Ranking my favorite Everything But the Girl albums

Although they weren’t on Rough Trade, Everything But the Girl released an album, Love Not Money, that I like and deserves mention beside Orange Juice, the Go-Betweens, and the Smiths. A special tip of the hat to 1990’s The Language of Life, recorded with George Benson producer, the impossibly named Tommy LiPuma, a smooth jazz record whose Womack & Womack cover and understated intelligence stood out amid Basia and Najee; I used to hear “Driving” in my dad’s car alongside “Cruising for Bruising.” Continue reading

Ranking Tom Waits 1983-2011

An idiosyncratic list. Compensating for a fallow nineties when he dabbled in soundtracks and applied his cool to extracurricular acting, Waits returned to recording in the 2000s with a vengeance, for better or worse. I couldn’t even finish his three-disc miscellany. I’ve got novels to read and bathrooms to clean.

1. Bone Machine (1992)

To find noise commensurate with the Beefheart worthy-lyric, “The devil shovels coal with crows as airplanes,” Waits found a homemade eponymous percussive device; he threw equipment down stairs when this failed him. The first half of this album, mostly written solo without the aid of wife Kathleen Brennan, is the most intense music of his career: scabrous white blues in which the minstrel mannerisms he’d adopted a decade earlier coalesced into a vision that subsumes Flannery O’Connor and Howlin’ Wolf, murder balladry and Underground busking. “Such a Scream,” “The Ocean,” “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” and “In the Colosseum” are so complete that they reduce the subsequent decade of work into parody; listeners didn’t need Mule Variations, nor the two unremarkable albums of 2002 when Bone Machine existed. Praised at the time, buried by the product of a new millennium, Bone Machine ranks among the top three or four albums of his career.

2. Rain Dogs (1985)

I annoy Waits fanboys of Rod Stewart’s Top Five cover of “Downtown Train” because Stewart and producer Trevor Horn embrace the original’s night-of-a-thousand-stars mawk instead of relying on an admittedly fetching Robert Quine guitar line to mitigate Waits’ moist croak. “Blind Love” and “Time” demanded Stewart’s love touch too, or maybe — stay with me — Luther Vandross. But the title track, thanks to Marc Ribot’s three-note hook and Stephen Hodges’ cymbal-averse drumming, might be Waits’ most beautifully realized union of sound and vision. And after “Hang Down Your Head” softens me, Waits’ own “Downtown Train” makes me cry uncle.

3. Bad As Me (2011)

What, another edition of Heaves & Belches? What distinguishes this American top ten from Real Gone or Blood Money is brevity, sweet brevity, and its racket — his loudest album since Bone Machine. “Hell Broke Luce” and “Raised Right Man” clang ‘n’ bang untethered to concepts or theatrical productions. Keith Richards returns for “Last Leaf,” an unofficial sequel to 1992’s “That Feel,” revealing himself as the source of Waits’ barstool blues: Tom spent the late seventies putting the needle down on “All About You.”

4. Swordfishtrombones (1983)

Like a tetrapod emerging from a mephitic Permian Era swamp, “Underground” announces itself as a clean break from the songwriter’s belting Weltschmerz career. A template for what followed, too: brashly mixed production, spare stinging guitar licks, a delight in colorful percussion instruments like marimba for their own sake. Obviously Waits didn’t abandon the melancholy, nor did he abandon his weakness for acting out shanties (“Shore Leave”); he discovered new kinds of offsetting stringency. “Down Down Down” and the title track would become fun throwaways; in 1983 they were evidence that he was just getting started.

5. Mule Variations (1999)

The embrace of this example of pre-millennium declension confused me. Softer if not spongier in execution from Bone Machine and what followed, Mule Variations served as as a welcome back after his theatrical interregnum. “Chocolate Jesus” revealed that the minstrel evocations had hardened into a manner. I embrace the ballads, in search of another Rod Stewart: “Hold On,” “Come On Up to My House.”

6. Franks Wild Years (1987)

The start of contract filler: solid fragments and excerpts of growls. A SPIN list from spring 1990 praising the most interesting artists of the last five years cited Tom Waits, specifically how adeptly his music works as house cleaning soundtrack. Franks Wild Years is that album — no small thing. Put it this way: it took The Wire for me to hear the possibilities in “Way Down in the Hole,” especially while scrubbing the shower stall.

Let me offset cottage cheese torture…

And I love the following items:

1. Tuesday Weld
2. Chock full o’Nuts
3. Lightly salted peanuts as snack
4. Insisting when possible on a hotel room with balcony or patio
5. Ronald Reagan histories and biographies
6. Any fricassee
7. Those three days anticipating Christmas Eve
8. Skinny jeans, the best casual men’s look in years
9. Aki Kaurismäki
10. New York Review Books

Ten more things that I arouse my ire

I can do without the following:

1. Revering the live concert experience
2. Cottage cheese and fruit
3. The Jonathan Franzen experience
4. “Eighties” as portmanteau for music with programmed beats and synths
5. Hot dogs
6. “Day and age”
7. Lucinda Williams after 2004
8. Ketchup
9. Double parking in front of grocery stores
10. The instinct for political moderation

Ranking eighties Hall & Oates

I’ll get to Daryl Hall and John Oates’ seventies catalog some day: too inconsistent and desperate to absorb in one sitting…

1. H20 (1982)

Despite his enthusiasm and considerable finesse, Daryl Hall is not a convincing soul man. Insistent without the charm, he’s an A student who wants the class to read his history essay. And he’s a truly confused songwriter. Where, say, Bryan Ferry went so far into narcissism that he emerged reborn as the Love God he always aspired to be, Hall just sounds like a creep. “One on One” is H&O’s best smoochfest, but Hall erodes his outreach by insisting he wants to sex her up. But saxophonist Charlie DeChant, bassist T-Bone Wolk, and drummer Mickey Curry — is up to every trick. The sudden tempo changes and sonic crunches in “Family Man,” the synth pads over which Hall yells paranoid cry after paranoid cry at an unfaithful woman — they adduce a sociopathic mind. Elsewhere, H20 finds H&O at their peak, their best eighties album despite nothings like “The Art of Heartache” and “At Tension.” The guitar-pop throwaways at the end of the record (“Delayed Reaction,” “Guessing Games”) wouldn’t be out of place on a Marshall Crenshaw album. “Maneater” definitively proves that any song which appropriates the bassline to The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a guaranteed classic. John Oates comes up with the album’s best hook, impressing the Italian girls in the song of the same name with his knowledge of vino rosso.

2. Private Eyes (1981)

Having found their, er, voices, H&O set about creating three-minute pop songs with a touch of soul and more than a little possession obsession: romantics they were not, which is why I understand why and how they repulsed a few critics. Form redeemed content. The hand claps and multi-tracked vocal of “Private Eyes” helps you forget that Daryl Hall is an uncommonly jittery frontman. The three or four overlapping synth lines (played by Hall, an underrated keyboardist) on “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” are worthy of Dare-era Human League. Although “Did It In A Minute” wouldn’t be out of place as the theme song to an early ’80s sitcom, “Head Above Water” and “Looking for a Good Sign” are too frantic to have fit in anywhere. The sleeper is “Your Imagination,” whose woozy organ hook and sneering John Oates harmonies deserved Basement Jaxx sampling.

3. Voices – 1980

It kicks off with “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” the last John Oates composition released as the first single, and no wonder: it crawled, like every post-“Rich Girl” single, to a top thirty peak. No reflection on its quality though. As the first example of their debt to New Wave, G.E. Smith’s twelve-string guides the duo through the kind of sustained sneer mastered by Elvis Costello. “Big Kids” is even better: Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” told straight, without the parable nonsense. The only peak-era album whose album tracks outdo the singles — this is the one with “Kiss On My List” and “You Make My Dreams” — Voices showed H&O at their magpie best. Avoid the Righteous Bros cover and the self-production is the trick: the songs vibrated instead of sounding as if smothered by pillows. I’m surprised Spoon hasn’t tried the doo-woop meets Joe Jackson wonder “Gotta Lotta Nerve (Perfect Perfect).” Guess they’re waiting for fun to flop with it first.

4. Big Bam Boom (1984)

Title and cover art say it all. H&O hired Arthur Baker to remix several cuts to give their most “eighties” album an electronic rhythmic foundation (opener “Dance On Your Knees” is a ringer for New Order’s “Confusion”). An album of songs remixed as if they were twelve-inches, Big Bam Boom anticipates Pet Shop Boys’ Introspective. The big hits were “Out of Touch” (also their worst video, in a career full of appalling ones) and “Method of Modern Love,” whose title gives away the game: Daryl, who can’t resist lecturing his conquests, explains How It’s Supposed To Work even as his falsetto distracts us from the fact that his hand is unbuttoning your shirt. There’s not much else here except for the unexpected tact of the ballad “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid” and John Oates’ ominous “Cold Dark & Yesterday”. H&O’s crack touring band, responsible for the crisp arrangements on the preceding three albums, has a noticeably diminished profile; these tracks are mixing board creations. Baker’s echo-heavy, Synclavier-happy production has the effect of accentuating Hall’s increasing smugness (she’s an “All American Girl” because she wants it all — and guess what “all” rhymes with?). Get the early 2000s CD release, however, and the album transforms: revelatory extended remixes of the singles plus the full seven-minute version of “Dance On Your Knees” prove how conversant H&O were about technology. Big Bam Boom would prove a most effective sendoff; Hall would go on to a big-haired solo career (peaking with the swirling David Stewart-produced hit “Dreamtime,” a better “Don’t Come Around Here No More” than Tom Petty’s), while Oates went on to race cars, co-write Icehouse’s 1988 Top 10 “Electric Blue,” and become an undeserved laughing stock.

5. ooh yeah! (1988)

As Thomas Inskeep reminds me, listeners disappointed with H&O’s last imperial phase album thirty years ago, 1988 offered “Monkey,” many singles from INXS’ Kick, Public Enemy, Guns ‘N Roses, and lots of New Jack Swing — who on earth needed a fainthearted Scritti Politti album from H&O, especially after Scritti Politti released their own fainthearted record earlier that year and watched it flop? Look at those song titles. Only “Everything Your Heart Desires,” no doubt greased by Clive Davis’ dough, took.

Singles 11/23

TSJ reviewed some of the Latin Grammy nominees, most good to excellent as the scores reveal. I suggest giving Rosalía’s addictive “Malamente” a spin. I overrate Laura Jane Grace’s continued effort in holding on to her rage without it looking like a manner.

Click on links for full reviews.

Rosalía – Malamente (7)
Twice – Yes or Yes (7)
Cuco – Amor de Siempre (7)
Exo – Tempo (7)
Miranda! – La Colisión (7)
Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers – Apocalypse Now (& Later) (7)
Clean Bandit ft. Marina & Luis Fonsi – Baby (5)
Poppy ft. Grimes – Play Destroy (5)
Luis Miguel – La Festival del Mariachi (4)

Worst Songs Ever: Howard Jones’ ‘Things Can Only Get Better’

Howard Jones – “Things Can Only Get Better”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #5 in June 1985

If we learned that Howard Jones was a cyborg created by the Thatcher government to sell positivity to a depressed public, we wouldn’t blink, nor would we miss a step if we learned that he based the fluffed generosity of his dandelion thatch of hair on Binkley from Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County comic. Continue reading