Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Rosie Thomas - These Friends of Mine

Rosie’s first album, When We Were Small, was as stark as it was beautiful. The instrumentation was slight and delicate, with Rosie’s fragile vocals draped over the top. The songs were mostly piano based, with some guitars and strings mixed in from time to time. The drums were virtually non-existent throughout the album. Even the “upbeat radio song” (“Wedding Day”) would’ve been a ballad on any other album.
Over the course of her next two albums, she used increasingly more instruments. The songs were still beautiful (with the exception of a couple), but there was more to them. And, while I always loved her albums, I always longed for another album full of her delicate songs.
And, with the release of These Friends of Mine, I finally got my wish. Only this time I got a little bonus. This time she was joined by her good friends (and some amazing musicians themselves), Sufjan Stevens and Denison Witmer.
The songs were recorded over a very short time, with most of them being written and recorded within hours (if not minutes) of each other.
The album is comprised of 10 songs…7 original songs and 3 covers. The covers are good, but are definitely the low points of the album. The covers are R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, Denison Witmer’s “Paper Doll” (complete with Denison backing her on vocals), and Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” (which has been covered by Denison Witmer, Eva Cassidy, and, most recently, Willie Nelson). They’re good songs, but they seems relatively uninspired…like they were thrown in as an afterthought.
There is really only one other part of the album that I don’t enjoy too much. The song “Say Hello” is a beautiful song, with Rosie and Sufjan trading vocals…but then it gets to the end, and there’s just a small, annoying bit of non-conversation at the tail end that just kills it for me. In fact, I’m very close to just editing that out myself just so it won’t bug me anymore.
There’s also a bit of conversation before “Why Waste More Time?” and at the end of “These Friends of Mine”, but it’s actually pretty cool. It’s the sound of 3 friends having fun recording an album, and it lets you into their world and process…if only for a couple of seconds.
The rest of the album is fun and gorgeous and exactly what I wanted. “If This City Never Sleeps” is a great way to kick of the album…a short song driven by a finger-picked guitar line. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is pretty much more of the same…but in a good way.
There are three songs that really stand out from the rest of the album. “Much Farther to Go” and “Kite Song” would’ve fit perfectly on When We Were Small; they’re small, stark songs that will break your heart if you’re not careful. “These Friends of Mine” closes out the album in grand fashion. The song starts with the rolling of tape and a loop of harmonies reminiscent of The Beach Boys. I was hooked before she even started singing. The song starts a bit slow, but, by the end of it, the harmonies are back in full throat as Rosie’s voice soars above them all in a huge sound of gorgeousness.
If you love Rosie’s previous albums you’ll love this one. If you’ve never listened to any of her music, this would be a pretty good place to start. It’s an intimate recording full of beautiful songs. What could be better than that?

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “If This City Never Sleeps”, “All The Way to New York City”

Favorite Tracks: “Much Farther to Go”, “Kite Song”, “These Friends of Mine”

This album was released on Rosie's own label, Sing a Long Records, and is available as a download only. You can download it at iTunes or at Emusic

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Dementia Cookie Box - The Truth About Life (As Told By The Dementia Cookie Box)

The Dementia Cookie Box has been around, in one incarnation or another, for 10 years or so. They’ve run through many different phases: rock, punk, acoustic, electronica, etc.
With the release of their new album, they have carved out a nice little niche for themselves by playing some good old fashioned mid-90s alterna-rock in the vein of The Smashing Pumpkins or Hum. With the music world currently hooked on “faux punk” (I believe the term is pop-punk) and the forced emotion of emo, it’s not a bad niche to have.
There are some good bits on here. The vocals are well done, and most of the songs have a pretty nice guitar hook, which makes it darn near impossible to get out of your head. “Rain” is a perfect example…no wonder it’s the song that kicks off the album. It feels a bit like summer with a sweet guitar lick and a verse that just begs you to sing along with it, but you don’t know whether you should feel happy or sad singing it.
“Two-Step” is, far and away, the best song on the album. Once you hear it you’ll be singing it for the next month, but not in that annoying Pussycat Dolls “Don’t Cha” kind of way. More in the I-really-want-to-hear-that-song-again kind of way. Even now as I sit here typing this, I’m wanting to hear it again (only I can’t, or it would interrupt my 100th viewing of Van Helsing).
All in all, it’s a good listen, with only one misstep or two along the way. The most glaring one would have to be “Stars”, a spoken-word poem set to music. It’s not that the song is bad…it’s actually pretty cool (I’m a big fan of the guitars in particular), but it seems a bit out of place within the context of the rest of the album.
The only other problem is the production, and only that is a problem in comparison with a major label release. As far as independent releases go, it’s not terrible production…just enough to where you’ll notice it. The drums aren’t all that snappy, and the guitars seem to get a little sludgy and fade into the mix from time to time. But, other than that, it seems fairly well done.
Is it an absolutely mind-blowing release? No…but it’s pretty stinkin’ good, especially if you’re looking for some good, self-produced, under-the-radar rock. I know that seems like a pretty small market, but I like to think that it isn’t. And, after listening to this album, I believe that market will begin to grow again.

Rating: 7.3

Essential Tracks: “Dream of a Million Colors”, “Sacred Bodies”, “Her Friend Paul”

Favorite Tracks: “Rain”, “Two-Step”

Check out the band here, their Myspace here, and download the entire album for free off of their website...just click on the Media tab (if you like the album, please support the group by purchasing the album off their site).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Tom Waits - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

I will start out by saying this: if you are not already a Tom Waits fan, this set will not make you one. Even the casual fan may be a bit overwhelmed with this entire set. This set was released with two people in mind: the rabid fan (the one who can’t get enough of Tom Waits), and Tom himself. It is, essentially, a cleaning out of the ol’ closet. Out of the 56 tracks found here, 30 of them are brand new, and have never been released elsewhere. The other 26 are taken from compilations, soundtracks, tributes, and the like…but not even all of those are readily available anymore. He has even gone back and rerecorded some of the older songs, so, even though you may have heard a song on here previously, there’s no guarantee that you’ve heard this version of it. It’s a massive collection of one of the great songwriter/performers of our time, and it’s amazing.
There are 3 discs included in this set, and each one of them has a theme. Because of this, we’ll tackle each disc individually. The theme of each disc is fairly obvious, based on the title alone, so I’ll try not to spend too much time on that. We’ll start with…

Brawlers – (AKA, the upbeat disc…for the most part). This album kicks off with “Lie to Me”, a bluesy, 50s sounding rockish song, complete with faux-Elvis hiccup singing, handclaps, boom-chikka-boom drumming, and the like. The entire album doesn’t fit that same exact mold, but it gives a great intro to the collection. The rest of the disc is filled with lots of dirty blues (“LowDown”, a T. Rex-esque rocker, “2:19”, a train song set to a slow blues groove, and “Puttin’ On the Dog”), songs driven by vocal percussion (the, no doubt, Real Gone outtake, “Lucinda”), political songs (“Road to Peace”, a more political, and shorter version, of “Sins of My Father” off Real Gone) and, of course, a wonderful spiritual (“Lord I’ve Been Changed”). As with the other discs, this one has a few covers, as well (“The Return of Jackie Judy” was originally heard on a Ramones tribute album). I absolutely love the howling dog on “Buzz Fledderjohn”, and, by the end of the closing song, “Rains on Me”, you can hardly help but sing along with him. Lots of blues, lots of dirt, lots of story-songs, and lots of fun.

Bawlers – (AKA, the downer album, or, the beautiful album.) I have long since been in awe of Tom Waits’ ability to create some of the most terrifying music ever heard, only to have, in the middle of it all, a song of infinite beauty (perfect example: pick up Bone Machine. Listen to the frightening “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”, then listen to the gorgeous “Who Are You?”). There’s clutter, there’s clatter, there’s banging on stuff…then there’s the beautiful song. Think of this as the album full of those songs. The only problem with it is that it kind of drags by the end, which is a shame. It’s a great collection of beautiful songs, whether it’s his original versions of “Long Way Home” (covered by Norah Jones) or “Down There By the Train” (covered by Johnny Cash), “Little Drop of Poison” off the Shrek 2 soundtrack, or his covers of “Goodnight Irene”, “Young at Heart”, and “Danny Says”. If you’re not a Tom Waits fan already and you could pick only one disc from this collection to listen to, it would be this one.

Bastards – (AKA, the odd album) These are the songs that make you shake your head and wonder what the devil runs through his mind sometimes. In other words, this album is for the massive Tom Waits fan only. That being said, this album is a lot of fun. It’s a great collection of strange covers (“What Keeps Mankind Alive”, “King Kong”), captivating spoken word narrative, poetry, and stories (the disturbing “Children’s Story”, complete with his raspy laugh at the end, “Army Ants”, a collection of facts about ants read from The World Book Encyclopedia, “Nirvana”, a Bukowski poem set to a recorder, “The Pontiac”, which is just a recording of Tom talking to one of his kids about the cars that he and his wife owned, and “Dog Treat”, a story told while on tour), Waits gone hip-hop (“Dog Door”), and a demented Disney song thrown in for good measure (“Heigh Ho”). It’s a big, strange collection of various oddities. That seems like it would get old after a while, but it doesn’t really. Out of the 3 discs here, this one seems the loosest, like he was just messing around and happened to come up with some of this stuff. It’s strange and fun…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All in all, this is a great collection. And, surprisingly, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch. That’s pretty impressive, given the nature and scope of this collection. If you can release a 56 song set of b-sides, rarities, and oddities and not have a bad song included, I’d say you’ve done pretty well for yourself. Bravo Mr. Waits…bravo.
As I said at the beginning, this set is not for everyone. But, if you love Tom Waits, this is definitely something you’re going to want to pick up. Even if you’re just a casual fan, it’d be worth downloading some tracks from iTunes (or whatever you crazy kids are doing nowadays) and making a single-disc best of. There is some great stuff in this set.
In fact, I only have one major complaint. When I heard this was coming out, there was mention of including a 70 page book. In my mind, I was thinking it was going to be like Johnny Cash’s Unearthed set, in which every song in the collection was discussed by Johnny, Rick Rubin, and other people who had memories about the song and/or the recording process. This book doesn’t have any of that. The lyrics to every original song are included here, and there’s also some pretty cool pictures in the back of the book, but it doesn’t really say anything about the songs themselves. What were they recorded for originally? Where were they recorded? Why wasn’t it released on the album it was meant for? These are the questions that I would like to have answered. Oh well…I guess that’s why Gore invented the internet…

Rating: 9.3

Essential Tracks: “Lie to Me”, “LowDown”, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”, “Heigh Ho”, “Home I’ll Never Be”

Favorite Tracks: “Bottom of the World”, “Lord I’ve Been Changed”, “Rains on Me”, “Long Way Home”, “If I Have to Go”, “Army Ants”, “Missing My Son”

There’s not really an official Tom Waits website, but the best place to go for news is here