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.