Bernie Sanders, We Shall Overcome

Sorry, Bernie bros: stick a fork in him, he's done for 2020. But we would be remiss to close what may be his last presidential campaign without this odd musical footnote in politics, his 1987 album. In these hyperpolarized times it may be impossible to review this album without a political slant — if you love Bernie, you'll love this album no matter how bad it is, and likewise you'll hate it if you despise him — but let's take it on ear value and see how far we get. If you came to hear him sing, you'll be sadly disappointed because on this album at least, he doesn't. But he pulls no punches; like a socialist northeastern Rod McKuen, he turns his speeches into veritable beat poetry over five spirituals and anthems, berating "The Banks of Marble" and American jingoism asking "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" while reminding us that this land was made for you and me, with "thirty Vermont artists" faithfully playing the choir as he roars from his fiery secular pulpit. I have no quibbles with the polished production (if a bit maudlin) but this album has a specific purpose: it's a call for revolution, and that is its trump (ahem) card while simultaneously its biggest fault. This is red carbon-neutral Impossible Burger meat to be played at rallies and speeches, not relaxing after fattening up the wallets of the man or partying in the shadow of the one-percent. It may be unfair to say it's bad pop when it never really aspired to be, but that's the only non-partisan yardstick I've got. While it's the most fascinating political artifact I've ever encountered to date, as the recording equivalent of an anti-MAGA hat it just isn't good music. The CD reissue omits the "conversation with Bernie Sanders" on the original cassette's B-side which musically doesn't change anything. (Content: as stated.)

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Harpers Bizarre, The Complete Singles Collection

Probably the best known sunshine pop band among the genre's brief 1960s blossoming, this collection is the easiest way for modern ears to access their unusual discography. Fronted primarily by Ted Templeman, more famous later as a producer than a performer, their earlier works as the Tikis and the Other Tikis are best described as undistinguished and their presence on this collection merely counts for completeness. Fortunately, their recordings under their better known name are of far greater quality. To be sure, the band relied on covers almost to a fault ("Chattanooga Choo Choo" and their ponderous take on "Knock on Wood"), but they usually did them competently ("Both Sides Now," "Anything Goes" and Templeman's arrangement of "If We Ever Needed The Lord Before") and frequently as good or better than the original (particularly their big hit "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)" but also the lovely Van Dyke Parks track "Come To The Sunshine" and the hypnotically captivating "Witchi Tai To"). Unfortunately their efforts in broadening their oeuvre didn't work so well, such as their vain attempts at going country; "Virginia City"'s faux parochialism clangs (at least it's short), along with "Soft Soundin' Music" to a lesser extent and the out-of-place "Battle of New Orleans." Similarly, while "I Love You, Alice B Toklas!"'s psychedelia-soaked production doesn't wear as badly as those did, as an obvious product of its time it doesn't stand as an eternal classic either. Their artistic sense may not be nearly as sublime as other sunshine acts like the Free Design, but they were at least for awhile better attuned to pop music's fickle demands, and arguably thus aged better in the aggregate. However, this collection faithfully accumulates their highs and lows with equally determined precision, and we all know what that averages out to be. (Content: a couple sly drug references.)

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Radiohead, OK Computer

There is sheer genius here behind that incomprehensible title. It starts right away with gritty violins and the grungily insistent, meandering backbeat of "Airbag"'s intro, giving way to its exalted trilling guitars that nearly submerge Thom Yorke's vocals. There is also the satiny undulation of "Subterranean Homesick Alien," the plaintive stripped down "Exit Music (For A Film)," the mournfully lyric "Let Down," the quaveringly upbeat "No Surprises" and the luxurious sweeping floataways of the closer "The Tourist." Less accomplished, but no less worthy, are the distortion-drowned "Electioneering," the morose if expressive "Climbing Up The Walls" and the sluggish though still fascinatingly contrastive "Lucky." Yet these only comparative lesser moments are swept away by this album's triumphs, the menacingly beautiful "Karma Police" (compare with Cheap Trick's "Dream Police") and its artistic peak "Paranoid Android," a possibly unintentional prog rock throwback with distinct movements, discrete tempos and some of the most layered and complex audio construction since Alan Parsons. Its small faults make it greater; its great moments make it matter, and it is arguable if any of its contemporaries come close. The reissue "OKNOTOK 1997 2017" might as well be an entire second album: besides remastering the original such that it's never sounded better, it leads off with three brilliant unreleased tracks ("I Promise," "Man of War" and "Lift") and eight B-sides. Unlike many shovel-ons these tracks are almost as high quality as the album they didn't make and if I had a six-star option I might even award it. A little over much is the bonus cassette (!) in the boxed set, mostly short odds and sods in progress, though even these not-fully-cooked treats are nearly as tasty and old-school ZX Spectrum owners should put the cassette in their system's tape player for a bonus. (Wait, is that where the title comes from? I had a Commodore 64, you see.) (Content: no concerns.)

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Kanye West, Jesus Is King

There is a pernicious problem in religious media (and in these United States, this generally means Christian media) that because it's religious, religious people nod and say it must be good, even when it isn't. This is a big reason why I don't review Christian music here generally, even being Christian personally, because since the dreck isn't skimmed off there's actually more artless junk in Christian record catalogues than secular ones and I don't need to wallow in that sad realization. Yet now and again a religious album appears of such artistic quality and/or sophistication that given how high it stands above its contemporaries I end up feeling terribly wrong in praising it. With at most rare errancy West crystallizes his journey towards and with God into eleven tracks bookended by gospel and livened by hip-hop, and even at its clumsiest the album is smarter than people want to give it credit for. "What have you been hearin' from the Christians?" he asks in "Hands On," predicting accurately "they'll be the first one to judge me." At the same time, though, he shares their same aspirations and voices the common struggle to righteousness, "Made a left when I should've made a right ... told the devil that I'm going on a strike; I've been working for you my whole life." His metaphors on Christian reliance may be a little hamfisted in "On God," and his alleged tribulations might ring hollow to the struggling masses, but how else could a net worth of $250 mil pass through the proverbial eye of the needle? (On the other hand, although I'm hoping "Closed On Sunday"'s Chick-fil-A references were tongue-in-cheek, it just comes off as kinda dumb.) Musically, however, the production is exceptional as it splices more traditional gospel pieces to wrap around the singles (the rich "God Is" being the best example), and the performance quality is stellar. If it weren't for the fact it's unforgivably short, almost EP length, I would be seriously faced with the prospect of giving an album half this readership merely on principle will despise a full five stars. I don't know what's gone on in Kanye's life and I don't know how to walk a single inch in his shoes. I won't judge what he believes and I won't know how long he'll believe it. But here is a religious album that is still as scrupulously professional as his other productions yet unambiguous in his belief that it's his time to stand up for God. What he's saying here will bother or offend many and this album's unapologetic proselytizing makes it deeply controversial, yet he's determined he's still gonna say it and say it with the highest artistic level of quality he can muster. My beliefs may be my bias, but to my great personal astonishment I too nodded and said it was good, because it is. (Content: as stated.)

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Wham!, Make It Big

Exuberant fluffy nonsense, but it's good exuberant fluffy nonsense. The music is relentlessly upbeat to a fault and the lyrics are mostly throwaway, but it's slick, well-produced and irresistibly irrepressible. The slower moments are not exactly their best ("Like A Baby" does little for me and "Everything She Wants" is distastefully bitter) but the updated take on bubblegum pop in "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Freedom" and even non-singles like "Credit Card Baby" will bring a stupid grin to just about anyone's face. Of course, the capper is "Careless Whispers," now completely ruined by Deadpool to the point where an otherwise straight if similarly cheesy song now makes me helplessly snigger whenever it comes on the radio. Who doesn't love a review with a happy ending? (Content: no concerns.)

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The KLF, The White Room

The final album in this duo's multipartite ode to themselves is this soundtrack they didn't release to a film they didn't make before they blew up their entire catalogue and burned a million quid. Or, rather, unreleased except for this modified form, some of its original structure apparently intact, complete with their usual level of self-aggrandizement, layered sound and raucous atmosphere. Indeed, its soundtrack origins die quite hard; the programming and changes in tempo feel like you hit the third act right on time around the last third of the album. Plus, while I'm sure this gives myself away as merely a casual fan, I actually found the self-referential callouts wore out their welcome awfully quick. Yes, dammit, we know you're the KLF and the Justified Ancient Grand Pooh-Bah Vizier Knights of Cincinnati or whatever and the joke was funny exactly once; I don't need to be informed of this and/or whether you're still in the building/business multiple times in the first half, but the groove tightens up when they dial down the self-promotion and the music is overall sharper and more focused (compare with, say, Chill Out). My favourite moments are the slow jams, in particular "Build A Fire," "No More Tears" and "Justified And Ancient," because they're light, airy and melodic in all the ways the harder moments aren't; "Make It Rain" and "White Room" aren't bad either for much the same reasons, though of the faster and trance-ier tracks, only "Last Train to Trancentral" has enough going for it to overcome all the other ways the in-your-face production is obnoxious. I'm concluding this petulant flameout was their way of quitting while they were ahead but Arista is allegedly still pressing this CD in the States, and on balance there's still more to like than not, so I'm sure they'll make that million pounds back soon enough. (Content: no concerns.)

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