Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Grace," by Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut and only studio album, Grace, is one of the most beautiful, rocking albums I’ve ever heard. Grace is also a heartbreaking album, and what proved tragic for Buckley, prophetic. Jeff Buckley died in 1997, three years after the album’s release. He drowned in the Mississippi River while a friend watched, unknowing, just a few, helpless feet away. Buckley was the son of folk-rock legend, Tim Buckley, who also died in his prime at the young age of 28, when Jeff was just 9 years old. The elder Buckley died of a horrifying drug overdose, also while friends watched and did nothing.

The overarching theme of Jeff Buckley’s, Grace, is this: despair over loss. Loss of love. Loss of hope. Loss of life. The opening line to the title track (and my favorite song on the album) brings home this message early in the song cycle:

Well it's my time coming, I'm not afraid to die
My fading voice sings of love,
But she cries to the clicking of time… of time

The title track, “Grace,” continues, forecasting Buckley’s sad fate:

The rain is falling and I believe
My time has come
It reminds me of the pain
I might leave… leave behind
And I feel them drown my name
So easy to know and forget with this kiss
I'm not afraid to go, but it goes so slow

And the final, haunting line of the album, on “Dream Brother,” where Buckley sings,

Dream brother, dream brother, dream, dream
dream asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over…

But the album is much more than uncanny future-casting of the artist’s ill fate, Grace contains some of rock-and-roll’s most stupefying and transcendent musical moments, recorded by an artist who communicated familiar emotions through his own innovative, and highly original lens. Buckley transcends standard rock clichés by infusing themes of heartache and loss with his own, unique lyrical vision. Buckley examines relationships from the inside out, leaving no relational stone unturned on this perfect, poetic album.

Grace also includes the 1995 hit single and song most closely associated with Buckley, “Last Goodbye.” The album further contains what most agree to be the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s classic hymn to love, “Hallelujah,” which, incidentally, went on to become Buckley’s only number one song to date, shooting to the pole position of “Billboard” magazine’s “Hot Digital Songs” chart in the spring of 2008, the day after Buckley’s version was covered by a contestant on “American Idol.”

The instruments on Grace that frame Buckley’s celestial voice: the majestic strings, the blasting guitars, and the crashing drums, are staggering in themselves, sounding as fresh and relevant today as if they had been recorded last week. But Buckley’s most important gift to the world was that angelic, mournful, raw, and, at times, startling voice. Buckley’s voice could summon emotions from the depths of his lower register, and in one perfect instant, fling them into a high-octave, tortured howl. Buckley’s voice was versatile and explosive, able to convey acute heartache, yet also to rouse the most joyous sounds, seeming both otherworldly and even unvoice-like.

While its joys and potency loom large, making this classic album destined to be remembered forever, I only listen to Grace when I’m alone. It’s not exactly a record to play when entertaining guests or when doing dinner dishes. It’s the kind of beautiful, jarring musical journey that, like Buckley’s short life, is best experienced when you have time to feel your way through it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Sound Inside," by Breaks Co-op

A few years ago, I was reading a magazine article written by the legendary Sir Elton John. He had been asked to host a series of guest editorials. Each month in his column, the pop icon would rant about the demise of the music industry, or he would rave about a new development or rising star in the beleaguered business. One week, he singled-out a New Zealand band, “Breaks Co-op.” In fact, the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer actually telephoned the band to tell them just how much he loved their funky, trip-hop influenced debut, The Sound Inside, calling it the best album he had heard that year. He also told Breaks vocalist, Andy Lovegrove, that he is one of his favorite singers. Not a bad endorsement. Well, what’s good enough for Sir Elton John is certainly good enough for me. I downloaded the album that afternoon, and it’s been spinning regularly on my iPod for three years now.

Simply put, The Sound Inside is extraordinary. Within the first few moments, the album grabs the listener by the shirt collar and demands attention – in the nicest possible way. The first thing that strikes the listener is the hypnotic, hopped-up drum loops on the lead-in, title track. The band’s inventive use of random, seemingly found audio clips and outer-space atmospherics draws you in. Beyond this, the album treats the listener to engaging and instantly memorable melodies. In fact, almost every song on this album would make a viable single, not that KISS FM would ever play them. But perhaps the best part of this album, and what I view to be the band's trump card, is the staggering, Crosby, Stills, & Nash-inspired vocal harmonies. Hamish Clark, Zane Lowe, and Andy Lovegrove blend their voices so flawlessly, so pristinely, that you’ll wonder if you’ve ever heard anything so perfect.

And vying for the best song on the album is the arresting, “A Place For You.” The song describes in flawless detail the rapture, uncertainty, and perpetual butterflies that come with negotiating a new relationship. “Should I place all my faith in you?” Lovegrove sings, “Should I open up and let you in?” The single acoustic guitar on the song is perfectly surrounded by lush strings and a surprisingly fitting bongo drum to provide pulse for the music. But what I most appreciate about this song (and this band) is the testicular fortitude to bravely reveal a startlingly tender male perspective, rarely heard in pop music (or anywhere else): “I have this place for you. I’ll make it safe for you. Don’t make me wait for you now; just come right next to me.”

Another contender for best song, and my personal favorite, is “LMA (little miss anonymous).” This bouncy, skip-along song is essentially a variation on the same theme of “A Place For You” and contains one of the most exquisite vocal harmonies I’ve ever heard. Ever. Especially when they sing in the second verse, “I don’t know if you think of me, but, I’m the one who wants to be there – close to you. If you were mine…” It’s a perfect pop moment.

But I’m just focusing on the love songs. The overarching theme of the entire album revolves around what feeds you - the inner world that guides how you live. The songs on The Sound Inside are about understanding and protecting your heart as it relates to the world around you: owning up to and challenging your own ideas and prejudices, expressing your love and your hate, taking care of your friends, your family, and yourself. This album perfectly explains the joy and stress of living each day and celebrates all of it. C.S. Lewis once said that love isn’t made complete until it’s expressed in some manner. This album does just that – expresses delight in the world around us, the jubilation and the agony, from the perspective and the capacities of the human heart. The Sound Inside is, therefore, a perfect soundtrack to life: completely engrossing, wonderfully validating, and wholly reassuring.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Shooting Rubber Bands At The Stars," by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians

I remember a pointed conversation with a classmate in high school about Edie Brickell & the New Bohemian’s debut, Shooting Rubber Bands At The Stars. My friend owned the cassette and let me borrow it. At the time, I was most familiar with the line from the band’s 1988 hit single, “What I Am,” ubiquitous on top 40 radio at the time: “Choke me in the shallow water, before I get too deep.” I suspected the rest of the album would be filled with similar light-hearted, boho charm, and I was right: Rubber Bands features quirky rock and playful, hippy-dippy lyrics – an utterly joyful rumination on the intoxicating mix of thrill and terror that comes from being young, unencumbered, and navigating life for the first time.

Texas-born, Brickell’s career has been, in fact, a study on how life seems to work: a combination of talent, hard work, and hoped-for strokes of good fortune. At a bar one Saturday night while attending art school, Brickell was reluctantly cheered onto the stage to join the house band for a few numbers. Suddenly, she found herself fronting the New Bohemians. It wasn’t long after that the group wound up in a recording studio making their 1988 debut album. The dreamy aforementioned lead-single reached the upper end of the pop charts, propelling this word-of-mouth album to multi-million sales by the following fall.
I rushed back to school the next day to expound upon the sheer joy of listening to this great record. After hearing my review, my friend blinked a few times, frowned, and said, “Well I hate it.” I was stunned. Humph! She clearly didn’t understand this album. Looking back, it makes sense. My friend was studious and practical: an album titled after the fruitless activity of projecting plastic objects into the atmosphere would be of little value to one so pragmatic. And I have to admit, my friend even made me wonder if Rubber Bands would be a silly, flash-in-the-pan for me, too.

It’s been over twenty years later, and I can definitively say that she was completely wrong about this remarkable album. Far from a silly flash, it has, indeed, warranted repeated listens over the years: first on my copied cassette, then on my own purchased vinyl, which I lost in my senior year of college, bringing me to replace it with a CD copy a few years later, and now, Rubber Bands comes to me on my trusty, well-worn iPod. The album has not only remained fresh for me all these years, but has continued to grow more endearing as the last two decades have quickly slipped by. Rubber Bands was the perfect, left-turn album for that cheesy moment in late-80’s pop music history, when top 40 radio was dominated by the likes of Paula Abdul’s mousy, made-for-MTV dance numbers and Milli Vanilli’s sterile, also made-for-MTV, fake-model posing. (Author’s note: Kids, MTV used to play music 24 hours a day. True story. Look it up). Brickell’s lilting, country-girl voice on Rubber Bands was a breath of fresh air, and in it’s own way, the album broke new pop territory.

The music on Rubber Bands is airy, malleable, and vibrant, like it’s suspended on air (or rubber bands?). It’s soft and relaxing throughout, yet crisp and punchy in the right places, taking the listener, in some moments, to the backyard dance, while in others revealing quirky observations of the world around us: charming and captivating, beguiling and mysterious. The themes on the album, written mostly by Brickell, run the gamut of what you would expect from a young, twentysomething idealist: friendship (“Circle”), love (“Love Like We Do,” “Nothing,” and “Now”), self-discovery (“What I Am,” “Beat The Time,” “She”), romance (“Air of December” and “Keep Coming Back”), and utopian mediations on how life works (“The Wheel”).

The album closes, not with a crescendo, but more quietly, with the sweet, whispered lullaby, “I Do.” This charming little album closer finds Brickell accompanied only by a solitary, acoustic guitar, singing to a new friend, one who clearly and completely understands her. “It’s not emotion that I feel for you,” she sings, “It’s not devotion that I want. I want someone to follow, who doesn’t lead the way. I want someone to listen, who won’t repeat what I say.” Finding such a friend is one of life’s rare and surprising gifts: just like this album.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Hearts and Bones," by Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a marvel. He has written and performed legendary song after legendary song over the past 40-plus years, while putting out startlingly few actual solo albums in the process: only ten original albums in that timeframe, including two soundtrack albums. That’s approximately one album every four years…way too few for such an iconic and consistently significant musician. Paul Simon’s albums continue to be compelling and progressive, moving forward without getting lost in embarrassing fads and experimentalization.

From these precious few albums, many Simon songs have worked their way into the pantheon of rock and roll classics. First, there’s the unequalled output from his partnership with Art Garfunkel, and beyond that, there’s his remarkable run of hits from the 1970’s, including, “Mother And Child Reunion,” “Loves Me Like A Rock,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and the tongue-in-cheek break-up song, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” And for those who were paying attention, there was Simon’s thrilling mid-80’s “comeback,” Graceland, which featured the top 40 hit, “You Can Call Me Al,” ubiquitous in the spring and summer of 1987, due in part, no doubt, to the silly Chevy Chase cameo in the video, followed by the amazing and almost as big, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” Sadly, though, few remember one of Simon’s very best albums, 1983’s riveting and poignant, Hearts and Bones. It’s overlooked partly, because it came after his 1970’s solo heyday and before his aforementioned mid-80’s world music resurgence. It was also ignored because it came out the year Thriller ruled the world and forever changed the tide of pop music, closing the coffin on too many 1970’s pop icons.

The overarching theme of Hearts and Bones is all love, all the time, and in the Simon tradition, the album approaches the topic from a melancholy perspective. For example, Simon’s heart is literally allergic to the women he loves in “Allergies,” the lead track and the only near top-40 hit from the album. Next, Simon mournfully ponders the past and future of love with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Carrie Fisher, in the heartsick title track, and later in the album, he thinks way too much about shaping perfect love in the companion songs, “Think Too Much (a) and (b),” where he sings, “But maybe I think too much, and I ought to just hold her, stop trying to mold her…” The former was released as a single in early 1984 and failed miserably in the wake of heinous radio hits from that year, like “Flashdance” (What A Feeling!), “Ghostbusters,” and “Islands In The Stream.”

In other places, Hearts and Bones looks into its crystal ball to forecast living and loving in the new millennium, like on “When Numbers Get Serious,” where Simon foretells the pending internet age of quick results, online dating, and web-based, virtual relationships with extraordinary accuracy. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is a beautiful tribute to both the abstract artist, Rene' Magritte, and Simon’s beloved vocal groups of the doo-wop era: The Penguins, The Moonglows, etc. My favorite song on this classic Simon album, however, is the haunting, “The Late-Great Johnny Ace,” which discusses the (then) recent and horrific death of John Lennon, juxtaposing the tragedy with the death of early rocker, Johnny Ace, by self-inflicted gun shot to the head. Simon introduced the song at the Central Park concert in 1981 and was nearly assaulted on stage near the end of the song, apparently by an angered/crazed Lennon fan, who was quickly pulled away from Simon just inches before the attack: a strange response to a song, where Simon’s genuine love for Lennon is palpably displayed. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say...

Originally, Paul Simon had other intentions for this magnificent album about love and loss. It was initially meant to repair an old friendship, reportedly to be the long-awaited Simon and Garfunkel reunion album (which is never going to actually happen, by the way; it's not, so stop hoping for it already...) to follow their highly acclaimed reunion concerts two years before. Early on, the album was also going to be titled, “Think To Much,” but after thinking too much, old conflicts resurfaced between the duo, and they parted ways once again. Simon erased Garfunkel’s vocals, turned further inward, and made a stunningly personal album which autopsied friendships, current events, the future, and love affairs that ultimately come to regretful ends, finally and fittingly naming this one Hearts and Bones.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Baja Sessions," by Chris Isaak

Best known for his 1991 hit, “Wicked Game,” used in the creepy David Lynch film, “Wild At Heart,” Chris Isaak makes living through sad and tormented personal relationships sexy and hip. Don’t believe me? Check out his second best-known sort-of hit, “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,” used in the trailer of another creepy film, Stanley Kubrick’s, “Eyes Wide Shut.” See what I mean? In Isaak’s Elvis Presley-fueled, early-rock world, heartbreak is a strangely familiar presence…and it’s also just kind of strange: always lurking in grim shadows down dark, murky motel hallways. Isaak’s mournful croon echoes Orbison perfectly, as his grumble is as simpatico as his falsetto.

But as cool as he is, picking any one Chris Isaak album to highlight for a “Must Hear” blog is a difficult and somewhat arbitrary task. I mean, while universally hailed by critics, Isaak’s albums are sometimes described as being interchangeable, with no one album standing out as a “new direction” or finding Isaak taking a on different approach or style. And that’s what I love about this rockabilly acolyte. With Isaak, there will likely never be an experimental period; there will never be a “Justin record;” there will only be straight-ahead, but suffering and romanticized rock-and-roll music. Even Isaak’s 2004 holiday offering,
Christmas, doesn’t veer from this well-honed approach.

But it’s the ongoing artist – audience dilemma, isn’t it? The artist wants to grow and evolve, not getting mucked into routine or repeating themselves, and the audience wants to hear what they like, what’s familiar. And either perspective is completely defensible. Case in point for the artist’s side: Radiohead constantly evolves and reinvents its sound, pushing into new and uncharted sonic territory with each new release: and they do so exquisitely. Case in point for the fan’s side: Sade puts out essentially the same album every four to five years, adding a few sonic embellishments du jour, and the fans scramble back for more. Some artists adapt well with change (i.e., Paul Simon, Green Day, and Madonna, who has famously predicted the “next big thing” with startling accuracy), but some attempts to adapt with the changing musical tides quickly fall apart (e.g., 
Carpenters, Chicago, and the once great Stevie Wonder, who spiraled into synthesizer hell with early-80’s drivel like “Part-Time Lover” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You”).

But if Chris Isaak has one album that stands out among the excellent bunch, it’s his fresh and uncluttered
Baja Sessions. Inspired by time in the beautiful, breezy, Baja, Mexico, the album highlights Isaak’s lighter musical side. What stands out about Baja Sessions is the laid-back approach that permeates this alluring effort. It’s as if he and the band are lounging in their beach chairs and hammocks, bare feet dangling over the side, playing their favorite bummed-out love songs, and somebody accidently pressed “record” on the reel-to-reel. In fact, Baja Sessions is one of the most relaxed albums I’ve ever heard, covering songs from his beloved pre-rock era and some of Isaac’s own songs, perfectly co-opted from previous albums.

The album’s opener, “Pretty Girls Don’t Cry,” is a whispered Orbison sound-alike, and sets the breezy pre-rock pace of the album. Two outstanding covers follow shortly after, Roy Orbison’s classic, “
Only The Lonely,” and Gene Autry’s 1939 hit, “South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way),” which sounds like it was written with Isaak in mind. Baja Sessions also returns to stunning originals from Isaak’s previous albums, most notably, “Wrong To Love You,” from Heart Shaped World, and the lovely, “Two Hearts,” from San Francisco Days. The Baja versions are stripped down and chilled, and the fresh take on these familiar tunes offers a significantly original vision without watering down the songs’ vitality. Hearing Isaak cover his own material reminds me why he is such a resilient artist: he doesn’t rely on hits to deliver his work; he never has. Isaak focuses solely on creating enduring, classic pre-rock and roll that transcends trends and top 40 radio.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Homebrew," by Neneh Cherry

Neneh Cherry stormed America’s shores in 1989 with her nimble, eclectic, hip-hop-meets-outer-space debut, Raw Like Sushi. That album's three-minute, bump-and-grind marvels, “Buffalo Stance” and “Kisses On The Wind,” charting at #3 and #8, respectively, elevated radio waves to higher ground in the final summer of that neon-filled, Voodoo Economics-lovin’ decade. But Cherry’s music wasn’t just refreshing, nestled alongside 1989 radio slop like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Bat Dance,” it was revelatory.

And as refreshing as Raw Like Sushi was, Homebrew, Cherry’s magnificent follow-up, is a staggering leap forward. Cherry takes the jazz / trip-hop improvisations from the first album and injects them here with rock guitars, hypnotic beats, and mischievous, dance floor sass. To wit, “Sassy,” the album’s opener, is accompanied by a vacuum-powered drumbeat and sprinkled with playful piano fills. The brilliant lead song features hip-hop / jazz MC, Guru (Gang Starr), who pokes fun at Cherry’s Mama Bear swagger and trumpets the artist’s explosive return. “Fellas got to give me the most respect, cause you know I don't like to waste my time, so don't give me that - I'm laying low! I sizzle slow!” Cherry brags, leading into the song’s hook, a whispered, repetitious, “so sassy…”

Focusing less on rap this time around, Homebrew retains Cherry’s favorite themes: family, children, and motherhood, and the album leans more on the trance-induced template of Sushi’s haunting, “Manchild,” to set the mood. Cuts like “Move With Me (my personal favorite),” “Peace In Mind,” and the album’s haunting-yet-hopeful closer, “Red Paint,” expand “Manchild’s” musical palette of lacerated drums and spine-chilling, slow motion atmospherics. In fact, over half of the album riffs on this sonic style that remains startlingly fresh almost 20 years later.

The only song I always skip on this remarkable album is Cherry's much-touted duet with REM's Michael Stipe, "Trout." Rock critics, seemingly compelled to favor the track, often write things like, "this unlikely duet about teaching sex education in schools is risky, but it works somehow." Wrong. It doesn't work. The song is irritating, ill-conceived, and preachy (and I agree with its politics!). "Trout" is a pimple on a model and the only head-scratcher on Homebrew.

But although Cherry’s commercial success essentially stalled with Sushi, her influence continues to grow, with sampling and collaborations with and by other artists, ranging from the Gorillaz, Youssou N'Dour, and Groove Armada to the 2006 acoustic styled duet, “Long Way Round,” with her brother, Eagle-Eye (“Save Tonight”) Cherry. Cherry’s 1996 follow-up to Homebrew, the sluggish and envelop-pushing Man, was deemed too un-commercial and experimental for American audiences and was never released outside Europe. These days, Cherry can be heard in the side project, “CirKus,” along with her daughter and husband, and Cherry fans eagerly await a new studio effort, promised, promised, promised...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Days of Future Passed," by The Moody Blues

This album never makes it to any “best albums of all time” lists, and I’ve always wondered... why is it not cool to like Days of Future Passed? Maybe it’s the ostentatious, John Lennon-esque “I’m-saying-the-opposite-so-I’m-profound” title, or possibly it’s the over-the-top spoken interludes which bookend the album, with their “heavy,” faux philosophical lyrics seemingly out of the mouth of Ra, or possibly, it’s the very concept of the album itself: moving the listener from morning into night in a seven part song cycle, with the London Festival Orchestra providing classical music interludes between the pop songs. Or it might be the album artwork, with its Technicolor, two-way, psychedelic face being orbited by various symbols and images from the album, which I absolutely love. In fact, I love everything about Days of Future Passed, and I return to it regularly for a nostalgic spin on my well-worn iPod.

In fact, my first memory of hearing the Moody Blues classic 1967 album goes like this: I was no more than three years old and my family was still living in the farmhouse my parents used to rent in Kewanee before moving to Neponset, Illinois in 1974. In my memory, I heard “Nights In White Satin” streaming from the upstairs bedroom of my older brother, Roger. I remember pulling my tiny, diapered self up the stairs, one step at a time, to check out where those sumptuous sounds might be coming from. Every time I hear “Tuesday Afternoon” or “Nights In White Satin” on the radio, I return to that memory.

My brother, Jay, suggests that Days Of Future Passed isn’t even the Moody Blues’ best album. He and another family member, Aunt Debby, insist that On The Threshold Of A Dream is the best Moody Blues album. They were there, so they should know, but Days seems to be the one most remembered. Possibly due to it containing two of the band’s most renowned and well-loved hit singles, “Tuesday Afternoon,” #24 in 1968, and “Nights In White Satin,” #2 in 1972.

To be honest, other than their fluke top ten hit from 1986, “Your Wildest Dreams,” Days Of Future Passed is all I really know of the Moody Blues. And it doesn’t matter that the album hasn’t made it to any rock critics “best of” lists; fans of pop music have spoken. It’s been over 40 years since Days release, and the album continues to sell to new generations of fans. In fact, the Moody Blues are still bringing the album’s pageantry and summer of love wonderment to the masses, playing the entire Days album for fans in the only awesome way it knows how - with full symphony orchestra.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner," by Ben Folds Five

Ben Folds Five is best-known for the hit single, “Brick,” from their 1997 album, Whatever and Ever, Amen. It’s subject matter, the collateral damage that comes from a young couple’s decision to have an abortion, is a strange topic for a hit pop song, but there you have it. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is the trio’s 1998 follow-up and is, arguably, the bands best work to date.

While not necessarily biographic (the band reportedly made up the name, which was unfortunate for the several hundred Reinhold Messners who were later discovered to actually exist), the themes on
Reinhold Messner lean hard toward melancholy: illness, fear, frustration, and loneliness. That said, the album is far from depressing. Speaking widely, Reinhold Messner is about adjusting to how life actually turns out verses “the illusion.” The sad and grotesque characters of the album conjure the citizens of “Winesbug, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s fictional (and bizarre) midwestern town. Like the citizens in Winesburg, the inhabitants in Reinhold Messner careen recklessly out of control for two fateful reasons: circumstances beyond their control (“Narcolepsy,” “Don’t Change Your Plans,” and “Hospital Song”) or situations rising solely from stupid decisions (“Army,” “Mess,” and “Regrets”).

Ben Folds has been called the 90’s heir to the Elton John piano-rock mantle, but I disagree. I suspect Folds is much more influenced by the wonderfully eclectic
Joe Jackson, and lyrically, by the curmudgeonly, cynical Steely Dan. His piano work is tinged with jazzy improvisations and outer space noises, while his subject matter is dark and jaundiced, like the girl from your old school (“I did not think the girl could be so cruel”). In fact, Ben Folds (Five) gravitates towards the outcast and the marginalized. He/they sing(s) about what happens to those kids in school who never quite fit in: those kids who were chosen last in gym class, who never went to football games, and who spent their time on the playground digging in the dirt away from the others. With Reinhold Messner, Folds Five become their adult voice, championing their plight, and offering consolation. In the final song on the album, a hope-filled lullaby for this beleaguered crowd: “Goodnight, goodnight, sweet baby. The world has more for you than is seems...” So does this album.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Court and Spark," by Joni Mitchell

I think I’ve listened to this album for days. In fact, I listened to it again just this morning. Like most others, my introduction to this highly acclaimed 1974 album was through its two hit singles, “Help Me,” and “Free Man In Paris.” And while the hits remain classics, they aren’t even the best part of Joni Mitchell’s commercial zenith, Court and Spark.

Before “Help Me” bounced onto top 40 radio in the spring of that year, Joni Mitchell was best-known as the hippie chick who wrote hits for other artists, like “
Both Sides Now,” for Judy Collins, and “Woodstock,” for Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (and true story: Chelsea Clinton was named after Mitchell’s classic track, “Chelsea Morning,” from her 1969 album, Clouds). Mitchell’s albums up to that point were Joan Baez-influenced folk music, with Mitchell’s cold water vocals and alternately tuned acoustic guitar strumming, singing about mornings, ladies of the canyon, and feeling blue. But, never one to linger on any, one topic or sound, Mitchell craved fresh musical terrain. So with Court and Spark, she enlisted a world-class lineup of musicians to back her and embarked on an aural journey that was…Completely. Friggin’. Transcendent.

The album describes the excitement, hopes, insecurities, and doubts that come from budding romance or lack thereof.
Court and Spark builds quietly, with the hushed and conversational title track that reveals the author’s timidity and self-doubt about a fleeting, romantic near miss: “It seems like he read my mind; he saw me mistrusting and still acting kind; he saw how I worry sometimes…I worry sometimes…” Next come the hit singles, followed by the heart of the album: a quintet of dead-on relationship songs that examine the human coupling ritual in startling detail and sometimes cringe-inducing scrutiny.

Mitchell encapsulates the emotional arc of this heartfelt, introspective, and stirring album with a line from “
People’s Parties,” where she sings, “I wish I had more sense of humor, keeping all the sadness at bay - throwing the lightness on these things, and laughing it all away…laughing it all away…laughing it all away…” The album flows in said manner from beginning to end, moving from heartbreak to humor and ending on a surprisingly comedic note with a cover of “Twisted,” where Mitchell trades debauched lines with “Cheech” Marin and Tommy “Chong,” kicking around about just how mixed-up Mitchell might really be. But she’s far from mixed up, and as Q-Tip so aptly reminded us a few years back, “Joni Mitchell never lies.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Bryter Layter," by Nick Drake

“I never felt magic as crazy as this,” Nick Drake sang in “Northern Sky,” from Bryter Later, and the sentiment served as a perfect summation of this ethereal and magnificent album. With it’s unhinged flutes and wacka-wha guitars, the album could only have been made in the early seventies. It’s impact, however, transcends time. But so does Nick Drake, who released only three studio albums during his lifetime: the acoustic and relaxed debut, Five Leaves Left, in 1969, Bryter Later, in 1970, and the hallow and haunting, Pink Moon, in 1972. Pink Moon is perhaps the best known of the three, due to the title song made famous in the 2000 Volkswagen commercial, Five Leaves Left contains Drake’s best and most otherworldly song, “River Man,” and Bryter Later, which sounds the most dated, is, ironically, his very best.

Never known for his vocal prowess, on Bryter Later, Drake sings using his “head voice,” and his lyrics are playful and mind-bendingly imaginative, almost like he’s describing a series of dreams, sometimes placing himself in the middle of the action and sometimes off to the side, a distant, lonely observer. In “One Of These Things First,” Drake sings, “I could be here and now. I would be, I should be…but how?” Or on “Hazey Jane I,” he sings, “Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s passed? Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?” Drake describes perfectly those moments when you feel completely out of sync with everyone and everything around you.

Quiet and despondent in personality, Drake was known for crafting indelible, alternate-key pop tunes that linger long after the turntable stops spinning, and everything you’ve heard about Nick Drake, sonically, is represented on Bryter Layter: stirring tunes, deliciously morose lyrics, and Drake’s opaque, raspy vocal style. But conversely, the album also has an upbeat and cheerful side that hinted at personal optimism. In the liner notes for the Nick Drake boxed set, Fruit Tree, producer, Joe Boyd, lists Bryter Layter as “the one perfect album” they made. “When it was released, Boyd said it was a masterpiece, that it would make Nick Drake a star. But he was wrong; the album didn’t sell. And Nick Drake was crushed.”

This is the tragic part, because when measured against other trifle from 1970 that sold by the millions (e.g., “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Everything Is Beautiful” or “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” to name but a few), it’s nothing less than criminal that Bryter Later went unnoticed by pop radio. Some suggest it was this failure that led Drake to create his bitter and terse final album. Others suggest it was the final blow that led to his untimely death.

But I like to imagine that Bryter Later held evidence that, in another context and in another set of circumstances, things may have turned out very differently for Drake. His music, often billed “depressing,” has been described as the progenitor to the likes of Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith, but on Bryter Later, something different was in Drake’s tea. The songs on this album hinted at something unanticipated bubbling under Drake’s normally melancholy surface: hope.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Blue," by Double

The sub-genre of smooth jazz hit new commercial peaks in the early 1980’s. A momentum fueled, no doubt, by 1970’s crossover artists like George Benson, Patti Austin, and Al Jarreau. Not only did smooth jazz proliferate to the point of newly established radio stations for the style, but smooth jazz artists also became regular fixtures on the pop charts in the early to mid 1980’s. Some of these artists established themselves widely and held an enduring shelf life in the pop world, like Sade (“Smooth Operator”) and Simply Red (“Holding Back the Years”), while others either quickly faded back to jazz-only stations, like Anita Baker ("Sweet Love") and Kenny G (Hmm, don't remember any of his songs), or disappeared entirely. Double is in the last category.

Mistakenly dubbed “a quartet” in the People Magazine review (due to the clever album cover pictured above, where the duo appears twice: get it? “Double?”), Double was actually a Swiss duo, consisting of vocalist and lead guitar player, Kurt Maloo, and Felix Haug on drums and keyboards. I first heard the duo’s top-20 hit, “Captain Of Her Heart,” in my freshman year of high school: it sounded so sophisticated and jet-set cool. In fact, there was nothing to not like about this classic single. Culled from this 1985 debut album, the song’s distinctive piano riff, melancholy lyric, and the casual, off-the-cuff vocal style of Kurt Maloo fit right in with the contemporary jazz/pop of that time, and it’s an enchanting little song - one of the most memorable of the era.

The remaining album is a surprising combination of 80’s synthesizers, light techno beats, jazz, and pop that still holds up remarkably well, over 20 years later. Although the up-tempo songs retain their mid-80’s appeal, the enduring strength of Blue is found in the slower, jazzier songs, like “Rangoon Moon,” and “Tomorrow,” which closes the album. “Tomorrow’s” clicky, shuffle-along drumbeat, lilting tenor saxophone, and meandering, lighter-than-air chorus floats out of your speakers like ether – a perfect finale for this tragically under-valued and long-forgotten album of the 80’s.

The follow-up single from the album, “Woman Of The World” sounded just as urbane and mysterious as “Captain,” and I love it to this day, but it just didn’t catch on. A stilted second album, Dou3le, followed two years later, but by then, everyone was walking like Egyptians, fighting for their rights to party, or freaking out about Michael Jackson’s so-so new album (Bad) with little patience for sifting through the duo’s often difficult and techno-heavy follow-up. After their follow-up effort failed, Double was dropped from their record label and spent the 90’s pursuing solo careers with little success. In 2004, Haug died of a heart attack, and in 2009, Maloo released a solo album, Summer Of Better Times, similar in style to Blue, just released in the U.S. in the summer of 2013.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"We Started Nothing," by The Ting Tings

My father set up a basketball hoop in our driveway in 1981, and we used to play a game on sunny summer afternoons called, “H-O-R-S-E,” where we’d take turns calling the shot, and each consecutive player would have to make the same shot or garner a letter. Miss enough shots to spell out “H-O-R-S-E” and you were out of the game. Last player without the H-O-R-S-E moniker won. What can I say? We made our own fun. At any rate, never an athlete, my favorite part of the game wasn’t so much the basketball, but the music that played on the radio in the background. 
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, this meant classic songs by Blondie (“Call Me”), Hall and Oats (“Kiss On My List”), The Go-Gos (“We Got The Beat”), Suzie Quatro (“Stumblin’ In”), and The Waitresses (“I Know What Boys Like”). And even though it was released just last year (2008), the Ting Ting’s, We Started Nothing, would have perfectly fit the mood of our H-O-R-S-E -playing, punk-pop playlist: pure, carbonated, audio joy.

The Ting Tings, formed in Britain in 2006 and consist of singer/guitarist Katie White and drummer Jules De Martino. Much of their debut album is reminiscent of Toni Basil’s ageless solitary pop smash, “Mickey,” with its cheerleader-esque game-time shouted choruses and bumping, thumping, marching band beats - and that’s not a criticism. Might I point out, here, that one must never underestimate the ripple effect of a one-hit-wonder. Basil’s “Mickey,” with it’s stuck-in-your-head chorus, “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, Hey Mickey!” not only inspired one of Weird Al’s best parodies (the "I Love Lucy"-themed, “Ricky”), but is arguably to blame for much of Gwen Stafani’s solo career (“Hollaback girl”) and to lesser effect, roughly half of Avril Lavigne’s song catalogue. And we’re alone now, so you can admit that you’ve always loved Basil’s #1 song from 1982, and you’re glad I mentioned it. 

The core of this album is made up of three bratty-fabulous songs, “That’s Not My Name,” “Shut Up And Let Me Go,” and “We Walk,” which is the “hit” from the record and deservedly so. The lyrics from all three songs sound like they are being recited from a grumpy teenage girl’s diary and are simply impossible to get out of your head. Throughout this ornery album, the melodies are accessible, quick-to-the-point, and catchy as hell. And I suspect the album title, We Started Nothing, refers to the fact that there’s nothing “new” or “groundbreaking” on the record. Seriously, every song seems to riff off some other pop song you know and love from the late 70’s / early 80’s...and that’s a wonderful thing. With a running time of less than 40 minutes, it might be easy to dismiss this album as retro, disposable pop, but from my perspective, it’s hard not to immediately fall in love with this endearing little record. Time will bear out which opinion is more accurate, but in the meantime, We Started Nothing will undoubtedly provide the ultimate carefree soundtrack to this summer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"#1 Record," by Big Star

Everyone from Tom Petty to REM to Teenage Fan Club to Matthew Sweet to Fleet Foxes and still others claim to have been influenced by Big Star’s brand of classic power pop, and their influence is certainly palpable via popular music that arrived in its wake, but paradoxically, their albums sold merely handfuls of copies upon release – literally. So unless the dozen or so fans who purchased their early-mid seventies albums went on to become the above-mentioned artists, someone’s fudging a bit on their hipper-than-thou claim on this legendary underground band.

But it’s a rock-n-roll cliché, isn’t it? Artists who should’ve been huge, but never quite make it past a cult following: musicians like Nick Drake, Josh Rouse, or bands like Love and Big Star are but a few. So why did Big Star not quite hit the big time? Insider sources cite lackluster promotion from their record company. Others indicate it was just bad timing. But apparently there were the few fringe, ultra-cool (or ultra-lucky) rock aficionados, who discovered the group and passed along bootleg LPs, 8-tracks, and cassettes to friends and family, keeping alive the music of this jingle-jangle, rocking band.

My first exposure to Big Star was actually in 1988, when I heard my first REM song, the top-ten hit, “Stand,” that bears the heavy aforementioned influence. REM’s “Stand” is a sunny pop song, with brimming, jingle-jangle guitar, and a vocal style taken straight from the Big Star playbook. “Stand” was an amiable, whimsical, nonsense song for a high school kid like me to sing (e.g., “If wishes were trees, the trees would be falling, listen to reason, reason is calling…”), and REM was my first rock concert (The “Green Tour,” with shout-outs, here, to my friend Rachel, who drove us to the University of Iowa for the show).

And even though I never heard Number One Record when it was recorded in the 1970s, I might as well have, because when I hear it today, it takes me back to that decade, or at least what I remember of it. Fresh out of their teens themselves, Big Star (named after a now-defunct supermarket chain) opted for songs that described overcoming familiar, tried-and-true, far-out teenage obstacles. Name the teen trepidation, and Big Star sings about it on Number One Record. You know, like the dumb adults “who tell you that they know…they'll zip you up and dress you down and stand you in a row.” Ugh! I hate when adults do that. My favorite angry, teen irritant moment on the album is the adolescent tirade, “Don’t Lie To Me.” A sentiment doesn’t get simpler than that. Or what about annoying dads, as described in the staggering, “Thirteen,” dads who need to be told to “get off my back” or need to be educated on “…what we said about 'Paint It Black’.”

Ah, the turmoil of teenage life. But there are plenty of songs for grown-ups, as well, including the joyous, “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” and the reflective, “My Life Is Right.” Songwriters, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, wrote these songs at a time in rock music when it was en vogue for musicians to feature pseudo-religious lyrics in their songs and have hits with them. Artists as varied as The Doobie Brothers (“Jesus Is Just Alright”) and George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”) were selling millions of copies of love songs to God, and in this same era, the soundtrack to the Broadway musical, Godspell, had a top 40 pop hit with, “Day By Day” (and remember, Jesus Christ, Superstar?”). Similarly on “Try Again,” Bell writes, “Lord I've been trying to be what I should, Lord I've been trying to do what I could, but each time it gets a little harder, I feel the pain, but I'll try again.” Religious or not, it’s “little engine that could” message resonates. The most brilliant, spiritual moment of the album, however, is the ethereal hymn of assurance, “Watch The Sunrise.” It’s understated and sincere guitar hook is met with hopeful lyrics and one of the most exquisite vocal harmonies in rock-and-roll.

And while I was not one of the groovy few who heard it on release, Number One Record resides on my current list of the “Ten Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time.” And thanks to That 70’s Show, almost everybody's familiar with the Cheap Trick version of Big Star’s “In The Street,” that served as the show’s theme for eight hilarious seasons. The producers of the show said that the song was, for them, the epitome of the sprawling, stressed-out, uninhibited spirit of the Seventies. And I have to admit, it’s hard not to look for my packed-away 1970's lava lamp to plug in when I listen to this enduring album.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Between The Lines," by Janis Ian

Janis Ian stumbled onto the scene in 1965 as a fourteen year-old wunderkind, writing and performing “Society’s Child,” a then scandalous song about a white schoolgirl falling in love with a black schoolboy. The song reached number 14 on the pop charts in spite of being banned by most radio stations across the country, with one radio station reportedly being burned down after a DJ dared play it. Janis Ian, who has had songs rendered by musicians as varied as Bette Midler, Amy Grant, and John Mellencamp, may be more known today from pop culture references than from her gorgeous, meticulous, and often controversial poetry songs. In 2004, a character in the teen comedy, Mean Girls, was named after Ian: an outcast, “Goth,” high school girl. I wondered if the kids even knew how hip was that name-check...

In fact, Ian’s number 3 hit from 1975 and the quintessential teen-angst song, “At Seventeen,” is from the album, Between The Lines, one of most heartbreaking and beautiful albums of that wacked-out and wonderful decade. And in the 1970’s when America was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, and the disillusionment of the hippie generation, that’s saying a lot. In truth, the album feels like 1975, with its faded yellow-brown cover and somber tones that saunter into your ears and linger forever. But despite being a perfect reflection of that moment in time, the album still sounds fresh today, like it might have been recorded last winter.

Borrowing elements from folk, pop, rock, classical, and even Broadway, Between The Lines paints a diverse musical landscape filled with sketches of isolation, fury, and redemption (sorry kids, joy sold separately). The album boomerangs between world-weary wisdom and youthful naïveté, at times asserting a voice of independence and strength and at other moments quiet desperation. Ian opens the album with the quintessential pick-up line from the “Me Decade:” “Would you like to learn to sing?” the singer asks, “Would you like to sing my song? Would you like to learn to love me best of all?” Not asking much, right?

The album features one sorrowful rumination after another on lost love (“In The Winter”), failed dreams (“Bright Lights And Promises”), and heartbreaking regret (“Water Colors”). Yet, in Ian’s tortured world, heartbreak never sounded so engaging. Ian draws you in. In fact, as a listener, one feels compelled to participate and to even enjoy the misery; the songs are that amazing. In fact, Ian’s brilliant writing on this album reveals a knack for breathing life into tear-stained journal entries - turning them into pop music poetry. In fact, with the success of Between The Lines, Ian essentially handed-out careers to decades of artists after her (you’re welcome, Tori and Alanis).

But I’ve always wondered why Ian chose the title, Between The Lines. “Between the lines” usually refers to subtle word messages, dancing around the topic when you’re afraid to come right out and say what you mean. But there’s nothing passive about these lyrics; they grab you by the lapels, look you in the eye, and demand your rapt attention. In fact, Ian’s beautiful melodies and imaginative, sometimes startlingly honest songs illustrate how truly sublime pop music can be.