Tom Waits – Closing Time

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The sound of this album isn’t as surprising as how good it is, and what it actually is. You’ve heard it before. Before Waits was an ashtray given a singing voice, before he unleashed an Industrial-Blues masterpiece that was more horrifying than any Death Metal album cover he made Closing Time. In a way, this is the antithesis of his later career, with zero wild theatrics. Before Waits was the bizarro man reporting from the bizarro world, he was too ordinary to do anything but sing about heartbreak.

Even if Waits never made Bone Machine, this record would still be spectacular. I’m amazed this was even made and praised. As we know, males are supposed to be tough in society. No one goes out with a failure. The only time men are allowed to cry on stage is if they turn their wounds into theater of noise and anger. The whole rock’n’roll thing, especially in the depressed 90’s was about that.

So Reznor and that dude from Alice in Chains still sounded like tough males, somewhat. Nothing against them – Nine Inch Nails are my favorite band after all. It’s just that male vulnerability is so interesting, feels so hidden in real life yet here it is in music. The final song here lets go of words.

If the whole album is a concept album about singing in a bar hoping that it might attract that girl on the corner to like you, then the final instrumental is defeat. “Ol’ 55” opens with some happiness, the sound of you going to the bar hoping there’ll be a good show. “I Hope” comes right after when you spot the girl, and after that it’s constant swinging from one extreme to the next. On “Ice Cream Man”, you have confidence and you’re sure it’s going to work. “Lonely” is when it feels like a death sentence, you’ll never have the girl and nothing else ever. Eventually, there’s no point in singing – it’s closing time, the band plays a few more chords and melodies and you’re back home alone.

It’s such a lonely record. “Martha” is heartbreaking, a song I still find it difficult to hear. Although Waits mentions he got a lover, possibly a wife, it’s not convincing that he’s okay with it. Defeat is in his tone when he sings of poetry and prose, singing with the knowledge that no relationship will ever be that good. “Martha” is painful not because it’s about meeting with someone you used to be deeply in love with. All over it is the realization that nothing will ever be like this again, that all love afterwards is just an attempt to re-capture it. There’s a sense of doom there that’s just sad.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” is the second big highlight there. There are a lot of songs about love and heartbreak, but not enough about disliking being in love. Finally we have a song that admits it, falling in love is no fun and sometimes it’s just better not to experience the whole thing. This song sets the stage and gives everything here the context. On this album, Waits isn’t someone who goes through the pain and joy of heartbreak. Love is, overall, bad for Waits. Few songs here are actually about being in the relationship – perhaps only “Little Trip” and by the time it arrives it sounds more like fantasy. Remember that “Ice Cream Man” is courting, not love actually working out. Although “Lonely” isn’t the best song here, it eventually becomes its centerpiece. It’s an album of loneliness, of heartbreak with no way out. In this album heartbreak isn’t something you go through but a state you’re trapped in – either hoping it won’t happen, to clinging to a girl, to being stuck in your memories and eventually admitting to yourself how lonely you are.

“Martha” and “I Hope” are the highlights, with most things providing good transition to flesh out the concept idea. While everything here is pretty good, these songs are knock-outs and everything else mostly sounds good in context. It’s an album you reach out to when you’re in a specific mood, but when the night is dark, long and lonely everything here is great. Outside this context, these songs can lack personality. “Rosie” is pretty good, but I doubt anyone would remember it outside the album. Bring the aforementioned context again and the song becomes essential. This is an album to hear in one sitting when heartbreak makes it feel like nothing good will ever happen. I’m sure there are many albums like it, but Waits is so specific in how he captures this hopeless loneliness. It’s unique because of how well it understands its genre and that’s why it remains a shocking record. Even if Waits never became the morbid blues man, this record would remain just as great.

3.5 empty bottles out of 5

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Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

Panic! At the Disco – Death of a Bachelor

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Panic at the Disco were never ’emo’. They were never even similar to the bands that people mis-classified as Emo. They had Punk-Pop elements, yes, but they were more experimental and glam than their peers. When Fall Out Boy and Chemical Romance traded the punkish hooks for experimentation, it sounded like a band trying to justify their huge fanbase. When Panic reinvented themselves over and over, it was just something they were made to do.

“Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t surprising. It was inevitable. Urie stomps and brags over a Hip-Hop backing while forgetting to rap. Fall Out Boy released a very similar song recently too. This is what happens to all successful rock bands. After you’re victorious, selling records and getting groupies what is there to sing about?

Stadium is the logical end of any band that relied on hooks for success. Some bands still pretend they have a serious message to deliver. Others, like Papa Roach, still give us angsty lyrics only with friendly melodies. They make it clear that the bands aren’t struggling, but they hope the songs will help you.

Since Panic never complained much about life, they choose (more correctly, Urie chooses) the hedonistic approach. There are a lot of lyrics about partying, drugs and being a bad motherfucker. The biggest influence on this album isn’t Frank Sinatra. Did Frank display the arrogance Urie shows in “Victorious” or “The Good, The Bad…”? For most of the album, Urie tells people either to fuck off, step their game up or how great he is. When he’s not doing that, he tells us he parties hard. It’s no different than your average Rap song on the radio.

That’s not a bad thing, of course. It’s actually what Rock music needs right now. Rock music suffered too much of over-seriousness. Ever since Nirvana, every rock star decided to make the audience a psychotherapist. Some Nu Metal or Punk Pop bands added a little fun, but a lot of Rock was just noise to think deep thoughts during recess. I can still remember the days when we considered fun music to be meaningless and therefore bad.

These songs are great. Urie is convincing in his arrogance and I don’t expect anything less of a rock star with fan girls. Urie sounds so confident that “Crazy=Genius” almost sounds stupid. What kind of lover would doubt him after hearing him on “Emperor’s New Clothes”? On “The Good, the Bad…” he sounds like he will continue smiling even if he’ll receive 1000 punches.

Urie also experiments with genres a bit, but they’re never full-blown experiments. It’s odd to hear no guitars on “Emperor’s New Clothes”, but he never lets the genre he experiments with to take over. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing. Urie is a charismatic enough singer to hold his own. The hooks are better than ever, but you do wish Urie would go further. If he’s so confident as he presents himself, why doesn’t he try to rap on “Emperor’s New Clothes”? Why doesn’t “Victorious” contains a Skrillex-inspired bass drop although it begs to?

As expected, it’s the ballads that fail. They’re not terrible, but they’re a huge step down. They reek of tokenism. Urie may like Sinatra, but he doesn’t have the same kind of voice. He can’t replicate that atmosphere. A few horns and vocal acrobatics don’t make you Sinatra or Dean Martin. They have a specific style of melodies and of singing.

The title-track doesn’t suffer too much since it still has the old rock star arrogance. The obligatory closing ballad is a huge step down. Instead of channeling the influence and making a throwback, it’s just your ordinary piano ballad at the end of a rock album. Ballads often stick like a sore thumb in an album full of party tracks.

These two and a few other, more serious tracks make the record less focused. Urie plays the party tracks with full conviction, but he’s unsure how exactly to imitate Sinatra. Without this focus, the album fails to be the big statement it should have been. It’s still a great record full of hooks and variety, though. Maybe Pretty Odd was Panic’s classics and they will never improve on it, but Urie is far sounding out of ideas.

3.5 naked emperors out of 5

Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

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For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.

Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.

In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.

The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.

When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.

There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.

It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.

3.5 breaks out of 5