On the 4th Day of Christmas… “Christmas in the Stars” (album review)

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Usually the only Christmas-related star sits atop the tinsel adorned tree. However 1980’s Christmas in the Stars saw an unlikely holiday album. There have been more Star Wars crossovers than George Lucas can keep track of, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a Star Wars Christmas album entered the world of entertainment. Some would dub it a jump to hyperspeed, others jumping the shark. However, set your blaster to stun and don’t hastily dismantle this out of this world record. Despite the zany concept, it’s a stellar seasonal treat sure to get even Vader caroling.

Christmas in the Stars follows a loose narrative about droids creating toys, and the primary narrators are beloved robots C-3PO and R2-D2. Anthony Daniels reappears as the voice of our gilded friend. The opening, and titular, track “Christmas in the Stars” sets the tone for the album and introduces the plot. C-3PO rattles off a list of Christmas presents he’s purchased. The sing-songy end rhyme lyrics prance along to a Christmas tune that begins similarly to “Sleigh Ride.” Lyrically it captures the over-official nature of a protocol droid.  Continuing this theme, “Bells, Bells, Bells,” finds C-3PO explaining what bells are to R2-D2. Quite naturally, there are references to Einstein and H.G. Wells. Daniels maintains C-3PO’s characteristic, slightly awkward speech pattern. He doesn’t sing so much as speak the words to the song, presumably to stay in character.

“The Odds Against Christmas” finds yet another comical track where C-3PO ponders the odds against Christmas existing. Hilariously, after a quick intro by the droid, a David Cassidy-esque singer breaks into melody. Supported by a 70’s style holiday instrumental, the track evokes a singer-songwriter feel. “What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)” is arguably where the album blasts off, though the entire project is mind-blowingly awesome. As the title explains, the track explores possible Christmas presents for a Wookiee who has a comb. Apparently, though their hair traditionally appears rather matted and tangled, they appreciate hair care products. Maybe this is analogous to the man who has everything.

While C-3PO and sidekick R2 are clearly not the droids you are looking for, Jon Bon Jovi very well may be. After all, he wishes R2-D2 a very Merry Christmas. That’s right, “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas” features a then-unheard of Bon Jovi. Legend has it that his cousin owned the recording studio, and Bon Jovi was sweeping the floors. You’ll be diving for the rewind button. He’s unrecognizable as lead singer. Obi Wan may be able to clear up the transmission, however.

As you can probably guess “Sleigh Ride” is set to the tune of “Sleigh Ride,” however with Star Wars themed lyrics. C-3PO attempts to teach R2 to sing, a difficult feat. C-3PO’s “A Christmas Sighting (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)” delivers a Star Wars adaptation of the Night Before Christmas. Seriously, this must be converted into a movie. Not only is the concept creative, but the banter between R2 and C-3PO would crack up a Sith lord.

Truthfully, the only fault I can find in Christmas in the Stars is the brevity of the album. A mere 9 tracks, you’ll no doubt yearn for more. Additionally, physical and legal copies are difficult to procure. The few copies bouncing around the internet are fairly expensive, particularly for a blogger/freelance movie reviewer with an English B.A. They do exist however, as well as less legal versions, though I’m not condoning such behavior. Considering the prevalence of Star Wars, and relevance to all generations, this is the quintessential album for the season. And no, it’s not a trap. May the Force be with you…

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On the 7th Day of Christmas… “Silent Nightclub” — Richard Cheese (album review)

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Richard Cheese may not be a household name, though after this review you’ll likely plow through his entire discography quicker than a one horse open sleigh. A comedic singer, he performs lounge and swing style takes on top 40 hits. Hitting play sucks you into a portal, transporting listeners into a Vegas cocktail bar complete with martini and halfway unbuttoned silk shirt.

Amid Cheese’s extensive catalog is an aptly titled Silent Nightclub. As the name suggests, the album is an amalgamation of “holiday” hits. A quick glance at the tracklist and the brow furrows in confusion. Only five of the 15 total songs are traditional Christmas tunes. The other 10 are mainly pop hits which slightly relate to the holidays. And most of the time the connection is more of a stretch than the Grinch shimmying down a narrow brick chimney. Cheese opens with Dead Kennedys’ punk anthem “Holiday in Cambodia,” presumably because it contains the word holiday. He does however, use jingle bells and a Christmas melody to provide a festive ambiance.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” follows up “Holiday in Cambodia,” a hilarious reference to the Virgin Mary. Conservative religious folks may be offended, but one listen to the disc and it’s obvious Cheese isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Cleverly, he includes “Like a Virgin” and unless you’re quick to ponder the non-commercial aspects of Christmas, the reason for inclusion may pass you by like Santa skipping the naughty kid on your block. Cheese also includes “Ice, Ice Baby,” “Imagine,” “Naughty Girl,” “The Trees,” “I Melt With You,” and finishes on an appropriate note with “Holidae Inn.” His choices are undeniably unique for a Christmas CD, and you’ll be gnawing the candy cane in your martini in no time.

Amusingly, though predictably, even the holiday tracks aren’t exactly straightforward. The version of “Jingle Bells” on Silent Nightclub features animal noises rather than the actual lyrics. This album by no means seeks to replace the original versions of your holiday favorites. “Last Xmas” is actually only 18 seconds long, and Cheese explains the shortened Wham cover by proclaiming “…that song sucks.” Sorry Wham fans. Take your problem up with Richie. As the sole original track “Christmas In Las Vegas” paints an entertaining portrait of Vegas with a twist. Rudolph bets on red and the Wise Men roll sevens. Cheese exploits both Christmas and Las Vegas clichés, stuffing both into a witty stocking.

Silent Nightclub serves up a hearty, creative dose of mildly, though carefully and astutely selected tracks. Additionally, Cheese’s mock-serious, sleazy delivery packs a ramshackle sled of laughs. Try not to keep from bursting into fits of giggles while the artist woof-woof-woofs in tune to “Jingle Bells,” double-times through “Christmastime is Here,” or jollily bounces down John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Just like spiking eggnog spices up the holiday merriment, Richard Cheese’s Silent Nightclub is sure to get the Christmas party popping.

12 Days of Christmas (Albums)

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12 Days of Christmas, 12 Days of Christmas Music

That’s right, 12 days, 12 albums that are guaranteed to have you rockin’ around your Christmas tree. Or chugging spiked eggnog. Whatever your style, crank up the speakers, squeeze into the tackiest Christmas sweater buried in the recesses of your closet, and check out some holiday tunes.

A few weeks ago I found a stack of records tucked away in an old Rubbermaid container. Among them was the 1972 A Partridge Family Christmas Card, album. You may recall the kinda cheesy but lovable show about a musical family with a school bus for transportation. Well, apparently they lurched into the holiday spirit. How’s it sound? Pretty damn good, and I hate to admit it, especially to my Partridge Family-adoring mother.

As a family tradition, we’d always listen to this album, albeit on cassette tape, while decorating the tree. When I was a kid my favorite track was the unofficial 12th song, “My Christmas Card to You,” recorded on a higher BPM so as to lend the Partridge Family a Chipmunks quality. Looks like my dad held the same opinion of the Partridge Family that I did. I finally decided to offer the album an unbiased play through, and have to admit David Cassidy and crew crafted a well-rounded, refreshing holiday compilation.

A Partridge Family Christmas Card opens with the titular track “My Christmas Card to You.” Like the rest of the album, David Cassidy plays the prominent lead vocalist, with his family providing accompaniment. The thought of my entire family in such confined studio space haunts me, but I suppose Cassidy wasn’t related to the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. “My Christmas Card to You,” as can be inferred from the name, is a sort of vocal Christmas card. Cassidy wishes Merry Christmas to his listeners. Considering his fanbase at the time of release, this probably consisted of gaggles of teenage girls. It’s a creative song, and the only original track on the album. Partridge Family female members provide some great backing vocals.

From here, the album progresses as a string of well-known holiday favorites. While the tunes might not be original compositions, their execution is unique. And let’s be honest, how many Christmas albums feature completely new songs? Instrumentation remains fairly minimalist. You’ll hear strings, drums, some brass and the like, but songs rely on backing vocals heavily. Naturally the “Partridge Family*” members grab mics and contribute to the effort. Sure, you’ve heard “White Christmas” loads of times, but the Partridge version adds small repetitions of “bum-bum-bum” to Cassidy’s upbeat singing. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” adds echoes from the “fam”. There’s a real ‘70s vibe to the entire project.

If you’re a Partridge Family fan, this is a must have album. Casual listeners and those formerly unaware of the Partridges should check this out as a refresher from the traditional Nat King Cole (no offense Nat) and Johnny Mathis tracks. Tune in tomorrow for another Christmas album, and until then stay warm and out of trouble.

*While you might assume the backup vocalists to be the Partridge Family, the only members on the album are David Cassidy and Shirley Jones.

Apathy: The Alien Tongue

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Apathy made a name for himself as one of the heavyweights in underground hip hop. Today his music contains traces of former iteration, but he’s definitely switched up his game. Apathy even dropped the latter part of his former moniker. During the early 90’s he went by the name Apathy the Alien Tongue. Now it’s just Apathy. The Jedi Mind Tricks debut album “The Psycho-Social” features Apathy in his former iteration on a few tracks. In 2012 he dropped “The Alien Tongue,” an album of demos and unreleased material showcasing his early works, harking back to his Alien Tongue days. Definitely differing from his current catalog, it’s refreshingly rugged and offers an interesting look at the roots of a now underground legend.

If you’re familiar with Jedi Mind Tricks’ “The Amber Probe EP” and “The Psycho-Social,” you’ll likely have flashbacks while listening to “The Alien Tongue.” If the title isn’t a clue, cover art alone tips off listeners that they are in for an intergalactic ride. The astronaut boot beside a cassette tape on the moon compliments the disc’s contents. Beats are raw in a golden age fashion. Drum kicks are punchy, hi hats defined, and obscure, often dark, samples abound. “Galaxy Rays” kicks off the album with a howling sound, reminiscent of wind, and a voice moaning “Adventures in time and space…dimension X.” Adding to the sci-fi feel are references to flicks like Plan 9 From Outer Space on “Mic Warz” and Star Wars on “Alien Invasion.” Yet Apathy doesn’t simply deliver clever pop-culture infused punchlines. From his talk of tetrahedral physics on “Alien Invasion,” it’s clear he’s done his homework. The chorus finds the artist borrowing the Oompa-loompas chant. While the Willy Wonka tune elicits a chuckle, it isn’t goofy.

Dark Holy Chronicles” continues the rambling, supernatural themes which play prominently during the audio excursion. He raps, “I look up to the skies/And see a pair of eyes/That seem to paralyze/And hypnotize my mind.” Not only is his imagery vivid, but the complicated flow, and heavy use of internal rhyme schemes is mind-blowing. Apathy’s confident delivery keeps stride with the plodding beat behind. While the majority of the tracks contain sci-fi references, there are a few more traditional songs which add variety. “The Big Hurt” is classic storytelling and the featured artists Punchline, Wordsworth, A.L. Skills, Wiseguy and Gaston perform admirably. The track feels like a mic passing session in a back room.

Similarly, “We Can Get Down” is a comedic dis track. He calls out wack rappers with lines like “Fuck sippin’ 40’s and ice in your shorty’s jewelry/Most of y’all are broken as shit, you don’t fool me/So-called playa/Rockin’ fake alligator/Walking through the club disconnected cellular and pager.” Further on he says “I’m not saying I’m the man-well, yes I am/I would even be dope if I drove in a Trans Am/With my windows tinted cheap speakers bumping Def Lepperd.” The sentiment reflects the idea that rap is more than appearance, an underground tenant. Interestingly, he says “Now adays kids are all about Puffy and Wu.” For most hip hop fans, P. Diddy and Wu-Tang aren’t even on the same level. Looking back on this line it’s more comical than when Apathy composed it.

The final eight tracks are instrumentals. Like any good hip hop head, I found myself rapping along to the beat. Luckily for your sake and mine, I did not record my attempts at spontaneous lyric spewing. The included instrumentals are catchy, but not quite as strong as the rest of the album merely for the fact that Apathy’s vocals are absent. Overall, this is a fantastic throwback disc, a time machine to the 90’s. If you haven’t copped this one already, go grab it and make driving around this week more enjoyable.

Jay-z: Magna Carta…Holy Grail or Magna Carta…Holy Fail?

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Readers be warned, this review will feature a lot more hiss than pop. Because I don’t know about you, but I was expecting a hell of a lot more from an album titled Magna Carta…Holy Grail.

I first became aware HOV had a new album coming out while watching game five of the NBA finals. Although I assumed the roughly ten minute long commercial was a promo for an upcoming record, the TV spot remained pretty ambiguous and it took a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions. I guess this tactic worked though, because I’m one of the poor souls who downloaded the rubbish.

A strange track, “Holy Grail,” kicks off Magna Carta…Holy Grail. The beginning is sung by Justin Timberlake, and after about a minute of his crooning over a soft piano piece, Jay-z jumps in on top of an electronic-rap beat. JT’s part is pretty good, and Jay-z’s appearance is alright, but they don’t really mesh well. Adding to the musical confusion are multiple tempo, instrumental, and flow changes that trip over one another in a dizzying frenzy. In a song just over 5 minutes they don’t really establish any continuity.

Unfortunately, the only constant during the album is discontinuity. Unlike almost any good album, this just seems like a hodgepodge of 16 tracks of recycled material, not a unified whole with any purpose or originality. And to add to the clusterfuck which is Magna Carta…Holy Grail Jay-z isn’t even consistent. Lyrically, the only cohesion is the HOV’s braggadocio, emphasis on materialism, and overall narcissism. In the titular track Jay-z raps “Now I got tattoos on my body, psycho bitches in my lobby/I got haters in the paper, photo shoots with paparazzi/Can’t even take my daughter for a walk/See em by the corner store, I feel like I’m cornered off/Enough is enough, I’m calling this off.” Now, I have no doubt that you get a lot of unwanted attention HOV, but do you really expect me to pity you when you have millions, especially when you follow up a complaint about the media with “Who the fuck I’m kidding though/I’m getting high, sitting low/Sliding by in that big body/Curtains all in my window/This fame hurt but this chain works.” I certainly hope not, because it didn’t work.

This trend continues on tracks like “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” featuring Rick Ross. Opening the track Ross raps “I just landed in Europe, nigga/Shopping bags, I’m a tourist, nigga/Money talk I speak fluent, nigga.” Not exactly the most original, and yet again money-centric lyrics. Unfortunately Jay-z’s entire playbook is brag about [insert expensive car here], then [brag about being best]. On F.U.T.W. the rapper disses Cadillac’s in favor of Maybachs. Listening from the perspective of a dude with a car in the shop every other week, this isn’t exactly anything I can relate to, or care for. When Jay-z boasts “Hands down got the best flow, sound I’m so special” on “Tom Ford” though, he’s really gone too far. I know this is subjective, but go listen to some R.A. The Rugged Man, Percee P, Celph Titled to name handful out of the plethora of talented contemporary rappers. Then tell me Jay-z has the best flow.

After a while, and by that I mean the first three tracks, it starts to feel like HOV used a madlib for writing his lyrics. Formulaic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Most of the album consists of references to Jay-z’s immense wealth, Lamborghinis, Maybachs, and it wouldn’t be quite as bad if his accompanying beats weren’t mainly generic electro-rap. “Tom Ford,” “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” “Crown,” “La Familia,” and “Nickels and Dimes” all feature this uninventive instrumentation garnished with HOV’s cookie cutter lyrics. The few redeeming beats, including “Picasso Baby,” “F.U.T.W.” and “Somewhere in America” manage to piss me off as I keep dwelling on a slew of other rappers who would have murdered those beats instead of wasting them on car references and incessant verses about how many million HOV has made.

Of the limited tracks that don’t make my ears bleed, “Picasso Baby” and “Somewhere in America” remind me of old Jay-z material. This isn’t exactly bad, but it isn’t anything new or inventive. In fact, the only original product of this rubbish heap of a record was Jay-z’s decision to give out 1 million free downloads of his album…with a catch. The download was only available on select, pricey Samsung Android phones. I don’t have a problem with the idea of giving out free copies of an album, whether limited or unlimited, but the fact that he partnered with Samsung to distribute the downloads really sums up the materialistic focus of Magna Carta..Holy Grail.

If you paid for this craptastic CD, you were swindled. Write Jay-z and ask for your money back. From the sound of it, he could afford to reimburse each fan, even those who received free copies. If only he could give me back the time I spent listening to this damn record. At least I have a copy of Reasonable Doubt to console me after this depressing addition in HOV’s canon.

Ramones: Mondo Bizarro

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The Ramones are generally known for their more riff-heavy, head bopping fare. My dad being a pretty big Ramones fan, I was brought up constantly listening to their music. While “Rocket to Russia,” and earlier works are fantastic, one of my favorite albums is their oft-overlooked 1992 release “Mondo Bizarro.”

Mondo Bizarro is like an updated version of their previous works with a clear 1990s influence. Deviating from their more barebones early releases, Mondo Bizzaro adds a fuller sound to the typical Ramones repetitive riffs. This change is probably in part due to the replacement of Dee Dee Ramone after his departure from the group. The new bassist, C.J. Ramone and the Ramones’ evolving percussion style lend the album a louder, more fleshed out feel.

The result is a CD with the distinctive 90’s hard rock sound that also preserves the Ramones’ punk roots through fast guitar riffs as well as the group’s always-quirky lyrics. “Mondo Bizarro” opens with “Censorshit,” a song condemning censorship by the Parents Music Resource Center. “Ask Ozzy, Zappa or Me/We’ll show you what it’s like to be free,” Joey Ramone chides in the chorus of the song.

Other tracks include an anti-9-to-5 anthem, “The Job That Ate My Brain.” While it maintains the goofy, oddball sound and lyrics of past Ramones tracks, the song is decidedly darker than their early material. The chorus, “I can’t take this crazy pace/I’ve become a mental case,/Yeah this is the job that ate my brain,” appears much more sinister than their zany punk ballads of the 70’s and 80’s. Similarly, one of my favorite tracks “Poison Heart,” is much deeper, deviating from former chants of “Hey, ho, let’s go.” One stanza finds Joey crooning “Making friends with a homeless, torn up man/He just kind of smiles, it really shakes me up./There’s danger on every corner but I’m okay/Walking down the street trying to forget yesterday.” Obviously, there are no sunny, sandy Rockaway Beach getaways on this record.

The album really seems to bring Ramones material up to date with the paranoid 90’s. I always thought it appropriate when Richard Langly from the X-Files wore his Mondo Bizarro shirt. The brooding atmosphere of the 90’s is combined with the goofiness of the Ramones on this record in a way which makes you contemplate their songs more so than their light-hearted early works. A very worthy addition to any music collection, you can purchase it from iTunes or Amazon as well as stream it on Grooveshark. Be aware that a 2004 CD release allegedly has a cover of the Spider-Man theme song. Having just recently discovered this bonus track after doing some internet research, I may be upgrading my outdated copy soon…

Viktor Vaughn: Vaudeville Villain

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Say what you want about YouTube, call it a timesuck, but it has its merits. Maybe YouTube doesn’t always provide the best suggestions in the “Recommended Videos” section but occasionally helps uncover amazing albums. And I owe my discovery of Viktor Vaughn’s “Vaudeville Villain” to YouTube and that crazy, eclectic algorithm.

“Vaudeville Villain” is a concept album crafted by the artist Daniel Dumile, who would go on to become underground legend MF Doom. The general story which meanders throughout the album follows a student at Eastern State University, Viktor Vaughn. As far as I can tell Vaughn experiments with futuristic technology. Occasional snippets appear at the beginning and end of tracks which help narrate the story. The narrator sounds like he was taken out of an old kung fu film, a la early Wu-Tang albums.

With clear influence from zany rapper Kool Keith, “Vaudeville Villain” features Dumile’s slurred, rambling rapping over bass-filled, dark, brooding beats which will have you calling your chiropractor after bobbing your head for a few tracks. Lyrically, Vaughn maintains a simple yet complex rhyme pattern. His raps keep a pretty consistent AABB flow, but his references are all over the place. “Lactose and Lechithin” is a tale of Vaughn creating a time machine car and traveling to various years only to discover inexpensive drugs. The track opens with a message from a Dean Stockman who offers Vaughn a science scholarship to Eastern State University. Although I can’t confirm my hypothesis, I suspect that the name references Baxter Stockman, the bumbling scientist who created the mousers and eventually teamed up with Shredder on the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” With some of the references in the song, I wouldn’t be surprised. In the song he raps, “It’s V Vaughn not to be confused with V la viper/Or either Peter Parker/Or either peter piper/A seed the type to pee the diaper blame it on the wiper.” How he manages to bring up Peter Parker in a song about time travel and finding cheap drugs, I’m not quite sure, but it works.

Lyrically Vaughn forces you to multitask, nodding your head, pressing rewind and dropping your jaw simultaneously. The production matches Vaughn’s clever wordplay which combines sci-fi and pop culture references. One of my favorite songs, “Saliva” is produced by RJD2. The beat has some keyboard riffs which are a nice touch and a breath of fresh air from the other tracks which mainly feature high-hats, bass kicks, and other percussion. In keeping with the rest of the album, there aren’t any hooks. Instead of including choruses as traditionally found in songs, Vaughn opts to drop line after line of puns and intricate wordplay. Coupled with fantastic beats, this album has almost infinite replay value. Each respective listen I find myself understanding another line or reference which baffled me on a previous playthrough. As I’ve recommended for a few other similar rap albums, check out RapGenius for help untangling the lyrics. Even if you don’t quite follow exactly what Vaughn is spitting on every track, this a great album which will have you chuckling, bobbing your head, and rewinding the entire time. Grab a copy from iTunes or Amazon, or stream it on Grooveshark. Happy listening!