The Music Box: Nada Surf’s Let Go (2002) & The Drams’ Jubilee Drive (2006)

nada surf let go Picking discs out of a box and giving them an uninformed listen!

After a long pause between Music Box posts (the last one was in February), I’m back with not one, but two random listens to records I actually really enjoyed. This morning, I wasn’t feeling podcasts and wanted something to match the cool, cloudy day we’ve got going on here in New York. So, I plunged my hand into the box of CDs my buddy Jesse has sent me and pulled out Nada Surf’s 2002 album Let Go. Like many people in their 30s, I was familiar with the band from their 90s hit “Popular,” but that’s as far as my experience went, so listening to Let Go was basically like listening to a new band.

As it turned out, it was basically the perfect record for this mellow morning. While never getting morose or melodramatic, lead singer and guitarist Matthew Caws took me through a variety of songs that matched this morning’s mood perfectly. Check out the “Inside Of Love” video to see what I mean. Most songs feature his melodic voice over nicely strummed guitars, but things do get a little more rocking on tracks like “Hi-Speed Soul” and “The Way You Wear Your Head” which I appreciate. Those tracks kind of wake you up a little bit and make you pay attention to the record, which can very easily slip into background noise.

That might not sound like a big compliment, but it’s a huge one from me. Some days you just need a cool record to feel while you’re doing other things. I’ve listened to Let Go twice now while doing my morning writing and taking care of the kids. It never become obtrusive, but was always there keeping things calm. Sometimes when it comes to records like this, they can be easily forgotten because they don’t necessarily smack you in the face, but I think I’ll be utilizing Nada Surf’s Let Go plenty and will probably get even more listens out of it when I move it to my car. Yup, I still rock the CD wallet-visor thingy.

the drams jubilee dive Listening to and enjoying Let Go reminded me that I actually pulled out a record a week or so ago by a band called The Drams called Jubilee Drive that I also liked. Unlike Nada Surf, though, I’d never heard of these guys in my life. So, as I do, I just popped the disc in my computer and gave it a listen. According to Wikipedia, The Drams actually started out as another band I’d heard of but am not very familiar with called Slobberbone. As of now, Jubilee Drive is their one and only record.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who lead singer Brent Best sounded like and decided to give up the quest because he’s got a little Stephen Kellogg in him along with a variety of other elements. At the end of the day, though, he has his own unique thing going on and I like the sound of it. In other words, the record feels like a mix of post-Replacement, non-grunge 90s music with a few hints of 70s southern rock. Some of the more modern southern rock bands I’ve listened to get a little too droney and boring for me, but The Drams keep the tempos going at just the right speed for my taste.

All of which is a clumsy way of saying I probably haven’t heard a record quite like this before and I’m really glad I gave it a shot. While not nearly as mellow as Nada Surf’s record, this one will make for a great tooling around CD to keep in my car which will give me even more opportunities to absorb it. The driving beats and noodling on songs like “Unhinged” will always be the kind of thing I want to listen to over and over again.

The Music Box: Lotusflow3r & Tambourine

prince-lotusflower3-mplsound-elixer1 Prince is an artist I’ve never been overly interested in. I missed out on the Purple Rain-era (I knew the Milhouse line “So this is what it’s like when doves cry,” long before I knew the song) and by the time I was paying attention to pop music, he was in the middle of changing his name to a symbol and other silly activities I didn’t care about. A few years back, I found Purple Rain for a few bucks at a mall record store and decided to give it a shot. It’s been a while, but I wasn’t impressed. My memory is that the singles were as solid as they’ve always been, but the other tracks were pretty unimpressive.

So, when my pal Jesse sent me 2009’s three disc set of Lotusflow3r, MPLSound and Bria Valente Elixr for my birthday I wasn’t sure what to think. Then, I hit a point last week where I wasn’t feeling podcasts and figured I’d give it a shot, especially after seeing the artist’s recent appearance on New Girl. Holy crap, these are great records!

My problem with Purple Rain — again, if memory serves, which it only does about half the time — was that the non-hit songs felt stale, antiseptic and maybe too produced or electronic. I’ll give it another listen and see if those thoughts still hold up, but that’s what I went into these two records thinking. Instead, I was treated to an awesomely funky, guitar-filled pair of discs packed with songs I can see myself listening to over and over again. From the opening guitar calisthenics of the first track “From The Lotus” to the killer “Crimson & Clover” cover and beyond, I was sold right away and kept getting surprised by how much I loved these two records.

Originally, I skipped over Elixer, but after listening to these albums for a second time and writing most of this post, I figured I should give the third part of this trilogy a listen. Bria Valente has one of those classic female R&B voices that those of us who came up in the late 80s and early 90s remember as being super prominent. Those records weren’t my thing back then, but I found myself enjoying these tracks for their mix of quality vocals and diverse backing tracks that go from slow jams to funkadelic and back again. As far as I’m concerned, the funkier this record goes the better everyone sounds. I’m not sure how often I’ll be jonesing for this kind of listening experience, but I like keeping it around just in case.

tift merritt tamourine After intentionally listening to the Prince discs, I figured it would be a good time to reach into The Music Box and go the random route again. This time I pulled out Tift Merritt’s 2004 album Tambourine. As with many of the Music Box discs, I knew nothing about this going in, popped it on and gave it a listen.

Merritt’s sound reminded me a lot of Sheryl Crow. I’m not sure if that’s altogether fair but they’re both women singing country-tinged songs about their life experiences, so that’s where my head was at. With that comparison in mind — and the fact that they do sound sonically similar at times — I had trouble really getting into these songs. I think the person-playing-guitar-and-singing-quietly thing just isn’t all that interesting to me in the first place. I love that people do it, but it’s not always something I want to listen to unless the songs are super original, hit me in a truly emotional place or do something really interesting with the backing tracks.

When Merritt and company pick things up on tracks like “Wait It Out” and the title track, I’m in, but those wound up being a bit too far and few between for me to keep this one in the collection. Hopefully someone at the library will find it and dig the heck out of it though!

My Favorite New-To-Me Instrumental Albums Of 2013

Let the end-of-year lists begin! I usually listen to podcasts while working, but I started digging more into the world of instrumental records and scores this year than any other for a little wordless aural pleasure. Here are my six new go-to records when I’m in an instrumental mood.

The Enter The Dragon Score by Lalo Schifrin (1973)

I don’t think there’s much in the way of dissension when it comes to the idea that Enter The Dragon is a brilliant film. But, when watching this year, I also realized it’s got an awesome score by Lalo Schifrin. While making a purchase on Amazon earlier this year, I needed something to get up to free shipping and came across this score for a few bucks. Since then, I’ve been listening to this mellow, action-y, Asian themed music that allows my mind to wander and focus on either work or writing projects. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for more of Schifrin’s work because he was so damn good.

The Budos Band by The Budos Band (2005)

Around the time that I got Enter The Dragon, I tweeted out something along the lines of “Are there any bands that sound like they recorded the background music in Dirty Harry (also by Schifrin) or 70s cop shows?” My pal Justin Aclin responded with The Budos Band and a love affair was born. There’s a certain quality I don’t have the musical vocabulary to nail down that makes this 2005 record sound like it was made back in the 70s by a bunch of guys in huge sunglasses smoking unfiltered cigarettes. It’s basically like Justin jumped in my brain, figured out exactly what I was looking for and then gave it to me. I love this record.

Enter The 37th Chamber by El Michels Affair (2009)

At some point in the year, I came across Truth & Soul records and one of their bands El Michels Affair. They’ve got this record called Enter The 37th Chamber which is actually a series of instrumental Wu-Tang Clan covers. It’s like a more bass and drum heavy, hip hop-infused version of Schifrin’s Dragon soundtrack, which is something I very much enjoy.

Vertigo Score by Bernard Hermann (1958)

The Vertigo score was one of the many cheapo Amazon MP3 records I picked up this year. I haven’t listened to it a ton of times because it really does get under my skin with it’s beautiful, epic-ness but it really did the trick the few times I was looking for that exact feeling. I had a similar, but more intense experience with Hans Zimmer’s Inception score and really haven’t listened to it since that first time. Vertigo is by for the most orchestral record in my collection.

Cannonball’s Bossa Nova by Cannonball Adderley (1962) 

Cannonball Adderley is one my favorite jazzmen around. His track “Autumn Leaves” off of Somethin’ Else is one of my all time favorite songs. So, when I saw Cannonball’s Bossa Nova pop up on Amazon MP3 I just had to add it to my collection. Bossa Nova moves a lot more than some of the cooler jazz stuff of his I have, but it’s got great swing and makes for some nice, uptempo tunes to get through the day. This record makes me want to go on vacation REAL bad.

Downtown Rockers by Tom Tom Club (2012) 

After reading Please Kill Me, I was curious about any and all bands with connections to that punk/New Wave NYC scene. So, when I saw a Tom Tom Club record for a few bucks and read that the band consisted of Talking Head members, I was in. Turns out, though, that Downtown Rockers is a newer EP with five vocal-and-music tracks, one remix and then those first five tracks without vocals. I like the versions with words, but the instrumentals are just solid, guitar/drum/bass/electronic tracks with a few organs and other layers thrown on top that make for quality voiceless offerings. So, just imagine the above video but without all that singing and you have an idea of what I mean.

The Music Box: Human Nature By America (1998)

America Human Nature

Picking one disc out of a box and giving it an uninformed listen!

I haven’t had the best luck with The Music Box selections. Schleprock was pretty mundane pop punk and Joseph Arthur’s And The Thieves Are Gone… wasn’t my thing, but I did really enjoy Gas Giants. This week’s selection, though, was straight-up awful. I don’t think I’ve ever cringed or wrinkled my nose so much while listening to a record ever. In fact, I probably would have just called it quits with this one, thrown the CD away and moved on, but I wanted to keep the column going for this week, so here we go.

As with all the other posts so far, I didn’t do any research before listening to this record which might be the most “adult contemporary” thing of all time. I knew the name America and after a song or two, realized it was probably the “A Horse With No Name,” band, but didn’t confirm that to be the case until I looked them up on Wikipedia. Even with that classic song in the past, I couldn’t enjoy this record in the present.

Maybe it’s because this is just not my kind of music, but I could not escape the idea that this record was one of two things: one, a bad attempt to copy some kind of new wave folk formula to get Baby Boomers grooving or, two, an incredibly sincere, yet clueless attempt. I kept thinking of David Brent from the original Office. He really thinks he’s doing great things, but it’s clear to the audience that he is not. There was just something about this collection of songs that felt a little too put-on and manufactured, but I can’t quite place why and I’m not listening again without a good reason (ie a paycheck).

Most of the slow burn, jangly nonsense could be written off as a once-prominent band growing old with their audience, but then you get to “Hidden Talent” and things get super creepy. Two lines into the song, one of my musical sins gets committed when an adult man refers to anyone but his daughter as “little girl.” It’s sung in that Michael McDonald-ish, easily mocked kind of voice that usually devolves into throaty “Bur bur bur bur-bur-bur-bur” any time you do an impression of it. So that tipped me off to some grossness, which made me look up the lyrics.

A basic listen might indicate that this is just a guy trying to tell a young lady that she’s got a lot of potential she just hasn’t tapped yet, but I’m thinking this song is about a creepy old dude who wants to tap a young lady, revealing her true sex potential in the sweaty process. It goes from “I’m just trying to make you understand/All the ways you can affect this man” in the first verse to “Hidden talent (hidden talent, yeah)/Affair without warning/Hidden talent, mmm (mmm).”

Seriously, there’s no other way to read this song’s intent. Had that “little girl” portion been excised from the proceedings — as it should have been — I would have gotten a less intense predatory vibe. If this song is just a guy singing to a lady his own age, it’s not so bad, but you’re primed for an age discrepancy right from the beginning and just when you think it might be more of a mentor-y song, then you get “affair without warning.”

Alright, I’m done thinking about this record for the rest of forever.

The Music Box: Schleprock – (America’s) Dirty Little Secret – 1996

schleprock america's dirty little secret Longtime readers might remember a semi-recurring comic reading project I kicked off a while back called simply The Box. I’d gotten a box of comics from my inlaws, would reach in and pull out a few random issues, give them a read and write a review. Well, I recently found myself in a similar situation, but with CDs thanks to an awesome package from my pal Jesse. In an effort to not only make my way through the discs, but also create some kind of record of what I liked and didn’t like about them and also sharpen my music-writing chops a bit, I’ve created The Music Box. I select a disc at random, listen to it without doing any research, write a review and then look the band up. Should be fun.

The first entry comes from a punk band called Schleprock, specifically their 1996 album (America’s) Dirty Little Secret. I was excited when I pulled this one out because it reminded me of some of the pop punk records I bought in high school and into college. I still listen to Green Day and Sublime. I enjoyed my fair share of records by bands like Suicide Machines, Blink-182, Sum 41 and some of the ska groups like Goldfinger, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris and Reel Big Fish. There was an earnestness and passion there that wanted to break away from normal society and just do their own thing. As a teenager who felt far from normal, it’s hard not to relate to those themes, especially when they’ve become popular and burst forth from the radio and MTV on a regular basis. Plus fast easy-to-play guitar riffs are just fun.

So, Schleprock. Part of me wondered if this would be some forgotten gem. The kind of record that was produced by a band that fell apart for some reason or decided to shirk off the responsibilities of recording for a major label like Warner Bros. But, the far more likely seems to be the case: this band was picked up and produced to cash in on the popularity of the bands I mentioned above. After doing a little research — I had to resort to Google because there’s no Wiki page — I discovered that these guys not only took their name from a Flinstones spinoff character, but also formed in 1989, got signed to WB the same year this record came out and broke up in 1997.

First and foremost, I’ve got to say that (America’s) Dirty Little Secret isn’t a bad record. Vocalist Doug Caine, guitarists Jeff Graham and Sean Romin, drummer Dirty Ernie and bassist Dean Wilson made a good sounding record. They play well together and, musically, created some interesting songs that do a lot of the things you’d expect from a SoCal punk band from the 90s: rapid fire snare drums, bright bass parts, gang vocals, occasional surf rock inspired guitar lines, chunky riffs and solos that honestly surprised my with not only their presence, but their quality.

But, that’s kind of the problem, this record and this band just sound SO much like what you’d expect them to sound like (aside from the out-of-nowhere steel drum solo on “TV Dinner”). While those elements might have brought me into the world of SoCal punk back in the day, now they set off recognition alarms in my head that I can’t always trace back to the source, but still recognize. Sometimes they sound like Goldfinger, sometimes it’s Suicide Machines. Other times lead singer Caine decides to sing like Johnny Rotten. It’s cool to make nods or musical references to your heroes — I still remember how cool it was realizing that Billy Joe Armstrong said “problem” just like Johnny Rotten as a kind of nod — but you can’t do it too much because it comes off as copycat-ish.

Making matters worse, while I the instrumentation of the tracks was solid, the songs themselves didn’t do much for me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s cool to mess around in a genre, but you’ve got to bring something new or different to the table and I don’t think this record did that. On the other hand, the video for “Suburbia” above is actually unique and interesting. These kinds of songs all sound fairly familiar and just don’t do a lot for me, aside from the album’s final track “Back With A Bang” which focuses on a Unabomber type individual. And even that one devolves into the whole band singing the chorus over and over and over again until they hit the three minute mark and bounce. In fact, a lot of the songs used that trick which made me think there was a good deal of filler on this record.

schleprock album stickerSo, my first listen to (America’s) Dirty Little Secret didn’t exactly feel like uncovering a buried treasure Indiana Jones-style. It didn’t insult or offend by any means, I just felt like I’ve heard these tricks done better by other artists. Then, I played the record again while doing dishes and a little work and it was fine. This music makes for great background music because you don’t really have to focus on it, especially if you have a history with this style.

Here’s the thing, this music has a series of tropes that everyone played with that don’t necessarily age well. Since the bag o’ tricks is fairly limited, you associate them with certain artists, songs and records you heard first. Had I listened to Schleprock when I was 13, I probably would have loved them and added them into the punk rock section of my CD collection, but since I’m 30, I don’t know if I’ll even think to listen to them again.

My 12 Favorite New-To-Me Records Of 2011

Okay, as promised, I’m finally getting around to writing about my favorite new-to-me records of 2011, just like I did last year. Of course, I’m not counting new old record by my favorite bands of the year, because that would just be redundant. As it happened there were a clean dozen records that really sparked my imagination and pleased my ears in various ways this year. I’m going to try and keep these short and sweet, but you never know when it comes to me. As you probably know, I can get a bit wordy. If you want to see all those words, hit the jump. Continue reading My 12 Favorite New-To-Me Records Of 2011

My 10 Favorite New Records Of 2011

Had I been more organized, I would have had this post ready to go on New Year’s Eve or Day, but as it is, I was busy and just didn’t have the time or wherewithal to get it together. I have been doing my research over the past few weeks and have come up with not one, not two, but three music-related best of lists for 2011. Like last year, I will list my favorite new music of 2011 as well as the older records I discovered in the year, but I’m also adding a new section about bands that I really go into this year. I’ll get into more detail when I get to that post, but there will be some albums on that list that could or would have been on this list, so technically, I had more than 10 favorites this year. As always, this list is in no particular order, so here we go. Continue reading My 10 Favorite New Records Of 2011