Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New Stuff - Neil Young

Much like Uncle Bob, Neil Young is one of those rock icons who shows no signs of slowing down or letting up any time in the near future. Between his eight albums of new material in the past decade and the much lauded archives series (much akin to Dylan’s bootleg series), there’s plenty to keep the NY fan base satisfied with apparently no end in sight. And really, that’s a good, even a great thing.

From the mid 60s and throughout the 70s everything Young touched was pure gold (and sometimes went platinum) with the possible exception of CSNY (I’m not here to argue, folks, just to point out facts). From there on it’s been pretty hit and miss from his “experimental” stint in the 80s (call it what you want, there’s just some bad stuff in those years) to his resurgence in the 90s (Harvest Moon, ya’ll, can I get an amen?) and so on into the 21st century. Young definitely has a formula these days that he’s quite comfortable with, and though he has stepped away from this at times (Are You Passionate?, no thanks), the results usually range from fine to quite good. Things seem to work best when he’s working on a specific theme or rant to keep the material inspired and cohesive, and so albums like Greendale and Living with War are very nice outings (though the latter becomes more dated as the years pass) and the retro nod of Chrome Dreams II is likely to be hailed as a rock classic in another decade or so.

For this year’s Le Noise Young brought in veteran producer Daniel Lanois, best known for his stints with Brian Eno, U2 and for giving Dylan the shake up needed in the late 80s and mid 90s to reignite his career. This was a good move for Young because Le Noise is another batch of enjoyable but formulaic thinkers that cover a lot of familiar topics, from the spiritual and personal (Walk With Me), to love and war (Love and War), to the overall state of affairs (Angry World), to the plight and progress of the white man (Peaceful Valley Boulevard) and, of course, drugs (Hitchhiker). The latter is an especially moving number as it basically runs like an autobiographical what, when and why of everything he’s imbibed over the years from hash to coke yet ends, unlike many previous efforts within this theme, on a positive and thankful note.

Musically, with Lanois, it’s all about sonics. Le Noise (there’s a pun in that title) starts off with a big chord and Young, being the “godfather of grunge,” is no stranger to a big sound. The fact that this is an album featuring Young without a backing band or accompanists of any kind means that Lanois gets to fatten things up with wild distortion, bouncing echoes and layered loops of found sounds – sometimes Young’s voice, a guitar lick or a squeak of feedback. This is most effective in the aforementioned ode to drug intake, Hitchhiker, which bubbles and boils like a ship running a steady course through choppy waters, hitting deep lows and suggestive highs, creating a listening experience that’s almost visual and what one would imagine partaking in some of these drugs is like. Other songs enhanced by the Lanois touch include the outer space churn of Sign of Love, the low growl of Someone’s Gonna Rescue You and the underwater swell of album closer and Earth lament, Rumblin’. But Lanois also knows when a song needs to stand on its own, and he takes a step back on Love and War and Peaceful Valley Boulevard in particular to let Young tell his story the way he does best, with heart and guitar and voice.

Essentially Young is a survivor, he’s seen it all and participated in a lot of it, and Le Noise showcases this fact with an overall mood that’s contemplative but observant, retrospective but future minded, wise but not preachy. And while there’s a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to regret, there’s a bit of hope as well. Oftentimes Young seems to be holding back (where as in Living with War he did not – at all), which is possibly the reserve of an older, wiser man, but Lanois expresses the subdued angst and bravado by harnessing these emotions and allowing the music to release some of the bitterness and anxiety that the lyrics only suggest.

Le Noise is not a latter day masterpiece by Young’s standards, as he’s simply taking known thoughts and remarks out of his pocket and putting them to music, but it is an exceptional collection of both song and sound, a collaboration of two great artists, and the end result is interesting at the very least and thoughtfully inspiring in its stronger moments.

Check out Walk with Me and Hitchhiker.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Follow Up Observation

It dawned on me a day or so ago that of the five albums from my latest There’s Only One post, three of my picks were debut albums, two of JT’s were (one admittedly by default) and one of his others a toss up between the debut and the follow up. It reminded me of a time in my life when I pretty much believed that the debut album was the best thing a band had to offer. The biggest reasoning behind this was that the songs comprising said album were the ones they’d been playing to a honed perfection for years, were the reason for the hype that got them the record deal in the first place and everything after was either attempting to capture that moment again or moving as far away as possible so as not to become pegged down by the weakened and watered down sound of past glories. There is certainly some merit to that reasoning, but it’s faulty all the same. And while I could (but won't) riff off some examples, I could also argue that debut albums are often the embryo of greater things to come; and sometimes they’re just aimless rambling around, mimicking idols or the current trends while searching for a “true” sound. In the end (or rather at the beginning), each artist’s story is different, and what it all boils down to is that with the debut, the sophomore or the swan song, an album is an album and is, or should be, the best that any artist has to offer to the best of their abilities at that point in their career. I mean I don’t know of anyone who would say that Please, Please Me is the best thing the Beatles ever made, but there are folks who will fight tooth and nail proclaiming Are You Experienced?, Piper at the Gates of Dawn or Led Zeppelin I to be the purest, truest and hands down greatest thing those respective artists ever put out. As always, it’s all in the ear of beholder, and while I may disagree with any of those opinions (and I may not), I’ll fight tooth and nail for said listener to hold that belief. At some point I’ll do a proper debut album post, but that’s not gonna happen right now.

Ok, I’m done.

Oh wait, on a completely unrelated note – Ben Folds is a tool. (Though his debut solo album is his best.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

There’s Only One Volume 3

For this entry of There’s Only One I thought I’d try something a little different. The basic principle is the same, but this time I decided to mix things up a bit by asking the oft-mentioned JT (that’s Joshua Thomas) which albums he preferred by the next five artists and why. I didn’t tell him my plan of including his choices and thoughts with my own, and I didn’t read his responses until I’d already chosen and written out the basic reasons for my own. I was really pleased to see how close we were in some of our views, and he certainly makes his point in less time.

The Clash

The Clash – The Clash: JT and I disagree on this one, but it’s really a crapshoot with the Clash. I gave this one a bit of a snooty write up early on in this blog, and a lot of that was just me taking the piss because this album, not to mention the Clash in general, get so much “we’re not worthy” hype that it’s just a little silly. Yes, they were a fantastic, genre-defining, rule-breaking, envelope-pushing band; I’ll give you that all day long. But they still put their leather pants on one leg at a time, and they still wrote quite a few clunkers. This album is the one where in my opinion they didn’t do either one of those things. (That’s right, Joe just jumped straight into those white trousers on the cover, and the rest of the boys followed suit.) From the opening drum shuffle of Janie Jones (btw, I’m going UK version here) to the closing “whoa-oh-oh…” of Garageland, it’s a 30 plus minute adrenaline rush of feisty and memorable tunes that may have told a different story to the British youth of the late 70s, but can still strike a chord of rightful individualism three decades later. And even if it doesn’t, it’s still a fast driving, fist waving, scream along good time.

JT’s pick: London Calling – This album truly shows the diversity of what the Clash was capable of but in a more focused, less annoying way than Sandinista! Even though I am pretty much over this band I have to admit that there are some really good songs on this album.

Cocteau Twins

Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas: JT and I agree on this one for sure, and I already mentioned in a recent post that this was the only Cocteau Twins album you needed, and naturally that still stands (though check back with me in ten years). While you can certainly refer to that blurb for reasons why, in this instance I’ll speak of its lone necessity in comparison to the other albums. Early releases like Garlands were harsh, cold and somewhat distant, what one might call ethereal punk, and at times quite alienating. Almost immediately, and most notably on Treasure, they began to fan out, stretching their sound to allow room for melody and the chiming guitars that would become so key to their sound, meanwhile retaining a song structure that remained dark, angular and captivating. Next they seemed to abandon pop altogether with Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies (the latter with Harold Budd), creating ambient soundscapes that were as much about conveying a mood as they were delivering any sense of rhythm, pattern or noticeable structure. All of these are excellent releases that will lean differently upon listeners depending on their preferred tastes elsewhere. And everything should have come together with Blue Bell Knoll, as this album finds the C-Twins taking all the elements of previous efforts and pushing them towards a more conventional, though no less dreamy, pop sound. Essentially, there was something that could appeal to every-fan. Yet overall something was lacking and disjointed, and while there are some fine moments on Blue Bell Knoll, I think the problem is the continued use of drum machines – they’re too sterile and not as expressive as these songs deserve. As mentioned previously, Heaven or Las Vegas remedies that issue, and though certain electronic elements remain, they only enhance the warm, inviting experience of the ten songs (plus two worthy b-sides) that comprise this album. Unfortunately this was the pinnacle of Cocteau Twins’ greatness. Their last two efforts, while each containing a handful of worthwhile numbers, weren’t quite up to snuff; Four-Calendar Café because it sounded a bit too standard pop and Milk and Kisses because…well, it’s just sorta boring and “more of the same.” This is a band that thrived most whilst in flux developing their sound, and they’d already pushed and pulled themselves into every direction they could. The final culmination of these transitions was perfected, recorded and released as Heaven or Las Vegas – but then again I’ve already told you that.

JT’s pick: Heaven or Las Vegas – While I might like Blue Bell Knoll a bit more at times I think that Heaven or Las Vegas is the culmination of the direction that they had been heading in up until that point. While the early stuff is a bit harsh at times and the later stuff is a bit pop at times, Heaven or Las Vegas is the perfect mix of the two.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen: JT is right, and while I have heard and do own a good portion of Cohen’s discography, the one I usually reach for is the debut (and in fact JT gave me my copy). Songs of Leonard Cohen is essentially poetry put to music, and while this isn't spoken word, Cohen does talk-sing (he’s another one of those Dylan-Waits-Barrett-etc vocalists that could be an “acquired taste” for some), though there is certainly melody and, most importantly, passion in his vocals. These are intimate songs to the point of almost being dirty, as in obscene, but only because they paint such a stark, if sometimes cryptic, reality of love and desire that one almost has to look away for fear of seeing themselves reflected in the imagery. In many ways Songs… plays out like a greatest hits, and even though this album was hardly popular at the time, numbers like Suzanne, Master Song, Sisters of Mercy and So Long, Marianne are certainly amongst the pantheon of great rock moments for folks who understand and appreciate what music has to offer in all its various forms. (I'm not saying if you don't like these songs you don't appreciate good music, I'm just saying...oh, you know what I'm saying...) Cohen would continue this stark, bare, confessional approach for the next two or three albums, ever efficient and intriguing but never with as much revelation because, well, he’d already played every card in the first hand. But he eventually began to develop and expand his sound, and while there are certainly some classics to be found (First We Take Manhattan, Hallelujah), some albums, like The Future, are for me completely unlistenable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore what he has to offer throughout his career, but you should certainly start at the beginning, and if you stopped there that would be ok too.

JT’s pick: Songs of Leonard Cohen – Honestly this is my pick by default because I really don't know all of his stuff and I think that this is the only one that I've ever heard from beginning to end.


Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head: I think already knew JT’s pick on this one before I asked him, and I see where he’s coming from too. Also, I’ve already given Coldplay a guilty pleasure shout out somewhere else in these pages. But I’ll go ahead and say (in case I haven’t already) that Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is my favorite Coldplay album. Hands down. The problem is that I don’t think you can fully appreciate that masterpiece without first hearing what earlier ambitions got them there. Parachutes is a fine album, has some nice moments, got banned in China, etc, but it wasn’t doing anything that half a dozen other bands at the turn of this century weren’t doing as well (and some of them better…ahem, Travis). And X&Y…well, we’ll just call that one hubris. What A Rush of Blood to the Head did was take pop music and make it majestic. I don’t just mean catchy, dance-worthy or over the top, I mean sweeping, epic and engaging without giving up the conventions of basic structure or simple melody by going into lengthy, self-indulgent instrumentation or surpassing the ten minute mark. This album also returned a sense of self-and-social-awareness, and therefore a certain amount of accountability, to pop music without being threatening, preachy or (too terribly) sentimental. But Viva la Vida is still way better…

JT’s pick: Parachutes – While the later stuff does have very nice moments, I think that their first album is pure. The later stuff is HUGE sounding, which is nice, but Parachutes contains their most stripped down and beautiful music.

The Cranberries

The Cranberries – Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?: Like JT, I really had a problem deciding on this one, because I love both this album and No Need to Argue. The latter is the one that won me over to the band, as I’d spent quite a bit of time my freshman year in college making fun of the debut, the Cranberries in general and especially the song Linger. I still enjoy making fun of that song, but I can appreciate it and the rest of the album in a way that’s really hard to explain. Even though they were certainly marketed to cash in on the alternative wave started by Nirvana (1993 was a huge year for bands and albums in that vein), there is a definite raw energy that pulses through these songs, begging recognition with a heart-on-sleeve defiance that realizes its own worth even if punk kids like me scoffed their soul-stripped-bare openness. No Need to Argue certainly does this as well, but by then Delores (Lord love her) was beginning to build confidence and therefore getting a touch preachy - a trait that would eventually derail her considerable talents with their last three albums. What’s more is that Everybody Else… has aged rather well, due in large part I think to it being more guitar driven whereas No Need to Argue is a tad keyboard heavy, not to mention even more radio-ready produced, making a bunch of truly fantastic songs sound a little bit poofy 15 years later. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either and this time next week I may agree with JT…but not today.

JT’s pick: No Need to Argue – This is a total toss up. I love the first album as much as the second album but since I can only choose one I am going to base my decision on the singles off of the album and I think that No Need to Argue has the better singles on it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Siamese B-sides

I think I’ve maybe written a blurb or at least given a shout out to Smashing Pumpkins' crowning achievement (at least in my eyes), Siamese Dream, somewhere on this blog. I’ll say again, if I haven’t already, that Siamese Dream is a seminal album of the 90s, of alternative music in general and most certainly of my late adolescence/young adulthood. One of my closest friends ever, Kevin, was a HUGE Smashing Pumpkins fan, obsessed might be a good word for it, and waited with ravenous expectation for each release (I might be exaggerating a bit, but he really did get excited). I remember when he picked up the Cherub Rock single on a weekend visit to Tallahassee and we drove around town in his ’84 Dodge 600 playing it over and over again. By the end of the day we knew every word, every guitar lick and every drum fill. I can still see him beating the opening build up on the steering wheel as we sat in traffic, getting as worked up and energetic as he was the first time he’d heard it and by then it was at least the twentieth. Such is the power of a good song. Or obsession. Take your pick, but judge not.

Again, this was a single, so there was more than just Cherub Rock itself, and Smashing Pumpkins has always been excellent about putting out quality b-sides along with their single releases. Knowing what I do now about the making of this album, there were loads of difficulties and setbacks, a major one being Billy Corgan’s writer’s block. Hearing the end result you’d never know such a thing were possible, and then to get your hands on the singles with more than a couple of b-sides each, it’s quite obvious that once the creative juices began flowing, they could hardly be contained.

At any rate, below are a handful of my favorites from that era…

Pissant (Cherub Rock) – What I love about this song – 1) The name, ‘cos it’s a great word and it’s what my dad used to call people who frustrated him (I got called a pissant a lot). 2) The drums, ‘cos they’re simple but aggressively insistent and there’s a great flange on the hi-hat. 3) The breakdown, especially “ba-by…” around the 1:50 mark. 4) The ride out, particularly the (possible) ad lib remark, “It’s a motherf*cker….” And as much as I love this song, its angst, its pure rockability, I can see why it’s not on the album, ‘cos while it certainly comes from the same parentage that birthed Siamese Dream, it’s like the surly cousin who sulks in the corner during the family reunion and leaves as soon as dinner is over. It’s rough, rowdy and completely raw.

Hello Kitty Kat (Today) – Another solid rocker, this one is truly a forgotten gem amongst the SP catalog and one of Billy’s finest moments. It would have fit perfectly amongst everything on Siamese Dream save for one slight problem…it plays with much similarity to Quiet at the beginning of the set and Geek U.S.A. near the end of the middle, and both of these are the two most straight up rock songs on the album. (But if you like either or both of those songs, this one is all for you.) I can’t imagine the album being laid out any other way, as far as the loud-quiet-loud factor goes, and I can’t imagine the album without either of these two tracks, and so the incestuous similarity of Hello Kitty Kat makes in the perfect song that must unfortunately be relegated to b-side status. But that's ok, it still shines!

Obscured (Today) – A breezy, mellow affair, with Obscured Billy wears his classic rock sensibilities on his sleeve, and in this case that's detrimental. Not to the song, no not in the least, as this is one of their most openly intimate and truly magical numbers, and I dearly love the dually contrasted lead guitars going on in separate speakers. The problem is that, as with Pissant, this song just doesn’t fit the overall vibe of the album, perhaps the whimsical half-dazed aunt whom everyone loves but don’t quite know how to approach or talk to. And that’s a shame because Obscured is yet another lost landmark in the Smashing Pumpkins’ play list, a lovely, meandering lullaby that could almost work as an album closer, especially with the guitar hum ending, but because it’s impossible to think of Siamese Dream ending any other way than with the 1-2 soft sighs of Sweet Sweet and Luna, Obscured follows its name and simply closes out the Today single…making that release one of the best 3-song collections in rock music.

French Movie Theme (Cherub Rock) – This isn’t really a proper song but just a bit of fiddling about in the studio. And yet there is some lush beauty to be found within this less than two minutes of strummed guitar, tinkling piano, understated trap set and “Yeah-yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…,” with Billy’s whispering “bonjour” a haunting delight and a reason to let the CD single play out (and back around again). But what’s more, this was one of the first “experimental” tracks my then young mind had heard and it opened my eyes to the further possibilities within music, and the idea of saying much by saying little and allowing the listener to fill in the spaces left by the lack of instrumentation. I’m not sure that’s what the Pumpkins had in mind when this came out, but that’s certainly what I took from it.

A cool thing about these songs, save French Movie Theme, is that they can be found on the stop gap (almost) catch all, Pisces Iscariot, which pulls together not only these (and other) key b-sides from Siamese Dream, but a couple or so outtakes from the album, plus a couple of b-sides from Gish and some stray tracks from Peel Sessions and the Lull EP. I almost just did an out and out review of that collection itself, if for no other reason than to mention the lovely Starla and the rockin’ Plume, but I just did that so we’re all good. You should probably go pick it up anyway.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Year That Was - 1990

1990…unreal how long ago that was…I was a sophomore/junior in high school, started my first job, joined my first “real” band (i.e. we actually played shows), experienced the “magic summer,” dated some dumb girl, etc. Also, some pretty great music came out and was enjoyed by many, despite the likes of Madonna, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice dominating the airwaves.

Here are a few, though not all, of the great albums still not quite old enough to drink…

The Chills – Submarine Bells: One of my favorite discoveries from a few years back while exploring all the musical wonders of New Zealand, the Chills are a brand of pop that is warmly familiar and yet like no other. It’s rare to find an artist who can so aptly cover the polar spectrum of purest joy and fiercest anger, but Martin Phillips’ bittersweet view of life tops both heights with a whimsical passion that is as emotionally striking as it is aurally satisfying, and does this no better than on their US debut, Submarine Bells. Heavenly Pop Hit is just that, absolutely one of the most uplifting pop songs ever written, while Familiarity Breeds Contempt’s viciously abrasive assault could almost isolate the listener if it weren’t such an intriguing pleasure, and there’s plenty of the in between as well. From the lullaby trance of Singing in My Sleep to the beat all bravado of The Oncoming Day, the Chills will pick you up and put you back down again, winded but worth the ride.

The Church – Gold Afternoon Fix: This was the follow up attempt at capitalizing on the mainstream success of Under the Milky Way and Starfish, and it shows. The problem isn’t the songs, which are often as ambitious and rewarding as anything the Church had released before, but the radio-ready sound (even with the same team as Starfish) and a somewhat distracting use of drum machines (sticks man Richard Ploog was dismissed during recording) marring an otherwise fantastic album. Thankfully the production isn’t so slick or dated as to really detract from the overall listenability of Gold Afternoon Fix, but the same approach as Starfish or even Priest = Aura would have kicked this album from a 3-star grade to 4 at least. Also, Gold Afternoon Fix officially signaled the end of the Church’s psychedelic-jangle “heyday” as their next album, the aforementioned Priest = Aura, would bring what many consider their masterpiece and find them exploring new avenues of adventure they’ve yet to exhaust nearly twenty years later. Check out Metropolis


Robyn Hitchcock – Eye: For me this is the album that began my slow process of falling gaga for Robyn H and all the fun, quirky tricks up his sleeve. My friend (clean) Steev was a huge fan but I thought a lot of the Egyptians stuff was a bit overblown at the time (and in some cases the dated production still makes that the case), but Eye was stripped almost to the barest of bare, just Robyn, his guitar/piano and his wit voiced by two parts Syd Barret, one part Monty Python. But it’s not all kooky good times and laughs, in fact more often than not it isn’t. Hitchcock’s visions may be giggly and obtuse, but even at their most playfully bizarre there’s an underlying current of realism that is poignantly observant and even calculatingly sinister. The characters described in Cynthia Mask, Queen Elvis and Aquarium are very dark but very real, reflecting an inner demon in all of us that peeps out from time to time. But it’s not all subtext and subterfuge, and open faced sing alongs like Beautiful Girl and Satellite round everything out to a nice, even pitch.

Depeche Mode – Violator: Man, I don’t want to say too much about this album ‘cos words cannot express the pure majesty of these songs. If you’ve heard Personal Jesus and Enjoy the Silence you’re only just scratching the surface of the treasures to be found. Violator is more than a collection of back-to-back great songs; it’s a suite of musical emotion – dark, sexy and danceable – harnessed by an artistic ambition that literally comes once in a career. Simultaneously grand in scope and understated in delivery, this is a masterpiece both timeless and of its own era, impossible to duplicate or build upon. While DM’s road to this novel wonder can be traced, it’s better to simply let Violator stand on its own as what it is, and nothing more, because that is enough.

Afghan Whigs – Up In It: G-Dulli was still honing his chops on AW’s second album, but he was certainly pointing in the direction that led to later classics like Congregation (an anthem of my senior year) and their finest, most menacing album, Gentlemen. Here we get the beginnings of their definitive “Motown punk” sound, full of swagger, sleaze, smooth-talk and screams to make your hair turn white. Check out Retarded for some of the latter.

Sonic Youth – Goo: Sonic Youth’s major label debut was neither a disappointment nor a shattering breakthrough, but simply continued in the more cultivated “pop” vein Daydream Nation and Sister had already begun, which was a sigh of relief for most longtime fans. Perhaps the production is a bit more glossy, but this is more ironic than anything as the noise from before is as prominent as ever and the songwriting just as obscurely accessible. I mean who else but Kim Deal could sing an ode to Karen Carpenter so openly genuine and yet undeniably punk? Goo tends to be an album that folks like to reference yet no one ever listens to, in spite of the fact that it contains some of their most well loved songs, including Dirty Boots, Kool Thing and Mote.

Pixies – Bossanova: This was the first Pixies album I heard, owned, loved. As Pixies albums go this one is hard to categorize (as if any of them aren’t), but if I had to sum it all up it in two words, it would be: heavy space. I’m not really sure why, aside from maybe the planetary cover, ‘cos Black Francis’ obsession with space travel didn’t truly bloom until Trompe Le Monde. Yet listening to Bossanova I can’t help but feel like I’m being taken off world to not only other solar systems but other dimensions in time. There is no other album like this one, including other Pixies albums, because it’s denser, louder, broader – heavier – than anything they did before or after. Whereas previous efforts found them bounding flirtatiously over several different genres, Bossanova is a focused bullet train of pure rock energy, only letting up long enough for you to catch half a breath and then taking off again with twice the fury. Though some folks will lament that this is a step down from the 1-2 punch of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle (they are wrong), a lot of fan faves are here as well, including Velouria, Allison, Is She Weird and Dig for Fire. Yes, Bossanova is a slight departure from the first two albums, but not so far removed as to not be identified as the Pixies, which begs the question, “And how does lemur skin?”

Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas: You only really need one Cocteau Twins album, and it’s this one. I didn’t know that back in 1990, but I didn’t know anything else about them then either. Regardless, Heaven or Las Vegas shows the band in a further, but logical, transition from the icy, mechanical post punk of their first several releases. A major difference is live drumming, which loosens things up quite nicely, giving the swirling, atmospheric textures of guitar and keyboards room to stretch out and get into your head. Another noted change is that Liz Fraser’s vocals are not only intelligible, but actual real human words that other folks can speak; not that she still doesn’t lilt on in her own language, which I do love, but the seamless blend of going in and out of one and then the other only adds to the mystery of the experience. For all practical purposes this is one of the earliest instances of dream pop in a fully realized form, not just paving the way (as previous efforts had as well) but setting the stage, rigging the lights and pulling back the curtain for shoegaze, ambient pop, space rock and, to a lesser degree, Brit pop. It’s a unique and beautiful moment in music and everyone should try it out at least once. Try on Iceblink Luck for size.

Ride – Nowhere: There’s not much that I can say about this album that hasn’t already been said, even if many folks have never read it. Ride was simply one of the greatest bands of all time, not just the shoegazing era, all time. The proof? Well, Nowhere is included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, you dig? And you know what’s funny? I like their second album, Going Blank Again, even more than Nowhere. I’ve already said this a couple of times in this post, but you won’t hear another album like this one from Ride or anyone else. No other album is so delicately beautiful, so heartbreakingly simple, and yet so viscerally engaging or emotionally complex. All of that can be summed up with the song Decay (or Polar Bear, or In a Different Place, or…). And then when you add the perfect pop bliss of Vapour Trail and Taste, the remorseful angst of Here and Now and the drawn out, brooding growl of the title track closer, there’s no questioning why Nowhere is one of the 1001 albums you must hear before you die.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

New Stuff – Tracey Thorn

Now that I’m older and have money (ha, ha) I’ll make a few impulse purchases from time to time. Rarely is it something totally out of the blue (unless JT or someone I “trust” suggests it…and the price is right), but I’ll dabble in the solo outings and side projects of artists I’m aware of, perhaps somewhat familiar with, but not necessarily a fan. Such was the case when Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl came out with her latest solo record, Love and Its Opposite. On a whim I’d already signed up to receive updates and MP3 samples for the forthcoming release, but since I’m the most casual of EbtG fans (that is to say I used to own Amplified Heart) I figured I probably wouldn’t pick up the album once it came out even though I quite liked the little tidbits her label dangled in front of me.

Well, wrong again. Amazon had the download for only $3.99, so how could I say no?

This is Thorn’s third solo album, the second post-EbtG, and it thankfully mainly reaches back to the “classic” sound of her former group before Missing became a dance mix sensation and they started dorking around with all that nonsense. Most songs are low-key jazzy-folk numbers, perfect for a late night setting, just a piano or a guitar with some strings, etc to accompany, and her smoky voice carrying the listener through, well, Love and Its Opposite. These are all love songs in the sense of love that was, or could have been, or should have, but ultimately is not. The opening lines of the entire album, from Oh, the Divorces!, sum up the blunt reality of love, and particularly marriage, in this day and age with the poignant and telling, “Who’s next, who’s next…,” and a similar idea runs on from there, as Thorn explores the stories of people attempting to move on while love, for one reason or other, remains absent from their lives.

Not that it’s all drab and dreary, musically that is, and there are a couple of upbeat pop numbers, though the lyrical theme of human disconnection continues, as with the again self-explanatory opening lines of Hormones, “Yours are just checking in, mine are just checking out,” or the lo-fi-synth-dance of Why Does the Wind?, where the intentions of a new lover are questioned. And while these may be the “stand out” tracks, they’re not the ones that haunt you when the music stops and you’re going about the rest of your day, as the aforementioned Oh, the Divorces!, the plaintively simple You Are a Lover and the “starting all over” plight of Singles Bar do more than just bring a melody to the lips, but a thought to the heart.

One would think an album of this lyrical depth comes from personal experience, but as Love and Its Opposite came out on Ben Watt’s label (her husband and partner in EbtG), one assumes Thorn is still happily married and only writing from observation, seeing more and more friends fall victim to a life without fulfilled love. It’s a solid and enjoyable effort throughout, not only musically but also as a statement on today’s society – with Thorn clearly on the side of love.

Here's Oh, the Divorces! "live at home" plus Why Does the Wind?

Monday, November 1, 2010

For a Quarter - Part 2

Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians (EBatNB) was one of those artists that when they made their big splash, especially within the college/alternative scene, back with her debut in 1988, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, I was finally somewhat cognizant enough as a kid to “remember” all the hype. What I Am was a somewhat more than modest hit – actually, it was all over the friggin’ place for what felt like years – that solidified Edie (if not the rest of the group) as at least a one hit wonder. I can remember when her follow up, Ghost of a Dog, came out folks were like “Oh yeah, her…cool,” but they’d already moved on to Vogue or MC Hammer or whatever (well, the real fans didn’t but MTV did) and so she sorta fell by the wayside, and even though she’s released albums sporadically over the years, outside of a certain age demographic she’s pretty much only remembered for that one song and for being Paul Simon’s wife (they are still married, right?).

Though I’d heard it, I’d never actually owned a copy of this album before and was excited to pick it up for .25 (plus tax) at the second sidewalk sale. With the case cracked, scratched and covered in the remnants of dried tape goo, I couldn’t tell if it had been once well loved (or rather worn) or had just been rattling around in the Great Escape's CAN WE PLEASE GET RID OF THIS? bin for the better part of two decades. Regardless, I listened to it early on when going through the new pile (actually, I’ve still not given a couple a spin) and was surprised at my familiarity with these songs, only to realize (with music often being the key to memory) that I’d listened to it bunches of times with certain high school friends and college friends and friends in between, most all of whom have gone now but their imprints still remain in the form of Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars.

This album is truly an understated classic…if you like that sort of thing. WARNING: If What I Am gets on your nerves (and I can honestly see how it could) then you may as well stop there ‘cos the rest is essentially more of the same. Normally the whole folky/hippie/feel good vibe isn’t usually my deal, but this isn't normally, and there’s something overwhelmingly infectious and ultimately timeless about Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars that makes it appealing in spite of its warm, crunchy-granola feeling…or maybe in fact because of it. Edie’s lyrics are thoughtful and well crafted without being pretentious, they tell a story with a lesson while not being preachy and while there is an overall flow of positive, uplifting energy, it often comes with a gritty, slap of reality that makes the good feeling rather hard earned.

Musically it’s a laid back but controlled affair, the New Bohemians making it all sound so easy and fun but also taking what they do quite seriously. Sometimes you want to dance (Beat the Time), sometimes you want to just sit back, listen and enjoy (Air of December), but almost always you want to sing along. Edie’s melodies are open and inspiring and in some instances (Circle) will absolutely break your heart. In some ways this album defines the college alternative scene of the late 80s, and the fact that it was such a hit could have broken alternative three plus years before Nirvana (and in a completely different way), but at the end of the day they were just part of the “first wave” of alt-bands (the Cure, the Church, Depeche Mode, etc) getting a taste of mainstream success but never really breaking into the stratoscophic big time.

At the end of the day this is still just hippie jam rock, and variations of this album had (and have) been made since the late 60s, but rarely with such pleasing results. Edie and company are proof that a well written song can transcend the limited expectations of any given genre, and Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars does so a good 95% of the time…well worth a quarter.

Here's the "peeing" video, as I often refer to it, for What I well as the lovely Circle.