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!

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: Gas Giants From Beyond The Back Burner (1999)

gas giants from beyond the back burner Picking one disc out of a box and giving it an uninformed listen!

When I first got this box of CDs from my pal Jesse, one of the ones that really popped out to me was Gas Giants From Beyond The Back Burner. It’s not because I knew about this band or had heard about this record, it’s because the cover and some art in the booklet was drawn by Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled, Shaolin Cowboy), one of the all-time greatest comic book artists of all time.

So, when I reached into the box and came out with this record, I was pretty interested. From the front, it looks like it might be a metal record (possibly nu-metal, given the era) and by the back it looks almost like a record for kids. And yet, when I hit play on my iTunes, I was surprised to find myself absorbing more of a pop rock record in the vein of The Replacements. I was even more surprised to realize that I completely recognized the lead singer, but couldn’t place him. I figured he was from a band like Seven Mary Three or one of those other mid-to-late 90s rock bands.

The voice thing wasn’t too distracting and actually acted as kind of a gateway of familiarity for me into this record. I mean, it already sounded like a lot of the music I heard on Detroit’s 89X or Toledo’s BUZZ 106.5 while doing my homework in the late 90s and early 00s. It’s that era-specific rock music that’s just the slightest bit distorted (or grunge-y, if you’re nasty), but never gets too far into that arena.

Overall, I really enjoyed this record. Listening to it didn’t blow my mind. It wasn’t like discovering this long-lost treasure of amazing music from a bygone era. But it was a really fun experience because the songs were quality, the band was solid and, as I’ve said, there was an indirect link to my youth. So, while it wasn’t a lost treasure, it was like stumbling on to a book in a series that you didn’t know you were missing that’s also pretty good. I don’t know if a younger listener would enjoy the record as much. Am I enjoying it because of the nostalgia factor or based solely on quality? It’s both, really, I don’t think they can be separated.

So, after giving it a listen, I finally scratched the itch and looked the band up. The lead singer, Robin Wilson, is the guy from Gin Blossoms! Apparently that band broke up in 1997. Wilson and drummer Phil Rhodes started Gas Giants with Daniel Henzerling, who also played with the Blossoms, and Mickey Ferrel. They cut just this one album, released “Quitter” as the single and broke up in 2001. After reading all that, I went back and listened to the single again and I’m honestly not sure if it lives in my memory or not. I was even more surprised that the band has almost zero presence on YouTube, hence the lame video above.

Unlike some of the other Music Box attempts, I’m fully on board with Gas Giants. I even put the CD in my car so I can get to know it even better. That’s a big step up from some of those other records’ fate: sitting on the to-donate pile in the corner of our living room.

The Music Box: And The Thieves Are Gone By Joseph Arthur (2004)

joseph arthur and the thieves are gone Picking one disc out of a box and giving it an uninformed listen!

This week’s Music Box selection is a record called And The Thieves Are Gone by Joseph Arthur. I knew absolutely nothing about Arthur going into this listen, so I had zero artist-specific preconceived notions aside from an inkling that it might be a little weird based on the cover and booklet art.

And “weird” is a pretty good way to describe this record. Arthur seems to enjoy taking a fairly basic track or song and layering all kinds of extra sounds, textures and sonic craziness on top of them while also singing along in a kind of gravely voice that feels a little more put-on than it needs to be.

From the drone-y, mantra-like “Papa” which kicks off the EP to the the album ender “Glass Pipe,” Arthur explores a lot of strange worlds that will either land with you or not. There wasn’t much for me to grab onto with “Papa,” but I enjoyed the more beat-oriented “Savior Of The Sun” and “Anywhere With You” even though he sounds a bit toasted and off timing-wise. There’s even some great twangy guitar on “My Home Is Your Head.” In fact, there’s a lot of goodness on this record, but then there’s almost always something that comes along to throw me off. Sometimes its the affected-sounding vocals, sometimes it’s a high pitched guitar wail that makes the lizard part of my brain cringe, sometimes it’s a strange sound effect that adds one too many ingredients in the soup and throws the whole thing off for my taste.

After listening to all six tracks, I looked Arthur up on Wikipedia and learned that not only has been been doing this music thing for quite awhile, but he’s known for creating sonic landscapes and layering tracks. I also read that this EP is actually a group of outtakes and extra tracks from Our Shadows Will Remain, which was released earlier the same year. I can’t compare the EP to the full record because I haven’t heard it, but I have noticed as a longtime music listener that there are usually reasons songs don’t make it on albums the first time around. Are there any Joseph Arthur fans out there reading this? How do these six tracks compare to the actual album?

At the end of the day, I think And The Thieves Are Gone just isn’t my bag. Arthur’s clearly an artist with his own point of view and I respect him for that, but this disc didn’t make me want to dive into his discography. It’s not bad, but it does hit a few of my buttons on the irritation elevator. However, if you dig slightly fuzzy vocals and a lot of tracks and sounds layered on top of one another, then this might be the record for you.

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.