Jerry Marotta

REVIEW: Gowan – Strange Animal (1984)

GOWAN – Strange Animal (1984 CBS)

Strange Animal was only Lawrence Gowan’s second solo album, and one of his best sellers.  It’s also one of his most dated sounding, with programming and production honed in on the 1980s.  Regardless, you can’t knock the musicians:  Tony Levin (bass/Chapman Stick), Jerry Marotta (drums), and Chris Jarrett & David Rhodes (guitars).  Gowan basically lifted his studio band from Peter Gabriel.

Opener “Cosmetics” was a single, though just shy of cracking the Top 40.  It’s terribly dated sounding, with that wretched brittle synthetic sound that even Queen resorted to at one point.  So you might love it!  The piano is delectable and Gowan is as smooth as pie.  “Desperate” is darker, but I sure do hate synth hand-claps!  Fortunately this is a great song, akin to 80s Phil Collins.  Another really smooth one is “City of the Angels”, like a waltz at midnight.  Progressive rock invades “Walking on Air”, which lightly tip-toes from gentle rock to more aggressive guitars.

A delicate but powerful “Burning Torches of Hope” sits right at the middle of the album, and it is so very 80s.  Levin makes some animalist noise on “Keep the Tension On”, which sounds much like its title.  Taut, powerful, and even heavy in a certain way.  It’s melds right into a march on “Guerilla Soldier”, a killer song with terrific verse hooks.  Massive song!  It feels like this album builds to a close.  Especially when you consider the last two songs.

Finally, at the end of the album comes the familiar hits.  First:  a huge Chapman Stick groove, on the poppy upbeat title track.  “Strange Animal” is an awesome song: strictly fun, and incredibly so!  The melody stays in your head for days, and you’re hooked.  Ominous spiritus, ahh!  And then it’s his most famous song, “A Criminal Mind”, otherwise known as “the one that Styx play live”.  Solo, in the studio, “A Criminal Mind” is just as haunting, just as powerful, and just as unforgettable.  It also had one of the most disturbing music videos we had seen as young kids, and our reaction was revulsion.  On album, it is a capstone of a pretty terrific record.  It really feels like it should have opened.

Though ultimately it is up to the listener, unless you grew up with Strange Animal in the Walkman nestled in your back pocket, the programming and 80s-isms are a bit distracting.  It’s also strange how Gowan left all the big firepower stacked at the end of the album.  In the CD age, it just makes the whole thing more rewarding at the end!

3.5/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castle (1998)

Part 3 of the Aaron Challenge:  He has challenged me to get out of my comfort zone.  Together, we will be reviewing some of the albums he bought in Toronto during Record Store Excursion 2012.  I’ve never heard any of these albums before, in fact I know almost nothing about most of these bands.  But I do know I sold a lot (a lot!) of Ani DiFranco during my time at the record store.

Aaron paid $2.99 for this, at Sonic Boom Music.

Check out his review here!

Ani_DiFranco_-_Little_Plastic_Castle

ANI DIFRANCO – Little Plastic Castle (1998 Righteous Babe)

I remember working at the store back in ’98, and the general reception from Ani DiFranco fans to this album was positive, but mildly critical.  There was a vibe that she had sold out for bigger success.  That was just what I was hearing.

Having not heard the previous albums, all I can say is good music is good music.  Yes, the production is lush and not what you’d think of “indy”.  Listen to those mariachi horns on the title track.  Not exactly low-fi.  But it sounds great!  What an upbeat, entertaining track.  Awesome.  Not to mention her guitar work is excellent.  The lyrics seem to be about public perception of what she should and should not be.

“Fuel” is one I’d heard before from Aaron.  I liked that one too.  I like when she’s goofy. This is beat poetry with a backing band.  Normally I go for a lead vocal with melody, but this works due to Ani’s well-composed expression.  From there it’s on to “Gravel”, a fast melodic one with more dexterous picking from Ani.  Another great tune, with melody to spare.    It’s a sparse arrangement, just guitar and voice with some percussion, and that’s it.

Drums introduce “As Is”, a soft pleasant song with barely audible keyboards in the background.  It’s laid back and slightly mournful but also playful, and pretty much perfect as is (pun intended).  “Two Little Girls” is dark, a tale of a difficult childhood.  Ani’s excellent picking, and a bouncy backing bassline, makes it entertaining, but lyrically it seems loaded with pain.

“Deep Dish” is the first song I didn’t enjoy.  It features samples and long spoken word bit, and is very rhythmic.  It did nothing for me, though.  Sorry Ani.  Nothing personal!  “Loom” however is a brief (under 3 minutes) explosion of drums and acoustic picking, more along the lines of what I like.  “Pixie” follows, one I didn’t click with.  Ani sings in a soft whisper, expressive as ever, I just didn’t like the song.  It didn’t have enough melody or punch for me.

A long song, “Swandive”, is a bit of a change of pace since most of the previous tunes were in the 4 minute range.  This one builds slowly.  “I’m gonna do my best swan dive, into shark infested waters,” sings Ani, while picking more of those great guitar parts.  “Glass House” totally changes the pace, with a bouncy wah-wah infested bass melody intro.  This is great.  I didn’t see that coming, nor the weird caterwauling trumpet that followed it!  Ani then whispers the lyrics, underlined by a pulsing bass, with the odd electronic effect.  Then just as you’re getting used to it, the drums kick in, accelerating the tune forward, and the vocals get angry.  Ani is nothing if not diverse, I’m learning, even within one song.

“Independence Day” is a beautiful song, melodic and passionate, slow and pretty.  A hit song in any just world.  The final song, “Pulse”, is another slow builder, with a beat poetry vibe to the verses.  It’s not brief either!  14 minutes!  It sounds a bit like a jam, but I wonder, since the whole album has more of a vibe of being carefully assembled rather than jammed out.

Little Plastic Castle is an excellent sounding album.  The guitars are lush, full and clear.  The snare drum sound is perfect. Production-wise, it’s a total triumph (and self-produced by Ani).  I think the album tends to sag a bit in the middle, after such a fine start, but it’s still a great album.

4/5 stars

MIKE AND AARON GO TO TORONTO