Monday, August 23, 2010

Only in Threes...

I just got back from vacation and the musical theme this year was “third albums” by a certain artist. What I found was that in several cases, these were the most well-known or popular albums with both fans and the public in general. And I’m not going to get into a bunch of thoughts as to why and wherefore, but what it means ultimately is that the past week was filled with some pretty great and varied music.

With that in mind, here are three that stood out to me…

Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic: Back in the days when it only took 8 to 10 songs for a band to make their point and leave the listener smoked, Aerosmith lifted themselves from bar band to arena status with a set of dirty rockers worthy of the reputation that has become a glossed over mockery of itself the past 20 or so years. As always there is an ample amount of fun and slightly dangerous tongue (among other things) in cheek sleaze, not only on rock staple hits (Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion), but album tracks (Adam’s Apple, Big Ten Inch Record), as well as the other side of that coin with the pre-Janie’s Got a Gun creepiness of Uncle Salty. Basically, if you like to rock and you’re not a prude, this album is for you. Stylistically things are about what you’d expect, and want, from Boston’s bad boys in those days, with a couple of exceptions being the ultra heavy (by many a hard rock band’s standards) Round and Round and the Wings era McCartney-esque (complete with wall of sound) You See Me Crying, the latter unfortunately pointing to where things would be headed in their 90s, etc commercial comeback. Sadly, Toys in the Attic is about as good as it ever got with Aerosmith, with the possible exception of Rocks, as drugs and egos would break the cycle, and when they finally put it back together, everything was more a cliché than anything else.

Boston – Third Stage: After the mind blowing, record breaking success (and deservedly so, Bill) of their debut and a not-too-shabby reception to their “rushed” (by Tom Scholz standards) 1978 follow up, Boston didn’t get the aptly titled Third Stage out to the public until 1986. Sometimes good things really do come to those who wait, and this was certainly the case here. Though Third Stage isn’t quite on par with the debut or Don’t Look Back, it’s certainly playing on the same course (golf metaphors…oh brother...), the best songs are up to speed with the better on the first two (if not quite the best) and the only reason it gets a little bit of a dismissal is because it doesn’t rock quite as hard as it should…which I’m blaming on 80s production, most obvious in the rather embarrassing electronic drums (or maybe they’re just so compressed they don’t sound real any more). While Boston has never been a stranger to love and heartbreak, those two themes come up more readily than anything else, with tunes about partyin’ and rockin’ and tokin’ a fat one all but fallen by the wayside. What this means is that you don’t want to pull out Third Stage when you’re ready to boogie – though on certain cuts (We’re Ready, Cool the Engines) you surely can – but when you’re in a more pensive, self-doubting, down and out mood, especially when flipping things over to side two, with some of Sholz’s finest hooks (Can’tcha Say) and sing-a-long melodies (I Think I Like It) and some of Delp’s most moving vocal performances (Hollyann). For a long time Third Stage was simply something I owned for nostalgic purposes, representing a time in my life when I started discovering different types of music, experiencing new feelings, and finding other worlds to explore. All of that is still true, but now that affection is tempered by true admiration for these songs, and I think this disc (or record when I’m in the mood) will get many more plays in the future than it may have otherwise.

The Go-Betweens – Spring Hill Fair: I think most Go-Bs fans would agree that during their initial 80s run every album they released saw them in a transition phase until they finally reached the pop bliss of 16 Lovers Lane…and then quietly disbanded – only to pick up again 10+ years later with a string of critically acclaimed (and even commercially successful!) albums solidifying that pop bliss with a less dated production, as well as confirming that the McLennan/Forster songwriting team had only become stronger with the years. Unfortunately, that all ended with Grant McLennan’s untimely death in 2006. However, on 1984’s Spring Hill Fair the only song that really points to that future is lead track/second single Bachelor Kisses, and from there things take a more “logical” move away from the angular pop of Before Hollywood. Those angles are still there, especially in tracks like Five Words and Draining the Pool for You, but they’ve been broadened out and smoothed over a bit, especially by McLennan with Slow Slow Music and Unkind & Unwise, and, to a lesser extent, Forster’s vicious heart-break-up song, Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea. Part of the evening out process was the addition of bassist Robert Vickers, allowing McLennan to move over to second guitar and further flesh out the delicate beauty of the band’s earlier sound, making them less vulnerable but no less approachable. What Spring Hill Fair does is act like a bridge from the obvious post punk bravado of the first two albums to the more polished, verse-chorus-verse of later fan favorites like Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, yet it does so without awkwardness or a sense of no direction. It’s clear that Grant and Robert knew exactly where they were going, they were just taking their time getting there…and unfortunately most of the world is yet to catch up.

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