Weird Al Yankovic – Even Worse

Weird Al Yankovic - Even WorseDoes Weird Al Yankovic love to take his swipes at Michael Jackson, or what? Once again, Al takes aim at Jackson – and tacks on yet another food theme – with “Even Worse”. Now, there’s no song by that title, but te cover art is clearly a spoof of Jackson’s buckle-covered Bad image, quite possibly the last time Jackson wasn’t too weird to be cool (well, arguably). But Bad is transformed into “Fat”, a littany of fat jokes which really worked better with the bizarre video than it does as a stand-alone song. Also not working in Even Worse‘s favor is “Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White”, a tune whose entire point seemed to be to cash in on the Wheel Of Fortune hostess’ then-inescapable ubiquity. (Truthfully, Al missed the mark here – had the song gotten out around 1988, he might’ve had a hit, but that prize went to someone else’s spoof.) “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long” is a guilty favorite of mine, a spoof of George Harrison’s “(I Got My Mind) Set On You” which pokes fun at the original’s ever-so-slightly repetitious lyric. “You Make Me” seems to be yet another Devo style parody, and falls into the disposable category.

If it’s starting to sound like Weird Al struck out with Even Worse, fear not, it gets better. “I Think I’m A Clone Now” is a subtly amusing parody of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now”, right down to the straight-off-the-assembly-line bubblegum pop production sound, and “Lasagna” is a brilliant (and, once again, food-obsessed) take on “La Bamba”, which had just gotten some recent exposure thanks to Los Lobos. “Melanie”, one of my favorite Yankovic originals ever, is a little song sung from a stalker’s point of view, and performed as a catchy pop number a la Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” or later-era Toad The Wet Sprocket.

Yet another cover of a cover, “Alimony” lays waste to Billy Idol’s then-recent cover of “Mony Mony”. “Velvet Elvis” is one of those original songs that I could do without, while “Twister” takes, word-for-word, the original Milton Bradley TV ad for the party game of the same name and twists it into a Beastie Boys-style rap. “Good Old Days” is an original number which sets fire to James Taylor’s signature style of folk-pop and runs away snickering.

Given that In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid were a couple of my all-time favorite albums at the time, I remember – even in 1990 – somehow expecting more out of Even Worse. For whatever reason, perhaps because rock music was confined to dull arena acts like Poison, pop producers were unleashing teenyboppers with the musical equivalent of pre-fabricated metal shacks, and rap was 2 out of 4starting to take over, Al just didn’t seem like he was firing on all cylinders here. In fact, it seemed like his next couple of CDs weren’t as on-the-mark either, and I was always disappointed that the seemingly obligatory polka medley – still a better demonstration of Yankovic’s musicianship and comic genius than any of his single-song spoofs – was missing.

Order this CD

  1. Fat (3:37)
  2. Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White (5:01)
  3. (This Song’s Just) Six Words Long) (3:37)
  4. You Make Me (3:05)
  5. I Think I’m A Clone Now (3:20)
  6. Lasagna (2:47)
  7. Melanie (3:59)
  8. Alimony (3:16)
  9. Velvet Elvis (4:30)
  10. Twister (1:04)
  11. Good Old Days (3:22)

Released by: Scotti Bros.
Release date: 1990
Total running time: 37:38

Weird Al Yankovic – Dare To Be Stupid

Weird Al Yankovic - Dare To Be Stupid1985. The video game industry had fallen, the last Star Wars movie had unspooled, leaving no sign of a sequel outside from some unpromising Ewok TV movies that somehow lacked the epic sweep of a Jedi duel between good and evil, and new wave music had given way to slickly-produced pop that attempted to mass-produce the synth-based sound that had been so boldly experimental just six years before when Gary Numan gave us Cars. And Weird Al Yankovic? Thank God at least Al was still around, and he had a fresh target: Madonna was on the rise.

This brings us to “Like A Surgeon”, Al’s cuttingly funny take-off of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, and the lead single (and first track) on Dare To Be Stupid. Considering that In 3-D had made him a superstar, the follow-up required some serious work to top it. And that it did, complete with some of Al’s best original compositions ever.

Dare To Be Stupid itself is a brilliant rip of the Devo sound, and in some ways even exceeds its inspiration. (Years later in a VH-1 special about Weird Al’s career, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo confessed that he loved the synth sounds Al used in the song – and hated him from that day forward for “wasting” them on a parody. Get over yourself, Mark. We’ll reserve a room for you in the Shatner suite.) “One More Minute” sets some truly bizarre lyrics to Inkspots-style doo-wop music, while the brilliant “This Is The Life” takes on the big band style that wouldn’t be coming back into vogue for nearly a decade and a half. “Cable TV” is hilarious as well, and in some ways lays the foundation for Al’s movie, UHF.

In the area of parodying specific songs, Weird Al rarely hit the ball over the fence this often in the space of a single album. “I Want A New Duck” is a bizarre spoof which flips the bird to Huey Lewis’ “I Want A New Drug” (and I’ll best Yankovic spent a lot less time apologizing for his song after the fact); food is once again the topic of the Cyndi Lauper-inspired “Girls Just Want To Have Lunch”, and most brilliantly of all, Weird Al does an almost straightforward retelling of The Empire Strikes Back to the tune of the Kinks’ “Lola” in “Yoda” – proof, if any be needed, that Al needs to go back, record some new material, add “Yoda” and “The Saga Begins” to the mix, and tell the entire Star Wars saga through music.

The album is triumphantly capped off with “Hooked On Polkas”, another of Weird Al’s signature polka medleys of songs that were making it big at the time. Among his victims this time around are ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”, Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose”, and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”, to name just three richly-deserving candidates. It’s hard to really put a finger on why Dare To Be Stupid always rocked my world 4 out of 4back then; the only song that doesn’t do a thing for me is “Slime Creatures From Outer Space”, which sounds like a weak attempt to mimic Thomas Dolby’s style circa 1984, but that’s one bad egg out of nearly a dozen – and truth be told, Al foisted worse turkeys on us with Even Worse. Dare To Be Stupid dared to take on an era when rock and pop music was getting less and less interesting, and at least made them funny.

Order this CD

  1. Like A Surgeon (3:32)
  2. Dare To Be Stupid (3:26)
  3. I Want A New Duck (3:04)
  4. One More Minute (4:05)
  5. Yoda (3:58)
  6. George Of The Jungle (1:05)
  7. Slime Creatures From Outer Space (4:23)
  8. Girls Just Want To Have Lunch (2:49)
  9. This Is The Life (3:07)
  10. Cable TV (3:38)
  11. Hooked On Polkas (3:52)

Released by: Scotti Bros.
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 36:59

Weird Al Yankovic – In 3-D

Weird Al Yankovic - In 3-DMy first-ever exposure to Weird Al – actually the same goes for quite a few close, personal friends of Al – was sparked by my interest in “Eat It”, the spot-on parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. But time, while it hasn’t mellowed me one darn bit, has shown me that there are far, far finer spoofs of pop greatness to be found on Yankovic’s In 3-D.

The great thing about Weird Al’s earliest work was that he had the entire pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll to pick and choose from. Nothing was off-limits – nothing too new or too old. Polkas On 45 is a good example. I’m a sucker for Al’s polka-fied medleys of richly-deserving songs-of-the-moment, but to me, Polkas On 45 is the standard by which all other Weird Al polka medleys must be judged. (I know that’s a rather rarified genre, but stick with me here.) What makes Polkas On 45 all the funnier is that it plucks gems from many years before Al’s rise to the top – everything is fair game: Foreigner (“Hot Blooded”), Talking Heads (“Burning Down The House”), the Beatles Hey Jude, the Doors (“L.A. Woman”), Iron Butterfly (“In A Gadda Da Vida”), and even Deep Purple (“Smoke On The Water”). Some of these songs are well-loved anthems of rock ‘n’ roll, not disposible Spice Girls singles. To put it bluntly, it took some balls to line up some of the greats only to hurl musical meringue pies at them. This one track is worth the price of the whole album.

But aside from wacko Jacko’s finest, Yankovic also helped himself to full-length parodies of Survivor (turning “Eye Of The Tiger” into “The Theme From Rocky XIII” with a chorus of “It’s the rye or the kaiser…”), the Police (“King Of Pain” into “King Of Suede”), and “style parodies” spoofing an artist’s sound but no one specific song: the reggae satire “Gonna Buy Me A Condo” has always made me laugh, especially now that I am old enough to dream of paying rent on a better rental property. Long-time fans will also find the Greg Kihn 4 out of 4Band spoof “I Lost On Jeopardy” here, as well as a non-artist-specific new wave howler, “Mr. Popeil”. Man, to think that there was a time when I wondered who that song was about, back before late-night infomercials. I miss my youth.

But thanks to Weird Al Yankovic’s In 3-D, I can at least temporarily reclaim it.

Order this CD

  1. Eat It (3:19)
  2. Midnight Star (4:33)
  3. The Brady Bunch (2:39)
  4. Buy Me A Condo (3:52)
  5. I Lost On Jeopardy (3:26)
  6. Polkas On 45 (4:19)
  7. Mr. Popeil (4:41)
  8. King Of Suede (4:12)
  9. That Boy Could Dance (3:28)
  10. Theme From Rocky XIII (3:37)
  11. Nature Trail To Hell (5:49)

Released by: Scotti Bros.
Release date: 1984
Total running time: 43:50

Y Kant Tori Read

Y Kant Tori ReadTruly a legendary album, Y Kant Tori Read’s debut (and thankfully only) album appeared and disappeared from the Billboard charts in the summer of 1988 within the space of a month – and no one heard from the band again until one of its members, pianist/vocalist Tori Amos, resurfaced as a solo artist at the forefront of a whole new movement of female artists in 1991.

Before the life-altering events that inspired Little Earthquakes, Amos’ first solo project, happened, she was fronting Y Kant Tori Read, essentially a typical late-80s rock group with a very typical late-80s sound. Those expecting to hear Tori’s trademark melancholy, introspective sound…won’t. But thanks to its abysmal chart performance and its small pressing, Y Kant Tori Read sank into oblivion – until Tori Amos became a household name in the early 90s, which sent the value of any original LP, CD or cassettes of Y Kant Tori Read skyrocketing into the $100 range and beyond. (This has also made it one of the single most bootlegged music releases ever – and even the bootlegs fetch ridiculous prices on eBay.) Legend has it that Tori’s solo contract with Atlantic Records prevents the label from reissuing the album in any form.

And that’s a good thing. Despite the fact that I haven’t been enthralled with everything Tori’s unleashed, Y Kant Tori Read is not a testament to her talents that I’d want released again were I her.

Well, it’s a good thing with the exception of one song.

3 out of 4“Etienne Trilogy” is a linked cycle of two instrumentals sandwiching an absolutely beautiful vocal/piano number which lives up to anything Tori has ever done since. In fact, I’d put “Etienne” up there with “Winter”, “Cloud On My Tongue” and “Sugar”, some of the best stuff she has ever done. You will not be disappointed.

Order this CD

  1. The Big Picture (4:11)
  2. Cool On Your Island (4:50)
  3. Fayth (4:18)
  4. Fire On The Side (4:48)
  5. Pirates (4:15)
  6. Floating City (5:03)
  7. Heart Attack At 23 (5:10)
  8. On The Boundary (4:30)
  9. You Go To My Head (3:46)
  10. Etienne Trilogy (6:28)

    The Highlands / Etienne / Skyeboat Song

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 59:41

Pete Yorn – musicforthemorningafter

Pete Yorn - musicforthemorningafterPete Yorn is one of the best songwriters I have ever heard; the 14 songs on his debut album musicforthemorningafter are some of the best-constructed pieces of music you’ll ever have the pleasure of listening to. Yorn combines a number of guitars, synths, drums and other instruments to create layers of sound supported by catchy melodies that are full of energy and feeling. The opening track (and first single) “Life On A Chain” starts with a crackling, sounds-like-it’s-being-played-on-a-turntable acoustic guitar intro, kicks in with the drums and the electric guitars 30 seconds in, then ups the tempo again with some nice bass work after another 30 seconds. The song’s complexity and tempo keep it charging forward, kept on track by the crisp percussion. Whenever I hear the song, I wish I could play an instrument, because I want to get in on the fun – as it is I just settle for attracting stares on the bus with my not-quite-in-tune air guitar and air drum playing.

“Life On A Chain” is the best song on the album – hell, it might be the best song of the year, although R.E.M.’s “The Lifting” would give it a run for the money – but this album is not a one-hit wonder. “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is)”, “Murray” and “Closet” are very satisfying up-tempo rock/pop songs with many of the same strengths as “Life”. On slower tracks like “Just Another” and “Lose You” the music amplifies and echoes the pessimism and melancholy of Yorn’s lyrics. The guitars on “Sense” wrap around each other to create a palpable sense of yearning; Yorn’s downcast, almost-mumbling vocals are at their best on this song. “On Your Side” is a lush, serene song that uses strings, synths and acoustic guitar to create a dream-like effect; I may wake up before dawn some time soon because this is the kind of song that was made to be heard while watching a sunrise.

The lyrics on musicforthemorningafter are a bit incomprehensible – they’re fragments of meaning, the kind of poetry that would either occupy an advanced high school lit class for a week or have everyone throwing up their hands in frustration. Since the lyrics don’t convey a straightforward narrative or even a single clear emotional theme, the bits and pieces blend in with the music, which creates a satisfying listening experience that also lets the listener project specific meanings onto the songs. Yorn also constructs the lyrics in such a way that key phrases are repeated throughout the song, with a word or two changed at the end to suggest a shift in perspective or meaning. It’s an effective technique, and one that makes the lyric sheet 4 out of 4worth reading.

musicforthemorningafter ranks with R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, dada’s Puzzle and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend as a top-notch modern rock album that’s well worth a listen, or five, or more…

Order this CD

  1. Life on a Chain (3:45)
  2. Strange Condition (3:57)
  3. Just Another (3:14)
  4. Black (4:11)
  5. Lose You (4:35)
  6. For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is) (3:30)
  7. Murray (3:45)
  8. June (2:34)
  9. Sense (3:53)
  10. Closet (3:03)
  11. On Your Side (5:02)
  12. Sleep Better (4:28)
  13. EZ (4:41)
  14. Simonize (2:54)

Released by: Sony
Release date: 2001

Weird Al Yankovic – Running With Scissors

Weird Al Yankovic - Running With ScissorsEasily the weird one’s best effort in many years, this masterpiece’s main selling point for most will be “The Saga Begins”, a more-or-less straightforward (but still funny!) retelling of Star Wars Episode I to the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie”. But I’m in love with “Polka Power!”, a polka-ized medley of the past three years’ biggest pop hits (on speed). It seems like the past three years have produced more than their share of flash-in-the-pan smash hits which truly sound silly if one thinks about it for more than ten seconds. “Polka Power!” single-handedly takes on the Spice Girls, Chumbawamba, Hanson, the Backstreet Boys, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, and the Beastie Boys, among others. Other parodies include a commentary on Jerry Springer (sung to the tune of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”), Grapefruit Diet (another trademark Weird Al “fat” song to the tune of Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot”), and “Pretty Fly For a Rabbi” (to the tune of “Pretty Fly For A White Guy”). And Weird Al parodies 4 out of 4the style, if not any specific song, of Nine Inch Nails in a tune called “Germs”. But the best original tune is the 11+ minute rambling rock extravaganza called “Albuquerque”. I don’t know if the song was improvised, or if Weird Al actually set out to write a number that would take one-sixth of an hour out of your life, but it’s quite entertaining, to put it mildly!

Order this CD

  1. The Saga Begins (5:27)
  2. My Baby’s In Love With Eddie Vedder (3:25)
  3. Pretty Fly For A Rabbi (3:02)
  4. The Weird Al Show Theme (1:13)
  5. Jerry Springer (2:46)
  6. Germs (4:35)
  7. Polka Power! (4:21)
  8. Your Horoscope for Today (3:59)
  9. It’s All About the Pentiums (3:34)
  10. Truck Drivin’ Song (2:27)
  11. Grapefruit Diet (3:30)
  12. Albuquerque (11:22)

Released by: Volcano
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 47:48