Category Archives: Album of the Week

Why is the world in love again?

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Judging by the age of the crowd, many of the people who attended They Might Be Giants’ Flood show must’ve been in grade school when the album came out. Some of them were older, maybe getting into TMBG through their popularity on college radio, and some of them, like me, were younger, having first heard of the band due to their appearance on Tiny Toon Adventures. They Might Be Giants come to Milwaukee frequently and their shows are typically pretty well-attended, but the Flood show was different; it sold out in less than a week and the floor filled up as soon as the doors opened. Despite the implications of a band performing a full album that came out 30 years ago, They Might Be Giants are far from a legacy band; they still release new material regularly and a lot of it is really good. But for most of their fans, Flood is *the* They Might Be Giants album; it’s their best-seller, it’s got all the hits, and if you grew up with the band chances are this is the CD you had. And if you had this CD growing up, you probably listened to it a lot.

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Inexplicably popular instrumental concept albums: a double feature

mikejarreJean-Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield have always been linked together in my mind. Despite working in very different genres there are a lot of similarities between the two – the penchant for instrumental concept albums with a ton of noodly sections, the shunning of real song titles, and the tendency to end their best LPs on silly joke tunes. More than that they’ve had the same sort of career, as they both kicked off as an unlikely success story, or at least the sort of success that seems inexplicable in 2020. Both Tubular Bells and Oxygene are classic albums of course but if you handed them to a young person today there is no chance in hell they’d guess that these things sold upwards of 15 million copies in their day. They both followed them up pretty well, but by the late 80’s they were limping around writing bad pop music, eventually regaining parts of their past audience by releasing sequel albums. They’ve had good decades and bad, but for the most part if you want to get into these dudes you want to grab the early stuff.
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Returning to Illinois

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Can I interest you in a skull balloon, little boy?

“What’s the hell is this Charlie Brown shit?”, one of my friends asked while I was playing this CD in the car. Hard to think of a better description than that. I remember feeling a little embarrassed for liking this album, as it sometimes came off like a homework assignment (both in that it’s a history lesson and that it’s very long), and it had this mix of cuteness and fragility that sounded like it would be more at home in a Hyundai ad. Sufjan himself was like Zach Braff’s Garden State character come to life as a folk musician, a man flailing to set himself apart despite having a very natural talent. It seemed like he was trying to straddle that line between ironic distance and bare-hearted sincerity but it didn’t really work because nothing about the album was really all that funny. It was lavishly orchestrated and the band wore strange stage costumes and it all felt kinda like a put on. But none of that really mattered because the album was so good, in a way that was pretty obvious right from the start. You knew this thing was gonna wind up on everyone’s list for album of the year, if they were willing to look vulnerable for a second.  Yeah man, this is some Charlie Brown shit.  But I was really into it.
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The party never dies…

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I was pretty rapturous about this album when it came out. Despite its March release I basically declared it album of the year right off the bat, unaware of how many other AOTY contenders were coming down the pike – George Clanton, Kaku P-Model, Daphne & Celeste, Koenjihyakkei, Janelle Monae, Mouse on Mars, and that 8-hour behemoth from Autechre, all of them deserving and if I had to give out the trophy now it would probably be to whichever one I listened to last. Luckily Critter Jams does not give out such a trophy and nobody would take it seriously anyway since you really got to give these things some time. Every year I try to make time to listen to my favorites from last year because you never know which ones are gonna still feel like magic and which ones will make you go, “maybe it wasn’t all that good”.
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Underworld – Drift Series 1 (2019)

57599675_10156272776742849_5508245632420151296_oLet me get this out of the way first; Underworld are my favorite band and I like pretty much everything they’ve ever done. So I’m not gonna pretend to be objective here. I think all their albums rank somewhere on the scale of “good to great” and they’ve got a vast catalogue of singles that are pretty much unimpeachable…but there are a lot of electronic groups you could say that about. To me, Underworld have something else – they’ve got this sort of soul to them, a certain freewheeling musical quality that lets them go places their contemporaries can’t. It’s something you find on the deep cuts, the EP tracks, the B-sides, and those weird one-offs that they’ll play once during a radio broadcast and then never again. Something that reminds you that these two are proper musicians, who’d released their first LP together a decade before “Rez” hit the clubs. If you have followed this band then you know that they make a lot of music, the majority of which never sees an actual studio album. The deluxe reissues of their first 3 albums wound up spanning 12 total CDs…and even that didn’t cover everything. Kraftwerk they ain’t.

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Sacred Tapestry – Shader Complete / New Dreams Ltd. – Sleepline (2012-2013, reissued 2018)

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Vektroid is truly an artist of the internet age; not only does she work in a genre that was born entirely online, but she has a tendency to continuously remix and reconfigure her back catalogue in a way that wasn’t really possible in the age of physical media. Throw in the fact that she uses about a dozen different aliases and you wind up with a discography that’s massively confusing; you’re never quite sure what’s from when, or whether the thing you’re listening to is actually just another work-in-progress. So when Aguirre announced the release of two of Vek’s albums on vinyl, I knew I had to get them; if nothing else it’s neat to actually get a finished product in your hands, especially one that seems so backwards-minded.  I mean, the vaporwave on cassette tape thing at least makes some sense – it is in fact that perfect physical medium for a genre that obsesses itself with lo-fi digital futurism circa 1986, where a record player is not something to be nostalgic for, but rather an old technology to be discarded and forgotten as we face a brighter future.

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Wall of Voodoo – Call of the West (1982)

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I saw Stan Ridgway and his new band perform a huge chunk of this album during a tour they did for its 25th anniversary.  I was 21 and  probably the youngest person there; unlike many of their contemporaries, there has been no real critical re-evaluation of Wall of Voodoo.  That was 11 and a half years ago.  The time, how it flies.

In college I used to listen to this album all the time.  At some point I went through an 80’s one-hit wonder phase, scanning through all the great songs I’d heard on VH1 back in the day and grabbing the albums, mainly because the ones I’d gotten from Devo and Gary Numan were excellent.  Perhaps these acts were one-hit wonders to the outside world, but if you’re a fan, you know what’s up.  It occurred to me that Wall of Voodoo might be the same.  Though “Mexican Radio” is a bit different from “Cars” or even “Whip It” – it’s so stylized, with spaghetti-western licks, a wild synthesizer line, clanky percussion, and a singer who sounds like a film noir actor with a lobotomy.  It was like pieces from four different bands that somehow coalesced into one.  If you watched the “Whip It” video with the sound off, this is the sort of music you would imagine them playing.  I had no idea what a full record from these guys would sound like.
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