Monthly Archives: June 2016

Train Hilariously Cover All of LED ZEPPELIN II

“Dear God, why?” That’s what I thought when I logged into Spotify last week and spotted Train’s new album DOES LED ZEPPELIN II. I’m still not 100% sure why the album appeared in my feed. I know it’s not because I’m a huge Train fan…maybe it’s because I love Zeppelin? Just so we’re all clear, the Train in question (who just released a top-to-bottom cover of the second Led Zeppelin album) is the San Francisco alt-rockers best known for their 2001 album DROPS OF JUPITER.

I can’t believe that I’m writing a post about this band. Train is one of those incredibly forgettable bands that came and went without anyone really noticing because of how bland they are.  “Drops of Jupiter” is one of those obnoxious ear-worms that infect you and cause you to embarrass yourself in the grocery check-out line when you start quietly singing it under your breath. The only thing more vanilla-boring than Train are The Fray (don’t get me started). The more I think about it, the more I realize how the late 1990’s/early 2000’s were a truly dismal time for Top 40 pop-rock.

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The album artwork is just as inspired as the music.

Anyway, this complete cover album is totally baffling to me on two levels. The first is: why does this exist? I don’t think I’m being (too) cheeky when I pose this question. What does it serve to make an album that covers a legendary album like LED ZEPPELIN II? This ties into my second “why?” in regards to this album: why would you release an album of covers that sounds exactly like the original? If I want to hear the second Zeppelin album, I can go and listen to it anytime I want. It still stands up today as one of the finest blues-inspired hard rock albums. If I want to hear another artist cover songs that love, I usually want said artist to bring something to the table. DOES LED ZEPPELIN II is so ridiculously slavish to the original (fantastic) recording, that it literally does not need to exist. There is no point. Sure, the production is a little cleaner, the guitar playing not quiet as tight, and the vocals a pale imitation of Robert Plants legendary performance…but the whole package sounds so much like Zeppelin that most casual listeners might actually mistake it for the original album.

I think that most of us would agree that an ideal cover presents a familiar (or unfamiliar) song in a new light. The best covers are more interpretive than mimicry. That’s why something like Gary Jules’ cover of the Tears For Fears song “Mad World” is so outstanding. Rather than reproduce the song verbatim, Jules took a great track and slowed it down turning a sad song into a wonderfully somber dirge. The same goes for Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” When I think of both of those songs I almost never think about the original versions–that’s how good those two covers are.

Train had to have known that the kind of Gus Van Sant-devotion they were exhibiting on the Zeppelin project could only be viewed as an exercise in complete wankery. Surely the point of such a stunt is to show off that it could be done. I guess it is impressive that such a lame, mediocre band could record such an album…but the fact that they chose to record DOES LED ZEPPELIN II just goes to underscore why I find them so hilariously irrelevant. Hey Train, want to show smarmy bloggers like me that you’re not lame? Take the skill you used to create DOES LED ZEPPELIN II and make your own epic record.

 

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GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees

Can somebody please tell me when it was that nostalgia became such a huge commodity? I don’t remember there being so much reverence for the past when I was a wee lad. Sometime in the 1990’s when they started adapting shows like The Brady Bunch and Lost in Space into feature films is when I became aware of nostalgia for the first time. I used to think it was kinda sad/lame, but now that I’m turning into an old fart I’m beginning to see the appeal. Anyway, I bring all this up because when I first heard that The Monkees were going to put out a new album in 2016, I was pretty much nonplussed but I could smell the nostalgia in the air. These long lost reunions never yield anything close to good, so I wrote the whole concept of a new Monkees album off.

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The Monkees were never really my thing. Besides being too young to watch their television show, I was born in an era where they were considered a joke. A sad, pale corporate imitation of The Beatles. Growing up I was a Beatle-fan and had no time for The Monkees and their less-than serious 60’s shtick. It wasn’t until I got much older that I learned that while The Monkees weren’t exactly serious musicians, they had a ton of real talent backing them up. People like Carole King and Harry Nilsson were penning songs for the imaginary TV-band. It was around the time that Gorillaz came out that my attitude towards The Monkees started to change. Perhaps I’d judged them too harshly. Less of a band and more of a cultural happening, The Monkees occupy a very strange (very meta) part of 1960’s culture.

So what about this new 2016 album, GOOD TIMES? Well, I got interested in it a bit once I found out that Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne was going to produce the record. Then I found out The Monkees were tapping Andy Partridge of XTC and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer to write songs. Then I heard the album would feature new covers of Harry Nilsson and Carole King songs–and the deal was sealed for me: I had to hear this record. It’s a strange thing to log into your Spotify account and boot up a new album from The Monkees. But that’s the world that we live in now, so that’s what I did a few weeks ago when the album was released. To my shock, GOOD TIMES! is a fantastic pop album that’s a ton of fun to listen to. Is this groundbreaking, earth-shattering music? No. Is GOOD TIMES! a soul-lifting, life-inspiring album that reaffirmed my love of music? Not quite. Is it the best Monkees album of all time? Yeah, it is.

I realize that statement, “best Monkees album of all time,” might seem like faint praise…because it is…but remember this is band that put out “Last Train to Clarksville.” While not the greatest song of all time, “Last Train To Clarksville” is a one of the better bubblegum pop songs from any decade, not just the decade when Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were at their pop zenith.

GOOD TIMES! opens with Nilsson’s “Good Time,” a soulful, sweaty party song. Lead singer Davy Jones has sadly left us, so Micky Dolenz does most of the singing (though Jones does appear posthumously on one track, the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love”).

“You Bring the Summer” is a lovely, charming pop ditty that recalls the quaint, innocent teenybopper party songs of the early 1960’s (read: before the drugs really hit). Written by Andy Partridge, the track sounds like it’d belong on the gentler-side of one of his Dukes of Stratosphere recordings. There are a couple of odd British phrases (i.e. “sun cream” rather than “sun screen”) that add a glaze of weirdness to an otherwise basic (albeit very proficient) pop song. Rivers Cuomo’s song “She Makes Me Laugh” is easily the best song on the album, a sunny song of love and devotion. The track artfully blends Beatle-esque rock with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. This is the sort of song you hear and when you get to the end you hit “repeat” so you can go again. The only part of “She Makes Me Laugh” that bums me out is the fact that Rivers isn’t able to conjure up a song like this for Weezer. Whatever happened to Mr. Cuomo and Co. can’t be blamed on a lack of talent–Cuomo can still write a really great song. I guess there’s always the next Weezer album, but I digress…

Another really great track is “Me & Magdalena,” a soft ballad written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The song has a dreamy, twilight feel that’s very comforting…it took me a few listens before I picked up on the fact that the song is ostensibly about death/dying. It’s not the buzzkill that you’d think and is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material on the album (i.e. it’s more than just a fun pop song). This song is so good, in fact, it’s got me thinking I need to revisit Death Cab (a band that I never really gave a fair shake to if I’m being honest).

“Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” the strangest track on the record, has the most interesting pedigree. Written by Oasis founder Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller of The Jam, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is weird. There are weird vocal effects and the song yo-yos between faux-psychedelia and campfire sing-a-long. The first time I heard it I was convince that it was the worst song on the record. Then I saw that it was written by two to of the best British songwriters of the last 30 years, so I gave the track another chance. Then I gave it another chance. And another. Eventually the song wove it’s magic on me and it’s one of my favorites on the record. But like “Me & Magdalena” it doesn’t feel like a Monkees track, it’s a bit of an outlier. But that’s a good thing.

“Wasn’t Born To Follow”is a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was most famously covered by The Byrds. The song has a pastoral, Kinks-like quality that I really dig. Like the Harry Nilsson track that opens the album, this older song is less bubblegum than those written by the youngbloods. It would have been interesting to hear an album of just these type of songs. I found the tonal shifting with these more meaningful songs and the new bubblegum was a bit dizzying. GOOD TIMES! is front-loaded with new, sugary songs and ends on decidedly more adult fare.

Overall, GOOD TIMES! is…well…a really good time! A handful of these songs will probably haunt my playlists for years to come. I wouldn’t call this an all-timer by any means, but for a 2016 Monkees album, GOOD TIMES! is pretty outstanding. Worth noting, there a bunch of non-album tracks that one can hear depending on the venue by which they consume the record. On Spotify/digital streaming services, the bonus tracks are “Terrifying” written by Zach Rogue of Rouge Wave and an electric uptempo version of “Me & Magdalena.” I’m not a fan of the latter, but “Terrifying” is damn good and probably should have been included on the album proper. I’m half tempted to seek out the other bonus tracks just to see what other fantastic nuggets were omitted.

Put aside your preconceived notions and give GOOD TIMES! a shot if you’re a fan of any of the songwriters mentioned above and/or if you’re a fan of old-fashioned pop music.

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