Sunday, January 24, 2016

Hold My Beer, Vol. 1, by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen (Album of the Week)

            This album is a turducken of happiness for me.  On the outside, it’s a fine (damned fine, actually) group of fun country songs with all the classic country accouterments of steel guitar, fiddles and calling your boss an SOB. 

At the next level of happiness, we first encountered it in a Texas truck stop in a rack near the cash register.  While we gutlessly wound up buying it online off Amazon a few miles down the road after checking a couple ratings, we saw it first in its natural habitat – a Texas truck stop.

The final level of happiness is that I encountered this on the way back from a road trip to Texas – and, more specifically and importantly for the purposes of this album, a walk to Donn’sDepot in Austin, where I saw that the honky-tonking, boot-scooting world still exists in a non-ironic, non-mythologized state where little old ladies dance seriously with big men in cowboy shirts.  If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would have thought that Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers’ style of music was a tribute to a by-gone life instead of a good time reflection of a slice of reality.

The album title, “Hold My Beer”, is a reference to the old saw that a redneck’s last words are “Hold my beer and watch this.”  What follows is presumably a reckless act of foolishness and personal danger, resulting in a trip to the hospital or morgue.  In the liner notes, the explanation of what you have here is fleshed out a bit:
When this project started, we had absolutely no idea what we truly wanted, other than to make real, country music.  . . . It was an absolute blast making this album, going back to our country roots and just enjoying making music for the right reasons.  We sure hope you hear that when you listen.  . . . We love playing music for you and hope to do so for as long as possible.
 “Hold my beer and watch this, lil’ buddy . . . and in the next life, we wanna be ourselves again”
 This album is a warm, friendly, fun-loving good time country album.  There are none of the country clichés that annoy me (nationalism, misogyny, macho stupidity), but lots of the country clichés that fit as comfortably as well-worn jeans (heartbreak, friends, hanging out in bars). 

Through tricks of geography, city-living, musical narrow-mindedness and general ignorance, I had never heard of either Wade Bowen or Randy Rogers before we happened across their album off a highway in rural Texas.  It appears that they are big deals in that part of the country and elsewhere – in fact, moments ago, I learned that the Randy Rogers Band will be performing at the Uptown next Saturday, January 30.

Clearly, serendipity is afoot. 

            Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin finds herself hooked by these good ol’ guys and shares my sense of good fortune at having stumbled across their music.  She takes the blame for not buying it off the rack, but I was there, too.  To make it up to each other, we'll have a date night at the Uptown next Saturday.

Next up:  Special Effects, by Tech N9ne

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Return of the Tender Lover, by Babyface - Album of the Week

I admit I chose poorly.  I had the whole world of music to choose from, and I selected Babyface's "Return of the Tender Lover".  The best thing I can say about it is that it is not to my taste.  Having been made to listen to it for a week, though, I cannot quite stop there.  It is shallow, artificial, boring and a bit embarrassing.  Let me explain . . .

The way Robin and I have set up this "Album of the Week" project is that we alternate choosing an album that each of us will listen to for a week, and then offer up a review before an in-depth discussion of the music.  In that we started this project as a reaction to what we both thought was becoming a calcification of our tastes and a falling behind in the world of music, we have a strong preference for new music.  We certainly give our favorite artists a listen, but we also try to branch out a bit and expand our horizons.

So, it was my choice.  I looked at the Rolling Stone recent album reviews, and found a 3 and a half star album by someone I've never listened to.  "Romantic", "smooth", "gentle" and "a new kind of groove that could work in the club or bedroom."  I was seduced by a laudatory review and a promise that it would be easy fun.

Instead, I found myself listening to an album that came close to self-parody.  From the opening sax and slick production of "We've got Love" to the oh-so-slow shimmering percussion and hilariously inept echoes of "Our Love", it projects pre-teen image of love as smooth-jazz and superlatives.  Here's a representative sample of the pap that gets served up on this album - chosen pretty much at random, because the entire album is filled with similar writing.

Your love is exceptional,

Born of a heart of gold
It fills me up to my soul
Then my cup it overflows

No rhyme is too tortured, no metaphor is unwelcomed, no sentiment is too trite to be smeared over with honey and stuck into a smooth melody and shipped out.

To be fair, the album probably doesn't deserve the hostility it provokes in me.  Or rather, the songs probably don't individually deserve the negative reaction that the album earns.  Individually, the songs could be written off as uninteresting and overly sweet bits that might serve as a slow dance once in a while during a more interesting mix.  But, taken together, they are like nougat wrapped in cotton candy and drizzled with honey - and you have to eat it for 42 minutes and 41 seconds.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, though, you'll read a completely different reaction.  Robin falls head over heels for the sappy stuff, and now expects me to lip-sync one of the songs on Valentine's Day.  She has a far better-humored take on this oh-so-silly album.

Next up:  Hold My Beer, vol. 1, by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fast Forward, by Joe Jackson - Album of the week

Joe Jackson is one of my odd-ball friends, dating way back to college days when he was a talented smart-ass, and up to today when he's willfully weird, but talented enough to make it all work.  "Fast Forward" is a perhaps too-clever-for-it's-own-good, perhaps self-indulgently non-pop, flexing of astonishing musical muscle.

Albums like this make me regret my musical ignorance.  In the New Yorker, Jackson observes about his title and opening track, "It’s a cycle, and it goes in minor thirds from B to D to F to A flat and back down again.  It’s a sort of a clever technical trick—one of those things that sounds simple, but it took a lot of work to figure it out.”  Sadly, that is complete mumbo-jumbo to me - but I'm an alert enough listener to hear that something thoughtful is going on in the music, and it definitely works.  Joe Jackson has always had a way of planting melodies in my brain that stick with me forever. I saw him live in 1978 and I can still recall the frenzy of notes that kicked off "Sunday Papers".  (As an aside, I am determined to learn more about the structure of music in 2016 - if you recommend any resources, please let me know.)

This is not the Joe Jackson from 1978 and "Look Sharp", though.  He's more of a jazz musician now - his sound is based on piano and voice.  There's not a rocking song on this album, and nothing even aimed at a big demographic.  It's like he's had his fame, and now he's content to play for the NPR audience.  At 61, he's matured along with his initial audience.

It's easier for me to talk about Jackson's lyrics. He's brilliant at putting words together in fresh ways.  Some complain, perhaps justifiably, that he is wordy, but I think it's justified by the gems you find each time you listen.  Here are a few that grabbed me:

  • And you and me age disgracefully/And have way too much fun. (Fast Forward)
  • If I could see your face/The face of the girl behind the veil/I'd ask you if it feels like a guarantee/To keep you down, or keep you safe/Or just keep you pale/But what makes me think you'd even talk to me (If I Could See Your Face)
  • God must think he's God or something/Lording it over us/Seems to like to make us feel/Ridiculous/Gives us just one life then he lets us/Think it's not enough/Where can we get a better deal (Keep on Dreaming)
There's more to enjoy - if you listen, you'll find your own turns of phrase that engage you and make you smile.

Robin's review of the album provides a lot more depth than my own - she breaks it down into the four sections recorded in four cities that Jackson originally intended to released in four separate EPs.  She's obviously quicker to return to top form in her music after a vacation than I was!

Next up:  Return of the Tender Lover, by Babyface