIOT (Warner Brothers)

It's not their finest album because it's political: punk rock was always about politics. Green Day's seventh album is their finest because it's musically sophisticated and yet louder than bombs, because it's lyrically furious but never stoops to clichés, and most of all, because Green Day continue to sound both hungry and angry. And of course, it's their finest album because it's a (punk) rock opera that never sounds pretentious or pompous. American Idiot is a fired up collection of immediate riffs and melodies, echoing the best of The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and, on 'Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,' Oasis too. But for all the obvious volume and venom, Green Day can be as sentimental as the next ageing punk: on 'She's A Rebel,' 'Extraordinary Girl' and ''Whatsername,' Billy Joe Armstrong sings wistfully of old flames and eternal mysteries. And 'Wake Me Up When September Ends,' with its underlying, unstated longing for a world where September 11 never comes around, will ring happily familiar to all fans of The Replacements' acoustic ballad 'Here Comes A Regular.'
Highlights: If it's protest punk you're after, it doesn't get better than the title track and its assertion, "Maybe I am the faggot America/I'm not a part of a redneck agenda." But if it's power pop that brought you to Green Day in the first place, the Mersey melodies of 'Extraordinary Girl' will do just fine.

BOWLING FOR SOUP – A HANGOVER YOU DON'T DESERVE (Jive)

Some punk groups never grow up – because the movement provided them with the opportunity to make a living wage by making music that perpetuates their youth. Bowling For Soup are archetypes of this sub-set, their seventh album plundering the usual punk-pop themes of drunkenness (title), ex-girlfriends (um, 'Next 'Ex-Girlfriend') and career and emotional failure of all stripes ('Almost'). But it's all done with humor, grace, skill - and the confidence that comes with being in a successful punk group where tomorrow is for fools.
Highlight: '1985,' about a suburban mom trapped in her youthful heyday ("There was U2 and Blondie and music still on MTV") is not just witty, but smart and sophisticated enough to rival, in both melody and subject matter, Fountain Of Wayne's equally endearing power pop anthem 'Stacey's Mom.'

PAUL WELLER – STUDIO 150 (V2)

Paul Weller – as leader of The Jam – was my musical idol throughout my teens. Nothing will ever change that. Thing is, that was over 20 years ago, and maybe because I've stayed involved in the world of music, my tastes have changed along the way. Many other Jam fans, however, have become increasingly removed from new music as they've grown older, and formed an ever more solid bond with Weller as their soul provider in the process.
For those devout thousands, Weller's first album of cover versions may well be the ideal soundtrack for warm nights by the fire while playing with the kids. I can't hear it as anything but pedestrian. Someone please enlighten me as to what Paul and company bring to Tim Hardin's 'Don't Make Promises,' Bob Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower' or Neil Young's 'Birds' other than a numbing sameness rendered all the more mediocre by Paul's workmanlike vocal. Studio 150 is more interesting when it takes risks with the material: Weller's interpretation of Gil Scott Heron's 'The Bottle' has spunk, and in performing Noel Gallagher's 'One Way Road,' he brings the subject of influences full circle. But his straight-faced cover of the Bacharach-David song 'Close To You' only confirms what many have long suspected: that middle age Paul Weller is decidedly middle of the road.
Highlight: The string-laden rendition of Rose Royce's disco ballad 'Wishing On A Star' proves closer in style and spirit to Weller's own slow songs than might have been expected. (Of course, at the time it was a hit, early 1978, 'Wishing On A Star' was viewed with disgust, if acknowledged at all, by young punks like The Jam. And myself. Kudos for bringing it back to light.)

THE GO! TEAM – THUNDER, LIGHTNING, STRIKE (Memphis Industries)

Frantic, fucked-up, footloose and fancy-free amalgam of hip-hop, rock and soul that manages the unlikely feat of sounding like The Housemartins on harmonica, the Double Dutch Girls skipping rope and The Avalanches assembling songs from other peoples' music – all at the same time. (The music here is, however, all the Brighton band's own.) Deliberately tinny and largely devoid of what radio programmers fondly call a "chorus," it's destined to remain underground. Where its exuberance, energy and all embracing imagination should ensure it becomes a classic.
Highlight: 'Bottle Rocket' – which I first heard on an Uncut magazine promo CD – remains my fave rave, if only because the rapid-fire female rap distinguishes it from the many instrumentals. But Thunder, Lightning, Strike knows not the meaning of boredom, believe me.

FATBOY SLIM: PALOOKAVILLE (Astralwerks/Skint)

Dance music is not dead - look at any other number of acts covered at iJamming! for proof that the genre is continually reinventing itself - but for Fatboy Slim, the party is obviously over. Half of him knows as much: on Palookaville, Norman Cook can be heard struggling to find a way past the dance music clichés and into the 21st Century. Yet all the collaborations with all the real-life musicians and vocalists he can assemble (Damon Albarn, rapper Lateef, Bootsy Collins, Brighton-based DJ Justin Robertson and the town's new band Jonny Quality) simply can't make Palookaville congeal.
The other half of Palookaville finds Cook clinging desperately to formula as if it will continue to serve up the hits this far down the line. Yet whoever decided to make 'Slash Dot Dash' (a tired and uninspired retread of his trademark 'Rockafeller Skank' cut-up sound) and 'The Joker' (a straight cover of the Steve Miller song with Bootsy Collins on vocals) Palookaville's lead singles is living further in the past than Jethro Tull. Overall, Palookaville sounds fractured, distanced, desperately uncertain of itself
The tragedy is that Cook forged a way forward on his last album, 2000's Halfway Between The Gutter and The Stars, and even provided a final statement to the whole golden daze of dance with the epic 'Song For Shelter.' Maybe he should have retired Fatboy Slim the recording artist on that emotional, musical and commercial high. But he didn't, and by this point in the game, the Fatboy Slim recording moniker may prove to be permanently damaged goods.
Norman Cook remains one of the nicest people who ever made a mint - and as a past master at reinvention, odds are that he'll find a way to entertain and amaze us all over again. But it will take him a while to get over the colossal creative disappointment that is Palookaville.
Highlights: The dance-rock collaboration with Brighton band Jonny Quality on 'Long Way From Home,' and Justin Robertson's baggy contributions on 'Push And Shove' would both past muster – on those artists' albums. And a couple of songs that rely on the familiar use of barely-sung samples - the opening 'Don't Let The Man Get You Down' and the ballad for his wife, 'North West Three' - are temporarily endearing.' But they belong to the 1990s, not 2004.

R.E.M. – AROUND THE SUN (Warner Bros.)

Opening song and first single 'Leaving New York' is the R.E.M. mid-tempo ballad at its finest. Second song 'Electron Blue' comes close to repeating the trick. 'The Outsiders' continues in similar but less effective fashion – Q-Tip's rap has turned some off – and by the time 'Make It All Okay' comes along in exactly the same style, there's little incentive to listen further. R.E.M. fans don't come much more loyal, long-term, patient and respectful than this man, and so it pains me to say the following: with their thirteenth studio album, the group have run into a creative dead end.

It's not just the tedium of hearing so many songs so desperately similar that disappoints; it's that Around The Sun arrives (belatedly) on the heels of Reveal, an album of equal mid-tempo uniformity, albeit one performed with slightly more exuberance. R.E.M. have never consciously repeated themselves from one album to the next; to do so now smacks of either complacency or – and they're entitled to it, after all these years – contentment. Stipe, Buck and Mills are stuck in a middle-aged groove and they can't get out of it.
Not to be misunderstood: Around The Sun's 13 tracks all stand up on individual merit. Jump from one to another at random and they're all agreeable enough, with variously subtle merits gradually unwrapping themselves. 'Wanderlust,' 'The Worst Joke Ever,' and the closing title track are none of them so dreary you would want to turn them off. But neither do you clamor to turn them up, and that's the problem: Around The Sun is so relentlessly pleasant, so consistently harmless, that it's over barely before you know it's begun. As such, it is - and furiously frustratingly so - the closest R.E.M. have come to an album of wallpaper music.
The lyrics are almost as non-committal. Is 'Leaving New York' inspired by September 11, a day Stipe spent near the site of the burning World Trade Center? Or is it just another tale of romantic departure? And does it matter? Not if the whole album fails to deliver a single inspirational couplet that merits digging through the lyric sheets for further elucidation. (And it doesn't.)
We apparently can't expect R.E.M. to sign a slogan as direct as "Let's start a new country up" in their mid-forties. And they've clearly no desire to return to the volume of the 80s and 90s. (Though it's a shame they teased us otherwise with the recycled rockers 'Bad Day' and 'Animal' for last year's Best Of.) But is middle age itself any reason to abandon the variation and innovation that made them the greatest American band of their generation? Or does Around The Sun's numbingly inoffensive sameness suggest the group is finally Out Of Ideas?
Highlight: I'm not the only who was deceived by 'Leaving New York's charming simplicity into hoping the whole album would be as emotionally powerful. Only title, final track Around The Sun comes close, with Stipe at his most plaintive, Mike Mills playing grand piano and gradually descending bass, Peter Buck trying to get his experimental edge in, and a string section dissolving into a quiet conclusion: equal parts hope and resignation.

KEVIN TIHISTA'S RED TERROR: WAKE UP CAPTAIN (Parasol)

If you like your mid-tempo ballads delivered with total emotional involvement and naked lyrical honesty, then venture not Around The Sun but into the third album by Chicago's Kevin Tihista. Following a (typically) brief sojourn with a major label, and a second album comprised of leftovers from his independently re-released debut, Wake Up Captain sees Tihista finally finding his musical feet and holding them firm to the floor as he sings of a life listing precariously from side to side. (And that's the sea-faring word-play over with.)
It’s an intensely beautiful and frequently painful album that plays adult infatuation ('Oh') off against childhood insecurities ('Family Curse') and a certain amount of drug paranoia ('Freakshow'), to the varying sounds of synthesized string orchestras, drum machines, grand pianos, lone trumpets, fuzzy guitars and the traditional live rock band. Tihista's vocals often recall the under-rated Stephen Duffy during his Lilac Time creative heyday; his arrangements clearly borrow from Brian Wilson (Wake Up Captain is, like Smile, a 17 track "song cycle,"); his eccentricity will appeal to fans of Badly Drawn Boy; and on the few occasions he perks up for a singalong (as on 'Good Wings'), it's with the commercial sensibility of (alcoholic) Harry Nilsson.
If you're wondering then why he isn't better know, it's because Tihista has chosen it that way. His label can barely get a photo out of him, and the stories they tell of his everyday actions suggest a personality perilously close to the idiot savant. This surely means he will never be a superstar. But given the suicide of critic's idol Elliott Smith, with whom Tihista has also born many comparisons, this may be just as well. We should be grateful he shares as much of himself as he does.
Wake Up Captain is sufficiently smooth and subtle that you may not initially recognize its greatness, but fortunately it's the kind of semi-acoustic, mid-tempo album that, when played in the background, you want to turn up for greater investigation. It's the type of album that improves almost exponentially with every listen. It's the type of album that will still sound superb in a dozen years. Just don't wait that long to make its acquaintance.
Highlight: 'Oh' and 'O.K.' appeal to the Lilac Time fan in me, and 'Ride' is a gorgeous ballad. But the centerpiece is surely 'Family Curse' a portrait of the artist as the silent young student. Arpeggiated strings act as a disconcertingly optimistic counterpart to the minor key verse, the fuzzed-up chorus and a backward-vocal fadeout. Tihista's tale of self-imposed isolation reaches a frightening climax in the third verse with a well-placed swearword. "I don't talk/Who cares/I don't fucking talk/But you know I love hard/I love harder than you."

BRIAN WILSON Presents SMILE (Nonesuch)

Those of us who are Beach Boys fans - but, crucially, not obsessives - are entitled to some confusion surrounding the legend of Smile. We hear the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, we recognize its genius, then we hear The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, and we recognize the stratospheric difference; when we hear what The Beach Boys followed with, Smiley Smile, it's hard to understand how Brian Wilson ever thought he could rival match Lennon and McCartney's brilliance. Was the unreleased precursor to Smiley Smile – the infamous Smile – ever a serious challenger to the title of Sixties champion?
37 years later, we finally have our audio answer. Smile has been re-assembled just about as originally intended, performed live for a few months, and then recorded from scratch. And the result is, if not exactly worth the wait (what could be for those of us who live in the present?), then certainly worth its weight in gold. Unencumbered by the egos of his once fellow Beach Boys, Brian Wilson is now credited not only as songwriter and producer, but as singer too, and the angelic quality of his voice totally belies his 62 years (and belies, too, the mental health problems that rendered so many of those years redundant). Aided in no small part by the return of Van Dyke Parks as lyricist, and the continued contribution of his youthful musical director Darian Sahanaja from his touring band the Wondermints, Wilson's Smile manages to keep one musical foot in its 1967 origins while coming across as an entirely contemporary piece of work.
If the re-recorded finale of 'Good Vibrations' does not have the majesty (or, at this point, the sonic impact) of the original Beach Boys recording - but that's compensated for by the superior new version of 'Heroes And Villains.' In between these epics, 'Vega-Tables' no longer sounds as juvenile and 'Wind Chimes' not as fleeting as those previously released on Smiley Smile; 'Surf's Up,' meanwhile, is rescued from its dated inclusion at the end of the 1971 album of the same name to provide Smile's baroque ballad center-piece. Elsewhere, Wilson's vocal experiments transcend pop music into something closer to madrigals and hymns, while the symphonic arrangements lean closer to classical than they do to sixties (or indeed, noughties) rock.
David Leaf's sleeve notes are disappointing: an album of Smile's status deserved a truly reputable author. And here and there, Smile's musical and lyrical nursery rhymes suggest that the supposed superiority of the Sixties is often the result of a rose-tinted rear-view mirror. It doesn't top Sgt. Pepper's now, and it surely would not have done so back in 1967, either. But as a unique exercise in re-recording rock music's lost classic, Smile masterfully supplies the final piece to the decade's musical puzzle.
Highlight: Closing out the first part of this trilogy, 'Cabin Essence' mutates from a simplistic verse to a heavenly chorus, in a style so clearly belonging to The Beach Boys but – makes no bones about it – so much better executed. The middle eight, delivered in multi-harmonied waltz tempo, similarly harks back to Smile's origins in psychedelia, while suggesting a sound truly eternal.


iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2004


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This page last updated
Fri, Jan 7, 2005 12:29 pm


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