Richard Ashcroft: Keys to the World

I tried and tried to like Richard Ashcroft's old band, The Verve, but I never got into them. I don't really recall what they sounded like (other than the song "Bittersweet Symphony"), but if they were anything like Keys to the World, it's easy to understand why I didn't like them.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If I still worked in the music industry and someone sent me this album, it would've lasted about 15 seconds before I took it out of the CD player and threw it in the garbage. The first four songs are the most miserably contrived Rock Songs™ you could ever imagine. This is what happens when mediocre producers hire lame studio musicians to back a generic has-been. Fortunately, the fifth song was almost worth the suffering I endured: "Keys to the World" is a really good song that would've been great if it'd been performed by the Twilight Singers. I'm not sure if the songs on the second half of the album actually got a little better, or if my ears were just so numb that anything would've sounded good.

Packaging: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Look! There's a picture of Richard Ashcroft looking like a cross between Tom Verlaine and Andrew Eldritch! And there's one where he's gazing over the countryside like Nick Drake probably did. And there's one where he's wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket and... wait a second. Is there anything besides generic rock star photos in these liner notes? Oh, look, there on the last page, some tiny text that lists the credits. Brilliant!

Listen if you like: rock music, and you have no ability to tell the good from the lame.

If it were food, it'd be: bland


Jonny Greenwood: There Will Be Blood (Original Soundtrack)

Bob at Rock and Roll Nonsense came up to me after seeing this movie, and he told me the music blew him away. Then he told me it was a classical score composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. I went to the Pratt Library the very next day and checked it out, fully expecting to hear something similar to the 28 Days Later soundtrack. I didn't get what I expected, but what I got was pretty good.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I haven't seen the movie, but the music stands well on its own. At first, I was reminded of Bernard Herrmann's scores for some of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, but the more I listened, the more I thought of the Kronos Quartet. Greenwood's compositions continuously flow between dark romanticism and jarring dissonance, and he demonstrates a surprising ability to write good classical music. Unfortunately, the performances are a bit lackluster. Had this been performed by an ensemble like the Kronos Quartet, the fire in the music would have burned much brighter.

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
The staff at the EPFL was kind enough to include the front cover and the majority of the credits, but if there was anything else in the package, it's been lost. Based on what is here, the liner notes look to be fairly typical for a soundtrack.

Listen if you like: Arvo Pärt, Kronos Quartet, Godspeed You! Black Emperor

If it were food, it'd be: A good Bordeaux that accompanies a delicious meal.


Horace Andy: Dance Hall Style

Like many casual reggae fans who came of age after 1980, I know Horace Andy from his exceptional work with Massive Attack. I picked up a few records over the years in hopes of learning more about him, but his catalog is erratic and I got some real stinkers.

I wish I had picked up Dance Hall Style before I gave up on buying his albums, because this is about as far from being a stinker as a record can get.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Every song is good, and the record is strong enough (and short enough) to be interesting from start to finish. I'm not sure when Dance Hall Style originally came out, but it's much closer to dub than it is to the dancehall sound that is associated with guys like Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks. The drums are rock solid, but the bass drives the entire recording in an unstoppable way. (Seriously, I can't turn a song off in the middle; when I listen to this in my car, I have to sit in a parking lot and wait for the song to end because the bass is mesmerizing.) Andy's voice is the real magic here, though. It is high pitched and urgent and oddly compelling. His voice is kind of tough to get used to at first, but he definitely has one of the most unique and powerful voices in all of reggae.

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
From what I've seen, the packaging on the reissues of the albums from the Wackie's record label are fairly simple and straightforward, but still... all that's left here are the front and back covers. The artwork looks like cheap photocopies, which they probably were, given the time and place of the album's original release.

Listen if you like: Massive Attack, Gregory Isaacs, hypnotic basslines

If it were food, it'd be: Fried plantains. They're unusual at first, but after a few tries, you become addicted to their unique flavor.


Joe Jackson: Rain

Joe Jackson is probably one of the most underrated songwriters out there. Sure, he's got a loyal following and his career is entering its fourth decade, but his name never seems to come up alongside people like Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello.

Okay, so maybe he's not quite on par with those guys. Perhaps it's because his lyrics are often too focused and/or intellectual to make a universal connection with a broad range of listeners, or maybe it's because nearly everything he touches is peppered with darkness and sarcasm. Whatever the reason, though, the songs on Rain -- like most of Jackson's catalog -- are probably some of the greatest, darkest, most thoughtful songs you've never heard.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Jackson is more consistent on Rain than he was on his last release, Volume 4, but he's not as wild and unrestrained. He still relies on bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton, but guitarist Gary Sanford is absent, leaving only Jackson's piano and voice to fill the melodic and harmonic void. And fill it he does, albeit in an often understated way. Lyrically, the melancholy songs are among the darkest and most powerful he's ever written, and his disdain for pop culture is as cutting as ever. As with most of his albums, there are a handful of throwaway tracks, but the strong songs more than compensate.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Once again, the fine folks at the EPFL have mangled the package to make it fit into a jewel box, but at least the jacket survived. Both of the photos in the booklet are strong, but the cover photo -- of Jackson wearing black and smiling beneath an umbrella on a rainy street -- captures the mood of the music perfectly. The lyrics are included, and the design is decent but uninspired. The EPFL's copy of Rain includes a DVD, which I didn't watch because I'm one of about three people left in the world who doesn't want visual accompaniment to their music.

Listen if you like: Elvis Costello is the most obvious comparison, but fans of REM's lyrics, Tom Waits' stories, or Dresden Dolls' drama might like this one.

If it were food, it'd be: A cup of coffee by yourself at a window table in a downtown coffeeshop late on a rainy Sunday afternoon.


PJ Harvey: Uh Huh Her

Unlike the other PJ Harvey albums from the EPFL that I've reviewed here, I'd never heard Uh Huh Her until I checked it out with my handy-dandy library card. Just like the other PJ Harvey albums from the EPFL, Uh Huh Her is pretty awesome.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Apparently, this is Harvey's attempt to do everything on her own. The credits say she wrote, performed, and produced everything on the album (except for the drums and some backup vocals). For the most part, she did a really good job. The music is aggressive, energetic, and raw, yet it still maintains the nuanced layers of sound that Harvey creates so well. There's really only one stinker: "Who the Fuck?" is a musical throwback to PJ Harvey's debut, which would be fine if the lyrics didn't sound as if they were written by a 13-year-old boy with raging hormones and a limited vocabulary. Otherwise, the songs fit together in a cohesive way that makes this an album rather than merely a collection of songs.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Normally I don't like packages that are centered around photos, but Harvey pulled it off. The liner notes contain a bunch of snapshots that seem to mirror her life as both an artist and a person. There are little notes about the recordings taped over the pictures, and though they're not easy to read, they give insight into her mindset as she made this record. I wish there were lyrics, but looking at the liner notes, I completely understand why they weren't included.

Listen if you like: Cat Power, Patti Smith, Nick Cave. Really, though, listen if you like the darkest and rawest moments of PJ Harvey's catalog.

If it were food, it'd be: Alcohol. You know it'll make you feel like crap, but you just can't resist... especially when you're already feeling a little down.

(Note: When I checked this out, someone who checked the disc out before me left a copy of Steely Dan Aja in the case beneath Uh Huh Her. I think Steely Dan is one of the very worst bands in the history of rock, right up there with New Edition and Sheryl Crow. I left the CD in the case, so whoever checks this one out next gets a free Steely Dan CD. Lucky you.)