Mouse, Patty Griffin, Van Hunt, Todd Rundgren, Prince
the same old questions
funeral of a widely beloved man caused a dear friend to examine
her own life. "Do I want to be remembered for a nice-looking
lawn," she asked, "or connecting with people?"
the same old questions: Do money and stuff really matter? Where
does art fit in? And what about the yard?
As the world continues down a dangerous path, many
of the same old questions increasingly apply. Are money and stuff
what matter? Or is it really about making amigos and sharing ideas?
Do difficult times increase the urge to deepen existing friendships?
What of speaking out about strong convictions? And where does art
On that last count, nothing soothes, sustains or inspires
the inner savage like music, especially when the songs provide heat
and light. With that in mind along with the ongoing notion
that albums with more than a song or two worth recommending are
exceedingly rare 2004 has seen noteworthy releases from Modest
Mouse, Patty Griffin, Van Hunt and Todd Rundgren.
Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News is, well,
Modest Mouse, an eclectic Seattle-area band, begins
its second decade with Good News For People Who Love Bad News
an ambitious recording that evokes Tom Waits and XTC, yet
still sounds unique.
Uniqueness alone, of course, offers no guarantees.
But the band's unconventional songs are all over the map as well
as oddly engaging: edgy rock, ear-pleasing folk, gentle ballads,
"The Devil's Work Day" has a sinister, horn-driven
vibe that sounds closer to the turn of the 19th than 20th century,
while "Blame it on the Tetons" exudes light, melodic folk.
And "Bury Me With It," with jagged guitars, manic singing
and an off-kilter beat, is probably the best and brashest moment
of an album where topics tend toward the darker hues of self-examination.
But "The Good Times are Killing Me," a lively
ballad comparing the virtues of a good night's sleep to yet another
swipe at the high life, ends the satisfying 16-song disc on an unexpected
Griffin's Impossible Dream: world-wise words and fresh
melodies, 11 songs strong.
Patty Griffin's latest is satisfying, too. Griffin
sings like a street-smart angel, plays piano and guitars, and is
capable of rocking out (her 1998 release, Flaming Red, provides
But perhaps Griffin's greatest gift is for finding
fresh melodies to go with world-wise words. Impossible Dream
is mostly a soft, unhurried affair, yet powerful, pleasing and 11
"Something as simple as boys and girls ... gets
tossed all around and lost in the world," Griffin sings in
"Mother of God," a beautiful piano-based lullaby with
a somber core.
The song extends beyond seven minutes as haunting
fiddles join the spare, hypnotic swirl. "Maybe love is waiting
at the end of every road," she sings. "I don't know, I
don't know ..."
But the album is no downer. There's a disc-opening
up-tempo blues ("Love Throws a Line"), a quaint family
recording ("The Impossible Dream"), a sublime tuba solo
("Icicles"), and violin by Lisa Germano throughout, as
Griffin adds another remarkable recording to her string of four
Hunt's Van Hunt: A soul-singing throwback and not a moment
Van Hunt's self-titled debut introduces a melodic,
soul-singing throwback and not a moment too soon. Hunt, a songwriting
guitarist, croons true-to-life storylines in the best Motown tradition,
alternating between emotive ballads and bubbling bass lines with
danceable beats. He seems to have tapped into an old-school back-to-the-'60s
time capsule that avoids sounding dated and doesn't disappoint.
The upbeat "Highlights" actually is
the highlight, making use of sly Hollywood metaphors to skewer a
self-absorbed lover. "Only thing you've ever wanted to be was
a movie star," he begins. "Only role you've ever wanted
to play is the person you are, are, are."
The album, as also noted in the Portland Mercury
last month, is a very convincing front-to-back effort. "All
I know," deduced the cheeky local weekly's review, "is
if Norah Jones can become famous, Van Hunt will make you crap your
Rundgren's Liars: worth the effort for anyone who's ever
Meanwhile, Todd Rundgren, a rock 'n' roll iconoclast
on the far side of 50, has come up with an accessible collection
of keyboard-based songs revolving loosely around a theme of lies
and the lying liars who tell them. Could a topic be more timely?
The aptly titled Liars melds Rundgren's diverse
material and one-man-band approach with his reedy, iconic voice
which shines like a familiar, radiant beacon.
"Baby, we could live so happily, the envy of
them all," he sings in "Flaw," a mid-tempo soul song
depicting a doomed romance. "But that'll never happen, 'cause
you've got one fatal flaw."
Rundgren holds back any explanation until a few verses
and several minutes go by. Then he reveals the punch line as an
ongoing refrain: "So why d'ya gotta be such a lyin'-ass motherfucker?"
Over the course of 14 songs, Rundgren evinces soul,
of course, but also traverses rock, pop, ballads, blues and electronica
with equal aplomb. If the disc has a flaw, it's that an hour-plus
of electro-Todd can begin to sound a bit mechanical. But at the
very least, Liars is time well spent for anyone who's ever
dug Todd Rundgren. And, honestly, it's an album most anyone might
Musicology: The new album just isn't good enough.
OK, here comes the moment where
I can't believe what I'm about to say.
Prince has given this writer more musical pleasure
than anybody short of Miles Davis and the Beatles. I was born in
'58 and spent my formative years in Minnesota just like Prince.
Since 1982, I've seen
his show countless times.
He was great on the recent Hall of Fame broadcast
and I wish I'd seen him on this year's Grammys, while his spot on
Ellen's daytime talk show was reportedly must-see TV. I've paid
50 bucks apiece for bootlegs and own a videotape of Prince hosting
the Muppets, along with copies of all his movies.
No doubt an onrush of positive press helped Prince's
latest, Musicology, sell nearly 200,000 units in its first
week. (One theory is that the fawning critical tone was set in motion
by Rolling Stone's pre-release rave review an effort to make
up for the magazine leaving Prince off its recent list of all-time
But although it's easy to read otherwise elsewhere,
Musicology provides few pleasures and little if anything
that Prince hasn't done before, only better. The title song
is reasonably funky fun. "Call My Name" and "Dear
Mr. Man" combine heady lyrics with decent melodies and instrumental
grit. But that's it. The radio-ready "Cinnamon Girl" and
all the rest are pale replicas of days gone by.
If Prince ever reads this (yeah, right), I'd like
to think he'll be grateful. He is, after all, a genius, a peerless
performer and likely has many great songs left to write. And as
he said in his eloquent Hall of Fame acceptance speech, "...
a real friend or mentor is not on your payroll; a real friend and
mentor cares for your soul as much as they do their own ..."
So here goes: Prince, Musicology just ain't
Whew. That wasn't easy. But little seems easy as we
head for the heart of the '00s amid many of the same old
Can we elect good leaders? Is the planet overheating?
Overcrowding? Running out of crude? Will we stop killing each other?
Who'll be marrying whom? What about food, jobs, health care, civil
liberties, the environment, abortion, AIDS and WMDs? Are rich people
playing us all for fools?
In fact, the questions get bigger and the answers
seem harder and harder to find. But maybe that's exactly why there
are songs, and why it feels so good whenever the music hits the