Thursday, February 11, 2010

Stains on a Decade: 01

Well, it appears that 2001 was a bit of a dry one in my camp as far as new music goes. And of the new albums purchased, one was a reissue from the 60s, another, an archival collection of live music from the same era and yet two more, collections of previously released material (together at last for the first time!). But that’s not to say that this wasn’t music that was a) either new to me or b) well worth the wait (and expense) in getting everything all together.

Let’s get to it!!!

Life Without Buildings – Any Other City: First, thank you MSP for introducing me to this band. LWB’s time was short-lived, but it was magical. Their sole (studio) album, Any Other City, is really a collection of singles from the previous couple of years. In a lot of ways these eleven songs represent everything I love about music…beautiful, catchy, raw and honest. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished by what seems like so little, and the simplicity of these songs only masks the multi-layered depths each one has to offer. I really wish I could have been there from the first single, to gather this band in pieces and fragments, but it’s just as wonderful (if in a different way) to see them represented as a whole. Sue Tompkins, a visual-sound artist, applies her trade by voice in a sing-talk delivery with wild, kinetic bursts of wide-eyed, excitable innocence that tell tales of misunderstandings and broken hearts as expressively (no, more so) as any bleeding balladeer. Her scattershot, crypto-personal lyrics are so vaguely eloquent that they describe the constant goings on of every life, yours and mine. Nearly every song has a line or two or three that are some of my favorite in pop music, not always so much for what they say, but how:

P.S. Exclusive – Sugar, ice and the right stuff!

Let’s Get Out – Ting ting!

The Leanover – He’s the shaker, baby!

Young Offenders – Night scene stealer…

Philip – For everything!

14 Days – Take all the precious things, nothing less

Sorrow – Eyes like lotus leaves…no, not even like…

Heck, I just have to provide a link to the lyrics. If you can read along as fast as she can put them out there, then you have faster eyes than I do.

And the music of Life Without Buildings – chiming, angular, rhythmic – is taken straight from the post-punk handbook of say 1982, yet executed with a crisp, open 90s twist that’s as loosely calculated as the vocals it supports. There is absolutely no denying the absolute infectious enthusiasm of these songs, from the opening blast of P.S. Exclusive to the last fading echoes of Daylighting, each track is a blank canvas allowing listener interpretation, as deep or shallow as they wish to delve, to be used as an emotional release or for the sheer joy of exuberant dancibility. Honestly, the only flaw with Any Other City is the regrettable absence of two songs from their final single, Love Trinity and Is Is and the IRS, the former being one of the greatest songs ever written. Really. And also, ting ting!

Love – Forever Changes (Reissue): I love to discover something new, even if it’s pushing 35 years old at the time. Back in the days when I had time to really surf the internet, I would read up on the bands I loved, learn about the bands that influenced them, and then read up on those bands. If I were intrigued enough, I’d check them out. This is how I found Love (ha, ha). Love’s story is yet another bittersweet rock saga that has played out all too often – loads of talent, critical praise and massive potential, but never much more than a minor splash in the vast ocean that is rock n roll. Seriously, Love is a band that everyone should have heard of and probably hasn’t. This is partly their own fault. Led by the enigmatic, hyper cool and ridiculously gifted Arthur Lee, Love rarely toured far outside their own home base of Los Angeles and, like so many artists before, during and since their time, were plagued by the indulgent use of drugs and booze (and probably girls too…stupid girls). This did not, however, keep them from making several highly regarded albums, the third of which, Forever Changes (originally released in late 1967), often makes the Top 10 albums ever of many a critic’s list. The fact that you’ll likely never hear Love on any classic rock station, especially anything from this record, is a crime where everyone is guilty but the actual music itself, because to me this is a flawless piece of work. Having put out two high-octane, all guns blazing rockers, Arthur Lee and crew stepped back with Forever Changes, which is essentially an acoustic-based album, augmented by horn and string arrangements that are the final ingredient to an almost perfect recipe. This is only a guess, but perhaps one reason the album is a less electric effort is because Lee wrote the songs without his band, which was rapidly falling apart due to their excesses, and so it was put together and arranged in-studio quite literally by session musicians, before the rest of the band – in a final, balls out, let’s do it for the music effort – pulled themselves together and made a true masterpiece of the 60s or any other era. And let me say that just because it’s largely acoustic doesn’t mean for a moment that Forever Changes doesn’t rock, because it certainly does, with 12 songs worth of proof that angst is more than how loud or fast you play a song, but all about how you play it. What’s more, this is a gorgeous album, even at its most morose. Songs like The Red Telephone and Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark & Hilldale reflect the mood of the younger generation at the time – fear of a society indifferent to itself and a government seemingly all too eager to save everyone the trouble of worrying and dropping the bomb already. If desperation creates beauty, then paranoia refines it, and Forever Changes is dripping with all of the above, drifting out from the speakers in a shy, almost cautious delicacy that draws you in even as it’s pressing you back. Each song is as vital to the integrity of the overall experience as the ones that surround it, and the album is bookended in brilliance by its two strongest (if only by a hair) tracks, the Bryan MacLean penned Alone Again Or (probably the most well known song from this album ‘cos of its multiple covers) and Lee’s sprawling epic, You Set the Scene – two songs that speak volumes to any bitter, jaded anti-socialist with ears blessed enough to hear. This is the dying gasp of the Summer of Love, before the turmoil that exploded in the last two years of the 60s washed over everything that mindset tried to represent, and in some ways, Forever Changes almost foretells it all. (The 2001 edition includes several bonus tracks of demos, outtakes, alternate mixes and a single/b-side from the same era, each as fantastic as the songs that made the final album.)

Low – Things We Lost in the Fire: One simply can’t deny the gentle self-destruction of Low. Their 1994 debut, I Could Live in Hope, was one side of a two-album mix tape JT made for me back in the day (I have no idea what was on the other side…Yo La Tengo maybe?) and I listened to it over and over again until it finally snapped. With every subsequent release I was looking for the same feeling I got when I listened to that album and was always disappointed because, naturally and as it should be, the band had moved on, still retaining their signature “dirge” sound, but running it through so many different filters that at the time I could neither comprehend nor keep up the pace. And such was the case with Things We Lost in the Fire, purchased at a time when I was always on the move, where more active, upbeat tuneage was the necessity. I guess I must have listened to this one more than I thought, however, ‘cos when pulling it out again (honestly, for the first time I can remember since Labor Day weekend of 2001 driving back from visiting friends in Atlanta), I was blown away by how familiar the songs were to me, proof that this album was something special being tucked away for a different need at a future time. That time has come. I won’t be so cheesy as to say this album “speaks to me,” but I relate to it with a quiet sense of melancholy that just seemed like more endless droning nine years ago. Obviously I was listening out of loyalty to the band and not a required need for the music they gave me. Low has always been excellent at creating a melancholy ambience, and it’s amazing how many ways that can be conveyed, from peaceful lulls to outright frightening landscapes, each record seems to come from a different planet of sound (Pixies reference intended) and Things We Lost in the Fire from a distant but not impossible to reach moon. The music glides to the listener in a warm, coaxing way, filling the room, the head and the heart, and often as not with little more instrumentation than a few strums of the guitar, some sparse drum beats, a lone bass note and the ever enchanting vocal melodies of husband-wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. For example, the lullaby-esque Laser Beam is so deceptively full that it takes a closer listen to realize this song is nothing more (and needs nothing more) than an echoing guitar and Mimi’s ever haunting vocals. But as easily as they send you off to dreamland, Low can wake you up again to cold sweat and wondering by jarring your senses with sharp tom beats and distortion-angry guitars, as in the aforementioned track’s follow up, July, and album single Dinosaur Act. And yet a stirring beauty remains throughout all of Things We Lost in the Fire, and as the album’s themes lament the loss of innocence, faith and grace, there is still love and the promise of a future, and the album’s closer, In Metal, is one of the most eerie odes for the affection of a child ever composed. In a way I’m glad to have let this record slip away so many years ago, because I can now love and appreciate Things We Lost in the Fire in a way I could never have then, and in a way that could not have reached me as it does today with the familiar appreciation I may have had in another phase in my life (and yes, I realize that’s a little cheesy).

New Order – Get Ready: Comebacks are a tricky deal. The hype-anticipation of an artist releasing a new album after a silence of 5, 10, 25 years can often overweigh any merits of said album when compared to heyday material from way back whenever. This wasn’t such a problem for New Order since, in the States at least, nobody really cared when they ended their “this might be forever” hiatus following 1993’s dark masterpiece, Republic. But still, for the sake of the music at least, why bother to put out anything if you’re not going to make the effort? And in my opinion New Order did a solid job with Get Ready. Though an off-and-on top favorite band for years, I’ve often lamented that these guys seem to spend a lot of time on singles (just check out their collection Substance for proof of that) while their albums, especially mid 80s, and despite some fantastic songs, seem rather thrown together at best. This being said, New Order has always been great at kicking off an album (aside from Technique’s Fine Time, that song is just rubbish), and Get Ready is no exception, as Crystal is pop perfection in every way. Bernard Sumner and Co play it safe, sticking with a formula they perfected with 1987’s True Faith, managing to squeeze several enjoyable, danceable, singable pop ditties since, and for the first five tracks everything is exactly what you’d expect a latter day New Order album (when they actually started focusing on full albums) to be – catchy, mid-tempo dance-rockers with flashes brilliance (Turn My Way) throughout. Sumner has always been a bit of a goof, giggling in songs on record and changing lyrics in concert to reflect a vulgar sentiment. This “humor” (‘cos it may not have been intended) is most evident on the back to back “everyone sings along” Slow Jam and Rock the Shack, which, true to their reference, are a bit more rock than pop, and frankly the most disposable outings on the entire affair. But New Order have always been a bit all over the board (dance, rock, pop, house, etc, etc) and again, this is to be expected of most any New Order album, the eggshells here and there making the yolk that much sweeter (I apologize for that analogy…but I’m not going to change it). But New Order is also not a band to lag or stay down for long, so thankfully Get Ready picks back up again in fine fashion with Someone Like You and Close Range before closing out with acoustic strum anthem Run Wild. Get Ready will not garner any new fans, but should satisfy the faithful and remind them what the deal was all about in 1985. New Order is no longer reinventing the wheel, they’ve made their mark, their point and their money, so now they’re just set to play out in a way that’s comfortable for them, and expected for us…which is just fine, even preferred.

Old 97’s – Satellite Rides: This third major label release for these alt-country darlings is a little less country and a little more alt, which is what possibly allowed a brief peak into the mainstream during the spring of 2001. I have to say though that this is probably the album I reach for last when in an Old 97’s mood, and not because it’s a bad album, but simply because, as mentioned, it’s the least like their classic and well beloved sound. Still, one can’t deny the rock-on fun of opener King of All the World, the whimsical frolic of Bird in a Cage, the more true to form frenzy of Am I Too Late or the wink and a nod bravado of Designs on You. And while Rhett Miller may not be as humorously self-depreciative about his plights in binge drinking, love gone wrong and missing cats as in previous outings, he clearly maintains his status as the Second Greatest Songwriter of Our Generation by being just as clever, witty and downright insightful as ever. Nowhere else in recorded history will you run across a Salinger reference or a nod to the closure of the GM mega-factory in Flint, MI within less than ten minutes, and in both instances Miller takes something as far away as the printed page or seven states and makes it as personal and believable as if writing about his own mother. But Rhett isn’t the only one with a word or two to say, as once more bassist Murry Hammond churns out a couple of murky gems, the standout (and highlight of the album) being the quasi-supernatural, bad love stomper Up the Devil’s Pay. Really, a couple of the major Old 97’s traits missing from this record are a) Murry’s sweet “ooh-ahh” backing vocals and b) his ever-walking bass lines, which are again due to the more straightforward rock penchants of this set of songs. And again, I really don’t mean to dump water on Satellite Rides ‘cos it’s truly a great pop rock blast of good fun and I’ve definitely enjoyed my re-visit to prepare for this post. Many of the elements that make Old 97’s such a great band, like excellent songwriting and execution, are still around, but folks looking to find the breakneck fury, laughing ‘cos it’s true and near bottomed out desperation of previous works will only catch glimmers of what brought these Texans this far in the first place.

My song source is letting me down, so here's Roller Skate Skinny live...the way they do it best.

The Pixies – The Complete B-Sides: It’s very rare that an artist will put together a compilation that is this thorough, complete or non-redundant, so hats off to the Pixies and 4AD for making such a move. I may be wrong, but this collection brings together every b-side from their seven singles, as well as a handful of one-offs from soundtracks and compilation albums. The only thing I can think of that’s not on here is their version of Leonard Cohen’s I Can’t Forget from the I’m Your Fan tribute album. Regardless, the great thing about a Pixies b-sides collection is that hands down, every time, no exception, their b-sides are just as strong and effective as most any song on their four great to stellar albums (ALL of them are better than Silver). What this means is that the first two-thirds of the Complete B-Sides is fantastic. Songs like Manta Ray, Into the White and the Kim Deal-dreamy-sung version of Neil Young’s Winterlong are not only longtime fan faves, but have been staples of the Pixies live set throughout their career, which makes them vital to the band’s overall catalog. If you’re a Pixies fan and you don’t own this (or all the singles), then you should be ashamed. If you’re not a fan already, this really isn’t a half bad introduction as to what they’re all about. At the end of the day, however, this is a compilation album, which means that things don’t flow as smoothly as a Surfer Rosa or a Bossa Nova (witcha!). But the beauty, and point, of this release is that you can now have all these great, rambling b-sides in one handy-dandy case without the expense of tracking down the (now out of print?) individual singles, or taking up the extra space on your already overflowing CD shelf once you acquire them all.

REM – Reveal: Their second album without truly underrated drummer Bill Berry, the little trio that could took a great leap forward by reincorporating live drums into much of the mix of Reveal, as opposed to the cold, sterile and ultimately ineffective electro-loop noodling found on 1998’s Up. Another step forward was by taking a step back and focusing more on the “classic” REM sound, though stripping away the chiming guitars and putting everything through a pseudo-techno-new age filter. Imagine if a late-1990s Brian Wilson picked up and moved to the Deep South, released his demons, and wrote about the empty ache their absence in his soul left him with. The result, just like a Beach Boys record, is an album that is effective and entertaining, but only rarely exciting – so basically it’s an atmospheric mood enhancer, perfect for a quiet evening under the stars or a leisurely drive in the country. The two strongest tracks are the two biggest singles, All the Way to Reno and Imitation of Life, both of which got some significant airplay and the latter of which made me decide I really needed to check this album out. And, as I believe I mentioned on a previous post, Reveal rekindled the flame I’d once held for the boys from Athens so many years before but begrudgingly lost somewhere in the mire of the 90s. Unlike Up, or even Berry’s last outing New Adventures in Hi-Fi, REM is no longer trying to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant or popular. This makes for some of the most honest, believable music of their post-Green career, and a chance for all involved to lower their expectations and allow themselves to be pleased with the outcome. At the end of the spin, Reveal is a strong, satisfying, “resting on one’s laurel’s” album, as REM finally realizes that their days of soul shattering significance may be behind them, but they are still competent musicians and songwriters who are happy to create music that they enjoy and that their loyal fan base will look forward to.

The Strokes – Is This It?: I can remember the buzz going ‘round about these cats, and having lunch with some of the boys at Royal Thai in Brentwood where the table was giving the general approval and MSP reluctantly agreed that Hard to Explain was a super catchy song. A couple of days or weeks or something later I finally heard what the hype was about, some blend of the Velvet Underground, Television and the Stooges. I could see all of it but Television, and as much as I hated to admit it, I really rather dug it. I guess to a certain degree, especially amongst the hipster scene and whatever was left of the indie kids, Is This It? was the album of 2001. In many ways it was a breath of raunchy air blowing back in the face of both boy bands and the sensitive “alternative” posturing in the wake of post-grunge, a harkening to the days of dirty arse rock n roll, full of piss and vinegar, self-loathing and a thinly veiled contempt for modern social standards. At the same time, The Strokes were nothing more than a bunch of rich kids with connections playing heroin chic rock star, the product of a slick-minded producer and a music scene looking for a new trend. I remember an early impression, once I’d gotten past just how darn catchy Hard to Explain is, was that they seemed to be trying very hard at acting like they didn’t care, as if the band could fall apart at any moment and that would be ok – a notion that was only confirmed when a bunch of us went to see them live a few months later, still and stoic as statues, playing the album note for note as if they’d been shown what to do. Within a few months the CD shelves and hipster mags were full of similar retro-minded twenty-somethings who were all raised on their parents’ Duran Duran and/or Iggy Pop albums and putting out their own scene’s version of whatever that was supposed to mean. But, despite the tidal wave phenomenon it started, Is This It? is really not a bad half hour of music. Hard to Explain is a super catchy song, as are Someday and Last Night, and the rest of the album chugs and slugs along at a drugged out moderate to angsty up tempo pace that has you bobbing your head and throwing the goat…even if only subconsciously.

The Velvet Underground – Bootleg Series Volume 1 - The Quine Tapes: The title suggests that, similar to the Dylan series of the same name, there would be a slew of like releases. Apparently not, ‘cos this is it, kids. Basically this triple live album is a bunch of shows recorded by the late Robert Quine, a VU fan who would eventually become an influential guitarist in his own right, who basically Dead-followed the band around, recording as many shows as possible and years later compiling the best of those shows into the finished product we have today. What’s nice about this collection of the late 1969 edition of the band’s live set is that it digs pretty deep into the Velvet Underground’s back catalog, so that not only are early staples like Waiting for the Man and Heroin present, but Black Angel’s Death Song, I Can’t Stand It and the infamous Sister Ray (in one set a full 38 minutes long…and the best take I’ve heard of the song), not to mention a couple of tracks, It’s Just Too Much, Follow the Leader, etc, that would never see a studio or any other official release. The sound quality is quite good, especially considering the times, how long the original tapes sat around in boxes, etc, etc, and of course the performances are out of this world. But having said that, this is only for the die hard, must have Velvet Underground fan. I myself could listen to all three plus hours of this without stopping and then ask for another three hour set, but it’s not for the first time dabbler or the faint of heart (so mom, go pick up their self-titled third album first). Most importantly, this is a document of an extremely influential band at the peak of their live abilities, still going strong after line up breakdowns and their initial hype had settled, proving that they were more than feedback and drug-noise and the side show of some big blond haired fop (I love you, Andy!), but a solid rock act bringing the business to the people.

And, without further ado, the winner for Best Album of 2001 is…Life Without Buildings, Any Other City. And your extra special bonus prize is the aforementioned Love Trinity.

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