Dig These Discs :: Plants And Animals, Mouse On Mars, Sinead O’Connor, Idina Menzel

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Wednesday March 7, 2012

From the electronic to the iconic, this month's Dig These Discs has something for everyone. Angst-laden Sinead O'Connor drops another new album, and Broadway diva Idina Menzel shows just how wicked her voice can be. Everything old is new again in Plants and Animals latest release, and longtime krautrock duo Mouse on Mars drops their first studio album in six years, to high critical praise.

"How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?" (Sinead O’Connor)

Although best known for tearing up that picture of the Pope on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992, Sinead O'Connor has always courted controversy, becoming ordained as a female priest, speaking out against organized religion, war, and child abuse, coming out as a lesbian in 2000, marrying four times, and divorcing her most recent husband, Barry Herridge, after only 16 days. Her new album, "How About I Be Me and You Be You" reveals a more mature artist, but one still passionate about her issues. On "VIP", she sings in her ghostly a capella about the world of velvet ropes and the self-importance of artists in the face of worldwide suffering, singing, "The artists always spoke their people's needs, know we're gorged upon what devil's feed, and the shallow form of MTV telling the youth to worship futile dreams/ and long for bling and for material things. I'll tell you what a real VIP is: a face that never was or will be kissed." The track "Very Far From Home" is less militant, a sad, sweet song about finding love, even at a distance. "Take Off Your Shoes" is another ghostly song, with the whispered lyrics, "I bleed the blood of Jesus over you, and over every fucking thing you do." "Song of the Siren" is most likely to receive radio play, a slow, sweet crooner with a harmonious chorus that sticks with the listener. "Hello, you don't know but I took your laptop and your TV, I stole your Granny's rosary for 50p", O'Connor sings in "Reason With Me", with the chorus, "Oh so long I've been a junky, I oughta wrap it up and mind my monkeys. I really wanna mend my ways; I'm gonna call that number one of these days." The break is jarring, as she whispers, "If I love someone, I might lose someone". There is a deeply penetrating sadness in O'Connor's work that chills to the bone. It is seen again in the spectral, "I Had a Baby". "Queen of Denmark" is a John Grant song about falling apart at the seams, chock full of odd, angry lyrics like, "You tell me that your life is based on a lie/ I casually mentioned that I pissed in your coffee." "Old Lady" is more middle of the road, while "Back Where You Belong" smacks of her old hits on "The Lion and the Cobra". And, with a sound more upbeat than O'Connor usually drops is "4th and Vine". She sings about putting on her pink dress and makeup and heading down to the church on 4th and Vine to marry her love. "We're gonna have six children, and enough love for them, that they'll be happy all the time...because their mama and their pa, love them so fine." The song may have been inspired by her turbulent childhood, in which O'Connor suffered child abuse at the hands of her mother, with her father engaged in a public battle for custody, or by her latest failed attempt at marriage. O'Connor's life may be mottled and turbulent, but her voice is as beautiful as it ever was. (Shamrock Solutions)

"Live: Barefoot at the Symphony" (Idina Menzel)

Broadway diva Idina Menzel, best known for her work in "Rent," "Wicked," and most recently, in the TV show "Glee," releases her new album, "Live: Barefoot At the Symphony," recorded last November in Toronto. The CD comes in tandem with a forthcoming PBS special, and the "barefoot" refers to Menzel, who said in the press release, "When you're singing songs like 'Defying Gravity' you can get swept away, but my bare feet make me feel more grounded." She has remained "adamantly shoeless" onstage since. The album features 16 tracks, although not all are music. Menzel is accompanied by a 52-piece symphony, lead by the inimitable director, the legendary Marvin Hamlisch. "You Were Good" is Menzel's relaying her tale of meeting her hero, Barbra Streisand, "Thank You" is a thanks to Hamlisch, and "The Professor" is a story about a college professor who assigned her to deconstruct a Cole Porter song. She chose "Love for Sale/Roxanne," and her pipes are amazing, made even better by the brass and piano accompaniment. The mash-up with The Police classic, "Roxanne" is an interesting take. She duets with her husband, Taye Diggs, in "Where or When," prompting one listener to speculate whether Menzel manufactures opportunities to announce to the world that she is happily married to one of Hollywood's hunkiest African-American leading men. In her place, who wouldn't? She sings "Defying Gravity" and an a capella version of "For Good" from "Wicked," and knocks "No Day But Today" from "Rent" right out of the park. She even reprises two songs sung in "Glee": Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," which she sang with Lea Michele's character, and Streisand's "Funny Girl," which she pairs with "Don't Rain on My Parade." Menzel's voice is layered and honey, and the songs she chose to sing showcase it very well. Unfortunately, the live album format allows for a heavy dose of storytelling between -- and sometimes even within -- the songs. This can make for a choppy listening experience, especially when the tracks aren't played sequentially. Menzel closes with "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie," dedicating it to her mother, who kept Menzel away from spending her childhood auditioning on Broadway. Although it is nice that Menzel got to have a normal childhood, it seems as though the Great White Way was indeed where this chanteuse was meant to be. (Concord Records)

"Parastrophics" (Mouse on Mars)

If you love electronic krautrock that relies heavily on distorted synth beats, Mouse on Mars is for you. This Düsseldorf duo of Jan St. Warner and Andi Toma stand the test of time, as they have been mixing beats since 1993 with their quirky blend of electronic, disco, ambient, and intelligent dance music, heavy on the analog synth. And their 10th studio album, "Parastrophics" dumps 13 new tracks on you. Among the best, in this critic's opinion, are those with lyrics interspersed among the wacky beats. "They Know Your Name" is a good example of the successful pairing of synth and distorted vocals. "Cricket" is another great blend of their zany cross-frequency modulations and vocal distortions. Ditto for "Gearknot Cherry," which sounds like an Everything But the Girl track that got trapped inside the office water cooler. The tunes "The Beach Stop" and "Baku Hipster" temper the electronic free-for-all with lovely feminine vocal samples, but, "Chordblocker, Cinnamon Toasted Crunch" is less successful, heavy on hip-hop synth distortion and male vocals that just sound like they're saying, "Facebook's a cock-blocker." The track "Syncropticians" is a sprawling musical chop shop that somehow works. "Polaroyced" captures the early electronic/disco music of the '80s, a la Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life," but focusing primarily on repetitive sounds. They even channel hip-hop in "Metrotopy," which blends both instrumental and vocal distortion into what they like to call "sound annihilation," an amalgam of mangled beats. Their track "Imatch" begins all fits and starts with a tinny scratch beat, before finding its footing with beats that sound like samples from the arcade games Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Mario Bros. St. Warner and Toma both have thriving solo careers, and admit that they had sketched out their latest album for the last two years before coming together in Berlin to record it, almost entirely on computers. It has been six years since their last LP, "Varcharz," and although some critics expressed concern that their latest album would be irrelevant or dated, a listen to "Parastrophics" puts these fears to rest. The chaotic blend of sounds is as fresh as early MoM releases, heartening German techno fans far and wide. Mouse on Mars' trademark move is to shake you up with their unpredictable pairings of feedback, deep bass, and sampled percussion, and while it's not exactly easy to listen to, for some, it is positively addictive. (Monkeytown)

"End of That" (Plants and Animals)

This Montreal-based indie rock band comprised of instrumentalist and singer Warren Spicer, drummer Matthew Woodley, and lead guitarist Nicolas Basque, drops its third full-length album to advance praise. As relayed in several interviews with the band, the album came to its retro sound by mistake. The boys were recording in Paris when an irate neighbor shut them down. Forced to move to a carpeted basement studio, the band discovered that they preferred the warmer sound. "2010" is a heavy-rock hit, while "No Idea" comes across as more of a hard-biting Tom Petty dirge. This sound resurfaces in several other tracks, including the title track, a love gone wrong song to a woman with "bee sting lips and pepper grinder hips." "Why & Why" and "Song For Love" feature a clipped acoustic sound with crisp hooks. "Lightshow" and "H.C." are slower, emotional tunes that resonate with the listener. "Runaways" is a sentimental rock song about living the dream, with lyrics like, "I never dreamed we'd make it this far/ we're running for our lives." And "Crisis!" is caught "somewhere between a crisis and a pretty good time." Often described as "post-classic rock," the music of Plants and Animals evokes the gritty classic rock music of bands like Jethro Tull, heavy with electric guitar, male vocals, and drums. The new album reportedly contains two iTunes-only tracks, "Shakey Shakey Shakey" and "Brokedown," so snatch it up online to get the most bang for your buck. (Secret City Records)

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.