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