John Mayer – Room For Squares

John Mayer - Room For SquaresJohn Mayer’s Room For Squares ranks as one of my most fortunate musical finds; Mayer opened for former Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips on a recent acoustic tour, and shortly after Philadelphia radio station WXPN started rather heavy airplay of the album’s first single, “No Such Thing”. I eventually decided to buy the CD, and now I’m hooked. The guitar line and percussion do a great job carrying the basic melodies, whether they’re slower, somewhat dreamy tunes like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “City Love” or more energetic songs such as “Love Song For No One” and “No Such Thing”. Meyer then builds around those melodies with organs, pianos, violins and other instrumentation to create a sound that’s very light but still rich enough to engage the listener. He can use a few notes to perfectly capture a particular emotion, and let that emotion color the rest of the song. “3×5” is a song about a traveler whose experiences reconnect him to the world, and the simple fragment that connects the verses seems to sum up the gravity of such a moment.

Meyer’s lyrics may be even more accomplished than the music. He has a sense of humor about himself and the world that doesn’t prevent him from being emotionally honest and insightful; at his best, he combines the two sides. “83”‘s nostalgia is summed up in the closing “whatever happened to my lunchbox / when came the day that it got thrown away / and don’t you think I should have had some say / in that decision?” And I don’t think anyone could come up with a better follow-your-heart exhortation than “No Such Thing”, where he says, “I want to scream at the top of my lungs/I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world/Just a lie you’ve 4 out of 4got to rise above.” (Meyer delivers the phrase “at the top of my lungs” in a high-pitched call that somehow sounds good while still inspiring the tone-deaf among us to sing along in delight.) Direct and witty at the same time, Room For Squares is an outstanding example of intelligent songwriting, and I can only hope it finds the audience it deserves.

Order this CD

  1. No Such Thing (3:51)
  2. Why Georgia (4:28)
  3. My Stupid Mouth (3:45)
  4. Your Body Is A Wonderland (4:09)
  5. Neon (4:22)
  6. City Love (4:00)
  7. 83 (4:50)
  8. 3×5 (4:50)
  9. Love Song For No One (3:21)
  10. Back To You (4:01)
  11. Great Indoors (3:36)
  12. Not Myself (3:40)
  1. St. Patrick’s Day (5:21)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 54:21

Paul McCartney – Driving Rain

Paul McCartney - Driving RainWow, it’s finally happened – Paul McCartney, whose last project I really dug was 1997’s Flaming Pie, has been dragged into the 90s. Not a bad trick, considering that this album was released in 2001.

I was pleasantly surprised by Driving Rain, having been bitterly disappointed by the retro-cover-fest that was Run Devil Run. And one of the things that I believe surprised many people about Driving Rain was the fresh frankness of the lyrics, dealing openly with McCartney’s second marriage following his first wife’s death due to cancer. But while the subject matter is a bit different for the former Beatle, his way with a pop song isn’t. Tunes like “Your Way”, “Magic” and “Driving Rain” demonstrate his melodic gift, complete with trademark hooks.

Songs like “Spinning On An Axis” and “She’s Given Up Talking”, however, introduce something new to the equation – a bit of modern groove and a much more modern sound production-wise. These things aren’t unwelcome, and I felt the number of songs given this treatment wasn’t overpowering. You won’t be wondering why Sir Paul suddenly changed his entire sound – because he hasn’t.

“Riding Into Jaipur” is the kind of Indian-flavored tune we might have expected from the late George Harrison, while “Heather” turns out to be another surprise, with a lengthy instrumental jam eventually leading up to a single verse song. “Rinse The Raindrops” is also mostly instrumental, and clocking in at ten or so minutes with its atmosphere of a nice loose jam, it would’ve made a nice album closer. But as most people know by now, it’s not the album closer – that honor goes to the hurriedly-written song “Freedom”, which addresses the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. in what I can most charitably describe as a token manner, 3 out of 4with jingoistic, repetetive lyrics that don’t really rise to the challenge of addressing the momentous events that inspired them. Honestly, I would’ve rather he’d ended Driving Rain with “Rinse The Raindrops”, or perhaps moved the “No More Lonely Nights”-esque “Your Loving Flame” down to end the album; “Freedom” is, in itself, hardly a song befitting the occasion, and not as good as the rest of the album.

Order this CD

  1. Lonely Road (3:15)
  2. From A Lover To A Friend (3:48)
  3. She’s Given Up Talking (4:57)
  4. Driving Rain (3:26)
  5. I Do (2:55)
  6. Tiny Bubble (4:20)
  7. Magic (3:57)
  8. Your Way (2:54)
  9. Spinning On An Axis (5:15)
  10. About You (2:53)
  11. Heather (3:24)
  12. Back In The Sunshine Again (4:21)
  13. Loving Flame (3:42)
  14. Riding Into Jaipur (4:06)
  15. Rinse The Raindrops (10:11)
  16. Freedom (3:31)

Released by: Capitol
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 66:55

The Move – The BBC Sessions

The Move - The BBC SessionsWhen some of the tracks on the two volumes of ELO BBC recordings – Live At The BBC and The BBC Sessions – were exactly the same as the final versions that appeared on their albums, I had a few trepidations about picking up yet another BBC Sessions album. As it turns out, The Move: The BBC Sessions features some dandy rarities I’d never heard before, most of them taking the form of cover songs that haven’t appeared on previous collections.

Some not-quite-finished session takes of some classic Move chestnuts are included here, from “Flowers In The Rain” to “Night Of Fear” to “Blackberry Way”, and while they’re not as polished as the final album cuts, it’s interesting to hear a slightly different spin on them.

4 out of 4Some of the covers are real gem, and reveal The Move’s legendary live act – “Stop, Get A Hold Of Myself” and “Morning Dew” are among the highlights of the covers.

If you can find it, The Move: The BBC Sessions is worth tracking down for Move completists and even not-so-completists.

Order this CD

  1. You’d Better Believe Me (3:00)
  2. Night Of Fear (2:23)
  3. Stop, Get A Hold Of Myself (2:35)
  4. Kilroy Was Here (2:40)
  5. Walk On The Water (3:04)
  6. I Can Hear The Grass Grow (3:18)
  7. Morning Dew (2:43)
  8. Flowers In The Rain (2:20)
  9. So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star (2:55)
  10. Stephanie Knows Who (2:32)
  11. Cherry Blossom Clinic (2:26)
  12. Hey Grandma (3:04)
  13. Fire Brigade (2:17)
  14. Weekend (1:52)
  15. It’ll Be Me (2:32)
  16. Useless Information (2:46)
  17. Kentucky Woman (2:28)
  18. Higher And Higher (3:10)
  19. Long Black Veil (2:53)
  20. Wild Tiger Woman (2:33)
  21. Piece Of My Heart (3:03)
  22. Blackberry Way (3:08)
  23. Going Back (2:50)
  24. California Girls (3:08)
  25. Christian Life (2:02)

Released by: BBC Music / Strange Fruit
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 67:42

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes – Blow In The Wind

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - Blow In The WindMe First and the Gimme Gimmes are almost miracle workers in my book. How could they actually make me like that miserably depressing Terry Jack tune “Seasons In The Sun”? By covering it in their own bizarre punk style – they’re all able musicians, the Gimmes, but at times they play the song just badly enough that it’s a redeeming trait. But their latest album – once again clocking in at a measley (and expensive) half-hour only – proves that they can, indeed, play the hell out of something if they so choose. And they’ve once again chosen the oldies, sticking to the 60s and early 70s so familiar to me from my own oldies radio experience. I love the music of this era – and the Gimmes attack it with aplomb, actually delivering well-played and at times almost reverent (note I said “almost”) covers of these tunes.

The highlights include “Elenor” (a Turtles cover), a little Lennon & McCartney tune called “All My Lovin'”, the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”, and an astonishingly good version of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”. But not content to sing only those songs originally essayed by men, the Gimmes also have a field day with Petula Clark’s “I Only Want To Be With You”, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” (which, halfway through the song, becomes “Stand By Your Band”, a tribute to groupies everywhere), and “My Boyfriend’s Back” (in which not one single word is changed, not even to reflect gender). The results are hilarious, but the vocals, performances and production are sharpening quite noticeably. They’re not butchering the songs this time, as 4 out of 4was the case with a few of their offerings on the last album, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes Are A Drag.

Highly recommended – and they’re touring now! – though I do wish they’d turn out something more along the lines of the length of an actual album.

Order this CD

  1. Blowin’ In The Wind (1:44)
  2. Sloop John B. (2:09)
  3. Wild World (2:30)
  4. Who Put The Bomp (2:02)
  5. Elenor (2:33)
  6. My Boyfriend’s Back (2:26)
  7. All My Lovin’ (1:54)
  8. Stand By Your Man (2:01)
  9. San Francisco (1:47)
  10. I Only Want To Be With You (2:12)
  11. Runaway (1:59)
  12. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (2:07)
  13. Different Drum (2:31)
  14. You’ve Got A Friend (2:32)

Released by: Fat Wreck Chords
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 30:27

Journey Into Amazing Caves – featuring The Moody Blues

Journey Into Amazing Caves soundtrackA bit of a surprising discovery, this is actually the soundtrack of a National Geographic-sponsored IMAX documentary film, and it’s the product of the same team that re-arranged orchestral versions of George Harrison and Jeff Lynne tunes from Harrison’s Cloud Nine to serve as the musical backdrop of an Imax film about scaling Everest.

For this outing’s almost ethereal settings, the filmmakers and their resident composers opted to rearrange some Moody Blues songs into new compositions, picking both the old (“Nights In White Satin” from Days Of Future Passed) and the much more recent (“I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” from Sur La Mer). The Moodies themselves actually contribute two new tracks not featured on any of their other albums – the pleasant rock instrumental “Water” and the uplifting “We Can Fly”. On several other tracks, Hayward and Lodge alone add guitar and vocals to some of the rearranged songs, breaking into a nifty little jazzy version of “Question” at one point. Most of the time, however, they’re serving as little more than celebrity session musicians.

The arrangements themselves are quite nice, bringing some Native American influences to bear on a score that quotes – more often than any other Moodies hit – “Nights In White Satin”. One cue, “Horizons Turn Inward”, is actually quite a good, bombastic piece of action music, mostly unrelated to any Moody Blues 4 out of 4songs, which also winds up culminating in “Nights”.

The soundtrack from Journey Into Amazing Caves may not be the new album Moodies fans are waiting for…but it’s an interesting glimpse at what else the band has been doing with its time, and features fascinating twists on old favorites.

Order this CD

  1. To Extremes (4:17)
  2. Search For Daylight (4:05)
  3. Arizona (5:00)
  4. Water (2:46)
  5. Crystal Chamber (3:32)
  6. Blue Cathedral (3:50)
  7. Frozen In Time (4:15)
  8. Home Of The Mayan Gods (5:01)
  9. Horizons Turn Inward (5:26)
  10. We Can Fly (4:04)

Released by: Ark 21 Records
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 42:16

Common Ground: The Voices of Modern Irish Music

Common Ground: The Voices of Modern Irish MusicYou know, I’ll be the first to fess up that I’m not exactly a Thistle & Shamrock Listener (not that it’s a bad show, and not that I don’t like the music). And I’m a little wary of the mania for all things Celtic that has pervaded the underbelly of pop culture for the past decade or so, despite the fact that I’m able to trace my own lineage straight back to Ireland. Something about everyone embracing this culture just because it’s “in” bugs me – and many of the supposedly Celtic musical acts out there aren’t peddling the sound of old Eire, but rather of Enya, whose sound I associate with new age music more than I do anything that sounds distinctly Celtic. But I’ll expound on this soapbox more later. With all my griping, you’re probably wondering why in the world I even bothered with this CD.

The answer is the wonderful second track, “Mary Of The South Seas”, written and performed by Tim and Neil Finn. Aside from their dedicating the song to their mother’s Irish origins, your guess is as good as mine as to why two performers born and raised in New Zealand are on a compilation of “modern Irish music,” but it’s a lovely song all the same.

There are other good reasons to dig this one out, however; Sharon Shannon’s “Cavan Potholes” is a nicely traditional (and simultaneously modern) Celtic-flavored instrumental. Adam Clayton and Bono of U2 fame turn in a low-key number, “Won’t You Be Back Tomorrow”, and Sinead O’Connor turns in “On Raglan Road”. Toward the end of the disc, the tunes become more traditional and the readings become more tongue-in-cheek – I’m thinking primarily of Elvis Costello’s rendition of “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” here – but in fine Irish tradition, the producers of this compilation probably expected us to have downed a couple of pints by this point, so I’m willing to forgive.

4 out of 4Though I originally bought it for one song by a couple of favorite artists, Common Ground quickly opened my eyes to some more good music. And I’m happy – and perhaps just a touch proud – to say that the whole thing smacks more of real Celtic music than a lot of the product that wears that label these days.

Order this CD

  1. O Bhean A’ti – Maire Brennan (5:13)
  2. Mary Of The South Seas – Tim and Neil Finn (5:08)
  3. Tomorrow – Bono and Adam Clayton (4:36)
  4. Cavan Potholes – Sharon Shannon (4:10)
  5. Help Me To Believe – Paul Brady (5:56)
  6. On Raglan Road – Sinead O’Connor (6:05)
  7. As I Roved Out – Brian Kennedy (4:32)
  8. The Night Before Larry Was Stretched – Elvis Costello (5:09)
  9. Mna Na H-eireann – Kate Bush (2:53)
  10. Whistling Low Errigal – Davy Spillane with Donal Lunny (4:08)
  11. My Heart’s Tonight In Ireland – Andy Irvine (3:36)
  12. Cathain – Liam O’Maonlai (3:27)
  13. Bogie’s Bonnie Belle – Christy Moore (3:18)

Released by: EMI
Release date: 1996
Total running time: 58:11

Man…Or Astroman? – EEVIAC

Man...Or Astroman? - EEVIAC: Operational Index and Reference Guide Including Other Modern Computational DevicesThis incongruously titled new collection from Man…Or Astroman? is also an incongruous entry in the band’s surf-rock-on-acid catalogue, but it’s not bad. Imagine, if you will, Dick Dale having a head-on collision with the Art of Noise. That’s kind of what this sounds like. Samples and electronic percussion work their way into the MOAM mix for the first time, and the result is very strange but still listenable. The theme seems to be a retro vision of the future, when everyone expected the world to be run by huge, room-filling 3 out of 4computers with open reels of magnetic tape whirring constantly. Some MOAM purists may be offended by the techno leanings of EEVIAC, but I was amused by them – and relieved that the band has found, even if only for one album, a bizarre way to keep their sound fresh.

Order this CD

  1. Interstellar Hardrive (2:17)
  2. D:contamination (2:20)
  3. U-235 / PU-239 (2:02)
  4. Domain of the Human Race (1:33)
  5. Theme from EEVIAC (2:33)
  6. A Reversal of Polarity (3:32)
  7. Fractionalized Reception of a Scrambled Transmission (1:18)
  8. Engines of Difference (2:42)
  9. Psychology of A.I. (numbers follow answers) (1:33)
  10. Krasnoyask-26 (1:14)
  11. Within the Mainframe, Impaired Vision from Inoperable Cataracts Can
    Become a New Impending Nepotism
  12. As Estrelas Agora Elas Estao Mortas (2:53)
  13. _____ / Myopia (6:26)

Released by: Touch And Go
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 36:53