The Listening Post: July 2009

Quickie reviews of what’s been rockin’ the Odd Pod this month…

  • The Pipe Dreams Of Instant Prince WhippetGuided By Voices. Robert Pollard’s Guided By Voices was one of the more frustrating acts in popular music. At their best, they did hard-edged power pop that was absolutely sublime. At their worst, they did half-written songs lacking tune or melody. Like Ryan Adams on speed, Pollard was ridiculously prolific. Because Pollard lacked an editor to weed out some of the lesser songs, GBV albums tend to be hit or miss. Some, like Isolation Drills, are start-to-finish great. Composed of outtakes from Isolation Drills and Universal Truths and Cycles, the 23-minute, 10-song Pipe Dreams falls on the underwhelming side. Most of the songs are half-baked and feel decidedly incomplete. “Visit This Place,” “Dig Through My Window” and the title track are superior songs, and “For Liberty” is a a good piece of filler, but much of the rest just drags. There’s nothing really awful on this disc, but there’s nothing within a mile of Isolation‘s or Cycles‘s best moments, either. Grade: C+
  • 21st Century BreakdownGreen Day. Never before has a band gotten so much mileage out of the word “Hey!” There are currently two bands aiming to pick up The Who’s crown, now that The Who is The Two. The first of these is Pearl Jam, who carry the mantle of The Who’s stadium ready anthemic rock songs. The second, surprisingly, is Green Day, the punk rock trio from Berkeley, California. Green Day’s come a long way from the days of three minute pop punk songs about marijuana and masturbation. Now they’re writing honest-to-God rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. The first of these, American Idiot, was a powerhouse collection of songs and performances. The latest, and what could be termed a sequel, or perhaps the flip side, of American Idiot, is 21st Century Breakdown. I’ve been listening, and I’ve read the lyrics. There’s a theme of alienation and disenchantment with the state of America today, and characters with actual names (Christian and Gloria), but I’m damned if I can figure out what the actual plot is (but then, I still don’t know the plot of American Idiot, either). As songs, most of them are really solid. The title track is a heavily charged anthem fueled with punk rage, while “Christian’s Inferno” crackles with demonic laughter and a ferocious performance. Perhaps strangest of all is “Peacemaker” which sounds like a Jewish folk song fueled by amphetamines, like an outtake from Fiddler On The Roof played by The Clash. There are some complaints: at over an hour, it’s a whole lot of Green Day; there’s a certain sameness to a lot of the songs; the first single “Know Your Enemy” goes nowhere, and the ballads “Last Night On Earth” and “Restless Heart Syndrome” only prove that Green Day’s strength is in short, sharp, and aggressive songs. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that type of song on this album. Grade: B+
  • Flop & The Fall Of The MopsqueezerFlop. An unknown gem, the 1992 debut album from the Seattle band Flop is a strong collection of catchy power pop tunes played with a relentlessly hard guitar edge. From the opening guitar crunch of “I Told A Lie” to the joke album ender “B” (a simple count off followed by one crashing chord), the energy of the album remains high. There are punk rock ravers like “Zeus My Master,” hard-edged pop songs (the irresistible “Tomato Paste”) and one perfectly chosen cover song, the Kinks obscurity “Big Sky,” that is played in a heavy, amped-up style far removed from the Kinks’s far gentler version. The album lacks the brilliant vision of their Seattle peers Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, but compares favorably to better-known Seattle bands like The Posies or The Young Fresh Fellows. Grade: B+
  • One MisssissippiBrendan Benson. Another debut album, this one from the power pop songwriter currently adding light to Jack White’s shade in The Raconteurs. Benson’s solo albums are all pretty similar. That said they’re also all really good and One Mississippi is no exception. There’s a delightfully surreal aspect to much of Benson’s songwriting. The guy’s got a warped sense of humor. A title like “Sittin’ Pretty” evokes all sorts of images. The catch line of the chorus (“My baby’s tied to a chair/Don’t she look pretty/Just sittin’ there”) is not one of them. But when the lyric is matched to a great, catchy pop tune it’s almost impossible not to sing along. Similarly, who would believe that there would ever be a really great song written about insects taking over the world (“Insects Rule”)? There’s also “Got No Secrets,” a great parody of the “too much information” types who remain an annoying presence in the media (“When I was a young boy/I was beat up by my dad/I grew up fast/I took drugs/And now I’m in rehab”). From start to finish, the album contains one pop gem after another, despite a couple of songs that aren’t quite top quality (like the album opener “Tea” and closer “Cherries”). Like a combination of Paul McCartney, the Raspberries, and early Who, Benson writes smart, catchy songs that rock. Grade: B+
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