Monday, January 23, 2006

Top 5: Clues and the Clueless

A while back, I picked up Out of a Dream, a solo album by Danny Federici, organist for the E-Street Band. I got the album hoping that it might come from the same rock/pop/soul intersection that's the source of Springsteen's music. It doesn't. It's syrupy smooth jazz--the kind of thing beloved by people who want others to think they like jazz when they really don't. Granted, there's no law that says Federici's music has to have anything in common with Springsteen's--after all, Charlie Watts' first love is jazz, and what he does on his own hook has nothing to do with what he does with the Stones. But I wasn't expecting such a difference from Federici, so, fair or not, his album failed to live up to my hopes for it. Along this line, here are four other albums that were similarly disappointing--because there's no bummer like the one that happens when an artist you like lays an egg.

Fundamental/Bonnie Raitt (1998). Bonnie Raitt's 1990s comeback was guided by Don Was, who produced Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw, and Longing in Their Hearts, with spectacular results. Bonnie tried changing things up on Fundamental, turning to the hot producers of that moment, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Well, there's avant garde, which is what Froom and Blake purportedly were, and there's just plain clueless, which they demonstrably were. Some of the songs are as good as anything Raitt wrote for her previous three albums, but the production is so incompetent that the album is painful to listen to. Froom and Blake sound like they don't know how to place a microphone or run a mixer.

Time Sex Love/Mary Chapin Carpenter (2001).
At the time, this was MCC's first new album in over four years, and as a result, I really wanted to like it, but I didn't then, and I don't now. There's almost nothing on this record that's as affecting as the weakest cuts on Stones in the Road, her best album. Plus, MCC spoils the effect of the album's loveliest track, "Late for Your Life," by following it with a hidden outtake, which features she and the band melting down in laughter. This sort of self-indulgent piffle is why hiring an outside producer isn't a bad thing. Unless it's Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

Clues/Robert Palmer (1980).
After a superb series of blue-eyed soul records that were exactly the kind of thing I adored, Palmer went new-wave on Clues, collaborating with Gary Numan, an artist I didn't understand and could barely tolerate, and I hated the album like poison. My overwhelmingly negative reaction, it occurs to me now, stemmed from the sense of betrayal I felt. I think maybe you have to be 20 years old to feel betrayed by an album, because this album isn't worth that kind of passionate dislike. And in retrospect, some of it ("Sulky Girl," "Johnny and Mary") really is a lot better than it sounded to me then.

River of Dreams/Billy Joel (1993). The title song of this album blew me away, and still sounds pretty good. The rest of the album didn't, and doesn't. There's something shrill and hectoring about it. For example, the second big single, "All About Soul," goes on for six minutes, and by the end, you feel like you've been beaten over the head for that long. Even the ballads have a disturbing darkness to them. If this really was Billy Joel's last pop album, it was a memorable exit for all the wrong reasons.

Feel free to contribute your own tales of disappointing albums by clicking "Comments."


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