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.