8. Don Henley – The End of the Innocence
This is very subjective I know, but the main element that ruins The End of the Innocence for me is that Don Henley sounds very insincere to my ears. Or perhaps: not authentic in his emotions. This album is full of social commentary, about how terrible modern life is, but it feels like it is sung from a far remove. This is from the era in which the protest song was no longer the detailed poetry of Bob Dylan or the lived-in experience of a Woody Guthrie, but is all about sweeping statements and generalizations. The era that gave us We Are the World and Do They Know It’s Christmas, where someone as isolated from everyday life as Michael Jackson gave musical advise about how people should live. This was rampant in the eighties – the era of the worst protest songs – and went on until somewhere in the nineties, but is looked deservedly unfavorably at today. No measure of well-meaning could disguise how self-congratulating and fake these songs are. The End of Innocence is this as a full-length album. I do not so much care that Don Henley is a rich man singing about troubles mostly ailing the non-rich, but I do mind that he sounds like he hasn’t had to deal with anything he sings about. To be fair, I’ve never cared for either the Eagles or Don Henley solo, outside of Hotel California (the song, certainly not the album) and Boys of Summer. Everything sounds to glib and worked-over when these guys are involved and Don Henley doesn’t have a voice I find generally appealing. But mixed with lyrics as on this album it becomes something truly awful.
7. Brand New – Deja Entendu
Controversies aside, this isn’t my favorite type of rock. It’s emo rock apparently, a genre I have little familiarity with, but it reminds me very much of rock that was typical of the late nineties, early zeroes, mostly vocally. It’s a type of singing that is rough, but without character. There is a very thin line between self-pity (which I hate) and critical self-examination (which I tend to love) and it is primarily the whine in the vocals here that make this feel like it belong in the former category. There is also the by now familiar soft-loud approach to verse and chorus that grunge popularized, but here just doesn’t work as well, because the riffs aren’t all that great. That doesn’t make it a bad album to listen to, but one that failed to draw me in during the first two listens. Maybe there are hidden depths here that have to reveal themselves over time, but for now I didn’t care much.
6. Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill. Did they already appear once (or multiple times) in previous editions of Moderately Acclaimed? I have a feeling I have listened to them before, but am not sure. The problem is that this sounds very typical of a kind of alternative rock. Although not the same, my description of it is surprisingly close to how I described the music of Psychedelic Furs last week. This type of music is typified by singers who do not excel in anyway: their voices are neither ugly nor pretty and focus neither on storytelling nor emotion. The lyrics are fine and meaningful, but also not particularly poetic or gripping. The music is expansive, especially when it comes to the guitars, but lack playfulness, real hooks, deep emotion or anything to make it captivating. It’s a type of alternative music that to me deals in moderation and maybe even resignation. Maybe not in lyrical content, but in feel and sound. There Is No Enemy is not a bad listen at all and a few times the songs do seem to try to break through (almost ironically, the song called Good Ol’ Boredom succeeds most), but there is something missing to make this type of music stand out to me. Bands like this rarely if ever become truly popular, but their uncommercial, subtle attitude have given them a strong following (though Built to Spill has a lot of albums more beloved than this one) and I want to get behind it, but at the moment still fail.
5. Rush – 2112
There was never a band like Rush, was there? Prog rock has mostly mixed the cheesy with the sublime, but none did it quite like this band. When the title track starts we are treated by a magnificent wall of sound that can only be described as epicness incarnate. The less inhibited Rush are, the better, it seems. At the same time, that 20 minute song highlights a flaw of them: they could be aimless. Few songs, even long songs, alternate so much between the sublime and the dull. It’s a song I could never rank in any list, because the inconsistency of its movements. There are also five other tracks, all around the three minute mark. These are remarkably consistent, always good, but none of them among their best work. In the end 2112 is a solid Rush record, that shows that being Rush is a blessing and a curse. I do have a soft spot for them, regardless of their flaws.
4. Axel Rudi Pell – The Masquerade Ball
In a week where cheesiness reigns supreme, from the weak-tea schmaltz of Don Henley to the ambitious fun of Rush and wherever you place Madness on the cheese spectrum, there is also The Masquerade Ball by Axel Rudi Pell. Pell was once a guitar player for the band Steeler, unknown by me. That was an eighties metal band and although this album hails from 2000, it really feels like it came out two decades too late. Which is not to say that is a problem, as this is eighties metal done very well. Basically what you get is something in the vein of Iron Maiden. Big fat guitar riffs, unashamed epicness, silly dark lyrics with a hint of fantasy, goofy-cool vocals, high doses of energy and above all a lot of fun. In contrast to a lot of the miserabilism of post-eighties metal this is music that clearly means to be entertaining and seems to be done with a fair wink. The thing that clearly matters the most are the guitar riffs and although they are far from innovative, they are memorable and dare I say cool. Another plus is the consistency, as this remains a blast through all it’s 67 minutes. Even the ballads work. This is a real genre album, with nothing for people who don’t like heavy metal, but since this genre doesn’t show up much on this forum I am happy to say that this is a good one.
3. Bill Withers – Still Bill
I already wrote about it in the topic dealing with Withers’ passing, but it bears repeating: Whithers is a master of down-to-earth soul. Soul is not always my thing, because when things get too smooth I lose interest, but people like Withers and Otis Redding have a very lived-in and grounded voice. It really enhances the strength of the genre: pretty melodies. I knew him mostly for gentle hits like Lean On Me (the highlight of this album) and Ain’t No Sunshine, but there is also a tougher side here too, with songs like Who Is He and Use Me. What I didn’t know was that he also does funk very well, as shown on the great Kissing My Love. A very good album, all the way.
2. Madness – One Step Beyond
That album title is of course the name of the opening track and most famous song here, but it is also a mission statement, I feel. These guys seem to want to go one step beyond with each new song. It is relentless and there is no stopping them. Madness were a group who worked best (and as far as I know exclusively) as a high energy, joyous, humorous band and here they achieve this with each song. Few albums I know match this as a pure party record, where every track could get people on the dance floor.
1. Fiona Apple – When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right
Sorry, Bill Withers, you were great and I’d love to commemorate you with a vote, but Fiona Apple’s album is a personal favorite. It is not one of my nominations, though, not in the least because I feel this is already an acclaimed album, but curiously it doesn’t rank all that high. For me, this is Apple’s masterpiece, the place where her mix of pop and jazz synthesize in a jubilant, but wry collection of songs of fucking up, recovering and fucking up again. To me, A Mistake has always been the key song and in an ideal world it would be her signature song. It captures the humorous, defiant way Apple can deal with her very serious pain. It’s easy to relate to.
A simple overview of my votes:
1. Rush - 2112 vs. Madness - One Step Beyond
2. Fiona Apple - When the Pawn… vs. Bill Withers - Still Bill
3. Don Henley - End Of The Innocence vs. Brand New - Deja Entendu
4. Axel Rudi Pell - The Masquerade Ball vs. Built To Spill - There is No Enemy