Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Follow Up to Brilliance

We all know and love them, those basically perfect albums that not even some of the greatest bands have, but when they do, are all anyone can ever talk about despite what greatness may (or may not) come before or after. They’re an Achilles heal really, ‘cos once they reach that point (shall we say musical Nirvana), everything else they ever do will be compared (quite harshly) to that one shining achievement. A few (random) examples would be…

Boston: Boston (1976)
Sarah McLachlan: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The Cure: Disintegration (1989)

These aren’t necessarily my favorite albums by these artists, nor their financial, creative or influential peaks, nor am I saying they should have called it quits afterwards. But I am saying that from what I’ve heard and read and from conversations I’ve had with music lovers over the past 20+ years, these are the albums that folks tend to nod to enthusiastically should you bring up said artist. And these could be debated (as always, music is in the ear of the beholder), and for that reason I couldn’t include folks such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the B-52s (left field, I know). ‘Cos different “experts” will argue that Dylan was over when he went electric, the Beatles when they stopped touring, the Stones when Brian Jones checked out and our friends from Athens before the first album came out. And to all of that I would say, “Incorrect,” but I would also respect that opinion and say this…

How do you follow up a hallmark album? Should you?

The obvious answer is: Yes! And yet often times, with hindsight: No!!!

There’re lots of reasons for this depending on the artist and the viewpoint of the listener. And I’m not here to discuss any of the aforementioned artists or albums, but an album by an artist of whom many, MANY fans include their eponymous debut within the pantheon of ultimate albums and even consider it, as it was with me, an essential rites of passage into the hallowed halls of “alternative” music. That debut album is, obviously, by the Violent Femmes. And I am not here to sing the praises of that album, which are evident and many to so, so, so many people. What I want to do is give a shout out to an album that came out six years later, one that fans overlook and the band seems to pretend doesn’t exist, and that is 3.

Granted, I’ve only met a handful of really hardcore VF fans. Most folks will swear by the debut, give Hallowed Ground or Why Do Birds Sing a familiar wink and possibly own the jumbled compilation Add It Up, but even that is stretching it. In fact I’ve only met two people who have heard anything after Why Do Birds Sing (and I admit I am not one of them) and they agreed with me that 3 was a much underrated classic.

After the multi-instrumental hoot of The Blind Leading the Naked (another minor masterpiece), Gano and the gang scaled things back considerably for 3. That’s not to say it’s a jump back to early classics. This album presents a band that is older, tighter and more in focus with the type of sound they want to create and what they want to say; something that harkens back to previous glories but also looks to where they want to be in coming years. Every song is well crafted (rather than seemingly bashed out for use busking on the streets) and subconsciously catchy. It may take two or six listens, but you’ll find yourself (in my case years after my last listen) singing (and maybe even hip-twisting) along to the opener Nightmares or the slightly Latin-flavored Outside the Palace. And as far as poptastic numbers go, that’s about it. Everything else is a mellower affair…or a more hectic one.

Honestly, it’s a more sobering listen than anything else I’ve heard before or since, and perhaps this is why fans of their quirkier stuff will skip over it. Even when it’s trying to be funny it’s really just coming off as spooky, like the weird guy who lives next door and steps out on his porch every now and then in a bathrobe and black socks…aka Gordon Gano. And a lot of this is due to his vocal delivery. Where it was whiny but endearing when he was ranting out teen angst classics like Please Do Not Go and Promise; delivering this more self conscious set of lyrics, one sometimes feels less of a complaint and more of a threat. And gone are the lost in infatuation (or lust) days of “Why can’t I get just one screw?” It’s obvious now that the objective has been obtained and he’s now experiencing the pains from the back end of a relationship (Nightmares, Telephone Book, Mother of a Girl), and has become cautious, even a bit paranoid about taking another dip in those waters (“What am I gonna do, if I see someone I’d like to do something to…people are dying”). Careless love has changed. This is a world, in 1988, that is still fresh in the panic of AIDS, unsure what to do with this new contagion.

Gordon has always had a touch of a sinister streak, a peppering of violence to give his aching a little more kick. This is usually from a longing to have someone he cannot (pretty much the entire debut), or to get the people roused and ready to overthrow a government in the wrong (Blind Leading the Naked’s Old Mother Reagan, No Killing, etc). But now he doesn’t seem to want anyone for any sweetly romantic purposes, or to sway your political beliefs; his angst has become rage, turning in against family, Just Like My Father (“…he hurt my mother, I hurt her worse!”), and the general public, Fool in the Full Moon (“Following women after dark, nobody knows what’s in my heart…”). Even his faith in God seems a bit shaken. Nothing Worth Living For takes the ache of Good Feeling and drowns it in a sea of doubt, while Lies berates the charlatan practices of not only religious leaders, but the government and literary minds as well. The album closer, See My Ships, seems to sum up his worries, his despair, his anger, his disbelief in three odd minutes of bemoaning, begging the second coming of Christ because he now lives in a world where fathers are killing their sons and we’re living in days of shame in cheap thrills.

This album is edgy and nervous, the thoughts and fears of a paranoid. And yet there are moments of levity (Fat), seeming relief (Dating Days) and even determination in hope (Outside the Palace). But still these aren’t the carefree jangles of earlier days (I Held Her in My Arms, Black Girls, Prove My Love), he’s just trying to find something positive, something to smile about in all the discontentment, but still with a world weary sensibility that can’t help but creep into his voice and lyrics. And Brother Gano’s not really saying it’s all over, but it’s for sure on the way and he is not only powerless to stop it, he may just join in on the carnage.

I got this album in high school, a discarded item from my friend Donnie Wiggington (who also introduced me to the Feelies and the Descendents). His thought was that it basically wasn’t the first album, so why own it? And no, it’s not the first album. There will never, could never be another opener like Blister in the Sun, a riff so immediately recognizable that you could this moment walk into a room a 50 people, ages ranging from 15 to 45, whistle that three note ditty and have 98% of the room: clap-clap, clap-clap. That song is the Femmes’ More Than a Feeling or Ziggy Startdust (or Changes, or Modern Love, or whatever). And the rest of the album pretty much follows that standard, one instant classic after another.

I don’t know what it is about these albums that seem to hit everyone the same way and stand the test of time. Perhaps it’s the batch of songs, the chemistry of the band, the producer, the way the needle (or laser) hits the groove. And while most bands never, ever achieve such fantastic heights again, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to offer, something worthwhile, something else that can be respected and enjoyed, just perhaps not in the same universal-fanatic way. And taken on it’s own merit, the Violent Femmes’ 3 is a quiet, understated classic. It’s a band trying to remain relevant in changing times, while still holding on to the peculiarities that got them there in the first place. Most of these tunes won’t make you want to dance, and they surely won’t find you screaming “Everything, everything, everything, everything!!!” at the top of your lungs, and they won’t even get you up in arms, ready to take on the dark forces of your world. But what they do have to offer is for those in a pensive, sullen mood, ready for some reflection, ready for someone to voice the frustration you’re feeling, and you can sing along as well.

You can get it for cheap…

You can hear a truly danceable tune…

There’s a video for Nightmares, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have it…the heck??? But here’s a “video” for the studio-live blend of Lies from the Add It Up comp…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dark Triology Part 3

I have to admit that my third choice in the Dark Trilogy is a rather odd one, or perhaps a less obvious one. There are dozens of others I could have chosen, or should have chosen, and maybe even by the same artist (maybe).

I sorta have this theory about album covers that sometimes holds up and sometimes doesn’t. And the basic idea is that the color and/or design of the album pretty much set the tone for the sound of the album (which you would think would be the purpose of an album cover, but so often this is not the case). And really, I’ve not been far off with my first two entries. The Cure’s Faith is a washed out gray, very drab and low key, with something that looks like a face leering out from the right side (though it’s actually, so I’ve read, a picture of an old abandoned abbey). And while the Smiths Meat is Murder sports a white cover (perhaps representing the bounce and pop of several of the songs), the picture(s) therein is a still from the Emile de Antonio documentary In the Year of the Pig that discusses the origins of the Vietnam War. Pretty bleak stuff.

And if you’ll look at the picture up top, you’ll see that today’s album, REM Fables of the Reconstruction (aka Reconstruction of the Fables), sports a fairly somber cover, with an overall sepia tone (at least my faded copy), and amidst the four cornered pictures of the band, a burning book. This could merely state that they’re destroying everything you’ve heard about the subjects at hand and creating a new version, or, as with me, you could think of dreaded censorship, or it could mean nothing at all. And the latter is possibly most probably the case simply because in a recent online Q&A (which is truly a great read if you’re a fan about the meanings of songs, etc, Michael Stipe basically said (and I can’t find the exact quote) that the lyrics to first few albums meant absolutely nothing. Which for the most part, especially on Murmur, I’m pretty much relieved to hear, ‘cos I thought dude was crazy. And this is also nice because here I don’t have to interpret Stipe’s lyrics literally.

This is yet another album where even your more hardcore fans sort of set it to the side and don’t give it much credit. Big mistake. For a time this was my favorite REM album. Right now it’s at number three, though that can change. But just because it’s shifted in status doesn’t mean I think any less of it, it’s just that I’ve discovered something new and wonderful about another album that I heretofore (man, I love that word) had not noticed.

But I digress.

A pervasive subject of Fables seems to be location or distance (in either time or space), i.e. travel or the urge to move on or to make a change or to grow older or to long for something else, a place other than the one you find yourself in. Desiring the unattainable, being forced into the unwanted, these are the images of loss and regret that Stipe conjures from the dark for Buck, Mills and Berry to piece together.

And this is possibly the overall theme of the album (when you pick out lines that make sense). The moody Driver 8, the ultimate train song, is passingly hopeful, “We can reach our destination but we're still a ways away," while Can’t Get There from Here (as if the title isn’t enough) says, “If you're needing inspiration, Philomath is where I go.” (Which, again, makes little sense, but it suggests movement, getting somewhere, change.) Less direct examples are in the quirky opener Feeling Gravity’s Pull, “Time and distance are out of place here,” or the completely obscure Life and How to Live It, “So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best.” (It’s worth tracking down several bootlegs from 1985 where this song is listed and hearing Stipe’s story behind the lyrics.)

It’s no surprise that so many of the lyrics are about being in another place as the band recorded Fables of the Reconstruction in England, in the winter, in a cold, damp, half condemned studio. And so the music reflects the sentiment, the longing to be elsewhere, another place, another state of mind and since this isn’t possible, it’s expressed through the only outlet readily available.

Despite purchasing this album in high school, I don’t really have any vivid memories connected to it, which is odd since so many of my musical associations were formed at that time; though I can imagine the ancient, mossy oaks of the Cove (an area of PC) with roads running along canals and small bays while Green Grow the Rushes provides a perfect soundtrack. And once my friend Steve (then Steev) and I played a very last minute and shambolic version of Driver 8 for a handful of friends before heading off to do something with our night. (Also, I can never pass by an old abandoned train on some dilapidated piece of track without that opening riff echoing through my head.) Mainly Fables has been an album that has stuck with me in my close subconscious. I’ll pick up Murmur or Document or Green or Reveal for a causal listen before this one, but I always know it’s there, a lingering presence. Aside from Murmur (which is hallowed to me as the greatest album ever…EVER), if I could only own one REM album it would be Fables, simply because it represents the band at possibly their most vulnerable, partly shedding the protective shell of their early obscurity, when they were confirmed but not completely confident, when they knew where they wanted to be but not quite how to get there. Their following two releases, Life’s Rich Pageant and Document, would find them fully realized and major label worthy, and Fables of the Reconstruction solidified that foundation, providing REM with a dark past, some skeletons to rattle in their closet and a reason to break into the light of day.

Buy it!

Green Grow the Rushes

Driver 8 live (and smokin’!)

Even as I write this I’m thinking of other albums that could have easily made the dark cut, and perhaps they’ll get a proper shout out one day, though most likely under a different context. So here, in alphabetical order by band, are 13 runner-ups.

Afghan Whigs—Gentlemen: The album of 1994 and the musical definition of the term misogynistic. Nowhere else will you find a collection of tunes more blatantly embittered and spiteful towards the female sex. And the shrugged acknowledgment by the male of the species does little to redeem these thoughts and actions, as regret and repentance are simply shadows on the backdoor.

Arcadia—So Red the Rose: The lesser known splinter project that also created the Powerstation and easily the best thing “Duran Duran” ever did, this collection of sometimes low-key, sometimes lush, sometimes theatrical pop classics, broods with an underlying intensity and near-malevolence never found in their more popular incarnation.

Bauhaus—Burning from the Inside: With Peter Murphy partially down and out with illness, it was all hands on deck to fill in the gaps and the boys who would later become Love and Rockets provided amply. Previous albums were all stark, dark affairs, but it all came to a head here. The edgy feelings between Murphy and his mates created energy both beautiful and sinister, some of his most bitter lyrics fuelled by instrumentation equally textured and sparse. It’s an avalanche of emotion and yet, after the nine plus minute rant of the title track, there is a glimmer of light in the closing track, Hope.

Beatles—For Sale: This is the sound of a band worn out, unsure of where it is or wants to be, and truly digging into the vault of its self-examination to provide material for a seeming non-stop train ride. When the first three titles of the album bear names such as No Reply, I’m a Loser and Baby’s in Black, you know that there will be little to laugh about on this trip. Even lighter numbers like I Follow the Sun are delivered with a twist of world-weary acceptance.

Belle & Sebastian—Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Pilgrim: Here is a band in transition. With key and founding members departing soon after release, it’s obvious from this helter skelter collection of songs covering several different styles as well as topics as broad and succinct as war and rape, that the days of whimsical melancholy from earlier efforts has been left far in the dust.

The Church—Starfish: With an opening line like “Our instruments have no way of measuring this feeling,” it’s evident from the moody bass and menacing guitars that feelings are not good. Kilbey and Co wind their way through ten flawless cuts, each drenched by a shower of doubt and self-awareness, jibes at society, at love, at religion and a healthy dose of mythological imagery to tie it all in a neat bow.

The Cure—The Top: Essentially a Robert Smith solo album and often dismissed by fans (as well as the band), The Top is an overlooked and underrated classic. It’s only flaw is that it’s too powerful, too good at what it does, as these songs grouped together can prove a dense and heavy a barrage of sour times for the average listener, even the weathered Cure fan, where even the light and flirty tinkling of The Caterpillar can’t break through the morass. If I’m not mistaken, however, this is M-Sullivan’s personal favorite.

Depeche Mode—Black Celebration: With a catalogue full of dark albums, for a band to not only acknowledge but commemorate the bleakness of their sound means that they are embracing their demons and bending them to their own dark will. This album perfectly bridges the gap between DM’s earlier “Casio” sound and the earthy, more realized tones of Music for the Masses and the classic Violator.

PJ Harvey—Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea: Bad love, heroin, whores, suicide, Polly Jean delivers it all with a straightforward pop sensibility that is neither the “grunge” influenced grit of her debut or the organ heavy experimentation of To Bring You My Love. Every track is instantly accessible and yet immediately disturbing as she moans, screeches and thrashes, weaving her tales of urban distress and depravity.

Joy Division—Closer: I could easily throw Unknown Pleasures in here. But Closer took the sparse, open darkness of that debut and looked within, what the man and the band were made of, wrapping itself in a gauze of complete self-evaluation, and finding very little to be pleased with. While Ian Curtis’ lyrics pull up images of gladiatorial bouts and marriages falling apart, they were much more personal than the rest of the band realized until after his death by self hanging in May 1980. Closer was released posthumously.

Low—I Could Live in Hope: Despite it’s title, this collection of dirges denotes all the reasons why one could not live in hope. Never again was the band so fragile and consistently beautiful, allowing the songs to carry themselves as far as possible in open space before fading away into sad obscurity.

New Order—Movement: After Curtis’ death, the remnants of Joy Division became New Order, but despite this “fresh” name, the band still had a dark skin to shed and acknowledge the start of their evolution with this gloomy collection of lyrically obscure songs, equally an homage to their fallen comrade as it is a turning point towards a brighter future.

Travis—12 Memories: A shout out for Karla, here are 12 brooding pop songs that have long left the “young man good times” of Good Feeling and replaced the atmospheric dreaminess of The Man Who and The Invisible Band for a heavier, more unsettling sound. Principle songwriter Fran Healy admitted his frustration with the record industry and life in general while writing this album, especially in the wake of the near fatal/debilitating accident of drummer Neil Primrose, which is completely obvious in his lyrics and voice.