Mclusky: The Difference Between You and Me Is that I'm Not on Fire

Based on the album title and the song title and the photos, I was expecting to be greeted by distorto guitars layered beneath some screaming emo singer who was distraught because his life in suburbia is, like, totally meaningless. What I got was something that sounds like the bastard child of John Lydon and Tom Morello.

And I love it.

Nothing here is amazing, but it all comes together to create something greater than its parts. The production is thin and spacious; there's no "wall of sound," but there is definitely a wall of energy. What the band lacks in chops and skill, they more than make up for with creativity and heart. (Don't get me wrong; they have chops, just not the kind they can show off by playing "Stairway to Heaven" in the local guitar shop.) There's something very dark happening in the music, but there's also an undeniable sense of fun. These guys sound as if they want, need, and love to make music together.

Wow. I just re-read that paragraph, and I realized that I wrote the recipe for a great rock album. The Difference Between You and Me Is that I'm Not on Fire may not be great, but it's certainly knocking at the door.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I don't know if it's the production, the performances, or the songwriting, but The Difference reminds me a bit of early P.J. Harvey. (Like Mclusky, P.J. Harvey has been produced by Steve Albini.) The music is sloppy and chaotic, but it moves like a freight train. On the first listen, I got a bit bored by the second half of the album, but it got better and better each time I played it. The weakest part of the album is probably the lyrics; they're either gibberish or genius, and they have the same kind of curious appeal as Soul Coughing's words.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover photo is striking, but other than establishing a black & white color scheme, I'm not certain how it relates to the album. Every photo in the booklet is strong in its own way, and they all fit the music well. The live photos of the group reflect performers who seem totally engaged with their music, and the silly photos manage to inject some lightness without making the band look like a bunch of clowns. The lyrics are fairly easy to read, although artist Victoria Collier could have bumped up the font-size without compromising the design.

Listen if you like: Public Image Ltd., P.J. Harvey, Flipper, Deftones, Rage Against the Machine

If it were food, it'd be: Wasabi. It surprises and hurts at first, but you're excited to get some more as soon as it fades away.


The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema

Twin Cinema confuses me. The performances are energetic, the music is interesting, the lyrics are decent, and I find the album utterly boring.

Maybe it's the whole power-pop/indie-rock thing. I don't much care for Beatles and/or Kinks fans who wear their literary intellects and their love for smarmy '70s pop on their ironic sleeves.

Or maybe it's the fact that I've never liked a band on Matador Records. Not that I've heard their whole catalog or anything, but very few Matador bands do more than bore me. Yo La Tengo? More like No La Tengo. Cat Power? Sounds like Cat Pooper. Neko Case?

Well, now I'm confused again. Neko Case is one of the strongest singers I've heard in the past decade. It's as if her voice is in harmony with my very soul, and when she sings, my spirit vibrates. But not here. It doesn't matter whether she or A.C. Newman is singing; it leaves me completely cold.

I've listened and listened and listened to Twin Cinema. I actually started listening when it came out in 2005, but then I got bored and gave away my copy of the CD. So I tried listening again when I saw Twin Cinema at the EPFL, and I'm still bored. Maybe their name should be The New Borenographers.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Twin Cinema is filled with well-constructed songs that are played by reasonably talented musicians who work together to create some decent energy, but the music is about as exciting as a third-rate '80s arena rock band like 38 Special. It's missing that certain je ne sais qua that the greatest rock albums possess. The brightest point on the album is the refrain on "The Bleeding Heart Show," which sounds like a reworked version of "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy. I can't really fault Twin Cinema, but I would be lying if I called it anything more than mildly interesting.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover suffers from the same shortcomings as the music. It's good and it conveys a mood, but it doesn't matter. Pictures of vintage gear in run down rehearsal spaces are almost as clichéd as skull tattoos. The idea of using a portable screen for the album's credits was brilliant, but the execution is as uninspired as the rest of the package. The words should have been projected on the screen in each photo, not pasted on top by some hack who knows nothing about Photoshop except for how to center text. Sure, it would have been more difficult; it also would have been good.

Listen if you like: Indie rock/pop like Yo La Tengo or Pavement. I wouldn't even consider recommending this to Neko Case fans, as I think her performances here are a disservice to her talent.

If it were food, it'd be: The last few years I lived in New York, Belgian fries became popular with the cool kids. Twin Cinema reminds me of Belgian fries: no matter how fabulous the indie rock hipsters say they are, they make for a boring and unhealthy meal.


Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: Facing Future

It's not often that I feel completely unqualified to review an album. My knowledge of Hawaiian music begins and ends with Don Ho, and to me, Facing Future mostly sounds like the kind of schmaltzy crap that you'd hear while buying low-fat piña colada yogurt at Santoni's. But I can hear something distinctly foreign in the music, something that doesn't meld with the dirty streets and cold, winter air of Baltimore. I can hear warmth, and sunlight, and calmness, and friendly people, and water. I can hear the smile of someone who makes peaceful music because he is peaceful, not because he is selling the commodity of Inner Peace™. I can hear joy.

But what do I know? I'm a guy who lives in a place where we kill each other over orange peels on the sidewalk. I'm a guy who lives in a place where the mayor rides around on a garbage truck but doesn't show up to rallies protesting the murder rate. I'm a guy who lives in a place where, when the snow melts, the alleys are filled with thawing rat corpses.

Guys like me, we're cynical about joyous music. If anybody wants to fly me and the EPFL's copy of Facing Future out to Hawaii for a few weeks, I'll give it a fresh listen, and I'll tell you how it sounds from Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's old stomping grounds. Until then, I think I'm going to put on something that sounds better against the police sirens and junkies who harmonize outside my bedroom window.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Unless you haven't seen any movies or been to any weddings in the past 10 years, you've probably heard Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World." And that's good, because his take on those two songs is absolutely wonderful. Really, it's worth checking this out just for that track, and that track is the only reason this CD scores as high as it does. His version of "Take Me Home Country Road" is kind of fun, because he turns the song into an ode to Hawaii. "Hawaii '78" captures the thing I like best about Facing Future, though, which is that Kamakawiwo'ole sounds like a man who was delighted to be alive, despite the fact that life is far from perfect. That's a sentiment that us Baltimoreans could use a lot more of.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was a big man. I don't know if he was proud of it or just at peace with it, but he certainly didn't try to disguise it. The cover is refreshing in a world where entertainers are judged as much on how good they look in a bathing suit as they are on their talent. Other than that, there's nothing particularly special about the graphic design. Lyrics might've been nice, but if he was only going to include words to one song, his choice to include "Hawaii '78" was the right choice.

Listen if you like: World music, Hawaiian music, joyous music

If it were food, it'd be: something I don't think we get much of in Baltimore, like eating a fresh papaya as the sounds of a ukulele struggle against the roar of the ocean.


Cincinnati's University Singers: The Hand That Holds the Bread: Songs of Progress and Protest in the Gilded Age 1865-1893

The title is so promising. American protest songs from the 19th century. This is the era of railroads and steel, the beginnings of the enormous migration that brought former slaves to the mid-Atlantic region so they could participate in the burgeoning industry of the Chesapeake. These are the seeds of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and unionization and all the wonderful fights against the Corporate America that was joyously sucking our ancestors' lives dry in the name of making a few more bucks. This is the music that the workers sang while they were slowly dying in the hot sun, while they were struggling to feed their kids on a disgustingly low salary, while they were sitting around at night trying to figure out how to make their lives suck just a little bit less.

And this recording captures absolutely none of that.

These singers wouldn't know "folk" if it came up and broke their kneecaps. This is an insult to the music and to the people who sang it. This is everything that is wrong with high culture and academia. People get so isolated in their ivory towers that they forget what's really going on outside those sacred walls. Except for the liner notes, this is absolutely worthless.

This could have been an amazing recording. As it stands, it should be an embarrassment to every single person who was involved in making this album. Shame on you.

Music: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It pains me to give this a 1, but everyone can sing. A couple of voices even stand out as being strong. The problem is, they don't understand what they're singing, and no competent musician would let that happen. If they were trying to recreate the singing parties that happened in the parlors of people like JP Morgan and Johns Hopkins, they'd get a 5 out of 5. But they're trying to celebrate music of the working class, and they fail as badly as they possibly could.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover and design aren't special, but the liner notes are exceptional. It's worth checking out the CD just for the liner notes. Seriously. The information contained here is really interesting (albeit a bit dry). Just don't listen to the music.

Listen if you like: Choral interpretations of revisionist history.

If it were food, it'd be: Sent back to the kitchen with a nasty letter to the chef.


The Dresden Dolls: Yes, Virginia...

I've heard great things about The Dresden Dolls. They're like a rock version of Kurt Weill. They're crazier than Tom Waits. They're better than sliced bread.

My expectations were high, and Yes, Virginia... almost lives up to them.

The Dresden Dolls is the duo of Amanda Palmer (piano/vocals) and Brian Viglione (drums). They make an incredible amount of noise for a two-piece, and their songwriting is edgy but sophisticated.

My biggest problem with Yes, Virginia... is the lyrics. Lines like "there are some school kids / yelling and running / I barely notice / that I am cumming," aren't good enough for either Penthouse Forum or a second-rate poetry magazine, but somehow they made it onto the album. It's a shame, because the loneliness and isolation of "First Orgasm" could've been incredibly moving with the right words.

At times, however, the lyrics shine. The suffering and denial in "Mrs. O" is captivating, and "Delilah" offers a sad picture of a girl who screws her way to the bottom. But the album's star is "Sing," a bright song that brought up an interesting dilemma for me.

I love swearing, but in lyrics, I believe it's most effective when no other words will suffice. When I first heard the closing refrain of "Sing" ("You motherfuckers, you'll sing someday"), I thought Palmer sounded like a 14-year-old who was trying to shock people. But after a few listens, I realized she was correct in her choice of words. She's angry because she loves the world and all the motherfuckers in it, and she wants us to sing -- for ourselves, for each other, for the good and the bad and the ugly and the stupid. And those of us who won't sing... well, she still wants us to sing, because we're the motherfuckers who need it most of all.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The Dresden Dolls have their own style. They don't always succeed, but they try something adventurous and, for the most part, they pull it off. At times, I do wish the songs were bigger. Palmer is a talented pianist, but her loud parts often sound as if she's simply banging on the keys instead of reaching into her piano and ripping out its innards. Fortunately, Viglione's drumming is strong and dynamic, and he adds power to the music without overshadowing its soul.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The Dresden Dolls got a bunch of different artists to create pieces that were displayed in a destroyed theatre. I don't have a good enough eye to know what (if anything) was Photoshopped and what was set up in the old building, but it's all incredibly striking. The images remind me of a bizarre mix of Hiroshi Sugimoto's theatre photos and Urban Atrophy.

Listen if you like: Rock music that forces you to pay attention. To me, The Dresden Dolls sound like a mix of Rasputina's quirky chamber goth, Joe Jackson's Broadway-tinged new wave, and Sinead O'Connor's The Lion and the Cobra. Fans of Kurt Weill, Marlene Dietrich, and other German cabaret artists should give this a shot.

If it were food, it'd be: Soup. It's a weird soup, because it's got New England clam chowder and sauerkraut and even a bit of ratatouille in it, but it tastes pretty good. Yeah, sometimes you get a mouthful that's nasty, but don't be too quick to spit it out: if you roll it around on your tongue a bit, you might find that it's the best spoonful from the entire bowl.


The Sleepy Jackson: Lovers

Some artists are all over the musical map. They take a bit from The Beatles and the Stones and Bowie and Prince and Robyn Hitchcock and the Flaming Lips and Uncle Tupelo, and they mix it all together with something special and unique that could only come from them.

The Sleepy Jackson is like that, but without the special and unique part.

The songs on Lovers are all over the place. Normally, diversity is an exciting thing, but this sounds as if the band decided to make one song that sounds like the Stones, and one song that sounds like old Bowie, and a couple of alt-country songs. This is kind of like musical name-dropping. The Sleepy Jackson makes up for its own lack of personality by telling you how many cool bands they know.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The sad and charming "Morning Bird" is the highlight of Lovers, even if it is a bit sappy. Otherwise, the production is thin, the performances are dull, and the writing is largely devoid of personality. "Come to This" is like a bad Dylan impersonation, "Miniskirt" is like a bad Uncle Tupelo impersonation, and "Fill Me with Apples" is like Bender from Futurama doing a bad Leonard Cohen impersonation. What's weird is the songs are all decent. It's like a musical cubic zirconia.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is intriguing. There is a man holding some sort of fuzzy animal that desperately needs to be groomed, while a couple of sexy women hang on to him as they fade into a line drawing. The liner notes are nearly impossible to read; prioritizing form over function is fine if there's a visually compelling reason, but this has "mediocre graphic designer" written all over it. A guilt-ridden dedication to Michael takes a quarter of the space, and is heartfelt but ultimately pointless.

The worst thing, though, is the blurb on the tray card. Please remember that this recording and artwork are protected by copyright law. Since you don't own the copyright, it's not yours to distribute. Please don't use Internet services that yada yada yada, applicable laws provide blah blah blah, to find legal downloads visit the web site of a record company that is panicking in the face of change. Or something like that. Yes, stealing music is wrong, and if I believed for a moment that buying this CD directly supported The Sleepy Jackson rather than the expense account of some coke-sniffing A&R guy, I would fully endorse this statement. As it is, it's as derivative as everything else on the album.

Listen if you like: The Sleepy Jackson were 'inspired' by so many people, there's something here for everyone.

If it were food, it'd be: an ice cooler filled with generic soda, like "Mr. Peppy" and "Barker's Root Beer" and "Cola."


Moby: Play

When Play came out in 1999, I gained a lot of respect for the way Moby dug into traditional American music and connected it to modern electronica. Of course, I didn't much care for traditional American music at the time, so I was bored silly by the actual album.

Boy, was I wrong.

Listening to it nine years later, with the sounds of Alan Lomax's Popular Songbook still ringing in my ears, I realize that Play is superb. (Several songs that Moby sampled for Play are included on Popular Songbook.) Moby reached back to a vital part of American history, and he brought forgotten songs to a modern audience. He made the music his own, while nourishing the roots from which it grew. And, best of all, he filled his album with heart, emotion, and passion.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Moby adds unique dancefloor production to the songs on Play without losing the essence of the original music. I never realized how stunning "Honey" was until I heard Bessie Jones' original a capella track, "Sometimes". On that song, as with most on the album, Moby took a great foundation and built something completely new. Not everything is about the past, though. "South Side" is unmistakably a late-'90s dance track, while the ambient/trip-hop leanings of the last seven songs are perfect for a car ride home late at night. If there's any flaw, it's that the last third of the CD doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the music.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm not sure if Moby did a good or bad thing by not writing about the songs he sampled for Play; he trusted us to hear the music and dig deeper, but he could have at least given us a starting point. Otherwise, the liner notes are unique and interesting. The booklet is filled with essays by and photos of Moby. I particularly like his closing comment that the essays and music aren't really related, and a person might like one while despising the other. It's a simple message that speaks of tolerance, and reminds us that the world is not polarized between "us" and "them."

Listen if you like: Fans of blues, folk, and/or gospel should absolutely give this a listen, if only to hear one interpretation of how old and new can be successfully married. The end of the album should appeal to fans of Massive Attack, Craig Armstrong, or Alpha, while the rest of the music is along the lines of Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers.

If it were food, it'd be: Vegetarian chicken soup; a new take on a traditional recipe.


Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook

Sometimes, an album is too good. We listen to what's there, because it is deep and it is vast and it teaches us things we want to learn. But after a while, we start thinking about all the stuff that isn't there. We begin looking at other albums with envy, and before long, we are shamelessly partaking in their delights. It's just a matter of time until we leave that first album behind with a sad smile and a sincere "thank you."

Popular Songbook is the kind of album we eventually leave behind. It is an exploration of 22 popular songs from the past few decades, and the traditional folk and blues songs from which they were born. It covers a variety of artists, from the Grateful Dead to Moby. Some of the songs here are obscure, while others have been recorded hundreds of times before.

After a month of digging into this record, though, my attention is wandering. Popular Songbook rarely gets to snuggle up in my warm CD player anymore. Now, I find myself digging up old Son House and Blind Willie Johnson recordings of "John the Revelator" and comparing them to the versions by Depeche Mode and Nick Cave.

Which, unfortunately, means I'm not listening to Popular Songbook. Even though it is wonderful, I want more than what it can offer.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a shame that Rounder Records couldn't include a second CD with the modern interpretations of these songs. Regardless, for people like me -- rock fans with an interest in other genres -- this album is brilliant. It was released in 2003, and it is influenced by the success of Moby's Play and the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?. Its scope is far greater than those two albums, though, and it presents early versions of songs like Eric Clapton's "Motherless Child" and The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." Alas, for people who are already well-versed in traditional American music, this CD has little to offer.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Alan Lomax was a musicologist and an anthropologist who recorded thousands of songs by thousands of people. If the booklet contained only the introduction and the song notes, it would probably still deserve a 5. Lomax's introductory quote ("I'm sticking up for rock and roll because even though some of it is destructive and crude, it is essentially a creative American impulse. It's made by young people for young people. It's a rebellion against the Puritan ethic which has decreed from the beginning of our society that Americans are not allowed to have pleasure.") is wonderful, and the song notes are informative. But the meat of this package comes in Gideon D'Arcangelo's essay, "Alan Lomax and the Big Story of Song." After reading it, I understand that everyone who has loved a song in the past 75 years owes a little bit of thanks to Alan Lomax.

Listen if you like: Rock music (and I use the term to include virtually all styles of pop music of the past 50 years), and you want to learn more about its roots; folk and blues music, and you want to learn more about where it led.

If it were food, it'd be: baby food. It's the beginning of a wondrous journey.


Led Zeppelin: How the West Was Won

Finally, Zeppelin fans don't have to rely on crappy bootleg recordings or the underwhelming The Song Remains the Same to get a sense of what it was like to see the band in concert. This is a stellar document of two 1972 concerts by one of the most amazing bands in the history of rock music. The recording quality is crystal clear, the performances are inspired, and the energy leaps out of the speakers. This is everything a live album should be.

Unfortunately, it is also -- at times -- self-indulgent, overblown, and downright dull.

The first disc is incredible. The band stretches out and rocks in a way that they never could on a studio album. They don't worry about playing note-for-note renditions of their songs; instead, they fill nearly every song with unexpected twists and turns that breathe new life into the music. Every track on disc one is a gem.

The second disc is where it starts to fall apart. Jimmy Page's interminable guitar wankery on "Dazed and Confused" goes on and on and on, which would be fine if he actually played something worth hearing. But he doesn't. He just noodles. And noodles some more. And then noodles some more. At least John Bonham's never-ending solo on "Moby Dick" is musical, even to those of us who don't play drums. Things get back on track with the third disc, but it never regains the full excitement of disc one.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There are moments on How the West Was Won where the band's ego overshadowed their immense talent, but the majority of the music here has an incredible amount of spirit, sex, and soul. It could've been cut down to two discs without alienating anybody but the most devoted fans, but at least there is finally a live album that is worthy of the Led Zeppelin name.

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
All that's included on the EPFL's version is the front and back cover. Frankly, the front cover is a perfect example of why people should be required to get an operator's license prior to buying Photoshop.

Listen if you like: rock music.

If it were food, it'd be: salt. You won't die if you don't have it, but no kitchen should be without it.