Thursday, December 24, 2009
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
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
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Saturday, August 8, 2009
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
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Monday, June 1, 2009
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
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
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
Sunday, May 3, 2009
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
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, orbands 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.