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!