Thursday, October 28, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Shaken ‘N’ Stirred,’ Robert Plant (1985)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

When this album originally came out on vinyl, I don’t know why anyone would bother listening to Side A.

“Shaken ‘N’ Stirred” is easily Plant’s worst release of the 1980s. The most offensive track is the pseudo-rap disaster “Too Loud”; I can’t imagine ever voluntarily listening through this song again, but the rest isn’t much better. “Hip to Hoo” and “Kallalou Kallalou” is standard, synth-laden ’80s pop fare that could’ve been produced by any male on the scene at that time; the latter even features a “Miami Vice” knockoff bass line. “Pink and Black,” meanwhile, is like Huey Lewis and the News without the knowing wink and smile.

The second half is much better, thankfully, held up by “Little by Little,” a song that dares to have a personality and mood of its own. The same is true for the album’s momentous closing track, “Sixes and Sevens,” whose sparse, bluesy arrangement captures the essence of ’80s pop rather than simply mimics it. “Easily Lead” is the purest rock-and-roll track on the album and holds up well, leaving the ridiculously titled “Doo Doo A Do Do” as the only blemish on this half.

Perhaps if I’d been of music-appreciating age in 1985 “Shaken ‘N’ Stirred” might mean something different to me, providing that nostalgia factor I get from late-’80s pop. But in listening through all of Plant’s albums from this decade, the cream rises quickly and clearly to the top. “Shaken ‘N’ Stirred” has the least of those songs from this period in his career.

Grade: C-

Favorite Track: “Little by Little”

Other Favorite Track: “Sixes and Sevens”

Least Favorite Track: “Too Loud”

Monday, October 25, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Honeydrippers: Volume One,’ Robert Plant (1984)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

I ignored Robert Plant’s solo career for most of my life. If it didn’t have anything to do with Led Zeppelin, I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

And then I heard “Raising Sand.” One of my favorite albums of all time, “Sand” sent me diving back into Plant’s work; I hadn’t heard much other than “In the Mood,” so I was hopeful there would be a few hidden gems I had no idea even existed.

“The Honeydrippers: Volume One” is one of those.

Playing with an all-star cast that includes Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, Plant embraces his inner Elvis fanboy with this painfully short five-song EP of shimmying ’50s-era rock and roll. A luscious cover of “Sea of Love” was the big hit from this outing, much in the same way Pearl Jam found unexpected success with “Last Kiss” back in 1999. But every song is great, most notably “Rockin’ at Midnight,” the R&B explosion that caps the disc.

My only complaint about this one and only Honeydrippers effort is the tantalizing title: Why tease us with “Volume One” if you’re not going to follow through? Plant would’ve been better served devoting more time to music like this than the schmaltz he delivered next, 1985’s “Shaken N Stirred.”

In a way, though, this disc foretold of greatness to come. It may have taken him 20 years, but Plant eventually came back to his roots in the new millennium with projects much like this. As he rediscovered the music he loves, he rediscovered his artistic vision, as well. The Honeydrippers were apparently a very early preview.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “Rockin’ at Midnight”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Principle of Moments,’ Robert Plant (1983)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

No matter what era it’s from, a great song is a great song. You know it, you get it, you feel it. Immediately. Robert Plant’s “In the Mood” is one of those songs.

From the murky slow build to that first jangly guitar phrase to the big drum intro to Plant’s silky-smooth vocal delivery, “In the Mood” works. Plant hardly even sings much more than “I’m in the mood for a melody” over the course of nearly five and a half minutes, and yet the cut is never boring. It has an identity, movement … it makes me reach for the volume button every time.

I know tracks like “In the Mood” don’t grow on some magical music tree, but it’s a shame Plant couldn’t deliver songs like it more consistently in this first phase of his post-Zeppelin career. Because there’s just not much else to “The Principle of Moments” to get overly excited about. The unfortunately titled “Big Log” is the other major highlight, with a memorable guitar melody that is strong enough to compensate for a drum pattern that sounds like it was created on one of those synthesizers they used to have in elementary school music rooms. Plant’s vocal is more forceful and confident here, too, in a purer way than much of the other solo work to this point. I don’t know if “Big Log” was ever used in a movie, but its stark presence seems tailor made for the silver screen.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Opener “Other Arms” was a huge hit for Plant at the time but doesn’t hold up, sounding like a made-for-radio factory product of commercial studio players. “Horizontal Departure,” however, is a more honest hard-charging rocker that still licks and kicks today. “Messin’ with the Mekon” has an island influence more unfortunate than “D’yer Mak’er,” while “Thru’ with the Two Step” is an effective ballad, even if it does almost drown in stereotypical ’80s keyboards. “Wreckless Love” and “Stranger Here … Than Over There” make little impact positively or negatively.

So “The Principle of Moments” finds Plant fully divested from Led Zeppelin and transitioned to full-on pop/rock mode in the grand ’80s tradition: A couple great tracks, a couple dogs, and the rest easy-to-swallow filler. It’s less consistent than his solo debut, but is great when it’s good.

I have just one final question: Why was he so obsessed with reverb?

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “In the Mood”

Least Favorite Track: “Messin’ with the Mekon”

Monday, October 18, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Pictures at Eleven,’ Robert Plant (1982)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

Much of Robert Plant’s first post-Led Zeppelin effort sounds, not surprisingly, like a Led Zeppelin album. Most of the songs included here remind of the over-produced latter-day Zep tracks, like they somehow got caught between the in and out doors.

One of the album’s best tracks, “Slow Dancer,” is a nearly eight-minute epic that comes across like a b-side combination of “Kashmir” and “For Your Life.” Opener “Burning Down One Side” is a dutiful cousin to “In the Evening,” while “Moonlight in Mamosa” is a (very) poor man’s attempt to recreate “The Rain Song.” The brightest spot is “Like I’ve Never Been Gone,” a hard-edged ballad with a twinkling guitar melody that recalls “All My Love.”

It’s easy to look back on these tracks nearly three decades later and dismiss them as subpar Zeppelin knockoffs. But if I put myself in the shoes of a Zep fan who just lost one of the greatest bands of all time, a collection like this probably would’ve felt like cool water in the desert. “Pictures at Eleven” is a darn good transition album for Plant, hinting at both his past and where he planned to go.

That’s the most unfortunate thing, though, because much of Plant’s production from the ’80s just wasn’t that good. Two songs in particular—“Pledge Pin” and “Fat Lip”—are examples of the shapeless, reverb-drenched, cheesy pop/rock filler that would dominate much of his immediate post-Zeppelin career. Luckily, though, those are exceptions rather than the rule on his sturdy solo debut.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Like I’ve Never Been Gone”

Least Favorite Track: “Pledge Pin”

Friday, October 08, 2010

‘The Social Network’: Defending Mark Zuckerberg

It’s been six days since I saw “The Social Network” … and I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s probably as good a reason as any to officially declare it my favorite movie of the year.

Jesse Eisenberg’s masterful portrayal of the (ironically) socially awkward Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is a fascinating examination of what it takes to literally change the world. Zuckerberg’s faults are also his strengths, and the filmmakers—director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—deftly try not to make judgments one way or the other.

Did Zuckerberg steal the idea? The movie doesn’t tell you, but one of the best lines in the whole thing is from the main character: “If you’d invented Facebook … you’d have invented Facebook.” Did he screw over his one and only friend to get to the top? Or was his friend holding him back? Was the friend too timid for the big game Zuckerberg was playing, or did he have justifiable reasons for thinking along more practical terms? Again, it could be both.

And then there’s Sean Parker (played brilliantly by Justin Timberlake—you don’t know how hard it is for me to type that), the inventor of Napster, who swoops in during Facebook’s infancy and changes the course of all the lives involved, no matter how tangentially. He comes off as a reckless, arrogant blowhard, but would Facebook have reached the pinnacle of Internet domination without his connections, energy, and vision?

These are the tangled webs weaved by “The Social Network.” I will warn you: There are no answers (it reminds me of Fincher’s superb “Zodiac” in that way—minus all the dead bodies, of course). But that’s because there really aren’t any answers to be had yet. The real-life Zuckerberg is still just 26 years old and now one of the youngest billionaires on the planet; his story is probably far from over, and we certainly can’t have all that much perspective on his rise to power and fame while we’re still living in the moment he created one drunken night at Harvard.

In the end I liked Zuckerberg as portrayed here—how truthful a telling is obviously up for debate, but that’s rather beside my point. He was a Rand-ian visionary who wasn’t afraid of his own genius or putting it to work. His singleminded dedication to his craft is probably indicative of every successful entrepreneur. Does that make him a saint? No. Not even really a nice person. I’m sure there are certain decisions of interpersonal relations he’d rather take back (but maybe not). But one thing you can say about Zuckerberg is he never hid his ambitions, and it’s people like him who really do change the world. Those who weren’t fully committed to the grand goal he was chasing were eventually left behind … with millions and millions of dollars to comfort them.

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Catching a Tiger,’ Lissie (2010)

Now, this girl can sing. Too bad she hides that fact a little too much on her first full-length album.

Lissie’s (a.k.a. Elisabeth Maurus) debut, the five-song “Where You Runnin’” EP from last year, is a stark, captivating masterpiece. Three of those minimalist tracks are included here, but they actually sound out of place on an album whose remaining tracks are altogether ordinary, sugary, generic pop ditties in the vein of Lily Allen, Katy Perry, et. al.

It’s not that they’re bad, necessarily, I just found myself asking … why? Why would she screw up something as great as the gripping, cavernous power-folk of her EP to delve into over-produced genre stuff like everyone else? Lissie's voice still shines, but she doesn’t make these tracks her own in the way, say, Florence Welch did last year on her spectacular debut. Whereas Welch soars above these conventions and makes them her own, Lissie seems happily awash in made-for-radio track like “When I’m Alone” or “Cuckoo”; it’s nice enough while you’re listening to it, with those by-the-book background vocals and whatever, but easily forgotten. Every new song on “Tiger” left me thinking, “Where have I heard this before?” Her debut work on “Runnin’,” on the other hand, left an indelible impression.

The three EP tracks—“Little Lovin’,” “Everywhere I Go,” and “Oh Mississippi”—provide a tantalizing glimpse of what Lissie is capable of. When she hits those high notes in “Everywhere” … incredible. The album as a whole is anything but. “Catching a Tiger” is a nice, safe, enjoyable pop record … but, sadly, nothing more. And, thus, a rather large disappointment.

Grade: C+

Favorite Track: “Everywhere I Go”

Least Favorite Track: “In Sleep” (for the by-the-book guitar solo outro, if nothing else)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Good Morning, Magpie,’ Murder By Death (2010)

Murder By Death’s new album is nothing like what I expected, and that’s a very good thing I’ve decided.

Their last effort, 2008’s “Red of Tooth and Claw,” was one of my favorite albums of the millennium’s first decade with its taut, aggressive cowboy rock. “Good Morning, Magpie,” on the other hand, is full of a bunch of loose, easygoing songs meant to be sung around a dying campfire in the middle of a desert. It’s more country than rock, but in a weird way manages to incorporate elements of swing that continue to remind me of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Frontman Adam Turla’s voice is as supple as ever, channeling his Johnny Cash-meets-Days of the New more than ever here, since he’s really singing these shambling ditties rather than howling over the fiendish entries from “Claw.” One thing that hasn’t changed is his macabre subject matter. He can be darkly funny—“You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shaving with a Knife),” “As Long as There Is Whiskey in the World”—or just dark—ahem, “On the Dark Streets Below”—but either way these are dustbowl anthems of the best kind.

No writeup of Murder By Death is complete, though, without mentioning cellist Sarah Balliet, who perhaps benefits the most from the softer tones of “Magpie” that allow her distinct talent and instrument to take an even stronger role than before. Balliet is the linchpin of this group; her strings complete the aura of Murder By Death and make the band stand out from its peers.

So “Magpie” isn’t as quite as accessible as the last record but rewards repeated listens. It’s an excellent change of pace, and one I’ve grown to enjoy more and more with every spin. And tacked on as if to remind us all they still know how to bring the heat, MBD close the record with “The Day,” an epic throwback that thunders with apocalyptic malevolence—an excellent end to a fine effort.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “The Day”

Least Favorite Track: “Piece By Piece”