Another Challenging Review

I know I have some NMH fan-friends that will be appalled at my attempt to review this album.  I lack the cultural vocabulary of the 90s to make any relevant comparisons; and my knowledge of any music “scene” is average at best. I was never any good at evaluating detailed lyrics or poetry – I barely made it through courses on Modern Poetry and Traditional French Poetry in college!

With that said, in these reviews I do my best to avoid reading anybody else’s impressions or reviews of a particular album or artist, so that my opinion is truly just mine.  I give my views stated from my current perspective (sophisticated or not) and in my own words.  The only research I allow myself for album details is via Amazon, Google Play, Wikipedia and dictionary references (for fact-checking only) and of course random lyrics sites if/as needed in addition to what is provided with the CD liner notes.

And so, although this may be my most strained and awkward review yet, here it is – as promised and with love.

Hannah

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Not Neutral about Neutral Milk Hotel

“On Avery Island” – by Neutral Milk Hotel

NMH

I actually picked up this CD by mistake, trying to find something suggested by a work colleague who liked Milky Chance.  The name sounded vaguely familiar, so I happily purchased their 1996 debut “On Avery Island”.  Immediately upon listening, the sounds of NMH took me back, WAYYY back to the late 90s.  I was reminded of house bands in basements, and shows in art galleries, coffee shops, and bars.  I am not surprised that Google Play simply described NMH as “An American Indie Rock Band” because that is exactly what it is (or was).

After enjoying the opening track, I immediately went into Jaded-Older-Person mode, becoming a little skeptical of the raw sound, random noise effects and what could be serious and/or pretentious lyrics.  I have recently been conditioned to crave contemporary radio pop – I needed to slowly adjust to more challenging music again!  In my attempt to appreciate each NMH song in just one week, I decided to completely ignore the lyrics.  There was just too much going on, and since each song seemed intentionally infused with meaning, I didn’t want to pretend to understand this all without adequate time to digest it.

My favorite song is the opening track, “Song Against Sex”.  Of course I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but this is fast, fun, and includes Weezer-esque vocals punctuated by timely trumpet interludes.  It makes you feel like a teenager again, and would be so much fun to hear live!  I also really like “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” – I put both of these tracks on the Spotify playlist so you can check them out.  The horn section (I guess I should say brass) is again well-featured here, and I hate to keep saying that the vocals remind me of Weezer, but they really do.  In a good way!

On the other hand, “Someone is Waiting” starts to lose me a little bit.  The tempo is slower, and the vocals are wailing and unfocused.  There are some fun sound effects here though, something like applause or the sound of frying eggs.  And I can’t decide if I like the final track, since I can’t adequately describe what is happening here.   “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” is extremely long, so I’m not even sure I’ve heard the entire thing all at once yet.  It seems like NMH enjoyed finishing up this album with a bang (or drawn-out, distortion-infused, end-of-the-concert jam).

I heard somewhere that NMH includes members who later created the group Apples In Stereo (AIS).  I find this interesting because what I remember of AIS is a shiny highly-produced sound with upbeat melodies and almost friendly vocals – a real contrast to this NMH album.  I’m sure I’m missing something huge here (and I might not be able to articulate it anyhow in 300-500 words on a blog) but even this contrast is refreshing, as it demonstrates vast creative ability and a willingness to challenge what was typical at the time (à la Spice Girls and Hanson).  At various points, the album brought to mind comparisons to Nirvana, Belle and Sebastian, Pearl Jam, and early Modest Mouse – I have to say there is definitely a stripped-down and very genuine appeal to this CD so I’m giving it an A- rating and encouraging you to check it out.

Link to Track Previews on Google Play:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Neutral_Milk_Hotel_On_Avery_Island?id=Bsratjkppjbgos3uce66p55hhgq

Link to Purchase Page on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Avery-Island-Neutral-Milk-Hotel/dp/B0000019OD/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1422397552&sr=8-2&keywords=neutral+milk+hotel

“On Avery Island” – Neutral Milk Hotel

TRACK BY TRACK 

  1. Song Against Sex – My favorite song on this is hands-down the opening track, “Song Against Sex”.  I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but this song is fast, fun, and includes Weezer-esque vocals punctuated by timely trumpet interludes.  This makes you feel like a teenager again, and would be so much fun to hear live!
  2. You’ve Passed – this is a slower song, but the drums keep it moving.  This song is in a minor key and comes across like a chant with sitar-esque guitars throughout, and mystical-sounding solo.
  3. Someone is Waiting – here is the kind of song that loses me a little bit. The tempo is slower, and the vocals are wailing and unfocused.  There are some fun sound effects here though, something like applause or the sound of frying eggs.  There is a guitar section of a dissonant and buzzy nature that I would more happily tolerate with heavier drums.  Instead I start to remember the feeling of being up too late with a cigarette-smoke headache.
  4. A Baby for Pree – I had to look up these lyrics because they creeped me out a little bit with their tactile/descriptive/feminine imagery. I’m sure there are multiple interpretations, perhaps (likely) not to be taken literally.  The song tells a story, and the music underneath is almost minstrel style with simple strumming guitars – so it is really designed to support the storytelling singer and I think that is why the lyrics pop out so much here and demand to be noticed.
  5. Marching Theme – I would describe this “theme” piece as having a dizzying background of animated guitar rambling, while a deliberate and unwavering instrumental keyboard melody warbles above – then crashes into a guitar freakout.  I actually loved this, maybe because there were no complicated lyrics to distract me!
  6. Where You’ll Find Me – This continues the music theme started with “A Baby for Pree”, having the same melody and more really deliberate poetry. The first song is telling the story of Pree – this second one is told in the first person, seemingly continuing the story as a postlogue.  This really reminds me of Belle and Sebastian, without the emotional violins.  Instead there is a keyboard solo that works just fine.
  7. Avery Island / April 1st – The horns here remind me of the sound of evening taps. Has the feeling of bittersweet finality, the end of something.  While listening to this, in my mind I am seeing a Wes Anderson movie with sad and nostalgic images of being outside at dusk.
  8. Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone – I really liked this track. Another example of how the horn section (I guess I should say brass) is well-featured here, and I hate to keep saying that the vocals of NMH remind me of Weezer, but they really do.  In a good way!
  9. Three Peaches – This song is the one that reminds me most of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Plenty of vocalizing without words – in a voice that seems Kurt Cobain-esque.  Finally, a little more grit than Rivers Cuomo here!
  10. Naomi – Here we have a little more of the song structure that appeals to the part of me that loves pop. A prominent verse of the song that came through is “Please Don’t Leave Me” – I initially wondered if this was a slower cover of Ben Lee’s 1995 song (of course it is not).   I like the synthesizer in the background; reminds me of The Strokes’ “12:51” (although a little less upbeat and rocking).
  11. April 8th – This continues the feeling given by #9 (“Three Peaches”) again. In fact, the repeating themes (“A Baby for Pree”/”Where You’ll Find Me Now” and these two grungier songs) alternating with more instrumental horn-infused tracks make you aware that you are listening to a deliberate musical work, not just a collection of isolated songs that happen to be on the same CD.
  12. Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye – This track is 13 minutes and 49 seconds long. It is obviously the band’s favorite; their way to go out with a bang (or drawn-out, distortion-infused, end-of-the-concert jam).  I would suggest this is their oevre principal from the body of their greater magnum opus.  But I don’t enjoy listening to it, sorry!

Taking Suggestions to Heart

This week I’m sharing my first review of an album suggested by a reader, hooray! From here on out, I’m hoping that the CDs stacked in my car will be suggested by you, family and friends.  Please keep the recommendations coming!

Other suggestions that I have been able to incorporate include 1) the addition of preview links (from the first week), and now 2) the introduction of a RockMyCommute PLAYLIST!  I’m super-excited to share this with you via Spotify.

My plan is that these monthly playlists will include my two favorite songs from each album reviewed that month, as well as a few of my own suggestions.  Listen on “shuffle” mode, and enjoy! 

Hannah

The Diva of all Divas…

“Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” – Aretha Franklin

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I must have heard some Aretha songs growing up – both of my parents loved Motown-style music.  But the first time I remember really noticing Aretha was in the Blues Brothers movie.  She was beautiful and strong, with an amazing voice!  When my cousin suggested this Great Diva Classics cover album for an RMC review, I was excited to give it a try.

I was especially delighted by the opening strains of “At Last”, because this song always reminds me of every wedding first dance – or stereotypical wedding movie first dance – of all time.  Listening to this, I wanted to feel like I was no longer in my Prius, but in some generic hotel ballroom with round white tablecloths and 90s floral/feather centerpieces.  But something was missing – I felt nothing!  The emotion and awww factor of the Etta James version was just not there.  It was then that I realized an album of Aretha covering popular Diva hits would probably never be as great as listening to the original recordings, even if it is ARETHA and she is wonderful.

Of course there are some redeeming moments on this Diva collection.  For example, the cover of Adelle’s “Rolling in the Deep” is actually better than the original, in my opinion!  Really fun to listen to (and to sing of course).  “No One” (originally performed by Alicia Keys) is well-sung by Aretha in this version, which has an extra reggae/islander feel that will make you long for warmer weather.  “Midnight Train to Georgia” is fine here, but it just did not really wow me, because I love the Gladys Night song and I think is just perfect as it already is.  It can’t really be improved upon – sorry.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” was kind of a (bad) surprise on this album, 1) because I didn’t realize that Sinead O’Connor was considered a classic “Diva”, and 2) because the cover is just all wrong.   The tempo is jazzy, the melody becomes somehow upbeat (isn’t this supposed to be a sad song?) – so the originally haunting, memorable chorus is now barely recognizable.  And maybe it is unfair for me to complain about “Teach Me Tonight” and “People”, because I have never liked those songs anyhow.  I really, really tried to give each of them a fair listen in the car ride home this past week, but I did not really enjoy it.

I hate to say this (because I think Aretha is amazing!) but this album gets a barely passing grade at almost a C –  not because it is all horrible, but mostly because there is just really no reason to purchase this or listen to it.  If you like these songs, then the original versions are great as they are.  If you really like Aretha, you probably should just pick up some of her own recordings that she is famous for, and maybe buy the single MP3 for “Rolling in the Deep” to hear her try something new.

Link to Google Play to preview tracks:

https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Aretha_Franklin_Aretha_Franklin_Sings_The_Great_Di?id=Bcjhposa3xs252xbz7yjijbcxd4&hl=en

Link to Amazon for purchase details:

http://www.amazon.com/Aretha-Franklin-Sings-Great-Classics/dp/B00O0MBHR4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421720336&sr=8-1&keywords=aretha+franklin+sings+the+great+diva+classics

“Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” – Aretha Franklin

TRACK LISTING & COMMENTS

  1. At Last – This is an OK, but not great cover.  It really feels like a cover.  As I mentioned in the full review, I was excited to listen to this version of “At Last”, because this song always reminds me of every wedding first dance – or stereotypical wedding MOVIE first dance – of all time.  But something was missing here – I felt nothing!  The emotion and awww factor of the Etta James version was just not there.
  2. Rolling In the Deep (The Aretha Version) – I thought this was great. This is already a really good, energetic song, and Aretha takes it to the next level.  I wish had taken better notes – but I think I remember that the lead singing, underlying rhythm, and backing vocals just seem enhanced in every way over the original.  Loved it!
  3. Midnight Train To Georgia – the Gladys Night performance is hard to beat. That song has special meaning to me since I moved away from my family when I was 20 (for a boy, of course), and I used to quote lines of the lyric to myself as personal encouragement.  This version is a little faster, and the backup singers are female, which shouldn’t matter but it produces an overall lighter sound.  It almost sounds like the tape has been put on high-speed!  The male singers provide a lot of personality to the original version, which is why I think the overall experience is different here.
  4. I Will Survive (The Aretha Version) – This one came out pretty good, mostly I think because Aretha throws a lot of her own style in here, but it really works with the song. She uses a different phrasing for the opening line that might throw you off a bit at first – but then she has some sassy comments thrown in (“get to steppin’!”) that make this version extra fun and fresh.
  5. People – I’m not sure I gave this one a fair trial. I should have spent some time with the Barbara Streisand original in order to provide a good comparison… but I just don’t like this song.  It comes across like a run-on-sentence trying to describe an incomplete idea.  If you love the original – beware.  I’m learning that covers of songs that one is really attached to almost always disappoint.
  6. No One – I actually liked this! “No One” (originally performed by Alicia Keys) is well-sung by Aretha in this version, which has an extra reggae/islander feel that will make you long for warmer weather.  It was enjoyable to listen to, and pleasant to have in the car on a dark wintry day.
  7. I’m Every Woman / Respect – I had not heard “I’m Every Woman” in ages! Chaka Khan or Whitney, this is an awesome song that was popular for a reason.  Combining it with R-E-S-P-E-C-T is fun (although unexpected, and possibly unnecessary since each song could stand on its own), and it gives it that unique Aretha mark which is perfect for this album.  You’ll be turning up the volume on this one!
  8. Teach Me Tonight – There are a number of singers that have recorded this over time, but when I use Google the most acknowledged seems to be Dinah Washington. There is a beautiful picture of this woman singing her heart out into a vintage microphone – you should check it out.  However I still think this song is a little creepy, and I don’t like the vulnerability of it when I think about the lyrics.  If you already like it, you might like this version too – because the singing by Aretha is just fine.
  9. You Keep Me Hangin’ On – I don’t remember having a lot to say about this song, after several listens through the whole album, which could be a good thing. Most tracks initiated a very negative or very positive response in me, so the others just kind of faded into the background.  This is probably just fine.  The only comment I can think of is to suggest that Aretha’s voice is not as pretty as Diana Ross’ voice… but that is probably some Diva war that I don’t want to get involved in.
  10. Nothing Compares 2 U – I have to reiterate what I said in the review here. I was surprised to find this on the track listing, because 1) I didn’t realize that Sinead O’Connor was considered a classic “Diva”, and 2) the cover version is just all wrong – too many interpretive liberties are taken with the original.   The tempo is jazzy, the melody becomes upbeat even though the song is sad – so the originally haunting, memorable chorus is now barely recognizable.

Two Weeks In…

… and I’m already falling behind in my New Year Resolution to post a music review every Tuesday!  I had to take a little more time with “Hypnotic Eye” because 1) this is Tom Petty; 2) this has already been a crazy week, and; 3) this is Tom Petty.  

I am 100% sure that everybody already has an opinion about this album – if they care at all – so I have prepared myself for some respectful disagreements (in the unlikely event that I receive many reader comments).  Rather than stall forever in an effort to make this as detailed and perfect as possible, I’m just going for it.  I hope you don’t mind the delay; I hope you enjoy the writeup; and I hope you check out the album yourself!

Have a wonderful week, and may your New Year Resolutions fare better than mine thus far!

Hannah