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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Nicsperiment's Top Nine Albums of 2015

This was the weirdest year of my life. On top of that, my two main sources for new music, Decoy Music and Indievision Music, both shuttered their doors. These two factors conspired to create a musical nightmare scenario, as a couple of months ago, I realized I hadn't heard much of what 2015 musically had to offer. I also realized that the mood boost I usually received from consistently hearing new music had been missing from my life. Not knowing what else to do, I hit up metacritic (a review aggregation website), and went down the list of the highest critically reviewed music of the year. On that list, I found some music I really enjoyed that I wouldn't have found otherwise. I also found some of the kind of music critics love to give high scores to, but no one, said critics included, actually enjoys listening to. Also, I found an album specifically made for a group of people other than affluent white people that said affluent white people went ape for in print. After listening to that album, a rap album (which is actually a genre in which I have a decent amount of experience), I wondered if I was missing something. I gave that album many more listens, and consistently found an uneven (not just from song to song, but from minute to minute), at times borderline unlistenable ("For Free") work. I heard people say that this album, which if you haven't deduced yet, is Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, will be one people are still talking about 20 years from now, but buy January 1, 2016, I guarantee you none of those people will be talking about it. Today's music criticism has a short term memory, coupled with a desperate need to look relevant. I'm not going to include To Pimp a Butterfly on my list just to look relevant. While it has several strong moments, I don't think it's that great of an album, and maybe time will prove me wrong, but I am pretty sure the album most music critics will be talking about 20 years from now will be whatever album is the coolest album to talk about 20 years from now, if indeed in twenty years albums still exist. I don't really give a crap what is cool.
Here are my nine favorite albums of  2015...
out of those I've heard. About a million albums have been released this year, and only a pompous ass would act like they've heard every single one of those and can conclusively tell you which ones are the best out of the releases in a completely subjective artform. Sorry for the long intro, but I figure this one needed it.

9. Julia Holter -- Have You In My Wilderness
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A unique perspective is harder and harder to come by. Enter this strange woman, voice alternating between ethereal, conversational, and Alfred Hitchcock as a lady, with her keyboards and harpsichords, and upright bass, and chamber-music drumming, and vast strings, and random saxophone. I say "random" not out of a verbal laziness, but by the simple virtue of the word's definition: if one took out Have You In My Wilderness' saxophone, then asked a listener, "Hey, where would you put a saxophone on this album," that listener would be hard-pressed to comprehend that a saxophone could fit anywhere at all. This is an aural landscape altogether unfamiliar and inviting...or for some actual verbal laziness: Have You In My Wilderness sounds like its title.

8. Twenty One Pilots -- Blurryface
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At this stage in the game, radio-ready pop-rock/rap music should not interest me, but Twenty One Pilots drummer + keyboard/vocalist duo are just too good at what they do to ignore. Singer, Tyler Joseph, makes the anxieties of a 20-something American in the modern world into something universal, and depression, at least for a little while, a thing that can be overcome. He also makes help sound like something that should be sought, not shunned (say that ten times fast!). At the moment, you'd be hard-pressed to find any duo, let alone full band, pulling off this great a coupling of charisma and sincerity, while at the same time crafting such a wide assortment of moods into something cohesive. Also, three years ago, I said these guys would be huge, and now they're huge, so you're welcome.

7. mewithoutYou -- Pale Horses
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mewithoutYou's last album was quite good (the one about the circus animals, not the crappy weirdo folk one), even if a decent chunk of their audience didn't get it. Even so, mewithoutYou wisely announced ahead  of Pale Horses' release that, after years of experimentation. they now had a firm grip on what their strengths and weaknesses as a band were--and that going forward, they were going to focus on their strengths (i.e. not folk music). This means Pale Horses features a furthering (but not rehash) of the sound found on their first three albums: frontman, Aaron Weiss, shouting, singing, and screaming along to driving, edgy rock, balanced out by a melodious lead guitar and brief meditative sections.  The lyrics are just as cohesive as the music, Weiss struggling with the recent death of his father and the current state of the world in a manner that makes me wish Sufjan Stevens good, but a bit dull Carrie and Lowell could be half as dynamic as Pale Horses.

6. Grimes -- Art Angels
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From my original review for the previous Grimes album, which proves that Grimes reads The Nicsperiment:
"Visions is basically a very good album when Boucher is balancing her weirdness with her keen ear for a good beat and melody, but in a few fleeting moments, not so good when it sounds like Boucher is trying to scare away her neighbors." Art Angels sees Grimes perfectly balancing her excellent song composition skills and knack for original sounds with her weirdness. Now the latter works for the former. Hearing Claire Boucher spin out fifty minutes of what pop music could be if an artist not only had an ounce of originality, but was actually allowed to use it, is a joy. On top of that, its nice to hear Boucher add a little more organic instrumentation to her generally keyboard based work, particularly electric guitar. This is what progression sounds like.

5. Steven Wilson -- Hand.Cannot.Erase
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An album inspired by a news story of woman who had been dead in her apartment for three years before her corpse was discovered--not a concept album of said woman, but an album exploring and dedicated to the type of person said event could happen to. Before Hand.Cannot.Erase., I had little experience with the music of Steven Wilson (or that of Porcupine Tree). I just knew Wilson made prog-rock music. If all of Wilson's music features this miraculous combination of the usual virtuoso guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, random (again!) flute, etc. native to most prog-rock music, with actual, effective emotion, native to very little prog rock music, then I need to check out more of his work.

4. Torres -- Sprinter
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Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) is young, confused, searching, and about three phases of life behind me. With that said, Mackenzie Scott released one of the finest albums of 2015, and I did not. I first heard Sprinter's moody "New Skin" during an episode of FXX's critically acclaimed and Nicsperiment beloved You're the Worst. Thanks, You're the Worst. I gave Sprinter the cursory Youtube once over and found I loved it. It starts with a burn-this-mother-down rock song, Scott sounding like she could swallow the Earth, then slowly strips layers away from her until the final handful of tracks are mostly nothing but Scott nakedly emoting over a barely strummed guitar and atmospherics from Portishead guitarist, Adrian Utley (and then, finally, just Scott herself). Portishead are one of the reasons I love music, and considering they currently average one new album every seven years, I will firmly support their members' branching out to assist budding new artists, especially when those artists have this kind of talent. Sprinter's emotional honesty and sonic diversity proves Utley's investment profitable.

3. Joanna Newsom -- Divers
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Joanna Newsom's Ys gave me an epiphany: for years I'd searched for a female artist to fill the hole in my musical soul left when Björk ceased to make essential music (Björk's most recent album perhaps proves she hasn't actually done that). In something akin to musical Vertigo, I needed an apt replacement: a female artist with an original, eclectic voice, backed by completely unique musical arrangements directed by her own genius-level mind. Joanna Newsom is that female artist. Also, apparently, I am James Stewart. Madeline, I mean Joanna Newsom, did discourage me a bit with her sprawling 3-disc 2010 labyrinth, Have One on Me, but she's condensed her music into one disc again for Divers, and stretched her musical legs even further, adding electric guitars and synths to her usual mix of harp and piano. The result, in my mind at least, is almost as powerful and affecting as Ys, as Newsom explores how love is more powerful than time. To further the Björk comparison, check out the efforts to give the album a distinct a visual feel:

2. Hillsong United -- Empires
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I was as shocked as anyone when Hillsong United's opus, Zion, appeared on my Top Nine Albums of 2013 list. Zion featured Hill U finally ceasing to follow trends, and instead paving their own musical path. That album showcased the band evolving from their more generic guitar-based style, to something more electronic. Empires makes that change seem minuscule. Here is the extremely rare worship album to pursue art above all other things, allowing Hillsong to create completely new sounds, and to experiment with song structures in fresh and innovative ways. Songs can flow from a verse to a chorus, to a first bridge, to a new chours, to a second bridge, to the first bridge again, sounding inevitably natural in each transition. The experience is exhilarating, often exploring quiet corners of sound, only to discover explosions of passion and emotion. The world needs more of this!

1. John Williams -- The Force Awakens (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
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There is but one maestro, and Williams is his name. John Williams is 83 years old, but who would know it from listening to this? It's great enough that The Force Awakens has met 32 years of until-now-unmet filmic expectations, but to have the greatest film composer of all time come back yet again, not missing a beat in his old age, is almost piling on the goodness. Williams doesn't rely on old themes here, returning only to the classic opening theme, a few scattered, but appropriate statements of the Force Fanfare, and several warm statements of the Empire Strikes Back's Han and Leia theme. Everything else is completely original, with a playful opening statement that becomes a powerful theme for new protagonist, Rey, along with a menacing, horn-dominated motif for villian, Kylo Ren, that feels ripe for a development into a march in the next film. Speaking of marches, there's also the triumphant "March of the Resistance," a rousing theme for the film's new heroes, as a whole. These huge-sounding new themes, reminiscent of Williams' work on the original trilogy, couple with the more subtle sophistication Williams displayed with his work on the prequel trilogy, for yet another incredible work by a composer whose discography contains an embarrassment of riches. I haven't even mentioned yet how Williams' action cues are just as energetic and blood-pumping as ever.  In the last two weeks, I think I've listened to this soundtrack more than anything else on this list. I (along with every other soundtrack fan on the planet, as well as a great cadre of Star Wars fans) can only hope the master can stay on his feet long enough to give us just a little bit more...maybe a couple more Star Wars soundtracks? I hear they're making an episode VIII and IX.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Nicsperiment's Top Nine Songs of 2015 (Not Found on Albums in the Nicsperiment's Top Nine Albums of the Year)

With the exploded music industry the way that it is (no money, lots of bands...exploded), the truth of it is, there were hundreds of thousands of albums and millions of songs released this year. On that scale, I have only heard a meager portion of what was released. My top nine albums list is coming shortly, but before that, here are my nine favorite songs from albums that did not make that list, but in a surprise twist, ordered randomly (The top nine albums list WILL NOT be ordered randomly).

9. Björk -- Family
Björk's Vulnicura, an exploration of her emotional turmoil in the midst of the dissolution of her long-term relationship with the father of her child, is an excellent, but tough listen. Everything good about the album can be distilled into the stunning "Family": the shell-shocked disbelief, the confusion, and finally, the resolve to build something from the ashes, in this case, a magnificent, cocooning pillar of sound. It's a tear-jerking, emotional juggernaut.

8. Tom Holkenborg --Brothers In Arms
Mad Max: Fury Road is such a great movie, and Tom Holkenbourg's symphonic/electronic (and guitar-shredding) hybrid soundtrack fits it like a blood-soaked glove. On its own, though, the entirety of the soundtrack isn't quite as engaging...except for "Brothers In Arms," a track that couples sledgehammer synthesizers and percussion with something akin to Vivaldi on steroids (meaning strings like falling leaves made of metal). These elements are forged together into a piece of music that makes me feel like I could drive an 18-wheeler through a volcano, but the joining of these disparate elements also creates a feeling of teamwork and camaraderie. The latter is fitting, considering this work soundtracks the moment the film finally allies its two throwing at them a swarm of grenade tossing mountain-bikers.

7./6. Josh Garrels -- A Long Way/Leviathan
I am not an award-winning artist whose work has appeared in The Nicsperiment's Top Nine Albums of the year before or anything, but it's probably not wise to put the climax of your album a third of the way in. Judging by Josh Garrels' Home's third track, "A Long Way," a powerful, emotional track, Home wil be about a prodigal's difficult, but affirming journey home. The next track, the atmospheric "Leviathan" seems to introduce the trials the prodigal will face. But then suddenly everything is inexplicably sunny for the next seven tracks to the end, and Home sadly proves it won't be showing up on The Nicsperiment's top nine like its predecessor did. Still, "A Long Way" and "Leviathan" are so good, that for seven minutes, they can make me forget that what follows them is so disappointing.

5. Sufjan Stevens -- No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross
For an album about having an existential crisis after the death of a parent he had a very complicated relationship with (that was a very complicated opening preposition), Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell sure is quiet. While I won't debate Carrie and Lowell's greatness (it's very, very good), I will say that after 20 or 30 minutes of hushed whispers, my attention starts to waver just a little bit (another idiosyncratic artist and his band released a more dynamic album about the death of a parent this year, and that one is on Thursday's list). What generally snaps me out of thinking about what I want to eat for dinner near the end of Carrie and Lowell is "No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross," an urgent, dark, transfixing confession about Stevens letting his demons get the better of him.

4. Kurt Vile -- Wheelhouse
Kurt Vile's b'lieve I'm goin down was on what I thought was my final draft of my top nine albums' list, but then an album that was released two weeks ago bumped it out. I love Vile's album, full of contemplative, late night Western wanderings, Vile, his guitar, and a laid-back band, but it does tend to drag just a little bit near the 3/4 mark. For me, the high-point before that is "Wheelhouse," a dreamy meditation on finding a little slice of peace and illumination.

3. TesseracT -- Hexes
I'll make a sure-to-be unpopular comment here: I like Skyharbor's spacey, bright and atmospheric jams more than TesseracT's mathematically precise grooves. I feel like Skyharbor's songs are filled with so much more emotion, and I was very sad when vocalist Dan Tompkins jumped ship from Skyharbor back to TesseracT (his original band). "Hexes" is the closest TesseracT's new album, Polaris, comes to reaching the angelic heights of a Skyharbor song, and compared to the rest of Polaris, I've worn it out.

2. Rosetta -- (Untitled VI)
After the misstep of The Anaesthete, Rosetta's Quintessential Ephemera is a huge step back in the right direction. More melody injected into the band's spaced-out metal chaos is a great idea, and the album concept, which bemoans the mainstream's fixation on online cultural fads that will soon fade, is cohesive and magnetic. For me, the highlight comes near the end of the album (climaxes near the end, who would've thought?), in the tragic "Untitled VI," where vocalist, Michael Armine, sounds like a voice crying out in the wilderness, his band fittingly brooding and explosive behind him.

1. Five Iron Frenzy -- Between the Pavement and the Stars
Five Iron Frenzy's incredible comeback album, Engine of a Million Pilots, ended on a note of uncertainty, which I think was a perfect touch. However, a more positive ending closes out a B-Sides EP the band released this year, Beneath the Pavement and the Stars. The EP title-track closer is the kind of energetic, cathartic goodbye song the band are known for, incorporating the well-honed maturity in horn and traditional rock instrumentation interplay the band showcased on Engine of a Million Pilots. It's a triumphant finale those who were unhappy with Engine's closer can seamlessly slip into the last slot when they need a happy ending.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Newsboys -- God's Not Dead

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With Peter Furler off on his own endeavors and ex-dc Talk member (face it, they're all hitting 50...DC Talk is done) Michael Tait picking up the frontman reins, I wondered if Newsboys would still be anything in which I would be interested. The answer came quickly: no. Without Furler's unique musical perspective, and with the band transforming into a generic CCM vessel filled by Nashville CCM songwriters, it looked like my adoration of the band was at an end. Then, something unexpected happened. My kid, then two, suddenly decided that he loved K-Love. Especially some song about "roaring like a lion." Somehow, I ended up purchasing the newest Tait-led Newsboys album. The newest Tait-led Newsboys worship album.
1. "The King is Coming" Right off the bat, it is clear that this iteration of Newsboys is actually quite capable. With Tait's admittedly incredible vocal prowess, and the remaining three band members having now played together for two decades, there's a certain degree of professionalism here that for the first few songs, overpowers a CCM worship album's most dastardly quality: being generic. "The King is Coming"  is actually a powerful, driving song that pumps up the listener like a pep-rally jam.
2. "God's Not Dead (Like a Lion)" The positive momentum continues, as Tait's old dc Talk buddy, Kevin Max, stops by to give the vocals even more character. The song, with its strong, percussive piano, catchy guitar line, rubbery bass, and driving drums, is a winner, the rare K-Love special that is actually...special.
3. "Your Love Never Fails" A solid song that adds a more laid back feeling to the album. Generally, this would lead to a ballad, but...
4. "Here We Stand" Instead, "Here We Stand" is God's Not Dead's most high energy, enjoyable song. The chorus features a nice group chant along with a cool effect on Tait's voice, and the music steadily plugs along, ebbing in the verses, flowing explosively (as much as polished CCM pop-worship can explosively flow) in the chorus. "Here We Stand," in my opinion, is the high point of God's Not Dead.

5. "Savior of the World" And the mid-tempo slog to the end of the album begins. Up until this point, the usual insipidly simplistic CCM worship-pop lyrics have been lifted by the full-steam ahead quality of the music. "Savior of the World" and
6. "Forever Reign" are actually decent songs, and if they were followed by another burst of energy, maybe the rest of the album would work but
7. "More Than Enough" - 11. "All the Way" The next five songs are an energy vacuum. I'm not sure who would want to trod through this molasses of mediocre, but this is a problem too common to worship albums in my opinion. Honestly, it even plagued Hillsong United, until they had that meeting in 2010 where they decided they weren't going to do anything that wasn't worth doing. The last three Hillsong United albums have rewritten the script on what a worship album is supposed to be, but the second half of God's Not Dead unfortunately follow the original script down to the depths of ultimate doldrums.
12. "I Am Second" It takes a second appearance from Kevin Max, who seems to run on stage at this point yelling, "Wake up, what are you guys doing?" "I Am Second" could have been a standout track from dc Talk's swansong, Supernatural. The song brings back the energy, and the chemistry between Tait and Max is irresistible, but by this point, once the track is over and you are awake again, the album is done.
So this is the last Newsboys album I own. The band is miles from where they started, perhaps more popular than ever (God's Not Dead has sold 500,000 copies!), but not what I signed up for. Unless they somehow catch my ear again, I think this is it.

2011 Inpop
1. The King is Coming 4:46
2. God's Not Dead (Like a Lion) (featuring Kevin Max) 4:18
3. Your Love Never Fails 3:38
4. Here We Stand 4:16
5. Savior of the World 3:38
6. Forever Reign 3:52
7. More Than Enough 3:43
8. Revelation Song 4:49
9. Pouring It Out for You 4:32
10. Mighty to Save 4:27
11. All the Way 4:07
12. I Am Second (featuring Kevin Max) 3:19

Newsboys -- In the Hands of God

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If you go by what Wikipedia says, 1985-1996 was the John James-era of Newsboys, and from 1998-2009 was the Peter Furler-era. Everything since 2009 has been the Michael Tait-era (Tait took over as soon as this album was released). Truth be told, every moment the Newsboys existed until 2009 was the Peter Furler-era. Not only did Furler often take lead vocals, but the band's musical direction often came from Furler's mind, the music itself written by him. For all intents and purposes, from 1985-2009, Peter Furler was Newsboys, not that the other members' contributions were not vital.
In the Hands of God is the definitive end of Newsboys' Peter Furler period. I wish I could say Furler goes out on top here, but the fact is, this is a fairly unremarkable album. However, there are moments Furler's unique touch shines through, particularly when his lyrics get personal and he waxes nostalgic.
1. "The Way We Roll" Speaking of nostalgia, Furler's is immediate. "The Way We Roll" is a fun recollection of Newsboys early days travelling the world in a van, and includes colorful details, like how the band warmed up a can of beans on said van's easily overheated motor. In the Hands of God was produced by Newsboys superfan, Max Hsu, DJ for the band Superchick. It's clear from the production that Hsu wanted a return to the Newsboys crunchier, more rocking guitar sound, and that sound is the driving force behind "The Way We Roll."
2. "No Grave" I don't think anyone could have seen this song coming. The guitar intro sounds like System of a Down. Yes, System of a Down--dark, almost chant-like guitar picking. Hsu's influence really shines here, with the larger than life strings of the chorus and bridge. Furler belts the chorus "No grave gonna hold my spirit down/Lord knows they'll never keep me in the ground." He sings so defiantly, the verses sound so dark, the choruses soar so high. "No Grave" is not just an album highlight, but a career highlight.

3. "This Is Your Life" It's a ballad! The music is a bit generic, driven by a Hsu keyboard symphony, before giving way to acoustic instruments. The message, though, about taking personal responsibility for one's life, is excellent.
4. "Glorious" After showing they can still write excellent songs about the Christian life, Newsboys go back to the all too familiar corporate worship format. Hsu adds as many bells and whistles as he can, literally adding bells and a big symphony, and punching up the instruments as much as he can, but the song can't escape the feeling that someone somewhere said, "We need a worship hit for the radio. Get on that." To compound my cynicism on the matter, just a few months later, the band re-released this song as a single with Tait on vocals instead of Furler--that version was a big hit. Tait sings background vocals on some of the tracks here as it is, but it's tough to hear him in the mix.
5. "In the Hands of God" And here's another worship song, albeit one that sounds a little more unique to Newsboys.
6. "The Upside" I feel like Furler wanted to do some sort of sunny, bouncy Brian Wilson-type thing here, but it doesn't quite work.
7. "My Friend Jesus" And here are the weirdos we first met back in 1994. This song is about a guy who gets put on hold for a really long time, and is forced to listen to Celine Dion for several hours. While it's humorous, the tonal change is such a shock to the system, the song just doesn't work in the context of the album.
8. "Lead Me to the Cross" And here we go with another worship song, this one a cover of Brooke Fraser's "Lead Me to the Cross" from Hillsong United's All of the Above. While Newsboys cover is actually pretty good, a little punchier than the original, it doesn't usurp the original, or justify its own existence.
9. "Dance" I don't like to dance.
10. "RSL 1984" The honest, vulnerable Peter Furler from Love Liberty Disco returns for his final song as a Newsboy.

RSL 1984
Some kissed the girls, I kissed the floor
The Bover boys with their boots shiny red
Three dollar champagne stirring my head

We rolled out the barrels, boys
We sang with a single voice

Let all tears turn to gold and the hell I've raised
Lord, let it fade away
As Your glories unfold give me a part to play
Grant me another day

The surf and the sky and the Sunshine Coast of gold
Floating on a long board, life on hold
I never know the way, but You always take me there
And I need it now like the Mooloolaba air

We'll roll with the next wave, boys
We'll sing out, we'll make some noise
Let all tears turn to gold and the hell I've raised
Lord, let it fade away
As Your glories unfold give me a part to play
Grant me another day

Red dust rises clouds your every thought
You don't know you're deceived until you're not
Good dog, bad dog, they get to fighting in your head
The winner is the last one getting fed

God is alive and my magic is no good
And He's called me out on this walkabout
He leads me to water and traces each song line
And I know to know His ways are higher than mine

So roll out the road rig, boys
And sing with a grateful voice

Let all tears turn to gold and the hell that's raised
Lord, let it fade away
As Your glories unfold give us a part to play
Grant us another day

Why couldn't we have had that Furler this whole time?
I think that the public rejection of 1999's Love Liberty Disco made Furler reticent to be so open from then on out. "Oh, you don't want me to be honest with you? Here's some generic crap then. According to sales data, it must be what the majority of you want!"
And with that, an era ends.
And now Peter Furler is recording an album with Steve Albini.

2009 Inpop Records
1. The Way We Roll 3:27
2. No Grave 3:44
3. This Is Your Life 3:25
4. Glorious 4:11
5. In the Hands of God (featuring Phil Joel) 4:18
6. The Upside 3:18
7. My Friend Jesus 2:50
8. Lead Me to the Cross (Brooke Fraser cover) 4:08
9. Dance 3:35
10. RSL 1984 4:34

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Newsboys -- Go

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In the history of my life I have spilled in these reviews, I've made it known that I lost my identity during the first six months of my marriage. I had never been in a long term relationship, and I didn't realize that you are actually still supposed to be yourself when you are in one. As that started to dawn upon me, I began to go back to the things I had always liked. One of those things was Newsboys, but Newsboys hadn't put out anything I liked in quite some time. However, in May of 2007, "Something Beautiful," a newer Newsboys song, started receiving significant radio play. The song seemed to be more about life and the Christian walk, as opposed to the paint-by-numbers worship the that band had been releasing for the last half-decade. I looked into the matter and saw that the Newsboys had recently put out a new album called Go, and lo-and-behold, it was receiving rave reviews, being called a return to form. That was all I needed to hear. I quickly relieved the corner FYE of their copy.
1. "Wherever We Go" A tongue-in-cheek, upbeat song, where the band exaggerate their importance in the grand scheme of things, but thank God for what opportunity they have to make the world a better place. This is the first time Newsboys have released a song that could be described as "fun" in four years.
2. "Go" The theme of Go becomes apparent on the second track, and its in the title. That's right, Go's title track is about going where the Almighty sends you. It's pretty clear from this song that the listener isn't quite getting the Newsboys of old. The songs are certainly more Christian-y, if that makes any sense. By that, I mean that while the older songs were about the Christian life, non-Christians could still objectively enjoy them. The songs here are about things only a Christian would understand, even if they aren't worship, per se. That's fine and dandy for those of us who follow The Way, but it's a little alienating otherwise. Love Liberty Disco, Take Me to Your Leader, Step Up to the Microphone, these are albums that invite the listener into the experience, make the Christian life an inviting experience. Go is an album for those who are already there. But hey, at least it's not a paint-by-numbers worship album, right? Right? Right...
3. "Something Beautiful" A beautiful song, highly indebted to the 80's. The fact that it's clear that frontman, Peter Furler, is actively attempting to craft a certain sound here, as opposed to just plugging out chords to back pre-fabricated corporate worship verses, is what drew me back to the band. Get me in with the music, and I'm more likely to appreciate the words, which in this case are all about the beauty of pure love, yet somehow never manage to cloy.

4. "The Mission" The opening salvo of songs are about being sent by God, but "The Mission" delves back into the history of those sent, showing a line 2000 years ago to now, backed by a high energy dance-rock song. A lot of people said around Go's time of release that the album is a return to Newsboys rock roots. That's not entirely true, though. This album doesn't rock like say, Take Me to Your Leader. However, as I said above, it does show that musically, the band appear re-dedicated to their craft. There is a definite effort here to achieve a particular sound, in this case, lightly propulsive, sometimes bombastic, sometimes high-energy dominated by guitars, synths, and live drums.
5. "Let It All Come Out" The first ballad of the album about a girl who's been abused. Kind of musically generic, but it still feels honest.
6. "In Wonder" Yep, it's a generic worship song. Turns out they aren't done with those.
7. "Your Love Is Better Than Life" And they follow that worship song up with a rap? This song should be absolutely terrible...but somehow it is not terrible at all. Furler did not miss his calling as a rapper, but he makes the song work, along with the high-energy music, and lyrics co-written by Steve Taylor (Taylor co-wrote lyrics for seven out of Go's eleven songs). Perhaps the song works because, for the first time in a very long time, the lyrics are actually vulnerable, and admit that life isn't always as rosy as a supermodel's cheeks.
8. "I Am Free" Ah! It's another worship song, and a cover at that, but at least "I Am Free" is bursting with energy, and inhabits a quick tempo few worship songs ever visit.
9. "Secret Kingdom" Musically an homage to the band's old hit "Breakfast," with its guitar line, bouncy drums, and whistles, but it doesn't quite register.
10. "The Letter (One of a Kind)" Another ballad at a point that I would have rathered something more upbeat. The song's not bad, though, even if live drums would have been more powerful than electric ones, and also spellcheck says "rathered" isn't a word.
11. "Gonna Be Alright" A lovely little closer featuring the comforting pop-and-crackle-backing of an old Evie Tornquist record, and an excellent, re-assuring chorus reminiscent of something the band would have put on Love Liberty Disco. The attention to craft is what boosts Newsboys' best work above their lesser, and I think this song is among their best.
So overall, Go isn't quite the return to form fans seemed to want to hope it into being, but it's not bad. It is enjoyable enough, and certainly a great respite from generic worship affliction. A song like "Gonna Be Alright" certainly brings me closer to God than yet another round of whatever songs from that corporate worship period I can't even think of right now because they were so unmemorable.

2006 Inpop
1. Wherever We Go 3:27
2. Go 2:52
3. Something Beautiful 3:51
4. The Mission 3:40
5. Let It All Come Out 4:20
6. In Wonder 4:12
7. Your Love Is Better Than Life 3:39
8. I Am Free (Desperation Band cover) 3:36
9. Secret Kingdom 3:21
10. The Letter (One of a Kind) 3:22
11. Gonna Be Alright 3:33

Thursday, December 24, 2015

What the Heck Happened to Newsboys?: 2000-2006, Christian Music Goes Corporate

If you're not happy with your life, the best decision is to change course. Of course, if you're actually going the right way in the first place, changing course may not actually be in your best interest.
I think Newsboys' sixteen year-oldm publicly ignored, and band-shunned Love Liberty Disco is the best album that band ever released. It features an honesty and vulnerability, a personal touch and focus lacking in even the band's better work.
However, compared to the Newsboys previous albums (albums released 1994-1998), Love Liberty Disco sold badly and was not embraced by fans. The band responded by changing course. For their next album, 2002's Thrive, the band reenlisted the services of their old co-writer and producer, Steve Taylor. Don't get me wrong, Steve Taylor is awesome. The work he did with the Newsboys in the 90's is awesome. Taylor's solo stuff is awesome. Last year's Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil album was awesome. I just kick-started their new EP. I love Steve Taylor, and the nine tracks Steve Taylor co-wrote for Thrive are decent, but in my opinion, they don't come close to the classic zone he and the Newsboys inhabited together for say, 1996's Take Me to Your Leader. However, Thrive has ten tracks. That leaves one track that Peter Furler, frontman and the creative mind behind the band until his 2009 exit, fashioned all by himself. That song is called "It Is You."
"It Is You" is a corporate worship song. I don't mean "corporate" in the sense of, "this song was crafted by a corporation to make money," though I guess in a sense that could be true, as well. I mean "corporate" in the sense that "It Is You" is written from a "we" perspective, designed to be sung in a room full of several thousand people feeling the same thing in unison. Rather surprisingly, "It Is You" received more radio play than the rest of Thrive combined. And thus, a trend was born.
In the wake of "It Is You"'s success, Newsboys immediately got to work on a new album. Adoration: The Worship Album, hit the market only 13-months after Thrive. That week, Newboys experienced their first #1 album in five years. Adoration eventually went gold based on the success of songs such as "He Reigns." A Newsboys worship album sequel, Devotion, was released just 19 months later. The personal revelations of Love Liberty Disco were nowhere to be found, might as well not even have existed. What happened?
Well, what happened was an epidemic afflicting more than just Newsboys, though the popularity of Newsboys Adoration certainly buoyed the movement. Maybe it started when Third Day drifted from the Southern Rock of their previous albums to worship music, with their 2000 worship album Offerings (which also, like Newsboys' Adoration, received a sequel, Offerings II).  Third Day's first platinum album? Offerings. Then there's Audio Adrenaline, trading their trademark rock sound for the worship of 2001's Lift. Do you remember when Michael W Smith wasn't primarily known as a worship artist? After the release of 2001's Worship, most people don't. For Heaven's sake, the guy wrote an instrumental album the year before--a critically-lauded instrumental album that did not go platinum. Worship went platinum. So did 2002's Worship Again. Are you noticing a trend?
Before the 00's, worship albums were a sort of curiosity. Hillsong (who was only beginning to unleash Hillsong United), Vineyard and Hosanna put out a bunch of stuff a church worship team might pull songs from, and that was it. Then, all of a sudden, that wasn't it. Now gobs of Christian bands who weren't making worship music before were, and now the market was flooded with major Christian label worship albums by major Christian label bands. These songs found their way onto the radio, and changed the musical landscape there, as well. Can you imagine K-Love playing something as unique as "Breakfast" today? Of course not. The song is too weird. But today's K-Love-dominated airwaves won't hesitate to play the blandest worship anthem the current incarnation of Newsboys can crank out...but we're not talking about today. We're talking about a change that occurred 10-15 years ago that effects the music world of today.
On a personal level, worship music has never been my favorite genre. You may notice in my film and music reviews that I rarely use the term "we." That's because I am well aware that my complete feelings and opinions are unique to myself. I do not presume that everyone else will feel the same. I hate, and generally shut down when I encounter reviews that couch the writer's opinions in that collective pronoun. "We feel for his plight," "We are moved by the lyrics," etc. How do you know that you can speak for everyone else, reviewer person? How do you know that everyone else feels the same way that you do? Isn't that a bit presumptuous...or dare I say arrogant? Obviously, there is such a thing as good music and bad music, a good film and a bad film, but everything is subjective. All that to say, if I am that picky about my music criticism, I am going to be even more selective about how I choose to worship the creator of a universe so remarkably enormous, the human mind can barely fathom it, let alone measure it--a Being that, if He created that universe, is more than 13 billion years old (a time-span almost as hard to comprehend as infinity). I don't think I want to worship that being by singing generic lyrics on top of over-produced pop music. That's just not going to work for me. I want to worship him in a way that fits my existence as he created it. In other words, I struggle with corporate worship music.
Yes, the corporate of this title has two meanings. There's the sell-out to a big record company to make everyone a million dollars corporate, and then there's everyone lifting their hands and singing the same words at the same time corporate.
Now don't get me wrong, I think corporate worship is awesome. When done in earnest (and it usually is), it is a powerful experience in which to partake. I've played multiple musical instruments (a couple times at the same time!) in the service of corporate fact, playing music is one of the ways in which I am able to feel closest to God. However, the experience of corporate worship done in 3:30 by a band owned by a billion dollar record label leaves me...wanting. Worship should not be a product.
So anyway, I don't own any post-Love Liberty Disco Newsboys album until 2006's Go. I don't think the band sold out, though. I read an interview with Newsboys then frontman (now six-years plus "former Newsboys frontman"), Peter Furler, from around 2004,where he basically made the point that he no longer cared about art, and only cared about worship. Therefore, Adoration and Devotion are pretty artless. The shame of it is, the man forgot that true art is worship (sorry to get so fartsy, but it's true), and everything else is just a product, whether for a financial profit, or for a self-motivated profit. However, judging by Furler's recent drumming stint with Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil (reunited, and it feels so good!), as well as the increased musicality of his latest post-Newsboys solo work, this may be a point Furler is slowly remembering. If that's the course he wants to chart, I'll be happy to follow.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Newsboys -- Love Liberty Disco

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If I ever make a list of the most underrated Christian albums of all time, Newsboys' Love Liberty Disco will be near the top. But why...and how? Newsboys are one of the most popular, best-selling "Christian" acts of all time. They've sold seven million records! They have SIX gold albums! In fact, the three albums consecutively released before Love Liberty Disco ALL went gold. Love Liberty Disco did not go gold, though. Dig through the bands' numerous "greatest hits" albums, and you'll be hard pressed to find a single track from Love Liberty Disco. Try to find live versions of its songs on Youtube, and you'll find even less. Love Liberty Disco is the black sheep of Newsboys' extensive catalogue. The band seemed to go out of their way to pretend it was never released almost immediately after they released it. Maybe it's the title.
Who likes disco? Not me.
How about in late 1999. when this album was released? Not many people liked disco.
In late 2015, sixteen years later? Even less people like disco.
The thing is, though, Love Liberty Disco is not a disco album. While the title track is kind of disco (one of only two out of ten tracks that could be classified as "that here), the "Disco" in Love Liberty Disco is metaphorical, not a goofy genre of music whose prominence quickly rose and fell in the 1970's. The "Disco" is a metaphor for a place where everyone is loved.
The truth is, Love Liberty Disco is the deepest, darkest, hardest, realest, most honest and optimistic album the Newsboys ever released. It's the only Newboys album you're going to see a 10/10 above on The Nicsperiment.
With the 2015 edition of Newsboys nearly unrecognizable next to the 1999 one, it's time for someone to finally give this undiscovered gem its due. Here's a track-by-track review.
1. "Beautiful Sound" And here I must make a confession: for me, this is an intensely personal album. When I reviewed Moby's Play back in August, I detailed my early 2000 conversion to true Christianity from the bitter, works-based, money-centered religion of my childhood. Several albums from this period helped me, then 18, to define my worldview. In that regard, Love Liberty Disco was pivotal. The opening lyrics, set to a guitar effect that sounds like the sun rising:

Turn the page/can't turn the light out
Every word, every line/carries to my soul

reflected my own awakening of faith. The words to the second verse couldn't have been more me:

18 years/I guess it was alright
I'd let you do the thinking/I'd just bide my time

Maybe the song mirrors frontman, Peter Furler's own conversion, but it might as well have been the story of mine. Musically, "Beautiful Sound" also hints at Love Liberty Disco's sound: it's a more minimalistic, sort of 70's light rock, atop (and sometimes underneath) beds of gorgeous strings. This whole album is a musical love-letter to the music Furler grew up hearing. "Beautiful Sound"'s bridge makes the song's title literal, a cacophony of strings upon wild strings, as Furler emotes in wordless joy. Perfect in its imperfection.

2. "Love Liberty Disco" When Love Liberty Disco was released, I was a senior in high school, and I worked in the electronics department at Wal-Mart in rural New Roads, Louisiana. I saw our (Wal-Mart's) lone copy of the album, and its weird front cover, five days a week for a about two months. Obviously, the title was a turn-off, as well as the fact that I thought I was at a stage in life where I was over a band called "Newsboys." Then, one afternoon on the way to work, in January of 2000, I got into a life-altering car accident. I totaled my 96' Thunderbird, totaled the car I ran into, and nearly ended the lives of the pregnant teenager and her grandmother who were in that other car. Their car rolled down a hill, between an electricity pole and a gas main, and into a front porch. Before I could even get out of my car, the girl, about five months along, had run up the hill from the wreckage of her car to destroy me, and I made the snap decision to just let her do whatever she wanted.
However, after a few seconds of punching my already ruined car and cursing me out like a deck swab, she collapsed into me in tears, and snow started to fall. The entire experience was extremely surreal, the girl and her grandmother leaning against the wall of the gas station across the street from our accident, while I went inside and cried in the bathroom. Everything ended up being okay except our cars, and I checked in on the girl at the McDonald's where she worked until she was pretty close to labor. I clipped her son's birth announcement from the newspaper, out of an intense desire to remind myself that I, the most awful human being alive, almost prevented the cause of the announcement from happening. I also got to enjoy the humbling experience of driving my mom's minivan to work almost every night for the next month.
Through it all, I couldn't help but search for meaning.
What was the point of all of this?

If I told you that somebody did love you
Would you say, "Hey, show me that face"
And if I told you that true freedom was actual
Would you say, "Can you take me to this place?"

These are the opening lines to this title track, which is musically almost willfully cheesy, flirting with the disco of the title, but in a way that makes the song more comforting than off-putting. The song, as a whole, is a representation of this album title's "disco" as an overall theme--not a place where baby boomers dance the night away, not a place where jet-setters mingle under roving bands of colored light, not a dated genre of music, but a metaphysical place, a place where everyone is loved...and that place is God.
3. "Forever Man" My mom's minivan held one distinct advantage over my Thunderbird: a CD player. My Thunderbird only had an FM/AM radio and a cassette player. A couple weeks after the car accident, on a late, lonely night at work, I looked at Love Liberty Disco on the store shelf, remembered a good night I had spent with a Newsboys album the year before, and on a whim, purchased it. "Forever Man" is all about searching for meaning in existence, and features one of the most charming three-part harmony bridges since the Beach Boys hit middle-age.
4. "Good Stuff" Perhaps the most shallow song on the album, it rocks more than the others, and serves to give the album a nice lift before Love Liberty Disco's darker, more emotional second half. On the ride home from work, shrink wrap riding in the passenger seat, I made it about this far into the album by the time I pulled into my driveway.
5. "Everyone's Someone" And here it is, my favorite Newsboys song, and the centerpiece of one of my favorite albums.

Find yourself/your darkest enemy
Given up/on what you thought you'd be
Plans were made/nothing's really changed
Be planning on one thing/you're loved just the same

Leading into this period of time in my life, a lot of my darker impulses, particularly the one that doesn't want me to be here anymore, had come to roost in my head together. The car accident just threw fuel on the fire. I first heard this song a couple of weeks after...let's just call it a dark night...the darkest night, and sobs ensued.
I think for anyone looking for the meaning of life, it's all in this song. The second verse fills in the picture:

Kinda look old/like a man with everything
Give it all for something real/no, you can't take it with you
Nothing's forged/nothing's new
Do I imagine being you
Maker of the rain/let's it fall on me and you

Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Good things happen to both.
Here's a video to the song by a guy who really gets it:

Musically, the song's intro is an ode to 80's pop rock, but in the verse, "Everyone's Someone" morphs into a blues song. That sweet blues guitar carries on into a nice solo in the bridge, even when the strings swell. It's so beautiful, and such a unique combination of sounds. If some random nobody band released this on one of Pitchfork's favorite indie labels today, the hipsters'd be raving about it, but as this song was recorded 16 years ago for a black sheep album by a popular Christian band,"Everyone's Someone" has wanted for recognition. I hope that this little bit from The Nicsperiment will carry it to someone's ears.
6. "Say You Need Love" This is the album's final upbeat track. It probably comes closest to any of the other tracks to disco outside of the title track. If you can't tell by the title, this song dives deeper into the topic of needing love (not just in general).

Heard it said you're an accident/biological mistake
So you're a love child, who could say it better/A physical grace, a perfect display

The song is light and breezy, yet it contains the same weight as the rest of the album--the pain of needing love, the pain of finding love and still feeling pain.

Has someone you trusted left you betrayed?
Has someone who loved you thrown love away?
Do you see God? does he have a face?
Looks like your father's, how does it relate?

7. "I Would Give Everything" Think about the happy cheery Newsboys image. Then think about their singer painfully admitting "I would give everything/to give nothing more" and "Bygones by/You took away the pain/still my humanity haunts me/Every day I feel ashamed." This is as honest as it gets. Everything isn't always hunky-dory, no matter how close you are to God. Jesus asked his father "Why have You forsaken me?" while he was hanging on the cross, and it is ridiculous to act like it is wrong to be a Christian and at the same time sometimes feel weary and defeated. Newsboys have never recorded anything like this album again, nothing this brutally emotionally honest, but I'm glad they did it when they did, when I needed it the most.
8. "Break" Furler's expressions of pain continue. As he looks around at the hurt of the world, and tries to see the world through God's eyes,

Now it's more than I can take
And I feel like I could break

Musically, the song is almost a mirror image of "Beautiful Sound," with the guitar a setting moon in lieu of a rising sun, and the strings swelling in heavy emotional release instead of an expression of joy.
9. "I Surrender All" I read in an interview, long since lost in the pages of time, that Peter Furler's wife forced him to include this song on the album. I can't imagine Love Liberty Disco without it, so I guess Summer Furler is the opposite of Yoko Ono. "I Surrender All" expresses the desire to stay steadfast in faith, even through deep feelings of pain, loneliness, and isolation.

No one knows your heart
And no one knows your fears
When no one solves the mysteries
Or even wipes away the tears

I surrender all
To the promises you made
And I will give it all
To the maker of the day

Can you hear the sound of laughter
From the other side of life?
There are days when I feel like a stranger sometimes
Tell me, are there any other fools like me?

I surrender all
To the promises you made
And I will give it all
To the maker of the day

The song's arrangement is a minimalistic beauty, a lightly strummed electric guitar, a strong, subtle beat, distant strings, and Furler's emotional singing. I love that the line "Do you hear the sound of laughter/from the other side of life" is echoed by a short, lonely violin line that sounds like it's coming from an empty room six houses down.

He doesn't love us 'cause of who we are
He only loves us 'cause of who he is

is essentially the album's final argument, the climax before the closing track's falling action and denouement. Also, Otto, the coolest person in Baton Rouge, host of KLSU's world music program, once came into the studio during one of my KLSU broadcasts (when I was a DJ), as I was playing this song, sat in the chair next to mine, jerked his head toward the in-studio speakers, and said "This song is legit."
10. "Fall on You" If Love Liberty Disco is all about the love of God, "Fall on You" explores man's choice in the matter. I've seen opposing viewpoints by those few who've actually listened to this thing, and the lyrics are certainly thought-provoking and up for interpretation:

What makes a man aware of his need?
Is it by faith, by words or by deed
For your heart to be broken, to truly be sent home
Some things have to fall on you

Spirit saves
Letter kills
Plant the seed
I'll be waiting

Some things have to fall on you
Spirit has to fall
It's true

I take it as a sort of truce between Calvinism and Arminianism (spellcheck doesn't recognize "Arminianism" as a word, so guess it is pro-pre-destination). The soul has to be called, but the soul also has to answer. After the sentiments of unconditional love throughout the rest of the album, "Fall on You" gives an authoritative weight and depth that makes what preceded it feel all the more real.
And that's it for Love Liberty Disco. I put a lot of myself into this, but few albums mean more to me than this one, and few albums that I love are loved so little as Love Liberty Disco. It is truly perfect in its imperfections, every optimistic sentiment, indulgent orchestral flourish, and vulnerable aside only making the album greater. Give it a shot. It might just change your life. It certainly changed mine.

1999 Sparrow
1. Beautiful Sound 3:46
2. Love Liberty Disco 3:43
3. Forever Man 3:13
4. Good Stuff 2:59
5. Everyone's Someone 5:14
6. Say You Need Love 3:18
7. I Would Give Everything 3:22
8. Break 3:20
9. I Surrender All 4:12
10. Fall on You 2:30

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Newsboys -- Step Up to the Microphone

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Why don't I just dive into the track-by-track, and work everything else I want to say into that? I want to, and it's happening.
1. "WooHoo" The song kicks off with distorted guitar, and it looks like Step Up to the Microphone is going to pick up right where its predecessor, Take Me to Your Leader, left off.  Then the drums come in, and they are electronic. Take Me to Your Leader, an alternative rock album, featured live drums and instruments. These creatively restless Aussies just can't do the same thing twice. At least that's the way the 1994-2003-era Newsboys rolled. First there was a dance-rock album. Then an alternative album. But what is this?
2. "Step Up to the Microphone" Looks like the electronic drums are here to stay. The guitar is distorted, but there's something a little bit sunnier about this music. Nice horns before the subtle I almost didn't notice they were there. A lot of people complained about Newsboys ditching what made the previous album work. Admittedly, going back to Step Up to the Microphone now, it's aged remarkably well.
3. "Entertaining Angels" My brother picked this album up on cassette back in the day, and this song perked up my head down the hall a little more than the rest of the tracks. It's more of a ballad type song, but it's got some strange inspirational power. I don't mean Thomas Kinkade painting "inspirational." I mean actual fire you up inspirational. This was a big hit for Newsboys, and it should have been. The local sports radio show sometimes uses the intro for "Entertaining Angels" as their comeback from commercial 2015.
4. "Believe" It's generally unwise to follow a ballad with a ballad, but these two songs compliment each other very well, almost like the latter is a continuation of the former. The guitar lines are very similar in a way that one almost mirrors the other. Also, I love this song's strings.
5. "Tuning In" There's a charming attention to detail in this song, fun, breezy horns carrying it along to a lovely Spanish guitar section. There's also a great Spanish guitar outro, where Peter Furler plays until he makes a mistake, then laughs at himself. The light-hearted outro makes the preceding four minutes even stronger
6. "Truth Be Known -- Everybody Gets a Shot" Step Up to the Microphone marks the first time since Newsboys burst onto the Christian music scene, that they have braved an album recording without Steve Taylor at the helm. Frontman, Peter Furler, decided to go it alone here. He also wrote most of the lyrics himself. While Taylor once penned the lion's share, his only contribution to the entirety of Step Up to the Microphone is the lyrics to this song, as well as "Tuning In." Furler co-wrote all of the lyrics for the album. While they aren't as sharp as Taylor's, they aren't bad lyrics, still dealing, on the whole, with the Christian life. Also, there's the line "You carry more baggage than a momma's boy on your first day of school." That line isn't from this song (it's on the first track), which is just okay, yet still extremely catchy. I remember hearing my brother singing along to it from off the hall. It features a sort of 1998 industrial pop crunch that's strangely non-threatening, yet addictive.
7. "Deep End" Pairs with its predecessor just the way tracks three and four did, but I think this is the album's weakest track. I saw Newsboys perform live around the time this album was released, and while the show was really fun and energetic, I had already moved on from that particular scene. It was all indie-rock and metal for me. While a lot of people slagged on Step Up to the Microphone for being too different, I simply didn't care that it existed.
8. "Hallelujah" Then I went through that period in early 2000 I described in this Moby review, when I rededicated my life to my faith. I really wanted to listen to things that edified that part of my life, and remembering my experience the previous summer at Boys State (where I found a Newsboys cassette in my backpack and had a serendipitous moment), Newsboys became a go-to band. I'll get to that more in the next review, though. Let's finish up this one. "Hallelujah" is close to techno-rock, but its bagpipes-esque guitar, particularly in the outro, lifts the song to rare heights. It shouldn't work, but it's pretty ascendant.
9. "The Tide" Once "The Tide" rolls on in, it's clear, especially in hindsight, that the Newsboys were on to a bit more musical experimentation than listens way back 17 years ago might have conceded. "The Tide" is a slow-moving mass of pulsating noise, featuring drones, programming, ambient noise, and a gentle, wave-bobbing guitar line (and bassist Phil Joel on lead vocals). Plus, there's the hypnotic, circular lyrics, about waiting on God.
10. "Always" Likewise, and giving the album yet another pair, "Always" follows suit, plugging along minimalistically, this time about an absent father, but where"The Tide" ends with space, "Always" finds its conclusion in a powerful outro about renewal and forgiveness, "Take these pieces thrown away/put them together from night and day/washed by the sun/dried by the rain/to be my father in the fatherless days." One of the more powerful moments on any Newsboys album.
So all in all, this might not be the strongest Newsboys album, and it might not match its predecessor, but 17 years on, Step Up to the Microphone holds its own, and might have even aged into something better than what it seemed to be when it was released. Gotta love those 90's.

1998 Star Song
1. WooHoo 3:15
2. Step Up to the Microphone 3:43
3. Entertaining Angels 4:18
4. Believe 4:33
5. Tuning In 4:17
6. Truth Be Known - Everybody Gets a Shot 4:00
7. Deep End 4:06
8. Hallelujah 3:56
9. The Tide 5:01
10. Always 5:01

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Newsboys -- Take Me to Your Leader

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Here's an untold 1999 story (If you just want my opinion of Take Me to Your Leader, skip ahead).
First week of August, late at night, I am lying on a grungy old mattress, high up in Kirby Smith dormitory. I am 17 years old, and I am terrified. This has been the most memorable year of my life, but things have suddenly taken a dark turn. I was selected by my high school to attend Louisiana Boys State, where soon-to-be high school seniors are put up in an LSU dorm for 8 days and nights to, theoretically, learn about how government works by creating a governing body among themselves. However, this creates an unintended consequence. Any fairly conscious person who has been alive for a decent amount of time knows that all politicians are sociopaths.
For eight days, I got locked in a nearly condemned dorm with 300 budding sociopaths.
I'm not saying every single kid selected to attend 1999 Boys State was a sociopath. I and like five other people weren't sociopaths. So not every kid.
If I could distill my experience into five words, it would be: death threats and rape jokes. My roommate, to this day one of the most psychotic individuals I have had the displeasure of meeting, threatened to kill me in my sleep every night, and that after I was gone, he would get my address from the floor ledger, drive to my parents' house, and rape my mother and kill my father. Sometimes, for no reason other than because it was his foul nature, he would block the door when I would try to leave, and ask me if I wanted to fight. He was the worst. Boys State was the worst.
One night, after the usual "kill you/rape your mother" diatribe he gave from the bed four feet from mine, he went off on a rant about killing every gay person in the world, then something about how if he woke up and I was in the bed with him(in his dreams!) he would kill me, and then some weird aside about how he thought the tall tree beneath our window was scary-looking (I knew very well what that tree looked like, as I often fantasized of leaping to it from the window, climbing down, and escaping). Then, without warning, he began to snore loudly.
I dug into my backpack, not knowing why. I was using an old one from a few years back, and I decided to dig into a pocket I hadn't recently packed anything into. Lo and behold, what was in there but my old Walkman, headphones connected, batteries still good. Only one question remained: was there a cassette inside? I pressed play with a wild hope of spiritual escape. Suddenly, the first notes of Newsboys Take Me to Your Leader popped and crackled in my ears.
In the 90's, we had these things called "local radio stations." The closest Christian one, 92.7 The Bridge (before K-Love, there were local Christian stations!), often played a full album by a selected artist, every Friday night. One week in 1996, they played Newsboys freshly released Take Me to Your Leader, and I popped a blank cassette in my stereo and recorded it. I really enjoyed that album. I loved to listen to it when I played Mega Man X on my Super Nintendo, or on the bus on the way home.  However, post-ninth grade me moved me away from Christian tunes. By 1999, my favorite bands were Deftones, Portishead, The Dismemberment Plan. It's not that I actively shunned Christian music. That year I jammed out to a lot of Caedmon's call, and even more U2, if you want to call them "Christian Music." I just forgot about Newsboys.
On that awful night, though, the moment I realized my old Take Me to Your Leader cassette was miraculously still around, in my old walkman, and now passing into my ears, I was filled with the greatest sense of peace and comfort. I fell asleep to that album every Boys State night, thereon, hiding my walkman from my dastardly wicked roommate by day so that he would not steal or destroy it. I also prayed every night that the batteries wouldn't die.
All of that to say, Take Me to Your Leader is an extremely memorable album for me, and this review might just be a little biased.
In the spirit of the old album reviews I used to read (I wrote one on there for this album back during the Clinton administration AND IT'S STILL THERE), this, and all of these Newsboys reviews will be broken up track-by-track.
1. "God Is Not a Secret" That wah-wah guitar-intro has to be one of the most recognizable in all of Christian rock. Yes, I said "rock," because, unlike most LP's by the band Newsboys, stylistically, Take Me to Your Leader is an alternative rock album. Not like hard-rock, and there are certainly some highly poppy moments, but the majority of this album, and definitely this song rocks decently hard. Also, with Steve Taylor and Peter Furler collaborating on the lyrics, you get the kind of bold, yet humorous lyrics today's barely-existent Christian music scene could only dream of:

You don't understand
This is not what you think it is
You don't get it, man
You want to boil it down to show biz
Your in-depth research shows:
Drop the God, emphasize the beat
I've heard that positive pop you dig--
I'd rather be buried in wet concrete

Also, in a shocking development for songs that could be heard on Christian radio before these mid-90's, the music doesn't suck. This "doesn't suck" movement was spear-headed by Take Me to Your Leader, Jars of Clay's self-titled album, Audio Adrenaline's Bloom, and DC Talk's Jesus Freak. These albums helped create an incredible environment for a mid-90's teenager who might want a little spiritual encouragement without having to listen to music that would clearly, never, ever be good enough to make it on a secular radio station. Non-Christians even bought these albums because THEY ACTUALLY SOUND GOOD.
2. "Take Me to Your Leader" The title-track shows off the album's more laid-back, oddball side. It also makes me nostalgic for the mid-90's again, when bands wrote songs about how being a Christian can actually BE FUN. Also fun: that flanger drum-break in the bridge. Also fun: Duke Nukem for Windows 95.
3. "Breathe" The more rocking sounds return in the crunchy intro to this song, which is about the unfortunate burden of living with other people. The prayer for spiritual renewal in the chorus is like a mantra, and contrasts pretty brilliantly with the loud atmospherics of the bridge. The bridges in this album are cool.
4. "Reality" Speaking of atmospherics and coolness, "Reality" reminds me of that desert planet circus from the 1989 Doctor Who episode "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy." The song features plenty of spacey guitar effects and evocative lyrics of someone who is second-guessing their decision to runaway from home to join the circus. As a side note, I find this song strangely comforting and relaxing.
5. "Breakfast" Take Me to Your Leader's pop-hit, still performed by the band today as they are frequently pelted by fans with breakfast cereal. This song was never my favorite, but it's catchy, and the whistling part is addictive.
6. "Let It Go" Another softer song, but good atmosphere, and I really enjoy the once-again mantra-like outro, this time featuring the title of the song repeated many, many times.
7. "Cup O' Tea" This is my jam, the most high-energy, aggressive song the Newsboys ever released, but it is also full of atmosphere, fleshing out Take Me to Your Leader's retro science-fiction feel. I remember seeing them play this song live around this time, and the raucous guitar-solo almost started a riot.
8. "It's All Who You Know" The album now slowly starts to build to something, as this song doesn't rock too much, yet continues TMTYL's musical and lyrical themes, and features a rhythm that affects a great sense of motion.
9. "Miracle Child" Probably the album's weakest song, with lead singer John James, in his only lead-performance of the entire album, providing the songs's only standout moment, a wordless melody in the bridge. And yet...the song serves it's function. It builds without payoff, and creates an odd feeling of uneasiness.
10. "Lost the Plot" This is the payoff. "Lost the Plot" is quite easily the heaviest song in the Newsboys catalogue (heavy and aggressive are not the same thing!), both musically and lyrically. It starts off rather apocalyptically, with a gentle, yet dark and downbeat guitar line, and the verse:

When you come back again
Would you bring me something from the fridge?
Heard a rumour that the end is near
But I just got comfortable here

There's also a line a little later that really creeped 14-year old me out, and gives me chills now, as I think about how creeped out it used to make me:

Out among the free-range sheep/ While the big birds sharpen their claws

At 17, with that creep sleeping five feet away from me, the line was just a little terrifying. "Lost the Plot" takes all of the themes and sounds from the rest of the album, and darkens them to epic proportions. The song builds up to a fiery finale that features Peter Furler coming as close to screaming on record as ever, as he details the horror of a completely faithless world, backed by a guitar line that sounds like Eric Clapton accidentally turned his amp past peaking and can't get it back down.
 11. "Breathe (Benediction)" After such a downbeat climax, it would be disingenuous to end the album on a happy, upbeat number. Aptly, "Breathe (Benediction)" is a subdued, yet hopeful reprise of Take Me to Your Leader's third track. As an album, Take Me to Your Leader is pretty marvelous. I know that sounds funny, but some albums aren't actually albums--they are just a collection of songs. Take Me to Your Leader is an album. It has an excellent, cohesive flow, builds to a huge climax that should act as a sad ending, and yet the band finds a way to end things optimistically, all in a way that feels earned.
Take Me to Your Leader isn't perfect. A couple of the songs, "Miracle Child" in particular, aren't the best way to spend three minutes. But overall, Take Me to Your Leader stands the test of time, 20 years old in just a handful of months, still a trippy escape and somber reality check all at once.
Good when you're 14, 18, or...34 :(

1996 Star Song Communications
1. God Is Not a Secret 3:09
2. Take Me to Your Leader 2:58
3. Breathe 3:15
4. Reality 3:08
5. Breakfast 3:40
6. Let It Go 3:38
7. Cup O' Tea 2:40
8. It's All Who You Know 3:11
9. Miracle Child 3:10
10. Lost the Plot 4:56
11. Breathe (Benediction) 3:15

Monday, December 14, 2015

Newsboys -- Going Public

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Yes, Newsboys. I'm about to review seven albums by the Newsboys, and I might even throw in a piece 4/7 of the way through about the state of "Christian Music" in general. Is this what the Internet currently demands? Will I hurt my add revenue, and will my advertisers pull out, and attempt to guide my content toward something more profitable?
No! Of course not because I don't have to answer to any of those things. This is The Nicsperiment, and it's mine, and I can do what I want with it (er...unless Google shuts me down).
So, when it is probably less popular than ever, I will, for the next two weeks, dissect the Peter Furler era of Newsboys plus a little of what came after.
But John James was the vocalist for Going Public you might say. I'm not sure why you might say that, though, because you'd be wrong. James only sings lead on 3.5/10 songs on that album. Peter Furler sings lead on the rest. Also, Furler wrote all the music. By 1994, Newsboys were chiefly Peter Furler's band.
Here's how I found out about Newsboys:
We were all at Lauren's house some time in 1994, and her family had this VHS of Christian Music videos. I thought it was WOW 1994 or something, but when I google that, nothing comes up, so maybe not. All I know is, it also had a video for Tony Vincent's "Out of My Hands," and we all thought that video was awesome, but not as awesome as the video for Newsboys' "Shine." While I thought the video was cool and enjoyed that the song referenced barbecuing a hamster, and my siblings and Lauren traded that VHS back and forth (I wonder if it still exists because if it does, my VHS player still works), I was far too skeptical to give anyone props for just one weird song. My seven-year old brother, though, was not skeptical, and he got his Sugar-Mommy, aka, my mom, to by him Going Public, the Newsboys "Shine"-containing album, on cassette. I was on an only-classical music era of life, but every night I heard Going Public wafting down the hall from my brother's room (along with the smell of his farts), and had to admit to myself that I liked what I was hearing (other than the sound of his farts). Eventually, I passed by his hall one night and uttered the words, "Hey...can I borrow that Newsboys cassette?" Outside of during the most hormonal six months of his puberty experience, my brother and I have always gotten along quite well, and he said "sure" and then probably farted because if you haven't gotten the subtext of this review, my brother farts a lot. I like this review a lot, but my wife says she needs the computer for school, so I guess I'll be back in a minute.

OK, I'm back. My wife worked on a paper while I watched Dr. Who, but it was kind of a boring episode, so I fell asleep for a second and then I watched football and ate some Skittles, and I'm still watching football (Miss St shellacking Missou), but I'm done with the Skittles.
Anyway, I listened to my brothers' Newsboys Going Public cassette, and I thought, Hey this is pretty good! Well, that was 21 years ago. I've listened to this on CD (which is almost as archaic a format as cassettes are, now) four times this week. Do I still think Going Public is pretty good?
In the spirit of the old-school reader reviews posted during Peter Furler's Newsboys heyday, let's go track-by-track!
1. "Real Good Thing" You know what you're in for right off the bat here (this expression means that generally, when a ball bounces off a bat, you can tell where it's going to go immediately). The electronic drum-led atmospheric pop-rock sound is definitely stamped EARLY 90's, but there's something catchy and atmospheric about the song. Also, the lyrics are really clever, and that's because they were all written--yes, every lyric on this album sans a handful--by Steve Taylor.
This Steve Taylor:

As in, "one of the most talented, thought-provoking artists in Christian music history" Steve Taylor. In typical Taylor fashion, "Real Good Thing" distills the importance of grace over works with a seemingly silly, yet topical verse:

Sell the Volvo, shred the Visa
Send the cash to Ma Theresa
Great idea, the only catch is
You don't get saved on merit badges

2. "Shine" And here it is, the song that launched Newsboys career. While "Shine" may seem goofy and lighthearted, I think there's something very important to say for it: it makes the actual act of living a Christian life seem desirable. This is something hugely missed since the tapering off of the Golden Age of Christian Rock. Your major choices since then (we'll say post-9/11...or maybe post-Underoath) are 1. Humorless, generic worship music, or 2. "I have really strong and confusing emotions, and my lyrics are indistinguishable from anyone who doesn't know Christ," music. Not to tangent on a review that is already going long, but long-time readers know that I can have a much easier time getting into say, Slayer's Reign of Blood, than into some half-assed "I have no idea what I actually believe" Christian band, and I love Jesus more than my family. With that said (and with a nod to John DiBiase of Jesus Freak Hideout), I really miss when there was an abundance of good and fun albums about the Christian life. You don't get that anymore. Just #1 and #2. Pee and poo.
3. "Spirit Thing" Maybe it's the spy-guitar, the heavy atmosphere, the cool Tina Turner
-like vocal in the bridge, or the tempo, but this song has really stuck with me through the years. It may have that 1994 DANCE FLOOR BEAT, but as I just said in my MxPx reviews, even if a genre is dated, in this case 90's dance-pop/rock, if the song is good, it is timeless, regardless. 4. "Let It Rain" This is a ballad, and again, while it may have an EARLY 90's DANCE-BALLAD BEAT, the song is quite atmospheric and moving. "Let It Rain" is sung from the perspective of the Apostle Peter, moments before his death, as he reflects on his life, thinks about how much he misses Jesus' face, and anticipates being reunited with him.
5. "Going Public" A driving, rocking song with this sweet verse/chorus combo:

He's displaced
And unglued
Scared that faith in God could be misconstrued
But the cross
Makes him wish
That his spine was more than a school of jellyfish

Sign on
The time is drawing near
This is surely a banner year
To be a public witness
Sign on
The lines are drawn and clear
There's no straddling fences here
We're going public with this

6. "Truth and Consequences" Sounds like what you would hear in a dance club if The Asylum made a rip-off of Trainspotting.
7. "Light Out" Likewise, the dated, simple early 90's techno sound of "Lights Out" overwhelms the message of the song, though admittedly, it did sound, at the least, equal with its genre peers in 1994. Still, it's not that good of a song, and as I just said, doesn't overcome it's genre.
8. "Be Still" is another ballad, but despite its decent atmosphere, the lyrics are a bit too repetitive.
9. "When You Called My Name" A surprisingly melancholy song from the point-of-view of a struggling preacher. It's still a pretty effective song. 10. "Elle G." This song about dealing with the aftermath of a suicide is one of the most powerful in Newsboys' catalogue. Also, that surprise cascading guitar solo at the end of the song is so cathartic, such an explosion of emotion. Just a great song.
Looking at Going Public today, there are just too many strong songs to say this is a dated work that should be forgotten. At the same time, there are enough weaker songs that can't overcome their dated sound, and they prove that the Newsboys (or perhaps Furler) of 1994 are still honing their craft.

1994 Star Song
1. Real Good Thing 2:53
2. Shine 3:42
3. Spirit Thing 3:27
4. Let It Rain 4:17
5. Going Public 3:30
6. Truth and Consequences 2:58
7. Lights Out 3:09
8. Be Still 3:19
9. When You Called My Name 4:02
10. Elle G. 5:12

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Summer of 2015 Is Officially Over

But wait, the summer has been over for like four months, right?
Well, not at The Nicsperiment!
The thing about The Nicsperiment reviews is that they are written whenever The Nicsperiment has the time to write them. This summer, The Nicsperiment spent an inordinate amount of time sitting in a public library, and thus an inordinate amount of music reviews were written and stockpiled.
Now, it's December, and...I've run out! The last four months have been the exact opposite of spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in a public library. Thus, I haven't had the chance to write many reviews.
After The Nicsperiment's hiatus to kick off 2014, I vowed to never let The Nicsperiment fall into inactive status again--and at this moment, I re-state that vow! The Nicsperiment will never die (well, mortally I will, one day, I guess)! That means I will do what I must: stay up all night, clone myself, construct a copy of myself from wood, visit that wishing machine from the movie Big, and wish the wooden copy was a clone of myself, which is actually just a longer version of the last thing I said.
Anyway, The Nicsperiment marches on, and right now I am working on a series of reviews for a very polarizing band, even amongst itself, which might make more sense if you know who the band is. If you know the alphabet and you are good at guessing, you may be able to figure it out.
In the meantime, here is a song I recorded seven years ago to work as an end credits track for The Sopranos.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Neutral Milk Hotel -- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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I had this whole review for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea written in my head. The thesis was that singer, Jeff Mangum, wrote lyrics so strange and obtuse for this album that connection with them is impossible. Everyone who has connected to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea over the years (myself included) hasn't connected because of the album's actual content, but because Mangum was able to give the feeling that he had essentially ripped his own fragile, vulnerable heart out of his chest, and entrusted it to the listener for safe-keeping. To a degree, I think that reading is true. Mangum's odd Anne Frank-fascination (she's referenced in roughly half the album's songs) and non-sequitur sexual imagery ("semen stains the mountaintops") could certainly be off-putting...but they're not.
I feel close-connection to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in conjunction to the two most memorable years of my life, 1999 and 2005. In 1999, the year after the album was released, I spent many late summer afternoons before senior year working at the Winn Dixie, taking lunch breaks in my car, listening to my local college radio station (and future place of employment). I looked forward to KLSU's frequent rotations of Neutral Milk Hotel songs (and pretty much any band with milk in the title...Loudermilk...The Dead Milkmen...they were all good). The fact that the KLSU DJ's frequently gushed about how good the Neutral Milk Hotel album was also boosted my ego, as I also thought it was quite good, and thought that that current batch of KLSU DJ's were the coolest people on Earth...thus our identical opinions further validated my awesomeness (KLSU won a Red Stick award that year for best radio station...which is actually a big deal. It really was an excellent broadcaster that year, and remained one until I started DJ'ing there and the whole thing went off a cliff...I can't believe they let me on the air...also, I just Youtubed Loudermilk after writing that sentence a few back that mentioned them. Holy crap, Loudermilk was a sweet band, why did they break up? Also, KLSU was so ahead of the curve, playing Loudermilk when their only album was self-released, and playing Neutral Milk Hotel ad nauseum way before the cool police said it was the greatest, and playing...really playing just about everything they played that year. Whoever the music director was at that time is legit, and I hope they are doing well for themselves...they certainly weren't there any longer when I stank up the DJ booth). This paragraph had no point other than to allow me to wax nostalgic because this is my Google-owned website and I'll do what I want with it, as long as it's okay with Google, I guess.
In 2005, I actually flew in an airplane over the sea, and I knew I would have to listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea when I did so. I actually blogged about that whole thing here a decade ago when I was actually doing it (I love using the same words twice in one sentence). That post is particularly amusing to me because I reference a postI had just written that was highly critical of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Last year, nine years after that Passion-bashing post, having lived through much personal pain, heartache, and depression, and feeling an actual need for salvation and connection with a corporeal incarnation of the creator of the universe, I found my opinion of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ to have changed considerably. If you've stumbled upon this review through a Google search, thanks Google, and also, this review may be off-putting to you because I have talked about myself far more than I have talked about Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and also used constant run-on sentences. But how else do you review an album that is so personal? For every obtuse musing Mangum makes, he gives you a line like How strange it is to be anything at all. How can anyone who has reflected about life for more than five minutes not take lines like that personally? At the end of 2005, when my cat/best friend died, the song with those lyrics was still fresh in my head, and I posted it as his Nicsperiment eulogy.
I don't know what In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is supposed to be about. Something about Mangum's weird dreams about Anne Frank and her family dying, and Mangum somehow magically rescuing her and then living with her happily ever after, but then there're circus freaks and semen and all this other stuff. I do know what In the Aeroplane Over the Sea means to me, though. It means enjoying the beauty of life, and embracing the beauty of sadness, but yet being able to move on from whatever it is that has made you sad. Miraculously, though, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea means something completely and individually different to the other million or so individuals to whom the album is important. I can't pinpoint its everlasting timeless magic other than to say Mangum harnessed a perfect storm of emotion with his rough and gentle, over-taxed voice, and his acoustic guitar and fuzzed-out bass, and his friends' horns and drums and musical saws and whatnot. Every few years the next group up has discovered this magic for themselves. Even the hipsters latched onto it, but hipsters are only interested in aesthetics, and when the aesthetics aren't cool anymore, or their feeble hipster minds grow bored, they move on to the next thing.
When In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released, Pitchfork merely said it was good, and Rolling Stone dissed it. A few years later, they were both fawning all over it, and it was kind of gross. I felt protective over the album to tell you the truth. When a girl you really like takes off her glasses and lets her hair down, and all the idiots rush to her, but you saw she was beautiful all along, you want to deck all those guys. Sorry for getting so heteronormative. This dude called me heteronormative on an LSU message board the other day, and I was really taken aback, though technicallly, since I am straight and part of a nuclear family, isn't that simply a factual statement?
Anyway, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a really special album that invites everyone to love it for their own reasons. I hadn't listened to it in quite a while before writing this review, mainly because my listening schedule has been quite alphabetical for the last four years, unless it's new music I am checking out for the first time. This whole Every Album I Own reviews thing can get a little exhausting, and sometimes I can get really mechanical with it, and my planned review for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was going to be extremely mechanical, but one listen after many years, and those mechanics were destroyed. I like the visual imagery of literal wrench-holding mechanics in jumpsuits getting crushed by an enormous Neutral Milk Hotel compact disc. That's some crazy stuff. Also, I just went back and read the second Nicsperiment eulogy I gave my cat. I miss Fats so much. This is one of the great albums. Have a good night.

1998 Merge Records
1. The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One 2:00
2. The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three 3:06
3. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea 3:22
4. Two-Headed Boy 4:26
5. The Fool Spillane, Robert Schneider 1:53
6. Holland, 1945 3:15
7. Communist Daughter 1:57
8. Oh Comely 8:18
9. Ghost 4:08
10. Untitled 2:16
11. Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two 5:13