Friday, April 29, 2011

Three Off the Cuff

So Borders it seems has filed for bankruptcy. This is sad in a lot of ways, a big one being that I’ve picked up a lot of good music from them, mainly on lunch breaks, for the past ten plus years. While more recent releases were priced at the ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? level, you could get a lot of “classic” artists for $9-11, sometimes less, and so I fattened my collections of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground (yes, I got into them late because I HATED them until I was around 24) considerably from their shelves. Also, Borders is where I first took a chance with X, the Go-Betweens and Love. Bottom line, they’ve been good to me.

The one where most of this went down, over in the Brentwood Kroger area, discontinued the bulk of its musical selection quite some time ago (an early sign of trouble brewing). Thankfully, for nostalgia’s sake, it seems to be hanging in there. But the one in Cool Springs (all you out-o’-towners following this?) has begun liquidating merchandise at reduced prices. So, a few weeks ago JT and I went to go check out the deals when things were at 30%. I think JT got a Milli Vanilli remixes album and I picked up three CDs at a reasonable bargain.

They are as follows…

Phil Collins – No Jacket Required: JT has been praising this album in recent months, calling it good pop, etc, so this one came highly recommended by him. Even though he’s sort of a dummy, the price was right, so why not? Phil Collins is one of those musical enigmas. Back when I was a kid I knew him as the lead singer for Genesis, fronting the mega hits from Invisible Touch with a sappy sincerity that reached me enough to end up purchasing the album. I remember when I learned that he was also the DRUMMER for Genesis. WHOA, a drummer that sings?? My world just expanded... And then, a bit later, that he wasn’t the original lead singer, but that Peter Gabriel was (…the Sledgehammer dude, no way!!) and that their music back then was “really weird.” (These days I’m a decent fan of the Gabriel era stuff and I still think it’s “really weird,” even by prog rock standards.) So that gave PC some “skin cred” when heretofore (or maybe theretofore?) I’d just sorta written him off as another goofy pop singer. Of course later on when I got into Eno and saw that he played drums on cuts from classic albums like Another Green World, my mind was sufficiently blown and I had an a) newfound respect for Phil even though I b) lamented his nosedive into adult contemporary pop cheese (long before he was at an age where that was inevitable).

But having said all of that, No Jacket Required sorta is but really isn’t “pop cheese.” Yes, the big hits like Su-su-sussudio and Take Me Home are the kind of watered down New Wave that was topping the charts back in 1985 and, with the exception of Don’t Lose My Number, I was never a fan of any of those singles either then or even much now with nostalgia. What ultimately makes this album work are the non-single tracks, which prove that not only could Phil write a hit pop tune, but he was also still in touch with his more experimental roots. I would stand any of these cuts up against and ultimately above all of their sizable hit single siblings any day of the week. But what’s nice is, after a few listens, I began to appreciate the subtle nuances that even the hits have when taken in context of the entire album, which speaks volumes for the integrity of the music and for Phil as a “legit” musician, even as he was becoming a pop icon. Only in the 80s, kids, could you be balls out Top 40 cheese and still rather cool – though let’s face it, Phil Collins was a bit of a dork even back in 1974.

Long story short, No Jacket Required was a great purchase (yes, JT was right…), and really works as an “all you need” from Phil Collins. Sure, there are some stray tracks here and there that are fine, but the only really, really good one is In the Air Tonight, and let’s face it, we’ll all hear that one in random retail stores about a billion more times before we die.

The Jayhawks – The Bunkhouse Album: Every established band has to have a first album, a starting point for the general public. Sometimes this is the best thing they ever do and sometimes it’s the seed of greatness yet to come. Still, other times it just is what it is and nothing more - a root, a footnote, a foundation. For the Jayhawks this is certainly not the former, and while it could arguably be lumped in with that middle bit, it’s really more of the latter type album – there, step one. They were still several years and licks away from the lush textures and rich harmonies that would create alt-country classics like Hollywood Town Hall and Forever the Green Grass, but that doesn’t mean The Bunkhouse Album (or Tapes as it’s often referred) isn’t a batch of well written and nicely executed songs. The problem here, if you want to call it that, is that these songs are good, sometimes great, but they’re not overly original in sound, as the Jayhawks are very much wearing their influences on their collective sleeves. In this case its Dylan channeled through Gram Parsons, which is especially evident in the prominent use of slide guitar and, to a lesser extent, vocal delivery. But that being said, this is an even set of solid rockers providing plenty of toe tapping upbeats, sing along choruses and countrified one-liners to make you snicker. The real issue is that several songs in things start sounding a bit the same, and there’s nothing to really break the monotony of verse, chorus, verse, guitar solo. Also, hearing this one after the aforementioned masterpieces, it’s sorta hard going back. Sure, in 1986 they were something of novelty, and probably sounded fresh and promising to a batch of like-minded folks who were tired of New Wave, had no interest in hair metal, but maybe weren’t familiar with the Flying Burrito Brothers (or simply appreciated the nostalgic nod). Essentially this is an album of the times and a stepping stone for some great writers and players to get “that” out of their system and start creating something original. If you’re expecting Forever the Green Grass in an embryonic form, then The Bunkhouse Album is not for you. But if you just like good music, then I think Borders still has another copy.

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Through the Devil Softly: I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the “cool” thing about alternative music breaking in the early 90s is that a lot of lesser known, cult status bands who had been slogging away in “you won’t find their albums at Target” obscurity finally got a bit of a mainstream pay off before either breaking up (as a result) or fading back into the ether. While Mazzy Star hadn’t been around too terribly long before Fade Into You was a sleeper hit in 1993, they had members who stretched all the way back to the Paisley Underground scene of the early 80s, a movement whose only chart success outfit was (if you can believe it) the Bangles.

But all of that is neither here nor there.

I was never a big Mazzy Star fan, though Fade into You is an undisputed alt-classic and So Tonight That I Might See an excellent album. This is really more a result of under exposure due to lack of time, ‘cos I certainly like what I’ve heard. So, with Mazzy Star on hold and vocalist Hope Sandoval pursuing a solo deal the past decade or so, I thought it would be cool to catch up on lost ground and see what she was up to…and of course, the price was right. Long story short, Through the Devil Softly (which is an awesome title) is everything you’d want and expect from a Hope Sandoval related release. Dreamy, atmospheric and understated, this is basically a warmer, even more subdued and generally less noisy version of what she was doing with Mazzy Star fifteen years before; not so much a step forward as a further fleshing of an already cultivated and wonderful sound, which is fine. While a perfect backdrop for quiet, relaxing evenings at home or an easy night drive (or while your kids are screaming downstairs), don’t attempt to jazzercise or run a footrace to these tunes, ‘cos you’ll get lost in the haze and wind up with the rest of us in some dusky, western desert town. All joking aside, Through the Devil Softly is a nice offering of delicate, transcendent pop, not intending to take the world by storm or trying to top any charts, and just as likely to snag the attention of an interested ear as So Tonight That I Might See. The similarities with each album are enough to attract a listener fully into the fan base, while the subtle, but noticeable, differences offer proof of a flower that continues to bloom.

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