For more than a year, some of my friends and former coworkers have been sharing music. The idea is that we’re supposed to review/rate what’s shared with us, then share those reviews with the group, but that doesn’t always happen.
This week I’m sharing an album from a one-hit wonder from the ’90s, except I’m not sharing the album their hit came from. But first, let me tell you about what everyone else shared:
Smash Mouth – Astro Lounge (1999)
Try to forget for a moment about All Star and Smash Mouth’s Radio Disney qualities. These guys are great musicians. Their first album was very much ska, but this is an amazingly different blend of synth-pop, surf rock and funk. With a little Mediterranean guitar thrown in I Just Wanna See. Or Latin in Satellite. No, I don’t love Greg Camp’s kinda whiney gravely voice, but it fits. And they have some great harmonies, too.
I love Satellite. It’s straight out of a ’60s or ’70s movie. I love the latin groove and the bowling alley organ accompaniment drum beat. You know what I’m talking about. And then the guitar turns it into a spy movie soundtrack for a little bit before switching back to full latin. It’s just musically interesting.
Radio almost goes back to their grungier ska roots. But only almost. I would be surprised to learn this was one of the earlier songs written for this album. Stoned is probably also an older tune, but while I like the big choruses and the instrumental transition into the breakdown alright, the rest of the song is just ok.
Of the more well known songs on this album, Then the Morning Comes is I think my favorite. I love the major choruses and the minor verses. I love the eastern-flavor of the guitar at one point. It’s just an interesting song to me. The Can’t Get Enough of You Baby cover is also good, but I don’t know how much of that is Smash Mouth and how much of that is they picked an already good song to cover.
I don’t mind Road Man, but I don’t think it’s good that the most interesting part of the song is some of the little stuff the keys and guitar are doing in the background (not the upbeat skank rhythms – the other stuff). That’s not true, I love the harmonies, the minor bridge and the trombone solo. But I’ve heard this album so many times, I find myself listening more in the background of tracks like this.
This has definitely been an influence on me and my own writing, even though there are some rather throw away tracks (this is the first time in a long time I haven’t skipped Fallen Horses – there’s something about the keyboard in that song that reminds me of a telephone busy signal and it annoys me). 4/5
Ben Williams – Coming of Age (2015)
Tim found this last week while looking for a “new” album to share and the cover caught his attention. He then asked, “Who says album covers are irrelevant today?”
First, if you’ve been reading this blog over the past year or so, it’s obvious that he and I have different tastes. But still, what about that cover caught his attention? What was intriguing to him about a black and white photo? I will say I like the electric blue, but this album doesn’t stand out just because of its cover.
Second (and you may want to skip this, because it gets quite long), I don’t know anyone who has said they weren’t relevant today. I remember thinking about the role of album artwork when RHCP’s I’m with You came out, and how iTunes makes artwork a part of the listening experience. I’ve thought about it again when I’ve designed artwork for my own or others’ music. On a desktop or laptop, you can have your screensaver set to flip through all your iTunes artwork. And with iPods, you take the music and the artwork with you. There are many songs which I identify with the album artwork more than the artist. Does that make sense at all? I feel like album artwork should be more than something to catch your eye in the store (whether it’s a brick-and-mortar or the iTunes store). To be honest, I’m not sure how well I’ve done that in the artwork I’ve created; for example, sometimes the band wants a picture of themselves on the cover, but aren’t available to get said pictures taken, so I have to go with a fun ’80s video game-inspired cover, even if the band doesn’t have any kind of electronic sound or sing about 8-bit space dragons.
I did a quick inventory of the albums we’ve been sharing of the past year, and I think I have a thing for simplicity. Here are some good ones, ones I want to look at next time I think about designing an album cover:
- All of Weezer’s self-titled albums’ covers are great, even though their photos on the first one look pretty dweeby
- Silverchair’s Frogstomp
- The Aquabats’ Charge
- Chumbawamba’s Tubthumper
- They Might Be Giants’ Flood
- Little Dragon’s Nabuma Rubberband
- My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, although I would have loved for the words to not be so wonky
- The Mighty Mighty BossToneS’ Medium Rare
- The Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up the Girl
- The Police’s Ghost in the Machine
- Queen’s Live at Wembley Stadium
- Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Woodstock
- Gorillaz’ Demon Days
- Wolfmother’s self-titled, because how could you go wrong with a Frank Frazetta?
- ELO’s Time
- Sigur Rós’ Ágætis Byrjun has an intriguing (if a bit creepy) album cover, but I’m not sure it makes me want to listen to it
- Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon is sweet, but I’m not sure how much of it is the cover itself and how much of it is what I expect to hear when I see that cover. Does that make sense?
- I almost love Washed Out’s Life of Leisure, except the title is … well, washed out. It’s hard to read. I already told you how much I hate Neil Diamond’s Stones album cover for a similar reason and how almost good Aerosmith’s self-titled was
- Phillip Phillips’ The World from the Side of the Moon isn’t bad, although the title seems a bit long; maybe they should have just put the name on two lines
- One real exception to the simplicity is the cover to I Fight Dragons’ Kaboom. Maybe it’s just because I think it fits their sound, but it’s a great cover.
Spencer had this to say:
“I doubt I’m really qualified to comment because I can’t really think of an album that I really love the cover but don’t like the music or group. But I tend to like artwork more than photos. I.E. I think the best Reel Big Fish cover is on Monkeys for Nothin. Photos never really set a cover apart. I like when it illustrates the title, but that’s not a sufficient condition for liking. I like “flat” artwork, like say Like Vines by the Hush Sound. Understated is typically better. I don’t care for Barenaked Ladies covers by Team Macho as they’re messy looking and don’t have very bold covers. I like Boston’s spaceship-guitar covers, they’re pretty cool.
I think the Beatles White Album is a great cover, even though its almost like no cover at all. But maybe that’s just because I’m a Beatles fanatic. Let It Be and Abbey Road are iconic covers. Does it really have anything to do with the artwork? Pink Floyd always has really cool covers (except maybe Piper at the Gates of Dawn) because they often have weird perspective things that make you look twice. Styx Grand Illusion is similarly cool. A bit like you mention, its pretty hard to objectify the covers when you tend to like the covers of the albums you like. I can’t really think of an album I like but hate the cover of either.”
And Chris, who is a graphic designer, said this:
“Paul. As a graphic designer and a music nut, the question of “What makes a good album cover?” is almost overwhelming. I’ve often been intrigued by a cover and was convinced to listen to an album because of it. But in the end, good cover art needs to fit the mood of the album it goes with. Though it may have been the original intent long ago, these days the sole purpose shouldn’t necessarily be to convince you to “grab it off a shelf,” (though it can do that and many are designed with that in mind), but rather be an extension of what’s inside. A person may misjudge what’s inside if they know nothing about the artist, but again, it’s not the cover’s job to convert you. That’s the music’s job. A great cover is there to enhance the experience and lend a visual “brand” to that particular album’s sound. So I don’t think the power of a good cover can truly be known until you’ve heard the album. Some covers are works of art, some are works of commerce, some are both.
Let me give you an example of a band who has always had incredible covers that fit their music – Sigur Ros. Paul mentioned the cover to Agaetis Byrjun which I shared, and it is one of my all-time favorites. But every cover of theirs is fantastic.”
Anyway, I should get on with actually listening to the album.
Right off, this is not what I thought I’d be getting. Black Villain Music is a bit more synthetic than I like most of my jazz. But it had a sweet groove. But as the song went on, and the clarinet and guitar were soloing over one another, it just sounded too noisy to me. There were a couple of parts where they almost sounded like they were playing the same lick for half a bar. But it was just too much.
Gratefully, the rest of the album was better, although still a bit weird. I decided that it’s mostly due to the keyboards flipping between my ears, although the electric piano sound they favored didn’t really help either.
They actually kept it under control for the vocal tunes, but I’m not sure I loved Goapele’s voice. The melody was pleasant, but I just didn’t like the sound of her voice. On the other vocal tune, I liked W. Ellington Felton’s voice; it had an almost gospel quality to it. But I didn’t really relate to the rap lyrics. It’s definitely a culture difference thing.
This is very much what I’d expect to hear late some night on a public radio station. I prefer my jazz with a little more energy behind it; a little more drive. Not that every song has to be some jump blues. In fact, I think the strongest track on this album was one of the most cool (as in “not hot,” for you non-jazz aficionados) – Lost and Found. Christian Scott’s muted trumpet and the backing string section were just great. They used a nice grand piano sound and the rhythm section did their job; no more and no less, which is apparently harder than you’d think. But you could tell that they were all real musicians. But the power of a cool song like that is more easily felt when contrasted against something really hot. And Forecast wasn’t bad, but it just didn’t quite do it for me. Well, almost during the last half of the tune. But it still seemed like they didn’t know where they wanted to go with any of it. I guess in that way, it was an accurate artistic representation of the weather. But I wouldn’t have thought that without the title.
Well, there was one song with quite a bit of drive – The Color of My Dreams. Most of the song was okay, but near the end the strings just got really rather angry and helped push the song to its actually kind of anti-climactic close. It could have been a jazz equivalent of Bolero.
All in all, this album isn’t bad, but not awesome either. It’s perfect if you want to listen to something while you concentrate on your desk job or job applications. The best thing about this album is the grooves they set up. 3/5
Do As Infinity – True Song (2002)
This is another Japanese band Chris found while (not surprisingly) he was in Japan. And, per our conversation about the album Tim shared, Chris decided to buy this album based on the cover art. And it is not at all what I expected. Maybe because it has a familiar, solid pop rock feel, but is otherwise new to me, I don’t think there was a bum track on the whole album.
It’s true, I’d like to be able to understand more of what she’s singing about, but even when I listen to music in Spanish (or even English) I don’t understand everything they’re saying. I would have said that with Spanish it’s because, while I understand most of the words they’re using, the more figurative meaning behind them doesn’t translate across cultures. But there’s a lot of time I don’t understand what someone is singing in my native language. And I don’t usually focus on the lyrics the first time around anyway.
Chris warned that the last track had some celtic influences, but I didn’t really expect what I got. And it works really well, although it’s more like the Japanese pop punk version of Mägo de Oz.
I also really loved One or Eight. The guitar riff was a bit repetitive at the beginning, but it helped drive the whole song forward. The bridge slowed it down, which I get why they did it, but it almost killed the great energy they had going on. It didn’t keep building it, anyway. But the chorus made up for it. Grateful Journey was a similar highlight.
I liked this whole album more than Coming of Age, and there were three or four stand our tracks. But on average, I’m giving this a 3/5
Fastball – The Harsh Light of Day (2000)
I’m sure you all know these guys as the band behind that classic ’90s radio hit, The Way.
That was from their second album (and major label debut), All the Pain Money can Buy. This is their follow up to that album. To give them credit, they weren’t trying to replicate All the Pain Money can Buy. They used the money and name recognition from that album to keep playing whatever music they wanted to.
And I think The Harsh Light of Day is a musically more interesting album. It’s still ’90s pop rock, but it’s more mature and diverse. Goodbye has some sweet guitar and piano/organ work. Love is Expensive and Free, while not having the most creative of titles, has a very mariachi feel, which they follow up with the kind of melancholy Vampires.
I think my favorite track, though, is the not-quite-Friends-theme Morning Star. Dark Street and Funny How it Fades Away are also pretty good.
They made a couple of more albums after this, and we’ve been expecting a sixth since 2013, so while they’ve found moderate success in the years since, they peaked (commercially) almost 20 years ago. But I think they’ve become better musicians.
If you want to add to our discussion on album art, or have any thoughts on the music shared this week, please do so in the comments below. In the meantime, here’s what everyone else thought about Fastball:
“I had to look up “the way” to know what it was. I remember the song, but I don’t remember it playing that much.
- This is not my Life – Hmm, pretty redundant. This is getting old.
- You’re an ocean – the honky tonk piano is a fun touch, though it makes the song pretty poppy. I wonder if any of them actually play keys. I like the guitar solo with the piano fills a lot actually. Oh its Billy Preston. No wonder.
- Goodbye – I thought an ad had come one. Nice change of sound. Kinda hip-hop intro. Rest of the song is ok.
- Love is Expensive and Free – style mashup, that’s nice.
- Vampires – is that a oboe solo? Nice. This one has a nice sound.
- Wind Me Up – Nice, the harder guitar tone intro was a good edge. As soon as vocals came in, it kinda washed back to sounding like their other stuff. Its a cool change of rhythm (really well displayed in the instrumental break) but the almost bouncy verse just seems silly to me after the intro parts. I do like the “bond” like chord progression though in the prechorus. Enough variety in this song I’ll probably give it another listen.
- Funny how it Fades Away – I like this. I like the strings and thick-reverbed guitar.
I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. I like it, but I don’t love it. Not many songs really stuck out as ones I’ll go back and listen to. Kinda the same issue as the Gallagher album last week, I just don’t love the sound, though this one had more riffs and variety.” 3.7/5 – Spencer
“This was a great album. I haven’t listened to their music much, in fact I have only heard the two hits that were on this album. I found it to be a well balanced album, and it kept a good groove going for me while I worked. I would totally listen again.” 3/5 -Tim