Ambulance LTD: LP

It's rough being shoegazers in the 21st century. The genre's key bands -- Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, My Bloody Valentine -- are long dead. But Ambulance LTD is reviving a genre that nobody cared about the first time around, and they're doing it on their own terms.

LP isn't special. It doesn't surpass any of the aforementioned bands in either talent or energy. What Ambulance LTD does have, though, is a strong pop sensibility, a trait that was rarely demonstrated by their predecessors. There are moments, especially in tracks like "Anecdote" and "Stay Where You Are," that the band channels a pop deity that is a little bit Beatles, a little bit Beach Boys, a little bit New Order, and a little bit Monkees.

Enough for the compliments, though. I needed to listen to LP about seven times. The first time I put in the disc, I was bored silly. The music reminded me of a bizarre marriage between Ride and Mazzy Star, and its energy wasn't very compelling. Of course, not all music is supposed to be exciting, so I kept listening in hopes of discovering its secrets.

There are secrets here, but they're mundane. It's kind of like learning that your neighbor's deep dark secret is that he likes to read. It's neat, but unless you're fantasizing about a literary threeway, you probably don't care.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There are songs on LP that move in their own subtly frantic way. On "Yoga Means Union" and "Stay Where You Are," guitarist Benji Lysaght stretches out, but the rest of the time, he's constrained to the occasional countermelody. Vocalist Marcus Congleton balances stereotypical shoegazer drones with poppy melodies, but his voice isn't very interesting. The rhythm section never does anything that wasn't already done by a jillion mopey '80s bands. LP is not particularly special unless you're a fan of this kind of music (in which case you should absolutely pick it up), but it's a nice listen every once in a while.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The artwork is simple, but it represents the music rather well. The abstract photos won't be up everyone's alley, but they're interesting images that reflect a mood more than a message. (I assume the choice not to include lyrics is for the same reason of mood over message.) The lack of liner notes builds on that theme, but the inclusion of credits was obviously an obligatory move. Next time, maybe they'll have the balls to leave out the credits and truly be minimalists.

Listen if you like: JAMC, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Serena Maneesh.

If it were food, it'd be: Grits. They're good if you like them; otherwise it's kind of like eating soggy cardboard.


Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental

I'm not an expert on PSB, but I've always found their slightly twisted pop sensibility to be irresistible. This isn't the case with Fundamental, though. At first listen, I was drawn to the album's mostly quiet and introspective mood; it sounded as if PSB were deeply troubled -- both personally and politically -- and were sharing their confusion with their listeners. I looked forward to digging into their stories, but with each subsequent pass through the CD, Fundamental got worse.

The best song on the album, "Numb," was written by Diane Warren, who is very skilled at her craft but is a despicable songwriter with an uncanny ability to churn out emotionally overwrought tripe. It's not hard to imagine Neil Tennant's nasal whine being replaced by Celine Dion, who would belt out Warren's manufactured pain to a bunch of aging socialites in Vegas.

And that's the best song. "Psychological" opens the album with a throwback to Depeche Mode's greatest misfires. "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" doesn't uplift as much as it annoys. "I'm With Stupid" is just... well, stupid. "Casanova in Hell" paints an interesting scenario that is dragged down by inept lyrics.

Lyrics? Did I mention the lyrics? Good God, they're just bad. Now, that may not be a fair criticism, because PSB have never been known for their literary prowess, but these are pretty awful. There are occasional exceptions, such as the poignant "I Made My Excuses and Left," but even that song's power may come more from the situation it portrays than from the actual words it uses to describe the situation.

Pet Shop Boys set the bar high over the past 20 years. It's inevitable that they will fall short occasionally, but it's too bad that it happened during what could have been their most emotional, introspective, and political recording.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Honestly, the album isn't as terrible as I've suggested. It's a perfectly fine PSB album. It's biggest failure is that it had the potential to be so much more. "I Made My Excuses and Left" is the gem that most clearly hints at what the album could have been.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The use of neon is interesting. The cover suggests a mix of personal darkness and artificial light, an appropriate image for an electronic band that is exploring emotional territory. All in all, though, there's not very much visual substance here.

Listen if you like: Everything that the Pet Shop Boys have ever done and you just need to hear more.

If it were food, it'd be: microwaved vegetables. They're edible, but they're bland and soggy. They would've been delicious, though, if they'd just been prepared differently.


Blackalicious: The Craft

I've been listening to The Craft fairly regularly for the past few years. When I saw it sitting in the rack at EPFL, I couldn't resist the opportunity to spread the word about this gem.

This is a fantastic album. It's intelligent, political, funny, inspirational, sexy, challenging, and engaging. Blackalicious ignores the trappings of mainstream commercial hip hop, and succeeds because they play by their own rules. This is hip hop at its finest, and if you miss it, you're missing something special.

(Kudos to EPFL for having this in their catalog. Whoever is choosing their music is doing an excellent job.)

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The lyrics are good, the music is good, the performances are good... really, there's not much here that's not good.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL)
The lyric book is included, and it's wonderful to finally be able to read the lyrics that I've only partially understood for the past few years. I also really like the fact that the lyric sheet lists each person along with his/her words. Like most CDs released on Anti, The Craft wasn't released in a jewel box, so everything but the booklet is missing.

Listen if you like: A Tribe Called Quest, Jurassic 5, Outkast, De La Soul, BDP, The Clash, Pete Seeger, any musician who gave enough of a damn about the world to write a protest song.

If it were food, it'd be: a Blackalicious Burger at the Soul Vegetarian in DC. No, they don't have it on their menu, but they really should.


Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

I was listening to Whatever People Say... with a young but insightful rock fan. Within the first few bars, he asked me to take out the disc. I obliged, curious as to his reasons. He rummaged around in his bag, and pulled out a burn CD with Wolfmother's "Woman" on it. He said, "That song sounds just like Wolfmother." Sure enough, as soon as "Woman" started, I heard exactly what he was talking about.

It's funny how most of us don't merely hear what's on the recording; we also hear what's on the cover, what the DJs have said, what our friends have told us, and whether or not our own personal gatekeeper -- be it MTV or Pitchfork -- approves of the music. But this young man, he heard two songs in two similar but different genres, and immediately associated them. I've never seen a parallel drawn between Wolfmother and Arctic Monkeys, but it's absolutely there, if only we choose to see it.

Whatever People Say... is a good rock album. It has swagger, the same kind of swagger the Stones had when they were young. There's not an enormous amount of talent here, but their attitudes more than compensate. Every song sounds pretty much the same, but since they're all catchy and energetic, that's not such a bad thing.

For me, the standout track is "When the Sun Goes Down." It's not just that I hear my own Southeast Baltimore neighborhood in the lyrics; it's their reference to "Roxanne" and the way the feel changes after the first verse. Vocalist Alex Turner even sounds a bit like Sting, back before Sting was a pompous ass. (Okay, he was always a pompous ass, but at least it wasn't as apparent on the first few Police albums.)

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's simple garage rock with a lot of energy. If you need brains or technical proficiency from your musicians, this isn't for you. If you like brash, working class rock and roll that celebrates dancing, drinking, and screwing, this is right up your alley.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The photography is gorgeous. The cover image reminds me of an immaturely earnest version of Peter Murphy's Holy Smoke cover. The pictures fit perfectly with the music. The little comment at the bottom of the thank you page sums up the album for me, though: an "us against the world" attitude from snotty young adults who know how to rock but have no clue what life and love is all about.

Listen if you like: The Strokes, Oasis, White Stripes, Jet. Yeah, and Wolfmother, too.

If it were food, it'd be: Fish and chips with a Red Bull & vodka.


Aerosmith: Get Your Wings

I always assumed Get Your Wings was released after Aerosmith's first creative peak, so I wasn't expecting very much. Even with low expectations, though, by the second track I was disgusted by what I perceived as a blatant attempt -- and failure -- to recapture the excitement of hits like "Walk This Way." Imagine my surprise when I looked at the copyright date and read "1974." Holy smokes, these aren't some washed up geezers fading from glory, this is a young band who's on the verge of making their mark on the rock world!

Unfortunately, the album is still dull. "Lord of the Thighs" is a high point, but the only track that captures any real excitement is "Train Kept a Rollin'." For the most part, Steven Tyler sounds like a Mick Jagger wannabe who's fronting an uninspired bar band. Joe Perry has a few strong moments, but the cliched blues-rock solos from the Brecker brothers best represent the album's sound. "Seasons of Wither" fails to channel the passion of the previous album's "Dream On." The rest of the songs are utterly forgettable.

Unless you're a huge Aerosmith fan, this isn't something you need to check out. However, this album provides hints of what Aerosmith would become, and that's really cool to hear three decades later.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The band wasn't known for being innovative, and this album shows them at their most generic. However, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler both occasionally shine. Given their partnerships with professional songwriters later in their career, it's not surprising that the best song on the album is the one they didn't write. Lyrically, they should be forever embarassed about the stupidity of lines like "To get it on I got to watch what I say / Or I'll catch hell from the women's liberation."

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Everything's pretty generic, except for liner notes that tap into the mystique that surrounded rock bands in the early '70s. (Watch Almost Famous if you don't know what I'm talking about.) The record reviews and letters are really enjoyable.

Listen if you like: The first Aerosmith album, early '70s Alice Cooper, the Stones, early J. Geils Band, straightforward '70s classic rock.

If it were food, it'd be: Undercooked potatoes. A staple food that's not very good yet, but they're on the verge of being delicious.


The Goo Goo Dolls: Dizzy Up the Girl

Commercial rock is like a summer blockbuster movie. There are explosions, car chases, good looking actors, catchy jokes, and a plot that you've seen 100 times before and will gladly watch 100 times again. Often, its heart and soul -- if it ever had one -- has been stripped away in the name of making a truckload of money, but that's okay because we're just there for a good time!

Rock snobs love to pick on commercial rock. It's big and loud and shiny, and it appeals to the masses. But tucked away in the darkest corner of every rock snob's heart is a secret place where our guilty pleasures reside. Some of us keep a few Journey albums back there, while others have something by Creed or Nickelback hidden away. Me? Mixed in with my darkest musical secrets is a copy of the song "Iris."

It's unfair that "Iris" was included on Dizzy Up the Girl, because the album can't possibly compare. There's nothing wrong with the album, mind you; it is simple, commercial rock that doesn't aspire to be anything different. "Slide," "Broadway," and "Black Balloon" are all good songs that got a lot of radio play, but I don't ever need to hear them again. As for the album tracks, there's nothing I'd shut off, but nothing reaches out and grabs me, either.

But "Iris" ... well, it just might be a perfect song. I don't even know how to describe it. It sounds like a simple pop song, but if you dig beneath the surface, there's some serious magic. The only tangible thing I can pinpoint is the way the time signature shifts from 3/4 to 4/4 during the solo. I'd heard the song probably 10 times before I realized there was a time change. It's subtle, and it's very effective. It's the kind of thing that separates generic commercial bands from extraordinary commercial bands.

Dizzy Up the Girl is solid, commercial rock with a moment of greatness at the end of the album. It makes me wonder why we're not supposed to like big, shiny rock songs, because big, shiny rock songs can be a whole lot of fun.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It would be a 3.5, but "Iris" bumps it up into a higher class. And 3.5 is probably too harsh, because this is really good mainstream rock. The instruments sound good, the performances are energetic, and the production is nice and big. There are subtle touches buried in the recordings, which makes for many listens without getting bored.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover photo is incredible. The rest of the package is good but uninspired. You can read my thoughts about the cover at Whole Lotta Album Covers.

Listen if you like: big rock bands like Foreigner or 38 Special or Foo Fighters.

If it were food, it'd be: A double combo from Wendy's.


Ryan Adams: Rock N Roll

This CD had three strikes against it before I even pressed play: 1) Adams has been praised by virtually every music critic, which means he probably sucks. 2) Anything that contains the phrase "Rock and Roll" probably sucks. (e.g., "We Built This City on Rock and Roll," "The Heart of Rock and Roll," "Old Time Rock and Roll," etc. Using "Rock" in lieu of "Rock and Roll" is almost -- but not quite -- as risky, and should only be done in the most desperate of circumstances.) 3) Ryan Adams' name is very similar to that of a rock star who sucks, which means that Ryan Adams, by proxy, probably sucks.

But dammit, I really like this CD. I didn't want to like it, but it happened. With the exception of "Come Pick Me Up," the Ryan Adams music I've heard in the past has impressed me only slightly more than the soundtrack from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. But now, I'm feeling exactly like that dorky 12-year-old kid who was at his first concert back in 1982, listening in awe as the opening act (creatively billed as "and special guest") sang about how he just can't stand another lonely night.

From the first track, I was smitten with... well, everything. The energy leapt out of my cheap car speakers, grabbed my wrist, and forced me to turn the volume knob deep into the distort-o range. Adams' voice is crap, in the way that Paul Westerburg and Paul Buchanan's voices are crap, which means they're really not crappy at all. What Adams lacks in vocal nuance and prowess, he makes up for in ass kickery. He's singing and playing like this song, this note, this word, this moment is the most important damned thing happening anywhere in the world, period. He's singing like he cares, and that makes me care.

There were a few pleasant surprises on the album. I've sung along with "So Alive" on WTMD numerous times, and I never knew it was Adams singing this great song. The song that proved to me that this album doesn't suck, however, was the precariously named title track. It is distinctly not a rock 'n' roll song, which makes it rock harder than any cheesy Starship song that dupes its listeners into a false sense of rock rebellion. The simple piano melody combined with the lovelorn lyrics prove that Adams really does understand what this wonderful, magical music called rock and roll is all about.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Adams played most of the instruments on the album. It's all simple, and it's all very effective. He doesn't let a lack of skill stand in the way of his talent. The lyrics don't blow my mind, but lines like "I am still dancing in the coma / of the drinks I just had / Does anybody want to take me home?" paint a nice picture.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a terrible cover. I find no redeeming qualities whatsoever. What's with the "Rx" thing? Is that a reference to how many drugs he does, or is he maybe a secret member of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists? Everything else, however, follows a decent graphical theme. Sure, showing off the business cards of your favorite NYC tattoo parlor is a little clichéd, but it least there's a common thread. But what's with the cover? What in God's name was he thinking?

Listen if you like: The Replacements, White Stripes, basic rock without much pretension.

If it were food, it'd be: Meat and potatoes with a big mug of PBR. But it only works if you're drinking Pabst because you're a hipster trying to be down with the blue collar factory workers (who, unfortunately, mostly became smack addicts because their jobs got outsourced to Malaysia and there's nothing to do but hang on the corner and get strung out). If Pabst is all you can afford or you actually like the taste, then you're probably listening to The River. Besides, does anyone actually like the taste of PBR?


Kaiser Chiefs: Employment

Seriously, this '80s thing is getting out of control. The music sucked the first time around. Most (not all, but most) of the pop music that brings back all those warm fuzzy feelings of happier days is poorly produced, trite, nihilistic crap. But I guess since our current culture isn't quite vapid enough, we need to revisit the coked-up, Cold War love of Reagan-era new wave.

This album really isn't bad. It's got energy, it's got hooks, it's easy and fun to listen to... it's got all the things that make a decent rock album. But the thing is, so what? It's similar to Hot Fuss, but The Killers beat these guys to the punch. Sure, Kaiser Chiefs try to stretch out a bit, especially on the second half. "Time Honoured Tradition" and "What Did I Ever Give You" make me want to listen to Oingo Boingo and Pulp, respectively. In other words, listening to Kaiser Chiefs at their best makes me want to listen to something else.

And a little, nit-picky point: In a few places, vocalist Ricky Wilson rips off Robert Smith's little vocal squeal. C'mon guys, don't rip off someone's signature move. It just emphasizes how little you matter.

All in all, there's nothing extremely wrong with this album. The problem is, there's nothing right with it, either. Unless you really love this whole retro '80s thing, don't waste your time with third-rate knock-offs like Kaiser Chiefs.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
No single instrumentalist stands out as anything more than average, but as a whole they've got a decent amount of energy. What they lack is originality. These are retro '80s pop songs that are fun and catchy. You know what else is fun and catchy? Contracting STDs.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a good cover that gets even better once you spend some time looking inside the CD jacket. The art director, Cally, ran with a neat idea and delivered upon its potential. Unfortunately, the Thank You's are so poorly presented that it makes me wonder whether some junior artist at Universal Republic slapped them together at the last minute.

Listen if you like: The Killers, Cheap Trick, Franz Ferdinand, third-rate '80s bands like Human League or A Flock of Seagulls.

If it were food, it'd be: French Fries. A tasty indulgence every once in a while, but if they become a mainstay of your diet, you'll become fat and stupid and dead.


John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls

If you were touched by 9/11, you should listen to this. If you can get past the difficultly of the music, you'll be rewarded with the difficulty of remembering that day and the days that followed.

(Be warned that John Adams can be a tough listen, even for fans of this genre of music. On a bright note, you'll impress people at swanky parties when you start discussing Adams' relative strengths and weaknesses, and you might even pick up that hottie from Peabody who's sipping champagne on the other side of the room.)