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    • I - Magnetic Fields / Music Album / 33 Readings / 30 Ratings
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      27.06.2008 14:01
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      Stephin Merritt, "frontman" of The Magnetic Fields (if such a reclusive, shy fellow can be considered a frontman) likes a challenge. Not content with his ambitious attempt to write 69 love songs - compiled in the aptly named "69 Love Songs" - he returns a couple of years after that masterpiece with another unusual plan: to compile an album of songs whose titles begin with the letter "I". OK, so it's arguably an easier task this time round - instead of sticking to just one lyrical theme for 69 tracks, he just has to shoehorn "I" into 14 song titles - but this album remains a remarkable achievement, as Merritt is allowed a broader canvas to paint his cinematic lyrical vision upon.

      Musically, the album remains in traditional Magnetic Fields, with most songs some variant of folk or soft rock - but crucially, the band's earlier reliance on synthesisers is missing here, most tracks being guitar- or string-driven. The result is a more mellow collection, on the whole, though the difference is less noticeable than might be expected, the lack of musical diversity countered by a variance in the density of the sound.

      "I Die" begins the album in the manner in which it means to go on: a string-driven ballad of yearning ("I die when you walk by"). At one verse (two minutes) long, it's terse and impactful, with minimal instrumentation, though its very strengths - Merritt's always-moving minimalist approach - mean it's far from the most memorable track here. (7/10)

      That accolade probably goes to "I Don't Believe You", the album's second track and only single. It's about as catchy as the Magnetic Fields have ever been - beating even "The Luckiest Guy" from "69 Love Songs" - and the chorus is close to a genuine sing-along, pretty rare for a Merritt composition. The production is warm and poppy, and lyrically, we're on fine form too - Merritt is as cynical as he has ever been: "So you quote love unquote me / Well, stranger things have come to be / But let's agree to disagree / 'Cos I don't believe you". (10/10)

      "I Don't Really Love You Anymore" is pretty uptempo too, and while there's some evidence of the echoing and distortion we'd see more of on the band's later "Distortion", it's still a fairly mainstream affair. That's no bad thing, as we're treated to another fine, catchy melody, with another fine example of Merritt's lyrics, as he writes from the perspective of a jilted lover feeling sorry for themselves ("Think of me as .. just the bad comedian your new boyfriend's better than - 'cos I don't really love you anymore"). (9/10)

      Recalling the carnival music "The Luckiest Guy", albeit in a rather more subdued form, "I Looked All Over Town" is the saddest song ever written about a clown. ("Nobody wants you when you're a circus clown / I should know, I looked all over town"). The melody is slight but memorable, and Merritt's wistful vocal delivery would bring you to tears if you were unaware of the quirky lyrical content (hell, the lyrics are so sweet it's easy to be saddened even when you do know what's being described). (10/10)

      "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend", one of Merritt's many songs discussing homosexual relationships, brings us back to the theme of jilted lovers ("You told me you loved me / I know where and when / Come sunrise, surprise, surprise / The joke's on me again"). The backing music is fairly dense, compared to the remainder of the album, but the tempo remains moderate and it's doesn't exactly come close to rocking out. There are hooks a-plenty though, naturally, and all in all it's another excellent song. (8/10)

      "I Was Born", backed with what sounds like a xylophone in addition to the guitar and strings, is a nostalgic paean to the lost innocence of childhood ("Growing older is killing a child"). It's moving but not particularly engaging, music-wise. (6/10)

      "I Wish I Had An Evil Twin" is slightly more upbeat, though the music remains appropriately dark and occasionally disturbing - fair enough, given the subject matter (mulling over the "Mr. Hyde" in everyone, as it were). (8/10)

      "If There's Such A Thing As Love" is another album highlight, a catchy, melodic track about first love: "If there's such a thing as love, I've caught it". There's a wonderful repeated violin hook repeated throughout, while layered backing vocals and a hook-laden bridge recall R.E.M.'s finest moments. But the real draw is the wonderful vocal delivery: Merritt is on top form as he deadpans his way through one the band's most accessible tracks. (10/10)

      "I'm Tongue-Tied" is one of the album's quieter moments, with sparse instrumentation and a clear focus on Merritt's vocals above the backing. Lyrically we're in familiar territory, as Merritt mulls over his own social deficiencies ("I'm tongue-tied, I'm useless, I'm weak-kneed and brainless") and the power of love ("You say things, the room swings, I feel faint"). Sounds a bit like The Ink Spots. (8/10)

      "In an Operatta", perhaps unsurprisingly, hints at an operatta-like style, in both structure and vocal delivery (though also perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn't go for all-out Pavarotti-style opera). Angelic backing vocals and clever rhyming support an emotional narrative about the archetypally-named Princess Violetta, while cinematic imagery ("pirate ship", "princess") further the link with traditional opera. (8/10)

      "Infinitely Late at Night", while not the catchiest song here, does a wonderful job at capturing the atmosphere of a late night and converting it to musical form. Vaguely Frank Zappa-like in structure, the slowly-sung lyrics are backed with little instrumentation save for the occasional interjection from a surprisingly creepy harpsichord. Some nice turns-of-phrase too ("it's all black-and-white / without the white / it's just infinitely late at night"). (8/10)

      "Irma", an ode to a woman named, erm, Irma, is next. Merritt's eye of detail improves an otherwise average song: "Irma waits by the window / vaguely looking down at her socks". The narrative is strange to say the least - Irma's father crashes his car into their house, sending boxes of chocolate flying - but it's still warm and moving, in that strange Merritt fashion. The backing is rather less inspired, however, and falls into Magnetic-Fields-by-numbers territory at times. (6/10)

      "Is This What They Used To Call Love?" is among the slowest tracks on the album. Sung slowly, with a traditional ballad backing, the occasional strange sound effect and the occasional bizzare lyric slightly elevate it from the realms of the mediocre. It's fine while you're listening to it. It's also, unfortunately, very forgettable. (6/10)

      Thankfully, "It's Only Time" is a return to form, ensuring the album is not remembered as one that fades out towards the end. It's a moving, melancholy ballad, with swooning, soaring strings and wonderfully sweet lyrics ("Why would I stop loving you a hundred years from now? It's only time..") It may be a simple sentiment built around a simple conceit, but it's an undeniably heartfelt sentiment all the same. Vocally, we're on top form as well; while the moving backing fits the lyric perfectly. A wonderful closer. (10/10)

      All in all, a highly recommended album - perhaps a good point for those new to the Magnetic Fields to start, as the 3-disc "69 Love Songs" might be a bit intimidating for a newcomer. The album is available on CD (less than £5 on Amazon UK and Amazon Marketplace) or can be downloaded (at iTunes, 7Digital, etc.). The CD comes in a jewel case in a nice cardboard slipcover, and contains a lyric booklet. For your cash, you're getting 41 minutes of music between the 14 tracks.

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      • More +
        10.06.2008 12:02
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        They Might be Giants have never been the most chart-friendly band. In their two-decade long career, only two of their singles have hit the UK top 40 - and one of those was a TV theme song ("Boss Of Me", from Malcolm In The Middle). The other, "Birdhouse In Your Soul", was drawn from this album, and heralded a brief period where the Giants were something of a mainstream success: in the US, the band's videos began to get regular rotation on MTV, and "Flood" went gold; while in the UK, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" hit number 6 in the charts and the Giants appeared on Top Of The Pops to promote it. For a few fleeting moments, They Might Be Giants were something close to celebrities.. It's no surprise that it was around this album the public chose to get more interested in TMBG, given it's among their most accessible work; but that's certainly not a criticism, as it's also among their best.

        Things start with a 28-second introduction, "Theme from Flood". The most obvious callback to earlier, quirkier TMBG material on the album, it's sung by a female choir and consists of little more than a tongue-in-cheek introduction to "the brand new record for 1990, They Might Be Giants' brand new album Flood.."

        "Birdhouse In Your Soul", the first full-length track on the album, is perhaps the band's best-known track, and deservedly so. The lyrics are typically impenetrable on first listen (the song's actually about, and sung from the perspective of, a blue canary-shaped nightlight) but it's impossible not to be hooked by the fast-paced, catchy melody and everything about the song simply works: from the sft intro to the layered finish, the Giants don't put a step wrong. Maybe their all-time best song.

        "Lucky Ball & Chain" is even more fast-paced than "Birdhouse", and almost as catchy. A rocker with a slight country twang, the chorus sounds almost like something you'd hear an Irish folk band singing after one too many. Lyrically we're on fine form too, as the band take the age-old slang phrase for "wife", "ball and chain" and interpret it every conceivable way.

        Best known for its appearance on Tony Toon Adventures, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" occupies the track four slot, and thanks to the aforementioned show it's among the more popular They Might Be Giants songs - though many probably don't know it's by them.(In fact it's a cover version of an obscure '50s track, but TMBG's is by far the more popular version.) The torrent of circular lyrics ("Istanbul was Constantinople / Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople / So if you've got a date in Constantinople / She'll be waiting in Istanbul") are matched by another insanely fast-paced, accordion-led and country-tinged rock backing. Wonderful stuff.

        Things finally slow down a little with "Dead", a dirge-like quirk that tells of "returning a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date". (The Giants are not known for their traditional lyrics, as you can probably tell by now..) It's solid, if unspectacular. The mid-tempo "Your Racist Friend" improves on its predecessor to become another standout, however, with a mid-song trumpet breakdown and the irregular rhythm of the chorus proving highlights that warrant repeated listens.

        "Particle Man" is another track that is comparatively well-known, thanks primarily to "Tony Toon Adventures". It's home to some of my favourite wordplay of the Giants ("Particle Man .. / When he's underwater does he get wet? / Or does the water get him instead?"), and the slow handclappy rhythm immediately endears the tune to both kids and adults alike. Whether you subscribe to the Particle Man, Universe Man, Triangle Man and Person Man being a microcosm for the world or simply childish nonsense, it's still a fun liten.

        "Twisting" is considerably darker in tone than most of its contemporaries here, as the chorus line "she wants to see you again slowly twisting in the wind" apparently refers to hanging. No worries though: musically, we're still upbeat, sounding remarkably New Wave; while the once-an-album pop-culture references TMBG typically deliver are present here ("she doesn't want to have her Young Fresh Fellows tape back now..")

        "We Want A Rock" is one of the archetypal TMBG pop songs, with an accordion-driven backing and some crazy lyrics that sound like they make more sense than they probably do. Could easily have been a single - it's not as strong as "Birdhouse", granted, but it has more mass appeal than a lot of TMBG songs.

        "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair", the album's halfway point, is next. A personal favourite, it's got a bit of a funk-techno backing yet somehow the chorus manages to come off as a soaring power ballad. It never fails to amaze me how TMBG can blend genres so seamlessly. The lyrics are fun too, telling off a boss named - hopefully semi-ironically - Mr. Horrible, and his failure to succumb to any prank but the titular stealing of his chair.

        "Hearing Aid" is probably the album's weakest track, a slow-paced dirge with little to recommend musically. The occasional "percussion rolls", sound effects and synth sound out of place, while the vocals aren't really my thing and the lyric is too short. Occasionally the song does something to grab the attention, but for most of its runtime it drifts slowly by. "Minimum Wage" is similarly forgettable, though at least it's only 45 seconds long.

        Thankfully though, we're right back on form with the fantastic "Letterbox". The lyrics are churned out at the speed of light and I've spent many a listen attempting to match the Giants' pace; while the swaying stop-start rhythm is immediately appealing. The bridge of the song is particularly appealing, segueing to the chorus nicely. It's just a shame it's only 90 seconds long.

        "Whistling In The Dark" is next. The title is apparently sone kind of slang for a sex act but it doesn't seem to be used in that context here: instead, it's used in a more traditional context of sitting around and doing nothing with your life. Linnell's cool but rarely-seen deep vocals get a fine outing here, while the drum-heavy, one-line chorus is liable to get stuck in your head for weeks on end. The chaotic ending to an otherwise sparse song is the icing on a lovely cake.

        "Hot Cha" is maybe the most inconcventional Giants song on the album, and it's not exactly a fan favourite. I quite like it though: it's got a nice R'n'B rhythm with some cool chimes and a nice piano break in the middle. With the lyrics though, your guess is as good as mine: though there is a narrative, I can't for the life of me figure out who or what "Hot Cha" is.

        "Women & Men" starts off ballad-like before turning into a sea-shanty type chant. It's a segue that works, and Linnell's voice really works on such a song, while Flansburgh's backing vocals add to depth to a deceptively simple song. Marvellous stuff. "Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love" is also excellent: at only 90 seconds long, it's maybe too short, but it's still a great slow-building tune with some of the band's all-time finest instrumentation, complementing the simple vocals wonderfully.

        "They Might Be Giants" is next (yeah, they named a song after themselves!) which takes the conceit of "they might be.." to previously-unscaled heights ("They might be brain / They might be washed / They might be Dr. Spock's back-up band"). The vocal samples work, while the fast-paced chorus is typically catchy and the varying tempo is liable to catch you off-guard listen after listen. Things round out with the slow ballad/dirge "Road Movie to Berlin": not too memorable, but an appropriate closer, with the occasional break from its slow tempo into a bit of faster sonic experimentation.

        The 19-track, 43-minute CD is available for less than £5 on Amazon marketplace and comes with a fold-out lyric sheet. Nothing too special in the packaging department, just a jewel case. No worries though: the music justifies the purchase alone. A fine starting point for new fans, though career retrospective "Dial-A-Song: 20 Years Of They Might Be Giants" is perhaps the more logical place to begin. If you're looking to compile a TMBG album collection, though, this is essential.

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        • Trouble / TV Channel / 47 Readings / 42 Ratings
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          02.06.2008 22:31
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          In these days of DVDs, the Internet and TV on-demand, I find I watch relatively little so-called "live" TV anymore. Aside from the BBC, most channels are jam-packed with adverts; and even with the BBC, why would you want to stick to their schedule when you can catch up with the highlights on their much-promoted iPlayer? The best comedies and dramas - both recent and from years gone by - can be viewed on DVD at your convenience, so there's little need for UKTV Gold or Virgin 1; highlights of reality shows, should you be that way inclined, can be found on YouTube with no need to endure incessant prompts to ring in and vote for Britain's best celebrity typist. In 2008, there's very little appeal in tuning in to watch stuff on the box at the scheduler's behest.

          Trouble (Sky 177, Virgin 140) is a significant exception to that rule for me. While I certainly enjoy watching my favourite shows at my control - i.e. on DVD or on demand - sometimes you just want to sit back, relax and enjoy some quality entertainment without having to navigate through menus - or, horror of horrors, decide what to watch full stop. Trouble fulfils that role for me: it's easy to sit back and leave it on, confident in the knowledge that nine times out of ten there'll be something worth watching on.

          A bit of background information: Trouble began in 1997 as a teenage-aimed slot on the now-defunct TCC (The Children's Channel). It later became a daytime programming block on Bravo before becoming the official replacement to TCC when that shut down in 1998. Its defined target audience is the 15-24 young adult demographic; in recent years it has attempted to establish its focus is firmly on such viewers by pressing for a move in its EPG channel number on both Sky and Virgin Media from the kids section to the general entertainment section.

          But who really cares about demographics and all that stuff, outside of the station controllers? The important part of the channel is its programming, and in this arena it does not disappoint. American sitcoms from the past two decades are undoubtedly the key cornerstone of its output. The hilarious "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" is arguably the channel's flagship show, having aired consistently on the network since its inception; but a range of other comedies have always sat alongside it. In the early years of the channel, Peter Engel sitcoms ("Saved By The Bell" and its spinoffs, "Hang Time", "California Dreams") dominated; at the turn of the century, the channel had a more urban focus, with "The Wayans Bros" and "One On One" becoming mainstays. More recently, though, the focus has been more on hip, cult hits: "How I Met Your Mother", "Grounded for Life" and "That '70s Show" are among the channel's most acclaimed shows, so it's no surprise to learn that they - deservedly - dominate the comedy side of primetime on Trouble. At weekends the underrated "Martin" and "Steve Harvey Show" get outings, too.

          Older sitcoms have also becomed increasingly common in recent years. Channel 4 '80s classic "Desmond's" has had a regular slot on the channel for around a year as of time of writing, while "The Cosby Show" and "Diff'rent Strokes" are both also in rotation. It'd be folly to argue they sit perfectly alongside much more self-aware - and, let's face it, intelligent - shows like "How I Met Your Mother", but they're undoubtedly a pleasant watch, and it's nice to have a place for classic sitcom on multichannel television now that Paramount is dominated by "Scrubs" and "Two and a Half Men" reruns. (As hilarious as those shows are, it's nice to have some variety.)

          While sitcoms are Trouble's bread and butter, however, the channel have always found room for a substantial dessert of drama. In early years teen melodrama was the order of the day, as "Dawson's Creek" and "My So-Called Life" got well-deserved re-runs; nowadays, though, the focus has shifted to sharp, "hip" US cult hits like the supremely intelligent "Veronica Mars" and quirky mystery series "Kyle XY" and "Whistler". Both shows get slots in primetime; slots they'd never get on a more mainstream channel. It's nice to see them getting the treatment they deserve here.

          Trouble is not perfect, however, and its lineup does have a few flaws - I cannot comprehend how the mediocre sitcom-by-numbers "Girlfriends" and "All Of Us" continue to comprise hours of programming a day, and I can give or take midnight-to-1am closer "The Secret Life Of Us" too. But you can't expect a channel to air programming consistently to your own taste, and for my money Trouble comes closer than pretty much any other channel right now.

          From a technical perspective Trouble looks sharp and uncompressed on Virgin Media (I can't speak for Sky as I don't have it), though it suffers from the problem of many non-terrestrial channels in that the - admittedly few - widescreen programmes the channel airs are broadcast either letterboxed (i.e. a widescreen frame in a full-frame box that won't fill a widescreen TV) or cropped. Still, I'm optimistic that when a greater percentage of their programmes come in 16:9 format, they'll begin transmission of anamorphic widescreen programming.

          For those that are bothered by such things, Trouble has a small translucent on-screen DOG present throughout all programmes, as well those useless reminders of what's up next (though thankfully they're more subtly placed than on the likes of the ITV channels). The channel offers a "+1" service (Sky 178, Virgin Media 141) that broadcasts all programmes shown one hour later - can be useful, as Trouble don't have an iPlayer-like On Demand service yet. Most programmes broadcast on the channel offer subtitles for the hard of hearing. Adverts comprise around 1/4 of the channel's airtime, comparable to most other digital channels.

          Trouble broadcasts from 7am to 1am (8am to 2am on the +1 service). Programming is generally suitable for those aged 12 and up (naturally programmes before 9pm are more likely to be family-friendly than those after, though generally innocuous shows occasionally wind up in late slots too.)

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          • More +
            02.06.2008 00:37
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            David E. Kelley's comedy-drama "Ally McBeal" was the frequent use of popular music - in particular, canon pop and easy-listening tunes re-jigged by middle-tier soulstress Vonda Shepard. Most episodes would end with the titular Ally reflecting on the episode's events while a lyrically-appropriate Vonda ballad played; while Vonda herself would frequently show up in to perform more upbeat tracks in the local bar.

            Turn-of-the-century legal-cum-relationship drama "Ally McBeal" was renowned for, amongst other things, its extensive use of music. More than any other show before or since, tunes played a key role in the narrative thrust of the show. While in other programmes pop was restricted to an end-of-season montage, or backing music at a birthday party, in "Ally" several songs were heard in nearly every single episode, often lyrically or thematically tying-in to on-screen events. The songs used were a combination of old standards and newly-written middle-of-the-road easy listening tracks; Vonda Shepard, a previously unknown soulstress 'discovered' by show creator David E. Kelley, was typically behind both. Appearing both on-screen, in the lawyers' local bar, and off-screen, as the story's narrative continued visually, Shepard was a key part of the show's appeal. This CD, "Heart and Soul: New Songs From Ally McBeal", goes a considerably way to proving that.

            "Heart and Soul" is the second of what would go on to be four "Ally" soundtrack albums released, and the last to focus solely on Vonda Shepard (later releases would utilise songs by other cast members and original versions of popular hits alongside Vonda's cuts). It's also arguably the most consistent of the four - I imagine many would argue the first was the original and best, but for me this album is marginally stronger overall. There are 14 tracks present here, all from the first three seasons of the show. Vonda Shepard is the lead singer on all, though she's joined by guest vocalists on two occasions.

            "Read Your Mind" kicks things off with a mid-tempo-sized bang. One of the most memorable tracks here, it's slightly surprising to learn it's one of an increasing number of Vonda Shepard originals: it sounds like it's been pulled straight out of the '60s girl-group Wall Of Sound era, and that's no bad thing. The lyrics are typically wistful and yearning ("If I could read your mind, I hope I'd find the same love I have in mine") but the music is pretty upbeat. There are some nice tempo changes and plenty of hooks throughout. Definitely the kind of song that yells out to be released as a single, although for no clear reason Columbia never issued any Vonda singles.

            "100 Tears Away" is the album's second track, considerably more downbeat than the first - much more a ballad than a poppy singalong - but still an excellent listen. Another Vonda original, it was originally used in the "Ally McBeal" episode of the same name - a personal favourite of mine - and while we're in familiar territory lyrically, the analogy of happiness just being "a hundred tears away" is a sweet one, and the backing strings are marvellously cinematic while somehow managing the song to retain a personal, quiet, reflective mood.

            After two originals, we're treated to one of the most-covered soul songs of all-time: "Someday We'll Be Together", originally by Johnny & Jackey and made famous by Diana Ross & The Supremes. Anyone remotely familiar with '60s R'n'B will know the song well, but it's given a nice modern sheen here, with some great backing vocals and an impressive up-tempo production. It's not an album highlight but it's certainly listenable.

            Vonda is joined by Al Green on "To Sir With Love", a cover of the theme tune to the 1967 film of the same title originally performed by Lulu and The Mindbenders. It's given quite a radical reinterpretation here, with some lyrics changed and some rearranged; the presence of Green ensures it's among the most soulful tracks on the album. I prefer the poppier side of Vonda so it's not quite my cup of tea but it's still well-done material. "Sweet Inspiration" is next, a cover of the mid-tempo Supremes track. One of the more forgettable tracks here in my book, it's notable only for a nice call-and-response section halfway through. Otherwise, it's pleasant as it plays, but quite forgettable.

            Thankfully track seven, "Crying", reverses that trend. A cover of the classic Roy Orbison track, Shepard manages to outdo Orbison's wonderful version of the track with an amazingly impassioned, powerful vocal performance. Soaring strings and guitars prove worthy backing music too, as the song reaches its emotional climax perfectly. A stellar version of Don MacLean's "Vincent" also proves worthy. It's impressive in its restraint, much like the original; Vonda doesn't show off her vocal talents but gives the song the calm, subdued rendition it warrants.

            We're back to mid-tempo pop Vonda with "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted?", originally by Jimmy Ruffin, although apparently most successful here in the UK when performed by Robson & Jerome, of all people.. Vonda's version is rather better than theirs, with some nice male backing vocals as Vonda is able to demonstrate her considerable vocal prowess.

            "A World Without Love" maintains the quality, a cover of a Peter & Gordon #1 written by Paul McCartney. A traditional '60s ballad with simple but moving lyrics ("I don't care what they say, I won't stay in a world without love"), the arrangement here is excellent and Vonda is more than up to the task.

            My favourite track of the CD - and perhaps my favourite Vonda Shepard song, full stop - is the original "Confetti". Lyrically, Shepard shows a Springsteen-esque penchant for "poetry of ordinary life" heretofore unrepresented on her albums ("Skinny little brats, walking down Avenue A / Dangling their cigarettes, their independence day"), while the chorus revolves around the wonderful conceit of our narrator's "words [being] like confetti, and you never pick them up..". Musically, we're on fantastic form too, with a fantastic driving verse, a calm bridge and ridiculously catchy chorus with a funky Chamberlin keyboard. It's nothing short of criminal that this track isn't more well-known: it easily surpasses many of the standards Vonda covers here.

            The next track, another Vonda original, also stands head and shoulders above many of the old standards here: "Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow". A genuinely heartbreaking track, which Vonda performs with Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls, musically it's your standard ballad but the lyrics are among the most powerful on the album: the chorus of "I'd rather take a blow, at least then I would know - but baby don't you break my heart slow" is genuinely gut-wrenching.

            The torrent of Vonda originals continues with "This Is Crazy Now". It doesn't quite live up to the two tracks that preceded it but it's still a pleasant listen, vaguely reminiscent of "Maryland" from the first "Ally" soundtrack album to start with before a more melancholy piano kicks in. Not really a highlight but Vonda's voice can bring life to even the blandest songs - and it's really a push to call this "bland", at any rate, as it's pretty sharp lyrically.

            A cover of the Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)" brings things back up-tempo, and with it we're back up to top-tier Vonda, as it's yet another standout with some wonderful layered vocals and a lovely, singable catchy chorus. Its position on the album does it a bit of a disservice as it's rare to find a standout in the second-from-last track position (seriously, they're few and far apart in my experience..) but it's unquestionably a wonderful song that Vonda does proud.

            The final track here, "I Know Him By Heart", takes us back to original ballad territory - though thankfully it's among the best ballads on the CD, with yet another stellar vocal performance by Shepard. Instrumentation is suitably sparse, the lyrics suitably wistful and hopeful. A powerful, calm moment to end the album with.

            The CD can be found for under £5 easily on Amazon marketplace or PlayTrade (mine was found on the former for £3.12 including P&P). As with the first "Ally" soundtrack, there's nothing special about the packaging - standard jewel case, including a booklet with the lyrics.

            If you're a fan of "Ally", this is a must-buy. If you're a fan of easy listening and mid-tempo pop, this is a must-buy. If you fall into neither of those categories, you're unlikely to enjoy much of the material here - though you should still do yourself a favour and seek out "Confetti", it's genuinely one of the best songs recorded in the past decade.

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            • General / Discussion / 40 Readings / 40 Ratings
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              28.05.2008 13:41
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              So, having spent ten months here now, I figure it's time for me to fill out one of these survey things so you can all learn about what colour socks I'm wearing and my favourite brand of toothpaste, or whatever it is these things ask. Good luck making it to the end!


              1. Which do you prefer - shower or bath? And why?
              A bath usually, simply because I prefer lying down to standing up! Hm, sounds a bit lazy, but it's the truth. I want to relax when I'm having a wash!

              2. What do you swear you'll never do?
              Eat a whole tub of Pringles in one go. Again. Honest guv. (I know, I know, a ridiculous amount, but when I get hooked on sour cream & onion flavour, there's little you can do to stop me..)

              3. What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?
              Agh, I hate this kind of question as I prefer to block such moments out of my memory! Um.. hm. One that springs to mind is that I accidentally called my English teacher "mum" just a couple of months ago. (I've just finished my second year of A-Levels..)

              4. What is your favorite quote?
              "Quotes are nothing but inspiration for the uninspired." - Richard Kemph

              5. What was your favorite holiday? And why?
              A couple of years ago, my family and I went to Inzell in Bavarian Germany (www.inzell.de), a quaint village with the most wonderful surroundings, hotels, shops and people. Within driving distance of Salzburg, in Austria, as well as Berchtesgaden and various other sites of interest relating to WW2. We then headed on to Venice, on perhaps the hottest day of the year (which rather made it *too* hot there but that's a minor complaint), and then spent a night in Switzerland before returnign home. The whole holiday was 10 days long, probably ten of the best days of my life!

              6. What was your favorite childhood toy?
              Sad to admit but probably the VCR and my videos, I loved watching Postman Pat and Noddy, and then later Rugrats and Art Attack. But other than that, I remember really loving Matchbox cars and various accessories.. which is strange, as I don't have the slightest interest in cars now, but back then I was quite obsessed, or so I'm told.

              7. Do you have any pets?
              Yep, as a family we have two cats, Sophie who was from a cat's home, and Darcy, a silver tabby. Sophie is four and we've had Sophie for nearly two years, Darcy is 18 months old and we've had him for just over one year. We also have a goldfish.

              8. Savoury or sweet?
              Usually savoury. But it really depends. After a nice meal I'd rather have a nice piece of cake than a bag of crisps or something, obviously!

              9. Hot or cold?
              Cold. I'd rather be too cold than too hot, as I find it's easier to warm up than to cool down.

              10. What's your favorite drink? - Alcoholic and Non-alcoholic
              Alcoholic: Olde English cider
              Non-alcoholic: Usually Fanta - sometimes I go through a phase of loving Vimto or cherry coke, though.

              11. What's your favorite food?
              I'm rubbish at these questions as all my favourite foods are snack foods.. I'm currently hooked on Tesco's Finest Sundried Tomato & Herb cheese cracker biscuit thingies.. but they're expensive, and not exactly healthy, so I don't eat them too much! In terms of actual meals, my favourite meat is chicken, so a roast chicken dinner is always good.

              12. Who do you hate the most?
              No-one other than the obvious choices (paedophiles, murderers, etc. that it would be a stretch not to hate)

              13. Do you have a crush on someone? If so, who?
              Not going to go into personal crushes here - that wouldn't be very interesting for readers now, would it? - but celebrities.. Alison Lohman ("Tucker", Matchstick Men, White Oleander), Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls") and Elisha Cuthbert ("24") all look wonderful.

              14. What is your favorite colour?
              Turquoise.

              15. What did you do last night?
              A night in with the box - watched "Britain's Got Talent" and "The Apprentice", then some DVDs of "Grounded for Life". I also helped my parents install a new TV. Haha, it really does sound like my life revolves around the box, doesn't it..

              16. What's your favorite thing to do?
              Not sure. I think settling down on a rainy day to watch a good movie with either friends or family, with a nice box of chocolates around, has to rank right up there. As for more involving pursuits, I could play snooker for hours on end.

              17. Favorite movie, T.V Programme, Book?
              Movie: "The Shawshank Redemption"
              TV show: "The Simpsons" - but I genuinely watch far too many TV shows for my own good, so I actually have a top 100: http://listology.com/content_show.cfm/content_id.20276
              Book: "Misery" by Stephen King

              18. Who's your hero?
              I can't say I'm sure I have a hero - outside of obvious choices like parents and grandparents, of course. I suppose my musical hero, if I can have that as a compromise, is Bruce Springsteen. If only because he is a) such a great concert performer and b) inconceivably talented - he can do everything from folk to arena rock in style

              19. Favorite song of all time?
              "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen

              20. Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
              No, don't really believe in that sort of thing either. Closest I've come is the door slamming shut (thanks to the wind, I hope) while I was watchign "The X-Files", haha.

              21. Favorite Sound?
              Nervous laughter.

              22. Favorite Smell?
              Coffee! Freshly ground coffee, mm. Don't drink it much but I love the smell!

              23. Favorite place to be?
              Inzell, the village I mentioned was part of my favourite holiday. Other than that, home - "home is where the heart is" and all that.

              24. Happiest moment in your life?
              I don't really know that I've experienced any kind of seminal "happy moment". The closest I can think of is getting my GCSE results and being ecstatic that I'd surpassed my expectations by far. But there's no real standout moment, I don't think.

              25. Saddest moment in your life so far?
              Again, not sure I can think of a definitive "saddest moment". Maybe when my uncle died in 2004.

              26. What is your dream job?
              TV critic! I could get paid to watch TV, surely the dream of all lazy bastards across the land. I suppose being a BBFC examiner would prove much the same actually, so that'll do as a back-up.

              27. What would be your idea of a perfect date?
              Pretty much anything that involves being in a nicely lit park late at night.

              28. What's your favorite Newspaper/ Magazine?
              Newspaper: Broadsheet - The Guardian, Tabloid - The Mirror
              Magazine: Q, and also DVD Review

              29. Which celebrity do you like the most?
              Bruce Springsteen. Or if we discount him, as he's already been mentioned by me a couple of times, maybe Jonathan Ross.

              30. What religion are you?
              No specific religion - vaguely Christian, I suppose, although I wasn't Christened. I believe in a God, in a general sense, but I don't really follow any specific religious teachings.

              31. Do you have any siblings?
              One sister, 14 next month. I love her to bits, I think we get on far better than most teenage siblings.

              32. Have you every been in hospital? If so, why?
              Yes but only when I was much younger, not in the last ten years or so.

              33. Have you ever broken a bone or had stitches?
              Nope, neither yet, thankfully. Touch wood.

              34. Do you believe in Angels/Ghosts/Demons?
              No, none of those.

              35. Are you superstitious?
              I'd like to say I'm not but I think I am a little, for one thing two questions ago I said "touch wood" so I suppose to some degree I buy in to a lot of the traditional superstitions.

              36. What colour eyes do you have?
              Brown.

              37. What colour hair do you have?
              Dark brown.

              38. If you could change one thing about your appearance, what would it be?
              Lose some weight, definitely.

              39. If you could change one thing about your personality, what would it be?
              I'd want to be less shy. I've improved a considerable amount in the past few years but I'm still generally too shy and quiet around people I don't know.

              40. What is your biggest fear?
              Death. Of me or people I know.

              41. Do you have any regrets? If so, what are they?
              I think it's a bit too early for me to have any serious regrets. But I suppose I regret not getting involved more, or talking to people more, at school; I never got involved in a school team, I never asked a girl out, I never really did any extracurricular activities. Oh well.

              42. Have you ever been in love?
              Infatuation and lust yes, but love? No.

              43. What's the most important thing to you in the world?
              My family and friends.

              44. What your most treasured possession?
              My toy duck. (Hence my profile picture!)

              45. What's your job?
              Student. Taking my A-Level exams at the moment, then off to the University of Bath to study politics next year.

              46. What's the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you?
              Told me I was "a genuinely lovely person". Out of almost nowhere. Having known what it feels like, I do my best to tell others similar things. It's a guaranteed way to bring a smile to a face.

              47. What's the worst thing anyone has done to you?
              I can't think of anything that falls into this category.

              48. Dream car?
              I really don't know. I'm not all that bothered about cars.

              49. Favorite celebration?
              Christmas. Better than birthdays - birthdays are fun, but it's for one person, not for everyone, and there's nowhere near as much of a sense of occasion. Christmas lights and Christmas music are also wonderful.

              50. Where do you hang out?
              At home, at my grandparents' house, at school and at friends' houses. The former more than the others.

              51. What school did you go to?
              I'm going to the University of Bath next year. I'm not going to put my current school as I don't think it's necessary!

              52. What/ Who annoys you?
              Pseudo-celebrities that make judgements on others' talent or worth. Charlotte Church criticising Madonna? I mean, really? Also, an inability to change your mind in the face of logical argument and clinging to outdated ideals for no reason.

              53. Do you recycle?
              Yes, though probably not as much as I should.

              54. What's your favorite sport?
              Snooker by far, if that counts. If not, I like watching football sometimes, and also Formula 1. I'm not really a sporty person though.

              55. Who was the last person to upset you?
              Not sure. I might've had a silly row with someone recently but I can't remember to be honest.

              56. What are your hobbies?
              Listening to music, watching TV, browsing the Internet, writing, playing snooker

              57. What was the last joke you heard?
              A man goes to the his doctor. "Doc," he says, "I've got a problem. Every minute of every day I've got that old song, "Delilah", running through my head. I always catch myself humming it and sometimes singing it in public places. My wife says I even sing it in my sleep. What's the matter with me?"

              The doctor replies, "Sounds like Tom Jones Syndrome to me."

              "Is it a rare disorder?" the guy asks.

              The doctor answers, "It's not unusual.."

              58. What is the best joke you've heard?
              I love doing this one in groups of liberal, open-minded people, as they get nervous after the first line..
              What do you call a black man who flies a plane?
              ..
              A pilot, you racists!

              59. What's the worst joke you've heard?
              Can't think of any off-hand, just the generally over-used ones, which aren't actually bad, just tired.

              60. Name 3 places you have been on holiday:-
              Inzell, Germany; Venice, Italy; Disneyland Paris

              61. Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
              Good question. I genuinely don't know. Hopefully with a decent job in the field of politics, but I'm not sure exactly what.

              62. Favorite Season?
              Winter

              63. What's your favorite website?
              www.frasieronline.co.uk - Frasier website with a wonderful forum that I post a lot on.

              64. What's your favorite shop?
              Amazon.co.uk!

              65. What's your worst habit?
              Criticising other people's opinions.

              66. What's your favorite animal?
              Cats.

              67. What is your ultimate fantasy?
              I can't think of anything family-friendly enough to put here.

              68. Can you cook?
              Oh my no, I can barely do toast.

              69. What is the last lie you told?
              I don't know. I'm hoping it wasn't in this survey, though, or that wouldn't bode well.

              70. Favorite flavour ice-cream?
              Cherry! Lidl do this grogeous cherry one that I love. I also adore biscuit Vienetta, and Ben & Jerry's cookie dough ice-cream. Of the traditional ice-cream flavours, my favourite is probably strawberry.

              71. Favorite take-away?
              Chinese.

              72. What do you hate doing the most?
              Schoolwork, naturally! What kind of student would I be if I didn't say that?

              73. What do you like doing the most?
              Listening to music, while browsing the web.

              74. If you were a Super Hero what would your name be?
              SpendsTooMuchTimeStaringAtAScreen Man

              75. What is your porn star name (take the name of your first pet and your mother's maiden name and put them together)
              Goldie Hedges. Hmmm.

              76. If you were an animal what would you like to be?
              A cat.

              77. What would your animal name be?
              I really don't know.

              78. If you could go back in time, what time would you go to?
              The 1960s. I need to find out if it was genuinely the hippie love-fest the media tells me it was!

              79. Any person alive or dead - who would you meet?
              Winston Churchill.

              80. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
              Inzell, as I've mentioned a couple of times. Finland would be good too. But I like where I am now, really.

              81. Tea or coffee?
              Neither, generally. Iced tea, if I can pick that. Otherwise I'd probably go for hot coffee over hot tea.

              82. What was/is your nickname?
              Wezzo. (My actual name is Wesley)

              83. Have you been to college?
              Going next academic year.

              84. What is the wildest thing you've ever done?
              Not sure, I doubt it's very wild though! Gone on a backwards roller-coaster?

              85. Can you play an instrument?
              Nope.

              86. What's your favorite Disney Character?
              Minnie Mouse! She's so cute.

              87. Favorite theme park?
              Disneyland Paris.

              88. What size feet are you?
              12

              89. If you were King/Queen for a day what 3 changes would you make to the world?
              Implement a free at point-of-use health service across the world
              Implement guaranteed free education services across the world
              Put an end to dictatorships

              Idealistic, I know..

              90. What is your favorite nightclub?
              Never been in one.

              91. Name one thing that most people don't know about you?
              I watch TV with subtitles on. (Well, a lot of people I know in real life know that, but I doubt any of you did..)

              92. When was the last time you cried? And why?
              A few days ago, watching a sad episode of a TV show. I forget which. I actually cry a surprising amount for an adolescent male!

              93. If you could have 3 wishes, what would they be?
              Genuine happiness and good health for the people I know and love
              An end to war
              An end to poverty

              Idealistic again, but hey, if you had three wishes it'd surely be best to do as much as you could with them!

              94. Would you ever have plastic surgery? If so, where?
              Haven't thought about it. Possibly.

              95. What are you most ashamed of?
              Putting myself before others far too often.

              96. Thongs or Knickers/ Boxers/ Pants - on you/ on someone else
              Boxers on me. Not bothered about the ladies, whatever they want to wear.

              97. Blondes/ Brunettes or Red heads?
              All can be gorgeous!

              98. What do you find sexy?
              Predictable, but a good sense of humour is a huge turn-on. Physically, long hair, nice curves and pretty eyes are all wonderful (though none are a prerequisite for the person to be sexy)

              99. If you could have a super power/ability, what would it be?
              Invisibility. Unlimited fun..

              100. Did you enjoy doing this quiz?
              Yep, sure did. I quite enjoy doing these sort of things. There were some interesting/unusual questions.

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              • More +
                26.05.2008 11:46
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                Hm.. seems I've been reviewing a lot of Barenaked Ladies lately. Can't help it, they're just so good!

                2000 saw Candian alternative rockers Barenaked Ladies follow up their commercial breakthrough, "Stunt", with a similar-sounding, yet slightly deeper, follow-up LP: "Maroon". It never reached the same heights of popularity its predecessor did, its lead single proving at best a minor hit on both sides of the Atlantic. This doesn't prove that the quality of the music has declined, however; rather, that the public are all too fickle when it comes to popular music, as "Maroon" is probably Barenaked Ladies' finest album to date, with deeper lyrics and a broader range of musical styles than every before.

                The album kicks off with the stomping rocker "Too Little Too Late". Kicking off with a barnstorming electric guitar riff, and with "whoo"s and handclaps a-plenty, it's reminiscent of the last album's "It's All Been Done": an all-out rock song that never lets up. Definitely a good way to start the album: one track in and there's already one catchy chorus indelibly scorched into your mind. Lyrically, BNL's trademark wit is present and correct, though the song is easily the most obtuse of the album, with the narrative buried under contradiction and sarcasm. An unquestionably fun listen.

                "Never Do Anything" starts off more folky than its predecessor but soon drives into a more densely-layered rock song, though less intense than "Too Little Too Late". An amusing tale of attepting to get through life never doing anything - "I could make a hint, fill my pockets with more than lint - I'll give you a hint, it involves the Internet". A funky break-down with party noises in the background two-thirds of the way through the song allow the song to break the verse-chorus structure and add a surprise to an already clever song.

                Track three, "Pinch Me", was the album's lead single. It's easy to see why - some record exec somewhere undoubtedly noticed the similarities between this and previous smash-hit "One Week": the faux-rap and sing-speak sprechgesang, the pop-culture references. I'd argue this is the superior song though - some cool vocal layering effects, an altogether more downbeat tone, and the classically childish "I could hide out under there / I just made you say underwear" joke ensure that. The crux of the song seems to be about fearing growing up, a theme the band reprise more blatantly later on "Baby Seat", but it's easy to get carried away in the hooks of the chorus and overlook that.

                "Go Home", track four, is perhaps the album's best track, and I can't believe it wasn't released as a single. A fast-paced jangly rocker with a country twang, it's a fantastic song with a simple message: "if you need her, you should be there / go home". Replete with witticisms that assert BNL's collective intelligence, were such assertions still required ("If you think of her as Catherine the Great / Then you should be the horse to help her meet her fate"), it's irresistibly catchy and singable and likely to appeal to everyone from kids to grandparents (though if either of those two demographics are listening, you'll want to cut it off at the coda, wherein the band collectively shout "fuck yeah!")

                "Falling For The First Time" holds something of a special place in my heart, as it's the song that properly introduced me to the Barenaked Ladies. Well, that's probably not technically true - I'd heard "One Week" and "It's All Been Done" when they were released as singles, and liked them - but when I heard "Falling" on the Malcolm In The Middle soundtrack CD in 2001 I felt like I'd completely re-discovered the band and began to seek out their albums. The song is worthy of its lofty position as my formal introduction: it's another catchy rock song (don't worry, the variety kicks in later) laden with contradictions ("I'm so cool, too bad I'm a loser" .. "Anyone plain can be lovely / Anyone, love can be lost") that articulate first love like few other songs have managed.

                Things take a turn for the more subdued with "Conventioneers". A perfectly observed tale of office flirting and the inevitably awkward aftermath of having a fling ("Now I'm in the cab, heading back to my apartment / Everything is drab, and I wish it never started / Now I've landed in this awkward situation / How can I just avoid a conversation?"). The narrative is complemented by an uncharacteristically subdued track that lacks any kind of chorus or bridge; the listener's attention is distracted only by a minimal guitar backing, drums and the occasional piano riff.

                "Sell, Sell, Sell" stays calm, but turns towards the melodaramtic end of the spectrum. Variously interpreted as an indictment of Hollywood and an indictment of the Bush administration, it's cinematic in scope and backed with an E Street Band-style Wall Of Sound that builds and builds. The cathartic final chorus - The chorus "Buy buy buy buy sell sell sell / How well you've learned to not discern / Who's foe and who is friend / We'll own them all in the end" - manages to exude emotion while sounding remarkably restrained and singing of something clearly political, rather than any kind of personal experience. The song is also home to one of my favourite BNL lyrics - "In terms of Roman numerals, she's IV league with Roman Polanski". It's just so ridiculously clever, even though it's something of a tangent within the song; I can't help but smile at the minds that put that line together.

                Things get a bit more rocking again with "The Humour of the Situation", a classic BNL song is the vein of "Never Is Enough" and "Some Fantastic", that sees an array of situations that meet the titular criteria get played out in the lyrics: a friend walking in while you're denigrating him behind his back; the caller ID that reveals a secret extramarital affair; and, more absurdly, "the boy who moved into the henhouse to sleep" who "woke up with egg on his face when he found out all the hens had crossed the street". But "come on now", BNL assert, "enjoy the humour of the situation". Very fun and very, very catchy.

                "Baby Seat" returns the band to the "Pinch Me" theme of fearing growing up: "you can't live your life in the baby seat", listeners are reminded, to a funky bossa nova backing. A lot of fans rate this as the album's weakest song, and they're probably right, but it still has much to recommend, not least the sweet narrative about "Billy and his kid" and the wonderfully observed line "If you think growing up is tough / you're just not grown up enough".

                "Off the Hook" strays further into unusual musical territory, beginning with just 808 drums and synth before bass and piano kick in. It builds steadily, beginning as a acoustic folk song but gaining traction after each chorus to build into an all-out rock song. Lyrically it's among BNL's best, the tale of an abused and cheated-on woman finally deciding to "make him eat his words". Playing on the phrase "off the hook" to mean both letting someone get away with what they've done and leaving the phone unhooked, it's a compelling story that BNL allow to straddle the line between melodrama and sincerity wonderfully.

                "Helicopters" is another slow-builder, though it's far from a catchy rocker, generally tending towards the more acoustic, balladic end of the spectrum. It appears to be told from the perspective of a tour guide at the site of a horrific tragedy; attempting "to synthesise the sounds of my emotions", but failing to deliver the message to an audience "so skeptical of everything they're told". In perhaps the most simultaneously amusing and chilling line of any BNL song, Steve Page sings "a world that loves its irony moust hate the protest singer" as the band lament the world's loss of emotion and catharsis in favour in cynicism and skepticism. "I'm haunted by a story and I do my best to tell it.. can't even give this stuff away, why would I sell it?" indeed.

                "Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel" concludes the album, and as was the case with previous album "Stunt" it's the most balladic song on the album. Set to a slow carnival music-style backing, the song quite literally tells of a late-night commuter that falls asleep at the wheel. As with most of BNL's slower songs, the real appeal is the wonderful lyrics: particularly the inspired twist of meaning of the line "you're the last thing on my mind": prior to the crash, she's a million miles away from his thoughts; but as he lies on the road dying, it becomes rather more literally true. A morbid, but sweet, end to the album.

                So, there we go. 12 tracks, 45 minutes. If you're a BNL fan that doesn't yet have this album, buy it immediately - just a couple of quid at Amazon marketplace. If you're new to the band, "Maroon" is a good first album, though "Stunt", as the bigger commercial hit would be the more natural point at which to start.

                The CD comes with a glossy lyrics booklet and little else. There's no parental guidance sticker but as I said in the review, there's one use of the f-bomb (at the end of "Go Home").

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                • More +
                  22.05.2008 15:48
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                  "Stunt" is the fourth studio album from Canadian alternative rockers Barenaked Ladies. It is also probably the only Barenaked Ladies album that managed to sell in considerable numbers on this side of the pond, as it coincided with the Ladies' brief hint of commercial success here in the UK: early 1999, when novelty pop-rap "One Week" hit the UK top 5 and for a few fleeting moments, it looked like BNL would hit the big time.

                  Prolonged mainstream success was alas not to be, but this particular album did sell reasonably well, reaching the UK Album Chart top 20. It deserved the success, too - it combined the band's trademark literate and witty pop with their most accessible musical material to date, and it genuinely works well. "Stunt" is definitely among Barenaked Ladies' crowning achievements.

                  The album kicks off with the aforementioned "One Week". Tending towards the novelty end of the pop spectrum a little too often for me, I'm not a huge fan, but it's easy to see why the song had so much commercial appeal - the funky, catchy chorus; the hip-hop verses that reference everything from "The X-Files" to Snickers bars; the multitude of sound effects hidden at the back of the mix. It's fun to sing along with too, which counts for something - and who doesn't love lines like "Chickety-China, the Chinese chicken, you have a drumstick and your brain stops ticking" and "like Harrison Ford I'm getting frantic, like Sting I'm tantric, like Snickers guaranteed to satisfy".

                  "It's All Been Done", track two, was the second single from the album, and is probably my favourite track here. Wryly stealing cliched hooks from the likes of The Beatles and including hackneyed light-hearted backing "ooh-ooh-oohs" as they sing "It's all been done before", it's an absurdly catchy rocker that manages the rare feat of appealing to listeners of both Radio 1 and Radio 2. Lyrically the pop culture references and sudden turns-of-phrase abound ("Will I see you on The Price Is Right? Will I cry, will I smile, as you run down the aisle?"), musically it's impossible to dislike. One of the best singles of the past decade.

                  "Light Up My Room" tones things down a little. A slow, electric-guitar and electric-piano driven ballad, it features heartfelt lyrics in the age-old vein of proving one's love, though naturally given a unique Barenaked Ladies twist. It's a bit of a "lighters in the air" type song. It's a comedown after the fast-paced one-two of "One Week" and "It's All Been Done", but it's rewarding if you pay attention.

                  Track four is "I'll Be That Girl", which starts acoustically before heading into denser, catchier territory to become an all-out catchy rocker by the chorus. Taking a leaf out of They Might Be Giants' book of contrasting sunny, upbeat melody with dark, depressing lyrics ("If I had a gun, there'd be no tomorrow"), it's a great listen whether you choose to pay attention the words - a tale of inadequacy and yearning - or not.

                  "Leave" takes us down a more folky route, an amusingly formal take on telling a girlfriend to depart ("I've informed you to leave") with some cool country-tinged guitars and a nice "doo-doo-doo" bridge. It's not especially memorable but it's very enjoyable as the record's playing.

                  "Alcohol", track six, is an album highlight. It's relentless, dense, catchy and rocking, with a funky synthesiser and sharp riff-laden electric guitar playing. An ode to the "party-time necessity" that is alcohol, the singer's "permanent accessory", it's jam-packed with amusing lyrics - "forget the cafe latte, screw the raspberry iced tea; a Malibu and coke for you, a G&T for me" - and the cheery, symphonic melody and hooks can't help but make you smile (although occasional lines such as "while I cannot love myself / I'll use something else" hint at a a darker undercurrent.) Even tee-totallers will enjoy it!

                  Back to the ballads we go for "Call and Answer", an emotional track laden with harmonies and call-and-response vocals (heh). The song tells of "getting to the point where we have almost made amends" in a relationship - the moment when you finally accept that, "if you call, I will answer". It's a sweet piece, and once again sees the Ladies tackle the subject of love in an unusual way - sure, plenty is made of falling in and out of love, but how about the times when you're going to "prove that you've come back to rebuild"? An original, powerful take on a hackneyed subject.

                  The mid-tempo "In The Car" follows, a folk-rock blend, with a largely acoustic backing - and plenty of hand-claps - but melodic, symphonic vocals. The song tells of adolescent fumbling in a far more genuine, less dramatic way than Meat Loaf's similarly-themed "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" - the lyrics are simultaneously exploratory ("we groped for excuses not to be alone anymore") and explicit ("it was mostly mutual masturbation, though we spoke of penetration" - a line I never planned to hear on a pop/rock album, if I'm honest!). Memorable and singable - though given the subject matter, probably not one to sing out loud too often..

                  "Never Is Enough" returns us to the full-on pop-rock of "It's All Been Done" and "Alcohol". Set to a jaunty beat and laden with some nice organ parts, it's an amusing trawl through scenarios for which "never is enough" for the Barenaked Ladies - such as "spending a summer planting trees", "working in retail" and "blowing a thousand Deutschemarks to get a drunk in a pub with some Australians". "You get your PhD, how happy you will be when you get a job at Wendy's and are honoured with Employee Of The Month?", they sarcastically sing. A fun, catchy tune that's rather prone to sticking in your mind.

                  And the fun doesn't let up with "Who Needs Sleep?", the album's least sincere song since opener "One Week". A humourous tale of insomnia, it's an upbeat tune with a hip-hop style bridge and chorus, and hook-laden folky verses. Lyrically, the wit is present and correct ("Lids down, I count sheep, I count heartbeats / The only thing that counts is that I won't sleep") and musically, it's immediately appealing and pleasant on the ears.

                  "Told You So" turns the album's direction back towards the acoustic/country side of the BNL spectrum, with a mix generally focused on acoustic guitars and the Arco bass & cello. The lyrically circular bridge - "I never told you I told you so, but I told you so" - is typically Barenaked Ladies, but the verses verge on the surprisingly heartfelt ("I never mentioned how I prayed for you / now I've paid for you / I never said that I would wait for you / it's too late for you / have to let it go").

                  "Some Fantastic (Ivory and Ivory)" (the parenthesis a play on McCartney & Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory", I believe) is a bit more rocking. It starts out sparse but builds to a funky, melodic chorus. It recalls "Never Is Enough"'s stream-of-consciousness lists - this time, we're talking about things the Ladies yearn to do but never will - but things are more emotionally grounded here, as the vocalist notes he wants nothing as much as his "want to be with you". Nevertheless, comedy still plays a key role - "One day I will work with animals / All the tests I'm gonna do / All my stuff's completely natural / And when we're done we'll boil 'em down for glue / that we can use to re-adhere / your lips to mine if you were here" rates among BNL's more contrived, confusing thought streams, and works thanks to that very 'problem'. Fun, sweet and catchy, it's everything a BNL song should be.

                  Album closer "When You Dream" meets only one of those three criteria, however, leaving it among the album's weakest tracks. It's certainly sweet - Steve Page and Ed Robertson explore the avenues a child's mind must wander in dreamtime - but it's a little too slow for its own good at times, and lacks anything to hold the listener's attention. Lyrically it's intriguing though, as we explore both emotional ("When you dream, what do you dream about?") and comedic ("Do you hear Del Shannon's "Runaway" playing on transistor radio waves?")

                  Nevertheless, it doesn't really drag down what is, overall, a remarkably solid album. Deserving of its success, "Stunt" rates among Barenaked Ladies' best albums, and rest assured there's plenty here that ventures far beyong novelty hit "One Week", both lyrically and musically. Highly recommended, a good starting point for BNL newbies.

                  The CD can be found for mere pennies on Amazon marketplace at the moment, or you could of course download the album (though that would probably work out more expensive..). The CD comes with a pretty standard lyric booklet. There's also a "special edition" of the CD that has a couple of bonus tracks, which can be found for a few pounds at Amazon marketplace too.

                  Content-wise, "In the Car" has some explicit sex references, although apparently not enough to earn the album an "explicit lyrics" sticker. There's no swearing.

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                    12.05.2008 18:08
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                    Only for completists; casual fans should just download a few of the best tracks

                    1996 saw Canadian alternative rockers Barenaked Ladies at a turning point. Personal problems among the band's personnel and an inability to determine the direction they would take took their toll on the group, and it's no surprise that their release that year is a patchy affair - a hotch-potch of the quirky literate pop of debut album "Gordon" and the more emotional ballads of "Maybe You Should Drive", with an unwarranted dash of genre experiments mixed in too. "Born On A Pirate Ship" is, at best, a moderate success. It improves with repeated listens as you begin to pick up on more of the lyrics, but even when you're completely familiar with every word it's a mixed bag.

                    Things start badly, with the not-as-funny-as-it-should-be "Stomach vs. Heart" about, er, confusing your stomach with your heart. Maybe it's a metaphor for something, I dunno. It's not as witty as the Ladies usually are, and the music is - at best - acceptable, with all manner of unnecessary sound effects and jumping from soft to loud and back for seemingly no reason. One to skip.

                    "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank" is an improvement. A country-tinged rocker, it sees a serious improvement in the lyric department - sung from the perspective of a stalker, though you'd never guess if given the upbeat tune - with the odd catchy hook too. It's no BNL classic but it's a huge improvement on the disc opener.

                    Track three is "I Know" tends towards the stupid a little too much for my liking. It's catchy enough but the lyrics lack the subtlety and incisive wit of the best tracks by the band, they're packed with "edgy" non-sequitors that reference sex and race with no discernible story (that I can figure out, anyway). By this stage, the album starts to look like a disappointment.

                    Thankfully, though, things kick into high gear with the solid track 4, "This Is Where It Ends". Finally, here it wit and wizardry we've all been hoping for: "You play doctor but I've lost patience", "I don't buy everything I read, and haven't even read everything I've bought". Cleverly distilling the mentality of the "Prozac nation" into a three-minute pop song, it's one of precious few songs here that really hits the mark both musically and lyrically. The chorus of "Call the police and call the press / But please, dear God, don't tell my friends" is both amusing and hard-hitting; the music is catchy but never overpowering.

                    The album's finest moment, lyrically, is next. It's "When I Fall", just about the saddest song about the oft-overlooked profession of the window-cleaner. It's a very slow, very sweet ballad that doesn't just amuse but moves too ("I wish I could fly, from this building, from this wall.."). No other band could make the line "a crystal-clear canvas is my masterpiece" so ridiculously emotional. If you don't pay attention to the lyrics the song can drag, but if you attempt to follow, you'll be rewarded by a wonderfully sweet piece.

                    "I Live With It Every Day" is another fair effort - if you ignore the occasional annoying sound effects (seriously, what is with them?) and come to terms with how the fast tempo doesn't really match the ethos of the song, it's an enjoyable listen. It's about a child who accidentally killed his friend with a BB gun at 12-years-old ("He had baby-blue eyes that I shot him between"). The lyrics are very nice - "I live with it every day, for every step I have to pay / The only thing that they can't take: the guilt that spirals in my wake" - even though the backing music could do with improvement.

                    "The Old Apartment" follows, one of Barenaked Ladies' most well-known and well-loved songs. It's most certainly a highlight here, one of the best on the album. Part pounding-guitar rocker, part nostalgic ballad, it tells of returning to the titular "old apartment" and reaction to how things change after you've left. It's about a literal apartment but the idea works metaphorically too; about change that you miss when you're away. The lyrics are excellently observed - the apartment is "42 steps from the street", our narrator recalls, as he asks the new residents "why did you paint the walls?" A definite highlight.

                    The next track, "Call Me Calmly" was never really going to live up to "Apartment", but unfortunately it doesn't even try. It's just forgettable. Clever in conception, yes - it's about a hooker talking to a prospective, er, "customer" - but it doesn't come off well. Superficially catchy but it gets a bit boring after a few listens. Not a highlight.

                    "Break Your Heart" steps things up once again, thankfully. It turns the traditional "I'm done with you" love song on its head and sings not from the perspective of joy at leaving the relationship, but of proclaiming that while "it's not 'cos I'll be missing you that makes me fall apart", they "never meant to break your heart". It's very sweet and entirely relatable if you've ever been in a relationship that you know has to end but you can't bear to do it for fear of hurting the other. Sound-wise, the backing is appropriately minimal, while the vocals are amazing (the line ""Just stop wasting my time / And now I know that you will be okay..." is sung with nigh-on ridiculous power). Excellent.

                    Sadly, things are pretty much unanimously downhill from here. "Spider In My Room" follows "Break Your Heart" and it's an awful, experimental-They-Might-Be-Giants type piece, with stupid sound effects, ridiculous chanting and unfunny lyrics. Not even worth bothering with once.

                    "Same Thing" provokes a less visceral reaction but it's still pretty mediocre. Bland and insubstantial, it lacks both lyrical and musical punch. "Just A Toy" is more memorable, but for all the wrong reasons: it's heavily distorted and sounds like some kind of heavy metal rip-off, with indistinct vocals and appalling instrumentation. It's a shame, as the lyrics are quite amusing - sung from the perspective of a wooden puppet jealous of Pinocchio ("I know you must have loved me sometime / But now I'm just a toy").

                    And "In the Drink" fails to improve things. A five-minute-long dirge that never really goes anywhere, the lyrics are sporadically interesting - turning thirst into a metaphor for yearning for love - but they don't redeem the one-note melody. Thank heavens for album closer "Shoebox", originally featured on the Friends TV soundtrack, which kicks things up into high-gear once again with a fun, all-out pop song that is a shining beacon among the mediocrity of the later tracks on this album. The cracking chorus - "My shoe box / Shoebox of lies" - is simple but catchy and memorable, like all good choruses should be.

                    "Born On A Pirate Ship" is a bit of a mixed bag of an album, then. BNL completists will want it, but if you're only a casual fan it's probably worth just downloading a few of the best songs here ("The Old Apartment", "Break Your Heart", "When I Fall", "Shoebox" and "This Is Where It Ends" is probably all you'll need.) The album is available on CD or as an MP3 download from iTunes etc. The CD can be found for just a couple of pounds on Amazon marketplace, and it's a no-frills affair, with a lyrics booklet being all you'll find alongside the disc itself.

                    (Some editions of this album put BNL classic "If I Had $1,000,000" as the closing track here. However, as it was originally recorded around the time of first album "Gordon", I'm not counting it for the purposes of this review.)

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                      08.05.2008 00:53
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                      Bruce Springsteen has spent much of his career alternating between introspective acoustics and bombastic exuberance. Both sides have their fans; he has tried to appease both sides by alternating between the two as much as possible. The fun of 1980's "The River" was countered by the grim bleakness of 1982's "Nebraska"; the hit-laden "Born In the USA" of 1984 was followed up in 1987 with the subdued "Tunnel of Love"; poppy double-act "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" were succeeded two years after release by 1994's "Ghost of Tom Joad". But despite occasionally mixing the two sides of his persona on one album - take 1978's "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" - Bruce has never really allowed the his bleak storytelling to quite fit in with the bombast of his E Street Band backing, keeping the two sides relatively separate. This is, until 2005's "Devils and Dust".

                      Bruce's previous set had been the post-9/11 "The Rising", a generally upbeat collection that sought to document the tragedy through all manner of perspectives - those who were "Countin' On A Miracle", those who were coming to terms with the "Lonesome Day"s ahead, those who were "Waitin' On A Sunny Day". By 2005, a more sombre tone had to be taken: the nation had come to terms with the terrorist attacks and had another problem on their hands - albeit, this one of their own accord: the Iraq War. It goes without saying, then, that Brucie, ever the left-leaning spokesman of the working class, would mine this particular issue for lyrical territory on what previous trends hinted would be a lyrically-focused, poetic and quiet affair, surely?

                      The reality was not quite so. Certainly, the Iraq War plays a key role in the stories Springsteen tells here - nowhere more so than on the title track, "Devils & Dust" - but it never dominates; the lyrics here are more wide-ranging in their scope, telling of every facet of small-town America that recalls "The Rising" in its sheer breadth. The music, meanwhile, is denser than previous "quieter" Springsteen efforts: some tracks tend towards the sparse acoustics of "Nebraska" but more lean towards a slightly more rocking approach, where the E Street Band prevent descent into tedium while never overpowering the moving tales Springsteen has to tell.

                      So, the songs themselves. The previously-mentioned "Devils and Dust" begins the album, and it's among the set's finest. Springsteen sings with conviction of the soldier who ponders the question "what if what you do to survive kills the things you love?" Regardless of your position on the current wars, it's a question we can all empathise with: even if "we've got God on our side", as Springsteen sings, killing people is not an easy thing to come to terms with. War will "take your god-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust", we are told, explaining the precise meaning of album's title.

                      Lyrically, Bruce is certainly on top form - but musically, it's a fine achievement too. Producer Brendan O'Brien - who many Springsteen fans have criticised for making the Springsteen sound of late "overblown", as if "Born to Run" was some kind of lesson in restraint - allows the slight backing to swell to a powerful climax - not powerful in its depth, like "Born to Run", but powerful in its emotional conveyance.

                      The album's most thoroughly out-and-out rock'n'roll tune is well-placed as the second track. "All the Way Home", originally written by Springsteen in the early '90s but never released until now, recalls the "recommendation with reservations" of his earlier "Tougher Than The Rest": compare "if you're rough enough for love / baby I'm tougher than the rest" with "but if you don't feel like walking alone / I could walk you all the way home". Musically, though, there is a sharp contrast between the tracks: "Tougher than the Rest" was a synthesizer-driven ballad; "All The Way Home" is driven by powerful drums and steel guitars. It's another fine cut.

                      "Reno" is the album's first thoroughly story-driven song - reflected in the lyrics booklet in its presentation as a single paragraph rather than line-by-line. It's also, intriguingly, the first song to warrant Springsteen a "Parental Advisory" sticker on the front of an album: its explicit depiction of an encounter with a prostitute is surprisingly visceral for the Boss. It's a surprisingly moving tale though; the final lines defining the disappointment and nostalgia that are pervasive throughout the album: "She said, 'Here's to the best you've ever had'. We laughed and made a toast. It wasn't the best I ever had. Not even close."

                      The song that comes closest to Springsteen's traditional catchy rockers occupies the track 4 slot. "Long Time Comin'" tells of the archetypal working-man-come-good: set in the imagery-laden area where "the creek turns shallow and sandy", Springsteen sings of a young man who, despite past failures, is convinced as he lies beside his pregnant girlfriend that he "ain't gonna fuck it up this time". He attempts to justify his past failures - "my daddy, he was just a stranger" - but ultimately accepts that his succumbing to maturity has "been a long time comin', but now it's here". It's not as heavily backed as the likes of peak-period Bruce rockers like "Badlands" and "No Surrender" but it's just as catchy.

                      "Black Cowboys" returns us to the speak-sung narrative style of "Reno"; here, Bruce laments Rainey Williams, a character who realises that when his mother falls in love with a new man it is his job to no longer "keep her soul alive" - her boyfriend can now do that - but to go off and make a life of his own. It's near-heartbreaking, made all the more effective not due to melodramatic, emotive language but thanks to the stark sparseness of it all. As the song concludes, and Rainey has left his mother, "the red sun slipped and was gone, the moon rose and stripped the earth to its bone". Once again, Bruce proves he is masterful at conveying imagery in the smallest number of words. The backing is minimal, with backing vocals from Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell occasionally serving to enhance the mood; the song needs nothing more.

                      "Maria's Bed" has proved controversial among Springsteen fans, as the Boss puts on something of a falsetto and sings passionately of returning to his lover "Maria's Bed" after "40 days and nights" working on the highways. The lyrics are laden with cliches - "sugar mountain", "fools gold" - but one feels that's rather the point, as Springsteen attempts to articulate the yearning of your average working man once again - as he has done so well on albums prior. Sweet backing "la la" vocals enhance the early verses, while keyboards, bass and even the hurdy-gurdy elevate the backing to a dense wall-of-sound by song's end. It's another winner.

                      Liner notes preceding the lyrics to the next track, "Silver Palomino", pretty much sums the song up: "a mother dies, leaving her young son to come to terms with the loss. In remembrance of Fiona Chappel, for her sons Tyler and Oliver". You can tell that this one is inflected with the personal emotions of Springsteen: his vocals are more impassioned - not powerful, but emotional - than anywhere else on the album; while the lyrics never fail to make me cry. I think the loss of one of your parents - either fear of it, or actually having to come to terms with it - is one of the most universally destroying emotions one can feel, and Springsteen does a fine job of articulating that emotion here, using a silver palomino horse as a metaphor for the mother-song bonding our characters here once felt. "The scent of your skin, mother, fills the air. 'Midst the harsh scrub pine that grows I watch the silver palomino." It's as genuinely moving as Springsteen has ever been. The backing music is once again very subdued, confined largely to acoustic guitar. But nothing else would be appropriate really, would it.

                      "Jesus Was An Only Son" takes the "religious song" concept to heretofore unknown regions: instead of questioning faith, or God, Springsteen simply tells the story of Jesus and Mary in terms of their universal mother-son relationship. (If you can hear hints of "Silver Palomino", you're quite right; parent-child relationships are dealt with here more throughly than any Springsteen album since "The River" has.) It's a sweet song, the lyrics are moving ("Jesus kissed his mother's hands, whispered 'Mother, still your tears, for remember the soul of the universe willed a world and it appeared'") and the backing music is low-key but melodic, with backing vocals once again contributing to mood and atmosphere.

                      "Leah" kicks up the tempo a little. There's no "Wall of Sound" but a catchy melody is pervasive. Lyrically, we're in familiar territory - a man yearns to be with the woman of his dreams, Leah - but it's another solid piece and Springsteen is, as ever, able to articulate the most powerful human emotions in understandable, relatable ways.

                      "The Hitter" is perhaps the album's lowest point. It's undoubtedly solid, lyrically, but rather like the weakest tracks of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad", the music is practically non-existent. A two-note acoustic guitar melody is all this track can offer, at a push. It reads wonderfully on paper - the tale of a small-town boxer making it big and then coming back down, now resorting to fighting in the "streets and alleys" is wonderful in its execution - but the music is just too plodding and tedious to make it a worthy listen.

                      Thankfully, relative catharsis returns with "All I'm Thinkin' About". Once again, the lyrics deal with young love and its inherently wild and unrestrained nature ("Ain't nothing in this world I can do about it / All I'm thinking about is you, baby") but it never feels like a retread - and more crucially, the music is catchy and memorable. Not anthemic, but quietly memorable.

                      "Matamoros Banks" is a fair conclusion to the album; it recalls "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" album in its preoccupation with the southern USA/Mexico border but it's more lyrically astute than much of that album, telling the story of a dying immigrant in reverse - from "the river keeping [him] down" to "walking over rivers of stone and ancient twine" to "dreaming of holding his love in his arms again". However, the music can tread dangerously close to "The Hitter" territory: I recognise the need for restraint with this subject matter but three-quarters of the songs here managed to tread the calm-loud line well; why couldn't it be done here? Nevertheless, it's enjoyable enough while it plays, and a nice thematic conclusion to the album.

                      Looking at the set as a whole, this is perhaps Bruce's most cinematic, widest-ranging, story-packed album yet. OK, so "Nebraska" and "Ghost" were marginally more story-focused - but neither has anywhere near the scope of this album. Here, the stories were confined to one theme; here, any and all aspects of working-class hardship get the Springsteen treatment. It's not the Boss' most consistent album, but it's a worthy buy, especially if you're a fan of acoustic Bruce but would like something a bit more upbeat without heading into the bombast of "Born to Run".

                      The CD comes with a lyric booklet that has minimal liner notes and the occasional translation of Spanish words and phrases that are sprinkled throughout the songs. The CD can be purchased alone or with a bonus DVD that includes a 5.1 Surround Sound cut of the album (that sounds fantastic) and live, "intimate", solo performances of five songs from the album ("Devils & Dust", "Long Time Comin'", "Reno", "All I'm Thinkin' About", "Matamoros Banks") filmed in Springsteen's own house. Springsteen introduces each with a 2-3 minute story behind its genesis, while the performances themselves are sharp and powerful; Boss aficionados will find plenty to love here.

                      Both the single CD and the CD-DVD "Dualdisc" set can be found for less than £5 on Amazon Marketplace.

                      The CD has a "Parental Advisory" sticker for sexually explicit lyrics in "Reno" and the word "fuck" in "Long Time Comin'".

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                        30.04.2008 16:08
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                        If you only know "Birdhouse" or "Boss of Me", pick this up

                        They Might Be Giants. Perhaps the most diverse band of all-time. I mean, who else have managed to deliver everything from polka and techno in such style? They combine their now-trademark offbeat melodies with weirdly wonderful lyrics set to all manner of backing: while their focus has always tended to lean towards the "alternative rock" side of the spectrum, everything from folk to R'n'B has been given the TMBG treatment. Whilst never the most mainstream band, forever lacking the media attention they deserve, the two Johns (John Flansburgh and John Linnell) have nevertheless forged a legendary following among everyone from nerdy college students to froufrou coffee drinking sorts and even young kids with their consistently unique and entertaining output over the last 25 years, and deservedly so. Their songs are so fully-rounded, for many it's a shock to find out they started their career with a "Dial-A-Song" service: you phone their number (still operating now, I believe), and their latest experimental musical work play back to you from their answering machine.

                        "Dial A Song: 20 Years Of They Might Be Giants", released in 2002, is a packed 2-CD set featuring 52 songs that the band believe are their best of their considerable 1982-2002 output. Whether these songs really are TMBG's best is of course, debatable and is ultimately down to personal opinion, but I for one think this compilation accurately represents the first 20 years of the band's history, covering as wide a range of their genre-hopping as one could realistically expect. It's certainly a solid starting point for the unaccustomed.

                        The package contains the two discs, each featuring 26 tracks, enclosed in two separate cardboard digipaks, along with a detailed and fully comprehensive booklet, featuring two essays on the band (one by the band themself) which tell the story of the band from the beginning of their career to nowadays, as well as giving complete lyrics to every song on the compilation. The CDs and the booklet are held in a nice, solid cardboard box, adorned with typically obtuse cover art depicting.. well, er, insects of some sort. Ants? Who knows.

                        So, onto the music itself. As detailed as I usually like to be, I'm not convinced going through all 52 tracks here one-by-one would be any fun for either of us. So instead, I'll look at some highlights (there are many), omissions and the occasional misstep.

                        -- HIGHLIGHTS --

                        * CD1's opening track, "Birdhouse In Your Soul", which must have been a no-brainer choice for the compilers. The band's biggest hit (it made #6 in the UK charts back in 1990) it combines wonderfully complex metaphoric lyrics (the "blue canary in the outlet by the lightswitch" is a nightlight, if you can't figure it out) with a ridiculously catchy melody. And it works perfectly. It's the Giants' most polished tune and deserves its prime spot on this set

                        * "Ana Ng" (pronounced "Anna Eng" for the uneducated), a rather unusual tale of a Japanese girlfriend. Another alternative rock number, it's home to witty lyrics and an awesome chorus.

                        * "Boss Of Me" - the theme song to "Malcolm In The Middle". What most people know them for nowadays (even if they don't know it's by They Might Be Giants..)

                        * "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man", which many will know for their use on kids' cartoon series "Tiny Toon Adventures". Both slightly more facile and less fully-rounded than a lot of their other offerings, but both are still great fun, especially "Istnabul", a fast-paced rockabilly-type song.

                        * "New York City", a cover of a song by girl-grunge band Cub, is perhaps the set's absolute best track. It's an out-and-out driving rock song that masks melancholy and yearning in a loud, catchy, rocking backing. The lyrics self-knowingly recall the naivete of adolescence perfectly: "Everyone's your friend in new York City / And everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty / The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see / But the best thing about New York City is you and me"

                        * "Man It's So Loud In Here", the Giants' stab at techno - as ever, they turn tradition on its head by singing about how hard it is to talk in a club with rowdy techno music playing

                        * "Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas!)", essentially an "educational" song for children but still fantastically singable

                        * "Twisting", a peppy pop song about a woman who yearns to see her boyfriend "slowly twisting / in the wind" - er, that'll be hanged, then..

                        * "Another First Kiss", which sees the Giants get uncharacteristically heartfelt ("How 'bout another first kiss like this? / I want another first kiss")

                        * "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head", one of the band's earliest tracks; eminently listenable but impenetrable lyrically

                        * "I Palindrome I", a song of palindromes - both in words and in life

                        * "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?" - intriguingly, home to some of the band's finest vocals

                        * "James K Polk" and "Meet James Ensor" - two songs about unsung heroes (the former was the 11th President of the USA, the latter a noted Belgian painter). The former is slow, the latter is fast - both are stellar material

                        * "Mammal", a showcase for the Johns' biological knowledge.. amongst other things, they reveal that the echidna and caribou are indeed mammals!

                        * "I Should Be Allowed To Think" - an Allen Ginsburg-referencing catchy rocker

                        * "Fingertips", a wonderful experiment that must be heard to be believed. It's a collection of about 20 ten-second clips from failed Dial-A-Song answering machine projects, varying from depressing and sad to gleeful, happy and joyous. Vocals are not just by the two Johns; some female vocalists are in there too. Originally spilt into multiple tracks on its original CD release (on "Apollo 18"), here it's combined into one 4-minute masterpiece. The Giants' "Bohemian Rhapsody"!

                        * "The End Of The Tour", a lovely emotional track that goes from ballad to heavy rock and back again smoothly. It's about a car crash in which the person who caused it gets off scott-free.. but the crash proves to be fatal for those who he crashed into. The song is told from the car's point of view, an interesting perspective to say the least.

                        * "Hey Mr DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal", a hilarious tale of a corrupt DJ. Love the opening line: "I could never sleep my way to the top / 'Cos my alarm clock always wakes me right up".

                        So, a lot of highlights there. (And there are plenty more I could mention too.) But thing aren't quite perfect.

                        -- LOWLIGHTS --

                        * "Dr. Evil", from "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me". James Bond pastiche that never really gets off the ground.

                        * "Minimum Wage" and "Spider" - 50-second long space wasters that don't add anything to the experience (other than to drill in TMBG's eclecticism)

                        * "No!" - track from the first of three (thus-far) albums the Giants have written aimed entirely at kids. I appreciate they needed to represent that material here but there are better choices they could have made.

                        * "I Can Hear You" - presumably included for novelty factor only (it was recorded on a wax cylinder at Edison Laboratories - and sounds like it too).

                        * "Robot Parade" - dull attempt at electronica.

                        * Live versions of "She's Actual Size", "Stormy Pinkness" and "Spy" - presumably included to increase the appeal to the established fan, these previously-unreleased live cuts are invariably weaker than the studio versions. TMBG are good live but these tracks don't prove it.

                        -- NOTABLE OMISSIONS --

                        Well, with a band as prolific as TMBG, there's always going to be a few favourites that don't quite make the cut. Those that stick as the most surprising omissions to my mind include:

                        * "Everything Right Is Wrong Again", first track from their first album

                        * "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair", witty paean to boss "Mr. Horrible" from their best-selling album to date "Flood"

                        * "Destination Moon", one of their most eminently catchy songs

                        * "No-One Knows My Plan", best use of trumpets in popular music ever!

                        * "I've Got A Match", an outstanding early ballad

                        * "The World's Address", some of their finet wordplay

                        * "Why Must I Be Sad?", Alice Cooper-referencing rocker

                        * "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes", a rather-too-literal sparsely-backed pop song

                        Additionally, a wealth of material from 2004's "The Spine" and 2007's "The Else" is worthy of inclusion here - but as these were released after this compilation, it's hard to complain about that. (A similar Greatest Hits-type 2006 compilation, "A User's Guide To They Might Be Giants", includes a couple of tracks from the former - but it's only a single CD and given the wealth of material the Giants have released, I'd argue the 2-CD set remains the better starting point, despite the lack of more recent material. If you enjoy this set, you'll inevitably to want to seek out the Giants' entire catalogue anyway!)

                        -- FINALLY --

                        Well, I've said about all I need to say, but what kind of closing would that last paragraph be? Not much of one! If you're familiar with the Giants, feel free to skip over this and keep collecting their regular studio albums' but if you're completely new to the band (or have heard "Birdhouse" or "Boss Of Me" and want to check out more), this is as good a starting point as you'll get. A highly recommended compilation.

                        The set, which is only available on CD (or digital download), can be found for around £12 on Amazon Marketplace (£17.98 from Amazon itself). The music is generally suitable for children but there is one use of mild language ("bitch" on "I Palindrome I").

                        -- TRACK LISTING --

                        CD1
                        1. Birdhouse In Your Soul
                        2. Ana Ng
                        3. Don't Let's Start
                        4. Boss Of Me
                        5. Older
                        6. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
                        7. Doctor Worm
                        8. The Guitar
                        9. Dr. Evil
                        10. New York City
                        11. Particle Man
                        12. Cyclops Rock
                        13. Minimum Wage
                        14. Man, It's So Loud In Here
                        15. We're The Replacements
                        16. Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas)
                        17. Your Racist Friend
                        18. Bangs
                        19. Snail Shell
                        20. Twisting
                        21. Another First Kiss
                        22. They'll Need A Crane
                        23. The Statue Got Me High
                        24. (She Was A) Hotel Detective
                        25. Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head
                        26. I Palindrome I

                        CD2
                        1. She's An Angel
                        2. How Can I Sing Like A Girl?
                        3. James K. Polk
                        4. Meet James Ensor
                        5. Mammal
                        6. Pet Name
                        7. No!
                        8. I Can Hear You
                        9. Spider
                        10. I Should Be Allowed To Think
                        11. Fingertips
                        12. She's Actual Size (Live)
                        13. Spy (Live)
                        14. Stormy Pinkness (Live)
                        15. Exquisite Dead Guy
                        16. Robot Parade (Adult Version)
                        17. Boat Of Car
                        18. S-E-X-X-Y
                        19. Number Three
                        20. The End Of The Tour
                        21. They Might Be Giants
                        22. Her Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal
                        23. Nightgown Of The Sullen Moon
                        24. Snowball In Hell
                        25. Purple Toupee
                        26. Cowtown

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                        • Out Of Time - R.E.M. / Music Album / 42 Readings / 38 Ratings
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                          25.04.2008 00:57
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                          A must for even the most casual music fan

                          R.E.M. are one of the most important bands of the last quarter-century. This album proves why.

                          1991's "Out of Time", their second for Warner Bros., was by far the band's most commercially successful to date. Home to megahit "Losing My Religion", it spent - literally - years in the UK Album Chart top 75 and sold over ten million copies worldwide. But as we all know, chart success is not everything - after all, it's debateable whether Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez will go down with the greats, but they've sold millions of albums. Thankfully, however, in this case the popularity was completely justified. "Out of Time" is one of the all-time greatest albums, by any musical artist.

                          A lofty claim, but the songs back it up. Things get off to a blinding start with the minor hit "Radio Song" - a song that slides from soaring ballad to rock-tinged hip-hop so effortlessly you can't quite believe your ears. "The world is collapsing around our ears / I turned up the radio but I can't hear it", Stipe begins, as a rant against the "same sing-songs" that dominate the airwaves gets underway. (Ironic, seeing as R.E.M. would be dominating those same airwaves for years to come, but hey, Stipe didn't know that!) And while guest vocalist KRS-One proves a turn-off for many, his hip-hop stylings fit in well with the generally light-hearted tone of the catchy tune. It's not the album's best track but it's memorable.

                          "Losing My Religion" is the album's second track. And it really needs no introduction, does it? Surely the biggest-ever hit to utilise a mandolin, it's arguably R.E.M.'s definitive song - hook-laden folk-pop backed with stunning instrumentation; lyrically obtuse and open to a multitude of interpretations. Amazingly, it hasn't suffered from excessive re-playing on VH1 and Radio 2 - it sounds just as fresh after a hundred listens as it did after one. A genuine pop masterpiece, it's probably the album's higlight. Its four and a half minutes fly by.

                          Track three, "Low" is quite the contrast with the prior cut. Very low-key and slow, with Stipe's vocals buried deeply in an already-sparse mix, it's not one you'll hear on the radio a lot but it's a thoroughly engaging listen, especially if you listen carefully enough to pick up on the flashes of subtle imagery Stipe conveys in the lyrics: "dusk is dawn is day, where did it go? .. your bright light shines bright". Somehow, despite its slow pace and five-minute running time, it doesn't even remotely drag, and compares favourably with R.E.M.'s earlier attempts at low-key "epics" ("Camera", anyone?)

                          "Near Wild Heaven" is my personal favourite from the album. Sure "Losing My Religion" got the airplay and "Country Feedback" is the traditional fan favourite, but it's this irresistibly catchy jangle-pop masterpiece that catches my attention time after time. The first of the album's two tracks to feature Mike Mills on primary vocals, his lilting country-pop tones go wonderfully with jangling backing. The lyrics are uncharacteristically simple for R.E.M. (perhaps as they were penned by Mills himself) but that's no criticism; indeed, in an album of obtuse and impenetrable lyrics, it comes as quite a change. The chorus, simply comprised of repetitions of the refrain "Living inside / living inside / near wild heaven", is guaranteed to stick in your head for weeks on end. Quality through and through.

                          Near-instrumental "Endgame" follows, easily R.E.M.'s best instrumental piece to date. Supposed to convey the aftermath of winning a sports match through music (hence, "Endgame"), Stipe's enchanting vocalisations ("Ba da da da da da ha ha ha") are just another instrument in this sweet, moving, sentimental piece. Few other bands could pull off a lyric-free song so well.

                          The infamous "Shiny Happy People" is up next. Featuring guest vocalist Kate Pierson of fellow Athens, Georgia compadres The B52s, the band have famously disowned this song, excluding it from their "Best Of" despite it being among their biggest hits and never performing it live. It's a shame, as unavowedly ecstatic songs - as this is - do have a place in music, despite the Radiohead- and Coldplay-led drive towards melancholy of late. "Shiny, happy people holding hands / Shiny, happy people laughing", Stipe and Pierson cheerfully sing in the chorus. (There is a widespread claim that the song is about being on anti-depressants; I'm not sure if this is substantiated and frankly I don't really care either way. It's still a fun out-and-out pop song.)

                          The album's biggest curveball, "Belong", follows. Speak-sung by Stipe, throughout the song's verses he recalls the minutiae of everyday life of a housewife in a beat-poet narrative style over a steady, sparse drum-focused backing and between a lilting, vocalised and memorable chorus. It tends to split fans, but I'm firmly on the "fan" side - it's among R.E.M.'s most successful "experiments".

                          Ballad "Half A World Day" is next. The line "My hand is tired / my heart aches" has led some to conclude it's about masturbation but I'm inclined to lean on the more conservative side here and say it's simply about yearning for a lost lover. It's a solid song that is home to some of Stipe's most beautiful vocals: they are at the front of the mix and they really work there, supported by a slow-to-mid-tempo backing that recalls both fairground music and, er, Simon and Garfunkel.

                          "Texarkana" brings Mike Mills to lead vocal duties once again, and once again, it works magnificently. Living up to its name (a contraction of Texas/Arkansas/Louisiana) it's about as archetypally "Americana" as R.E.M. have got this side of "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" and delivers a wonderful vocal backed with Springsteen-style "Wall of Sound" backing and another wonderfully-catchy chorus.

                          Penultimate track "Country Feedback" has a long been a fan-favourite (and indeed Stipe claims it to be his favourite R.E.M. song too) - a slow, brooding country ballad with stream-of-consciousness lyrics. "We've been through fake-a breakdowns, self-hurt .. self-pain, EST, psychics, fuck all.." Stipe sings, the emotion in his voice subtle but nevertheless palpable, especially when combined with the well-judged calm, quiet backing. Not a personal favourite but it speaks to many.

                          The album concludes with the second Stipe-and-Pierson duet of the album, "Me In Honey", an ode to pregnancy, of all things. Generically poppy, it shines thanks to the juxtaposition in tones of the two lead vocalists. It's enjoyable and eminently listenable, a solid end to an amazing album.

                          What often first strikes R.E.M. fans about this album is the relative lack of Michael Stipe on vocals. One track's an instrumental, two are sung primarily by Mike Mills, on two he shares vocal duties with Kate Pierson, on two he speak-sings and on one a verse is performed by KRS-One. That leaves three traditional Stipe-sung songs - perhaps too few for some, but this diversity adds to the experience of the album immensely. Don't let detractors write this off as mere fluff pop; it's much more subtle, varied and diverse than that.

                          The CD of the album, which comes in a standard jewel case and includes a lyric sheet, can be found for a few quid on Amazon Marketplace nowadays (mine was £3.50 in 2005, and it's only getting cheaper). You might also shell out for the CD/DVD special edition, which includes on the DVD the album in full Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and some promo videos from the album.

                          Parental Guidance note: there's no sticker on the front, but there is one use of bad language ("fuck", in "Country Feedback")

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                          • More +
                            24.04.2008 23:21
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                            Highly recommended for casual fans and aficionados alike

                            If there's anyone left in the Western world who hasn't seen The Simpsons, they must've been living in a cave for twenty years. Quick refresher: there's a Bush in the White House, Madonna's still popular, and the best show on TV is a cartoon.

                            The definitive animated family, our four-fingered yellow friends have seen us through nineteen seasons - and counting - totalling more than 400 episodes of America's finest comedy export. Delivering biting wit, sharp satire, zany slapstick and deft characterisation in equal measure, the show is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. Throughout this review, basic knowledge of the show is assumed - if you aren't yet familiar with Homer and co, season-set DVDs are not really the place to start, perhaps checking out a repeat of the show on Channel 4 or Sky One would be beneficial. (There are some useful reviews on Dooyoo about "The Simpsons in general", as well.) But just in case you've forgotten, the show portrays the eventful day-to-day lives of the Simpson family - obese nuclear power-plant worker Homer, ever-harried housewife Marge, rebellious 10-year-old Bart, intellectual 8-year-old Lisa and ever-pacifier-sucking Maggie - and the multitude of fellow residents in their hometown of Springfield.

                            The Complete Seventh Season DVD set, reviewed here, features all 25 episodes from the series' seventh season (1995-1996). The twenty-five episodes are spread out in the ratio 6:6:7:5, alongside a veritable plethora of the bonus features we Simpsonites have become accustomed to.

                            Firstly, though, the most important part of any season set: the episodes. This season brought us a higher-than-average mixture of memorable moments: the eagerly awaited conclusion to "Who Shot Mr. Burns?"; Lisa's decision to go vegetarian; Homer in 3-D in the "Homer Cubed" segment of "Treehouse of Horror VI"; Bart selling his soul to Milhouse; the Flanders family taking in the Simpson kids by order of the Child Protective Services; George Bush (Sr.) moving in opposite the Simpsons; Apu facing deportation; Homer taking over from Smithers as Burns' lackey; Homer's bowling team, the Pin Pals; Selma's short-lived marriage to Troy McClure; Krusty's tax troubles; Marge's attempt at social climbing through Chanel suits and country clubs; Homer's visit from his law-evading mother; and Troy McClure's tribute to the show's first 138 shows. Alongside all this, a multitude of guest stars feature, including among others Paul and Linda McCartney, Phil Hartman, Paul Anka, Glenn Close, Bob Newhart, Donald Sutherland, Kirk Douglas, Jeff Goldblum, Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Christian Ricci and Kelsey Grammar, returning as Sideshow Bob.

                            As with season 6, for which you could choose either a collectible "Homer head" package or a more standard cardboard digibook package, you can choose to purchase either a Marge head or a standard box. There's no way to get both without buying two copies of the set, but to most fans this won't matter too much. I recieved the head box; included in the package are the four discs in a separate disc trays that can be opened like a book design (known as a digibook), thankfully entirely removable from the Marge head for easier and quicker access, as well as an excellent booklet that parodies an issue of "Variety" (right down to the picture captions and advertisements at the end); entitled "Vanity" it details all of the episodes and extra features included.

                            The DVD menus remain the same as they have done since season 5 - a good thing, as the menus are excellently designed and easily navigable. The top half of the screen contains a screen featuring a variety of Simpson characters revelant to the episodes on that particular disc dressed elegantly, posing for photographs on a red carpet, implying they are going to an awards ceremony; the bottom half of the screen lists the episodes along with the lovely Play All option, and an "Extras" button in the shape of a movie ticket. Each episode has two small buttons next to it: choosing the first, featuring a triangle similar to a Play button, will play the episode; the other, with a "+" mark, will open a sub-menu, also themed, of which there can be several in a row, featuring scene, language, subtitle, commentary and deleted scenes options. There is a chapter stop after the opening of the show for quick skipping. ALl of the menus are animated to some extent, and many feature audio - it's frequently worth playing through the menu a couple of times to check what's going to happen!

                            As usual, the principal extra is the commentary on every one of the 25 episodes in the set, featuring a vast array of contributors. Matt Groening, creator of the show himself, is present on two-thirds of them; other regulars throughout the set include David Mirkin, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Wes Archer, David Silverman, Susie Dietter, Jon Vitti, Greg Daniels, David S. Cohen, Mark Kirkland and Bob Anderson. Unfortunately, the only cast member around this time is Yeardley Smith. Each commentary track has anything from two to ten participants. The commentary tracks are, once again, simultaneously hilarious and informative, and often feature interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes and stories that we would otherwise never know - or care to find out! - and they often go in-depth on the philosophical, mathematical or scientific side of the show, such as the equations featured in the "Homer Cubed" segment, and the emotional side of "Home Sweet Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodily". They even make reference to "the nerds on the Internet" when commenting on episodes particularly loved or unloved by web-wise fans. As ever, throughout the full-length commentaries there is barely a dull moment with every episode featuring multiple contributors, and any fan of the show will regale in the trivial tidbits being passed on.

                            As ever, though, Fox have been much more generous than merely including commentary on every episode - no, there are many more interesting bonuses to check out. Kicking off the additional bonus features is the "Introduction From Matt Groening" on disc 1, a short two-minute reel of quick season seven clips over which Matt discusses the DVD in the same vein as the similar featurettes on seasons 4, 5 and 6.

                            Once again, deleted scenes are supplied in great numbers. 29 episodes feature deleted scenes, once again totalling around 20 minutes. All are entertaining, and are in the later stages of production - the only thing really missing is some voice cleanup and sound effects. You can view them inserted into their respective episodes, or as a 20-minute reel (in which the scenes are preceded by 10 seconds or so of contextual animation actually used in the episode) with optional commentary on the final disc.

                            Additionally, there is are three in-depth "Animation Showcases" for the episodes "Home Sweet Home Diddly-Dum-Doodily", "Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson" and "Summer of 4 ft 2" featuring multi-angle animation comparisons from different stages of the animation and original sketches, as well as several other animation-related bonuses such as the brilliant "A Bit From The Animators" (similar to illustarted commentaries on previous sets) on "The Day The Violence Died" and "Summer of 4 ft 2"; and a sketch gallery on disc 4.

                            Finally, we have a recipe for Paul and Linda McCartney's Lentil Soup, read aloud by Paul McCartney himself; a very interesting 6-minute featurette on the 3D animation used in "Treehouse of Horror VI"; and a Special Language Feature enabling us to view "22 Short Films About Springfield" in German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian and Portuguese.

                            The audio-video quality on this set is once again excellent - it's continuing to improve with each successive season, and whilst we're still not quite up to the impressive digital quality we'll be expecting with the later seasons, we're getting a lot closer. The full-frame presentation is bright, sharp and fully detailed; it's only marred by the limitation of the source material. There is minimal grain and shimmering, and colours are vivid. The DD5.1 remaster is again excellent, and whilst largely front-focused, directional effects sometimes do make their way to the back, and the overall clarity makes for an improved listening experience, though the dialogue is sometimes rather quiet. English SDH subtitles are present on both episodes and bonus features - including commentaries, a useful touch.

                            Another brilliant package from Fox; there's no arguing with the fact that this collection of episodes and bonuses is nothing short of outstanding. A boxset that I highly recommend to even the most casual fan.

                            Rated 12 by the BBFC for moderate sex references, mild language, mild comic violence

                            Full episode list:

                            Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two)
                            Radioactive Man
                            Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily
                            Bart Sells His Soul
                            Lisa the Vegetarian
                            Treehouse of Horror VI
                            King-Size Homer
                            Mother Simpson
                            Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming
                            The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular
                            Marge Be Not Proud
                            Team Homer
                            Two Bad Neighbors
                            Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield
                            Bart the Fink
                            Lisa the Iconoclast
                            Homer the Smithers
                            The Day the Violence Died
                            A Fish Called Selma
                            Bart on the Road
                            22 Short Films About Springfield
                            Raging Abe Simpson and his Grumbling Grandson in "The Curse of the Flying Hellfish"
                            Much Apu About Nothing
                            Homerpalooza

                            --This review was also posted at The Simpsons Archive (www.snpp.com)

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                            • Chronic Town - R.E.M. / Music Album / 46 Readings / 44 Ratings
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                              17.04.2008 01:03
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                              An outstanding band on the verge of brilliance

                              Released a year before R.E.M.'s first full-length studio album (1983's "Murmur"), "Chronic Town" captures the unique sound of one of the all-time great bands on the brink of something truly special. It's all here: jangling melodies, Stipe's mumbled vocals, Buck's fabulous arpeggiated chords, Mills' smooth harmonies - everything one associates with early R.E.M. Even better, it holds up brilliantly well: it's almost impossible to believe that it's now over 25 years old. This is where "alternative rock" began. If the prospect of jangly pop, folk rock and lo-fi garage music being combined even remotely appeals to you, this is compulsory listening.

                              Things kick off (on the original release, at least) with "1,000,000". A sign of what's to come, the verse lyrics are nigh-on incomprehensible; the chorus refrain of "I could live a million years" the only immediate clue as to the song's narrative. That doesn't hinder the song though, which is immediately memorable; though it lacks the atmosphere a couple of later tracks manage to evoke.

                              "Stumble" is next, juxtaposing a jangly, hummable chorus with with darker, tenser verses. It's probably the most forgettable song here but it's still solid.

                              "Wolves, Lower" is the set's strongest track. Somehow managing to convey a palpable atmosphere of mystery, suspense and paranoia even before Michael Stipe begins to chant the "Suspicion yourself / Don't get caught" refrain, it's jumpy and unsettled while still engrossing the listener in with an absurd number of hooks. It's melodic and accessible but also thrilling and anxious; it deserves to be remembered as one of R.E.M.'s greatest achievements.

                              "Gardening At Night" is almost hypnotic in its charm - it has a discernible chorus, discernible verses, but Stipe's vocals remain almost subliminal, and atonal, throughout. It's once again hook-laden - a thoroughly memorable, pretty and melodic song. R.E.M. enthusiasts may also want to check out the "Different Vocal Mix" version found on the "Eponymous" compilation, which some argue the superior cut of the track - though I'd be inclined to disagree.

                              "Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)", the EP's final track, continues the jangly trend. Another superb cut, the chorus creeps up on you from nowhere, and the catchy "Out of town / Boxcars" contrasts wonderfully with the rather more impenetrable verses.

                              Indeed, "impenetrable" pretty much sums this EP up. Not musically - it's accessible to even those brought up on the staunchest diet of top-40 mediocrity. But Stipe's mumbling lyrics... choruses aside, they are nigh-on incomprehensible and only vaguely coherent - even Stipe himself has acknowledged that even he's unsure of some of the precise wording in these songs. But if you think of the vocals as "just another instrument", as the band have suggested in the past, and let yourself drift away into the music, you will soon find they add to, rather than detract from, the experience. The lyrics have in, many cases, been chosen because they sound right, not because they make sense - a tactic that absolutely works here. That's not to say the decision to shift away from this style later in the 1980s was a bad one, but here, it's hard to imagine any other vocal delivery fitting the music quite so well.

                              "Chronic Town" can be purchased on vinyl or cassette second-hand from Amazon. Sadly, you can't buy the EP alone on CD; but you can buy it as part of the B-sides-and-rarities package "Dead Letter Office" (it's the last five tracks on there), which can found for less than a fiver on Amazon Marketplace anyway. (Curiously, though, the ordering of the tracks is slightly changed on "Dead Letter Office"; though that's no great shakes as this hardly a concept album.) You could also, of course, download the tracks from iTunes.

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                              • Friday Night Lights / TV Programme / 42 Readings / 39 Ratings
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                                11.04.2008 14:48
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                                No other current drama can match it. Do your best to seek it out.

                                In recent years, the States have come to dominate the quality TV stakes. While Britain has tended - admittedly not entirely - to continue its focus on one-off dramas and by-the-numbers procedurals, our friends across the Atlantic have been developing shows that redefine the very nature of television. The subscription cable channel HBO, home to "The Sopranos", "The Wire" and "Six Feet Under", is generally regarded as being at the forefront of this new era; but more mainstream hits like "Lost" and "24" suggest the public-at-large are growing increasingly happy with both depth and breadth in their televisual consumption.

                                "Friday Night Lights", which began in 2006 and recently completed its second season, is the latest in this increasingly long line of quality American shows. It delivers narrative complexity, an unparalled quality of acting and deep characterisation like few other shows ever have. It will make you cry without forcing the emotion, it will make you laugh without telling a joke. It's superb television, through and through.

                                "So, er, what's it about?" you're probably thinking. Well, it follows the residents of the fictional Dillon, Texas, and in particular, their local high school football team, the Dillon Panthers. But please, never write this off as a mere show about football. I'm as apathetic towards American sports as most Brits - and I assure you, you need not be remotely interested in those sports to enjoy this show. The team are merely a backdrop to an exploration of the culture of middle America: religion, racism, love and heartbreak are all dealt with in a completely natural, honest manner.

                                Coach Eric Taylor and his family are perhaps the show's primary focus. Taylor is doing his best to balance family and football in a town that values both. He lives with wife Tami and daughter Julie, both also facing their own battles, in the workplace and at home. The team Taylor coaches is home to the bulk of the show's high-school set: star quarterback Jason Street and his girlfriend Lyla Garrity; nervous but dedicated Matt Saracen; alcoholic Tim Riggins; dedicated but abrasive Smash Williams. All of these characters have a story; all of them get told in a no-holds-barred fashion. Every character has problems, every character struggles to overcome them, from racist abuse to the threat of rape, dying relatives to disability.

                                But despite their problems and differences on the outside, the team - and town - ultimately share one goal: to prove a success under the football field under the 'friday night lights'. They live by the mantra "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" in a town where faith in God and unbridled passion will usually win the day - although, as we learn as the episodes unfold, they certainly don't always.

                                To reveal more would be to ruin the show. I don't usually worry about revealing events that happen in a series' pilot episode, but "FNL" is a rare exception: what happens in episode one *is* significant, and to reveal it now would be to ruin one of television's all-time greatest moments, in my book. You'll thank me for keeping quiet later!

                                The direction throughout the show is flawless, full stop. Worthy of a Hollywood movie. The camerawork is pretty shaky - think "The Shield" - but thoroughly adds to the atmosphere. The writing is impeccable; emotional but never trite, scenes are often dominated by teenage discomfort and self-consciousness rather than consistently focus on the self-confidence shows like "Dawson's Creek" forever relied upon. (I'm a fan of "Dawson's Creek", don't get me wrong, but it's a completely different kind of storytelling.) There's not a single thing to criticise - even the theme tune is spot-on, conveying both caution and optimism, desperation and drive.

                                But the show's greatest asset is, far and away, the main cast. Even with solid scripts and direction, a show is nothing without good actors. Thankfully, "Friday Night Lights" has them in spades. Rather than pick out "old Faithfuls" to represent the characters, the creative team have tapped a well of thus-far unsung talent, and they are all the better for it. After just one episode, you can't imagine anyone but Kyle Chandler ever playing the part of Coach Taylor. Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen is shy and nervous but never even runs close to cliche. Minka Kelly plays Lyla Garrity with an emotional depth unprecedented in teenage drama. And Connie Britton may just be the best actress on TV today. (Lauren Graham of "Gilmore Girls" runs her close, but that's off-air now, so I'm fairly confident in my statement). It is an ensemble cast of unrivaled talent - even outshining "Arrested Development" and "Seinfeld".

                                Here in the UK, the show was dumped on ITV4 - usually home to repeats on "The Saint" and "Randall and Hopkirk" - in an 8pm Wednesday slot with absolutely no promotion surrounding it. No wonder it barely scraped 10,000 viewers most weeks; as with fellow US gems "Gilmore Girls", "Monk" and "Six Feet Under", it's the victim of appalling scheduling on a minority channel. What's worse, having aired season 1 in early 2007, ITV4 say they have 'no current plans' to air season 2. Sometimes schedulers make you sick, eh?

                                In the States the show is aired on NBC, one of the "big four" networks over there. Ratings-wise it hasn't been a huge success but unanimous critical appraisal (seriously - I've not come across one professional review that even remotely denigrates the show) and solid DVD sales have ensured at least a third season is guaranteed.

                                With no repeats on ITV4 forthcoming, interested viewers will have to look out for DVDs. You can opt for the barebones Region 2 DVD release of Season 1, with an RRP of £34.99, or the Region 1 set, which has a few extras and can be found online for less than £15. Once again, the Brits get screwed - if you have a multi-region DVD player you'd be insane to not choose the US Region 1 set over the UK release. (For those already converted, the Region 1 set of season 2 comes out on April 22nd 2008 - there's no sign of a UK release yet, though.)

                                The DVD of "Friday Night Lights" S1 is rated 12 for moderate sex references and adult themes. Indeed, it's not a show for young kids. It's worth noting, however, that the usually-conservative Parents-TV.org recommends this, stating "The characters face realistic trials with real world consequences and resolutions [..] while it is not a show to set your young children down to, it is incredibly valuable for families with teens."

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                                • More +
                                  10.04.2008 13:10
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                                  You'll love it or hate it.. I know which side I'm on

                                  Cardiff, Wales-based septet Los Campesinos! (yes, the exclamation mark is necessary) have been making waves on the indie scene of late with their chirpy, fast-paced, pop culture-referencing and densely-backed variety of indie pop. The band have released two short EPs to great critical acclaim over the past couple of years; but 2008 sees their first full-length set, "Hold On Now, Youngster..", hit shops. Does it warrant the hype the music press have been keen to bestow on it?

                                  I bought the album on the back of hearing excellent first single, and uncoincidentally first track, "Death to Los Campesinos!" (Think that's a weird title? Keep reading..) It's an absolute roller-coaster, pace-wise; the words-per-minute count has to be in the hundreds throughout the entire 2:49 running time. The lyrics are dominated by circular metaphors and near-nonsensical stream-of-consciousness ramblings - take the bizarre chorus of "If you catch me with my hands in the till / I promise, sugar, I wasn't trying to steal / I'm just swimming in copper to smell and pretend like a robot!", for example.

                                  The call-and-response vocals of the two lead singers, Aleksandra and Gareth (who, as with all the band members, are credited as having the last name "Campesinos!" in the liner notes..) contrast nicely and ensure the tracks don't veer into They Might Be Giants territory (not that that would be a bad thing - but we've already got one TMBG, who needs another?)

                                  "Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats", the second track, is about as sincere and heartfelt as the band get here. The pace doesn't let up - it's still mile-a-minute - but the lyrics are more emotionally in-tune than than the first track ("Honey I'm taking far too many chances on these less-than-idealistic romances..")

                                  "Broken Heartbeats.." seamlessly fades into track three, "Don't Tell Me To Do The Math(s)" (yep, once again, the punctuation is necessary). It goes along the same lines as the first two tracks; those not a fan of the Campesinos!' sound might be weary by this point, but I was still enthralled - and Aleksandra's sweet vocals get a chance to shine in an atypically sparse and calm chorus.

                                  "Drop It Doe Eyes" centres around a bizarre chorus refrain of "Deer die with their eyes wide open". I'm not sure of how accurate their biology is but it's sung very sweetly - they're taking a leaf out of the Barenaked Ladies' book of setting pessimistic lyrics to upbeat pop, it seems, and it works pretty well. Its wall-of-sound background contrasts nicely with the quieter "my Year In Lists", which links sexual gratification with the minutiae of everyday life ("Send me stationery to make me horny!"). The occasional shouty backing vocals sound more like screaming children than I'd like but at just 1:49 long it goes by quickly anyway.

                                  "Knee Deep At ATP" begins as another slower cut, but slowly builds to another dense, layered-vocal triumph. It continues the Campesinos!' slightly disconcerting obsession with punctuation and grammar in its lyrics this time: "For each correctly used apostrophe I could feel my heart sink in my chest in front of me.."

                                  But even that's not as odd as track 7's title:

                                  "This Is How You Spell, 'Hahaha, We Destroyed The Hopes and Dreams Of A Generation Of Faux-Romantics'".

                                  Seriously. To reiterate: that's the song's title, not its lyrics. It pretty much follows in the same line as earlier tracks, which is sort of a disappointment - but then again, what song could possibly live up to that title? Plus it namechecks LiveJournal, which amuses me at least.

                                  "We Are All Accelerated Readers" is next. It's one of the weakest tracks here, a bit Los Campesinos!-by-numbers - if a band can work by-the-numbers less than one album into their career, but still earns some brownie points for shoehorning the Venus De Milo and Bonnie Tyler into the same song.

                                  "You! Me! Dancing", track 10, is one of the few songs here that made it onto one of their earlier EPs and it's a bit of a fan favourite. It's pretty good but at seven minutes long it can drag a bit, though the chorus refrain of "It's you! / It's me! / And there's dancing!" is very memorable - not to mention sweet in a most unusual way..

                                  "...And We Exhale And Roll Our Eyes In Unison" (seriously, they must've picked phrases out of a novel at random, or something), is another superb track. The line "Four sweaty boys with guitars tell me nothing about my life" will probably speak to a lot of the band's fanbase, although I find the opening discussion of whether it's appropriate to wear heels while having sex ("It's really crass and frankly we're reasonably practical") the most amusing part of the track. The chanted outro of "Woe is me! And woe is you! And woe is us together!" recalls - positively - The Polyphonic Spree.

                                  The album's final official track, "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks", is one of the few tracks here that seems to express some form of internal philosophy: sort of a Springsteen-style restrained optimism ("Sweet dreams, sweet cheeks / Oh tomorrow..") As ever, it's immensely singable and the vocals are generally gleeful, but the occasional hint of a backing violin and a slightly more melancholy closing elevates this to be among the album's best, if only because it strives to represent something more transcendental than pretty much everything else here. After a fifteen-second silence, there's a hidden track 12. It's not quite as polished as a lot of the other material here but as a curio it's nice and it's pretty catchy too.

                                  This is definitely an album that will polarise people. If you like The Shins, The Polyphonic Spree or They Might Be Giants, this is worth looking into; but if the sound of loud "indie pop" with shouty vocals and silly lyrics puts you off, this probably isn't for you. (I'd still suggest you seek out "Death to Los Campesinos!" on YouTube or something, though).

                                  Personally, though, I fall firmly into the former category and love this album unabashedly. Nearly every song is memorable and the lyrics might be daft but they're always witty too. The band have carved out a pretty unique sound too, combining dense backing with a range of unusual vocal styles - even though some might argue it's led to a few tracks sounding a bit too similar.

                                  The album is available on either CD or double-vinyl. Both contain a booklet filled with hand-drawn illustrations, thank-yous from the band and lyrics to the 11 'official' tracks. The CD can be found for around £8 online though you'll probably have to cough up double that for the vinyl set.

                                  [The album contains explicit lyrics (though this is not noted on the package): one use of the f-bomb as well as occasional mild language and a few sex references.]

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