Monday, October 20, 2014

“Poetry And Aeroplanes,” by Teitur

Teitur’s pitch-perfect debut album, Poetry And Aeroplanes, would be the playlist Spotify would create for me, with its technical, robotic tonal algorithms. It’s a startlingly flawless embodiment of my sonic character. It feeds me. I return to Poetry And Aeroplanes often. It will always be a part of my life. It’s my aural DNA. If I were a musician, the tender songs on Teitur Lassen’s debut album would likely be the kind of music I would create.

Poetry And Aeroplanes tip-toed onto the music scene 11 years ago, in 2003, amidst monster radio hits by the likes of 50 Cent, Beyonce’, and Black Eyed Peas (who I met when they played a show where I used to work, just a few weeks before their single, “Where Is The Love?” blew up and made them a household name, and that night they expected me to drive them around Chicago into the wee hours after their performance. Yeaaaah...that didn’t happen. Sorry, Will. I. Am. not sorry), and while not making a big splash in North America, Teitur’s album certainly garnered the attention of key music industry insiders, including John Mayer, who wrote about the album, "…it may be one of the best albums to come around in the last five years...Music like this is jet fuel on the fire of a broken heart. Even if you think the flame has died, there's at least one lyric that'll hit that last hot spot, and then you'll find yourself as fucked as you were the day you lied and said you never wanted to see her again. Enjoy." Well said, Mr. Mayer. In fact, with radio trends o’ that moment belonging to the above-mentioned celebrities, this humble little record didn’t stand a chance. Who was going to hear it and how? Nobody was playing it.

Teitur’s mellow-gold styled, heartbreaking, melodic debut album has been a mainstay in my house since my partner and I serendipitously discovered it in a discount CD bin in 2004. Not joking: I bought it because I thought the cover art was cool, and it was a dollar, and what did I have to lose? The album is a modern take on the evergreen singer-songwriter stylings of the late 1960’s – early 1970’s, and as such, the album sounds remarkably fresh 11 years after its release, in spite of its modern musical embellishments. Teitur’s songs remind me of a combination of Nick Drake (“Pink Moon”), Al Stewart (“Year Of The Cat”), and Paul Simon (“Something So Right”). Quiet, contemplative, and navel-gazey (in the best, possible way). The lyrics range from tales of nervous courtship (“One And Only,” “Let’s Go Dancing,” “Shade Of A Shadow,” “To Meet You”) to productivity inhibiting, crying in my latte heartbreak (all the rest), with the lovesick protagonist probing minutiae connected to every painful memory.

Teitur’s tunes on Poetry And Aeroplanes are melodic, every one, which is part of why this record is so tasty and memorable (and hummable). It’s a whispered tour de force, and it deserves a spot in everyone’s music library.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Last Of The Monkees

You’ve heard the story: The Monkees were a made-for-TV rock band that’s first two albums were engineered in a hit-making studio-lab featuring the talent of pop music’s most reliable songwriting and studio pros of the moment. The rock press maligned the foursome for not playing their own instruments on the recordings and for not writing their own songs (which, today, is normative). But the lads, to their great credit, ultimately became a real band, writing, playing, and producing the entirety of their third album, Headquarters. As noted by All Music Guide, the albums the band made after wrestling artistic control from Don Kirchner proved “…they were legitimate musicians with enough brains, heart, and soul as anyone else claiming to be a real band...” And Micky Dolenz famously likens The Monkees becoming a legitimate band to Leonard Nimoy becoming a real Vulcan. And yet it happened.

The television program ended after two short, successful seasons, after which the radio hits quickly dried up (no longer having a weekly vehicle to promote the songs), which is unfortunate for Top 40 radio in the late 1960’s, as their subsequent, self-directed albums proved no less engaging. I’ll be addressing them here, taken together – the final four original albums by The Monkees. I encountered Monkee-mania in its second (or maybe third?) iteration, through the MTV-fueled, twentieth Anniversary resurgence, and as a result, a new generation of fans and I were exposed, ad nauseam, to the band’s 12 top-40 hits, mostly coming from their first five million-selling albums, which mainly demonstrated the vision of the producers, music directors, and the television program, but gave little insight into the four individual members of the band. I’d argue that the final four original albums, while not only revealing so much more about Nesmith, Jones, Thorkelson, and Dolenz, also contain some of group’s best musical moments.

The downward sales spiral and the band’s ultimate demise started with their ill-fated film, Head. The idea behind the movie was to explode the whole mythology behind The Monkees: “a manufactured image with no philosophies.” It was a declaration of independence, of sorts, for the four actors/musicians, who were eager to shed the baggage of the kid-friendly television program. The film touched upon every movie genre imaginable as well as a few made-up ones as well, and it ended where it began, with the band running away from what it had become and featuring some of the best pop songs of the moment, from the psychedelic warmth of the movie’s theme song, the Goffin/King gem, “The Porpoise Song,” to Nesmith’s rocking barn-burner, “Circle Sky,” to the mellow gold, Carole King-penned, “As We Go Along.” Interspersed with snippets of dialogue from the film, the soundtrack is eclectic, eccentric, fun, and well-worth seeking out. Rhino recently released a 60-track collector’s edition of the soundtrack, featuring live versions and alternate vocal tracks as well as a few interviews from the era. 

After Head, Tork left, and then there were three. Instant Replay was the first album from the group that wasn’t connected to either a television program or to a film. Released just two months after the film soundtrack, the powers-that-be at Colgems apparently presumed the band still had sales potential. And while not boasting any true hit singles, the album did manage to eke its way up #32 on the album charts in the spring of 1969. The first single, the Boyce and Hart-penned, “Tear Drop City,” was an outtake from some of their earliest 1966 recording sessions and sounds suspiciously similar to their #1 debut single, “Last Train To Clarksville.” Truth was, it was reportedly an attempt by the band to reclaim territory on the pop charts by reaching into the hit-filled Kirchner vaults. Either way, it was a likable, sunny pop song that just missed the top 40 that summer, peaking at #56. Other gems on this forgotten album include the Goffin/King songs, “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her” and “A Man Without A Dream,” Jones’ acidic vocal on “You and I,” which boasted equally acidic guitar work by Neil Young, and the Neil Sadaka/Carole Bayer-Sager coulda-been-a-hit-in-1966, “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The album’s closer, the McCartney-esque, bombastically schizophrenic cat biography, “Shorty Blackwell,” featured three separate, yet intertwining sonic movements and was written by Dolenz, foreshadowing the quirky art pop to come from the actor turned drummer turned songwriter (and my favorite Monkee: I love you, Micky Dolenz!).

The Monkees Present: Micky, David, Michael was originally conceived back when Peter Tork was still with the group and had been planned as a double album, devoting one side to each Monkee. With Tork absent and sales dwindling, the main concept was retained, but the project abbreviated to two sides, with songs contributed separately by the remaining three. Standout tracks include Nesmith’s country-rock, “Good Clean Fun,” (#82) one of the albums failed singles, and the Nesmith’s fan-favorite and leadoff single, “Listen To The Band” (#63). Davy submitted some of his best recorded efforts ever in tried-and-true starry-eyed mode for which he had become most known, the self-penned, “If I Knew” and the eerie, lounge-act number, “French Song,” as well as a surprising rocker written by the reliable tunesmiths, Boyce and Hart, “Looking For The Good Times.” As with the last LP, Micky Dolenz turned-in the most experimental tracks, with the terse album opener, “Little Girl,” and the similarly claustrophobic and excellent, “Bye-Bye, Baby, Bye-Bye.” Dolenz also contributed the album’s third failed single, the overtly political and tightly coiled, “Mommy and Daddy,” (#109). More musically gifted than many might have presumed, I’ve often wondered what might have happened had Dolenz chosen to devote himself to a musical, post-Monkees career (sigh...).

After Present, Nesmith left, and then there were two. Changes was the final “original” Monkees album, which featured the two actors in the band, Dolenz and Jones, with industry insiders joking that the final remaining band member would eventually release an album as “The Monkee.” **Good one, industry insiders** This contractual obligation of an album was produced and largely written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim (“Rock Me Gently,” #1, 1974) and is surprisingly strong. By my ear, Changes is a perfect representation of the type of preteen-oriented bubblegum music being released around that time (e.g., “A-B-C,” The Jackson 5, “Sugar, Sugar,” The Archies – which was another Andy Kim song, by the way, “Dizzy,” Tommy Roe, “Simon Says,” 1910 Fruitgum, “I Think I Love You,” Partridge Family…). Standouts include the album opener and sole single, “Oh, My My” (#98), the mournful, meandering melody of “Ticket On A Ferry Ride,” and “You’re So Good To Me,” which rounds out the album’s first three tunes. “Acapulco Sun” and the Dolenz-penned, playful, country-R&B tune, “Midnight Train,” which was recorded during the sessions for the previous album, also hold their own on this universally ignored, final Monkees release. While neither Jones nor Dolenz reported having fond memories of the recording sessions or of the album, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable and playful Polaroid of that era in pop music.

After The Monkees, Tork wandered aimlessly through the next two decades doing a stint in prison for marijuana possession and meandering in and out of various rock bands. Nesmith enjoyed modest success as a country-rock pioneer and early adopter of music videos, and the final two Monkees quietly made their ways into the tumultuous new decade, with Jones releasing a failed solo album in 1971 and making ends meet with guest appearances on The Brady Bunch, etc., and Dolenz, financially solvent from the success of The Monkees, eventually carving out a career for himself as a television director in the UK. Twenty years later came the MTV-fueled reunion extravaganza, which gave the group an unexpected (and unnecessary?) half-life, providing opportunity for the group to release new recordings in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s in various incarnations. None of the new material comes close to the quality of their 1960’s recordings, and The Monkees story came to a sad end with Jones’ untimely death in 2012. “Goodnight, goodnight everybody; everybody everywhere, goodnight.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

“Croz,” by David Crosby

This album has been universally praised among critics. As well it should be. I did stumble, however, upon an amusing outlier from a student newspaper, The Badger Herald, that reviewed, or rather, eviscerated this album shortly after its release, with the cynical, smart-ass (and likely 19-ish year-old) reviewer asserting, “Croz is not disappointing because of the banal lyrics or the unoriginal music, but because there’s little passion left to give the songs the spice they need to surprise, inspire and move us.” The reviewer went on to reveal a painfully shallow grasp of Crosby’s legacy, among other things confusing a CSN&Y hits compilation with a studio album, confusing authorship of songs, and citing their own “baby-boomer parents” collection of “innumerable” CSN albums (they made exactly 5 studio albums together). And beyond these cringe worthy errors, this young reviewer is stunningly wrong about this remarkable album.

I guess it’s inevitable that new albums from established artists (legendary, in this case) will be compared with their past work, and comparing Croz to Crosby’s ensemble work (e.g., The Byrds, CSN, CSN&Y, Crosby-Nash, CPR) is understandable, as even his solo albums are highly collaborative, but if anything, Croz is more akin to the “hung-over spirituality” of Crosby’s 1971 classic solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name. In fact, I suspect the new album’s title and cover photo might be a response to that first solo album from over 40 years ago. Both feature a close up of the artist’s face, the first a dramatic portrait of the artist as a young man, the second portrays a clear and bright headshot of the artist at 72; the first album was meandering, looking for answers to questions, the second is tighter and more focused, offering solutions: an eponymous, bookended artistic statement. The albums work remarkably well together. Speaking about the music on the album, All Music’s, Stephen Thomas Erlewine agrees:

Croz is…the only other solo record of Crosby's that attempts to reckon with similar emotions and sounds. That Croz prefers certainty to the untrammeled melancholy of If I Could Only Remember My Name is a reflection of where he stands in 2014

The music is, with a few modern embellishments from his collaborators, Daniel Garcia, and Crosby’s son, James Raymond, classic, folk-rock: a genre that exists, in no small part, due to Crosby’s own pioneering work. The lyrics on Croz are more instructive than interrogative. The melodies are strong, throughout, but three tracks standout: the lead cut, “What’s Broken,” which features guitar work from Mark Knopfler, “Dangerous Night,” the most contemporary sounding track, and the album closer, “Find A Heart,” a jazz-rock fusion featuring sublime trumpet improvisation by Wynton Marsalis and ethereal vocals by Crosby. It’s 2014, and Crosby still sings like an angel. The album makes me yearn for more from David Crosby, which is probably too much to ask. After all, 11 individual/collaborative solo album’s in 40 years ain’t so bad, plus the CSN/CSN&Y reunions – not too shabby an output for a man who has faced his own fears and lived to tell about it. Time and again.