Jewel: Goodbye Alice in Wonderland

Not long ago, I reviewed Everything I Touch Runs Wild by Lori Carson. As I listened to Carson, I wondered why she and her peers are celebrated by rock snobs while artists like Jewel are mercilessly mocked.

Well, the day I took that Lori Carson CD back to the EPFL, what did I see on the shelf? That's right, Jewel's Goodbye Alice in Wonderland. Serendipity, right? No matter the pain, I vowed to work my way through this Jewel album and see if I could figure out why people like me love Carson but hate Jewel.

(To be entirely honest, I've always had a soft spot for Jewel. Everytime I hear one of her songs, it inspires an indescribable sense of nostalgia for a past I've never known. Since I haven't ever heard one of her records from start to finish, this gives me an excuse to check out some Jewel without totally losing my right to call myself a man. Just do me a favor and don't tell anyone, okay?)

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Musically, this is a pretty cold album. It sounds as if producer Rob Cavallo mapped every chord change and orchestral swell out in an Excel spreadsheet, ran a formula to calculate the maximum amount of emotion, then hired a bunch of studio mercenaries to play the solution. It's disappointing, because Cavallo has made some pretty incredible records in his time.

Jewel's words and delivery save Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, though. She makes it believable, and that's a mighty good thing since she calls this her musical autobiography. The words are sincere and sentimental, sometimes raw and confessional, and are clever enough that they even made me laugh out loud once or twice.

You know what'd be nice? If she performed all of these songs by herself, just her voice and her acoustic guitar, without a session musician or an Excel spreadsheet anywhere in sight. If she did that, she might give Lori Carson a run for all that critical acclaim.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a good package filled with photos and drawings, but the layout of the lyrics is awful. I would expect an artist who released a book of poetry to know better than to cram each song's lyrics into a big block of difficult-to-read text. Most of the photos of Jewel are very flattering, but there's one where she looks like a drunk who got into Tammy Faye's makeup bag. Not a good look for you, honey.

Listen if you like: Sarah McLachlan, James Blunt, Goo Goo Dolls, Alanis Morissette but you've grown up a bit since you bought Jagged Little Pill. The production is probably way too slick to appeal to fans of singers like Lori Carson.

If it were food, it'd be: jalapeno poppers from a chain restaurant. The core ingredients are spicy, but they're cooked up in a way that won't offend consumers with very bland tastes.


Lori Carson: Everything I Touch Runs Wild

I'm not always certain what the difference is between the Sarah McLachlan / Jewel and the Heidi Berry / Keren Ann artists of the world. Why do critics disparage the former and heap praise upon the latter? Is there really that much difference between the two styles? Is one bereft of integrity while the other overflows with artistic credibility? Or is it simply a matter of popularity? Would music snobs celebrate the entire catalog of Jewel if she'd never sold more than 50,000 copies? Would they berate Keren Ann if she earned a Grammy?

Lori Carson is the kind of artist who makes me ask these questions. On the surface, she falls squarely in the camp of the critically acclaimed and commercially under appreciated singer/songwriter. But her music is so simple and so open that there's no reason it couldn't appeal to millions of lovelorn women who are resigned to curling up in bed with a cat and a Jane Austen novel. A couple of plays on Grey's Anatomy or The OC, and something tells me that Carson would've earned as much love and mockery as Sarah McLachlan and Jewel do.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The album is easy to dismiss at first, but each listen proves more rewarding than the last. At various moments, Carson's songs make me think of Heidi Berry, Keren Ann, Tanya Donelly, Nick Drake, Kristin Hersh, and even Shawn Smith. The music is simple, and at times it is so simple as to teeter on the edge of cliché. The lyrics have none of the complex poetry of Donelly or Drake, but their simplicity cannot disguise a very warm and real humanity. The only stinker is her cover of "I Saw the Light," a song that plays to the worst elements of Carson's sound. Otherwise, this is a perfect album for dark highways and lonely bedrooms.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design has some subtle touches, but overall there's nothing particularly special about it. It's a shame the cover looks like an outtake from a Bjork photo shoot, because it completely misrepresents the music inside. The photos are very good, but they say nothing about the mood of the album. The lyrics are included, but the musician credits are either in a miserably tiny font or I need glasses.

Listen if you like: Heidi Berry fans should definitely check this out. Her voice is occasionally similar to Tanya Donelly, but her music sounds more like Kristin Hersh. If you like Counting Crows songs like "Raining in Baltimore," you'll probably find something here that you like. And yes, Sarah McLachlan and Jewel fans might like Carson's music.

If it were food, it'd be: a cup of cocoa on a cold and lonely day.

(I think it's worth noting that, while I've bought copies of several of the CDs that I've reviewed here, this is the first time I ordered multiple albums by an artist while I was writing a review.)


Madvillain: Madvillainy

Each genre of music has a period of greatness, a time when every unique aspect of the style's past, present, and future melds together in an almost magical way. In jazz, it happened between the late '50s and the late '60s, when Mingus and Monk and Miles and Coleman and Coltrane broke the rules faster than they could make them up. In rock, it was from '66 to about '73, when bands as diverse as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd created previously unimagined sounds that would be emulated and regurgitated for the next four decades. Folk had the period between Joseph McCarthy and Lyndon Johnson, punk had the years between the formation and the dissolution of The Clash, and reggae had the creative explosion in the '70s that resulted in everything from dub to dancehall (and some dude named Bob Marley).

That's not to say that no great artists existed outside these periods of greatness. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker certainly pre-dated the peak of jazz by several decades, and Jane's Addiction and Metallica arrived long after rock's brightest lights had either burned out or faded away.

Hip-hop reached its creative peak somewhere in the late '80s and early '90s. The music was sophisticated enough that the novelty had worn off, but young enough to freely embrace new ideas. It was a time when aggression, violence, dissent, revolution, love, lust, drugs, intelligence, stupidity, pride, hope, and humor all shared the stage in an uneasy but creative peace. Sampling was still fair game, and young producers and DJs were experimenting with making their own sounds in the studio rather than relying on what other people had made.

I don't love hip-hop enough to search for the rap equivalents to Jane's Addiction or Metallica, the artists who came long after the genre's peak and completely changed the music for the better. Sure, I'll occasionally hear some guys who blow me away, but mostly I hear the hip-hop equivalents to Boston and Smashing Pumpkins and White Stripes: artists who might have an original voice in isolation, but are lacking when compared to the greats within their genre.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
In isolation, Madvillainy is a fairly unique and striking album. Madlib's production is interesting, and Doom's words (or MF DOOM's words, to be technically correct) flow well. In a year (2004) when mediocre records by Beastie Boys and Kanye West were receiving Grammy nominations and rotten records by TI, Nelly and Jay-Z were selling like hotcakes, it's no surprise that Madvillain was almost universally regarded as a breath of fresh air.

The problem is, Madvillainy is only fresh when compared to the worst the genre has to offer. If you hold it up to TI and Nelly, the record is absolutely brilliant. But it's pretty damned lame when you compare it to the creativity that burst forth from people like Gangstarr, De La Soul, NWA, Public Enemy, and countless others a few decades ago. Yeah, there's an accordion sample in "Accordion," but who cares? (A whole bunch of critics, apparently.) I hate to break it to y'all, but accordion has been around for a long time, even in hip-hop!

There are some good moments here, but they're cloaked in so much of the same old dope-smokin', chest-thumpin', money-grubbin', bitch-hatin' crap that you have to search for the true gems. And really, guys, can't you get past how awesome pot is? I mean, didn't everybody figure that out with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg like, 15 years ago?

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover on the EPFL's version is different than (and not as strong as) the cover I see at Allmusic, but it's still decent. The overall design is simple, but it has a lot of personality. The lyrics are included, and they're easy to read without being dull to look at. The credits are straightforward, and don't get bogged down with a bunch of unnecessary nonsense. It's tough to balance simplicity with individuality, but designer Jeff Jank did an excellent job.

Listen if you like: the many incarnations of Madlib and/or MF DOOM. If you're one of those people who thinks N.E.R.D. was the most innovative production team this side of George Martin, you'll probably like the tasty grape flavor of the Madvillain Kool-Aid.

If it were food, it'd be: read the previous sentence, please.


RTX: Western Xterminator

Some album covers are so awesome that you just have to listen to the music. I'd never heard of RTX, but Western Xterminator has a cover that is one part high school notebook cover, one part '70s hard rock, and one part drug-induced insanity. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of getting either some crazy hard rock or some crazy underground hip-hop.

Music: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is the second-worst album I've checked out in the 18 months I've been reviewing CDs from the EPFL. (This is the worst.)

The opening of the album is deceptive. "Western Xterminator" is a flute-driven song that is low-key and trippy and incredibly promising. Yeah, the album would've gotten boring if everything else had followed in that style, but it would've been better than what's here. Imagine a cross between the most clichéd Heart song and the most clichéd AC/DC song, and you have Western Xterminator. The title track and "Wo-Wo Din" are the only tracks that have an even remotely original sound. The rest of it makes the first few Foreigner albums look like creative masterpieces.

The production sounds like a cheap demo recorded in the studio that some dude's brother's pot dealer built in his garage. It would be forgivable if the production hid something great, but this sounds like the engineer tried to polish a turd with a poopcloth.

And yes, I get the fact that this is, like, totally ironic, man. The thing is, I just don't care. Irony or not, it's rotten.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The album cover totally sucked me in. Really, go take a look at it. Maybe it's just nostalgia for my old notebook covers and hand-drawn band fliers, but there's a whole lot of good imagery on this cover. It's unique and interesting, yet it looks completely DIY. The band photo on the inside is unoriginal but not terrible. The font in the booklet is nearly illegible. That might be OK if it was crazy, hand-drawn text, but this is just a stupid font that someone thought looked cool. Guess what? You were wrong.

Listen if you like: Bad songwriting, bad performances, and bad production.

If it were food, it'd be: Does anyone remember the 29-cent Hamburger Stand, an '80s cheap-ass burger joint that fell somewhere between McDonald's and cardboard? Yeah, that's pretty much Western Xterminator.

(I wrote this review before I read anything online about RTX. In trying to read the stupid, illegible font on the tray card and the jacket, I figured out that RTX is somehow related to the wildly overrated Chicago band Royal Trux. This album reminds me of why I thought all the junkie hipster bands that rose to fame in the '90s were complete asshats. Obviously, being a musical asshat has survived well into the first decade of the '00s.)


Goldfrapp: Seventh Tree

I have a confession. A nice woman at Mute records sent me Seventh Tree earlier this year, in hopes that I'd review it at one of the other sites where I write. I never reviewed the CD, though. In fact, I never even listened to it. It sat on my desk for months, and I never even took the shrink wrap off of it. That's how much I didn't want to listen to this album.

I don't know why I hate Goldfrapp. Alison Goldfrapp has a perfectly reasonable voice, and Will Gregory, her musical partner in crime, seems to be a talented fellow, even if his hipster hair and hipster beard and hipster glasses make me want to smite him with irony. (Is that wrong of me? If you take the honest-to-goodness sociopaths out of the mix, is there any group of humanity more annoying than hipster musicians? And is there any better way to abuse them than to use their favorite literary device against them?)

Anyway, I digress. I don't like Goldfrapp. The very thought of listening to Goldfrapp makes me feel icky. I dislike Goldfrapp to the degree that if someone tells me he or she likes them, I immediately think a little bit less of that person, the same way I would think less of a person who told me they hate black people or they kick puppies. Because bigotry and cruelty really have so much in common with bad musical taste, you know?

So, when I looked at the New Releases shelf at the EPFL and I saw Alison Goldfrapp in her stupid pirate hat on the cover of Seventh Tree, I knew it was finally time to listen. Here goes. Wish me luck.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The only way I can honestly review this album is to break it into two sections: all of the songs except "A&E," and "A&E."

The music on Seventh Tree isn't as awful as I expected. In fact, it isn't awful at all. It is dull, though. Listening to Seventh Tree is about as exciting as finding that long lost Carpenters album, Karen and Richard Sit Around and Sing about How Much They Love Ironic Electro-Hipsters. The music is pretty and well-produced, but it's just not that interesting. The words are clever and biting, but they just aren't that good. It's easy to listen to the songs on Seventh Tree, but not a single musical moment from the album sticks with me after the disc ends.

Not a single musical moment except for "A&E," which is absolutely fantastic. The music curves and climbs in a wonderful way, and it supports lyrics about a woman waking up in the emergency room after a lovelorn suicide attempt. (A&E, or Accident & Emergency, is apparently what the Brits call their emergency rooms.) The song is a beautiful juxtaposition of joy and pain. The lyrics are simple but they're remarkably effective: for example, the narrator's "backless dress" -- whether taken on its own or interpreted as a metaphor for a hospital gown -- manages to convey a great deal of imagery with a paltry three syllables.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Owls, pirates, boobies, owls with boobies... the whole thing screams "pretentious." Or maybe "stupid." Or maybe even "crazy." Whatever it is, the photos are well done and the owl costume is pretty impressive, even if it is pretentious/stupid/crazy. It's a shame that the lyrics are printed in muted gold ink on cream paper, but they're not all that good anyway. My petty complaints of legibility aside, the package does have a kind of other-worldly sense to it, like a poster for the Renaissance Faire or something.

Listen if you like: lite dance/pop like Air, and maybe twee nonsense like Belle & Sebastian. Bjork or Kate Bush fans might give it a chance, but it's remarkably tame when compared to either of those two. All those deaf people incredibly insightful people who loved that annoying brilliant mid-'90s tribute to The Carpenters will probably like Goldfrapp. Owl fetishists and/or furries could seriously dig the artwork.

If it were food, it'd be: sugar free cake with extra saccharine and one deliciously out-of-place piece of fresh fruit right in the middle.


Sheryl Crow: The Very Best of Sheryl Crow

You, dear reader, have no idea how deep my love for you runs. You think it's all fun and games over here at the offices of Pratt Songs, but we suffer for you. (That's offices, plural, mind you. Tonight, for instance, we're working from our office at the window table at the Panera Bread in Rosedale, mostly because our staff feels like shit and really needs some hot soup. And don't even get us started about how we're referring to ourselves in the plural. Just because you don't hear voices in your head doesn't mean you need to spoil our fun.)

Anyway. As I was saying, I suffer. To prove it, I'm listening to The Very Best of Sheryl Crow, a hits package from my third-most-despised artist in the history of rock music. (The list goes something like 1: Steely Dan; 2: Joni Mitchell; 3: Sheryl Crow; 4: Carly Simon; 5: Steely Dan.) But I'm listening, and I'm doing everything in my power to listen objectively, so I can give you the Fair And Balanced™ review that you've come to expect from Pratt Songs.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There's really nothing wrong with Sheryl Crow. Her songs are all memorable, her bands are made up of top-notch session musicians, and she's not a bad storyteller. The problem is, her music sounds like Los Angeles.

A writer named Michael Ventura wrote the most insightful thing I've ever read about Los Angeles. He wrote that the city has no innate personality. You can move to New York and become loud and obnoxious, or move to New Orleans and listen to jazz, or move to Baltimore and snort heroin while you call everyone "hon." But you can't move to LA with the expectation that the city's personality will supplement what you're lacking.

Every song on this album sounds like Los Angeles. These are songs whose personalities are so vague that you can dump your own experiences into them and let them become your personal soundtrack. These are musicians who can play anything under the sun, but who never succeed at developing their own unique sound. These are stories whose characters and plots are more than willing to step aside and let someone else's life story take over.

My problem is I love songs with personality. I love musicians who put emotion before proficiency. And while I love stories that have a universal appeal, I really love stories that are best told by the person who lived them.

I don't believe that Sheryl Crow lived a single one of the songs on this album. And if I don't believe in the truth of a song, there's nothing it can offer to make up for what it lacks.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is a good package, particularly considering the lackluster inserts given to most best-of collections. There's an essay that talks about how Sheryl Crow possesses a truly unique and passionate voice (I'd take it more seriously if it weren't written by a guy who lists The Teen Choice Awards 2005 and Christina Aguilera: My Reflection among his TV writing credits) and about 8,000 photos of Crow. There are no lyrics, which is disappointing, but the overall design of the package holds together well and compliments the music.

Listen if you like: The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Melissa Etheridge, Los Angeles

If it were food, it'd be: A late-night sandwich at "Rock and Roll Denny's" on Sunset and Vista in Hollywood. The place seemed exciting and genuine on the surface, but it was really just bad food and dull people, both claiming to be far greater than they really were. As far as I can tell, the place has closed down, and I can't say I feel one bit of nostalgia for it.


The Chemical Brothers: We Are The Night

I'm not really sure what it is about these guys that got both critics and music fans in such a tizzy in the late '90s. Yeah, they make energetic dance music that has elements of rock. So what? So do about a hundred other dance/rock hybrids. The Chemical Brothers are a band that mastered the lowest common denominator of both rock and electronica, but never excelled at either genre.

My opinion is not held by many people, though. Since I haven't listened to anything the band has released since Surrender came out in '99, I figure it's time to see if there's a bit more chemistry between my ears and their sound.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The production is very good, but We Are The Night is dull. The band still knows how to rock, but they don't go in that direction very often. (When they do, they rock in a very safe and commercial way... kind of like the Foo Fighters.) Most of the music is the safe, light, middle-of-the-road electronica that I've come to expect from groups like Air. "Do It Again" is my favorite track on the album, but it sounds like it could've been on pretty much any Felix Da Housecat 12" from the past five years (which has hardly been Mr. Housecat's best period).

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Eh. The constellation motif is kind of neat, and the mountain motif is kind of neat, and the hand motif is kind of neat, yet it's all kind of boring. As with the music, there's just not enough here to hold my attention.

Listen if you like: Easy-to-digest dance music like Air. Those of you who miss Pharcyde should like "The Salmon Dance" (which features vocalist Fatlip), but the song sticks out like a sore thumb. Fans of the sound that made The Chemical Brothers famous won't find much here.

If it were food, it'd be: Campbell's soup. Its watered-down taste appeals to the masses but is utterly uninspired.


His Name Is Alive: presents Sweet Earth Flower, a tribute to Marion Brown

I bought HNIA's debut CD, Livonia, back when I was obsessed with everything that came out on 4AD. It was a wafty and lofty affair that was completely forgettable, even to someone who loved all things wafty and lofty. I watched as HNIA released album after album in the nearly two decades since Livonia came out, but despite a ridiculous amount of critical acclaim, I never felt compelled to listen to them again.

As soon as I saw the cover of Sweet Earth Flower at EPFL, though, I knew I wanted to hear it. Although you can't judge a CD by its cover, Sweet Earth Flower screamed out that it was as different from Livonia as an album could possibly be. Thus, after nearly 20 years apart, I am finally reunited with HNIA.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Before hearing Sweet Earth Flower, I didn't know Marion Brown from Marion Barry. I had a vague idea that he was a jazz musician, but I couldn't have even told you with any certainty whether he was a he or a she.

Since I haven't heard any of Brown's music, I guess this might be an awful and disrespectful tribute to him. I can't imagine how that's possible, though, because this music is awesome. It's tempered and boundless at the same time. It is wild, yet its restraint is what makes it shine.

Comparisons to Fela Kuti -- particularly the modal arrangements and the relentless energy of the rhythm section -- are completely fitting. The opening track reminds me of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," and "November Cotton Flower" makes me remember how it felt to sit in a dark room and listen to Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package is simple. It contains two stenciled images (presumably of Brown), some very basic credits, and a statement that a portion of sales will be donated to a charity that helps children in Nepal. That's it. The stencils are well-done, and could easily be featured in an awesome book of street art. It's a shame they didn't say anything about Brown, but I guess they figured anyone who cared enough to listen to this would either already know the man or know how to use that fancy Google thingie.

Listen if you like: Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Fela Kuti, Pink Floyd, John Zorn, Marion Brown

If it were food, it'd be: an earthy stew with potatoes and legumes and a lot of crazy spices


U2: Zooropa

I've never seen eye to eye with most record critics on Zooropa. It is generally regarded as one of the better albums in U2's catalog, but no matter how hard I've tried (and believe me, I've tried hard), I cannot hear anything but a lot of good ideas wrapped in half-baked execution.

It's been seven or eight years since I last listened to Zooropa, so when I saw it sitting on the shelf at the EPFL, I knew it was time to try again.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Sonically, this might be U2's most adventurous album. The band completely reinvented their sound on their previous record, Achtung Baby, and it seems as if that album's success gave them the courage to push their boundaries even farther this time around. The production of this CD is nearly flawless.

Unfortunately, while the production of Zooropa is as inspired as David Bowie's Berlin trilogy, the songs could be from Bowie's lackluster Never Let Me Down.

Despite a few gems, Zooropa possesses some of the weakest lyrics that Bono has ever written. Musically, these songs flutter around in circles, which is a shame because most of them could have flown if they'd received the nurturing care that U2 typically gives their songs. Tracks like "The First Time" and "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" simply revisit great moments in the band's history, while "The Wanderer" makes it hard to believe that either U2 or guest vocalist Johnny Cash had any great moments left. Even the best songs on Zooropa ("Stay (Faraway, So Close!)," "Numb," and "Lemon") sound like b-sides when compared to the band's truly great songs.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The album consists of underdeveloped ideas wrapped in great production. The package consists of great ideas wrapped in bad Photoshop.

Listen if you like: I don't really know. If you love Rattle and Hum, you're probably either open-minded enough or blindly loyal enough to love this album.

If it were food, it'd be: a half-baked cake.


My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade Is Dead!

Some albums deserve to played live. You hear them, and you fantasize how great it would be to hear them in concert, start to finish, all the way through. Every bit of brilliance would shine as brightly as it does on the studio record, but it would be combined with the spontaneity and excitement than only a live show can provide. Unfortunately, as live performances of albums like The Wall and Operation: Mindcrime have shown, some live albums are much better left to fantasy.

(Yeah, the studio version of Operation: Mindcrime might've been better left to fantasy as well, but I'm trying to make a point here.)

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Frankly, The Black Parade Is Dead! is a lot better than a live rendition of a concept album has any right to be. The band sounds great, the recording quality is excellent, and there's a ton of energy from both the stage and the audience. I just don't really hear any reason why it needed to be released. Does it add anything to The Black Parade? Not really, other than some chanting from the crowd and an occasional breathless moment from vocalist Gerard Way. And that gets to the core problem with live versions of concept records: the originals are so carefully crafted and created and recorded that there is no room for spontaneity, which just might be the greatest part of live shows.

Don't get me wrong: this is a very good live record. I just don't hear anything that makes this as good as The Black Parade, or even a necessary companion for anyone but the most devoted fans.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package is perfectly fine for a live record, and it probably deserves higher than a 2.5. There are some good photos, and even a few great ones. The cover is a bit cheesy, but once you look at it for a while, it's actually kind of cool.

The problem is, the package for the original album is one of the best I've ever seen. The regular version of the CD is stellar, yet it's nothing compared to the limited edition vinyl release. The packaging for the limited edition record is, hands down, the best I've seen in nearly 30 years of loving rock music.

This just doesn't compare to that. My 2.5 library card ranking may be unfair, but go pick up the vinyl of The Black Parade and you'll understand where I'm coming from.

Listen if you like: My Chemical Romance

If it were food, it'd be: A frozen gourmet dinner. It's good, but it just doesn't compare to the real thing.


Various Artists: Dynamite! Dancehall Style 100%

When I review CDs, I try very hard to be objective. Sometimes I go into a review hoping to destroy an album, and I end up giving it a ridiculously high rating. Then there are times when I give a record a mediocre score despite the fact that I really want to praise it. I'd like to think that I've listened to enough music -- and a varied enough selection of music -- that I can write a review that transcends my personal likes and dislikes.

When it comes to dancehall, though, I've got no objectivity. I love dancehall. Love it, love it, love it. I probably don't know enough about it to distinguish the good from the bad, because when I hear those basslines rolling behind those sing-song vocals, I just get a big smile on my face and I lose myself in the rhythm. There's some dancehall that I like more than other dancehall, but that's kind of like saying there are some dogs I like more than other dogs.

(As an aside, I'd never heard of Soul Jazz Records, the label that put this out, until Tom in the Sights & Sounds department at the main EPFL location turned me onto the Nicky Siano collection. It's a great label, and I've bought a fair amount of their music in the past six months. Who knows when/if I would've gotten turned on to Soul Jazz if I weren't hanging out at the library, exploring the music, and talking to the librarians. If you live in Baltimore and you haven't gone over to the EPFL on Cathedral St., you're really missing out.)

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is the best dancehall collection I've ever heard. Unlike so many compilations out there, this disc trusts the listener. It trusts that the listener wants to hear more than another typical collection of hits. There's some challenging music on here, and it's exciting to hear the way different artists have -- both in the present and the distant past -- pushed the boundaries of this reggae offshoot. Dynamite! might not be a good CD for someone who wants an easily digestible collection of dancehall hits, but it's a superb listen for anyone who loves music and/or wants to learn more about dancehall.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The second sentence in the liner notes says, "We love dancehall." I relate. I just wish the author of the three-page essay had gone into a little bit more historical detail than he/she did. More detail on each song, along with more names, dates, and influences would've been nice. Out of nearly two dozen artists, only three had their photos included in the book. I'm not sure why these three got special treatment, but there's nothing particularly special about their photos.

Listen if you like: Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Buju Banton, or any other mainstream dancehall artists. Anyone who likes reggae and wants a really good overview of one of its evolutionary branches should give this a listen.

If it were food, it'd be: a tasty burrito. As with dancehall and dogs, I've never met a burrito I didn't like (although some I certainly like more than others)


Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch

The first time I heard Eric Dolphy was on John Coltrane's Impressions, and he stopped me dead in my tracks. When Dolphy's bass clarinet solo in "India" came through the speakers, I felt as if I'd just been wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold night. Of course, Dolphy was just as much of a musical freak as Coltrane, so the moment of calmness quickly evolves into a beautifully crazy solo. (Impressions doesn't seem to be available from the EPFL, but if you have any stomach for experimental music that pushes limits, I highly recommend it.)

I tried to listen to Dolphy's solo stuff over the years, but everything I heard sounded like the kind of post-bop swill that makes me despise jazz. Ever since I found some used Sun Ra CDs over at Sound Garden a few months ago, though, I've been open to jazz for the first time in over a decade. It didn't take me long to find my way back to Dolphy, in hopes that there was a gem or three in his catalog that I'd overlooked.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The opening notes of "Hat and Beard" are the kind of mid-'60s jazz that became the touchstone for the clichéd image of the goatee-wearing hipster. This isn't some joke jazz record, though. The music walks between Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Coltrane. Dolphy's first solo is angular and abstract in all the right ways, and he pushes pretty much every sonic boundary he can find. The entire disc continues in this vein, and despite the fact that I don't normally like most of these musicians, they are phenomenal here. "Something Sweet, Something Tender" might be the greatest moment on the album, because it demonstrates how music can still be soft and beautiful without compromising its experimental edge.

I'll warn you, though, that Dolphy's music is not for the faint of heart. This is tough music that can take a lot of effort to appreciate, but the rewards are huge if you're willing to put in the work.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This might not be the best cover that Blue Note put out, but it's a contender. The design is superb. The photo is simple on the surface, but the image of the clock speaks volumes about the music contained within. I'm sure the four-page essay in the liner notes is fascinating, but honestly, the music is too demanding for me to both read and listen. (I do miss the days when albums came with essays. For those of us who love words as much as we love music, there's nothing better than getting a hefty dose of both in one package.)

Listen if you like: Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. Fans of groups like The Mars Volta or Mr. Bungle have a good chance of liking what's going on here.

If it were food, it'd be: Black coffee.


The Postal Service: Give Up

This is going to be a tough review to write. I probably haven't listened to another album more frequently in the past four years than I've listened to Give Up. I know pretty much every word, every note, and every moment of silence. It's one of my favorite albums of the 2000s, so it's going to be difficult to listen to it with objective ears and say something other than, "I love this album, so it must be great!"

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music is consistently solid. The warm and quirky electronics of Jimmy Tamborello (aka Dntel) are the yin to the yang of Ben Gibbard (aka that dude from Death Cab For Cutie). When the two men gel, the music they make together is wonderfully rich and captivating. When they don't gel -- something that only happens a few times and passes quickly when it does -- the music is rich but boring. "This Place Is a Prison" is desperate and creepy, "Sleeping In" is sweet and poignant, and "Brand New Colony" has some of the most creative expressions of devotion that I've ever heard, whether in song, poem, or prose.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The photos are odd and kind of charming, and the typefaces have the same juxtaposition of traditional and modern that the music does. Most of the lyrics are excellent, and I'm glad they're included. Otherwise, though, there's nothing special here.

Listen if you like: Death Cab for Cutie, electronic indie rock, '80s new wave, charming pop songs with excellent lyrics

If it were food, it'd be: a picnic lunch with your ex on a sunny September afternoon


Robyn Hitchcock: Spooked

There's a place in Arkansas called Crater of Diamonds State Park where, for a small admission fee, you can search for diamonds and keep those that you find. I've never been to the place, but my guess is that most people don't walk away with enough diamonds to make up for the $6.50 they drop to get inside.

Robyn Hitchcock's Spooked is kind of like the Crater of Diamonds State Park. There are some treasures sprinkled throughout the album, but they're few and far between, and you probably won't find enough of them to make up for the time and/or money you spent on the record.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I bought Robyn Hitchcock's Eye album many years ago, because "Beautiful Girl" is an awesome song, but the CD ended up in a used bin somewhere in Jersey because I needed rent money after the dot-com bust. Listening to Spooked reminds me of all the songs I'd forgotten off of Eye -- awful songs that I'm completely happy to have forgotten.

"Tryin' to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door" is easily the best song on Spooked, and it's a perfect fit for a sad scene in an indie hipster movie. The rest of the album is lame. "Television" is one corny rhyme away from being an Adam Sandler song, and it's one of the better songs on the disc. Fortunately, there are little diamonds scattered throughout the album. Sometimes they come in the form of a lyrical phrase, and at others they appear as a short series of notes on the guitar or a vocal harmony. They're probably not worth the admission price, but they take away the sting if you've already shelled out your money.

Packaging: n/a
Normally I whine whenever the EPFL destroys a package to fit it into a jewel box, but not this time. I don't know what the deal was with the original packaging; maybe it was too weird to cut up and fit in a box, or maybe it got stolen or destroyed. Whatever the case may be, someone at the EPFL printed/photocopied the front and back covers and stuck them in a jewel box. That's really nice that they went through that much effort, just so I could read song titles while I'm driving.

Listen if you like: Violent Femmes, Leonard Cohen, sitting around and bragging about your eclectic taste in music

If it were food, it'd be: A dry, organic muffin that yields the very occasional treat of a juicy berry


Radiohead: In Rainbows

Since I've never heard In Rainbows, I'm going to try something: I'm going to listen to this album and pretend I don't know anything about Radiohead. I'm going to imagine that I've never heard OK Computer or The Bends. I'm going to ignore the rather clever marketing strategy that made In Rainbows get write-ups in countless publications when it came out. I'm going to listen to the record as if it's some random CD that I just happened to pick up at the EPFL because the cover looked interesting.

Why am I doing this? Because I want to see if I can separate the music from the mystique. I want to see if the critical acclaim is warranted, or if we're all simply complimenting Emperor Thom on his pretty new clothes.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The record starts off strong. The 5/4 time signature on "15 Step" is interesting and driving without sounding too much like math- and/or prog-rock. The bassline grooves, the guitar and synths are like shiny threads that wind through the music, and Thom Yorke's voice is strong. It's a promising start, and it makes me excited to hear the rest of the album.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is disappointing. "Bodysnatchers" sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins throwaway with less energy and smaller hooks. "Nude" is stiffer than a Hopkins engineering student at Club Choices on a Saturday night. (This is a Baltimore blog, people. If you don't get the reference, just move here already.) "All I Need" is like a Blue Nile song without the warmth (and if there are any Blue Nile fans out there, you know that Paul Buchanan's warmth was the only thing that made them special). The lowest point of all, though, has to be the faux-folk "House of Cards," whose lyrics made me laugh out loud the first time I heard the song.

So. The emperor is modeling his fantastic new songs, and his subjects are all praising them. I'm a bit disappointed in myself for being too stupid to hear anything other than third-rate art rock.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The actual package was altered by the EPFL, but it looks like it was nice in its original form. The text is incredibly hard to read, but as with most Radiohead albums, it fits with the overarching aesthetics. I don't know enough about art to say whether these are brilliant paint splotches or generic paint splotches, but it looks to me like there's a lot of energy and movement in the artwork. I particularly like the yellow, fetus-like image on the front of the booklet.

Listen if you like: Radiohead, Radiohead, Radiohead, or Radiohead. Radiohead fans might find something they like, and anyone who likes Radiohead should certainly give it a listen.

If it were food, it'd be: A gourmet meal from an overhyped chef whose food is wildly inconsistent.


Radiohead: Hail to the Thief

After hearing Kid A, I was fairly certain that Radiohead had grown incapable of putting out anything other than self-indulgent wanking. Glad to see I was wrong.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Okay, so Hail to the Thief is self-indulgent, but it's also good. The band has energy, the songs are edgy, and the album is experimental. Most importantly, Radiohead rarely loses site of what made them great in the first place: they're a rock band with a mighty big imagination. Most of the songs are basic pop songs, but the band forces them to do things that are completely unnatural in pop music. Each song possesses layers of sound that reveal new secrets even after repeat plays. The music has a manic desperation that gets better with every listen. To me, this is a record that could accompany the end of the world. My only complaint about the album is it sounds like Son of OK Computer rather than Radiohead Does Something New.

(It's interesting to listen to "A Punchup at a Wedding," then listen to "Chimera Obscura" by The Velvet Teen. It sounds as if The Velvet Teen took a Radiohead idea and ran in a completely different direction with it. Each is a very strong song in its own way.)

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm not even going to try to describe the meaning behind the painting of words and phrases (most of which seem to come from the lyrics) that makes up the first eight pages of the booklet. I know what it means to me, but I won't pretend to know enough about art or the artist to say I know what it means, period. All I can say is the artwork is strong enough to support a bit of thought and analysis. The lyrics are printed after the map of words, and they are the kind of words that are typical of Radiohead's brightest moments.

Listen if you like: Radiohead's OK Computer, Pink Floyd, Muse, Gorillaz

If it were food, it'd be: The last can of food in a bomb shelter or a lonely man's house


Radiohead: Kid A

I have an odd little story about Radiohead that has nothing to do with anything, especially Kid A. I was invited to a Capitol Records listening party in maybe 1992, where a bunch of dimwits from the label played their upcoming releases and asked our opinion. The first song they played was "Creep" by Radiohead, and I was floored. Each successive artist got worse and worse, and my comments grew more and more scathing, to the point where I asked the host why the label was even still in business when it was obviously run by a bunch of deaf imbeciles. It was probably six months before "Creep" was released, and the song had taken such mythical proportions in my head that I was certain I'd be disappointed when I heard it again. Nope. It was just as good as I'd remembered.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This ain't "Creep," baby. I'm a big fan of experimental music, but the downside to experimentation is that every success stems from dozens of failures. These songs sound like the failures. There are one or two songs on Kid A that are pretty good, as long as you don't compare them to good Radiohead songs. There are a few moments where the experiments kinda sorta almost succeed, especially if you're distracted by talking on the phone or beating your thumb with a hammer. And then there's the rest of the album, which is on par with the ambient noodling that every jackass seemed compelled to record in the late '90s.

I wholeheartedly recommend that you skip Kid A and instead pick up OK Computer and Tim Hecker's Harmony in Ultraviolet next time you're at the Pratt Library. Together, these two albums succeed at all of Kid A's failures.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package is gorgeous, but it's ultimately pointless. The printing is beautiful, and the way every page is a bit different -- some are translucent vellum and some fold out -- makes the booklet feel like a tiny piece of art. But when you look at what's printed on the paper, the images are just as limited and shallow as the music.

Listen if you like: basking in the approval of rock snobs who lack the ability to form their own opinions and cannot recognize the difference between innovation and garbage.

If it were food, it'd be: Grape Kool-Aid


Radiohead: OK Computer

Like any well-behaved music fan in the '90s, I bought into the OK Computer hype. I basked in the proggy arrangements, I praised Radiohead as the future of rock, and I listened to the album with all the open-mindedness of a newly minted cult member. For some reason, though, I haven't once missed my copy of the record since I sold it in 2000. Why aren't I fondly reminiscing about it? Perhaps the record is overrated, or maybe I simply absorbed its charms so completely that I no longer need to hear the music to experience its greatness. Either way, it's time to check out the EPFL's copy and see how the album holds up, nearly 10 years after my last listen.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
OK Computer is definitely experimental. The band plays with song structures, instrumentation, production, arrangements... really, they took everything that makes up a pop song and messed with it. For the most part, it works well. Some of the lyrics are pretty stupid, but they work in context.

OK Computer is definitely important. The album's influence is vast, and you can find touches of OK Computer in every style of music from reggae to classical. The influence might be most dramatically felt on the generation of post-punk and indie bands who have found moody soundscapes to be just as vital as power chords.

But I can hear something now that I couldn't hear back when OK Computer first came out: the band's brain is trying to dominate its heart. Most great rock has a hefty chunk of smarts in one way or another, but the best rock is special because it comes from the heart. On OK Computer, Radiohead's heart was losing ground to its brain. Fortunately, the band was still favoring passion and excitement over mathematical time signatures and computer-generated bleeps, but the brain was creeping up in an unpleasant manner.

All in all, I'm glad to have rediscovered this album, because it's a solid piece of music. In retrospect, though, it's not quite as perfect as we all made it out to be back in the late '90s.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's strange how this artwork is completely iconic yet completely anonymous. If you ask the typical Radiohead fan to pick out the cover from a display of 50 record covers across the room, my guess is that most of them would immediately identify OK Computer. But what if you ask the same fan to describe what's on the cover? Is anyone going to mention a highway? Or an airplane's emergency evacuation instructions? Or the words "Lost Child?" My guess is no. It's kind of neat how the overall vibe of the design is so memorable, but the individual elements are almost meaningless. I guess that makes it a perfect accompaniment to the album, which is full of music whose overall vibe is memorable, while the individual instruments are almost meaningless. My only complaint is the lyrics are a pain to read, but given the package, their decision to favor form over function is understandable.

Listen if you like: Pink Floyd, TV on the Radio, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Mars Volta, early Peter Gabriel... really, anything that is remotely experimental but still rocks.

If it were food, it'd be: A ripe, juicy, delicious, genetically modified tomato.


Lou Reed: Transformer

I'd always blindly accepted that Lou Reed is a legend, and a creative genius, and blah blah blah. But not long ago, I heard "Walk on the Wild Side" and I realized it's a pretty awful song. The melody is memorable, but the music is a trite reworking of '50s rock and roll.

The worst part of the song is the lyrics. They're full of lame rhymes (oooh... he rhymed "away" with "pay." Brilliant!), and they trick you into thinking you've been told a story when you've actually only met the characters. Yeah, Holly's a drag queen... so what? What about her? Who is she? I guess telling her story would actually require talent, and Reed seems a little short in that department.

With this sort of thought in mind, I decided to check out Transformer from the EPFL and listen to the whole album. Maybe I'm being too hard on the guy.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I don't think I'm wrong about Lou Reed. In fact, he might be one of the most overrated artists out there.

That's not to say I didn't find some good things on the album. "Perfect Day" is a phenomenal song. It highlights one of my biggest complaints about Reed, though: the man wouldn't know subtlety if he tripped over it. One reason "Perfect Day" is great is because it's completely open to interpretation. He didn't beat anybody over the head with his normal, "HEY LOOK AT ME, I'M A FREAKY DRUG ADDICT FREAK WHO HANGS OUT WITH FREAKS" nonsense. He simply sang his song and let the lyrics take the listener where they would.

I almost wonder if people celebrate Lou Reed because he gives 'straight' people (and I don't mean sexually straight, I mean culturally straight) a glimpse of the other side, the dark side, the "wild" side. My problem is, I've spent more than enough time with club kids and tranny hookers and drug addicts and all of the other people Reed sings about. His rose-colored portrayal of the wild side is bullshit. The straight side is dull, but the wild side certainly isn't all it's cracked up to be. Next time you see a transvestite heroin-addict whore, ask her if she'd like to clean up and live a quiet and stable life in a nice house with a kind man who treats her well. In my experience, the answer is almost always yes, even though most of them know they'll die before they beat their demons. Now ask someone who lives a quiet and stable life in a nice house with a kind man who treats her well if she ever fantasizes about giving it all up to become a drug-addicted prostitute.

I could go on and on about this album. The snideness of "New York Telephone Conversation" is pathetic, because the characters that Reed portrays with such love are just as shallow as the antagonists of that vapid phone conversation. He occasionally breaks away from his primitive rock and roll songwriting long enough to offer up a lame imitation of the Beatles' quirkiness, but a turd wrapped in a string section is still a turd. Actually, the arrangements by Mick Ronson are probably the best part of the album, and the bass on "Wild Side" is the only reason I can even get through the song.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover art is pretty awesome. It's a rough image of a rough-looking man, and it sets the tone for the subject matter. I only wish the music sounded more like the cover looks. The EPFL has two version of the CD; the one I checked out is a 2002 reissue, and I assume the other is one of the quick hack-job packages that every label slapped on their back catalogs when CDs became huge. The liner notes are interesting, but I only got through a couple of pages before the Lou Reed hero worship turned me off.

Listen if you like: cheesy rhymes, pre-British Invasion rock & roll filtered through '70s pre-punk, pretending drug addicts are fascinating rebels who are living a life of freedom

If it were food, it'd be: Ramen. We eat it when we're poor, then when we can afford something better, we romanticize how great it was.


Angels and Airwaves: We Don't Need to Whisper

A few months ago, someone sent a postcard to Post Secret that read "Angels and Airwaves renewed my faith in God and love." Needless to say, when I saw We Don't Need to Whisper at the EPFL the week after that secret ran, I had to check it out.

Angels and Airwaves didn't renew my faith in God or love, but they certainly did restore my faith that a big and commercial band could possess nearly everything that makes rock music so incredible.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is a perfect album, in the same way that Titanic was a perfect movie. It's not breaking new ground, it's a little simplistic, and all the snobs will dismiss it as commercial crap; but it's well-done, it connects with its audience, and it functions on an incredibly human level. Every single song is well-written and memorable, and the performances contain a good amount of subtle creativity. Most of all, though, despite all the big names and the glamour and the glitz, it's got heart. And heart, my friends, is what makes rock music perfect.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm not really sure how a dude floating through space while holding an umbrella relates to WWII fighter jets, and I'm not sure how any of it relates to angels, airwaves, or the combination of the two. Frankly, the artwork smells a bit too much like a Styx cover for my tastes, but hey, it's a mighty good cover if you're into that Styxy (Styxie? Stygian?) kind of thing. The lyrics are included, which is good but probably unnecessary since I was pretty much singing along with every song by my second pass through the album.

Listen if you like: Blink 182 songs like "Down" or "I Miss You" (Blink vocalist Tom DeLonge is the man behind A∓A), U2, Foo Fighters

If it were food, it'd be: A Granny Smith apple: a simple, unique, and tasty snack that is sure to annoy foodies.


Jezzreel: Great Jah Jah

I haven't written anything lately about how awesome the Enoch Pratt Free Library is. How many libraries in the country have any of the Wackies reissues? How many people have even heard of Jezzreel, let alone have the ability to drive down to their local library and check it out? I don't know the answer to either of those questions, but my guess for both would be "approximately zero, at least outside of Baltimore."

Whether or not you like this particular release, it's proof of the fact that whoever is responsible for buying music for Pratt is doing a great job! He/She/They are the only reason that, more than a year into this blog, I'm still excited every week to visit the EPFL and see what I'll find. (For you Baltimore folks, take a look at the Pratt Library Media blog to see what's new.)

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Great Jah Jah originally came out in 1980 on Lloyd Barnes' Wackies label. It's good stuff if you're a fan of reggae, but there's nothing crucial that a casual listener needs to hear. The vocals are solid but fairly typical for late '70s reggae, although the harmonies between Clive Davis and Christopher Harvey (and, I assume, background vocalist Noel Delahaye) are strong and occasionally haunting. The bass and drums are very good, but some of the bass notes were distorted during the recording, which can be a bit distracting given the instrument's prominence in the mixes. The songs have plenty of room to stretch out and breathe, but I honestly started getting bored by the end of the disc.

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
Just read what I wrote about the package for Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style (another Wackies release) because the same exact thing is true here.

Listen if you like: Honestly, I don't know enough about reggae or dub to make really valid comparisons, but I'd think anyone who likes Gregory Isaacs, Trinity, or Sugar Minott should check this out.

If it were food, it'd be: A bottle of Red Stripe. It's great if you're into Red Stripe, otherwise it's just beer. (Hooray, beer!)


U2: Pop

I would argue that U2 is the only true successor to The Beatles' throne. Sure, U2 isn't as exciting as Zeppelin or as heavy as Sabbath or as yearning as Springsteen or as bald as Phil Collins, but there isn't another band out there (other than The Beatles) who perfectly balance everything that makes rock so incredible. They are one of the very few rock groups to successfully reinvent themselves, and they might be the only band to do it more than once.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Pop would've been stronger if a song or two had been removed ("The Playboy Mansion" is the worst offender), and it didn't capture the energy of American club culture nearly as well as Achtung Baby captured the excitement of European dance music. With that said, the album is far better than critics make it out to be. Songs like "Mofo," "Gone," and "Miami" have an incredible amount of energy, while "Staring at the Sun" and "Do You Feel Loved" are good pop songs.

The highlight of Pop comes in the last three tracks, though. "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" nails the darkness of temptation, "Please" reeks of desperate prayers for a fragile peace, and "Wake Up Dead Man" is probably the most hopelessly hopeful song I've ever heard. These three songs alone make Pop an essential album for anyone who truly loves rock music.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
When you strip the booklet to its barest elements, it's nothing more than lyrics, credits, and photos. But this is U2 at the point in their career where everything they did was larger than life, and the booklet reflects it. The jacket is printed on a silver background (which makes the grey text occasionally difficult to read), and the entire package screams out with loud colors. It's very well-done, but it mimics many of the design elements of electronic dance music of the time, making it less original than it could have been.

Listen if you like: the dancey side of U2, but especially listen if you like the songs that end U2 albums. If you like "Exit" or "Love is Blindness" or "40," the last three tracks on Pop will be right up your alley.

If it were food, it'd be: a fresh fruit smoothie at an after-hours dance club. You might be drinking it because you're dehydrated from drugs or alcohol, or you might be drinking it because it's 6am and you've been sober all night, but either way it's refreshing and revitalizing.


Imogen Heap: Speak for Yourself

Despite the fact that I despise nearly all of the girly trippy-hoppy dancey singers who followed in the wake of Massive Attack and Portishead, I find Imogen Heap to be oddly compelling.

Perhaps I like her because she is a common-man's Bjork: she has enough talent to back up her bizarre artistic vision, but she disguises it so that her listeners aren't bombarded by her oddness. Then again, maybe I like her because she writes memorable melodies, or because she balances drama and melodrama, or because she never lets cheesy effects (which she uses aplenty) bury her unique ideas.

Whatever the reason, every time I hear her sing "Holding Out for a Hero" (from the Shrek 2 soundtrack) or "Let Go" (from the Garden State soundtrack), I get a huge smile on my face. Then there's her contribution to the bizarre, Old Testament-inspired Plague Songs, on which she uses a lighthearted metaphor of love to mask a plague of locusts.

Hmmm... now that I think of it, any artist who can seamlessly combine trip-hop, ogres, Bonnie Tyler, indie-rock kids from Jersey, and Biblical plagues can't be all bad.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Speak for Yourself is good, but it gets boring by the end. She created the album almost entirely on her own, and it's hard to not be impressed by her studio trickery. (The rhythm track on one song was created by hitting CD cases against empty carpet tubes.) But like Herbert, Heap sometimes buries her talent too deep within her simple songs. There might be some incredible meaning behind lines like "Why d'ya have to be so cute / It's impossible to ignore you," but I sure can't find it. Fortunately, the songs are all pretty good, and a few of them truly showcase Heap's talent. Still, though... after an hour with Speak for Yourself, I'm ready for something else.

Packaging: 0.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Heap may possess more than her fair share of creative gifts, but none of them are based in graphic design. The photos are contrived at best and are utter crap at worst. The text is virtually illegible, thanks to a terrible, faux-handwritten font. Oh, and the idea to put pink text on a red background was brilliant! The lyrics are included, but you're probably better off going on line and fighting your way through the pop-up ads and viruses.

Listen if you like: Dido, Sarah McLachlan, Jem, Beth Orton, etc. Fans of Herbert or Bjork should give it a shot.

If it were food, it'd be: a vegan pumpkin pie that's tasty enough to mask the fact that you're eating something 'weird.'


Bob Marley and the Wailers: Catch A Fire

I'm having a hard time with this CD. Maybe it's because I've known too many annoying college kids who smoke up to Bob Marley. Maybe I've heard too many third-rate reggae bands who steal this sound but fail to capture the magic. Or maybe I'm still bitter about the dude from The Wailers who crashed in my living room for a couple of days many years ago. (He made what might be the best stew I've ever tasted, but I've still got a weird feeling about the guy and I have no idea why.)

Whatever the reason, I'm having a hard time. I know Bob Marley is great, and I know Catch A Fire is considered to be one of the greatest Bob Marley albums. Everyone who knows anything about music is supposed to be completely gaga about this, but to me, it sounds like The Eagles.

I know that's not fair, if for no other reason than this album overflows with honest-to-God heart and soul, while The Eagles never cared about much other than scoring coke and screwing girls. But still, this is as slick and polished as an Eagles album. The backup singers, the instrumentation, the melodies, the chords... everything about it is just so... so... so perfect. And when I think of what Marley was singing about, perfect seems like the completely wrong sound.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm giving the album a five-library-card rating, because regardless of my personal biases, it really is a perfect record. The lyrics possess depth and, unlike the dreck that The Eagles spit out, are a call for positive revolution. The guitar solo in "Concrete Jungle" is gorgeous. The bass is fluid and melodic, yet completely rhythmic. The backup singers in "Stir It Up" are reinventing '50s R&B and doo-wop. Peter Tosh's voice is powerful. And Bob Marley rides on top of it all like a ray of sunlight that warms the entire thing and brings it all together. This is an album that nearly anyone should be able to appreciate, regardless of whether they like Black Flag or Barry Manilow.

(Note: The EPFL's version of Catch A Fire contains two tracks that weren't on the original release. There is also a 2CD set that came out a few years ago that includes a whole bunch of extra songs, but I didn't see that one at Pratt.)

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package is pretty straightforward: photos, lyrics, credits. The thing that makes it stand out is the cover photo of Marley smoking a joint. Whether you're pro- or anti-marijuana, it was a pretty courageous move by Island Records -- especially in 1973. I don't know how much controversy it sparked (bad choice of words... sorry!), but Catch A Fire broke reggae to international audiences, so I have to assume that the cover stirred up some trouble.

Listen if you like: The Eagles. KIDDING! This is one to check out if you like pretty much any music from the past 30 years. You can hear its influence on everything from punk to hip-hop to the '70s breeze-rock schlock that Mr. Henley and Co. were writing.

If it were food, it'd be: beans. It's a healthy foundation for countless meals, regardless of whether you're wealthy or flat broke.


Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror

Rock snobs have always had a soft spot for musicians who bring a multi-cultural influence into rock. From The Beatles' foray into Indian music to the African influences of recent critic-darlings Vampire Weekend, a rock musician simply needs to whisper the name of another country in order to gain instant credibility.

With that in mind, it's no wonder that first-generation Mexican-American Alejandro Escovedo is held in such high esteem by rock snobs of every ilk. Now, I'm not saying Escovedo doesn't deserve a good amount of the recognition that he's received, but he's not really doing anything new or unique. Sure, there's a taste of Tejano music and Mexican culture, but at its core, The Boxing Mirror is a pretty generic imitation of guys like Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The first comparison that came to mind as I listened to album-opener "Arizona" was Lou Reed. I hate Lou Reed. Then I opened the liner notes and saw that John Cale produced the album. I like John Cale. With Cale's production and Reed's influence, the best and worst of the Velvet Underground are represented on The Boxing Mirror. When Cale's warm experimentation is combined with Escovedo's voice and lyrics, the album reaches quiet heights that are almost worth remembering. When Escovedo starts to rock out, the songs pretty much all sound like third rate Lou Reed ripoffs.

Now that I've aired my complaints, though, there are a few musical moments that I will carry with me for a long time. The accordion in the Tejano-flavored "The Ladder" breathes magic into the song, and when Escovedo sings "I'm so lonesome I could cry" in "Sacramento & Polk," it's like I'm hearing those six words for the very first time.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The paintings on the front cover and the tray card are strong images, but they don't translate well to the confines of a CD jacket. The text is easy to read, and the lyrics are included. It's a simple and effective package, but it's ultimately forgettable.

Listen if you like: If you fantasize about Lou Reed fronting Los Lobos, you'll love this.

If it were food, it'd be: Mexican food in Asbury Park, NJ.


Various Artists: Raw Funk

I have never heard of Hotpie & Candy Records. I don't know where they were based, when they were releasing music, or who was in their house band. All I know is that Raw Funk is a collection of some mighty fine funk songs that came from this record label.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is straightforward instrumental funk. It's not fancy or particularly original, but it's solid from start to finish. There's nothing here that a casual funk fan needs to hear, but there's also no reason why someone who is craving some good funk shouldn't check this out.

Packaging: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Disappointing. Somebody knew enough about this record label, the musicians who recorded there, and the songs they recorded to put out a compilation CD. So why not write at least one paragraph that covers the basic who-what-where-etc.? There are blurbs about each song, but the context is lost unless you have some sense of the history behind Hotpie & Candy. This is one of the worst packages I've ever seen, largely because it had so much potential.

Listen if you like: Booker T. and the MGs, Stax, James Brown.

If it were food, it'd be: Forgive me for being obvious, but I think hot pie and candy is a pretty fitting comparison.