We're now 200 (!) posts into this project, and I thank you all for sticking with me. To retain the comprehensive, organized quality of the blog, which I like to think of as relatively no-frills, here is an alphabetical index of all of the album reviews (and other posts) thus far. Below that, instead of commemorating with the Top 100 Albums again (that was posted here for #100), I've put together a decidedly different and hopefully equally fun list. Again, thank you for reading.
KEY: [A+] / [hr] = highly recommended / [r] = recommended / [c] = caution / [NO] = avoid
(Keep in mind, we're using iTunes capitalization here. I am well aware that from a cataloging standpoint that's total bullshit, but it keeps me from having to deal with surname ambiguities. I'm a library assistant in real life so I know this is offensive, and all I can tell you is... I like pissing you off.)
10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987) [c]
10,000 Maniacs: Blind Man's Zoo (1989)
10,000 Maniacs: Our Time in Eden (1992) [c]
13th Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds Of (1966) [hr]
13th Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (1967) [r]
2 Many DJ's: As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 (2002)
3 Mustaphas 3: Soup of the Century (1990) [c]
The 6ths: Wasps' Nest (1995) [hr]
The 6ths: Hyacinths and Thistles (2000) [r]
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Source Tags & Codes (2002) [c]
A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder (2004) [r]
A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (2009) [r]
Aesop Rock: Labor Days (2001) [r]
Air: Moon Safari (1998) [hr]
Al Green Gets Next to You (1971) [hr]
Al Wilson: Show and Tell (1973)
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010) [hr]
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (2010) [hr]
The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari (1962) [r]
The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963) [A+]
The Beatles: With the Beatles (1963) [A+]
Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (2010) [r]
Best Coast: Crazy for You (2010) [r]
Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot- The Son of Chico Dusty (2010) [r]
Big Star: #1 Record (1972) [A+]
Björk: Selmasongs (2000) [hr]
Blur: Think Tank (2003) [hr]
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (2009) [r]
Broken Bells (2010)
The C.A. Quintet: Trip Thru Hell (1968) [r]
ceo: White Magic (2010) [r]
Chatham County Line: Wildwood (2010) [r]
The Chemical Brothers: Further (2010)
Crystal Castles (2010) [hr]
Curren$y: Pilot Talk (2010) [hr]
Curren$y: Pilot Talk II (2010) [r]
Curren$y: Weekend at Burnie's (2011) [r]
Cut Copy: Zonoscope (2011) [hr]
D.L. Byron: This Day and Age (1980)
The Decemberists: The King Is Dead (2011) [hr]
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010) [hr]
Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe (2009) [r]
Delorean: Subiza (2010) [r]
Destroyer: Kaputt (2011) [hr]
Devo: Something for Everybody (2010) [NO]
Eels: Tomorrow Morning (2010)
EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints (2011) [r]
Emeralds: Does It Look Like I'm Here? (2010) [c]
The Essex Green: Cannibal Sea (2006)
The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010) [r]
Fang Island (2010)
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (2011) [c]
Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (2010)
Four Tet: There Is Love in You (2010) [r]
Galaxie 500: Today (1988) [hr]
Gang Gang Dance: Eye Contact (2011) [r]
Gang of Four: Content (2011) [r]
Goldfrapp: Head First (2010)
Gonjasufi: A Sufi and a Killer (2010)
Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters (1973) [hr]
Hot Chip: One Life Stand (2010) [hr]
How to Dress Well: Love Remains (2010) [c]
Ice-T: O.G. Original Gangster (1991) [r]
Ida Cox & Coleman Hawkins: Blues for Rampart Street (1961) [hr]
Information Society (1988) [hr]
The International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (1968) [r]
Interpol (2010) [c]
Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (2007) [hr]
Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (2011) [r]
James Blake (2011) [r]
Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me (2010) [A+]
John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1960) [A+]
Julian Lynch: Mare (2010) [r]
Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place (2011)
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) [A+]
The Kinks (1964) [r]
The Kinks: Kinda Kinks (1965) [hr]
Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011) [NO]
Leonard Cohen: Dear Heather (2004) [hr]
Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (2011) [NO]
Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes (2011) [r]
M. Ward: Duet for Guitars #2 (1999) [r]
M. Ward: End of Amnesia (2001) [r]
Madonna: Hard Candy (2008)
The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008) [hr]
Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts (2010) [hr]
Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971) [A+]
Matthew Dear: Black City (2010) [r]
Midnight Juggernauts: The Crystal Axis (2010) [hr]
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (1950) [A+]
The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come (2009) [hr]
The Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck (2011) [hr]
Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise (2011) [hr]
No Age: Everything in Between (2010) [c]
Oasis: Definitely Maybe (1994) [hr]
OFF! First Four EPs (2011) [r]
Okkervil River: I Am Very Far (2011) [r]
Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (2008) [r]
Old 97's: The Grand Theatre, Volume One (2010)
Old 97's: The Grand Theatre Volume Two (2011) [c]
Otis Redding: Otis Blue (1965) [A+]
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender (2011) [r]
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (2011) [r]
Panda Bear: Person Pitch (2007) [r]
Panda Bear: Tomboy (2011) [c]
Pantha du Prince: Black Noise (2010)
Parliament: Osmium (1970) [hr]
The Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer (2010)
Pet Shop Boys: Yes (2009) [hr]
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011) [hr]
Prince: Dirty Mind (1980) [hr]
Prince: Controversy (1981) [hr]
Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007) [A+]
Radiohead: The King of Limbs (2011) [hr]
Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962) [A+]
Robyn: Body Talk (2010) [r]
She & Him: Volume Two (2010) [r]
The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (2007) [A+]
Sleigh Bells: Treats (2010) [NO]
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde (2011) [hr]
Spoon: Transference (2010) [r]
Stevie Wonder: Music of My Mind (1972) [hr]
Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (1972) [hr]
The Strokes: Angles (2011) [r]
Sufjan Stevens: Illinoise (2005) [hr]
Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (2010) [hr]
T.I.: King (2006) [r]
Talking Heads: 77 (1977) [hr]
Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (2010) [hr]
Teddy Thompson: Bella (2011) [c]
Tennis: Cape Dory (2011) [r]
The-Dream: Love King (2010) [r]
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (2011) [c]
Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (2010) [hr]
Toro Y Moi: Underneath the Pine (2011)
tUnE-yArDs: whokill (2011) [A+]
TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (2011) [hr]
Twin Shadow: Forget (2010) [r]
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) [hr]
The Velvet Underground: White Light / White Heat (1968) [A+]
The Walkmen: Lisbon (2010) [hr]
Wavves: King of the Beach (2010) [r]
We Are Scientists: Barbara (2010) [NO]
Wild Nothing: Gemini (2010) [r]
Wire: Red Barked Tree (2011) [r]
Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (2009) [hr]
Yuck (2011) [r]
REMIX ALBUMS & MIXTAPES
Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4Eva (2011)
Curren$y & The Alchemist: Covert Coup (2011)
Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (2010) [r]
Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx: We're New Here (2011) [r]
The Mountain Goats: All Survivors Pack (2011) [r]
The Weeknd: House of Balloons (2011) [r]
The Flaming Lips: With Neon Indian (2011) [r]
Girls: Broken Dreams Club (2010) [r]
Hot Chip: We Have Remixes (2010) [r]
James Blake: CMYK (2010)
R.E.M.: Chronic Town (1982) [A+]
Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People (2010) [r]
The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (2010) [hr]
Vampire Weekend: iTunes Session (2011) [r]
10,000 Maniacs: MTV Unplugged (1993)
The "5" Royales: All Righty! The Apollo Recordings (1951-55) [r]
The "5" Royales: Complete King Masters (1954-60) [A+]
? & the Mysterians: Best Of- Cameo Parkway (1966-67) [hr]
101 Strings Orchestra: 20 Years of Beautiful Music (1969) [hr]
1910 Fruitgum Co.: Best Of (1968-70) [hr]
Aaron Neville: A Collection of His Best (1966-2006) [NO]
The Action: The Ultimate! Action (1964-68) [r]
Adam and the Ants: Stand and Deliver- Very Best Of (1977-95)
Adriano Celentano: Best (1975-99) [r]
Archie Bell & the Drells: Tightening It Up (1967-79) [hr]
B.B. King: His Definitive Greatest Hits (1951-93)
The Beach Boys: Summer Love Songs (1963-71)
Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (1957-59) [A+]
Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight (1955-65) [A+]
The Everly Brothers: Cadence Classics- 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60) [hr]
The Everly Brothers: Walk Right Back (Warner Years) (1960-69) [r]
Faces: The Definitive Rock Collection (1970-75) [NO]
Gene Vincent: Best Of (1956-63) [A+]
Hall & Oates: The Essential Collection (1974-2001) [NO]
The Impressions: Definitive (1961-68) [hr]
Oasis: The Masterplan (1994-97) [r]
R.E.M.: Eponymous (1981-85)
Sam & Dave: Sweat 'n' Soul- Anthology (1965-71) [A+]
Taj Mahal: Best of (1967-74) [r]
Talking Heads: Sand in the Vaseline- Popular Favorites (1975-92) [r]
Talking Heads: Bonus Rarities and Outtakes (1975-92)
Van Morrison: Best Of (1965-89) [r]
The Yardbirds: Ultimate! (1964-69) [hr]
Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74) [r]
Chuck Berry: The Chess Box (1955-75) [r]
Oasis: The Early Years (1992-95)
SINGLES & MISC. TRACKS
non-LP cuts: #
LISTS & COMMENTS ETC.
All-Time Top Albums + Index
The List of Lists 2010
The Best Records of 2010
Welcome & Introduction
TOP 100 MUSIC VIDEOS
I spent about a week and a half working on this list -- less than I would've liked. I'd like to tackle it again at some point with more time. The top ten or so I'm very confident about. The entirety of the list attempts to be free of musical bias, but of course that's nearly impossible. There are a few videos here by bands I don't like, featuring songs I like even less. I think "Sex and Candy" by Marcy Playground is a brilliant video, but have no use for song or band. Same with Nirvana's "In Bloom" and a couple of others. But upon finishing I noticed that no band I'm even neutral about appears until #14, and that song features a member of a band I adore. So maybe that aspect was a failure, I don't know. It's probably tempting to consider my high placings of "Sugarcube" and "Tom Courtenay" as evidence of a YLT bias, but look -- if you say that, you haven't seen the videos. Watch them. Links to the first fifty are provided.
I tend to be skeptical of the video as artform. I think they're commercials, so the list is heavy on both directors who accept that completely (David Fincher) and directors who completely ignore it (Michel Gondry). #1, "Low," was a filmmaking project not made to promote anything, which may be one reason it's #1.
1. R.E.M. "Low" (James Herbert)
2. The Chemical Brothers "Let Forever Be" (Michel Gondry)
3. Bronski Beat "Smalltown Boy" (Bernard Rose)
4. Pet Shop Boys "I Get Along / E-Mail" (Bruce Weber)
5. Björk "It's Oh So Quiet" (Spike Jonze)
6. Yo La Tengo "Tom Courtenay" (Phil Morrison)
7. The Avalanches "Since I Left You" (Rob Leggett & Leigh Marling)
8. Yo La Tengo "Sugarcube" (Phil Morrison)
9. R.E.M. "Imitation of Life" (Garth Jennings)
10. Madonna "Express Yourself" (David Fincher)
11. Talking Heads "Burning Down the House" (David Byrne)
12. Kanye West "Flashing Lights" (Spike Jonze & Kanye West)
13. New Order "Blue Monday '88" (Robert Breer & William Wegman)
14. Massive Attack "Protection" (Michel Gondry)
15. Madonna "Vogue" (David Fincher)
16. The Notorious B.I.G. "Sky's the Limit" (Spike Jonze)
17. Michael Jackson "Thriller" (John Landis)
18. Peter Gabriel "Sledgehammer" (Stephen R. Johnson)
19. Tom Tom Club "Genius of Love" (Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel)
20. Wu-Tang Clan "Triumph" (Brett Ratner)
21. Pet Shop Boys "Being Boring" (Bruce Weber)
22. Blur "Coffee and TV" (Garth Jennings)
23. Weezer "Island in the Sun" (Spike Jonze)
24. Depeche Mode "Strangelove" (Anton Corbijn)
25. Daft Punk "Around the World" (Michel Gondry)
26. Jay-Z "99 Problems" (Mark Romanek)
27. Depeche Mode "Enjoy the Silence" (Anton Corbijn)
28. Talking Heads "And She Was" (Jim Blashfield)
29. The Roots "What They Do" (Chuck Stone III)
30. Kanye West "Runaway" (Kanye West)
31. Depeche Mode "Never Let Me Down Again" (Anton Corbijn)
32. Radiohead "Knives Out" (Michel Gondry)
33. Depeche Mode "Behind the Wheel" (Anton Corbijn)
34. Talking Heads "Crosseyed and Painless" (Toni Basil)
35. Missy Elliott "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" (Hype Williams)
36. R.E.M. "Man on the Moon" (Peter Care)
37. Arcade Fire "We Used to Wait" (Chris Milk)
38. Marcy Playground "Sex and Candy" (Jamie Caliri)
39. The Chemical Brothers "Elektrobank" (Spike Jonze)
40. TV on the Radio "Wolf Like Me" (Jon Watts)
41. Ludacris "Get Back" (Spike Jonze)
42. Kanye West "Heard 'Em Say" (Michel Gondry)
43. Depeche Mode "Halo" (Anton Corbijn)
44. R.E.M. "Nightswimming" (Jem Cohen) [complete version unavailable online]
45. Pet Shop Boys "Domino Dancing" (Eric Watson)
46. The Magnetic Fields "With Whom to Dance?" (please let me know if you know who directed this)
47. Male Bonding "Year's Not Long" (Vice Cooler)
48. R.E.M. "Crush with Eyeliner" (Spike Jonze)
49. Talking Heads "Love for Sale" (David Byrne)
50. Chris Isaak "Wicked Game" (Herb Ritts)
51. Weezer "Buddy Holly" (Spike Jonze)
52. R.E.M. "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" (James Herbert)
53. Beastie Boys "Sabotage" (Spike Jonze)
54. Prince "Kiss" (Rebecca Blake)
55. Janet Jackson "Got 'Til It's Gone" (Mark Romanek)
56. Nine Inch Nails "Closer" (Mark Romanek)
57. Pavement "Cut Your Hair" (Dan Koretzky & Ryan Murphy)
58. The Smashing Pumpkins "Tonight, Tonight" (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
59. Pet Shop Boys "Opportunities" (Zbigniew Rybczynski)
60. Michael Jackson "Billie Jean" (Steve Barron)
61. The Cars "You Might Think" (Jeff Stein)
62. The Notorious B.I.G. "Big Poppa" (Hype Williams & Sean Combs)
63. Yaz "Only You '99" (?)
64. Radiohead "Paranoid Android" (Magnus Carlsson)
65. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five "The Message" (Sylvia Robinson)
66. Fine Young Cannibals "She Drives Me Crazy" (Philippe de Coufle)
67. Radiohead "Just" (Jamie Thraves)
68. Madonna "Like a Prayer" (Mary Lambert)
69. The Cardigans "Lovefool" (Geoff Moore)
70. The New Pornographers "Moves" (Tom Scharpling)
71. Kanye West "Can't Tell Me Nothing" [Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham version] (Michael Blieden)
72. R.E.M. "Losing My Religion" (Tarsem)
73. Paula Abdul "Cold Hearted" (David Fincher)
74. New Order "True Faith" (Philippe de Coufle)
75. Peter Gabriel "Steam" (Stephen R. Johnson)
76. Depeche Mode "A Question of Time" (Anton Corbijn)
77. Björk "Pagan Poetry" (Nick Knight)
78. MGMT "Kids" (Ray Tintori)
79. a-ha "Take on Me" (Steve Barron)
80. Feist "My Moon My Man" (Patrick Daughters)
81. U2 "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" (Wim Wenders)
82. Radiohead "High and Dry" (Paul Cunningham)
83. Talking Heads "Road to Nowhere" (David Byrne & Stephen R. Johnson)
84. Puff Daddy "It's All About the Benjamins" (Spike Jonze)
85. Jamiroquai "Virtual Insanity" (Jonathan Glazer)
86. U2 "One" (Anton Corbijn)
87. Daft Punk "Da Funk" (Spike Jonze)
88. Björk "Human Behavior" (Michel Gondry)
89. Blur "Music Is My Radar" (Don Cameron)
90. Pet Shop Boys "Single" (Harold Greenhalgh)
91. Peter Gabriel "Big Time" (Stephen R. Johnson)
92. Janet Jackson "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" (Herb Ritts)
93. U2 "Lemon" (Mark Neale)
94. Herbie Hancock "Rockit" (Godley & Creme)
95. Madonna "Human Nature" (Jean-Baptiste Mondino)
96. Peter Gabriel "Digging in the Dirt" (John Downer)
97. Nirvana "In Bloom" (Kevin Kerslake)
98. Deee-Lite "Groove Is in the Heart" (Hiroyuki Nakano)
99. Tears for Fears "Head Over Heels" (Nigel Dick)
100. George Michael "Freedom '90" (David Fincher)
Sunday, July 31, 2011
I have more qualms about this album than a Stevie Wonder fanatic is probably supposed to. Wonder looms large for me; I think he's at least one of the five greatest performers in all pop music. The only solo artist I'd conceive as mattering more would be Chuck Berry, and only slightly. And this is a great record. But... well... every time I hear someone complaining about his last three decades of work and the schmaltz of his smash "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and its brethren like "Overjoyed" and "For Your Love," I just wonder if the person complaining has listened to "You and I" lately. This horrifically mawkish chestnut features one of his least imaginative melodies and stands still where, if nothing else, "Just Called" and "Overjoyed" sway a bit. Balladry has been part of Wonder's character from the beginning; his early albums were filled with treacly slow ones hand picked for his voice by the Motown gods. If anything, the perpetual funkiness and grit of his '70s work is the irregularity.
What Talking Book proved in its first moments was simply that Wonder no longer needed such hand-holding, hence the proper beginning of his "classic period." It's not worth the trouble to deny "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" even if you don't care much for it; Wonder's propensity for crowd-pleasing is astounding and worth much celebration. He is earth-shaking in the most direct, personal manner, in the way he can craft a wedding song like "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" that you've heard on such occasions and contexts probably hundreds of times -- and yet if your friends get married and tackle it as their first dance choice, you still don't really mind because it's that durable, that personable, that sweet-beyond-debate.
However, it wasn't really news in 1972 that Wonder could craft a hell of a ballad. It's on Book's unprecedented funk and harder-edged material that his status as a master is sealed. In a sense it's remarkable that music so unconventional, however led by the more instantly appealing slow ones, infiltrated not just the mainstream soul and pop audience but the pop culture zeitgeist as a whole, sweeping through Grammy ceremonies, radio, and day-to-day life. Wonder's presence in our lives as not just westerners but citizens of planet Earth is arguably greater than that of any other rock performer. I know you love the Beatles and I do too, but even "Hey Jude," their biggest hit, will never have the transformative power across all class, race, and generational lines that "Superstition" does. It packs a power, an urgency, an appeal that others can only dream of. He is our composer -- not our generation's, not our lifestyle bracket's, our country's. He is the man we should be most proud to have as our representative because at our best, this is what we can do artistically, and that is something.
Let's look at "Superstition." Something you may not have noticed about it is that it's rather achingly slow. It's one of the trickiest, most exuberant funk or soul cuts to attain its success, but despite its winding clavinet and persistent drums (both played by Stevie), it moves forward gradually and awkwardly in a fit of paranoia perfectly suited to the song's lyrics. I couldn't tell you whether deceptively tossing a dance beat onto a mournfully confused anthem like this is a new idea, but it's certainly one that's been reappropriated by many, from Wonder's peers (see Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear) to seemingly unrelated descendents (New Order, U2) who I'm certain got the idea from "Superstition." And what makes it all more remarkable is how electric the song remains after decades of exposure. It still lights up a room, still gets ordinarily hesitant bodies shaking. And Wonder's vocal calm and consistency only add to the firepower.
The rest of the rockers are, amazingly enough, easy matches for "Superstition." The immensely nasty "Maybe Your Baby" feels years ahead of its time, drifting off into Wonder's perfectly crafted bitter sunset the way the #1 hit "You Haven't Done Nothin'" would a few years later. "Big Brother," which segues directly from "Superstition," infuses Wonder's confidence with a heavier than usual African influence, all the more impressive on a cut populated by no other musicians. And the heart of Side One is the melodically undeniable double-header of "Tuesday Heartbreak" (the rare early '70s Wonder classic that inexplicably hasn't made its way into general public consciousness) and "You've Got It Bad Girl," featuring Wonder's voice traveling all the subtle avenues and twists he's best at. It's only near the end that the record becomes slightly indistinct, with "Blame It on the Sun" and "Lookin' for Another Pure Love" both pleasant and worthy if somewhat redundant semi-ballads, but that only makes the crescendo of "I Believe" sweeping up from nowhere all the more striking, an ideal climax for such a game-changing LP.
As much as I hate to give credit to Boomer dinosaurs yet again, we may have the Rolling Stones to thank for the upswing in Wonder's career associated with Talking Book. It was after a successful opening slot for the Stones that Wonder issued this album and saw it become a massive seller, and a cultural infiltrator in a way even the Stones had never experienced (and never would, despite being still the world's most profitable rock band). If Book hadn't taken off, Wonder's wanderings off into impressive but sugarcoated pop might have come more quickly and we would've been denied his triad of classics immediately following this one. Perhaps because Wonder's gifts are so undeniable, perhaps because the time was simply right, the left-field soul and thrillingly unconventional dance numbers on this record were soon enough aspects of a commercial behemoth, one of the rare rock & roll success stories that could make anyone smile. Better yet, having his artistic inclinations so validated gave Stevie Wonder the assurance he required to make an album, Innervisions, that went farther in all the best ways. It's more political, more cathartic, sharper, and best of all, its ballads are just as wildly, gorgeously bizarre as its stompers -- yet again, the building of a new genre and convention, the sole bit of tension Talking Book was missing.
How many have even had the opportunity, as Wonder did, to actually use massive popularity to change the borders of pop music? The Beatles and who else? Anyone? Prince, maybe. Michael Jackson could've but didn't. Stevie Wonder did it, and he did it right, and since he did I wouldn't care if he released a mediocre album every two years for the rest of his life (like Paul McCartney). That's not what he does, though. Instead he makes himself scarce, touring occasionally and releasing a decent album with a couple of classics every ten years or so. I'd say that's a pretty excellent outcome myself.
Music of My Mind (1972)
Erika Anderson comes to us with this solo debut after several years with the experimental folk-noise group Gowns, known for their live shows that were often labeled so emotionally intense as to be nearly unbearable. When Anderson and her boyfriend / bandmate Ezra Buchla split up in 2010, it seemed the gutsplitting nature of the band's music had finally done them in. Past Life Martyred Saints contains a good deal of music recorded before that occurrence, as Buchla appears throughout in occasionally more than minor ways. The result is a harrowing, at times uncomfortable record. Which seems to be Anderson's preference. She inflicts brutality here as much as she documents it; she wants to leave a mark every time she touches you, as the song goes. The starkness and desperation end up taking a toll, and the album is a difficult sell. But it's impossible not to admire anyone with the courage to lay themselves as bare as Anderson does here, fully aware of how unsettling the result will be.
Still, when parsing out why I marvel at this music without actually enjoying it, I can't help but think -- as in probably every other review on this page -- of Yo La Tengo. The first time I heard "The Crying of Lot G," a song that documents a fight between married band members Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley in distressingly minute detail, I cringed so much I couldn't finish it -- it was so personal it was difficult to listen in, as if I were Jimmy Stewart gazing in the window of the honeymooners. But Kaplan works through that pain with astounding good humor, honesty, groundedness. Anderson, for all her music's spareness, has a bit of a dramatic streak -- especially in her vocals, heavily reminiscent of Cat Power and PJ Harvey. She comes at all this from what seems like a haunted, baroque angle in the fashion of Nico, fragile but distant. I know the shit she's singing about is fucked up and sad, but I also can never forget she's performing, which makes it hard for me to find a way in. I don't feel like I'm involved in a conversation, the way I feel with Yoko Ono, tUnE-yArDs, Joanna Newsom, or Björk at their best. And I'm not suggesting that Anderson's work here is calculated. I'm suggesting it's a controlled grievance, a therapy more than a catharsis, which only makes me feel even less like it's something I have any right to hear. Anderson's music has the larger-than-life unapproachability of the chanteuse oversharing her heart out on some massive stage someplace, a feature she steadfastedly denies as a facet of her personality -- so maybe her defenses are just high while she works through this raw emotional period. Or maybe I'm full of shit; s'happened before.
The record's most accessible material is no less wounded but doesn't suffer from the same curious dichotomy. Opener "Grey Ship" is hypnotic, shattering, eerily reminiscent of some of Jeff Mangum's pre-Merge material like Hype City Soundtrack with a bigger budget. Mangum is a good comparison here; Past Life makes the same use of the freak-folk lo-fi bedrock as a springboard for the kind of claustrophobic darkness and dread Mangum made his on the unreleased "Little Birds" and the barely released "My Dream Girl Don't Exist," here all Anderson's on the bloody, startling "Marked," the kind of love song you don't want played at your wedding, reaching beyond "Every Breath You Take" because it's so much more articulate, so much more cleanly expressed, and apparently (according to Anderson's interview with Pitchfork) extemporaneous. Her articulation in general is what makes her dangerous. To confront your audience with the dreads and despairs of a love and a life spun around is one thing; to express it with such clear-eyed, lonely eloquence is the kind of thing that can disturb a person's sleep. Maybe it's all hopeless sometimes, but Ira and Georgia are still together. And EMA will get out of this moment. But is there maybe a tiny chance that, at least musically, she doesn't want to? I don't mean to be insulting, but I think it's a valid question.
Friday, July 29, 2011
(Aurora [orig] / Rough Trade [reissue])
I need a Dean Wareham moment -- an escape to just this sound and these emotions. I don't refer to any systematic effort of trancelike relaxation so much as just a temporary suspension of all the things that constitute groundedness. You have fifty appointments next week? Right now you don't! Right now, guitars! No trappings whatsoever, just to float off into fuzzed-out feedback and feel suspended in time. Cut the lights off, stare straight upward, and put Today on the headphones. No band, not even My Bloody Valentine or the Jesus and Mary Chain, has ever crafted music as purely and romantically about the electric guitar as Wareham and his first of two brilliant outfits, Galaxie 500.
A common criticism in trad circles in the '80s -- a time, incidentally, to which this music seems to hold no ties whatsoever, their dream-pop not even exhibiting as much debt to its period as most of the actual shoegazers -- was that G500 lacked "songs." There is some truth in this; this band is about a sound and a mood as much as it's about hooks and songcraft, and if anything Galaxie 500's work is least inspired when they show the most adherence to such conventions (as on this record's odd drug song "Temperature's Rising"). But it's also a broad exaggeration to suggest that their work consisted solely of plodding guitar and Wareham's lilting, impossibly fragile vocals. That one could listen to "Parking Lot," with its thudding drums and gorgeous reverb-drenched Phil Spector wall of sound that lovingly obscures its pure Jack Nitzsche melodic beauty, without marveling even a little bit, would seem to me the mark of an overly catholic rock or pop purist. Or just a Luna fan.
Won't deny that to discover Galaxie 500 after Wareham's other band, Luna, is a bit of a rude shock. Luna is leagues beyond Galaxie for pop appeal, their work has a friendliness and directness lacking here, but it also shirks G500's crucial, deeply affecting, almost supernatural dreaminess altogether. You will fall in love with Luna's records but you'll never get lost like you will in the three Galaxie 500 LPs. Folks tend to name On Fire, the sophomore record, as the masterpiece; I personally disagree strongly, for I love that album but consider This Is Our Music a work of out-and-out mastery that has still yet to receive its due. So what of debut Today? It's here that the trio's (rounded out by bassist Naomi Yang and phenomenal drummer Damon Krukowski) ideas and music are at their purest, indeed their vaguest. The modern novice will be reminded less of shoegaze than of a band that was already established by this point but wouldn't operate this type of noise until some years later, Yo La Tengo. Ira Kaplan seems to clearly owe a debt to Wareham's guitar histrionics -- so why does YLT gain (well-deserved) accolades from many of the circles that dismissed Galaxie 500?
It probably has to do with levity, of which G500 has none -- this music is deadly serious, even druggy at times, which is precisely what allows it to revel so much in a pure, unfettered sonic beauty. Take album closer "Tugboat," which in certain hands could be a delicate but assured rock potboiler -- its melody and lyrical ideas are sophisticated enough to carry a much more pronounced and direct performance. Ira Kaplan once famously told Dinosaur Jr. at a Maxwell's gig prior to notoriety that their expertly crafted pop songs would be clearer if they'd turn down a bit. Wonder what Kaplan thinks of "Tugboat," which Galaxie 500 spends corrupting a pure and lovely riff and melody with muddiness, pronounced fragility, unaffected consistency and aloofness of spirit. Wareham wants the songs to sing him, and he completely lets them; the jokes and sweetness get sacrificed for an utter sincerity that can be nearly embarrassing ("Pictures" comes down on the right side, but certainly teeters on the edge) -- something Kaplan and company have only, with this distantly provocative guitar sound, attempted once, on their glorious marriage song "My Heart's Reflection." However less personal Wareham's work may seem, the mood of that astounding piece covers the entirety of this record.
Galaxie 500 probably also turned a few folks off with their flair for drama, which calls back to over-the-top Shadow Morton records (in a more oblique variation) and forecasts the mountains of teary-eyed sincerity in the indie neo-folk movement of the '00s. Quiet down "Oblivious" a bit and it's a Sufjan Stevens song; organize it into palpable hook-chorus moments and it's Arcade Fire. But it's to the band's eternal credit that they copped to no temptation except their own addiction to a sound. Wareham seemed to dig the idea of allowing the songs to all operate from a similar framework, so at first glance the record -- and the band's entire catalog, indeed -- seems to show little variance. But Chuck Berry's four or five biggest hits all sound pretty similar at first blush, too.
Any such ideas of dismissal lose relevance on second or third listen, and even the first time around, two cuts are undeniable. Opening track "Flowers" introduces the traditional Galaxie 500 sound, and it is so initially striking as to leave a permanent mark -- sounding so much like hundreds of things that have come since but nothing like any rock record that preceded it. Wareham is at his hyper-sad best here, too, keying himself perfectly to the buzzing majesty of the guitars with total emotional subservience. But better still is the Jonathan Richman cover "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste," the kind of rare indie rock benchmark moment that makes "epic" an actually helpful term. The urgency of the drum sound is jarring, but gets the blood pumping instantly -- the band finds the anthemic power buried in Richman's song and runs with it, brilliantly. They would prove to be one of rock's all-time greatest cover bands (their readings of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," Yoko Ono's "Listen, the Snow Is Falling," and especially the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" are definitive), so it's a pity they didn't record more. "Waste" feels magic, like the stories your alt-rocker parents tell about hearing Sonic Youth or Nirvana the first time. Only, as the gentlemen and lady later said, as the great Ornette Coleman said before them, this is our music.
Today has the feel of myth; even the cover shows the wispy pull of the unfamiliar, like an old Foxfire book, which is surely intentional. It's eclipsed by the two subsequent Galaxie 500 albums (though I would actually feel dubious about ranking it over On Fire, which doesn't mean quite as much to me), and in my opinion by several of Luna's, but that doesn't stop it from feeling like a minor classic -- perversely, an album that is simultaneously naked in its self-absorption and impressively stylish. They may sound dead-eyed and resigned, but youth and hunger lurk underneah. If not at the obvious moments outlined above, it's clearest two minutes into "It's Getting Late," when the three of them all lose themselves in a pressing, impassioned, tremendously slow and loud instrumental break that seems just shy of breaking out in joy at its perfection. For touchy-feely electric folkies, that's pretty badass.
It's midsummer here now, the perfect time to take this onto the earbuds on the beach at night and spend some time looking at stars and being totally adolescent and uncool and sincere. Some things never stop feeling right, you know. Waves crashing over "Tugboat," yeah. That's one of 'em.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Here's a fun one. Despite its outward pretension and mild adolescent silliness, this latest record from the lushly gritty NYC pop outfit Gang Gang Dance will offer either a night of dimly lit fun or a fit of vague but intoxicating nostalgia. It comes on like a trance or trip-hop revision of Siouxsie and the Banshees, with loads of electricity thanks to singer Lizzi Bougatsos's full-throated conviction. The album seldom rises above its self-imposed murk. but it offers a mood that is easy to fall into and that one is reluctant to leave.
Eleven-minute opener "Glass Jar," though, has next to nothing to do with the rest of the record. It's an edgily paranoid, decadent crime scene of a song, constantly edging toward a climax that never truly arrives; intriguing and hypnotic though it is, it's by far the least accessible of these songs. Following the curious and rather needless interlude "∞" (later followed by "∞∞" and "∞∞∞" to equally dubious effect), the record kicks off properly with what amounts to a long medley of six equally infectious dance songs. Some are better than others, but the variance depends largely on the melody vocal melody -- "Sacer" starts to annoy after a couple of minutes -- because the songs, particularly toward the end, tend to run together. It seems this is deliberate; the band sounds admirably confident for the duration after the awkwardly placed opener.
At their best ("Adult Goth," "MindKilla," and the irresistible "Romance Layers"), Gang Gang Dance know their way around a feverish pop melody that can heighten the senses and enact pure bliss in the vein of Madonna's "Open Your Heart," but in a perfectly novel twist, all with the bleakness and dread of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or PJ Harvey. It's the dark catharsis of grooving your way out of the shittiness; few things feel more liberating.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
This is sort of the Raymond Chandler variation on the music review. It didn't take me long at all to figure out how I felt about this relatively obscure '70s soul LP (which happens to contain a huge but now forgotten hit, the title track) but I have spent the proceeding week or so trying to remember why in the hell I have it in the first place. I put it on as part of the ongoing work of trying to keep the old hard drive cleaned up and it's obvious that it was at some point very important to me to have a digital copy of the album -- it's a rather low-quality needledrop with plenty of vinyl cracks and pops, for which I assume I trolled the internet devotedly. It is thoroughly unremarkable, though certainly competent. So why on earth did I work so hard to find it?
I cautiously began to retrace my steps -- not out of any hope it would provide insight into the music so much as offer me a complete understanding of how and why I do the things I fuckin' do. First off, I downloaded the record in January 2009, at which point I had a regular DJing gig. It begins to come back, slightly. The whiskey. Yeah. I remember... the vaguest wisp of something, the notion of not the hit but the album-ending oddity "A Song, for You" (adorably placed comma there) rescuing me a bit on a night when I was very sick, lifted only by the whiskey and Coke offered by the bartender. I seem to remember its drama being a good fit for the evening, 2:00am or something, and the lights started to blur a bit.
But no. In order for me to play "A Song, for You" on stage that night I would've had to not only have the song in my possession already, I would've had to listen to the whole album enough to parse it out as a standout. The search continued.
Then I remembered the Christmas party, where someone was playing Tears for Fears records on a turntable whose pitch was not properly adjusted. It wasn't all that noticeable during the Tears for Fears album. I was drinking red wine that time. It was very noticeable during Madonna's first album, Madonna. Madonna's already high-pitched, piercing tone was too much to handle at 38rpm. So someone put on their iPod and had this album for some reason. And played it, then played it again. On an endless loop for hours, while we talked. I spoke to a gentleman from California and we discovered we knew all of the same people growing up but had somehow never met (he was from here originally) so as the oddly warm Christmas night passed around us we greatly enjoyed trading stories of our former cohorts. And Al Wilson was singing away the whole time and the record sounded pretty darn good to me, but I must've been especially into "A Song, for You" and the ridiculous cheating anthem "Moonlightin'" because I also seem to have played it at least once at a DJ set, during the Wilmington Exchange Festival the following May. But I remember rating the album highly in my mind -- and I think, on hearing it now and realizing it kind of blows, that I had just come to associate its grooves with a refreshing, satisfying conversation between adults and basically good times being had, and that can do wonders for any old thing, food or music or whatever.
I remember the California guy saying several times "This is really good, isn't it?" and "Man, this is great." As I said in the last paragraph, all I knew was someone had this on their iPod "for some reason." Recalling the conversation, I tracked down the California gent on Twitter and asked him "Remember when we were hanging out on Christmas that time  listening to Al Wilson on the front porch? Yeah that was fun."
He said "No, I don't remember that. Who's Al Wilson?"
"Didn't you have his minor hit record, Show and Tell, on your iPod?"
"Okay." Not wanting to pressure the poor guy, via Twitter, I sheepishly added "Do you have any idea whose iPod it was?"
"Jesus, dude." I pressured the poor guy. "That was three fucking years ago. Try Lucy."
Lucy was the owner of the front porch on which we were sitting. I had no idea where Lucy was these days, so I began an exhaustive search using such innovative utilities as classmates.com and Yahoo! People Finder. Eventually someone directed me to her "Facebook page" so I messaged her there and she had this to say:
I think it's really weird that you remember this and want to talk about it. kind of creepy seriously
but you are welcome to come by and have a chat. my office is located at [ADDRESS REMOVED]
It is several days before I can make the appointment without arousing suspicion. When I finally do, I am shocked to find that Lucy now works in an office occupied by seventeen cats. She dropped her iPod while touring the Rockies this summer and is sorry to tell me she has no idea how or why she downloaded the album but it probably involved a long-running quest on her and her roommate's part to uncover "all the best slow jams."
She offers me another cup of tea and asks me to leave before her next client is due to arrive. I walk out onto the porch with the sun in my eyes and reflect that there are some things it's best not to know, for sure. Because you'll always wonder. And isn't that wonderful?
Also this album is pretty boring, and very little of this actually happened. Buh-bye!
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
(Warner Bros.) [free to download here]
Curren$y's rock-steady, calmly consistent flow is prompting innovative producers far and wide to use him as a center-stage instrument. Ski Beatz brought him through an irresistible downpour of analogue heaven on the Pilot Talk LPs, while on the fine recent effort Weekend at Burnie's he was guided through Monsta Beatz's unashamed Miami Vice cheese, always holding his own in either scenario.
The most intriguing recent matchup for Curren$y, though, is easily the Alchemist. This brief EP-length mixtape is the result of their combined efforts, and it attempts to score solely on atmosphere. Curren$y grins and smokes and rhymes his way through the Alchemist's disarmingly stark signature mix of urban horror and new age sonics, but for the first time he sounds as if he can't quite find his way out of the intricate maze his producer has raised around him. Except for the obvious showpiece "The Type," the songs run barely three minutes, which ordinarily would be a praiseworthy feature but here keeps some cuts that seem potentially ill -- the promisingly smooth "Double 07" and swaggering "Scotty Pippen" especially -- from ever getting off the ground.
There's no problem with Curren$y's chorus-free minimalism, or else Pilot Talk and the studio albums in its wake wouldn't have been so striking, and there's not necessarily a problem with Alchemist's showy, outlandish backing; whereas the Ski Beatz productions simply provided a pillow for the rapper's ramblings, Alchemist never stops calling attention to himself. There's a reason he gets co-billing on this instead of just a production credit. Curren$y's nonsense detours about rotisserie chickens and variations on Pattycake about getting high require a bit more levity than Alchemist's thudding rampages can offer. There are pleasures to be had from this mixtape, but it is much more a mere distraction than the ample proof of laid-back greatness Spitta's other releases of late have provided.
Pilot Talk (2010)
Pilot Talk II (2010)
Weekend at Burnie's (2011)
Monday, July 25, 2011
The definitive introduction to Chuck Berry -- and indeed, the best way to listen to Chuck Berry, even for hardcore fans -- is the tirelessly wonderful, expertly paced 1982 compilation The Great Twenty-Eight. Disregarding compilation prejudices, it's potentially the best long-playing record in rock & roll (my controversial opinion is if you open the floodgates of Top Albums lists to comps, you won't have any actual studio albums in the top twenty -- Endless Summer trumps Pet Sounds, Discography trumps any Pet Shop Boys record, and the Frankensteinian U.S. version of The Clash destroys the real thing). Not that it's flawless -- I'd have swapped out "Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller" and "Bye Bye Johnny" in favor of "You Never Can Tell" and "Promised Land" -- so much as it makes its considerable breadth play out as a single moment. That's automatically something no boxed set is capable of. But this Grammy-winning three-discer isn't even the definitive Berry archival release. It served a purpose at the time of release, but now feels like an arbitrary intermediate collection between the various hit packages and the exhaustive nine-disc Chess Years set. All the same, no one who buys this set is likely to find it disappointing; from a consumer perspective, though, you're just as well picking up the albums up through 1964 to get the gems Twenty-Eight misses. You'll inevitably end up with some filler, but hey -- this box has filler too.
The first disc, covering Berry's absolute peak from 1956 to 1958, mostly escapes this problem. Indeed, it functions as a seamless if incomplete greatest hits package. The only dud is previously unreleased collector bait, the treacly "Time Was," while even the inevitable Berry indulgences, the blues numbers and instrumentals, retain some charm here. "No Money Down" and "Downbound Train" are early b-sides that go down easy, and "Wee Wee Hours" could qualify as a minor classic, though it seems much more pianist Johnnie Johnson's triumph than Chuck Berry's. As recounted in Robert Christgau's brilliant essay about Chuck Berry from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Berry's entrance to the Chess Records stage reveals an intriguing dichotomy between the raw, undoctored blues music he saw as his birthright and the swelteringly inventive hybrid of country and R&B that would quickly become his legacy, and would indeed quickly come to define rock & roll.
Berry was a musically precocious child who began performing in high school. By the time his first single, "Maybellene," caught fire, he'd already entered his thirties, a working man tirelessly supporting a wife and family. But Berry's poetic mind bore the labors of his life elegantly, enough to produce lyrics with an astounding understanding of, and solidarity with, teenagers. Hence the youth music tag; even if early classics like the absolutely banging fast-tempo "Thirty Days" used their humor to tackle largely adult problems, it was in the same vernacular (replete with the ubiquitious reference to presenting relationship difficulties to the UN) that would quickly produce Eddie Cochran's snide youth anthem "Summertime Blues." And as driven and intelligent as his words were from the beginning, and indeed nearly always would remain, the method by which it reached its far-flung acolytes was, of course, Berry's guitar. The Berry structure, the knifing riffage and compulsive six-string giddiness, shows up on "You Can't Catch Me," the complex dragrace saga that launched a million imitations, and never departs. It's still with us.
Berry's biggest, most celebrated hits -- "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Days," "Rock and Roll Music" -- exist within the basic framework established by "Catch." These are songs chiefly defined, even as the guitar remains the chief impulsive attraction, by Berry's words and music. In those three cases, he celebrates the growing influx of youth music with increasing fervor, from a swaggering tribute in "Beethoven" to a proclamation of life-saving grace on "School Days" ("Hail, hail rock & roll / Deliver me from the days of old") to a full-blown dismissal of all other musical possibilities in "Rock and Roll Music," a song that lives up to its wide-eyed, glamorous self-promotion with unceasing insistence. Inevitably, "Johnny B. Goode" is the cut that encapsulates and smooths out these ideas into a new and perfectly realized American mythology, absent of any trite fakery. Its magical sweep is beyond breathtaking.
But no medium's true purpose is its own aggrandizement. If anything, Berry's parallel story of an individual man's triumphs and failures against the tide of love and life, things only a thirtysomething who'd lived plenty could finally know so well, are more fascinating yet. His characters are ceaselessly compelling, his melodies and riffs even more adventurous: "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" presents a verbose black man's manifesto, "Drifting Heart" is major melancholy atmospherically projected, the hip hop-creating "Too Much Monkey Business" as brilliant a document of angst as any age group has produced, the concise storytelling and romantic thrust of "Havana Moon" worlds more intense and exciting than it immediately lets on. By the close of this peak era, Berry can do more or less anything; the love songs ("Oh Baby Doll," "Beautiful Delilah," "Carol") seduce and bite simultaneously, the rockers ("Reeln' and Rockin'," "Around and Around") so vividly illustrative of their respective settings, the rockin' joints and the ticking watches, as to seem genuinely lived in, descriptions of the very things that may be happening around them as they are played. But "Sweet Little Sixteen," a return to the grandiose mythmaking in the context of a valentine to Big Beat fandom, is Berry's masterpiece -- who knows whether its sensuality is as innocent as it comes off, and who knows if Berry is even sincere about its vaulting of his profession to the league of the great pilot or, hell, movie star. The point is that Berry's illustration of the larger world Dickens once suggested in Great Expectations is as potent and vital an image as popular culture has left us -- that great and worldly force, rock & roll or art or what have you, as an ever-moving cavalcade of promise that travels the world while its devotionals are read silently by the alienated high school girl, her life immeasurably enriched by its brief stopover in her orbit. Lou Reed wishes he could've put it so concisely, so selflessly.
The only drawback to hearing these powerful tales gradually unfold in this context is a consequence of the time in which this box was compiled. Back then, the music industry, at least the sector of it involved in the creation of compact discs, was agog over a process called No Noise which supposedly cleaned up and deleted hiss from the many luminous master tapes then being carefully preserved. Problem is, Berry loved distortion -- he invented it -- and robbing "Thirty Days" of fuzziness misses the point entirely. The strong separation that is revealed in these songs' instrumentation makes that somewhat excusable, but other tamperings are even more dubious. Most troubling is a slight but incomprehensible slowing down of "Sweet Little Sixteen," draining it of at least a bit of its vitality. But it's a corker of a song, so it survives.
Disc Two is rougher going. It still only includes a few absolute misfires -- the novelty drag "Too Pooped to Pop" and the incomprehensible standards "I'm Just a Lucky So and So" and "Crazy Arms," none of which belong here -- but the split between classics and pleasantries is more even. After School Session and One Dozen Berrys, for all their reputation as glorified compilations, actually contain material I wouldn't mind having on this disc in place of anonymities like "Crying Steel," "Confessin' the Blues," "Childhood Sweetheart," "Betty Jean," and the lily-fingered, cynical "Little Queenie" variation "Run Run Rudolph," most famous today for its inclusion in a film about an eight year-old child who foils burglars with paint cans suspended from the ceiling. At least the generic arrangement of "Merry Christmas Baby" allows us to spend time with Berry's considerable and underrated vocal chops; he's typically too busy telling his stories and kicking out his jams to really sing his way into and out of a moment. But disregarding the instrumentals and indulgences, good songs like "Anthony Boy," "13 Question Method," "Sweet Little Rock N Roller" (bald "Sixteen" rehash), and "Bye Bye Johnny" (bald "Goode" rehash) simply can't stand up with even the second tier of material up through 1958.
The peaks, however, are even higher, beginning with the still-throttling, heartbreaking "Memphis," the beginning of rock music as empathy machine. Berry's best work from the period just before his infamous Mann Act prison sentence is more eclectic and dangerous than his earlier sides. "Almost Grown" amounts to subversive proto-protest music while bearing little musical resemblance to Berry's signature sound. "Little Queenie" marks Berry's peak as slick rock & roller, "Back in the USA" his peak as slick showman -- his patriotism comes off as no bullshit, as a wistful romanticism that trounces Steinbeck; "How I've yearned for you," he sings to his country, and his voice could not possibly bear to impart less pretension -- the directness of his message is just enough to fail to mask the joyous thrill behind his words. But the real treasure may be the triad of impossibly raw, unfettered Berry cuts that sound like attempts to approach his craft from an ever more no-frills, tauntingly gritty angle. "Let It Rock" tells a harrowing, and harrowingly unfinished, story of men working on a track as a train approaches -- it's vivid and frightening, made more so by its lack of musical tension and resolution, showing Berry capable of actual drama. But what wasn't he capable of? "I'm Talking About You" (copped by the Beatles as "I Saw Her Standing There") and "Come On" channel a snide, reluctant teenage affection and evolved "Monkey Business" aggression into pop glory, fuzzed out and busy.
Upon his release in 1964, Berry recorded the towering electric drill "Nadine," again unlike anything he'd previously offered, and an ideal match for its ambitions in the form of "You Never Can Tell," a fascinating carousel of crazed pop structure and high-minded ideas channelled into a basically uncompromised rock & roll piece. The concurrent album, St. Louis to Liverpool -- its name clearly inspired by the British Invasion debt to his already-towering back catalog -- offered a refinement of his long-struggling blues material with the outstanding Guitar Slim cover "The Things I Used to Do" and, better yet, reclaimed his gift for the eloquent travelogue with "Promised Land." Unfortunately, the album's regressive but wonderful "School Day" rewrite "No Particular Place to Go," an evocative and bounding odyssey of a young man's war with his girlfriend's safety belt -- cheerfully poking holes through Berry's own lofty imagery ("I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile / My curiosity running wild") with its utterly mundane, frustrating climax -- would prove Berry's last undisputed triumph in the studio.
Disc Three, which opens with several St. Louis cuts, reveals a dramatic dropoff that could've been avoided with either one disc fewer (like Bo Diddley's more persuasive Chess Box collection) or a more even distribution of Berry's stronger material. The final disc really encompasses no classics aside from "No Particular," though I think a strong case can be made for the wild proto-punk of "It's My Own Business," the intriguing psych-pop blast of "Tulane," and the deservedly celebrated blues scorcher "Have Mercy Judge," which fulfills the promise of "Wee Wee Hours" at last. Certainly the bulk of the cuts aren't exactly failures -- "Ramona Say Yes" and "A Deuce" have charm if nothing else, and "Dear Dad" might work if not for its idiotic punchline -- but at its worst, the third disc presents material that is in no respect good enough for inclusion in this kind of career retrospective. Reluctantly, I'll allow that "My Ding-a-Ling" had to be here, but that doesn't mean I have to be happy about it, and that doesn't excuse the rampage of drunken nonsense on the awful live cuts that sandwich it here. The mythology has failed as much as the novelty entertainer; revivalist celebrations "Viva Viva Rock N Roll" and "Bio" couldn't feel more forced if they were remixed to include John Legend guest spots. Most irksome are the seemingly endless spoken-word rich kid diatribe "My Dream" and the actually endless jam-on-and-on-and-on "Chuck's Beat," which features Bo Diddley and Berry prattling on with guitar wank for ten minutes. They might be greater than the performers who usualy release such material, but wank is wank.
If you discard the third disc of The Chess Box, you end up with a better than decent Chuck Berry retrospective. But discard the second disc as well and you're left with a superb greatest hits collection, which you will actually listen to start to finish more than once. So why not buy the actual greatest hits collection instead of this? If you end up wanting more, it's the nine-disc jewel Chess Years you'll want, not this stopgap. Neither an ideal archive nor a perfect repository of classics, The Chess Box is basically obsolete now. There is enough genius in Berry's catalog to fill three, four, even five discs easily digestible for the neophyte. They're called The Great Twenty-Eight, After School Session, One Dozen Berrys, Chuck Berry Is on Top, and St. Louis to Liverpool.
The Great Twenty-Eight (1955-65)
Friday, July 22, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
As much as they may be now be remembered as second wave Brit Invasion blues revival architects, for the impact they therefore had on the mainstream rock of the next ten years, the Yardbirds were most impressive as both raw protopunks and pure pop magicians. Their best work, comprehensively collected here on this rather incredible two-disc set, was both prophetic and ominous, at times claustrophobic. Along with the Hollies and the Velvet Underground, they are the band whose work seems to (ironically, in their case) point the way toward the dichotomy that would soon create alternative rock.
A raucous and deservedly legendary live band, the Yardbirds are best seen as a performing unit in Michaelangelo Antoninoi's Blow Up, in which quick flashes of the band are played against an increasingly wayward narrative to forge a colorful, guttural impact, the music slicing and droning with a madness belied by the almost disturbing disaffection displayed by the band. These guys were Serious all right. The four vicious live cuts here will send you off in obsessive search of the LP that spawned them, Five Live Yardbirds -- they sear because they're maniacal but utterly dignified.
Even at the beginning, on their recordings of relatively accessible and clean blues records like John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," the band extracts an oppressive sleaze that fills the senses, whereas someone like the Kinks would've just snarled and banged through it. That was laid down, alarmingly enough, in 1963 (released two years later). That same nocturnal, smoky texture runs through the original "Honey in Your Hips," and the genuinely sinister take on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," transforming the lecherous original into some approximation of the Big Bopper's serial-killer relentlessless, without ever breaking the tension with the maniacal laughter common to his records. These are the most appealingly murky of all white blues records; even if instrumentals and marginals like "Got to Hurry" and "Steeled Blues" sag, they still score on atmosphere and crunchy production.
Many bands of the late '60s have retained their modern sound through the years; what's more unusual about the Yardbirds is how darkness permeates their work. Close your eyes at certain points and you feel you could be downtown at a trendy college rock show, this year or anytime in between, but the sense of doom they were masters at exerting, to seemingly no effect beyond a capturing of the desperation and fear of the times, has not been duplicated. This manifests in their blues cuts -- their "I'm a Man" is less a cover than a deconstruction, shouted and moaned and tossed off in a fit of seeming sickness against the cacophony -- but more fascinatingly in their expertly crafted pop material. Impeccable Brill Building-infected composers with excellent taste in cover material, the Yardbirds easily possessed the capability of becoming a strong bubblegum outfit, and to date they're the only group to combine the sunny melodies of AM pop in their decade with the recorded dread and doubt later explored by David Bowie. The result is constantly unsettling.
The tightest, most assured example is the band's indisputable classic "For Your Love," a tirelessly romantic but shockingly eerie stomper opening with a funeral-march stringed toll before deceptively, exotically falling into a drum pattern that then increases in body-shaking, spasmodic intensity; "Paint It, Black" owes an obvious, inescapable debt to this. Keith Reif makes drunken promises -- "I'd give the moon if it were mine to give" -- with a truly affected tone that strains to be heard over the beats and chimes, and at the most hellish moment, just when it can't get any worse, everything stops, the drums pull in achingly slow, and the band provides a sweet relief in the form of a conventional bridge, a rug that is quickly pulled away. Harrowing, danceable, brilliant, shaken, this is one of the greatest singles of the '60s.
The prospective buyer of Ultimate! will find plenty of other cuts nearly as grand: the outstanding proto-funk "I'm Not Talking," the tower of cowboy glory "Heart Full of Soul," the drama-building "You're a Better Man Than I" (with shatteringly prescient guitar work, radio pop with an inescapable edge), "Shapes of Things" with its mounting distortion, the classic mod track with psychotic edge "Over Under Sideways Down," the barbed Ray Davies lift "I Can't Make Your Way," the Cars-worthy out-of-time b-side "Puzzles," the psychedelic flameout "Only the Black Rose," the powere pop forecast "Goodnight Sweet Josephine." All catchy as hell, all adventurous and restless, all oddly disturbing and feverishly dark. The paranoid dance party is at its most outwardly remarkable on "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," the loathing spitout and rhythmic glee of which could pass for Joy Division, never mind Interpol.
But to quickly and concisely hear the Yardbirds make the Doors sound like a novelty act, dig the profoundly fucked up "Evil Hearted You" and its startling, furiously foreboding b-side "Still I'm Sad," which reimagines "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" as a terrifying funeral dirge. This 45 was one of the most blissfully strange singles of the '60s, and emphasizes above all else just how valuable and unusual an entity this band was in its prime.
To focus on the 'Birds' craft gives insufficient credit to their peerless rhythm section, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty. They can force the songs into submission, regardless of context, powering through "He's Always There" (more threat through harmony, here augmented by ruthless electric guitar and come-ons), the creepy "Sympathy for the Devil" prediction "Little Games," and they make the outright bizarre "Ha Ha Said the Clown" break through the speakers. Live for a time in the space between the harmonies and the pounding on "Turn Into Earth" and see how much it messes you up.
With a few too many showoff guitar numbers (I could do without Jeff Beck's "The Nazz Are Blue" and Jimmy Page's "White Summer"), the Yardbirds' rockers are best when maxed the fuck out, and just as infectious as the Edgar Allan Poe pop music. "A Certain Girl" and "I Wish You would" liberate in their overdriven sound, the tension of "Lost Woman" is nearly unbearable, "No Excess Baggage" prophesizes '90s stop-start dynamics, and "Hot House of Omagarashid" contains a musical saw, bringing the psychedelic sound of the 13th Floor Elevators into the UK.
As seems inevitable for a 57-track collection, there is junk here that you don't need. The Italian songs prove, if nothing else, Keith Reif's versatility as a singer. As if you needed proving of that. On that front, you also get a few period-charming Reif solo cuts. Luckily, the comp, intimidatingly lengthy though it is, skips nothing that a two-disc set shouldn't and is appealingly complete on A- and b-sides, even if that means stooping to a few musical conversations about the high-profile guitarists, whose own songs are wank, vs. the hard-working band. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton might have shown off plenty well, but they were never the magic of the Yardbirds -- their parlance, their communication all their own was striking a balance between the most grounded, professional psychedelia you've ever heard and the lofiest blues-rock. But curiously, their work never sounds compromised; it always seems to be teetering on the edge of a cliff, giving a constant rush. If you don't love them, you will.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Scruffy UK noise rockers Yuck present the same conflict to Gen Y music fans as the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a slightly older band that nevertheless pores over the same list of influences, skewed a few years later -- do children of the '90s really want to live through their adolescence again? Put their debut on and you are bombarded instantly with "Get Away," a song so determined to send shockwaves of memory back to modern rock radio circa 1996 it nearly seems like a stunt. There it all is, the overdriven guitars and the sense of vague, apathetic melancholy aimed at seemingly nothing. But take a look at photos of the band and, as with last year's shocking success story Surfer Blood, it becomes apparent that these are kids, that for them this radio fridge buzz was always a nostalgia trip with bracing and revelatory style, the way the OMD and Depeche Mode records aped by Cut Copy are to me. Guitar bands aren't generational; Yuck's fellow countrymen Male Bonding and Florida's Surfer Blood prove the eternal grace of loud, melodic rock & roll. But you won't necessarily fall in love with Yuck if you fell in love with Astro Coast and Nothing Hurts. A better reference point for Yuck is the Smith Westerns; they amount to a depressed teenage version of the same pop-resurrection concept.
But certainly Yuck tackles this from a more basic framework, and they are a strong outfit -- bass player Mariko Doi overcomes the hip paranoia with sliding, persuasive rhythm, and the twin guitars of Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom sometimes conjure up more elegance than any of the songs they likely wish they'd written. What will keep you coming back to them is the sheer charm of their sound, less than the material they have written. The killer strum of "Shook Down" takes me right the hell back to ninth grade, to those unbearably melancholy-over-jack-shit spring nights with Gin Blossoms' "Found Out About You" springing up from the headphones. "Suck" boasts a slender, sad hook that dirties up R.E.M.'s Out of Time. And most impressively, "Stutter" is a dead ringer for Luna or, more likely, Yo La Tengo, replete with Ira Kaplan-styled melodic flourishes and shapeless stabs of feedback, and the sweetly lilting male-female duet vocals.
Yo La Tengo was never exactly a radio hitmaker, but that Yuck lumps them in with Soundgarden is appropriate in a sense. Back when I was growing up, Pavement, one of those bands I wasn't cool enough to listen to but wished I was, slammed the Smashing Pumpkins, who were then gods to me, in a song of theirs ("Range Life"). Billy Corgan of the Pumpkins shot back with all manner of batshit threats and rants, and as of 2010 he still hasn't really calmed down about it. But Pavement and the Pumpkins exist as a single entity in Yuck's music, revealing the idiocy of such feuds -- "The Wall" fuses the annoying distorted wailing of Corgan (in the manner of "Zero") with the annoying but awesome distorted guitars and melodies of Pavement ("Conduit for Sale!") to create one big annoying distorted mess. Meanwhile, everyone's hearing Oscar-nominated luminary Elliott Smith in "Suicide Policeman," but I can't help catching its melodic tie to the wondrous, unjustly forgotten Beulah -- and somehow it never occurred to me that Smith and Beulah might have remotely the same ideas about rock music until Yuck threw them together.
The single "Holing Out," track four, marks the first point on Yuck when I start to get sleepy. Unfortunately, that's a mere prelude -- the entire last half of the LP consists of murk that the songs can seldom rise above. The point by then has already been made before you can even start tracking down all the reviews that called the Pumpkins themselves so derivative they'd never have an impact. Yeah, nostalgia rush, check, and some pain and depression, but it's also ultimately background music -- ideal for video games or reading the news -- and that's before it even reaches the endless grunge plod that closes it out. Yuck indeed... but keep an eye on this group just in case they try anything funny next time. Maybe we'll get an unadorned Nothing Hurts out of them yet.
The balance this incredibly fun disc strikes between Eurocentric hypercool and red wine romance is the result of a pop malleability nearly worthy of Leonard Cohen. Adriano Celentano, one of Italy's premier singers and actors, charms and sneers his way skillfully through a selection of exotic originals and nicely presented covers, including of some English language classics: "Stand by Me," "Michelle," "16 Tons." The '60s and '70s cuts are where it's at though, as Celentano can wring an emotional rush out of dinner music or inspire great populist frenzy with his delirious choruses. Once in a while the disc resembles a drunken singalong at a pub; the rest of the time, it's more like the jukebox that might accompany the gradual emptying out of the same pub.
The Cohen reference point comes from the in-the-moment attentiveness, as irrespective of any chronological sequence the compilation flies through passing dance music trends and the dated but classic sound of Italian chamber pop. Whatever audience he's courting, Celentano remains a constant pleasure -- just don't expect pure schmaltzy romance through and through. It's all more sophisticated than that. But not too sophisticated.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The world's hardest working stoner returns for his third album in less than a year, fifth overall, disregarding his litany of mixtapes, EPs, and collaborations. Curren$y only seems to be getting better and better as a rapper, his lyrics on Burnie's showing obvious progression from the fixations of his excellent Pilot Talk series from last year. On the standout "She Don't Want a Man," for example, he quickly moves far beyond any posturing to tell a compelling story of being taken as a lover by a married woman -- it's well-told, three-dimensional, and far more empathetic than its chorus ("She don't want a man / She just wants to fuck") suggests. Could Curren$y yet become rap's long-awaited Jonathan Demme, the artist whose deepest concern lies with others as much as with him- or herself?
Who knows, at this point. As a stylist, the guy's still feeling his way through a myriad of ideas, seemingly still in rehearsal for a breakthrough. Like a number of others, I really thought his work with Ski Beatz was high art, its nonchalant incongruity with conventional hip hop a breath of fresh air, especially when matched with his own lyrically breathless paeans to lazing around and smoking weed.
But the last person in the rock & roll field who was so obsessive about relaxation was, gulp, Jimmy Buffett... so it's probably a good thing that Curren$y seems to be broadening his horizons well past the novelties that made his name in the underground. Only thing is, I'm not entirely sure that Burnie's producer Monsta Beatz is much help to this cause. Curren$y is too prolific to worry about too much beyond the moment; in many ways, this can be seen as clearly just his valentine to chilled out summer drives in immense heat, and by September he'll have something else for us to chew on. But as fitting as the deathly slow "Televised" or the thrillingly mellow "On G's" are to Curren$y's calm flow, there's a sense in which they may be a bit too fluid and laid back to have the staying power of something like "Breakfast" or "Montreux."
That said, both those songs sound incredible on headphones, conjuring up a desire to completely revel in their atmospherics, a direction Curren$y seems proud of -- and given the macho aggression that still lingers in some radio-beloved hip hop, it's a welcome development. More to the point, they feature star turns from a couple of Curren$y proteges -- Trademark doesn't do much here, no slur on him, but Young Roddy's quite a scene-stealer, hard but vaguely androgynous, providing more energy than anything else here. He's worth paying attention to.
Burnie's is an unequivocal blast, but its striking moments are scattered. I'm not the biggest fan of the cleverly titled single "#jetsgo" or the already-overrated anthem "JLC" (stands for Jet Life Commandments, just so you know), but producers Magnedo7 and Havoc kill it on "She Don't Want a Man," an inspired bit of laid-back drama. Monsta Beatz is at his best when operating outside his own comfort zone: "Still" trickles out a classic minimalistic beat in the vein of Slum Village, offering a starkness Curren$y's not explored yet. Best of all is the positively explosive "This Is the Life," which seems to directly reference the jazzy textures of Ski Beatz's work with its Bill Evans-like piano backdrop, over which Curren$y offers some of his loosest work yet, scarcely having to do any work to punctuate and keep up with the unconventional track, with weird rhymes that are barely even there like "autobot" and "about," "twistin'" and "attention."
Warner Bros. have changed their minds on multiple occasions about whether Weekend at Burnie's is an album, a mixtape, or an EP. It feels like an album to me -- it has that kind of determination and uniqueness. But it's a testament to Curren$y's tossed-out style that WB isn't quite sure how to handle him yet. Here's hoping they promote this and give it the wide attention that the Pilot Talk albums deserved but failed to receive from Def Jam.
Pilot Talk (2010)
Pilot Talk II (2010)
In 1961, MAD magazine ran an incredibly prophetic article called "Tomorrow's Parents" revolving around what would happen when beatniks stepped up to the helm of responsibility. This was before the Summer of Love and long before baby boomers joined yuppiedom in droves the same way they'd been drafted to fight in Vietnam. The question MAD begs is essentially that, if today's teenager is sincere in his or her rebellion, is it not true that the only natural rebellion for the following generation is a rejection of the freeform values of their parents? MAD shoots holes not in the ideology of the young set it satirizes -- and incidentally was then its target audience -- but in the inevitable hypocrisy it breeds, in the impossibility of living on principles. (The Beatles: "All you need is love." Keith Richards: "Try livin' off it.")
Rock & roll enjoys an elastic definition. It can encompass with full enthusiasm the amateurish garage band next door, the Katy Perrys on MTV at this very second, the amateurish garage band on MTV, the Katy Perrys next door (I know some people who wish), the rich white man who subscribes to Car & Driver, Maxim, and Spin and hangs his coat on a signed Clapton axe. Like everything else, it has its elitists, the folks who stand reciting their oral version of The Past, the ones who still know/care who Alan Freed was, the ones who look at whatever comes along and tell us why it is not in keeping with the spirit of you know what.
I am not speaking of the people whose awareness of pop music fails to go beyond "Purple People Eater," the ones who closed their ears when the Who came on the radio. These people are not surly old codgers. They can wrap their heads around that which makes its rebuttal to the world clear. Often they adore hip-hop, Nirvana, Eminem. When the Sex Pistols came along it was the first time in a while that a lot of them felt like they understood. It was explicit and confrontational and to many people, it felt like the potential of rock was being realized to its fullest.
In New York City, something smarter was brewing. Rarely has so much talent centered so much around a single building. CBGB's must have been a portal to the great beyond or something. Go out some time and observe your local bands perform. Now imagine that you live in New York City at the U.S. bicentennial and your local bands consist of Blondie, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and Talking Heads. Would make Friday nights a lot more interesting, no?
To be fair, all of the above except the Ramones became critical darlings quickly. There were a few dissenting voices, a lot of them from the same stripe of rock "fan" that was trashing disco because of homophobia. Some accused Smith of poetic melodrama, Television of being the Grateful Dead reborn, Blondie of being bubblegum in disguise (which is what punk is, by the way), and Talking Heads of being... sincere.
Conservatively dressed, their lead singer looking and acting like a born-again, robotic Buddy Holly, they sang songs that could well be Republican campaign anthems. "I see the states across this big nation / I see the laws made in Washington D.C. / I think of the ones I'd consider my favorites." Love becomes a task: "I called in sick, I won't go to work today / I'd rather be with the one I love / I NEGLECT MY DUTIES, I'll be in trouble." And how's this for right-wing? "So many people have their problems / I'm not interested in their problems / I guess I've experienced some problems / But now I've made some decisions."
The Heads were that MAD article, fully realized in three dimensions. They threw the two-faced nature of rock's ideal elite in the air for all to see because they confronted the world with their own unique rebellion, which is supposed to be the point of the music, but because they offered values distasteful to those who had built the mainstream and because they didn't underline everything to show the irony, they frightened people, especially those who were riding Johnny Rotten like a horse to salvation.
Of course the Heads' early work was satirical (with a Scottish eccentric and a woman in the band and, later, an integrated live lineup, they were not exactly WASP), but I also think there was sincerity in it. As Byrne himself has said, it was an attempt at understanding a fickle world, through humor and ideas. It forced rockers to examine their idea of the enemy. The Heads paid no attention to their "scene" or to what they were supposed to be, even openly embracing sugary pop and disco. Long after the impact of most punk has faded, they remain potent because they were the true rejection, the true intellectual challenge to both an industry establishment and to the increasingly mad society around them. In a sense, I believe they may be the only true punk-rock band. So much '60s pop tied itself to the turmoil of the day and now suffers for it. Maybe the Heads knew it and maybe they didn't, but the upheaval and insanity they captured on "Psycho Killer" and "Don't Worry About the Government" is something timeless and far more disruptive.
David Byrne knew that the most potent satire was more scary than funny, and he had an uncanny ability to use this to the fullest advantage, embracing a childlike perspective but with a sinister current provided by the impossibly simplified perspectives that mark so much inflammatory political and philosophical discussion. When he's angry, it gets to you. In "No Compassion," he is soulless, apathetic, and quietly hateful. The casual abandon in his words and vocals are more frightening than anything in the Pistols' catalog because there seems to be no escape from him, and the music isn't wild enough to punctuate his ideas and give us relief.
There is a less than subtle conclusion, though, as on side two Byrne draws a line to a sequel of sorts, the most popular early Heads track, "Psycho Killer," on which Byrne again accuses everyone and everything of being against him but ultimately is clearly off the deep end, sliding in and out of French at random and ranting cluelessly about "conversation." Nonetheless, you don't doubt the title, especially in the song's funniest/creepiest punchline: "I hate people when they're not polite!"
Byrne's detachment, ironic or not, would mean nothing if there wasn't a delicacy to his work. The fact that he can sing "Compassion is a virtue / But I don't have the time" makes the poignant moments twice as effective, but of course they are abstract and unclear. On the band's first single "Love -> Building on Fire," not included here, you can hear Byrne finding freedom and exhilaration within his cold sensibility. Byrne -- or rather his persona -- moving farther into this tunnel would be the running arc through the first four Talking Heads albums.
When human emotion does come to the forefront, as it does in spots throughout the record (for all their humor, "Pulled Up" and "Don't Worry About the Government" both come across in the end as adorably felt), it is joyously, flamboyantly surrendered to -- an apt foreshadowing of Stop Making Sense. The most moving song on the record revolves around what sounds like Byrne's seduction of a pined-for lover, his feelings for whom turn out surprisingly to be reciprocated. "I'm embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart / When I found out you wrote the book I read." The song includes the most memorable line on 77: "I'm spinning around and I feel all right / The book I read was in your eyes."
But the most beautiful song here, "First Week/Last Week... Carefree" comes thanks to the rest of the band, always offering a colorful environment for Byrne's one-man dramas. In fact, one reason I find the Heads' music so fascinating is that the music tends to be the foreground, the vocals the background. Brian Eno would, on later efforts, use this characteristic to great effect. With a backdrop of coproducers Tony Bongiovi and Lance Quinn's tasteless but somehow appropriate brass (they wanted to put cellos on "Psycho Killer"), Byrne meanders through a rant about surveillance or meetings or something and at the instrumental break completely loses in his mind in a magical, wordless chant -- the first hint of the alarmingly proficient body music the Heads would unexpectedly become known for.
"First Week" is the least ironic number here and one of the best, but not the most accomplished. On this debut album, the songs have to work doubly hard because of low production values that turn the first half into a jangly mess, so unimaginatively recorded by Bongiovi and Quinn that it becomes monotonous and feels almost like filler. As such, the songs that stick are the ones that display most effectively the Heads' range of influences and their sheer ambition, which of course would pay off later, and yet in its best moments 77 feels complete, not just a predecessor to greater things. "Uh-oh, Love Comes to Town" is a particular joy, recalling the Jackson Five, while the breathless "Pulled Up" is the point at which it all comes together.
Too often on Talking Heads: 77, the production conceals the brilliance of the musicianship of Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, and Chris Frantz, particularly Weymouth, as her bass is buried in the mix. "Pulled Up" is the rawest band performance on this album and also contains Byrne's most riveting moments. The lyrics, like "Don't Worry About the Government," recall the Modern Lovers (Harrison's old band) and the Friends-era Beach Boys. Far less effort is taken to bury the humor on this closing track; what's amazing is that the fascinating sense of detachment that makes the band's early work so endearing is still there, but so is an undeniable conviction. Byrne sounds for all the world like a ridiculously happy little boy, albeit one who knows every vocal tic in "Not Fade Away" back to front. "Mommy, Daddy come and look at me now / I'm a grown man in a great big town," he sings, proudly wailing about his success (he was in fact living in a dingy apartment with Chris and Tina at the time) and thanking his parents for everything they did for him. It's not rude or mean or sardonic, which because of its medium makes it all three. That also means it's simultaneously touching and surreal; the results are spellbinding. You believe every word.
They're playing a song about how much they love their parents. Another one about how much people owe to civil servants. Another one about how everyone needs to stop whining about their problems. Another one preaching intolerance and violence. Another one that argues that work is more important than human relationships. They are everything but rock & roll, and there's nothing more rock & roll than that.
[Updated version of a review I posted at d-b.com in 2004. Only changed a reference to Avril into one to Katy Perry (not that I believe the two are interchangeable), corrected my vastly ridiculous literal interpretation of "The Book I Read," and fleshed out the section on "First Week."]
Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites (1975-92)
Bonus Rarities & Outtakes (1975-92)