Thursday, February 05, 2009

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part Two (#94-97)

97. Fastball, All the Pain Money Can Buy
Fastball - All the Pain Money Can BuyA peculiar brand of rock dominated my local radio station from the mid- to late-nineties. Let's call it alterna-pop: big guitars, lots of distortion, massive choruses and ready-for-radio hooks. Some of these bands you may remember, others not, but they were all I could find on my FM dial through most of my years in high school. Marcy Playground, Tonic, Better Than Ezra, Semisonic, Eve 6, Lit, etc. They were all huge. Some had multiple hits; most had but one.

The winner of this bizarre battle royale? An Austin trio called Fastball, whose hit single "The Way" ruled the airwaves for a few months, gave way to a few less-successful hits, and then pretty much vanished from the face of the mainstream. A follow-up album sold about a tenth as many copies, and Fastball disappeared. And that's too bad, because All the Pain Money Can Buy shows a depth you wouldn't expect from a one-hit wonder. There are the big alterna-pop numbers you'd expect, sure -- "Warm Fuzzy Feeling" and "Fire Escape" are probably the best -- but also a distinct country twinge to be found on the slower tracks, like "Nowhere Road" and the beautiful "Out of My Head."

96. Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica
Modest Mouse - The Moon & AntarcticaIt's jangly, self-indulgent and overlong. The vocals are shaking, the guitars hovering in and out of key. It's a mess. It's also one of the most achingly beautiful records ever produced, a shimmering suite that feels as lonely and as cold as the locations in its title. Issac Brock's musical meditation on death and its aftermath have an effect so few albums do -- it crawls in your head through your ears and stays there, long after it's finished.

Earlier Modest Mouse albums piled on the noise and the quirk until they were practically unlistenable, but Moon finds them finally hitting all their marks. A large part of that is Brian Deck's spacey production; another is Brock's dogged focus. His songs are wounded tirades, seeking out answers and relief when surrounded by pain. He doesn't find much -- the closer, "What People Are Made Of," slams the door with a bang, coming to the conclusion that they're not made of much more than "water and shit."

95. Jonathan Coulton, Smoking Monkey
Jonathan Coulton - Smoking MonkeyThis might be a tad ironic, because Smoking Monkey isn't close to being JoCo's best release. The Thing a Week series is stunning merely because of its achievement, let alone the quality of some of those songs; the Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow EP is an essential that everyone should have in their collection. But again, this is my 100 favorite albums, and Smoking remains his only full-length LP. (Unless you count each part of the Thing a Week series as an individual LP, which I don't. And none of those are consistent enough on their own, anyway.)

Not to give you the impression this is a bad record -- gods, no. Smoking Monkey is a funny, catchy minor miracle, a smart collection of songs that shows a wonderfully geeky sensibility. Old holiday stories get tossed into a cuisinart on "Christmas Is Interesting," and "First of May" strips people-get-together sing-alongs of their innocence. My favorite: "Kenesaw Mountain Landis," an hilarious retelling of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, which manages to get just about every fact as wrong as possible in just over three and a half minutes -- "Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a bad motherfucker / He was seventeen feet tall, he had a hundred fifty wives" -- before ending it with a pun on Shoeless Joe Jackson vs. singer Joe Jackson.

94. Van Morrison, St. Dominic's Preview
Van Morrison - Saint Dominic's PreviewSo, in my first post, when I hinted that the artists with three entries wouldn't be who you'd expect -- exactly who was I trying to kid?

I could go on for days and days about Van's voice (and don't think I won't in his later appearances on our countdown), but this time around I'll focus on the songs, which are among the brightest he's recorded. "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" practically bounces with glee; "Redwood Tree" glows like the sunset. The title track, one of his very best compositions, feels like a reassuring arm slung over your shoulder. Elsewhere, "Almost Independence Day" harkens back to his first album, the flawless Astral Weeks, and features an acoustic guitar melody strikingly similar to one Pink Floyd would use on "Wish You Were Here" three years later.

If you don't have any Van Morrison (for shame!), St. Dominic's may be the best place to start. Not as spiritual as Astral Weeks, but it's the perfect feel-good record. Listening to Van here, I can't help but smile. You won't be able to, either.

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