Grass Stains were Just a Sign of the Times

For almost a year now, some of my friends and I have been sharing an album with one another, partly for exposure to new music and partly to give us something to listen to while we work, etc. We’re supposed to review it, rate it, and share those reviews/ratings with one another as well, but that doesn’t always happen.

Neil Diamond – Stones (1971)

The only songs I had heard off this album, prior to this week, were I Am I Said and Crunchy Granola Suite. Part of it is, I’m only a greatest hits listener. And I don’t even like all of his hits. I’m sure there are some great songs that aren’t included as “hits,” but I haven’t really ever been impressed enough to listen to his whole catalogue and find those hidden gems.

I’ve seen this album around before, and I know I shouldn’t judge an album by its cover, but I really don’t like this album cover. It’s supposed to be white lettering on … what is that? burlap? It’s hard to read. I found someone else who made the lettering blue, which is a little better. He could have had a better cover if they just used the photograph and put the letters (filled-in, not outlined) on top of that. Whatever.

This album hasn’t really changed my impression of Neil Diamond. I know he has good stuff, but except for the one song I had heard before, I don’t know that any of it is on this album. Mostly, this album was just … blah. I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today sounded like it should have been a show tune.

I usually try to have a more robust review with real reasons why I feel the way I do about a particular album. I can’t really offer much more than this album bored me. 2/5

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell (2015)

This is a (pretty much) brand new album. Basically, Sufjan’s mother died in 2012 and this is a very open and honest album dealing with the complex emotions in the aftermath. His mother was a schizophrenic, alcoholic, substance abuser that abandoned him as a child and had limited interaction with him throughout his life. For a brief five-year period when Suf was around 8 years old, his mother was married to a man named Lowell, and apparently it was in that short time that Sufjan ever had any sort of “normal” relationship with his mother as he and his siblings would go spend summers with Carrie and Lowell in Oregon. These songs are about those times, about trying to reconcile his love/hate relationship with this woman, and the confusion and regret that things couldn’t have been better.

This is a man truly baring his soul into music. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is too simple or boring. The melodies are subtle but beautiful, and the instrumentation similarly light. But this is an album where the lyrics and where the true power is. I’d even suggest reading this interview to get a bit more perspective.

One reason Chris decided to share it this week is because a good friend of his had his mother pass away recently, like more recently than this album was released. That sudden tragedy heightened the impact of this already emotional album. My uncle died in December and my father-in-law in March, both unexpectedly. I know neither of those is like losing a mother, but this album doesn’t really speak to me on that level. It’s well done music, and I can tell it’s very personal, but I feel like this album doesn’t have much variety. It’s all pretty much the same. I suppose it mirrors some of the soft Christmas songs Chris shared, but it’s nothing like folk pop of Illinois. Within the narrow band of this flavor of indie folkiness, I find I like the guitar picking and interesting chord progressions. Songs that have those caught my attention. The best of these was Eugene. Otherwise, it all blended together. I like it alright, but it’s a little much to listen to all at once. But I could mix some of this in with other stuff. 3/5

Walk the Moon – Talking is Hard (2014)

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think of this album at first. It seemed to be just another generic pop rock album. Emphasis on the pop. But of all the ’80s inspired music that seems to be in vogue, this really felt like a ’80s album. I feel like these guys could have toured with Depeche Mode, The Cure or Devo 30 years ago. This is some not-quite serious new-wave/dance rock, with maybe just a little disco.

I really liked this album more than I thought I would. Maybe I just needed something more upbeat this week. This album made me want to move my body – something that none of the other albums this week made me want to do.

Let me start with a low light. I didn’t really like Up 2 U. I feel like artists walk a fine line between album continuity and just sounding the same. Up 2 U was definitely an exercise in making sure this album wasn’t all the same stuff, but it was so different it was jarring. And maybe that song got me out of the mood they set up at the top of the album, because while Avalanche was still ’80s-esque, it just felt canned. Portugal was better, but it took them until Down in the Dumps to win me back.

Down in the Dumps was the best song from any of these artists I heard all week. Where Up 2 U failed, Down in the Dumps succeeded, in spades. Maybe it helped that at times, Walk the Moon’s singer sounded like one of the guys from Guster. And they followed it up with another great song. But the rest of the album kind of fizzled out from there. Spend Your Money seemed to cross the line between praising and parroting. Maybe the novelty of it all wore off. None of it was bad, but they had just hit such a highlight that the ok stuff was … just ok.

While not something that has changed my world, they have me intrigued enough to check out what else they might have. Maybe it’s not fair, and on another week that had more up beat stuff it wouldn’t have stood out so much, but considering this stuff was either great or ok, I’m giving this album a 4/5.

Gabriel Kahane – Haircuts and Airports (2014)

This is not at all what I expected of Kari. I can only describe it vaguely as jazz, but I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. His voice sounds like a mix between Michael Bublé and … I don’t know, maybe one of the guys from Barenaked Ladies? I can’t quite put my finger on it.

He reminds me of Ani Di Franco, except less political. And he’s a dude. And doesn’t just do acoustic guitar. The point is that he feels very free-form. The title track had a somewhat verse-chorus structure, but I couldn’t ever anticipate where he was going next.

I know it’s just a 5 track EP, but the best track was The Folks Who Live on the Hill (1635 Woods Dr.). It’s instrumental and vocal simplicity was a nice contrast to the other songs, which seemed frenetic. It still didn’t follow a rudimentary song structure or chord progression, but I think it was easier to listen to and think about.

It was nice to have something rather different. I don’t know that I could listen to a ton of this, but it’s something I’d mix in with other things. 3/5

Weezer – Weezer (1994)

You can call it their debut, eponymous, self-titled, un-titled or blue album. Officially, it’s Weezer. Personally, I go with the blue album because they’ve since released two other similarly (un-)titled albums, the green album and the red album. I don’t love everything these guys do, just most of it. Although to be honest, I haven’t listened to their latest release.

I remember listening to this album on my brother’s discman in the backseat of our van during a camping trip in the mid-’90s. And it is great. I knew all the words to this album before I could grow any hair on my face.

This album rocks. It’s not grunge. It’s not punk. It has metal influences, but it isn’t metal. This is the first thing I remember hearing which can only be described as alternative rock.

The songs on this album get a 4/5 average from me. The only two relative lowlights for me are Undone – The Sweater Song (maybe it’s the talking bits, but I don’t really love that whole track) and Say it Ain’t So. But the album closes with what I think is the strongest track, Only in Dreams. It’s so good, it doesn’t feel like an eight-minute song.

This isn’t so much a new music recommendation as a reminder to go revisit this modern classic. Here’s what my friends thought:

“I love Weezer, especially this album. Like most of the music that was released during my youth I didn’t actually like it until I got to college. Once I started to listen to stuff and not just hate it because all the other kids liked it I realized how great a writer Rivers Cuomo is. It’s sad-sack rock, sure, but its the perfect blend of accessible, relate-able, and enjoyable. Perhaps I’m too emo but “Say it Ain’t So” is actually one of my favorite songs ever. I agree though that “Only In Dreams” is simply amazing. “In the Garage” is another that I really like. To me every track here is a classic.

And I love the creamy thick distortion they have through the whole album.” 5/5 -Spencer

“This is one of the few albums from the mid 90’s that I would give 5 stars to. It is so wonderfully structured and put together. The music is great, you can listen all the way through from start to finish, and several songs stand on their own. What fascinates me is how much Weezer changed as they “grew-up.” The music was fantastic for the time, and they evolved…but Rivers, with his quirkiness, went in the wrong direction of music evolution in my opinion. So in many ways I consider them two bands, and this early stuff was shear perfection.” 5/5 -Tim

“A true classic. I remember when this album first came out, and at the time it wasn’t my thing at all. I had a friend who loved it, but I was so annoyed by it’s geek rock shtick. “They’re such nerds!” I would think. Took me a bit to realize that was exactly the point. These days I think you can pinpoint the time when “geek” truly started to become “cool” with the success of Weezer’s Blue Album (That’s right, Tim, Big Bang Theory owes quite a lot to Weezer’s success). They were the first of the alt-rock revolution to champion a more lighthearted and goofy approach with the “I’m a loser” motif (unlike the self-loathing drudgery of most grunge, Weezer were proud to be losers).

Anyway, this really is a timeless album. I’ve always enjoyed and kind of miss this “heavy pop” sound. The guitars sound so beautiful in this thing! I love all the singles and obvious classics (that video for “Buddy Holly” is one of the all-time great videos), but “In The Garage” was always my favorite. In fact, it was this song that was the first to convert me to their proud-to-be-geek approach. I remember connecting instantly to this anthem of “I’ve got all these nerdy treasures in my own little world.” And there was no better time in my life to hear a shameless X-Men plug than 1994. That was the turning point for me. But there really isn’t a dud on this album. So good.” 9/10 -Chris

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8 thoughts on “Grass Stains were Just a Sign of the Times

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