Top 7 Brief and Spitefully Expressed Occurences of Visceral Disappointment
By The Staff | 22 November 2005
Before you stand up suddenly, your best taste ravaged by the choices below, consider the following: As base as we can muster, a few reasonably simple reactions can be predicted to occur within the listener after the initial, shallow absorption of an album. In keeping with festivities:
1) Outright hate
4) Bland appreciation
5) Smiling enjoyability
6) Reluctant love
8) Infallible, unexplainable warmth
9) Hype-fueled survivalis
10) Laziness, which leads to never actually listening to the album, which almost necessitates years of lying
These are fun emotions, eh? There are many, many more.
The trouble with a marking an LP a “Disappointing Album” is that its niche in the wholly unflattering “DA” canon can’t be divorced from the particular listener (which means there really isn’t a canon…). Labeling something a “Disappointing” piece of music doesn’t automatically characterize the whole deal as bad, or musically unskilled, or unsophisticated, just, compared to previous efforts, up against the blathering acclamations of love from peers, and in light of new band members, new producers, or more studio money, the new thing doesn’t live up to expectations. And usually, upon first listen, an empty pocket bloats in the middle of the poor audience person’s stomach.
The subjectivity, does it make this list moot? Sure. Undeniably, you may agree with the asserted suckiness of some of these albums, regardless of expectations or previous experiences with the bands, and you may not. Cast off your sorrows and consider the arbitrarily ordered following to be a testament to heroes and an examination of fleeting innocence. Or something. Some are easy picking, others just picky, but all of these albums pissed off one writer enough to thoroughly “disappoint.” Mostly it’s just entertaining to get Alan going on Weezer.
7. The Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol; 2004)
God, I hate this album. Like most white boys raised in a semi-urban environment in the 1990’s, my sense of humour, education in pop culture trivia, and (passing) affinity for hip-hop in general owes more to the Beasties than any other source, and for my entire life up until June of 2004, they, and their entire musical output, were absolutely infallible. But sweet Christ, how this album blows. Anchored by exactly two decent songs (“Ch-Check it Out” and “An Open Letter to NYC”; both singles, of course) the album painfully strips down and retro-fies a group once universally acknowledged as some of the best sonic innovators of their time, leaving the focus on their increasingly puerile and scatological rhymes (and most disturbingly, the morbid, gravely yelp of Adam Yauch). Coming off the dizzying melting pot of the underrated Hello Nasty and the nearly six year absence that followed it, To the 5 Boroughs felt depressingly regressive, and a year and a half later myself and most Beasties fans are still stinging from the disappointment.
6. Ben Folds: Rockin’ the Suburbs (Epic; 2001)
Ben Folds Five dissolved quietly. This isn’t a bad thing, although a tribute or some purple fanfare coulda been nice. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999) is a pretty, mature, and moving cap to a rambunctious career, “rambunctious” being a charming euphemism for such retread BF5 modifiers as “ironic” or “playful” or “frat boy”…”ish.” Of course, proving himself an extremely competent piano player or a surprisingly emotive singer was never a problem for Folds, and Messner did nothing for really pushing the skillz into dizzying mastery. Same goes for Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse, bass and drums respectively; if you had the great fortune of seeing them all together live, before the end of our last century, you may have noticed how steady and ferociously the two could play off each other, forcing the pop songs into something stickier and incessantly exciting that whatever skeleton Folds set down. The greatness of Messner in respect to Whatever and Ever Amen (1997) or Ben Folds Five (1995) is in how easily the band lets the songs breathe and glide, drawing back lyrics, heavy arpeggios, and most bass heft to forge something that literally sounds older and wispily complete.
Then, on THE Sept. 11th, Ben Folds released his solo debut from the ashes of his popular band. Maybe the day was already inundated with ash, horror justifying forced patriotism and petty nostalgia, but Rockin’ the Suburbs felt especially bleak, miserly despite the reprobate goo-goo lyrics and predictable self-deprecation. Ignore the painfully alliterative song titles; ignore how every song doggedly pursues the same key and cadence; ignore the impersonal personas sprinkled obsessively throughout the mix; Folds’s disappointing crime was in the way he slapped back to old BF5 frenzy, like a soccer dad challenging his son’s whole team to a pickup game, and then putting two toddlers in the hospital while running full speed after the shinguarded ghost of his college varsity glory. From the cloying orange glow of the packaging to “The Luckiest,” a schmaltzy wank of a ballad—granted, “Magic” is also cheesy, but damn!, that chorus!—Rockin’ the Suburbs is a struggle in every way. Pluggin’ ahead in forced crescendos, forced story-telling, forced irony, forced sentimentality, Folds demonstrated how simply a talented artist could unlearn his best moves.
5. Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish? (Artist Direct BMG; 2002)
Talk about losing the plot. After Damon Gough manages to produce a debut record that still sounds phenomenal to this day and a soundtrack that ain’t half bad (which is saying a lot for a soundtrack), he just sort of stops trying. The lyrics lack any of the sincerity that made The Hour of the Bewilderbeast (2000) so charming or the beautiful craftsmanship to the arrangements. Perhaps it’s trying too hard, really. With his move from XL to a BMG subsidiary, Gough sounds absolutely desperate to widen his audience, and he seems quite willing to employ as many extraneous layers of strings and horn sections as necessary to do so.
I remember being excited about Fish. I got Bewilderbeast as a birthday present a few months after it came out and is one of those records that I not only almost wore out at the time, but still go back to with a pretty good regularity. Gough was simply too good not to keep listening to, and there are a few tracks on the About a Boy soundtrack that confirm that nicely (“A Minor Incident,” “Silent Sigh,” pretty much all the filler).
Still, when “You Were Right” and “40 Days, 40 Flights” started cropping up on the radio something was clearly wrong. The record itself only confirmed it. What was wrong with being heartfelt? Was having a (rather large) cult following a bad thing? They were comparing Gough to Elliott Smith around the time of Bewilderbeast, but any resemblance had long since faded and we were left with the shell of the music—sure, lots of overblown arrangements and “deep” lyrical matter, but nothing there to really back them up. As One Plus One is One showed no signs of stopping the downward descent, it’s probably time to cut our losses on Badly Drawn Boy. It’s a shame, but at least we got one hell of an album out of it.
4. The Fiery Furnaces: Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade; 2005)
An easy target, I know, but in indie journalism, where the objects of our ire usually seem to be those who squander great potential by playing it safe, it’s important to remember that you can fuck things up even more dramatically by actually taking a chance. And what a chance the Friedburgers took – a spoken word historical montage from a creepy, asexual-sounding grandma, set to the most ghastly piano noise conceivable, trailing on for 58 unbearable, undistinguishable minutes; a failure in the most extravagant and hilarious sense of the word.
I’ve played “The Garfield El” or “Guns Under the Counter” for most of my friends, and regardless of their taste or level of musical knowledge, their reactions are virtually identical – listening with bemused laughter and saying something to the effect of “god, this is fucking weird/terrible,” before pulling off their headphones after 30 seconds or so, unable to take anymore. My reaction wasn’t any different the first time, and to be fair, I’ve only been able to get through it in one sitting a couple of times, though not for lack of trying. Really, this is the only Metal Machine Music-level failure of the 00’s, a kind of brave catastrophe that we don’t see a lot of these days, and for that reason, Rehearsing My Choir might actually deserve a cursory listen. Or 30 seconds of it, at least.
3. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.; 1999)
It’s just as easy to love an album hyped through the roof as it is to scoff at the same album, scoffing equally at a Corporate Machine or an Indie Cool. Having not heard any early FL albums before finally indulging in this, the mass-proclaimed High Lord of Psychedelic/Orchestral/Operatic ROCK, my expectations regarding its greatness were only curbed by slight caveats: “It takes some time to really get into,” or, “His voice is an acquired taste,” or, “This can’t be fully appreciated without witnessing the incredible live show,” and then, “Dude, have you actually heard Zaireeka?” The answer to that last one is no, but that doesn’t matter.
I have spent three years with The Soft Bulletin. I heard and flightily enjoyed Yoshimi, but I’ve kept the rest of the Flaming Lips collection out of range. I wanted to take this mastery of production and pop on its own terms, let it simmer without adulteration from the glee in witnessing a band develop, without the distraction of educated fanship. Critically, this is a sloppy and ignorant approach, but for someone with little money for bread, let alone music, it seemed an effective way of discerning how spectacularly Wayne Coyne was going to justify getting my fifteen bucks.
This is what I got: mildly exciting hooks dependent on studio wackery and instrumental bombast; “psychedelic” awe too aware of its own preciousness to push much farther than Yes ever did; an engaging, if weak, voice spouting out some of the most treacly and ludicrous lyrics this side of Dashboard Confessional; supposedly “groundbreaking” production that amounted to Fridmann button mashing and some kind of ineffable din over underwhelming string arrangements; a concept album with no discernible concept outside of “Love” or “Science.” And then I kept listening, and kept listening, and grew older, and graduated college, and sat through the Decade/Century/Millennium lists that put this baby at the top. The Flaming Lips have become exponentially lamer since their latest full LP, but even that progression does nothing to save or warrant how thoroughly mediocre The Soft Bulletin is. As such, the album is disappointing in the most harrowing sense of the word, alienating and annoying for those of us the minority.
2. British Sea Power: Open Season (Rough Trade; 2005)
The Decline of British Sea Power was, if not the best (or best-titled), probably the most distinctive debut from any rock band this century, throwing us a Gregorian chant, a psycho love paean to Fyodor Dostoevsky, and an 80-second guitar outburst called “Favours in the Beetroot Fields” all in its first 5 minutes, before settling into some of the best red-blooded English rock and roll in recent memory. So what could have possibly compelled them to follow such a spectacular effort with Open Season, an album so ordinary that even the band’s incendiary live shows can only salvage about half of it?
While it begins promisingly enough with the anthemic “It Ended on an Oily Stage,” the album quickly drops off into drearier territory – solidly written songs, sung with serviceable ardour, but lacking in the punk energy and academic zaniness that made their debut so extraordinary. Even the lyrics, strong as they often are, feel a little conservative in comparison to the melancholy naturalism of older songs like “Fear of Drowning.” It’s not to say that BSP can’t try to find new strengths, just that Open Season actually feels like a step backward, as if it should be the debut to The Decline of…’s follow-up instead. For me, no album released this year has been as much of a letdown.
1. Weezer: Make Believe (Geffen; 2005)
I like to think of Weezer’s career as an equilibrium reaction.
The way I see it is that there’s this high pressure vat with toxic chemicals thrown in. Temperature of about 450°, a load of catalyst (vanadium pentoxide?)
You see, all this equilibrium shtick, it’s just the marker of a hopeful Weezer fan. And I am a hopeful Weezer fan. No matter how bad things get (and, in hindsight, things have gotten really bad), I will still believe that there’s another Pinkerton in Rivers Cuomo, that he can just pick up that guitar and start busting some rhymes to rival Blue’s best. Or maybe he could just release Songs From the Black Hole, already (please).
With Blue and Pinkerton, Weezer released two of the most perfect song suites in ‘90s alternative rock. They flummoxed the influx. Bananas jammed all the way up pyjamas. What. The. Fuck.
So, it was pretty much an inevitability that Green would blow. I mean, you shove in excess reactant, you’ve got to balance it out with the product. This is just the natural order of things. Continued oscillation; if you swing the pendulum so far up one way, you’ve just got to be prepared for it to swing over to the other extreme. And it did.
I’ve heard people describe Weezer Mk. 2001 as a "perfect pop album," which, on reflection, is true, if you regard pop music as a vapid means to express non-existent emotions in overcooked chord progressions and a man at the Pro Tools stand, as these people clearly did. "Hash Pipe" is hooky in the way that Limp Bizkit’s Mission Impossible theme sounded good for 12 seconds. You could find more depth in a bin (and, likely, a lot less garbage too). But, what the hell, you take the good, you take the bad, sod’s law dictates, accurately, that out of failure only success can come.
Stylus’ Ian Mathers recently re-evaluated Maladroit as “so much better than Weezer’s other albums,” which I’m not even going to begin and try commenting on. Maladroit may be (far) superior to Green, but Rivers’ song writing was in a diabetic coma. Four chords isn’t enough, man. Stop treating music like a science (unless you’re a music critic, in which case, go ahead, quote Kirchoff’s 2nd Law in relation to “The Good Life”).
I shouldn’t have been expecting much from Make Believe. If I go back to the equilibrium analogy, it was clear (even after some slightly more impressive embryonic ‘Album 5’ demos back in June ’02) that something had shifted the band’s equilibrium far to the right. Temperature? Pressure? Scott Shriner?
I, though, am hopeful, and three years is a time long enough to forgive and forget old, boring prejudices and start anew. And the run up to Make Believe’s release was dosed up in so much fan fibrillations and neat press quotes that it was hard not to get excited. Rivers had admitted that he’d been an asshole. He hadn’t had sex for two years! He was meditating!
More exciting were reports that Rick Rubin was making our man in the horn-rimmed glasses square up to his inner demons, to confront and deal with his "real" issues, prompting exclamations that Weezer’s 5th would be a hark back to the highly intimate style that fans swooned over in the halcyon era. I was there on the message boards daily (until .com got overtaken by cretinous zealots, after which I alternated between weezernation and the now legendary albumfive.com). I downloaded the original "mobile phone rip," where somebody at the “Beverly Hills” video shoot recorded some fans singing along. To me it sounded like “El Scorcho.” I was that excited. Even when "Hills" dropped on the airwaves and was unanimously dubbed as being worse than what “Mo’Beats” previously regarded as the band’s nadir, I was still eager to hear Make Believe. I knew it had to be good. I dreamt it was good. It was really good.
So, we all know where this is going. Make Believe sucks. And I had expectations. You just don’t do that to your fans (unless you’re Ryan Adams, in which case, there’s always David Greenwald). So I’ve gone 711 words without actually talking about the album, but what’s the point? Just because Make Believe quotes Prospero (and in the inlay, no less), it doesn’t mean Rivers Cuomo is frickin’ Shakespeare. “My Best Friend”? “The Other Way”?
At least there is one good song on Make Believe that offers that flickering glimmer—like what “Slob” did on Maladroit—that all is not lost (yet). That song is “Haunt You Every Day.” Yes, it’s still anaesthetised by Rubin’s anaemic production job, and does have more than a slight whiff of the ‘Hey! Look! My First Song on Piano!’ about it, but, hey, at least it can be endured.
I really hope this isn’t the end for Weezer. I know, I know. I realise Rivers is in his mid-thirties and it would be pretty disturbing for him to be singing about half-Japanese girls again, but that doesn’t make the likes of “We Are All on Drugs” any more acceptable.