Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime

As a rule, I don't like singers who only perform other people's songs. We don't celebrate authors who simply re-tell other writer's stories, and we don't go to galleries to see paintings by artists who blatantly copy other artists, so why should we praise singers who only sing other people's songs?

Bettye LaVette has made me reconsider the value of my rule. LaVette does magical things to other people's songs. She finds things in the originals that none of us knew were there, and she reinvents the songs based on her discoveries.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On the surface, this album is similar to LaVette's first release on Anti Records. On closer listen, though, it feels totally different. This album seems darker and more painful than I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Almost as if LaVette raised her hell, and is now sitting in the aftermath, looking around at how different things have become.

The Scene of the Crime is unquestionably a soul record, but hints of rock and country flow through it. It might be because producer Patterson Hood and most of LaVette's session band are all members of alt-country heavyweights Drive-By Truckers, or it might be because LaVette understands all great music shares a common spirit that transcends categorization. Take a listen to Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" and you'll hear how LaVette found the soul inside a great a country song.

And don't even get me started on her rendition of Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers". This one gives me chills.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The liner notes follow the same basic theme as LaVette's last album: simple design, minimal use of color, a few stark photos, detailed credits, and an essay. The essay is well-written, and it gives me an appreciation for pretty much every person and place that was involved in the making of this record. On the downside, the photos -- mostly of the vintage studio gear from Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios -- are generic, and the striped back cover doesn't make any sense. I guess it's supposed to represent the stripes on a prison uniform, but it just looks like some kind of random, seizure-inducing optical illusion.

Listen if you like: Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Drive-By Truckers

If it were food, it'd be: a late-night shot of whiskey in a lonely Alabama dive bar


Celebration: The Modern Tribe

Three things about Celebration piqued my interest when I first heard of them: they're tight with TV On The Radio, they're on 4AD records, and they're local.

I was excited to hear TV On The Radio's David Sitek work as a producer instead of a band member; 4AD has one of the best track records of any independent label out there; and even though I'm sadly ignorant about the local Baltimore scene, I know we've got more than our fair share of really good bands.

Needless to say, I was very happy when I spotted The Modern Tribe on the shelf at the EPFL.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Celebration sits at a point midway between TV On The Radio and The Creatures. It has the relentless creativity and energy that both bands possess, and it combines the unusual-yet-catchy songwriting of the former with the driving percussion and horns of the latter.

The Modern Tribe gets better with each listen. My initial reactions were lukewarm, but I've been listening to the CD for a few weeks now. I put it in my stereo this morning, and I caught myself singing along with every song and getting more and more excited as the disc progressed. It's the same reaction I had to TV On The Radio's Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, which eventually became one of my very favorite albums of the past decade. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if The Modern Tribe ends up having the same kind of hold on me.

As soon as I'm done writing this, I'm heading over to Sound Garden to pick up a copy of The Modern Tribe. I guess that probably speaks louder than any of the words I've written here, doesn't it?

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is bizarre. It looks like some kind of stage set from an awards show or a bad '70s TV variety program. It's got the dancing girls and everything. The text is printed in a metallic gold foil, which is a very nice (and expensive) touch. The thing is, the cover isn't a very good representation of the music. I'm not certain what kind of artwork would best accompany the music, but it's not this. In fact, I almost skipped right over this on the EPFL's shelves, because I assumed it was some sort of dodgy compilation of party tunes.

Listen if you like: TV On The Radio, The Creatures / Siouxsie and the Banshees, PJ Harvey's later albums, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave

If it were food, it'd be: Stuffed jalapeno peppers


Can: Ege Bamyasi

If Can's Tago Mago hadn't completely blown me away, I wouldn't have given Ege Bamyasi a second listen. That's how much I hated it the first time I heard it. But I did listen again, and then I gave it a third listen, and a fourth... and I still hated it.

Eventually, I listened on some great headphones. I heard some nice production tricks and experimental ideas buried in the background. Nice production tricks do not make a great album.

After my sixth listen, I gave up and wrote this review. Needless to say, I'm unimpressed.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Tago Mago is a complicated and challenging album that undeniably rocks. It is one of the best CDs I've checked out from EPFL.

Ege Bamyasi sounds like its dumb little brother.

I'm surprised, because every review I've read says Ege Bamyasi is a great album, 5 stars, perfect introduction to Can, yada yada yada. I don't hear it, though. The band sounds disengaged and uninterested. The songs don't do anything or go anywhere. The improvisation is dull, and the composition is uninspired. It sounds as if Can couldn't decide between being accessible or experimental, so they compromised at some boring point in the middle.

"Sing Swan Song" has the same introspective naval-gazing blandness that characterizes too much of Radiohead's music from the past decade. "One More Night" sounds like a Fela Kuti jam with no fire or passion. "Soup" starts with another dull jam, then inexplicably disintegrates into five minutes of noise that has nothing to do with the first five minutes of the song. (For what it's worth, those five minutes of noise are the most interesting thing on the album, but even they devolve into the kind of generic free-form improvisation that marked the third-rate followers of people like Ornette Coleman and... well... Can.)

The last two songs, "Spoon" and "I'm So Green," are the best on the album. Both are very short and very poppy ("Spoon" was a top 40 hit in Germany), but what's really interesting is hearing how those two songs laid the foundation for the Madchester scene that popped up about 15 years later. It's easy to listen to "I'm So Green" and imagine the Stone Roses or Primal Scream playing it.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Great. Another essay by David Stubbs. This one is filled with gems like, "It was all part of Can's flight from occidental hegemony in rock music." Yeah, man... rock's occidental hegemony really pisses me off.

(For those of you who don't possess a Stubbsian vocabulary, an "occidental hegemony in rock music" basically means that all the rock bands of Europe and America were oppressing the poor, struggling rock bands from the rest of the world. Apparently, when Ege Bamyasi was recorded back in '72, Can was pissed off about the way the IFWR [the International Foundation of Western Rock] was secretly conspiring to crush all of the great Asian, African, and Eastern European rock bands that were on the verge of stripping the evil patriarchal Western Rock Gods of their power.)

Hey Stubbs: how's about I plant my foot in your occidental ass, motherfucker?

Anyway, the liner notes contain Stubbs' essay and a bunch of pictures of the band. The pictures are mildly interesting. The essay isn't. End of story.

Listen if you like: Radiohead's Kid A and/or Amnesiac, early Pink Floyd, Boris, experimental music that's not too experimental.

If it were food, it'd be: canned vegetables


Can: Tago Mago

Can is one of those bands that always lurked on the periphery of my musical awareness, but never received my undivided focus. I knew they were early innovators of experimental rock music. I knew that bassist Holger Czukay recorded some beautiful instrumental albums with David Sylvian. I knew I should listen to them, but I just never got around to it.

Now that I've checked out Tago Mago from EPFL, I know what I've been missing. This is a difficult album, but it is completely unique and undeniably awesome.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On first listen, I guessed that Tago Mago came out somewhere in the mid 1970s, when punk innovators like Wire and Television were proving that you didn't need mad technical chops to create vital and relevant musical experimentation.

I was way off. Can's first album came out in '69, and Tago Mago was released in 1971.

I can't even begin to describe what this sounds like. It's rock music, but it embodies the spirit of punk and the spontaneity of jazz. It's adventurous and experimental, even for a time when the musical world was filled with the adventurous experiments of artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. It's chaotic, but it holds together without ever exploding.

This is punk before punk existed. This is jazz without the stodgy elitism. This is rock without the constraints that normally define rock. This is, quite simply, everything that makes the greatest punk and jazz and rock so damned exciting.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I haven't read much of British rock critic David Stubbs' writing, but if his essay here is typical of his style, he should be banished to the dark recesses of romance novels and open-mic poetry. His words epitomize the pseudo-intellectualism that makes people despise music journalists. For example:

"There's a moment here when, so in synch are the band that the song actually levitates."

No, jackass, the song did not actually levitate. Your inability to use proper punctuation or sentence structure, however, did make my blood pressure rise.

Anyway. Stubbs' commentary on the album is rotten, but the essay by Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie clearly demonstrates a love for Can's music, and his story about jamming with 2/5 of Can is genuinely exciting. Best of all, he doesn't resort to any Stubbs-isms like "beetling basslines" or "impassioned vocals creating a mist of condensation."

(Here's some obscure music trivia I figured out from reading the liner notes: The name of the band The Mooney Suzuki comes from the surnames of original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney and his replacement, Damo Suzuki.)

Listen if you like: Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, Miles Davis' fusion experiments from the late '60s and early '70s, Zappa, Pink Floyd's early records, Wire, Television.

If it were food, it'd be: One of my co-workers turned me on to the fact that Huy Fong's Sriracha hot sauce is delicious with pretty much everything, including pizza, popcorn, veggie dogs, mac & cheese, and even peanut butter sandwiches. Tago Mago is like the unholy combination of Sriracha and peanut butter: it shouldn't make any sense, but it's utterly fantastic.


My Teenage Stride: Ears Like Golden Bats

It's been awhile since I've praised Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library for their music collection. I haven't been to any other libraries where I can walk in and find dozens of CDs by bands I've never heard (or even heard of), and nearly all of them will at least be decent.

It's not often that I write a really bad review of a CD I get from the EPFL. In fact, very few of the CDs I review end up at the bottom of my rating scale (earning a 1, 1.5, or 2). I wish the music on MySpace or iTunes had that kind of track record!

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
My Teenage Stride is Smiths-influenced indie pop, spiced with a splash of '80s one-hit wonders and simmered in a broth of The Beatles. All the songs are short, and like the early Cure records, My Teenage Stride focuses on hooks and melodies without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Nothing here is in the least bit original, but it's all written, recorded, and performed extremely well.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The multi-colored text on the cover gives a pretty good clue of what the music sounds like, but otherwise, the package is bland. There's nothing except for credits, some nature photos, and a quote that is presumably from one of the songs.

Listen if you like: upbeat indie pop or downcast 80's Manchester new wave. There's enough mope to catch the heart of twee fans, enough joy to please the bespectacled indie rock boys of Brooklyn, and maybe even enough Beatles for fans of Matthew Sweet and the Posies.

If it were food, it'd be: A Hershey's Special Dark bar.


Charles Mingus: Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus

Everybody from Elton John to Tom Jones has released a remix album, making them as ubiquitous (and unnecessary) as blogs and tattoos.

But what happened back in the days when the innovators of remixing were still crawling around with diapers full of poop?

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is one answer to that question. Mingus had proven his musical genius by 1963, so he decided to go back with a new band and revisit some of his earlier ideas.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'll be the first to admit I'm biased when it comes to Mingus. There has never been another jazz musician who rocked as hard as Mingus did. The man's music is as energetic and exciting as anything Zeppelin or Sabbath or (enter your favorite rock band here) ever did.

You might ask, "Chuck, why would you say that Mingus -- a man who didn't much care for rock music -- rocked?"

Making music that rocks has nothing to do with making rock music. The latter is a genre, and most of the music within that genre is actually pretty lame. The former is a state of mind that transcends all genres, and occurs when the musicians have completely let go and let their wildness take over.

This music is wild. These ideas were already explored on some of Mingus' greatest albums, but Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is still unique and original. The band is on fire, the arrangements are amazing, and the music is as adventurous as nearly anything the man recorded.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
When I was a kid and was home sick from school one day, my mom brought home a novel called This School Is Driving Me Crazy by Nat Hentoff. I liked the book and read it several times, but it wasn't until I began earnestly exploring jazz that I learned Hentoff was like the Lester Bangs of jazz. The liner notes here are pretty much what I'd expect from Hentoff writing about Mingus: a little overblown and a little melodramatic, but also passionate and enthusiastic and informed and deeply respectful of both Mingus the man and Mingus the musician.

Hentoff wrote, "(Mingus) is one of the most alive men I have ever known, and it is this commitment to living rather than only existing which makes his music so energizing and so insistently provocative." No words could nail the music on this record better than these.

A few more pictures would've been nice; otherwise, this is a strong package.

Listen if you like: powerful music, passionate music, wild music, alive music, music that rocks.

If it were food, it'd be: The first thought that came to mind was "a can of Red Bull," but that analogy captures such a small part of the album's greatness that it's actually a disservice. Really, this album is like a giant meal that encompasses every imaginable flavor, and leaves you excited for more. I've never actually eaten a meal that tastes like this music. Readers? Any ideas?


Daniel Lanois: Acadie

It must be bizarre to have countless platinum records -- critically acclaimed platinum records, nonetheless -- under your belt, yet be unknown to all but the most die-hard rock fans.

As a producer, Daniel Lanois is at least partially responsible for seminal albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, The Neville Brothers, and Dashboard Confessional. (Not often that you see Dashboard Confessional and Dylan on a list together.) But how about on his own? Can he make the same kind of magic when he's in control of every aspect of the music?

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The answer is, "not really." There are a few songs on Acadie that flirt with greatness, there are a few that are almost embarrassingly bad, and there are a bunch that sound like they came from a guy who spent a whole lot of time listening to The Joshua Tree.

Now, in Lanois' defense, he did spend a whole lot of time listening to The Joshua Tree. As the album's co-producer, that was his job. It's hard to say whether his influence had a dramatic impact on U2, or vice versa, but a lot of the songs on Acadie sound like Joshua Tree throwaways.

As for the good songs, I've had the bassline from "The Maker" stuck in my head since 1991 (the year I last heard Acadie), and for nearly 20 years I've been trying to figure out from what song it comes. If that doesn't qualify as a hook, I don't know what does. "White Mustang II" is a simple instrumental track that is solemn yet spooky. "Amazing Grace" is easily the strongest song on the record, and Aaron Neville's vocals make it one of the most interesting and impassioned versions of the gospel standard that I've ever heard.

Packaging: 0.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is one of the worst packages I've ever seen. The cover sports a cheesy '80s photo of Lanois standing in the snow with hair that looks like a cockatoo with a bad dye job. And the rest of the package is... well, it's nothing. No credits. No lyrics. No photos. No stories. Nothing. Just a note that you can read the credits at Lanois' web site, which is a lie as far as I can tell, because I couldn't find a single thing about who played on this record. If I'd spent $10 or $15 on this CD, I'd be pissed. There is no compelling reason to buy this. If you're interested in the music, just download the songs. (And that's coming from a guy who hates downloading songs.)

Listen if you like: U2 from the mid '80s, Peter Gabriel from the late '80s, Lanois' production style. There's a strong New Orleans sound on several of the songs, so if you like The Neville Brothers, you might enjoy this.

If it were food, it'd be: Gumbo and Guinness


Bettye LaVette: I've Got My Own Hell to Raise

(I've been away from the blog for awhile, but I'm hopefully back to the regular Tuesday/Friday updates.)

Bettye LaVette is proof that, in some people's careers, everything can go wrong. Bettye LaVette is also proof that sometimes, after everything's gone wrong for a decade or four, the fates finally smile down upon you.

I'm glad the fates smiled on Bettye LaVette. I'm glad because she worked for a long time and deserved a break, but I'm also glad because her voice is incredible and if she hadn't gotten a break, I never would've heard her sing.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I've Got My Own Hell to Raise opens with a powerful cover of Sinead O'Connor's a capella "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." It's a great song and a great start to a very good album.

The second song is when that truth of the album really begins, though. It starts with a guitar that is a little rough and a little sexy and a little raunchy. Then a second guitar kicks in, and it's the kind of guitar that sounds as if it spent a few years wandering the streets before it decided to walk into the studio and be recorded. The drums creep up, and they are as thick and rich as the soil that holds the roots of a mighty tree. Then the bass starts, and it sounds as deep as the desire to discover joy when you're stuck in the roughest parts of a rough place.

Then LaVette starts singing.

The second song on the album, "Joy," is amazing. It is everything that simple music -- rock or soul or country or blues or hip-hop or punk -- can and should be. It is emotional, it is powerful, it is awesome, and it sets the tone for an album that practically overflows with soul.

(If you're wondering why I only gave the album four library-cards after those glowing comments, it's because there's very little range in the song tempos and dynamics. It's a relatively minor complaint, but it makes the album feel somewhat monotonous.)

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package has almost everything a CD jacket should have. There are a handful of photos that fit the mood of the record. There's a little bit of information about each of the songs (all of which are covers). There aren't lyrics, but it's easy to understand every word that LaVette sings. Best of all, though, is the essay by Rob Bowman, in which he tells LaVette's story. It's a good essay, and it makes me grateful that more and more artists are choosing to add more and more words to their liner notes.

Listen if you like: Stories. LaVette's got a fascinating story, and it comes across both in how she sings and the music she performs. Every song on the record is a cover of a song originally performed by a woman; if you like the stories that Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, or Lucinda Williams tell, wait 'til you hear Bettye LaVette tell them.

If it were food, it'd be: a classic and complex wine that's been hiding out in dark rooms for 40 years, just waiting for its delicious flavor to be discovered.


PJ Harvey: White Chalk

PJ Harvey has reached that difficult-to-achieve level in her career where she could pretty much record herself taking a dump, and critics and fans would praise her courageous experimentalism.

My first reaction to White Chalk was, "Wow, she pretty much recorded herself taking a dump." But given that I've liked most of what she's released over the years (even the stuff that took a while to sink in), I figured I owed her the benefit of the doubt. So I listened again, and then I listened a few more times.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The only way I can describe Harvey's sound on this record is to call it modern folk, but that conjures images that aren't at all appropriate. Piano is the dominant instrument, but it's a very basic and stripped down piano, the kind you might expect to hear coming from the living room of a ramshackle house somewhere in Kentucky.

Kentucky. That's actually why I had such a hard time with White Chalk. These songs made me think of Mountain Music of Kentucky, a record whose performances are as naked as music can possibly be. Its happiest moments are snapshots of pure joy, and its haunted moments are so powerful that you can hear the ghosts in speakers.

White Chalk doesn't capture any ghosts or snapshots of joy. Not to say Harvey sounds bad, because she doesn't. She sounds like a rock artist who tried something challenging and difficult, and almost pulled it off. I think she wanted to record a completely naked album, though, and these songs are definitely wearing clothes. Maybe nothing more than an old t-shirt and some stained underwear, but that's a far cry from being naked.

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
I understand that the good folks at the Enoch Pratt Free Library need to identify their CDs, but it's really annoying when they put big stickers right over the front cover. The picture seems to be Harvey in a typically unflattering portrait, but this one is interesting because she has the uncomfortable stiffness that a rural woman who is posing for her first photo might possess. Otherwise, the EPFL chopped and mangled and destroyed the rest of the package, so I'm not sure what else might've been there.

Listen if you like: As with much of Harvey's later work, fans of Nick Cave will find something here. This record shares some common ground with Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan. Anybody who likes traditional American folk might like this.

If it were food, it'd be: beans and cooked greens. Unfortunately, the ingredients all came from cans and bags at the supermarket, rather than from Mason jars filled with last summer's crop.


Black Lips: Good Bad Not Evil

When I lived in LA back in '91, there was a band called Life Sex Death (Get it? LSD. Clever, clever, clever!) who were supposed to save the quickly dying hair metal scene. The crazy quirk with LSD was the fact that their singer didn't have long, pretty hair! The dude was some filthy guy who was rumored to be homeless. It didn't matter that the band sucked: Seattle was turning heads with all their homeless-looking bands, so LSD was LA's ticket to the future.

I'm certain that Black Lips sound nothing like LSD, but the first couple songs on Good Bad Not Evil sound like my memory of LSD's extremely stupid (but memorable) song, "Jawohl Asshole." Kinda energetic, kinda dirty, kinda funny, kinda catchy, yet ultimately not worth thinking about more than once every couple of decades.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If Good Bad Not Evil had come out in 1965, it probably would've been mind-blowing. Then again, The Who and The Beatles and The Stones were already blowing people's minds, and Black Lips can't compare to those groups. This is psychedelic garage rock filtered through everything that's happened since the Velvet Underground. To its credit, it's much more raw than most of the garage revivalists of the '00s.

I can't imagine not liking this record if you're into garage or psych. For those of us who aren't, though, there's nothing here worth hearing.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
With all the cut-out eyeballs and ironic moustaches and clever nicknames, it's obvious that Black Lips have a sense of humor. The little comments before the lyrics of each song are kind of charming, but I don't understand the point of including only part of each songs' words. The package is entertaining the first time you look at it, but there's not much need to look at it more than once.

Listen if you like: Mudhoney, Thee Headcoats, The Rolling Stones. Ween fans might dig the humor, even though the two bands sound nothing alike.

If it were food, it'd be: a cheap pizza from a take-out joint in a small college town that's filled with pretentious liberal arts students who think they're the most witty and insightful people to ever walk the face of the Earth.


Richard Hawley: Lady's Bridge

Nick Hornby is one of my favorite writers. I like the way he writes about music by telling stories, and I like the way he tells stories by writing about music. I'll sit down to read his thoughts on a record, and I'll end up reading about how a song changed his life.

In my fantasy world, Nick Hornby is my wise musical friend -- you know, that guy who spends all his free time listening to music, knows every weird band, and always has the perfect musical recommendation for you. In this alternate world, Nick Hornby gives me a call whenever he's passing through Baltimore and turns me on to a bunch of great new music.

Of course that never happens, but if it did, I'm pretty sure Nick would've turned me on to this album.

That's what kind of album this is. This is the kind of album that your wise musical friend says you must hear. So you listen, and as so often happens, your wise musical friend is absolutely right.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Lady's Bridge is an album to listen to at night, when you're sad and alone. This is also an album that's dangerous to listen to at night, when you're sad and alone, because it knows how you feel and will help you to keep feeling that way. But it will remind you that you're not really alone. At the very least, Richard Hawley is there with you. The two of you can stand on the bridge between the past and the future, and throw stones into the water, and be at peace... for a while... before you move on.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
For whatever reason, the cover photo makes me think of Ben Stein, so that's an immediate half-library-card ding. Otherwise, this package is as good as the music. Every photo is gorgeous in its own, understated right, but more importantly, every photo tells a story about loneliness and loss and sadness. I could've lived without the color filters on the pictures, but they don't bother me as much as most cheesy Photoshop tricks. The lyrics are included, and the two quotes about the real Lady's Bridge (a bridge in England) tie the entire package together.

Listen if you like: Roy Orbison, Chris Isaak, Elvis before he became a caricature of himself, Morrissey's Vauxhall & I and Your Arsenal. "The Sun Refused to Shine" could've been on The Cure's Disintegration, and "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" captures the essence of Springsteen without sounding anything like him.

If it were food, it'd be: "I have crossed Lady's Bridge back and forth many times over the years, mainly to get to Kenny's Records on one side (now long gone sadly) or to the Castle Market on the other, both places provided me with food of different sorts." (from Hawley's quote in the liner notes.) If Lady's Bridge were food, it'd be the kind you get on a day when you visit both the grocery store and the record store.


Reckless Kelly: Reckless Kelly's Bulletproof

Ingredient list to create an album that straddles roots-rock, country-rock, and alt-country:

1. Roads. Lonely and wandering highways are best, but freeways and dark city streets will do in a pinch. Interstates are out, as are tree-lined cul-de-sacs. Dust is always good.

2. Alcohol. Beer and bourbon are ideal, French wine is to be avoided at all costs.

3. Guys named Johnny or Billy. Tommy will do if Johnny and Billy are busy working on other albums.

4. A wild woman with a cheatin' heart. It's best if she's involved with your best friend, a drunk at the bar, or your best friend who's drunk at the bar.

5. A good woman with a golden heart. She must possess angelic qualities, and she's never found real love.

6. Untamed men and/or bad boys who do any combination of the following: run away, steal away, break away, drift away, and occasionally devote themselves wholly to the woman in #5. Being as free as a bird is a definite asset, provided this bird can change. At least for a while.

7. A train. Train tracks will suffice, as long as you're on the wrong side of them.

8. A war. In lieu of a war, a fight will do.

9. A bar. Without this, #2 and #4 are much more difficult to achieve, and Nos. 5 and 6 are virtually impossible since all true love begins in bars.

10. Night. Apparently, when the sun is shining, nobody ever gets their heart broken, travels on a lonely road, meets an angelic woman, or gets drunk.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If I didn't know these rules, Bulletproof would be pretty good. The band is solid, the songs are decent, and there's a sense of joy that pervades even the darker moments.

Unfortunately, these rules have been around for decades, and I've heard Bulletproof countless times before. I heard it when The Georgia Satellites recorded it, and when the Gear Daddies recorded it, and when Lone Justice recorded it, and when John Mellencamp (née Cougar) recorded it, and when Steve Earle recorded it, and when Uncle Tupelo recorded it, and... yikes, that was just before 1991.

Bulletproof is fine if you've heard all the great albums in this genre, and all the really good ones, and you still can't get enough. Otherwise, skip it.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This cover makes me feel cheated. It has a dude in what appears to be an iron mask, holding two revolvers, surrounded by the caption "DEATH DEFYING SONGS FOR LOOTERS AND THIEVES. FEARLESS & ACTION PACKED." Talk about misleading. Nowhere does the cover say "GENERIC SONGS WITH GENERIC LYRICS PERFORMED IN AN ADEQUATE MANNER." It's a good package though, with lyrics and photos and credits and lots of drawings of the dude in the iron mask... which actually just makes me wish the music lived up to the promises on the cover.

Listen if you like: Any of the artists above. Fans of country guys like Tim McGraw or Dwight Yoakum might like Reckless Kelly's songs, and fans of the Dixie Chicks might like Reckless Kelly's politics. (If you want songs that tell down-on-your-luck stories in a much more original manner, check out their label-mates Marah.)

If it were food, it'd be: Cold beer late at night served by a veteran named Johnny in a bar on a lonely road where you meet an angelic woman from the wrong side of the tracks who just might tame your wild streak and mend the heart that your cheatin' woman broke.


The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Okay. We all know the deal with Sgt. Pepper's: five-star record, revolutionary recording process, best rock album ever, yada yada yada.

I'm listening to Sgt. Pepper's from start to finish for the first time, which hopefully gives me a somewhat unique perspective on the record. My goal is not to slaughter a sacred cow, nor is it to blindly celebrate an album just because I've been told it's great. I'm merely reviewing Sgt. Pepper's as a guy who loves rock music but is very late in getting around to a really important album.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Sgt. Pepper's only major flaw is that most of the songs don't rock. The experiments on this record forever changed the face of rock music, but hardly anything here possesses the excitement or energy of the earlier Beatles recordings. This album planted the seeds of great musical creativity, but it also planted seeds that grew into flaccid musical genres like Adult Alternative. For that alone, it's flawed.

With that said, I loved listening to Sgt. Pepper's. I heard new things in songs I've known for years, and I fell in love with songs that are new to me. "A Day in the Life" is amazing, and "Within You Without You" blew me away. "Fixing a Hole" and "She's Leaving Home" are very touching and emotional, and it's hard to believe they came from the mind of a 24-year-old rock star. I'd always dismissed "When I'm Sixty Four" as being just another silly love song, but it's actually a wonderfully poignant sentiment about two people sharing a life together.

On the down side, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is stupid, "Lovely Rita" is trite, and "With a Little Help from My Friends" is annoying. The occasional cultural references date the music far more than the production does, and the drug references sprinkled throughout the record reek of cheap rebellion.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover of Sgt. Pepper's is almost as influential as the music. It's nice that this CD release includes additional information about how both the record and the jacket were created. For instance, I never knew that this was the first record to include printed lyrics, that Mae West initially refused to be included in a "lonely hearts club," or that John Lennon requested an extremely high-pitched noise be put at the end of "A Day in the Life" to annoy people's dogs. (This last bit of info makes me suspect that Mr. Lennon was a bit of a douchebag.) This was a superb package the first time around, and despite the reduced size of the CD jacket, the additional information makes this a great package on CD also.

Listen if you like: Any music from the past 40 years. It reflects poorly on me that I'm just now listening to this record for the first time.

If it were food, it'd be: water.


The Pratt Songs Best of 2008

It's time for another list. In 2008, I posted a total of 84 reviews of CDs and/or LPs that are available from Baltimore's library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library. In no particular order, here are 10 of those 84 albums that have stuck with me.

  • Various Artists: Mountain Music of Kentucky -- I've listened to some difficult music this year, and I think it's fair to say that no CD presented me with more challenges and rewards than this one. This is about as naked as music can possibly be. And by naked, I don't mean supermodel naked, I mean naked the way most of us look without any clothes: completely flawed, yet absolutely beautiful.

  • Kings of Leon: Aha Shake Heartbreak -- Of every rock album I heard for the first time this year, nothing won my heart the way Aha Shake Heartbreak did. This album possesses nearly everything that makes rock music wonderful.

  • Lord Invader: Calypso in New York -- This record completely changed my mind about calypso, and began a year-long journey into an incredibly compelling style of music. Anybody who truly loves hip-hop should give this a listen, because the parallels between hip-hop and calypso are fascinating.

  • Harry Belafonte: Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall -- I love it when I'm forced to change my opinion on an artist, and this record forced me to change my opinion about Harry Belafonte. I'd previously dismissed the man as a musical and social lightweight, a provider of fluff for the masses. In truth, the man was incredibly courageous, both musically and socially. No, his calypso doesn't move me the way Lord Invader's does, but Belafonte is truly a heavyweight.

  • Various Artists: Nicky Siano's Legendary "The Gallery" The Original New York Disco 1973-1977 -- About 10 years ago, I learned about the differences between original underground disco and the corporate swill that was spoon fed to the masses throughout the '70s. It wasn't until I stumbled onto this gem at the EPFL, however, that I discovered Nicky Siano. This is a fantastic CD that captures the original spirit of disco.

  • Moby: Play -- This CD proves that musical genres are meaningless, and maybe we should spend more time categorizing our music as either "good" or "not so good."

  • Fela Kuti: The Underground Spiritual Game -- An intriguingly simple summary of Fela's incredibly complex music.

  • Lead Belly: Keep Your Hands Off Her (a.k.a. Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs) -- It shouldn't have taken me nearly 40 years to find Lead Belly, but I'm thankful I finally got around to listening to him. No single artist commanded more of my attention this year than Lead Belly. This collection is a concise and interesting introduction to a great musician.

  • Mclusky: The Difference Between You and Me Is that I'm Not on Fire -- I played this CD expecting bad emo. Instead, I got one of the most energetic and exciting albums I heard all year.

  • Horace Andy: Dance Hall Style -- Dance Hall Style was not only my favorite of the half-dozen reggae albums I reviewed this year, but it's become one of my very favorite reggae albums, period.

There were three albums I reviewed in 2008 that have been on my personal "favorite albums" list for years: U2 Pop, The Postal Service Give Up, and Death Cab for Cutie Plans. Since these albums weren't new to me in 2008, they weren't really candidates for this list. All three, however, are very strong albums that deserve a listen. Particularly the U2 record: it was largely dismissed by critics and fans alike, but the last three tracks on Pop are as good as anything the band ever wrote.

Finally, an honorable mention goes to Goldfrapp Seventh Tree. It's a very dull album, but "A&E" is one of the best songs I heard in 2008.

Thanks for reading. If real life doesn't consume too much of my time and energy, I look forward to hearing and reviewing another 80 or 90 CDs from the EPFL this year!