Fela Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti

If you love music and haven't heard Fela Kuti, you should check this out.

Fela Kuti wasn't a rock musician, but his music rocks. It is passionate and exciting, and like the greatest rock music, it feels like it could lose control and explode at any moment. His music is both chaotic and controlled, and there is always fire simmering just beneath the surface. He was a very influential man in both rock and jazz, and although his name isn't widely known, his presence can be felt in virtually every style of popular music.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This isn't necessarily a 4-star collection, but it's tough to make a "best of" for an artist like Kuti. Seminal Fela tracks like "Lady," "Zombie," and "Coffin for Head of State" are included. More than half of the songs on this two-disc set have been edited, but since this is presumably an introduction, that was a reasonable decision and each edit maintains the essence of the original song. My only complaint is that one or two of the (relatively speaking) less exciting tracks could've been sacrificed to make room for something from Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa '70 with Ginger Baker - Live!, a stellar live album featuring the drummer from Cream.

Packaging: n/a (Damaged)
It's a shame that the booklet is missing most of its pages, because it looks like it offered a good overview of Fela Kuti and each of the songs. There's enough text in the EPFL copy, though, to give an idea of the demons and desires that drove this man, both musically and politically.

Listen if you like: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Sun Ra, Bad Brains, Bob Marley, Talking Heads, Public Enemy, The Clash, Billy Bragg, Ornette Coleman, The Good The Bad & The Queen, James Brown, etc.

If it were food, it'd be: Some imaginary food that combines efo (a Nigerian stew made from leafy green vegetables) with fried chicken and hamburger and good lager and hot peppers and fresh corn and potatoes and about a thousand other ingredients from all over the world, and somehow it all tastes delicious and when you're done eating, you're a little bit smarter and a little bit tougher and a little bit sexier and a little bit closer to starting a revolution that will tear down injustice and replace it with truth.


Brandi Carlile: Brandi Carlile

It's obvious that Brandi Carlile loves the wonderful, magical beast that is rock and roll. She's not just a performer, she sounds like a fan who's done her time with Led Zeppelin and Elton John and Heart and Jeff Buckley.

It's disappointing, then, that Carlile doesn't take any of the risks that rock's greatest artists took. Zeppelin started as a blues-rock band, then broke every rule in the blues-rock book. Elton took his exceptional songwriting and extravagant personality and created something magnificent. Heart had the courage and conviction to rock in an unprecedented way. Jeff Buckley found the spirit of Zeppelin and remade it in his own unique image.

Carlile and her talented bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, do none of that. This album isn't Zeppelin and Elton and Heart and Buckley, it's Great White and Five For Fighting and 4 Non Blondes and Blind Melon. And that is a shame, because Carlile and Co. might have some great rock inside of them, if they'd just be brave enough to let it out.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Everything about Carlile's songs and performances is good, but nothing is great. She doesn't tap into any of the magic, wildness, or passion of the bands who paved the road upon which she walks. She doesn't push any boundaries or break down any walls. Nothing on this album reaches out and says, "I am Brandi Carlile, dammit, and I am going to blow your mind." And after hearing her music, I really want her to reach out and blow my mind. I think she can do it, and I hope someday she decides to try.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is a poor representation of the music inside. It makes Carlile look as if she's peers with Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne. Otherwise, the package is very good. The lyrics are included, which is a nice thing in this case. The photos are all very flattering to Carlile, but the only picture that captures the essence of the music is the live shot on the back of the jacket. The paper stock is a pleasure to hold, even if the muted colors are bland and uninspired.

Listen if you like: Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Heart, and Jeff Buckley, as long as you're open to an artist who isn't as great as they are.

If it were food, it'd be: Taco Bell. It's good, it's cheap, it's quick, and it's mighty enjoyable. But if you want the real thing, this just doesn't cut it.


The Almost: Southern Weather

Aaron Gillespie is an emo Renaissance man. He's best known as the drummer for Christian screamo superstars Underoath, but he has a decent voice and can play pretty much any instrument that falls within the realm of this almost played-out genre.

Southern Weather is very good third-generation emo. It lacks the anguished screams of Underoath, which is a welcome relief. The songs are strong, but mostly don't stand out as being better -- or different -- than the music from most of Gillespie's peers.

But Gillespie has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. On "Dirty and Left Out," Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate) contributes backing vocals that add heart to Gillespie's devotion, and the pedal steel brings in a traditional country flavor that helps the song transcend emo's very limited boundaries. "Amazing, Because It Is" begins with a somewhat faceless acoustic shell, but it builds into a crescendo of music and voice -- based around "Amazing Grace" -- that reaches far beyond the constraints of what Gillespie normally creates.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Pretty much every track, particularly "Everyone Here Smells Like a Rat," could be a minor emo hit. Few of the songs have the potential to reach a broader audience, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Dirty and Left Out" and "Amazing, Because It Is" prove Gillespie has a broad musical vision. He might make some incredible music in the coming years, particularly if he chooses to stretch his musical wings.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Parker Young's photos convey a mood reasonably well, although they border on generic images of Christianity mixed with generic images of loneliness. It's nice that the lyrics are here, but Southern Weather's words aren't so amazing that they needed to be reprinted. The design is clean, and everything -- even the extremely cluttered credits page -- is easy to read.

Listen if you like: Taking Back Sunday, Sunny Day Real Estate, Underoath, the song "Amazing Grace" (Bob did an interesting post a few years ago, where he compared several versions of the song).

If it were food, it'd be: The cup of cheap, black coffee that helps you recover from an anxious Saturday night, but leaves you feeling a little restless during church on Sunday morning.


Snow Patrol: Eyes Open

Based on the few Snow Patrol songs I've heard, I expected a low-key album layered in muted shades of melancholy. What I got was mainstream rock with rhymes that were predictable and songwriting that was almost -- but not quite -- exciting.

"You're All I Have" (and an unfortunate number of the other songs here) sounds like the Gin Blossoms with a singer from the U.K. "Shut Your Eyes" and "Make This Go On Forever" bring to mind every ill-fated band who was neither talented nor sappy enough to pull off an anthemic, chart-topping power ballad. "You Could Be Happy" should be titled "You Could Be Coldplay."

Not to say everything on Eyes Open is calculated and dull. The single, "Chasing Cars," deserved all the mainstream attention it received. The duet with Martha Wainwright on "Set the Fire to the Third Bar" slowly crescendos into a captivating tension, despite lyrics that leave me wondering what happened to the Second Bar, and an ending that just, well, ends. One of the more boring songs, "Headlights on Dark Roads," opens with what might be the strongest words on the album: "For once I want to be the car crash, not always just the traffic jam."

It seems Snow Patrol is trying to create a musical metaphor for paying attention to our lives as we travel through our personal adventures. We need to open our eyes and see the beauty that surrounds us on our journey. We must continue to move and to grow, without sacrificing the treasures that have already blessed us. It's a great message; I just wish they'd found a more interesting way to say it.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
As a whole, the music is a variation on the same old arena rock formula that bands and record labels have been shoving down our throats for decades. The lyrics are pedestrian, and rely on simplistic and unnecessary moon/June/spoon rhyme schemes. The slow songs are the only places where Snow Patrol shines, but even that brightness is inconsistent.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is pretty good, but the rest of the package is dull. Although it's obvious that the designers are skilled, the digital imagery is one step above the homemade Photoshop art that graced a zillion CD jackets throughout the 90s. The typeface on the back cover was overused by 1994, but then again, so was most of the music here.

Listen if you like: Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls, Foo Fighters, Train

If it were food, it'd be: canned corn with lots of margarine.


Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady

Until checking out Singles Going Steady from the EPFL, I'd never knowingly heard The Buzzcocks. Now, punk isn't really my thing, but still... I'm pretty embarrassed by this omission. It's like saying I've never heard Janis Joplin or LL Cool J or Soundgarden. You rock snobs out there know what I'm talking about; our smug personae are built upon the arrogant belief that we know more about rock than, well, anyone. Facing the fact that I've never heard one of the fundamental building blocks of punk rock forces me to accept that all of my self-righteous rants about music are nothing more than compensation for a very, very small record collection. It's so small, I probably couldn't even get a girl from the record store in the Towson Town Center to go out with me. We're talking tiny.

Anyway. This isn't about me, this is about The Buzzcocks.

On first listen, I was simultaneously blown away and disappointed. Let's deal with the disappointment first. This is simple pop-punk, before such a thing as pop-punk existed. It's snotty and fun and a little pissed off, kind of like The Ramones were. That's fine, but so what? How much snotty punk music does the world really need? Yeah, you're white and middle class and smart and gosh durnit, it's just not fair. Blah blah blah, whine whine whine, whatever. You're not the first person to discover sex or think your parents are kind of lame, so just shut up already and do something with all that money and intelligence and pearly skin with which you were cursed.

But I kept listening, because I wasn't only disappointed, I was also blown away. These songs are phenomenal. Pete Shelley either learned about music composition somewhere in his pre-Buzzcocks days, or he's got an innate talent and a gifted ear. When you skim away the snotty punk attitude and the unrefined surface, these songs are compositionally closer to The Beatles or The Beach Boys than they are to The Ramones. No, there's nothing like "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "Good Vibrations" on Singles Going Steady, but every single song has an enormous pop sensibility. Really, there's not a bad track on the album, and the best songs are as good as (or better than) any punk song ever written.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
As much as I love ripping apart sub-par rock albums that are considered to be great, Singles Going Steady lives up to its reputation. Every track is good, if not great, and everything here stands up against anything that's come out in the subsequent three decades of punk. What's kind of neat about this album is that it wasn't recorded as an album; it's a collection of singles released between 1977 and 1979. Songs 1-8 are the A-sides, and 9-16 are the respective B-sides.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Don't even bother looking at it, because there's nothing worthwhile other than the track listing and the dates the original singles were released.

Listen if you like: Any punk band that's recorded an album in the past 30 years. But also listen if you like well-written songs with a fair share of attitude, because if you get past the angst, the music is on par with some of the greatest pop/rock ever written.

If it were food, it'd be: Fresh lemonade. Sour, sweet, delicious, and refreshing... all at the same time.


Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream & Other Delights Re-Whipped

I can't imagine defending Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream & Other Delights as being anything more than, well, whipped cream. The original album from 1965 is light, Latin-jazz that was accessible in a world of bizarre artists who were pushing every musical boundary they could find. It sold a zillion copies, and the album cover has to be one of the most famous in the history of recorded music. It was safe music for a chaotic time.

As Whipped Cream & Other Delights Re-Whipped proves, it's tough to make a good remix album when the source material is full of empty calories and sugary-sweet safety. There's nothing with any substance here. This is dessert without a meal, and it's not even a good dessert.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Mocean Worker's version of "Bittersweet Samba" is probably the best track on the disc, but that's not saying much. Ozomatli, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Thievery Corporation are the only artists who bring their unique sounds to the remixes, on "Love Potion #9," "El Garbanzo," and "Lemon Tree," respectively. DJ Foosh's take on "Tangerine" isn't awful (but it's certainly not good), John King's nifty production tricks on "A Taste of Honey" can't save it from being dull, and with the exception of "Butterball," executive producer Anthony Marinelli's multiple mixes aspire to mediocrity.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The photo is sexy, but it doesn't capture the vibe of the original. It's a cute update on a classic image, but the inside photo would've made a much better cover. The woman's body wrapping around the spine to the back cover is a nice design touch.

Listen if you like: Generic chill-out/lounge compilations.

If it were food, it'd be: Reddi Wip. It wants to be whipped cream, but it's a paltry imitation of the real thing.


The Cardigans: Super Extra Gravity

No matter how hard The Cardigans try to escape the sugar-coated pop of their 1996 breakthrough, First Band on the Moon, they can't get away from it. If Super Extra Gravity proves anything, it proves that The Cardigans are a very good pop band, even when they try not to be.

The songs on Super Extra Gravity are cloaked in disappointed words, melancholy melodies, and downtrodden chord progressions. They reek of loss and disappointment, not just physically and romantically, but also spiritually. Despite all this darkness, though, each song is a splendid example of The Cardigans' super extra poppiness.

Interestingly, when the band embraces their skills as pop musicians, they churn out their weakest tracks. "Godspell" is catchy, but the lyrics are predictable and the guitar solo serves no purpose. The undeveloped "Holy Love" launches directly into an awkward hook that never settles in with the rest of the song. "I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to be Nicer" is the standout single on the album, but the lyrics fall just a bit short of successful.

But these three are the exceptions. "Little Black Cloud" is the best Pretenders song that never was. "Overload" possesses a yearning sweetness that is both sad and lovely. The upbeat "Good Morning Joan" is a fairly standard rock song that the band pulls off incredibly well. They saved the best for last, though: "And Then You Kissed Me II" is the musical antithesis of the band's breakthrough 1996 hit, "Lovefool," but its quiet pain is one of the Cardigans' greatest recorded moments.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The lyrics are decent, the arrangements are captivating, and the performances are excellent. Nina Persson's voice is as inviting as it has ever been, and it maintains the thin reediness that makes her singing so compelling. (Imagine the confident power of Chrissie Hynde combined with the girlishness of Cyndi Lauper.) While these songs don't coherently fit together the way 1998's Gran Turismo did, the ones that work contain a warmth and a quality that is unprecedented for The Cardigans.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The photos are contrived, and the subtle use of color doesn't convey anything special. The occasional black and white photo or plain white panel seem like an afterthought. The font makes the lyrics difficult to read. The cover photo expresses the tone of the music reasonably well, but the corresponding typeface is out of place. The photo on the back of the jacket is probably the best one in the package; it's still contrived, but there's a story in the woman's expression.

Listen if you like: Rilo Kiley / Jenny Lewis, The Pretenders, The Cardigans' Gran Turismo

If it were food, it'd be: The glass of cheap red wine that ended in divorce.


Herbert: Scale

If I didn't know about the brilliant madness behind Scale prior to hearing it, I would dismiss it as nothing more than run-of-the-mill R&B. And that might be Matthew Herbert's biggest failure with this album: it's a stroke of genius that comes across as a stroke of mediocrity.

Apparently, this album was recorded using 723 different samples. Drums were recorded underwater and in a hot air balloon, background noises were comprised of nearly 200 telephone messages, and one poor guy's barftastic expression outside of a London bar has been immortalized in the hallowed halls of house music. It's very cool stuff. As for the music: the vocals are smooth and sweet, the melodies ride on flowing chord progressions, the beats are subtle yet dancable, the arrangements are impeccably rich and full... and the whole thing is completely forgettable.

The problem is that Scale is all brains and no heart. As much as I admire Herbert's ambition, there are very few moments on the album where I feel anything. The political songs have all the anger of a love song by Chicago, and the love songs have all the heart of Chicago's political repertoire.

There are a few bright spots, though. The low-end melody on "Birds of a Feather" supports a pretty but unsettling vocal melody, and the entire track builds to a quiet climax that leaves me wanting more. "Just Once" is one of the few songs where the experimental nature of Scale shines through, and its marriage of non-traditional sounds to simple, catchy melodies makes it the most interesting song on the album.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I wonder if the critics who gave glowing reviews to Scale would have done so if they hadn't known about Herbert's methods. Whether the end result is pop or abstract, experimental music should be able to stand on its own, without a piece of paper to tell the listener why it's good. Most of Herbert's tracks sound like outtakes and b-sides from the heyday of West End or Casablanca, tracks that Larry Levan might have passed over in lieu of Billy Nichols' "Give Your Body Up to the Music" or Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait." Scale lacks the sexy funk of early Prince, and even with Herbert's stellar arrangements, it lacks the romance of even the cheesiest tune from Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra.

Packaging: n/a (Missing)
The librarians at the EPFL were kind enough to photocopy the front and back covers, but there's no original artwork here. I imagine the booklet would be an invaluable companion, but I've never seen it so I don't know. The design on the actual disc looks neat but is virtually impossible to read, making it a perfect companion to the music: a neat idea that is more form than function.

Listen if you like: Early 80s R&B, Parade-era Prince, Larry Levan, experimental music in all of its many shapes.

If it were food, it'd be: A miraculous, organic, high-fiber, low-fat, fruit-filled, well-balanced, inexpensive new food that looks and tastes exactly like Wonder bread.


Tim Hecker: Harmony in Ultraviolet

I was driving along Washington Blvd. in West Baltimore at dusk when I first listened to Harmony in Ultraviolet. The pulse of the bass in "Dungeoneering" was perfectly synchronized with the flashing blue light of the police camera that watched over the drug dealers who worked the corners. The rose-tinted light of the setting sun shone on two hookers waiting for a passing car to stop and pick them up. It was a Moment, and no other music could have possibly fit as well as this did.

This isn't easy music. It's entirely instrumental, and it's a combination of electronic and organic sounds that come from both traditional instruments and found noisemakers. Hecker has an obvious appreciation for both pop song structures and classical theory. His arrangements are simple on the surface, but contain layers of complex harmonies, dissonant instrumentation, and subliminal rhythms. He creates an aural wall that is simultaneously impenetrable and inviting. For lack of a better comparison, Hecker's music is like finding the perfect featherbed tucked behind a maze of razor wire.

This is one of the best CDs I've heard from the consistently strong record label Kranky. They should be credited for supporting Hecker's vision, the EPFL should be credited for including this in their catalog, and most of all, Hecker should be credited for having the spark that led to Harmony in Ultraviolet's creation.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's not music that most people will want to listen to everyday (if ever). But if you invite it in, it will wrap you in sound and create a surprising accompaniment to the most mundane events. Try it in the car, try it at home late at night, try it during dinner or sex, and try it in headphones while you're working. You can let it fade into the background if necessary, but there are adventures to be taken if you care to pay attention.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover photo and the photos on the back are striking, but the original package was destroyed to fit into a jewel box. There is no booklet included with the EPFL version, but if there was one in the original release, I'd love to see it. It looks like it would offer an interesting glimpse into Hecker's mindset. Of course, sometimes with music like this, it's much better to leave the artist's vision behind and immerse yourself in your own mindset.

Listen if you like: artists on Kranky or Pehr records, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brian Eno. Skinny Puppy fans who like the grating depths of albums like Ain't It Dead Yet but aren't addicted to the industrial rhythms might be drawn to Hecker's music.

If it were food, it'd be: a bowl of rice for a monk who is trapped in the heart of a city.