Perhaps because it is a holiday week, this week’s release schedule is a little more sedate than usual, showcasing new albums from Robin Thicke and South African rock band Seether. In addition, They Might Be Giants dropped a live version of their 1986 debut album and the Jayhawks re-released three albums from their back-catalog.
Robin Thicke’s “Paula” *
Listening to Robin Thicke’s music, you may find yourself wondering at times if he knows what is and isn’t appropriate. “Blurred Lines” was a catchy hit last year, but his insistence on whispering the line “You know you want it” brought to mind very unpleasant associations, especially when paired with a video of cavorting naked models. That combined with several other decisions like grinding with Miley Cyrus (and a foam finger) on national television meant that Thicke had quite a year.
It’s impossible to listen to “Paula” without thinking of how last year’s events led to its inception. “Paula” is of course named for Thicke’s now estranged wife, Paula Patton, from whom he separated in February. To borrow the name of the album’s single, this record is a misguided attempt to “Get Her Back.” Writing love songs after a break up is tricky, especially when you are both in the public eye and this record fails on all fronts. Thicke comes off as using his heartbreak as a crass marketing tool. Really, it would have been better to send these songs to Patton privately if they mattered so much to him.
Musically, Thicke doesn’t have anything original to offer, either. It’s just an array of casual R&B impressions. “Lock The Door” sounds like a bad Ray Charles impression. “Love Can Grow Back” liberally borrows its intro from “At Last.” “Whatever I Want” sounds like a sloppy disco mash-up of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and Richie Havens’ “Freedom.” “Tippy Toes” is just an accidentally ridiculous rave-up. “Something Bad” is a little too aptly named. “Living In New York City” finds Thicke trying to summon the spirits of James Brown and Edwin Starr and failing, as he sings hackneyed lines about “living in New York City where the girls are pretty, the streets are witty.” The over-zealous background singers throughout the set don’t help much, either.
The album doesn’t come off as genuine, with a forced blues vibe. It will leave you wondering about Paula Patton’s reaction to being dragged into this embarrassing public display.
“Get Her Back” My praise isn’t based on the song’s lyrical tone or Thicke’s dodgy pseudo-Timberlake impression. It’s worth recommending for its subtle, minimalist groove that in better hands would summon a kind of “cocktail-party cool.”
Seether’s “Isolate & Medicate” (Deluxe Edition) **1/2
South Africa’s Seether are holding the post-grunge fort down on their sixth album, “Isolate & Medicate” and they do so merely adequately. Sure the ghosts of Alice In Chains and Nirvana linger to a certain degree, but those influences still seem sadly watered down by subtle doses of Creed and Nickelback-type fare. This is true especially in the album’s more pop-driven moments. It creates an occasionally awkward hybrid between the raw realness of the Seattle sound and stream-lined radio rock. The end result is an album that wants to sound down-trodden and dirty but seems as if it is vacuumed clean. This is even true when a pop hook gives way to a blistering riff.
These songs would have more punch if Brendan O’Brien’s production gave them more room to breathe. It’s be nice if the heaviness of the riffs gave way to a few feedback squeals, or if there were instances where you could hear the guitar picks scrape against the strings. Shaun Morgan’s songs have kick, even if his lyrics have a pseudo-“uplifting” quality as they are coated in forced angst.
The deluxe edition of the album contains 4 bonus tracks which add effectively to the album, but ultimately, like much of the band’s other work this comes off like a tenth-generation funhouse facsimile. It provides an OK listen, but it isn’t the real thing.
“Words As Weapons” Strangely when Morgan drops the scream and sings more matter-of-factly as he does here, he sounds a bit like Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble. In some ways this track seems like a cleansed answer to Idlewid’s album “Warnings/Promises.”
“Suffer It All” This is the heaviest track, marrying a muscular metallic verse section with a catchy chorus. It shows the band’s overall range.
“Save Today” This acoustic ballad closes the standard album. It’s got a nice sense of melody, paired with lyrics possessing a vaguely spiritual tone.
They Might Be Giants’ “First Album Live” ****1/2
Back in 1986, Brooklyn-via Lincoln, Massachusetts duo They Might Be Giants released their self-titled first record and became quirky indie and art-rock darlings. Their songs were funny and dark at the same time with a child-like sense of wonder and a powerful grasp of melody.
A lot has changed in the 28 years since. The band has released a long string of records over that time. They’ve scored television shows and ad-campaigns, they’ve won awards and released a long string of records for both adults and kids. At this point they are indie-rock gods. What a nice surprise it was to find out that they chose to release a complete live version of their debut as a free download on their website this week.
Most bands when they’ve been together for 30 years sound bored when they perform their earliest material as if they’ve done it a million times and they are just going by the numbers. That is definitely not the case with They Might Be Giants. These songs still sound remarkably fresh and they give them the kind of gusto other bands would normally only give to newer material.
In addition, many of these songs sound better and fuller than they did in in their original context. Since 1994 John Linnell and John Flansburgh have expanded to a full band. On their first four albums it was just the two of them, so these songs now churn and rock harder and better than ever.
In addition, the set offers weird surprises, like the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and the extended stage banter that opens up the live version of “Toddler Hiway.” These songs are just as smartly ridiculous as they were back in 1986, but somehow over the years they have gained layers, probably from being played thousands of times. This is a live version of a complete album that doesn’t feel like a mere retread. It has its own rewards.
“Don’t Let’s Start” One of their earliest signature tunes is given extra thunderous heft in this context, adding to the song’s power-pop crunch. I’ve always appreciated the pessimistic lyrics paired with the bright, sunny melody.
“Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head” Perhaps the most 80’s-sounding song the band has ever done. In this live context, the complex keyboard line really pops. Plus, it is still a really weirdly funny song.
“She’s An Angel” This is still among the band’s best and most off-beat love songs.
“Absolutely Bill’s Mood” This track was named for the album’s original producer, Bill Krauss. I wouldn’t consider it one of the best songs on the original album, but this version is remarkable thanks to specific performance tweaks. It’s a darkly playful song packed with a crushingly daunting sense of claustrophobia.
The Jayhawks’ “Sound Of Lies” (Reissue) **** / “Smile” (Reissue) ****1/2 / “Rainy Day Music” (Reissue) ****
This week, American Recordings reissued three albums by Minneapolis band The Jayhawks. 1997’s “Sound Of Lies,” 2000’s “Smile” and 2003’s “Rainy Day Music” have all been repackaged with a few bonus tracks and demos and all three of these records deserve another listen. Leader Gary Louris is likely to be under-rated. His songs are often straight and to the point, building mostly off of an alt-country vibe with some shades of Americana and power-pop thrown in for good measure.
Of these three records, “Smile” stands out the most with its strikingly harder edges and boisterous choruses that occasionally bring to mind A.C. Newman’s work with The New Pornographers. The fuzz wears on this band well, since it fits with Louris’ knack for strong melodies. Some of those edges are felt throughout moments on “Sound Of Lies” as well, but that album has more of an introspective, retro-seventies tinge, building off of the famous California sound and bands like Big Star, whereas “Rainy Day Music” is the gentlest of the three in tone, with a more organic, rootsier sound.
Are these reissues worth getting? Yes. Especially if you didn’t have them before. If you already own these, the three to six bonus tracks you are getting may not be worth your while, although hearing stripped down demos and live versions of some of these cuts really gives them new life. The natural sound of the bonus tracks on “Rainy Day Music” in particular really standout. Without the studio sheen, these songs benefit from the rawer energy.
Focus Tracks (“Sound Of Lies”):
“Think About It,” “Sixteen Down” and “It’s Up To You” “Think About It” and “Sixteen Down” fuse high-quality mid-tempo songwriting with a seesaw of fuzzed-out tension, while “It’s Up To You” would sound simultaneously at home played by a strong honky-tonk band and on a late-period Tom Petty album.
Focus Tracks (“Smile”):
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Somewhere In Ohio” and “(In My) Wildest Dreams” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the album’s key single and may sound familiar to many since it did get licensed I a number of places at the time of its original release. This record does have moments that sound at home with their other work, but “Somewhere In Ohio” and “(In My Wildest Dreams” both have fuzzer, upbeat (and slightly electro) edges that make them stand out. It’s as if they listened to the momentary bits of unrest on “Sound Of Lies” and decided to improve on the formula to appeal more to the CMJ crowd.
Focus Tracks (“Rainy Day Music”):
“Save It For A Rainy Day,” “Tailspin” and “Madman” This record in general is more gently mannered. The songwriting quality is the same as the others but the edges are sanded off, leaving more of an acoustic “dad-rock” sound. “Save It For A Rainy Day” is a beautiful love song, whereas “Tailspin” is a nice bit of roots rock and “Madman” sounds a bit like a Crosby, Stills and Nash outtake.
Next Week: New albums from Sia, Chicago, Judas Priest and more.