Sahara Hotnights – Kiss & Tell

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

This is another one of those unfortunately overlooked albums in my collection. Playing this again for the first time in a long time was eye-opening. This album is fantastic! Why had I forgotten about this?! HOW had I forgotten about this?! I blame the anhedonia from my debilitating depression. I am def going to have to check out the later Sahara Hotnights albums.

What I Think of This Album

This is the album Sahara Hotnights was born to make. For all its pleasures, the sound of Jennie Bomb threatened to lead the band down a dead end street (whereupon they would have pulled switchblades out and commenced to kicking ass, but still). The band was wise to transcend their garagey roots, leave out the more traditionally hard rock elements, and lean strongly into pop. The result is a shiny, peppy third album that gladly barters brashness for sophistication. Lead singer Maria Andersson sounds more assured, the harmonies of Jennie and Johanna Asplund are given more attention, and keyboards abound. None of this is to say these songs are bland or boring – Sahara Hotnights still rock with sweaty abandon. It’s just now there is some glitter and eyeliner mixed in with that sweat.

Whether or not it is a coincidence that the change in sound arrives with their major label debut, Sahara Hotnights takes full advantage of the big money opportunity immediately. Opener “Who Do You Dance For?” is like a grittier Blondie; the bass tone is excellent, the Asplunds’ harmonies are killer, and Andersson sings with buckets of attitude.

Putting up a fight for top honors is “The Difference Between Love and Hell,” with an unstoppable bass drum, catchy riffing, a keyboard line that the Cars would have sold all their Vargas girl posters for, a hypermelodic chorus, and some of Andersson’s best singing. I don’t think the fade out was the best choice for an ending, but everything else about this track is fantastic.

“Hot Night Crash” is a high octane rocker that is a mix of power pop and garage rock, arguably more muscular than anything on Jennie Bomb. “Empty Heart” initially gets by on Andersson’s sassy vocals, but the keyboard line that comes in is what puts the song over the top. And as on many of these tracks, Andersson is allowed to sing in a way she wasn’t on the previous album, to the benefit of all; she nails it on the chorus, for sure. 

The synthy goodness of “Stay/Stay Away” is irresistible, as the snaky line slithers its way into your heart, which is otherwise occupied with the desperate lyrics. A nasty guitar part and pummeling drums characterize swaggery, new wave influenced “Walk On the Wire.” The band comes together for the enthusiastic “Mind Over Matter,” and Andersson’s voice breaks appealingly on the sinewy “Stupid Tricks,” which uses a subtle organ to good effect.

There is a sort of rockabilly guitar sound to “Nerves,” and “Keep Calling My Baby” turns the volume and tempo down a tad to almost get within a fjord of ballad territory. The “ah ah ah ah ah”s are to die for and the melody is excellent, with Andersson communicating vulnerability, resentment, and heartbreak.

Andersson and drummer Josephine Forsman wrote all the songs together. The band thanks Jari Haapalainen (producer of the Concretes and Camera Obscura) in the liner notes. No one is credited with keyboards, which is unusual.

The Best Thing About This Album

The confident growth the band displays.

Release Date

July, 2004

The Cover Art

This is an alternate cover shown here, with a blue background and black text; my version has a white background with orange text but I could not find a good image of it online. Again with the two-toned aesthetic (on the version I own). This is a very new wave design, and I am a big fan. The diagonal tilt, the stripes, the sexy shoes, the stylish poses, the font for the band name. Excellent all around.

Tegan and Sara – So Jealous

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

At some point, Tegan and Sara were reduced to the simplistic tag of “Canadian lesbian twins,” which only goes to show how the truth sometimes does not tell the whole story. It also speaks to the dehumanizing impact of the media, but that’s another story. Among other things, the pair are activists, firmly entrenched in the fight for LGBTQ equalty, and despite their growing success and fame, seem grounded and genuine, having recently released an album of songs they wrote as teenagers. They also collaborated on a memoir about their teenage years. Tegan and Sara seem like good people.

What I Think of This Album

Without knowing more, you might have thought this was Tegan and Sara’s bid for stardom. In fact, that happened several years later, when they successfully embraced a more mainstream pop sound (via 2013’s Heartthrob). Which isn’t to say that So Jealous wasn’t the initial attempt. It is significantly glossier than If It Was You, with many more keyboards and a decidedly ‘80s/new wave feel. At the same time, the twins’ (separate) songwriting has matured, so what you get is a more consistent batch of songs buffed to a high sheen. That’s nothing to turn your nose up at, and I for one have no real problems with artists’ efforts to achieve greater success.

Tegan is slightly overrepresented, with eight songs to sister Sara’s six. Tegan’s work strikes me as more immediate, going straight for the limbic system with traditional pop elements. Take the stacked harmonies on “You Wouldn’t Like Me” or that song’s build from acoustic guitar to fully arranged juggernaut. “Take Me Anywhere” is as pure a song of teenage love as any, with more hooks than there is acne in the average high school classroom. Her streak continues on wordy  “I Know I Know I Know,” with a propulsive bass line and gurgling synth part, and “Where Does the Good Go,” a song of stark lyrical demands and unvarnished emotion.

Her best song may be “I Won’t Be Left,” with powerful vocals (including a great call-and-response/countermelody vocal) and a choppy rhythm. Her most fun song, on the other hand, is the pop-punk “Speak Slow,” the song on which guest Matt Sharp’s (Weezer, the Rentals) keyboard contributions are most obviously “Matt Sharp keyboard contributions.” If “Speak Slow” is candy for kids with a predilection for Manic Panic, “Wake Up Exhausted” is a slower, more sophisticated piece, and “Fix You Up” is a fine and pretty ballad.

Sara’s songs are more challenging, and arguably more intricate. “I Bet It Stung” oozes drama and expertly employs dynamic shifts and pounding drums. The gentle pull of “Downtown” is no less powerful for being subtle (though the loud drums contradict the mood and arrangement of the song). Sara gets the title track, which boasts a number of tempo, arrangement, and feel shifts.

“We Didn’t Do It” is spindly and jagged, again with a very new wave sound – like the Cars trying to cover Gang of Four (minus the politics and the intellectual theory). I have to say I don’t like Sara’s “Walking With a Ghost,” which I guess puts me at odds with the White Stripes, who covered it. This is the track that most nakedly apes the ‘80s (I half-expect Ray Parker, Jr. to make a cameo appearance partway through), and is probably the least melodic. “I Can’t Take It” is an appropriately moody piece, all shadows and mist.

Once again, John Collins of the New Pornographers co-produced.

The Best Thing About This Album

Sorry, Sara, but I lean towards Tegan’s poppiness:  “I Won’t Be Left.”

Release Date

September, 2004

The Cover Art

The cover was designed by Canadian artist EE Storey, who has done work for Death Cab for Cutie and the Rentals. I like it a lot, and I think the pile of small, red felt hearts on the black background is a perfect companion image for the songs on the album.

D Generation – No Lunch

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

D Generation makes me smile. Which is good. D Generation makes me laugh. Which isn’t necessarily bad, particularly because I firmly believe these boys possess a sense of humor. But their anachronistic commitment to their eyeliner-smeared, guttersnipe punk image cracks me up. Leader Jesse Malin even started a punk rock nightclub on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan in the ‘90s, the perfectly named Coney Island High (which I admit I was always too intimidated to enter). This band never stood a chance but they made some great, fun music. Their first album (which I owned for a time) didn’t quite gel and so they switched record companies, lassoed in Ric Ocasek as producer and tried again with No Lunch, which included four songs from the debut. They released two more albums after this (the fourth coming in 2016, almost two decades after the third one), and Malin went on to a mildly successful solo career, sounding like a mix of Paul Westerberg and Springsteen; meanwhile my favorite band member simply by virtue of his name, Howie Pyro, allegedly ran into some legal trouble in 2011 or so.

What I Think of This Album

Practice makes perfect, I guess. I am not sure what happened with the first album or what exactly changed by the time of the second, but the fact that one-third of No Lunch is new versions of songs from D Generation suggests that the band was very unhappy with that initial effort. I’d have to relisten to the debut but I suspect it was a question of production more than songwriting. The glammy, hard-rock elements of the band’s sound could veer close to cartoon metal – and still do here at times – but Ric Ocasek (Cars) keeps the band firmly in the New York Dolls’ lane (though tougher and, ironically, less retro).

Jesse Malin has an appealing rasp to his voice, and the band dishes out attitude as if trying to live up to some New York stereotype. The songwriting is handled by any number of folks, including Malin, guitarist Richard Bacchus, bassist Howie Pyro, and other guitarist Danny Sage. The grafting of melody onto driving rhythms and gritty guitars becomes an effective calling card on tracks like “She Stands There” (which doesn’t shy away from vocal harmonies); the clever, tragic “Capital Offender” (on which Malin offers “I might as well sell my ass”); and “Major,” whose “na na na’s” are but a small part of its sympathetic anti-military stance.

A pummeling “No Way Out” doesn’t overstay its welcome at four minutes, mostly due to Malin’s spitfire delivery and his too-rare air raid siren screams. “Disclaimer” is a blast of defiance, and the fact that it doesn’t make much sense is neither here nor there. “Waiting For the Next Big Parade” balances quiet verses with an anthemic post-chorus; the line “my television wants to screw me” doesn’t really work, however. “Too Loose” could be a Bash & Pop song, while “Degenerated” is a harsh look at drug addiction with some nasty guitars and throat-shredding vocals.

The biggest problem with this album is that it wastes guest vocals from Suicide’s Alan Vega on the annoying “Frankie.”

The Best Thing About This Album

The absolute best thing about this is that five dudes wanted to resurrect street orphan punk in New York City in the ‘90s.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

Not bad. Even better is the ridiculous liner tray photo, which shows you what’s inside the bullet-ridden lunchbox:  an apple core, a guitar pick, a hypodermic needle and spoon, fireworks, a pager, dog tags, and, of course, a cassette of the album. All that’s missing is the switchblade.

The Church – Of Skins and Heart

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

A massively underrated band that nonetheless should have probably stopped recording many albums ago, the Church had as strong a run in the 80s (into the 90s) as any other band I can think of. I thought Marty Willson-Piper was one of the coolest human beings alive, and I was saddened to read that the band continued without him. I have never seen the Church live, and I refuse to at this point if Willson-Piper isn’t playing. One of the few Australian bands I listen to, also (not because I have anything against Australians, I’m just saying that’s how things have worked out).

What I Think of This Album

This is an odd early document, not really representative of the Church, but with some great songs and big hints of what they would become. Neither Liverpool transplant Marty Willson-Piper nor Peter Koppes has fully come into their own as guitarists, and Steve Kilbey’s songwriting is patchy; too, the band hasn’t adopted the elements of psychedelia they would be known for yet.

Even so, poppy “For A Moment We’re Strangers” is not far from classic Church, with a psychedelic vocal echo effect, some chiming riffs, and Kilbey’s smoky, mysterious vocals. The outstanding, drama-filled “The Unguarded Moment” is arguably the album standout, with its propulsive beat, multiple thrilling guitar parts, excellent harmony vocals, and bewildering lyrics. I really hate the drum fill at :55 that Nick Ward throws in. Kilbey co-wrote this song with Michelle Parker, his spouse at the time, but you wouldn’t know that from the liner notes. “Don’t Open the Door to Strangers” is an excellent piano ballad (with a sighing guitar part) that I can’t help thinking the Cars would’ve taken to the top of the charts; the Church never sounded like this again. Those are the undeniable highlights.

“Chrome Injury” is almost power-pop, and quite good (though it falters at points), with a spiraling guitar part and handclaps (!). “Bel-Air” is also enjoyable, though it sounds a little conventional. “Is This Where You Live” starts to approximate later Church – almost eight minutes of exploration – but the melody is lacking.

After that, things are not great. There is a post-punk feel to “Memories in Future Tense,” a sound the band returned to a few times over the next couple of albums but then dropped for good. Meanwhile, “She Never Said” is sort of a dark new wave track – like very early Talking Heads if they all had been bitten by a Redback spider. There are winning moments to “Fighter Pilot . . . Korean War” but the union between the melodic part and the artsy, moody, self-conscious part doesn’t work at all.

This album was released in 1981 in Australia. It was then released in the US in 1982 under the title The Church, with resequenced songs, tracks removed, and other tracks added from the “Too Fast For You” single (with new drummer Richard Ploog). Arista then rereleased the original album – with the “Fast” tracks appended – in 1989; this is the version I own. As it happens, “Too Fast For You” is fantastic, with a more typical Church sound in the vocal melody and guitars. The remaining songs from the single are fine but nothing special – the band was still finding its way.

This album was produced in part by Bob Clearmountain (mixer of Springsteen, the Stones, the Pretenders, Roxy Music, the Clash, and the Cure singles and albums).

The Best Thing About This Album

The best songs here are basically of equal quality. I guess “The Unguarded Moment,” but honestly, not with any passion because it means I am NOT choosing “For a Moment We’re Strangers” or “Don’t Open the Door to Strangers,” or, if you count it, “Too Fast For You.”

Release Date

April, 1981 (Australia); 1989 (proper US release)

The Cover Art

Meh. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it. I take that back . . . I hate the all lowercase.

The Cars – Heartbeat City

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

It would be interesting if I made a chart of the popularity, by sales figures, of the albums I own. Heartbeat City apparently sold at least 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, similar to Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water notched over 8 million in sales in this country. Green Day’s Dookie has sold upwards of 10 million in the U.S., as has U2’s The Joshua Tree and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle, Vol. 1. 15 million moved amongst his countrymen is the mark surpassed by Springsteen with Born in the U.S.A.; and the top spot in my collection goes to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which has sold more than 20 million copies states-side. Still, Heartbeat City was huge; almost certainly a top ten most popular in my collection. I remember the videos from middle school and just being really into “Magic,” “Hello Again,” and especially, “You Might Think.” As it turns out, this is the last of the Cars albums you would need to own, though, really, you could dispense with the studio albums and just get the greatest hits (which also nets you the excellent “Tonight She Comes,” never released on a studio album).

What I Think of This Album

This album could get by on just its four hits. And it basically does, as there is really not a lot else there, with one exception.

Some of the sound effects on “Hello Again” remind me of a Duran Duran song (“View to a Kill”? “Union of the Snake”? I don’t know), and the vocals call to mind Def Leppard (the first “hello” and “hello again” with the effects in the background in particular). Producer “Mutt” Lange did produce both Pyromania and Hysteria (respectively, U.S. sales of 10 and 12 million copies), so that tracks. Greg Hawkes simply dominates this song, playing about a million different keyboard sounds. This is a strikingly experimental offering for the US radio charts; there are a lot of very weird sounds on this for a Top 20 hit.

“Looking for Love” is the dark horse here. Part ballad, part mid-tempo number, this is a great, overlooked song –  I think it has a grand and panoramic feel. I am surprised this wasn’t a single (particularly when “Heartbeat City” and “Why Can’t I Have You” were). The drums sound absurd, though.

“Magic” starts out sounding like a flying saucer lifting off and ends up being a slicked-up bubblegum song; none of that is an insult. One one level, this is just a fun, melodic tune. On another, it’s a testament to studio goofs – for example, the tongue clicks at :57 after Ocasek sings “high shoes with the cleats a-clickin’” is hilarious and wonderful, as is the cowbell(?)-as-railroad-crossing-signal at 2:09. Kudos to you, “Mutt” Lange, for being brave enough to add those touches. Easton’s crunchy tone is fantastic, by the way, and Orr adds some nicely rubbery bass.

I never got into the Benjamin Orr-sung “Drive” back when I was 11, but it is an almost perfect ballad, with lush-but-cheesy synths in the background. Orr sings the shit out of this.

Jesus, “You Might Think” is a monster of a song. Just incredible. Easton plays perfect parts, with some brief muscular riffing, particularly effective at the close of the song.  He really is one of the least obtrusive, most tasteful lead guitarists. Hawkes provides the framework of the chorus with his piano chords, and the synths during the bridge are critical, and he manages to throw in a lot of other parts throughout the piece. That’s half the album right there – five great songs.

The other half doesn’t even come close, but nothing there is terrible either. What’s weird is that the hits were where the band took chances and the duds are where they tried to write more conventional FM radio songs.

“Stranger Eyes” is okay, again with the Def Leppard feel. “It’s Not the Night” is brooding and mysterious, with a descending synth line, until it, too, adopts a more typical US pop chart sound. “Why Can’t I Have You” is another ballad, and it’s not bad, though a tiny bit tedious. “I Refuse” is likewise the sound of the Cars with one foot in the vanguard and the other seeking for a toehold of popularity. The title track is okay, with some subtle fills by Easton and atmospheric work by Hawkes.

BTW, Andy Warhol directed the very strange music video for “Hello Again.” And for all the carping I’ve done about how the Cars were copying conventional sounds here, let me state that during his time with the band, Ocasek also worked as a producer for decidedly non-mainstream artists like Bad Brains, Suicide, and Romeo Void (and later, Guided by Voices, D Generation, and Bad Religion).

The Best Thing About This Album

If I had to break the band down, I would do it like this:  Ocasek was the most talented; Easton was the best musician; Orr was the coolest; Hawkes had the greatest vision; and Robinson had the most style. That is all besides the point because the best thing about this album is clearly “You Might Think.”

Release Date

March, 1984

The Cover Art

Another rather obvious choice by drummer David Robinson – the Vargas art is a callback to Candy-O, and there is, well, a car (a Plymouth Duster 340, if you want to know). That said, I do like the framing and the fonts. This art is from a larger piece (which wraps around to the inner sleeve/back) by artist Peter Phillips.

The Cars – Shake It Up

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I bought this album in the fourth grade – a year when I also purchased Blondie’s Greatest Hits, the Go-Go’s Vacation, and Freeze Frame by the J. Geils Band. I was a very cool 8 year old, and nobody knew it. I should note that my hometown did not have cable tv and it would still be at least a year or two before I saw my first music video, and of course, I was an only child and my parents were immigrants. There were no rock records in my home; my family had no history with rock. In other words, I had no built-in context for or source of rock; everything I discovered, I did on my own. Did I stumble along the way? Yes – I also bought the Alan Parsons’ Project album Eye In the Sky (I liked the song!) and The One That You Love by Air Supply. But I am very proud of my organic musical development.

What I Think of This Album

I keep this album around almost entirely out of nostalgia. It boasts two excellent songs, one good song, and three decent songs. This is something that can be swept aside in favor of a compilation. What I’m saying is, do not buy this album, unless music and your pet dog were the only good things about your childhood, too.

The good news is the album is front-loaded. Actually, I’m not sure why that matters. Anyway, “Since You’re Gone” is the true star here, even though fourth-grade me would never admit that. With an intro that sounds like a robot snapping its fingers, the song benefits from Elliot Easton’s melodic riff against a descending series of chords. Ocasek turns in a fine, desperate vocal and the backing vocals coming in at 1:15, followed closely by a synth squiggle from Greg Hawkes, cement this as one of the Cars’ best songs. Easton throws in some simple but effective lead parts with a tone to die for.

Next comes childhood favorite “Shake It Up.” I could not get enough of this song back then, and I can hear why. It’s totally fun (but admittedly flimsy). Easton’s riffing at the start is great, the rhythm is relentless, the chorus is simple and catchy, and the keyboard parts during the chorus worm their way into your amygdala. The solo is phenomenal.

Jumping ahead to “Victim of Love,” the Cars offered up a well-crafted pop song. The percussion has electronic elements and there are some keyboard sounds, but this is a classicist piece through and through; this could have come from the Brill Building. The keyboards are pretty great, as are the backing vocals. Easton gives us a nice swampy guitar. “Think It Over” is entertaining enough, without being anything special. Easton and Hawkes sound like they are having fun, at least, and Benjamin Orr sings lead, and there’s enough there to make you want to listen to it to the end.

Similar is “Maybe Baby,” which bursts out of the gate with tom rolls (though the sound is terrible); this song doesn’t amount to anything but it’s okay to listen to every now and then. Finally, ballad “I’m Not the One” is decent – it doesn’t sound much like a Cars song – it sounds very much like a mainstream Top 40 ballad – but it is not unlistenable. So, the bad includes the boring rocker “Cruiser,” which loses points for being a bad pun; this song goes nowhere and the synth parts sound ridiculous. “A Dream Away” is where I would like to be when this song comes on – pretty much a total waste of time. “This Could Be Love” is ponderous and gloomy, which is not a mood the Cars do well.

The Best Thing About This Album

My brain says “Since You’re Gone,” but my heart says “Shake It Up.” My heart never got me anywhere, though. My brain at least puts food on the table and pays the bills. “Since You’re Gone” it is.

Release Date

November, 1981

The Cover Art

Again, too silly and obvious, and the font is terrible.

The Cars – The Cars

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

For a band that just blew up popularly in 1984, with a cutting edge sound and revolutionary music video style, the Boston-sourced Cars had a very long history. Rick Ocasek and bassist Benjamin Orr started playing together in the ‘60s; in fact, Ocasek was a few days shy of 44 years old when “You Might Think” was released as a single. But the band was always pretty successful. Their debut from 1978 charted three hits and sold a million copies within the year. They were a band that was quietly greater than the sum of their parts. Ocasek was the principal songwriter and vocalist; multi-talented Orr sang on some of the biggest hits; drummer David Robinson had played in the Modern Lovers – he was responsible for the band’s name, and designed all their album covers except for the first one (he did design one for it, but the label rejected it; it’s a collage of black and white photos and is now the inner sleeve); Elliot Easton was the hotshot guitarist, cited by Slash, of all people, as one of his influences; and keyboardist Greg Hawkes was the musical visionary who pushed the band to adopt the newest technologies.

What I Think of This Album

I came to this album very late and roundabout. I had purchased Shake It Up (the band’s fourth album) when I was in fourth grade, and obviously was a huge fan of Heartbeat City come 1984, but I was a grown ass adult with kids by the time I picked up this disc (I believe in a Walmart in downstate Illinois during a tornado watch). Full of hits, I am not sure I love this album like some people do, but I think that may just be a function of my backwards journey to it.

The intro of “Good Times Roll” is pretty odd, with a stuttering, stinging guitar line, alien electronic beats, and the cold vocals of Ocasek (who does not sound like he believes in good times), but when the backing vocals come crashing in, all is right. Easton adds a lot of color with riffs here and there, and Hawkes fills in the gaps nicely with some arpeggios, adding up to a great example of 1978 new wave.

“My Best Friend’s Girl” is essentially a slicked-up rockabilly song – strip this down to its melody, lyrics, and the guitar part, and it’s a Roy Orbison number. Of course, the window dressing is perfect:  the handclaps are wonderful; the backing vocals cushion Ocasek’s voice; the keyboard vamp sinks it teeth into you; and the drumming is spot on. “Just What I Needed” is a steamroller of a song. Easton’s guitar leads burn themselves into your grey matter, and Hawkes’s synth parts are equally critical. Robinson keeps things steady and then throws everyone off balance at about 2:11 when he inverts the beat. Finally, Orr provides a fantastic lead vocal, perfectly delivering the blasé lines about the woman he “doesn’t mind” having around.

The band plays it loose on the goofy “I’m In Touch With Your World,” which is distinguished by an abundance of percussion effects; this is nothing more than filler. “Don’t Cha Stop” is a driving (Cars, driving) number that may not say anything clever but is still a fun song, with more quality work from Easton and Hawkes, and some fun tom rolls by Robinson. The drumming and riffage at the start of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” suggests something harder than what we end up with; Ocasek’s delivery, the group vocals, and the icy synth lines change the complexion of the song completely. This sounds like a band playing in hangar bay on a spaceship.

Orr again takes the lead on the underrated “Bye Bye Love.” And now, “Moving In Stereo.” People love this song. I am not a fan, and no amount of Phoebe Cates can change that. It seems too self-consciously arty; there is no real melody, it just drags on, and the keyboard parts are annoying. Finally, “All Mixed Up” is okay – I like it when Orr goes falsetto and the backing harmonies are cool there; also, Robinson plays a decently soulful sax solo at the end.

Full of hits, and arguably making new wave cool for rock traditionalists, this is indeed a groundbreaking album. The producer was Roy Thomas Baker, who had done work with Queen, and later produced the Smashing Pumpkins and Devo.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar solos in “My Best Friend’s Girl” are amazing.

Release Date

June, 1978

The Cover Art

A little much; a little too jokey; a little too on-the-nose. Robinson hated it, apparently, as did Elliot. The model is Nataliya Medvedeva, a Russian singer, poet, and novelist.

Weezer – Weezer [Green]

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

If Weezer had simply kept making this album over and over again for the rest of their career, I would have been satisfied. I’m not investing the time to figure out what happened, because I really don’t care, but apart from the odd song here and there – I will admit that I really enjoy “Beverly Hills” – post-Green album Weezer is a waste of space and time.

What I Think of This Album

Song for song, better than the Blue album and therefore Weezer’s best, the Green album is not anything complicated. These are very straightforward, incredibly simple pop songs – they are sugary, fast, and with just enough bite. While Weezer is capable of better, they have proven that they are much more apt to do worse, so this is really the most you can expect from this band.

This time around, producer Ric Ocasek (Cars) earns his keep, changing the sound around and adding keyboards and synths here and there. “Don’t Let Go” is all hooks and guitars. The harmonies are the key to “Photograph,” with a nice overdriven tone to the solo. “Hash Pipe” adds some rhythmic muscle (and the opening line is from the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That,” one of their most misogynistic songs). The band offers up its most romantic song in the form of the sweet “Island In the Sun.” The lyrics of “Crab” are really stupid – not that “Hash Pipe” was poetry – but the guitar riff is cool and the harmonies carry the day. In comparison, “Knock-down Drag-out” hints at allegory, but it is content to repeat a couple of phrases – again, the music more than compensates. The ballad strikes again on “Smile.” Arguably the best song here, the vocal rhythm of “Simple Pages” combined with a winning melody add up to more than the sum of the parts. Weezer must have sensed they were on to something, as “Glorious Day” is almost a rewrite of “Simple Pages.” “O Girlfriend” is sort of a throwaway.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Simple Pages” is the winner.

Release Date

May, 2001

The Cover Art

The difference between the dorky stupid charm of the Blue album cover and this, its arrogant cousin, is stark. Rivers is clearly the focal point, out in front of the others with his guitar and absurd lightning bolt strap, and the angle is more dynamic and flattering. These are no longer nerds proud to be nerds; these are successful nerds who think they’re no longer nerds.

Weezer – Weezer [Blue]

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

Few artists have disappointed me as much as Weezer. Which is a patently ridiculous thing to say. What kind of life are you leading that Weezer disappoints you? Well, so be it. I just can’t accept that Rivers Cuomo – who graduated from Harvard – writes such poor lyrics. Harvard. He has a BA in English. And he was in Phi Betta Kappa. It likewise confuses me why a band capable of writing quality pop hooks consistently refuses to do so. Bassist Matt Sharp eventually left to form the infinitely superior Rentals, which tells you everything about who the real talent in Weezer was all along.

What I Think of This Album

Honestly, there is a fair amount of this album that I don’t care for. But the parts I like, I like a whole lot. For starters, “Undone (The Sweater Song)” is fucking brilliant. The subtle spoken word parts are slacker genius and the contrast between the creeping verses and the rush of the chorus is irresistable. And I know it shouldn’t matter, but the music video is excellent, with the dogs running across the sound stage and drummer Patrick Wilson’s lewd wiggle. Even more enjoyable is “My Name Is Jonas,” with its delicate acoustic part, crunchy downstroke chording, pummeling outro, and a great melody; also, the title is maybe possibly borrowed from a beloved Choose Your Own Adventure book (“Your Code Name is Jonah”. A stretch? Maybe, but let me have my humble dreams, which hurt no one) and if so, that is a nice, dorky touch. And I like “Surf Wax America,” with its little guitar figure and the sheer sense of freedom that comes through the playing – though, forgive me, I don’t see any of these guys as surfers – plus the relentless rhythm sort of kicks ass.

The band displays a knack for simple mid-tempo balladry with “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” with a sort of metal-light solo, and another cool outro. Things sort of fall off after this. “No One Else” has a fun melody, but those lyrics are very toxically male; this could’ve been a great song if someone – anyone- had bothered to eliminate all the misogyny from it. “In the Garage” is ok but seems inauthentic, too purposefully flaunting nerd credentials right off the bat. “Holiday” is both sing-songy and cartoon metal, and all filler. “Only In Dreams” also doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be or where it wants to go, and the melody is awful; the last couple minutes (all instrumental) are okay. I find “Buddy Holly” annoying as shit – the references to “homies,” “dissin’” and “why do they gotta front?” in the very first seconds turn me off immediately, and the attempted rhyming of “front” with “violent” should be illegal. The rest of the lyrics are even less sensical and the melody bothers me (other than in the second half of the chorus). Much worse is “Say It Ain’t So,” which is whiny and self-indulgent – it generates not an ounce of sympathy from me – and I hate the faux-soul sound the band cooks up; the vocal is also terrible. Ric Ocasek of the Cars produced this and I really wish he had changed up the guitar sound – every song has the same tone and style. It’s fun in any one tune, but tiresome over the course of the album.

The Best Thing About This Album

The shouted “YEAH” after the “workers are going home” part of  “My Name is Jonas” is just like the shouted “LET’S GO” at the end of “Surf Wax America” – the right mix of nerdy and rawk.

Release Date

May, 1994

The Cover Art

The nerd energy is strong on this album, and that is amply communicated by this stark, absurd cover. This perfectly captures the ironic zeitgeist of the time, with a “so bad, it’s good” approach that, somehow, works. Also, this is probably a rip-off of/homage to the Feelies’ debut album artwork?

Wilco – Summerteeth

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Jay Bennett. This album is really all about Jay Bennett for me. Bennett, who transformed Wilco from an alt-country band into a pop powerhouse (and more). Bennett, who was kicked out of Wilco. Bennett, who despite his immense talent, probably needed a foil or partner like Jeff Tweedy. Bennett, who died in 2009 as a result of an accidental prescription drug overdose. And yet, I can’t really justify my affection and admiration for Bennett. I found his non-Wilco work – Titanic Love Affair (inspired by a Billy Bragg lyric) and a couple of solo albums I owned at one point – to be fitfully appealing, and I don’t care for roughly ⅖ of his Wilco output. But the stuff I do like? It’s out of this world. The scenes from documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that depict Bennett as an obsessive, minutiae-focused control freak actually endear him to me; his enthusiasm, creativity, focus, dedication, and talent – as instrumentalist, arranger, and studio whiz – are inspirational.

What I Think of This Album

People can rave about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot all they want; as far as I am concerned, this is Wilco’s masterpiece. At seventeen tracks and an hour of music, this almost qualifies as a double-album, but it never feels that way. You are instead cocooned in the lush, sumptuous, warm world that Bennet and Tweedy have created (the contributions of the other band members were reportedly quite reduced – Bennett even drummed on some of the songs). Reportedly they were both in bad shape, drug-wise during this time.

Many people speak of Tweedy’s lyrical growth here, and obviously this is head-and-shoulders above A.M., and he does offer up some nice abstract imagery, but there also some clunkers, and I honestly don’t get the fuss over “the ashtray says you’ve been up all night.” Anyway, most of the magic on this album is in the arrangements:  the bells on double-jointed opener “I Can’t Stand It,” as well as the little piano part at the end (I do like the “No love’s as random / As God’s love” lyric); the intricate orchestration on “She’s a Jar” – the woodwinds (keyboard) part, the faux-strings, some subtle fake horns, the clean harmonica from Tweedy, and a nice bass part (the “sleepy kisser” lyric is good); the descending piano line and moaning cello on “A Shot In the Arm,” not to mention the fucking TIMPANI, as well as the wavery synths, and the bass riff as the song works its way to a close; and the subtle organ and gentle backing vocals on “We’re Just Friends.”

There is also the analog synth line in “I’m Always In Love” that haunted Ric Ocasek’s dreams and the little piano part, plus the buried scream at the end (I always think the “you I swoon” line is “you asshole,” and I always will). Excellent drumming abounds on the sighing, handclapped Beatles-esque “Nothingsesvergonnastandinmyway(again)” – the alarm clock is a nice touch. Pet Sounds is the obvious touchstone for the shape-shifting “Pieholden Suite” (Bennett would later name his production studio after this song). The bass carries “How To Fight Loneliness,” but the organ plays a key role, and the keyboards at the end – sounding like backwards woodwinds – add an unusually appealing psychedelic touch. Similarly, the Moog creates the perfect pillow for the shuffling, impressionistic  “Via Chicago,” while the banjo is a welcome distraction; there is a guitar solo that comes from heaven and hell simultaneously, and the piano is gorgeous.

There is no lap steel credit for rambunctious “ELT,” but I refuse to believe that is a synth or keyboard. Brian Wilson would throw his piano into the ocean to have thought up the arrangement on panoramic lullaby “My Darling,” on which Coomer has a great drum part. There is a ‘70’s singer-songwriter vibe to “When You Wake Up Feeling Old,” which is the closest thing to a disposable song on this album. Bennett definitely played lap steel on the quasi-throwback title track, which sounds a little like the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun”; I like the birdsong a lot. Ostensible closer “In a Future Age,” is a contemplative, folky number with some interesting sounds, but probably the second-worst song on the album. Hidden track “Candyfloss” (which is what Brits call cotton candy) is a rowdy and muscular rocker adorned with bells and a hilarious operatic vocal track. Finally, there is an alternate version of “A Shot In the Arm.”

It’s important to clarify that it’s not all about window dressing. These are excellent pop songs on their own. This was Wilco unafraid to be pretty and vulnerable and colorful. Wilco never made music this beautiful again. “You’ve changed / What you once were isn’t what you want to be / Anymore,” indeed.

Ephemera: Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) and Dave Trumfio (the Pulsars) were among the engineers on this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

Jay. Fucking. Bennett.

Release Date

March, 1999

The Cover Art

It took me a long time to figure this out, not that I ever paid that much attention to it. It appears to be someone blowing a bubble with gum (though the bubble is unusually large and gravity-defiant). The black and white doesn’t work for me and I hate the blue, as well as the way the title runs into the band name.

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