Adam Young – Voyager 1

Voyager 1Throughout 2016, Owl City’s Adam Young embarked on a project to compose, record, and release a film-score-style album every month of the year, based on ideas and events that had inspired him. That’s quite an audacious plan, given that an actual film score could easily take a month just to write and arrange, let alone a finished product in the can. Young’s musical background lent itself to a rock/pop idiom for some of these album releases, but he didn’t limit himself to that sound. Other topics included Joe Kittinger’s dive from the edge of space (long before Felix Baumgartner did it), the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the sinking of the Titanic, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and more. Oh, and each album was released for free download.

The opening volley is titled “1977”, but it doesn’t sound that much like 1977 at all – it’s very much modern, and seems to be establishing an electronic, almost chiptune-esque theme for Voyager 1, as well a theme that is then picked up in turn by guitar and synths. “Earth” begins more sedately with a synth-orchestral pad of wonderment, occasionally overlaying that with an almost Art of Noise-style beat and samples of the Golden Record’s “hello from the children of planet Earth” phrase. “Asteroid Belt” is a gentle drift through the solar system’s undeveloped real estate, while “Jupiter” returns to a steady beat and an electric violin statement of Voyager’s theme. “Europa” maintains a staccato rhythm and is slightly more ethereal, leading into a slightly mysterious opening for “Saturn”, which quickly establishes its own beat and a somewhat mellowed-out version of Voyager’s theme. “Titan” is heavy on piano, and still has a beat underlying everything.

Following this is “Neptune”, an oddity in that it wasn’t visited by Voyager 1, but rather Voyager 2. It’s given a strange, fuzz-pedaled musical treatment, befitting a strange icy planet. “Pale Blue Dot” returns to the electronic sounds of “1977”, still with a steady beat, a sound which continues – in a more echoplexed, “distant” way – in the final track, “Interstellar Space”. This track also picks up the Voyager theme established at the beginning of the album, and again is slathered with a heavy beat at times.

2 out of 4It’s an ambitious thing trying to provide musical accompaniment for such a far-reaching historical event as the Voyager missions. It’d be ambitious for any composer to do, even Hollywood veterans. If there’s a failing with Young’s Voyager 1 album, it’s his tendency to fall back on a programmed beat so often. There’s something a little less than majestic about trip-hop beats over ethereal synth passages. At times I like that sort of thing; here, it’s done too much, and becomes the underpinning of everything rather than a sparingly used flavor. It’s nice enough music, but doesn’t really connect me to the subject matter.

Order this CD

  1. 1977 (4:46)
  2. Earth (4:40)
  3. Asteroid Belt (2:49)
  4. Jupiter (3:58)
  5. Europa (4:18)
  6. Saturn (4:55)
  7. Titan (4:04)
  8. Neptune (2:16)
  9. Pale Blue Dot (3:39)
  10. Interstellar Space (4:20)

Released by: ayoungscores.com
Release date: October 1, 2016
Total running time:

Yoko Kanno – Be Human

Yoko Kanno - Be HumanIs there anything that songstress Yoko Kanno can’t do? Starting out as a video game composer in her 20+ year career, she quickly moved on to other avenues such as anime series and films. Her ability to combine styles and influences such as jazz, classical, electronic, and rock music give her a unique and delightful sound.

Be Human, which serves as the 4th (!!!) soundtrack album for the anime series Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, contains more of Kanno’s signature sound. This album, however, focuses on the robots of the series, called Tachikomas, and carries this underlying theme throughout the whole album. For example, the leadoff song, the titular “Be Human”, is a dreamy pop song complete with mechanical whirring and beeping. “Trip City” shows off Kanno’s rocker side, with lyrics from longtime Kanno collaborator Tim Jensen. “Cream” combines a drum-and-bass rhythm with violin strings, while Japanese hip hop lyrics are sung over that. “What Can I Say?” instantly brings to mind the slow, moving songs from the old musicals of yore. But those are the good parts.

The rest of the album, quite frankly, feels like it consists of filler. Although the music itself is very good (and it’s hard not to like an album that jumps from the techno of “Patch Me” to the whimsical “Tachikoma No Iede (Runaway Tachikoma)”, which includes a flute solo), it often feels incomplete; like fragments or snippets of actual songs instead of a full soundtrack. And that’s what Be Human ultimately is, a collection of B-sides punctuated by an actual song or two.

2 out of 4Be Human, then, should be recommended to fans of the show or fans of Yoko Kanno (who, in all honesty, are probably to be the one and the same). Otherwise, people who are just starting to listen to Yoko Kanno’s works should probably get a Seatbelts album to find out why Kanno’s music is much lauded in the anime world.

Order this CD

  1. Be Human (4:05)
  2. Trip City (3:55)
  3. Patch Me (1:33)
  4. Tachikoma No Iede (Runaway Tachikoma)
  5. (1:55)

  6. Osanpo Tachikoma (Tachikoma Out For A Walk)
  7. (2:03)

  8. Bang Bang Banquet (2:00)
  9. Fax Me (1:26)
  10. Rocky Wa Doko? (Where’s Rocky?)
  11. (4:25)

  12. Spotter (5:56)
  13. Let’s Oil (0:45)
  14. Cream (3:54)
  15. Spider Bites (0:44)
  16. Good By My Master (2:09)
  17. Piece By Ten (2:50)
  18. What Can I Say? (1:11)
  19. Hi! (0:05)
  20. I’m Not Straight (1:23)
  21. AI Sentai Tachikomans (AI Combat Team Tachikomans)
  22. (1:05)

  23. Pro Bowler Tachikoma (Professional Bowler Tachikoma)
  24. (0:38)

  25. Don’t Sponge Me (0:36)
  26. Po’d Pod (1:02)
  27. Ciao! (0:07)

Released by: Bandai Entertainment
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 43:47

Yum Yum Children – Used To Would’ve

Yum Yum Children - Used To Would've Usually when you think of the genres “psychedelic” and “Christian”, it’s not in the same sentence. However, that’s exactly what the band Yum Yum Children was trying to accomplish. Recorded in 1996, this album sounds like a slab of lost 70’s rock just recently getting unearthed for the first time.

The album starts off with the light rocker “Leave It Alone”, which brings to mind the earlier bubblegum records of yore, albeit with more guitars and electric organs. From there, however, things get stranger. “End Of My Needs” lumbers along with a single guitar lead, a hi-hat, and lead singer R. Leon Goodenough’s vocals quietly hanging above the music. Halfway through, the song picks up, adding more guitars and percussion while changing the tempo, and then comes around full circle to start the second verse. “Refrigerator” is similar in execution, but resembles a slow jam. The amplifier buzz in the background again brings to mind a lo-fi 70’s vibe.

“Burnin’ Thing” starts out as a soft piano…err, organ ballad, but quickly turns into a mess of noise, complete with screeching guitars and vocals. But even so, the oddest track by far is the closing number “Life Without Jesus”, in which the female vocalist of the band, Jennifer Goodenough, recites a spoken word poem while guitars and a Farfisa organ swirl around. The band slowly picks up the tempo and the volume until it sounds like the band is ready to lose it while wordless vocalizing is heard in the background. The track ends with a bang, and the organs fade away.

4 out of 4It’s a shame that the Yum Yum Children were so mired in obscurity. This and their previous two albums (Dufisized and Tastythanks) were released with little or no fanfare from their record label, and they soon faded away afterwards. The good news is that if you happen to stumble upon this disc, it can usually be had for cheap. But for a group that was able to meld two different trains of thought to create something original (especially within the hard-nosed Christian community), they deserved much better.

Order this CD

  1. Leave It Alone (3:05)
  2. Irrigate (3:07)
  3. The Too Big Dying Part (3:11)
  4. End Of My Needs (5:12)
  5. Refrigerator (4:23)
  6. Naked (3:23)
  7. Kind And Loving Man (2:11)
  8. Daze Of Un-Understanding (3:22)
  9. Burnin’ Thing (3:09)
  10. Be Like You (2:05)
  11. Life Without Jesus (4:14)

Released by: Five Minute Walk
Release date: 1996
Total running time: 37:44

Weird Al Yankovic – Straight Outta Lynwood

Weird Al Yankovic - Straight Outta LynwoodThere’s nothing quite like Weird Al Yankovic firing on all cylinders. Much moreso than most of the targets of his satire, the man has a talent that defies time’s every attempt to pass him by. He’s even endured the wrath of a few of the artists he’s parodied (such as Coolio), or their labels (Atlantic actually vetoed a song that was recorded for this album – and so, unable to sell it, Weird Al released it for free on his web site). He’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.

And yet, if there’s one problem with Straight Outta Lynwood, it’s that this album is nothing like Weird Al firing on all cylinders. There’s a roughly equal number of hits and misfires here. When the songs hit their target, whether they’re parodies or originals, they’re some of the best of his career. “Don’t Download This Song” is a wickedly funny original that picks on everything from ’80s Chicago to bloated “We Are The World”-style all-star charity epics. “Virus Alert” sets the now-ubiquitous virus hoax e-mail trend to tremendously catchy music. And of course, there’s the biggest hit single of Weird Al’s career, “White & Nerdy.” I also have to single out the surreal “Weasel Stomping Day” and “Polkarama” – the obligatory polka medley of current top 40 hits – for special praise.

Where it misfires, though, Lynwood misses by quite a margin. “Pancreas” is a “style parody” of classic Beach Boys ballads (with a special emphasis on “God Only Knows” though it steers clear of mocking any single song musically) that just never quite comes in for a landing. A certain overblown R. Kelly pseudo-epic becomes the fodder for “Trapped In The Drive-Thru”, which is one of those songs that’s funny the first time around, but as with a lot of Weird Al’s longer songs (I’m looking at you, “Genius In France”), it grates on repeat rating: 3 out of 4listening (“Albuquerque”, it ain’t). And maybe I’m missing the joke, but “Canadian Idiot” seems atypically mean-spirited for Al.

All this being said, I still give Straight Outta Lynwood high marks, because on average, I’d rather listen to half of a good Weird Al album than an entire album from most of the targets of his satire.

Order this CD

  1. White & Nerdy (2:50)
  2. Pancreas (3:48)
  3. Canadian Idiot (2:23)
  4. I’ll Sue Ya (3:51)
  5. Polkarama (4:54)
  6. Virus Alert (3:46)
  7. Confessions Part III (3:52)
  8. Weasel Stomping Day (1:34)
  9. Close But No Cigar (3:55)
  10. Do I Creep You Out (2:46)
  11. Trapped In The Drive-Thru (10:51)
  12. Don’t Download This Song (3:54)

Released by: Volcano
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 48:24

Weird Al Yankovic – Poodle Hat

Weird Al Yankovic - Poodle HatIt’s been far too long since Weird Al graced us with his presence on record, though I have a theory as to why this isn’t his fault. I’ll get back to that in a moment though.

Poodle Hat is simultaneously a joy – heck, in some respect, anything Yankovic does is a joy – and a slight disappointment too. The latter feeling stems from a wee bit of repetition. Granted, there are always some things you can count on with Weird Al – he’ll be making fun of whatever’s been big on radio, he’ll more than likely have a polka medley that blends a bunch of disposable hits into a frothy stew of bizarre reinterpretations, and he’s got some of the best musicians on the planet helping him out, because the parody songs wind up sounding almost exactly like the originals, if not better. But here, we’re treated to some other repeated concepts too: now it seems as though a classic rock number will be turned into an only slightly tongue-in-cheek retelling of a recent big-screen hit, and there’s going to be a really long song at the end of the album.

When Running With Scissors rode into the stores on the back of “The Saga Begins”, a retelling of Star Wars Episode I to the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie”, it was a novel, well-executed idea – and it was right on time, too, arriving just on the heels of the movie with a perfect video to match. Poodle Hat gives us a synopsis of Spider-Man set to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, and hey, it is funny, but it’s not only a year too late, it’s a gag we’ve heard before. Maybe this is a tradition-in-the-making that needs to be rested.

As for the long song, Running With Scissors‘ “Albuquerque” need fear no competition from Poodle Hat’s “Genius In France”, a little riff on the legends of Jerry Lewis’ popularity in a certain European country. It drags on a bit too long. Like “Albuquerque”, “Genius” has a lot of time and melody changes, almost too many to keep track of – it’s like Weird Al’s doing a medley of original songs we’ve never heard before. And it’s not even as long as “Albuquerque” was…but still, it somehow doesn’t trip my trigger, becoming a bit of a “skip track.”

Now, those two complaints aside, the rest of the album is sheer genius no matter what country you’re in. I’m getting to where I like Weird Al’s originals better than his parodies, and here he puts what may be his best original song ever on display: “Hardware Store”. Not just funny, this song is a masterpiece of vocal performance. And I’m not being sarcastic there – over the years, Yankovic has parodied everyone from Michael Jackson to Madonna to R.E.M., and he couldn’t have done this without an incredibly flexible voice to pull it off, but “Hardware Store” blows away anything I’ve yet heard from him. Wow.

“eBay” is a dead-on (topically speaking) parody of both a Backstreet Boys song and everyone’s favorite (and/or least favorite) online auction service. The whole eBay culture is neatly lined up in Weird Al’s sights for this one, from “check my feedback” to the dreaded sniper bids. “A Complicated Song” neatly shreds Avril Lavigne’s Complicated, though in the course of the song, Yankovic goes from being constipated to decapitated. For those of us who instantly filed this song next to Alanis’ “Ironic” in the relevance department, it’s bliss to hear Weird Al spoof it.

The other big treat here is the “Angry White Boy Polka”, taking a bunch of angsty, supposedly hard-hitting songs and running them through the blender. It’s not quite up to the standard of some of Weird Al’s previous polka-fests, but – and this brings me neatly back to my theory of why, aside from a busy directing and producing schedule, Weird Al has been absent from the scene – maybe this is because what’s on top 40 radio lately just hasn’t provided Weird Al with the kind of fodder he needs. So much sampling of older songs, so 4 out of 4much forgettable stuff crowds the airwaves these days, maybe it’s taken Al this long to come up with enough material to fill an album. And really, it’s a good album – my big quibbles with it aren’t that major, more along the lines of concerns that a formula may be setting in. As much as Weird Al needs decent music for his parodies to thrive, bad music also needs Weird Al to kick it back into line.

Order this CD

  1. Couch Potato (4:20)
  2. Hardware Store (3:46)
  3. Trash Day (3:13)
  4. Party At The Leper Colony (3:40)
  5. Angry White Boy Polka (5:05)
  6. Wanna B Ur Lovr (6:16)
  7. A Complicated Song (3:41)
  8. Why Does This Always Happen To Me (4:54)
  9. Ode To A Superhero (4:54)
  10. Bob (2:31)
  11. eBay (3:38)
  12. Genius In France (8:56)

Released by: Volcano
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 54:54

Yes – Highlights

Yes - HighlightsAs much as I like some acts which could be considered progressive rock (Alan Parsons, early ELO, and so on), I’ve got to fess up to something: I’ve never quite gotten as “into it” as some diehard prog-rock fans. I’m more of a popster, so sometimes the big league prog stuff like early Yes or Emerson Lake & Palmer leave me a bit cold. Not that I doubt the musicianship of the people involved, but it’s just not the style of music that I feel like spending a lot of time with. If I want long, epic pieces, I tend to go orchestral.

But damned if I don’t like me some early Yes from time to time. Remember the Wayne’s World scene where Wayne, Garth and friends are banging their heads in time to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? I’ve been known to do something similar with “Roundabout”. And fortunately for me, there’s Highlights, a nice little one-disc selection of remastered material from a Yes box set that, while I’m sure the fans dug it, relly amounted to too much of a financial commitment for a casual fan like myself. Highlights is about all the prog-rock I need: sort of a prog-rock hot pocket which surveys the band’s career from those gloriously overblown AM radio epics of the early ’70s to their more accessible ’80s material.

Well, more accessible to me, anyway. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” was a high water mark for Yes’s public profile as well as the early (and far more innovative) MTV era; that song also has the curious distinction of helping to launch the career of a whole other entity, as producer Trevor Horn took the sound of the now-immortal sampled horn break and ran with it to create the Art of Noise. I’ve also always had a sneaking liking for “Leave 4 out of 4It”, which dispenses with some of “Owner”‘s studio flash in favor of a great song with incredible vocal harmonies, a description which could be equally applied to “Rhythm Of Love”.

So perhaps what I need here is a Yes ’80s collection. But then again, maybe not. My life just wouldn’t be the same without the occasional psychedelic headbanging session set to the tune of “Roundabout”.

Order this CD

  1. Survival (6:18)
  2. Time And A Word (4:31)
  3. Starship Trooper (9:26)
  4. I’ve Seen All Good People (6:55)
  5. Roundabout (8:31)
  6. Long Distance Runaround (3:33)
  7. Soon (4:06)
  8. Wonderous Stories (3:45)
  9. Going For The One (5:32)
  10. Owner Of A Lonely Heart (4:27)
  11. Leave It (4:10)
  12. Rhythm Of Love (4:46)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1993
Total running time: 66:00

Pete Yorn – Day I Forgot

Pete Yorn - Day I ForgotIt was almost inevitable that Pete Yorn would suffer a bit of a sophomore slump with Day I Forgot, his followup to musicforthemorningafter – if I started raving about Day I Forgot as much as I did about the last album, you’d probably suspect me of being on the Yorn payroll. But “not being as good as one of Dave’s Damn Near Perfect albums” is not all that penetrating a review, so I feel compelled to say a little bit more on behalf of what is, in its own right, a fine musical achievement.

The songwriting skills that first hooked me on Yorn are still in evidence on this album. More importantly, he and partner R. Walt Vincent show a ton of talent for building a song from layer after layer of instruments. The best songs on Day I Forgot build momentum from an enthusiastic point-counterpoint duel between numerous guitars, percussion, keyboards, and whatever else they could find in the studio to make some noise. That Yorn and Vincent play most of them while co-producing most of the tracks is almost enough to qualify them as a tandem musical hermit crab. They do have some able help, such as mixers and occasional co-producers Andy Wallace and Scott Litt. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck even shows up to play mandolin on one track, further confirming the man’s good taste.

My three favorite songs on the album are all up-tempo rockers, although only Burrito has the boundless energy of Life On A Chain. I simply can not not move when I hear this song, and I only wish it were longer than 2:45. “Crystal Village” and “Committed” are both a little more sedate, a little more clearly bittersweet, but they are excellent songs. I was listening to “Crystal Village” on headphones, and there’s an acoustic guitar part sort of buried in the right channel that just worms its way into your brain and doesn’t let go. The umpteen other guitars on top just echo and build on that small part to create a great listening experience. “Committed” is just…I don’t have the words for this song. There’s a very specific emotion that this song just captures, a sort of resigned acceptance of life’s pitfalls mixed with the realization that life’s still pretty darned good.

4 out of 4I want to rate this album at three, because it’s on the short side and a couple of the songs are merely OK. But the good songs are SO good – I was holding my one-year-old daughter while listening to “Committed”, and tears starting streaming down my face. Anything that can move me in such a fashion has to get a top score, but be aware that especially in this case, your mileage may vary.

Order this CD

  1. Intro (0:47)
  2. Come Back Down (3:24)
  3. Crystal Village (3:46)
  4. Carlos (Don’t Let It Go To Your Head) (3:29)
  5. Pass Me By (3:51)
  6. Committed (3:29)
  7. Long Way Down (3:38)
  8. When You See the Light (2:43)
  9. Turn Of The Century (3:03)
  10. Burrito (2:45)
  11. Man In Uniform (2:41)
  12. All At Once (4:04)
  13. So Much Work (4:47 – technically, this is track 14)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 42:44