Various Artists: Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures (Taken from the Vaults) Vol. 3

I recently had to take a day-long road trip. I was certain that Dave Godin's collection of deep soul would be a musical highlight of the drive, so I saved it for last. My plan would've worked perfectly if I hadn't listened to the new Eli "Paperboy" Reed CD first.

Paperboy Reed isn't doing anything amazing. He cherry picked the finest elements of classic soul and recreated them for a modern audience. His album Roll With You is kind of like hearing The Supremes and The Miracles and The Temptations and Wilson Pickett all rolled into one band that is fantastic but ultimately unoriginal.

Deep Soul Treasures is also unoriginal. Unfortunately, there's very little fantastic to balance it out.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The problem with the music on Deep Soul Treasures is that, in most cases, it's obvious why these songs were left in the vault. The majority of the songs possess one or two fantastic elements but are mired in mediocrity. The James Brown track from 1961, "Lost Someone," has an incredible vocal track, but the band is as flaccid as a gay man at the Hustler Club. Bessie Banks' "It Sounds Like My Baby" is slow and sexy, but the background singers sound like the Mumblin' Motown Rejects.

There are a few shining stars, though. Bobby Womack's voice on "Baby I Can't Stand It" is stellar, and Betty Lavette's "Let Me Down Easy" is a dark soul gem with a vocal performance that is as inspired as the arrangement and the production.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The liner notes have the biased enthusiasm of a fan rather than the objectivity of an historian, but otherwise they're awesome. There are historical tidbits about every artist and song, and the photos are a mixture of headshots and images of the actual labels on records. It's the kind of booklet that's worth reading from front to back, even if you only have a passing interest in obscure soul relics.

Listen if you like: obscure soul from the '60s and '70s; filing away trivia so you can make music snobs feel inferior.

If it were food, it'd be: a bland dish that your grandmother made when you were growing up: it's not all that special unless you were there to enjoy it the first time around and/or you really love grandma.


The Church: Starfish

I missed The Church the first time around. They hit their peak as I was putting down my pointy bass and taking off my spandex pants for the last time. By the time I discovered the groups who got played on LA's KROQ, Starfish had been out of regular rotation for a year or two.

I can't say I missed a lot, though. Starfish is a good album, but I don't think The Church was doing anything particularly unique. Having heard U2 and The Cure and Peter Murphy and The Mission UK and New Model Army and Midnight Oil and The Waterboys, I pretty much heard everything The Church did. Sure, they had a link to jangly bands like The Byrds, but so did The La's... and The Church certainly never wrote "There She Goes." (Although I have to admit, the guitar intro on "Reptile" is pretty awesome!)

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The Church falls somewhere between Joshua Tree-era U2 and Peter Murphy on the continuum of post-new-wave alternative. The guitar playing is like a less innovative version of The Edge, and the brooding vocals are fairly typical for the not-quite goth bands of the late '80s. The production is dated, but it's not mired in cheap effects and tacky keyboard swells. The lyrics aren't as smart or poetic as they try to be, but that's a forgivable sin in context of some very good songs. The melodies are strong and the performances are solid, albeit a bit dull. "Spark" doesn't fit with the rest of the music, but it's the only major failure on the album. All in all, Starfish is a good but unessential record that holds up remarkably well 20 years after its release.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Eh. The (presumably) handwritten text on the cover is charismatic, but otherwise the package is pretty typical for its era. Grainy black & white photos, lame liner notes, missing lyrics, moody halftone images in the background... been there, done that.

Listen if you like: Any of the bands I mentioned up in the second paragraph. If you love any or all of those bands and you don't know The Church, you really should check this out.

If it were food, it'd be: A seafood dish at a place like Applebee's or TGIFriday's: it's a satisfying but ultimately unoriginal meal.


Various Artists: Mountain Music of Kentucky

(Note: This is a 1996 Smithsonian Folkways CD re-issue of a 1959 album that documented John Cohen's travels through eastern Kentucky. John Cohen, a musicologist and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, rewrote the liner notes and added more than an hour of music that was not included on the original Folkways release.)

There's a Buddhist concept called the beginner's mind. It basically suggests we approach every moment of our lives as if that moment has never happened before. Which, of course, it hasn't, but we carry our experiences, opinions, and preconceptions with us into each new moment. After we've seen 10,000 sparrows, we tend to miss the wonder, awe, and beauty of sparrow #10,001.

A beginner's mind is incredibly helpful when listening to Mountain Music of Kentucky. If you read a couple of quotes from the liner notes, you might understand why.

"These 1959 recordings present the vigorous music of Kentucky mountain people. They sang and played banjos with a terrific energy that is almost unheard of now. They learned their music in a setting totally different from our contemporary life, in an era before people got their experiences from TV or their music from Nashville, when people plowed with mules, canned beans and tomatoes from their gardens, and reclined on front porches with slatted wooden swings attached to rafters by metal chains. Their musical memories provide us with a glimpse of a pattern which had endured for centuries."

"Back then the musicians were less concerned with audience reception, recording criteria, or stylistic finesse. They sang with an energy that came directly from them. Their voices didn't have to be measured against the standards of the entertainment industry..."

I've listened to a few dozen Smithsonian Folkways releases in the past year, and I've even fallen in love with a few of them. This one was more difficult to get through than any of the others. But the rewards it holds are incredible!

If you're brave enough to find your beginner's mind and forget everything you know about music, you just might find a humanity within this CD that is as deep and beautiful as anything you've ever heard.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
These are field recordings that were made with primitive recording equipment in living rooms and front porches. For lack of a better comparison, listening to Mountain Music of Kentucky is like reading a novel written on tattered scraps of paper that were found in the closet of an old house. This is music created by real people in the places where they lived their lives. Subtle nuances like the bird chirping in the background of "Fair Miss in the Garden" are just one of the countless things that help make this music so special. Yes, this is a difficult album, but its difficulties are a vital part of its perfection.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The booklet deserves a five library card rating for the photos alone. Every one of Cohen's pictures tells a story, and every story is fascinating. But while a picture may be worth a thousand words, a picture cannot substitute for a thousand words. So Cohen's words are here to flesh out the story. When you put the pictures and words together, you end up with a wonderful story. The historical aspect of the notes is great, but my favorite part is Cohen's recollections of the brief time he spent with each of the performers. His words bring even more life to a very lively set of recordings.

An interesting element of Cohen's notes is that, by revisiting these recordings 35 years after they were made, he acknowledges some of the ways he's grown and changed. He writes about why he chose certain songs for the original release, and why he feels he was wrong to overlook other recordings that only saw the light of day on the '96 reissue. It's interesting to see growth and humility in a man who is obviously extremely intelligent and passionate about music.

Listen if you like: Merle Travis, Jean Ritchie, Alan Lomax, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Pete Seeger. Listen if you like outsider art. Especially listen if you like the idea of normal people sitting around and playing music together.

If it were food, it'd be: home made from scratch


Christopher O'Riley: Home to Oblivion - An Elliott Smith Tribute

Yikes. It's a solo piano interpretation of Elliott Smith's music by the same guy who did two albums worth of piano versions of Radiohead songs. Unlike Radiohead, though, whose strength comes as much from their instruments as Thom Yorke's voice, Elliott Smith's greatness is defined almost entirely by his lyrics and singing. It's a tough job to capture, on a piano, the things that make Smith special.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I made a playlist where I listened to O'Riley's version of a song first, then listened to Smith's version immediately afterward. Without fail, I zoned out during the O'Riley tracks, then my attention would snap back as soon as Smith started singing. It's never good when an album does little more than fade into the background.

The arrangements and performances lie somewhere between a piano bar and a concert hall; fortunately, they lean towards the latter. It's obvious that O'Riley cares about Smith's music, because his performances are filled with layered richness and subtle nuances, but there's not a single moment that makes me say, "Wow, I understand Smith's music on a new level." Sadly, there's not even anything here that makes me say, "Wow, I sure am glad I listened to this album."

(As an aside for you Baltimore folks, this is currently classified in the EPFL's catalog under "Smith," not "O'Riley.")

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I don't understand the significance of the cover art, but it's a nice design. The gem here is O'Riley's liner notes. If I hadn't read his story behind the album, I would've dismissed this album much more completely than I did. It's a shame, though, that words had to speak where the music didn't.

Listen if you like: Solo piano music. There's enough substance to O'Riley's performances that the album could appeal to fans of guys like Daniel Barenboim, but the music is accessible enough for folks who love players like Richard Clayderman. Unfortunately, I don't think there's much here for the typical Elliott Smith fan.

If it were food, it'd be: Sometimes when you make a gourmet version of something simple and common (like beer), it's delicious. But sometimes, like with mac & cheese, refinement and sophistication strip away the food's most special characteristics. Home to Oblivion is gourmet mac & cheese, and there's not a beer in sight with which to wash it down.


Joe Jackson: Joe Jackson Band Vol. 4

I hated Joe Jackson until I was dragged to a concert during his Night Music tour. Everything about the show was amazing, and he converted me into a fan that night. I don't love everything he's done, but there are few musicians who possess a more perfect mixture of musical talent, literary wit, sarcastic bite, urbane charm, and artistic integrity. He is one of only a few trained musicians who seems -- even 30 years into his career -- to genuinely understand the subversive and revolutionary mindset of punk. At his worst, he is mediocre; at his best, he is a perfect example of rock music's limitless possibilities.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Volume 4 contains both great and mediocre moments. The album opens with a punch, but the energy gradually dissipates into an album whose upbeat songs tend to be much more pedestrian than it's quieter moments. "Little Bit Stupid" and "Dirty Martini" could be throwaway tracks from an early Foreigner album, but the lyrics and music of songs like "Love at First Light" demonstrate every bit of Jackson's versatility and talent. Overall, the lyrics aren't amazing, but Jackson's bitter sarcasm is as sharp as ever.

The EPFL's version of Vol. 4 comes with a six-song live EP. From the opening of "One More Time," the EP shows that Jackson is still a formidable live performer who hasn't lost any of the energy, excitement, or creativity that defines his stellar live album, Live 1980/86

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover image is clever: it shows the volume knob of an old amplifier, with the knob turned to "4." (Get it? The volume is on 4? Volume 4!) Otherwise, the jacket is pretty basic. It contains lyrics, credits, and a decent photo of Jackson and his bandmates, the same group of guys who played with him on his first few albums. Art director Frank Olinsky should've had the sense not to break the lyrics of "Blue Flame" so half of the words are printed before the band photo and half are printed after.

Listen if you like: Anyone who likes the early Joe Jackson records should give this a listen, and there's a lot here for fans of Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. People who like Madness or the English Beat should enjoy tracks like "Thugz 'R' Us," as should any Baltimore citizens who are annoyed by the stupid white kids from Howard County who emulate the dealers and bangers who drag this city down into an abyss of violence and poverty. I'd also suggest that anyone who loves Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" might like the piano in "Take It Like a Man."

If it were food, it'd be: Dark chocolate. Its complex richness depends entirely upon the bitterness and beauty of its core ingredient.


Air: Pocket Symphony

The scenester pretentiousness of Air's early albums has been replaced with something a bit quieter and a bit warmer, and that's a huge step in a very good direction. The problem is, there's still no depth to either the music or the words. While their older albums, like Moon Safari, always reminded me of the self-important jackasses who frequent trendy parties, Pocket Symphony reminds me of being stuck listening to the shallow confessions of the same jackasses after the parties had faded into the light of day.

Music: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
At its best, the music is reminiscent of cheesy synthpop ballads by mopey guys with silly hair; at its worst, it's like melodramatic new age compositions by overwrought men with silly moustaches. The lyrics possess the depth and wisdom of a hungover hipster who is filled with half-formed regrets. When Air actually tackles a pop song, it's like hearing a dumber version of James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg. Even guest spots by Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy), and Tony Allen (Fela Kuti, The Good The Bad The Queen) can't breathe life into this dud.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The idea of having translucent action figures created of JB Dunckel and Nicolas Godin was pretty cool, and it's worth reading the write-up on the cover art at Sleevage. With that said, the fact that the band is represented as a couple of clear plastic toys is remarkably appropriate.

Listen if you like: Soft rock of the '70s mixed with soft new age of the '80s.

If it were food, it'd be: white bread with margarine.


Kings of Leon: Aha Shake Heartbreak

As I started listening to Aha Shake Heartbreak, I was fairly certain it was going to be little more than another post-Built To Spill indie rock album. Sure, there were some interesting influences here and there, but there wasn't enough happening in those first few tracks to get me excited.

But the farther I got into the CD, the more excited I got. It wasn't just that the music was subtly painted with a palette of eclectic influences. That was cool, but what really hooked me was the way the band sounds as if they decided to ignore the rules and celebrate everything they love about rock music.

Musically, I don't know what these guys are into, but any album that can make me think of The Who, Joe Cocker and The Police over the course of a single song is doing something pretty good.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Aha Shake Heartbreak feels completely coherent, yet it sounds like it's constantly on the verge of falling apart. The performances are energetic and exciting, yet they sound exhausted. It's a good kind of exhaustion, though, as if the band had been awake for days on end but just had to pull one more song out of themselves before they collapsed. The songs aren't memorable in the traditional pop-song kind of way, but I was singing along with a few of them (especially "Day Old Blues") the first time I played the CD. Aha Shake Heartbreak puts a big smile on my face that keeps coming back every time I play the album.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Normally, I'd make fun of a band for putting such a blatantly obvious sexual metaphor on the cover, but this is a mighty fine bit of cover art. Yeah, Georgia O'Keefe pretty much killed the whole "flower-as-vagina" symbolism decades before these guys were born, but the cover photo is interesting and beautiful and... well, it's sexy. The liner notes are clean and open, the lyrics are easy to read, and the use of color ties the whole package together. Hiding the photo of the band as children (Kings of Leon are three brothers and a cousin) beneath the CD tray was a nice touch.

Listen if you like: any straightforward yet completely unique rock band from the past 40 years, be it The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Modest Mouse.

If it were food, it'd be: A simple burger, grilled outdoors, with a secret spice that makes it wonderful.