Liam Finn – I’ll Be Lightning

Liam Finn - I'll Be LightningAs much of a fan of Betchadupa as I’ve been, I’m going to fess up that I wasn’t sure what to expect from Liam Finn’s first solo effort. I’d heard a live recording, and the songs were plenty catchy, but it’s so hard to tell from a live recording what the final product will be like. I needn’t have worried. We are, after all, talking about the son of Neil Finn of Crowded House fame, and after listening to I’ll Be Lightning a lot in recent weeks, I think we can say without reservation that he’s picked up his dad’s ear for crafting a great song and giving it a great performance. And when I credit Liam Finn with the performance, I’m not being disingenuous or oversimplifying things: he plays and sings every note you hear on the album.

Liam’s style is guitar-and-loop-driven, with a kind of lo-fi charm to it. He aims more for atmosphere than for high-end production, so things are occasionally a little bit fuzzy, but not to the point that it doesn’t sound good. The effect is more often mesmerizing than not. I’m going to go out on a limb and nominate “Gather To The Chapel” as the catchiest song on here. There are far faster and more densely-produced tunes on this album, but something about this song is just insanely catchy – I’ve honestly had sessions where I’ve listened to it over and over for a stretch of about half an hour. It’s just so peaceful, and I’ll be damned if I haven’t found myself whistling, singing, or humming it long after the last time I heard it. “Energy Spent” and “Music Moves My Feet” are close runners-up for the catchiest song here, in the finest Finn tradition.

While I love “Gather” and “Music Moves My Feet”, don’t go thinking that everything on here is slow/mid-tempo. “Energy Spent” and “Wise Man” are downright jaunty, while “This Place Is Killing Me” and “Lead Balloon” are balls-to-the-wall rockers. “Second Chance” and “Better To Be” are no slouches either. Young Mr. Finn’s overdubbed vocal harmonies are nothing short of astounding on some of these songs, and he’s got a great range to his singing voice.

The more I listened to I’ll Be Lightning, “Energy Spent” emerged as a song whose lyrics I identified closely with my experiences as a new father. To realize that those lyrics and the accompanying insights, in whatever original spirit they were intended, came from a young man in his twenties, is frankly humbling. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned how much I enjoyed the lyrics as well as the performance of them. To 4 out of 4play an entire album like this entirely solo is the result of hard work, intense concentration, and what may be the best rock ‘n’ roll apprenticeship anyone could hope for. I could go on and on about where I think I hear the influence of Neil or Tim here, but Liam Finn is his own man, and this is his own album, and it’s a fantastic piece of work. With such a well-crafted and polished debut album, Liam has more than earned his own spotlight out from under anyone else’s shadow. This is the best album I’ve heard this year, and I’m not sure I can actually say much more than that.

Order this CD

  1. Better To Be (3:46)
  2. Second Chance (4:52)
  3. Gather To The Chapel (3:20)
  4. Lead Balloon (4:15)
  5. Fire In Your Belly (3:15)
  6. Lullaby (2:02)
  7. Energy Spent (4:08)
  8. Music Moves My Feet (2:24)
  9. Remember When (3:04)
  10. Wise Man (5:17)
  11. This Place Is Killing Me (4:06)
  12. I’ll Be Lightning (4:14)
  13. Wide Awake On The Voyage Home (5:37)
  14. Shadow Of Your Man (2:57)

Released by: Yep Roc
Release date: 2007
Total running time: 53:17

Ben Folds – Supersunnyspeedgraphic: The LP

Ben Folds - Supersunnyspeedgraphic: The LPCollecting remixes and re-recordings of material from Ben Folds’ trio of 2003-2005 EP releases, as well as a couple of soundtrack songs, side projects and a new song or two, Supersunnyspeedgraphic is both a lot of fun and somewhat baffling. Baffling in that, as often happens with complation/best-of albums, I would’ve picked some completely different songs in places, and a lot of fun in that these aren’t necessarily the same recordings as heard before on those short releases.

In songs like Folds’ cover of The Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman”, and the originals “Learn To Live With What You Are” and “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”, the new recordings (or the old recordings with new elements) raise the game to a whole new level. Synthetic instrumentation is replaced with the real deal (such as “Learn To Live”‘s lush new string section), and the performances are ramped up considerably (there are vast oceans of difference between Folds’ first cover of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” and this new one).

Speaking of cover songs, the centerpiece of the whole endeavour has to be Folds’ cover of Dr. Dre’s gansta rap number “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. Taking the whole things right out of its rap context, Folds transforms it into an almost pretty exercise in piano pop whose lyrics (of which not one syllable has been changed from the original) suddenly sound completely absurd. Folds has apparently spent some quality time with cohort and video director Weird Al Yankovic, because this is one of those things that it seems like Weird Al would’ve done. It’s got every profanity in the book in it, but it’s funny enough to merit at least one listen.

“Still” (from Folds’ contributions to the Over The Hedge soundtrack) and “Bruised” (from the all-star collaboration The Bens) appear here as well, rounding things out nicely, but I can’t help but wonder where songs like “Kalamazoo” (from the Super D EP) and “Wandering” are. Without knowing for sure, it could be that the songs Folds reprises here in their new form are songs that he didn’t feel quite “finished” with, whereas near-masterpieces like the above mentioned songs were completed to his satisfaction. I would’ve put these on the tracklist for Supersunnyspeedgraphic long before In Between Days (an energetic cover of the Cure song) or Rent-A-Cop would’ve 3 out of 4wound up there, if it had been my choice.

Still, for those who weren’t hardcore enough to invest in the three EP releases from which much of this material comes, Supersunnyspeedgraphic is a nice enough summation of that work, and clears the decks of unfinished business so we can look forward to a completely new album.

Order this CD

  1. In Between Days (2:54)
  2. All U Can Eat (3:04)
  3. Songs Of Love (3:37)
  4. There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You (4:11)
  5. Learn To Live With What You Are (4:27)
  6. Bitches Ain’t Shit (4:10)
  7. Adelaide (3:12)
  8. Rent A Cop (5:08)
  9. Get Your Hands Off My Woman featuring Corn Mo (3:35)
  10. Bruised (4:34)
  11. Dog (4:27)
  12. Still (7:46)

Released by: Sony
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 51:05

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Christopher Franke – New Music For Films, Volume 2

New Music For Films, Volume 2In 1994, after Babylon 5’s first season premiered in syndication and I was firmly hooked on all aspects of it, I went looking to see if anything had previously been released by Christopher Franke, and promptly found the then-fairly-recent New Music For Films Volume 1. A pretty good chunk of that compilation of cuts from various Franke film scores sounded authentically Babylon 5-ish, so I was more than happy with it. When actual Babylon 5 music finally appeared, I snatched it up eagerly, though I’ll admit to having balked numerous times when the “episodic CDs” appeared with frequently-reused music and an almost trading-card approach to the soundtrack market.

I passed on New Music For Films Volume 2 when it came out – a year after the last of the Babylon 5 episodic CDs – because I was, frankly, Franke’d out. Having now gotten it and listened to it, I wonder if the problem wasn’t that I was Babylon 5’ed out – or maybe Franke was too, resulting in a fatigued composer and a fatigued audience who both needed a break. This second volume of New Music shows that not Franke was stretching his wings further than the B5 signature style already, with much of this music being contemporary with the show’s final season. In other words, there’s stuff on here that doesn’t sound like Babylon 5.

One area where Franke will never be able to escape the similarity is with action music. His signature low pulsing string arrangements give him away like snare-drum Americana gives John Williams away. His action cues tend to sound the same from project to project, and given that there are few such pieces on this compilation, it’s hard not to wonder if he knows that too.

Where this second volume of New Music excels is in this places where it sounds like nothing Franke has done before. There are a couple of tracks with choral sections, but they sound completely different from the operatic choral elements Franke used frequently on Babylon 5. As his label, Sonic Images, had just opened sublabels for world music and electronica at the time, here Franke seems to be trying those styles on for size to see if they fit the project he’s working on. The result is, in places, something that sounds much more up-to-date than a 2000 release. Middle Eastern influences, processed percussion, and more piano than I’m used to from Franke all make appearances.

Rating: 3 out of 4If you watch The Lost Tales and find yourself yearning for more of the Christopher Franke sound than can be found on the somewhat brief Lost Tales CD, this is certainly an album that can deliver, and maybe it’ll introduce you to a whole new Christopher Franke sound as well.

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  1. Opening (3:17)
  2. Morning Ride (2:23)
  3. Attack On The Village (2:40)
  4. Damaged Goods (1:49)
  5. Jane’s Arrival (5:10)
  6. The Dam Breaks (1:05)
  7. Broken Dreams (2:55)
  8. Escape (2:05)
  9. A New Friendship (1:40)
  10. The Chase (2:13)
  11. Deadly Flight (6:31)
  12. Near Death (1:38)
  13. Dance Lesson (1:17)
  14. The Race (4:05)
  15. Fight For Opar (5:10)
  16. Finale (3:32)

Released by: Sonic Images
Release date: 2000
Total running time: 47:31

Jason Falkner – I’m OK, You’re OK

Jason Falkner has been absent from my CD shelf for far too long. The funny thing about Falkner is that, even with just two full studio albums, two or three collections of demos, rarities and B-sides, one cover album and one EP, he’s hailed as a genius by a rabid fan base (of which I must admit to being a member). The irony of it is that his third studio album of original music hasn’t gotten a nibble from an American label as I write this; it’s currently available only as a pricey Japanese import.

Falkner’s sunny feel-good power pop is one of a kind. The raucous, jubilant guitar riff that runs throughout “The Knew”, the interweaving, meandering vocal harmonies of “Stephanie Tells Me”, and the hard-to-shake-out-of-your-head hooks of “Say It’s True” and “Komplicated Man” demonstrate why the man and his music have that devoted following. “Anondah” and “This Life Of Mine” hearken back to the best soft rock/power ballads of the ’70s, without most of the excesses cliches that go with that sub-genre (they’re not significantly longer than most of the other tracks, though they “feel” a bit more epic). Falkner also slides comfortably into ’80s-style new wave with songs like “Runaway” and the low-key but infectiously hummable “Hurricane”. As usual, he’s not emulating any particular song from those eras or styles, but is making them his own.

There’s a consistent laid-back vibe to I’m OK, You’re OK, and there aren’t many real “peaks” that break with that mid-tempo feel, with the possible exception of “The Knew”, and even then, there isn’t a blow-down-the-door standout track on the level of “Lost Myself” – and that was the standout from a 6-track EP. That’s not to count points off, but I’m OK gives us a much more subdued side of Falkner, without any big showpieces along the lines of “Lost Myself”, “I Live” or “Holiday”.

4 out of 4There’s one Japan-only bonus track, “I Don’t Mind”, which is a slightly rockier take on a lyric and a musical idea that’s used elsewhere on the album, almost as if it’s a demo. Whether or not that one song alone will keep Falkner’s fans interested enough to spring for the expensive import edition is really going to be up to the individual. Now I just hope there won’t be such a long wait between this and Falkner’s next solo album.

Order this CD

  1. This Time (4:39)
  2. NYC (3:52)
  3. The Knew (3:21)
  4. Stephanie Tells Me (4:50)
  5. Hurricane (4:51)
  6. Anondah (5:06)
  7. Komplicated Man (3:13)
  8. Runaway (6:24)
  9. Say It’s True (5:04)
  10. Contact (4:04)
  11. This Life Of Mine (4:13)
  12. I Don’t Mind (5:11)

Released by: Noise McCartney Records / Phantom
Release date: 2007
Total running time: 54:48

Over The Hedge – music by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Over The Hedge soundtrackA pleasant selection of Rupert Gregson-Williams’ lively orchestral score combined with about an EP’s worth of material both new and familiar from Ben Folds, the CD from Dreamworks’ Over The Hedge may just be 2006’s most underrated soundtrack.

The score tracks are unapologetically bold and colorful, but it’s not without subtleties. Instead of going for the usual Carl Stalling-esque tendencies (not that there’s anything wrong with Stalling) for scoring a movie aimed at kids, Rupert Gregson-Williams delivers a rather in-your-face dramatic underscore. It’s fun and full of action. It seems like movie and TV music has tried to get away from this sort of full-blooded orchestral treatment in recent years, in favor of electronics or techno or ethnic/exotic music. There’s room for all of those styles on the same music shelf, and I can honestly say that I just don’t hear enough music like this these days – my compliments to the maestro.

Ben Folds’ contributions are a little more varied; I find myself shrugging a bit at the watered-down remake of “Rockin’ The Suburbs” (though I’d say it’s still worth it for the William Shatner rant that takes the place of at least one whole verse), but “Family Of Me” and “Still” won’t disappoint Folds fans. The latter rambles on a bit, so naturally, it’s on the album in two forms. “Trapped In The Supermarket” is another track that one has to be in the right mood for; its lyrics are a bit repetitive, so its strongest appeal lies in Folds’ relentlessly good musicianship and vocals.

Rating: 4 out of 4Rather than being yet another piece of tie-in merchandise for a massively-marketed kids’ movie, Over The Hedge makes for good listening material. I originally picked it up for the Ben Folds songs, but have wound up playing the whole thing quite a few times over the past several months – it’s all worth a listen.

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  1. Family Of Me – Ben Folds (1:28)
  2. RJ Enters The Cave (4:37)
  3. The Family Awakes (2:33)
  4. Heist – Ben Folds (3:02)
  5. Lost In The Supermarket – Ben Folds (3:30)
  6. Let’s Call It Steve (3:40)
  7. Hammy Time (2:28)
  8. Still – Ben Folds (2:38)
  9. Play? (1:49)
  10. Rockin’ The Suburbs (Over The Hedge version) – Ben Folds & William Shatner (4:57)
  11. The Inside Heist (7:38)
  12. RJ Rescues His Family (4:18)
  13. Still (Reprise) – Ben Folds (6:07)

Released by: Epic
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 48:45

Crowded House – Farewell To The World

Farewell To The WorldOn November 24th, 1996, the original lineup of Crowded House (plus longtime touring musician and recent full-time recruit Mark Hart) took its final bow on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, with a crowd of somewhere around 200,000 people making it the biggest concert anywhere in the world that year – ironic when one considers that the whole thing started out with Neil Finn’s suggestion for a humble, small-scale farewell performance for the group’s final public outing…at least in that form.

Farewell To The World has wowed me for a long time, going all the way back to its VHS video release, and I’ve always wondered where in the world the obligatory CD was. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the group’s final performance (as well as to get the Crowded House name back in the public eye just in time for a reunion album and tour), Farewell is finally available on CD and DVD, and it even sidesteps my natural inclination to grumble about re-releases that this edition includes some material that didn’t appear on my now well-worn videotape of the event. Still, this should’ve been on CD years ago.

It’s difficult to overstate just how good a live band Crowded House was. Part of the reason Neil Finn closed the books on Split Enz was to focus on a less “produced” sound that could be more faithfully captured on stage. At least that was the idea before the band teamed up with producer Mitchell Froom, who added churchy organ solos, sampled strings and horns, to name just a few of the touches which meant that the group couldn’t tour without a keyboard wizard in tow. But even with that in mind, the band pulls it off incredibly well here. Songs like “Private Universe” and “Hole In The River,” already more than listenable, take on new life here. (Even with two studio versions of “Private Universe” out there, I consider this performance to be the definitive reading.)

Farewell To The World was already a historical document of sorts, but with Paul Hester’s tragic death, it becomes even moreso. Paul gets his moment in the spotlight during “Sister Madly”, serving as both drummer and comedian, though his impression of Tina Turner falls a little bit flat when robbed of its visual component (file it under “you had to be there”); I’m a little surprised it’s actually on the CD at all. I don’t recall hearing “Italian Plastic” on the previous video release either. To say the whole band is on top form is a bit of an understatement, and I’ve especially got to single out Mark Hart’s luxurious walls of electric guitar feedback, never overpowering but always atmospheric.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Farewell on CD is that it was a bit of, for the lack of a better term, “stealth marketing” presaging the return of Crowded House to the studio and the stage. I’m eagerly awaiting the new album and tour, but I can truthfully see where both camps are coming from (Pro-Crowdies Reunion vs. Get Back Together But Don’t Call It Crowded House Without Paul). As with the reunion itself, it’s too bad that it took a tragedy to finally get this into our CD players.

Order this CD

    Disc one:

  1. Mean To Me (4:11)
  2. World Where You Live (3:33)
  3. When You Come (5:54)
  4. Private Universe (5:35)
  5. Four Seasons In One Day (2:54)
  6. Fall At Your Feet (3:25)
  7. Whispers & Moans (4:30)
  8. Hole In The River (6:47)
  9. Better Be Home Soon (4:43)
  10. Pineapple Head (4:04)
  11. Distant Sun (4:51)
  12. Into Temptation (4:49)
  13. Everything Is Good For You (4:09)
    Disc two:

  1. Locked Out (3:49)
  2. Something So Strong (3:51)
  3. Sister Madly (4:54)
  4. Italian Plastic (3:51)
  5. It’s Only Natural (5:07)
  6. Weather With You (5:22)
  7. There Goes God (4:54)
  8. Fingers Of Love (5:35)
  9. In My Command (4:26)
  10. Throw Your Arms Around Me (2:57)
  11. Don’t Dream It’s Over (6:22)

Released by: Capitol
Release date: 2007
Disc one total running time: 59:25
Disc two total running time: 51:08

Tim Finn – Imaginary Kingdom

Tim Finn - Imaginary KingdomAlmost a year after one of its songs (“Winter Light”) made a surprise appearance on the soundtrack from the big-budget, big-screen adaptation of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, Tim Finn’s new album is here at last, presenting a somewhat more polished and sedate sound than his previous two solo efforts, and yet with hints of some of his past musical endeavours.

There are hints of the old Split Enz quirkiness in “So Precious,” hints of Before & After funkiness in “Dead Flowers,” “Horizon” has an almost intangible similarity to the best songs from Big Canoe (and has just a little of the feel of New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give”), “Still The Song” has the feel of his previous two solo albums, and “Couldn’t Be Done” and “Show Yourself” have a little something of the blue-eyed-soul of his very first solo album. That’s not to say that any of these songs are anything less than original and enjoyable; instead, if you’ve liked any of the stylistic stops Tim’s made along his musical career, there’s at least one or two songs on Imaginary Kingdom that will instantly lodge themselves in your head.

There are also songs that are completely different from any of the styles he’s visited before; as I probably mentioned when reviewing the Narnia soundtrack, “Winter Light” is positively lovely and sedate, and “Astounding Moon” has something of the same orchestra-backed feel to it. “Unsinkable” has a quiet, stately feel to it, but even more than that, the lyrics are outstanding, using the sinking of the Titanic (!) as a metaphor for a child’s first realization of his parents’ mortality. That’s not a topic I recall having heard in a lot of pop music before. This is just another example of this album’s depths – there are plenty of layers to peel back, and plenty to enjoy.

4 out of 4Kudos to co-producer Bobby Huff and engineer/session player John Mark Painter (who happens to be a frequent collaborator with Ben Folds – now there’s someone who I’d pay good money to hear work with Tim in the future) for helping to smooth out the sound of this album; Huff is a surprising name to see here, given that his most recent credit that I can recall is the last Leann Rimes album. Ultimately, though, the music and lyrics are Tim’s babies, and this album is a crop of winners without a single misfire. Tim Finn definitely rules this Imaginary Kingdom.

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  1. Couldn’t Be Done (2:50)
  2. Still The Song (2:48)
  3. Astounding Moon (3:35)
  4. Midnight Coma (2:52)
  5. Salt To The Sea (3:45)
  6. Horizon (3:23)
  7. Dead Flowers (3:37)
  8. Resting (Your Hand Lightly) (3:20)
  9. Show Yourself (3:01)
  10. Winter Light (4:10)
  11. So Precious (3:19)
  12. Unsinkable (2:55)

Released by: Parlophone
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 39:41