Sunday, May 29, 2005

Music: Five CDs, Five Minutes

Olive in Longview, TX e-mailed us to say how much she enjoyed last week's debut of the "Five Books, Five Minutes" feature. She wondered if we might be able to do the same with CDs? Olive, thanks for the praise and we're always happy here at The Third Estate Sunday Review to steal from anyone, even ourselves. So here's the feature you requested.

Participating are The Third Estate Sunday Review crew proper -- Ava, Dona, Ty, Jess and Jim -- as well as Betty of Thomas Friedman is a Great Man, Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude and C.I. of The Common Ills.

As always, we're strong supporters of public libraries and campus ones. Selecting CDs for this feature were Jim, Ty, Betty, Jess and Rebecca.

Jim's pick was Sugar Ray's 14:59. We give a whole hearted thumbs down.

Jim: I picked it up expecting it to be bad, but I had no idea of how bad.

Dona: Ava and I were listening to it with him and just climbing the walls waiting for it to finally end.

Jess: Their problem is they never knew what they were. "Fly" broke out and it was like nothing they usually did. They were a really bad hardcore posing band. Then they got their "hit" and tried to mix the two. "Every Morning" and "Someday" they can pull off because the songs are laid back and their pedestrian treatment is less annoying. But when they try to "rock out" on songs like "Personal Space Invader" they really embarrass themselves.

Rebecca: Let's be honest, Mark McGrath, their lead singer, became a pin up or no one would have cared about them for more than five minutes. If he wants to take off shirt, I'm there watching eagerly but as music Sugar Ray doesn't cut it.

Ty picked up Aretha Franklin's Who Zoomin' Who? which we recommend for Aretha Franklin's vocals.

Ty: If anyone is getting nostaligic over the eighties, they need to listen to the music. This is so damn heavy in synthesizers, it sinks in them. It's like that cheesy Miami Vice theme. The reason Clarence Clmons saxophone playing (on "Freeway of Love") stands out so much is because it's one of the few moments when an actually talented musician is playing actual music.

Ava: Musically, the whole album has a Starship "Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now" feel. It's very sterile musically, I did like Aretha's vocals, but musically it was disappointing.

C.I.: Seven of the nine tracks were produced by Narada Michael Walden who also produced "Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now" which might account for the similarity Ava's talking about.
I think a lot of the songs are strong and Aretha's vocals are great but the production is a portrait of eighties excess.

Betty: The only time the production cools down enough to let Aretha breathe and actually nail a song is "Sweet Bitter Love." I didn't have to check this out because I have it in my collection. I ignore the production and focus on Aretha's vocals. I think she does a great job on "Another Night," "Until You Say You Love Me," "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" with Eurythmics and "Ain't Nobody Ever Loved You." But the high point of the CD is "Sweet Bitter Love.'

Jess: Carlos Santana is wasted on "Push." He's laying down some amazing guitar licks but he's got to compete with all this synthesized crap and it's too much. He gets drowned out. I'd agree with everyone that Aretha's vocals are strong and the songs are solid but the production really defeats this album.

Betty picked up Ani DiFranco's Evolve. The panel of eight recommends this album.

Betty: I'd heard about Ani DiFranco from you guys but I didn't know her music. This was the only album my library had when I took the kids in to pick out some books mid-week. I think we're going to speak about what's carried at the end, right?

Dona: Right.

Betty: So I'll just say that as an introduction to Ani DiFranco, I really enjoyed this album. I think she's amazing guitarist and I had no idea she played guitar until I was listening and looking at the credits. She has a really experimental style when it comes to music that, maybe this is just me, reminded me of when Earth, Wind & Fire were really into making music. To get that deep into the music and really explore like that you have to really love music and I was really impressed with her guitar playing. Her voice was not what I was expecting at all. I guess I thought she'd have a raspy kind of Bob Dylan like voice. She has a really sweet voice and I don't mean that as an insult. I really liked her voice and thought if she ever did a jazz album, she has the chops to pull it off. I enjoyed the lyrics and jotted down two samples that stood out.
From "Serpentine:"

cuz all the wrong people have the power
of suggestion
and the freedom of the press is meaningless
if nobody asks a question
i mean, causation by definition
is such a complex compilation of factors
that to even try to say why is to oversimplify
but that's a far cry, isn't it dear?

Vocally, she reminded me of a young Annie Ross. The other lyrics I jotted down were from "Welcome To:"

welcome to
no amount of stoned makes you feel ok
welcome to
this year's alone -- brought to you by christmas day
welcome to
the darkness into which praying people pray

The band on the album was great but I was honestly thinking she was going to be someone trying to be Dylan and she really wasn't that. Dylan's a talented writer but Ani's really a talented musician and the whole thing was this experiment that I could really get into. I felt like I was hearing an artist stretch and explore.

Jess picked up Dave Matthews Band's Before These Crowded Streets. Dona didn't care for it but the remaining seven all endorse this album.

Jess: I have all of Dave Matthews Band. I love them, I love Phish. And I'll hold my comments on selections available to the end. The hit on this album was "Don't Drink the Water" and I think that's a strong example of the band. But my favorite song on this has always been either "Rapunzal" with the way the music punches and explodes or "Stay (Wasting Time)" which just has a really haunting melody.

Ty: (Laughing) A road trip with Jess always means you'll hear the Matthews Band.

Dona: And the Mamas and the Papas!

Ty: And the Mamas and the Papas. And any other hippie acts like Phish. "The Dreaming Time" is probably my favorite song. I feel about this album kind of the way Betty does about Ani's album. You're listening to real musicians who are into the music. They get off on the jam and they're going to explore and take chances. For me, "Halloween" doesn't pull it off the experiment but the other songs on the album do and it's just nice not to hear some Disney Kid, nod to Kat, vocalizing over pre-recorded tracks and singing simplistic lyrics like "you played with my heart" or "dirty pop." This is real music.

Betty: Again, like with Ani, I was reminded of Earth, Wind & Fire when they're really going experimental and just burying into the music. Dave Matthews Band, sorry, was another band I knew of but had never heard until we were all listening. My oldest loved hearing this and we'll be picking up tomorrow because of a good report card.

Rebecca picked Cass Elliot's Dream a Little Dream: The Cass Elliot Collection. We all recommend this collection.

Rebecca: First of all, I love the cover photograph. It's trippy, it's cool, it sets the tone for what's inside.

Jess: I'd agree with that. Some of the covers of Cass Elliot make her look like she's a second rate Vegas lounge singer.

Rebecca: I loved "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore."

C.I.: For anyone new to Cass Elliot, she was one of the members of the Mamas and the Papas.

Jess: Along with Michelle & John Phillips and Denny Dougherty.

Rebecca: I didn't like the sentiment of "Disney Girls" which seemed like a retreat from what the Mamas and the Papas stood for but even on that song, her vocals knocked me out. My favorite songs were "The Good Times Are Coming" -- a message we can all take heart in on the left, her cover of Paul McCartney's "My Love," and "I'm Coming to the Best Part of My Life."

C.I.: The problem I have with the CD is that it's yet another Cass collection. I think it's the best of what's been released, collection wise, but I'm really bothered by the fact that the song she did in the H.R. Pufnstuf movie never makes an album. I believe the name of the song was "Different." A collection, especially when there are already collections out there, should unearth the tracks that aren't already available. There was a double disc Mamas and Papas set (Creeque Alley: The History of The Mamas and The Papas) that included solo tracks from all the members. Now there's a boxed set out of England (Complete Anthology) that does the same. On those and on all the Cass Elliot collections, you never get that song. If someone wants a Cass collection, this is where to start. But before the next Cass collection comes out, someone better realize that repackaging the same tracks over and over really doesn't move the sales. "Different" is a rarity. In case anyone doesn't know the lyrics, here's how it starts:

When I was taller and people were smaller
I realized that I was different
I had a power
That set me apart
I learned to take it
To use it to make it
It's not so bad to be different
To do your own thing
And do it with heart.

And I'm sorry, I have no idea who wrote the song. But I think it's the Cass Elliot image in that song. And Dream a Little Dream: The Cass Elliot Collection is one of three collections of Cass Elliot's solo work currently available. It's the best of the lot, no question. But it's really past time that they quit including the tracks that are available. And we've probably gone beyond five minutes with my long winded comments, sorry.

Jess: As a Cass fan, I'd agree with that. I actually have Mama's Big Ones and Dedicated to the One I Love which is an import. The first one has twelve songs, the second has eighteen. And the second one does include her cover of Laura Nyro's "He's a Runner" which the other collections don't. But I agree completely. Put out a CD heavy on Cass' noncollected tracks.
Her catalogue is mainly out of print and I think Cass fans would pick up an album of rarities. She had a great voice even when the material was less than great.

Ava: Okay, now we're going to address the issue that bothered us the most. This is a problem that we all noted and what Jess and Betty were referring to earlier. The selection is really poor.
If you're into collections and best ofs, you'll be happy. Betty thought she'd pick up Carole King's Tapestry because she really enjoyed Kat's review of it and had never heard the album.

Betty: Right, Kat's review made me want to listen to the album. I go into my library and it's not there. They have a Carole King greatest hits CD of some sort and a live one from the nineties which may be the concert Jess saw?

Jess: Yeah.

Betty: But the album itself they don't have.

Dona: And we should note that most of the libraries visited (in various parts of the country) either had given away their vinyl or had it housed in one area and didn't allow it to be circulated.

Ava: You often had to listen to it in the library.

Betty: And I go to the computer because I was at a branch and not the main library in my city. I thought I'd be able to request it from one of the other branches or the main library downtown.
But no one had Tapestry except the main library and it was on vinyl and noncirculating.

Ava: Music formats change constantly. At one point vinyl was the thing, 8-track tapes at another point, cassette tapes and currently CDs until they're replace with MP3s or something else. Each time the format changes, libraries are left to rebuild their collections around the new format.

Jess: And what you get are a lot of best ofs because those are "safe" choices.

Jim: For instance, there was no Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at the library I went to or Abbey Road. But there was the Beatles' Number Ones. And Pepper and Abbey are classic albums within the rock genres.

Ty: When I was a kid, if someone talked to me about Sly and the Family Stone, I could go to the library and check it out. Today, a kid's more likely to find that the only thing they can check it out is a greatest hit collection. So they'll miss out on Stand! and other really important milestones.

Rebecca: Yeah, hits are great but if it's just collections, people are missing out on the overview and the experiments. As most people know, Otis [Redding] is one of my favorites and I was surprised to find only of a best of. A best of will never help you understand how important an album like Otis Blue is.

Ava: The funding for libraries is being cut like crazy. That's public and college libraries. C.I. noted that The New York Times did a story on how one of the libraries at the University of Texas in Austin was getting rid of its books. We live in a digital age and with cuts in funding, we'll probably see more and more focus on the monies being allocated for internet and other such services.

Jim: So as supporters of libraries, what we're suggesting anyone do who can is buy a CD you like and donate to it your library. That will help for now until the format changes. In addition, there are people my like younger brother who buy CDs, listen for a month or two and then sell them off. We're usually talking about three bucks tops for reselling your used CD. If it's not scratched up, you might consider donating it to your library. They can either keep it or sell it to raise money that can go back into the library system.

Ava: Again, we support public libraries and encourage people to utilize them as well as college libraries. Their budgets continue to be cut. If there's an album that is your favorite and you can afford to give a copy to your local library, what better way to both show your support for your local library and to share an album that you think is amazing than to donate it.
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