Friday, September 30, 2011

Washed Out: Within and Without (2011)

(Sub Pop)


Read my review at Metro Times Blogs.

Alexander "Skip" Spence: Oar (1969)



This record's primary purpose is to generate simultaneously a desire to hug it and a recoiling, creeping disgust -- so given my taste for Alex Chilton's solo work and the Beach Boys' Love You, not to mention Daniel Johnston and (why not) Nick Drake, this would seem a dream album for me. And in one way, I'm amazed that I have managed not to hear it until I was 27, because it's like ear candy to me: dissonant, hyperemotional acoustic psychodrama unfettered by overarranging, with croakingly complete but vague, barely-there songs. Skip Spence was of course the guy who came at a bandmate from Moby Grape with an ax while on a particularly heavy acid trip; upon being freed from the resultant stint in a psychiatrick ward, he showed up at a studio and recorded this lovable slice of shambolic beauty. "Diana" and "War in Peace" are the sound of a broken man, full of the wailing coos that would mark Big Star's "Kanga Roo" a few years later. Say this for a handicap of the sort that addled Spence: it removes all blockage to the kind of wordless desperation that is flawlessly captured on Oar; we don't just recognize this sadness, we feel it.

Part of what separates Oar from its desolate descendants is that its classic rock connection goes far beyond Spence's career lineage. The blues rock elements that built up to the ax-wielding moment are easily audible on "Little Hands" -- ethereal and ghostly, yes, but somehow rootsy as well, an agreeable call forward to Iron & Wine and Great Lake Swimmers, though more unhinged than either. If that's too subtle for you, "Books of Moses" hammers it home. But Spence here exhibits none of the obnoxious machismo that's dated a lot of traditional rock from this period. It helps that the sound and production are a stunningly proficient evocation of a mood. That's the key. As hyperactively eccentric singer-songwriters go, Spence lacks the melodic sense of Brian Wilson and the personable warmth of Alex Chilton, even Daniel Johnston's eagerness to please, but he can wring feeling out of these sparse numbers that Cat Stevens and James Taylor could've only dreamed about. Either would kill for the casual cabaret of "Lawrence of Euphoria," the unsentimentally delicate folk-rock of "Weighted Down," the effortless deja vu of "Dixie Peach Promenade" -- neither would have been able to glean anything honest from them the way Spence does.

Better yet, this rant is not artfully delicate or pretty -- not at all beautiful in a typical singer-songwriterly way; like a Terrence Malick film, its grand emotions come from its rawness and sincerity. It is lovely, it shimmers (see the glorious "Cripple Creek"), and it makes its points with agreeable brevity, the songs fading as soon as they've made their point satisfactorily. Spence's vocals are also ideal for the sonic setting he's concoted, the strain you can sense in his lyrics and singing only making "Broken Heart" that much more convincing and priceless. Maybe this is all extraordinary and prophetic by accident, but it's no small feat that even now, a 1969 album can make a seasoned follower of fringe rock music as uncomfortable as the splendid, otherworldly closing tangent "Grey/Alto" does, to say nothing of the out-of-time "Margaret Tiger Rug."

How refreshing that oar is unembarrassed at its off-kilter sentimentality and playfulness, even at relatively conventional intervals like the naked, stark Simon & Garfunkel guitar move "All Come to Meet Her." Were the album's emotions -- which tend to reflect the confusion that one would expect to haunt a guy just out of rehabilitation --not as unorthodox as its sonics, it would be a home run. As it is, it's very very close.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wilco: The Whole Love (2011)



Read my review at Metro Times.

BTW, the vinyl edition of this is one of the nicest new LPs I've ever purchased. Worth the money.

Big Star: Radio City (1973)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Where do you begin talking about an album stacked with one undeniable genre classic after another? Everything that's ever been called "power pop" leads back to this, and pretty much all of it is inferior.

Alex Chilton was clearly a talent in the Box Tops, clearly a maverick by the time of #1 Record, and clearly a peak-level pop genius once Radio City rolls around. His expertly crafted but emotionally bleeding pop-song forms are so perfect they seem almost manipulative. He is in a league with almost no others, and the songs on this record are as close as anyone's come to that sudden rush of "I Get Around" or "I Want to Hold Your Hand" since the '60s.

It's helpful to Chilton's quirky focus that the late, great Chris Bell left the band before this album was recorded (though he does show up on a couple of tracks). Without Bell, there is nothing holding Chilton back; he dives full force in both of his natural directions -- the rock & roll purist with every second engineered for life-shaking effect, and the psychologically exhausting avant-pop mastermind. #1 Record was the pop record, Third/Sister Lovers would be the shattering, dissonant masterpiece, but Radio City is the perfect fusion.

The songs here that foreshadow Third would sound perfectly at home on that record, so delicate they threaten to fall to pieces, almost unearthly in a way sensed only in the paranoid drama of Chilton's voice. "O My Soul" is his "Good Vibrations," the most unconventional and jarring of the lot, with its lurchingly messy musical narrative and a shreiking, hanging-from-the-rafters band performance. "Morpha Too," near the end of Side Two, provides the payoff, Chilton alone on piano sounding devastated: "I don't know shit, and I don't know what to do / I'm in love with you." His fragmented, hellish rock move "Life Is White" (a rejection of the first album's love song "My Life Is Right"?) turns evil harmonicas into a wall of fire, with Alex crushing everything under his brilliant teenage lyrics: "I know what you're like / And I can't go back to that" turns to "I know what you lack..." Again, he has the most important skill for a true rock & roller, and the one most of them after the mid-'60s blatantly lack: he is blind to banality, and he understands that rock & roll is a different world in which literary standards do not apply. He intends to speak to an audience that does not like flowery poetry any more than they like being looked upon as dimwitted tickets to wealth. His sincerity and lack of pandering make his work that much more moving... and disturbing. He is so much like Brian Wilson in this sense that it's hard to contemplate.

The shuddering, mad intensity of Third is predicted as well by "What's Going Ahn," a psychological trauma set to music that means to rivet us in its slow pace, and does. But the song is far more conscious of its blunt power and wit than, say "Kanga Roo": "Well, I like love, but I don't know / All these girls, they come and go / Always nothing left to say." Turning adolescently filthy '70s riff-rock on its head with its adruously crawling, tentative pace, the song's tracking of emotional depth in simplicity of expression is startling. But that's merely a preview for the almost voyeuristic breakup ballad "Daisy Glaze." Never did Big Star seem more prophetic, predicting (and bettering) alt-rock's traditional dynamic of the whisper-quiet ballad building gradually to a full-out emotional explosion. A pity that no one who copped this technique ever matched it remotely so well to so harrowing a series of fragmented but illuminative setiments. The lyric reads like someone's diary in the midst of a breakdown, even quoting at its glorious climax the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" directly and brilliantly -- "And I'm thinking, Christ / Nullify my life, nullify my life." The song ends in the oddly joyous announcement that "You're gonna die, yes, you're gonna die," by which time the emotional ambiguity of Chilton's particular brand of power pop has proven itself many times over.

All the same, Chris Bell and #1 Record are hardly absent here; they shadow over the more commercial material, and it's in the fusion of Radio's rambling and Record's bliss that Big Star hits their peak. "Way Out West," written by bassist Andy Hummel and sung by drummer Jody Stephens, is wonderfully unpretentious, a worthy sequel to "The India Song." The breathless, Beatlesque "You Get What You Deserve" is another powerful angry-male diatribe, with such familiar speeches as "Try to understand what I'm going through" and "You've gotta have a lot of nerve."

But in ascending order, "Mod Lang," "Back of a Car," and "September Gurls" are just about the three most perfect pop songs ever written -- that is no exaggeration applied to an indie friendly underground group; the fluke is not them, it's the rest of the marketplace. "Mod Lang," written several years earlier, is a blues imitation (its words built largely from the clichés of that genre) that endlessly exhilarates in its simplistic chorus: "How long can this go on?" Similarly unforgettable is "Back of a Car," Chilton's most vivid illustration of teenage nights and showcase for masterful melodic sense. With Chilton's best chorus -- "I'll go on and on with you / Like to fall and lie with you" -- it evokes youth with a feverish, fast-paced beauty that defies the walls of trends and (with no small thanks to the uncredited guest appearance by Bell) feels like the absolute apogee of '70s guitar pop, so drunkenly joyous it threatens to burst through the eardrums. The Cars spent ten years trying to manage that song, but as good as they were, they couldn't get a glimmer of the magic in Chilton's guitar, and certainly none of them had a voice like his. These are short, sweet, loud pop songs, their insane perfection and appeal infinite -- the difference between Big Star and the Cars, and the Raspberries for that matter, is fragility. Even at their most robust and hook-filled, Chilton's compositions still sound poised to fall apart at any moment, moments and memories too delicate to last.

An equally grand demonstration is "September Gurls," the song that dispels everything that you ever loved about rock & roll into three minutes of something like bliss. It encapsulates all elements of Big Star's seductive urgency, with the desperation in Chilton's voice, the tower of glory in the guitar solo, and the stinging energy of the lyrics: "I loved you... well, never mind." After hundreds of listens, the song can still induce the kind of chills that pop composers are seldom able tow ork toward. It is not only a wonder that this wasn't a huge hit, it's completely mystifying that it didn't overcome the odds to make this band a household name.

But the album went nowhere, and cult status or not, we will always be missing the impact it could have had on the world at the time. Instead, we get to experience it for ourselves, which may be even better. Chilton was a genius and rock & roll, whether its larger faction knows it or not, will never recover from his loss. Radio City closes out its wonderfully concise command over the attention with Chilton strumming a guitar and serenading us with the romantic, divine truths of "I'm in Love with a Girl," because he knows that's what we'll always need the most, and it's like he's still fucking there, man.

[Edited and revised from a review I posted in 2004.]

Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74)
#1 Record (1972)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)



This record is new to me, and I'm delighted to discover that this and not Transistor Radio from a couple of years later is Matt Ward's artistic breakthrough. On his third album, he proves himself already a master of texture and a cinematic, dreamlike mood that is completely irresistible. From the opening sound of crickets chirping, these fifteen admirably concise tracks whisper in and out but never collapse under their ambience, and provide a showcase for both Ward's humongous guitar gifts and his attraction to bedroom-pop production in the vein of Nick Drake without succumbing to the gimmicry that often marred his prior effort, End of Amnesia.

"Transfiguration #1" is a piano-complemented Floyd Cramer imitation, a stage-setter of sorts, before Ward sets in with stirringly pretty ballads that easily compete with his influences, from the singer-songwriters of the '70s to Yo La Tengo. Ward's resistance to cop to pure sentimentality is a welcome change from his earlier work; whereas "Vincent O'Brian" might once have finally come across as mawkish, he buries under enough electric guitar and drums to make its nostalgia endearing and welcome, never cloying. At his best, though, he is unafraid of a stomping folk-rock that, on "Helicopter" and "Fool Says," verges on psychedelia. He's also unexpectedly witty; witness the filtered drone of the Johnny Cash burlesque "Sad, Sad Song," the jazzy barroom charm of "Poor Boy, Minor Key," the thrilling fusion of country-blues and chamber pop on "Get to the Table on Time."

The record doesn't divide itself convincingly into songs, but they're here if you need them; the melodies here are more persuasive than is usual for Ward's output, before or since (with a brighter arrangement, "A Voice at the End of the Line" could work as a She & Him track; "Let's Dance" is unabashed prom night stuff). It's more likely that you'll find the ambience so enjoyable that you'll simply let the whole thing play through. And that's certainly a virtue not to be taken lightly. Just don't assume that just because the thing is pretty, it's passable purely on that basis; pay close attention and you'll find this no less rewarding.

Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)
End of Amnesia (2001)

Moby: Destroyed (2011)



Read my review at Metro Times Blogs. (scroll down!)

Aimee Mann: Magnolia OST (1999)

(Warner Bros.)


Here's a good example of the ways that eleven years can change you. When I saw the movie Magnolia a few months after its release, I thought it messy, unfocused, and dramatically aloof, not to mention overlong. It was a frustrating film because there were elements of it I loved -- the performances by Tom Cruise and John C. Reilly, some of the sequences dealing with the child-prodigy quiz show, and above all the songs by Aimee Mann, which seemed then to me so much more graceful and eloquent than the movie itself.

I haven't seen Magnolia in at least ten years now. But I've maintained some nostalgia for its soundtrack. To my surprise, when I pulled it out recently, I found it a horror. Mann's vocals are woefully inexpressive, and less forgivably, her songs themselves strike me now as directionless and bland. The cover of Three Dog Night's "One" is just as bad as every other version of that awful, overrated piece of tripe, and it's actually downhill from there. Various selections abound from Mann's records I'm with Stupid and Bachelor #2, the latter of which I at one time found knowing and beautiful. I was wrong.

The two songs Mann wrote expressly for the feature, "Wise Up" and "Save Me," are Lilith Fair pap, though the latter contains more hooks than the rest of the disc in its entirety. "Wise Up" is maudlin and grating, "Save Me" simply carries its pretentious harping on simplistic emotions too far, rambling on for nearly five minutes. That the disc closes with a few Supertramp songs adds to the insult, though Jon Brion's theme tune is, of course, lovely.

On the whole, I don't know what I was hearing back then; this is junk. Does this mean that I would love the movie Magnolia if I saw it now? I'll try to find out next time I can spare six hours or however the hell long that thing is.

Friday, September 23, 2011

AraabMUZIK: Electronic Dream (2011)


When did nocturnal party music become so goddamned dour? Between AraabMUZIK's depressive decadence and the Weeknd's landscapes of urban squalor, you'd think the economy had taken a toll on the American Friday night. But actually, if you play this in a club, everyone will hate you and ask for more Whispers. Or Journey.

It's not that Electronic Dream is a total failure musically, just that its mood seems curiously labored and off-key. Its eleven tracks, spread over a half hour, let samples and sounds weave in and out but really amount to one DJ session that harps on the same idea throughout. AraabMUZIK himself is a producer who's worked with Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, but his debut album as a performer has nothing to do with hip hop and R&B except in terms of its deceptive slickness.

Like a lot of mood music, the album has a devotion to sound that ultimately renders it flat and emotionless. If you want to capture the feeling of walking the city at night alone, try Marquee Moon, and note that it is not interrupted every few minutes with an extremely grating announcement that "you're now listening to Television."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy (1965)

(Pye [orig] / Legacy [reissue])


If you're hunting for treasure in the pre-Face to Face Kinks catalog, it's Kinda Kinks you need, the only Kinks abum in the garage-band mold that has the songs to back up the attitude. But Kontroversy is a great secondary option; you know the singles are all flawless and there are plenty of ways to get those, but whereas Kinda just captures the Kinks at a blissful early peak, this is the record that points onward. For most fans of any Kinks period, it will offer much satisfaction, even if the quantum leap was still a year in the future.

You get the Kinks going all-out with impressive blues rock on the thunderous "Milk Cow Blues," attacking a killer riff on the very Brit-invasion "Gotta Get the First Plane Home," tackling grade-A Beatle balladry on "Ring the Bells" (I Can't Believe It's Not from Help!), and upstaging the Stones with a sizzling "It's Too Late." "When I See That Girl of Mine" could easily have been a hit single, and the same goes for the apathetically desperate sleeper classic "Where Have All the Good Times Gone" -- brimming with a kind of dejected anger the band had previously only expressed musically. The bitterness and sarcasm on "Good Times," complete with sardonic "Yesterday" quote, offer the Kinks at their most bruising, all of its lyrics observant and biting, the music pointed and fiery. In its mature rejection of its generation's follies, the song shows itself leagues ahead of the Kinks' peers, a decade ahead of rock & roll even. Who until the punk era would openly display such skepticism of pop mythology? Or of authority and empty nostalgia -- "Ma and Pa look back on all the things they used to do / Didn't have no money and they always told the truth / Daddy didn't have no toys / And Mommy didn't need no boys."

Davies converts will be searching for hints on Kontroversy of the prizes to come and they will find them in the sweetly delicate ballad "I Am Free," tinged with powerful piano and 12-string and an incredible vocal from Dave; he is equally haunting on the unexpectedly desperate "What's in Store for Me." The melodic "The World Keeps Going Round" builds to a roaring midsection with some confrontational lyrics -- "What's the use of worrying 'cause you'll die alone" -- typical of his later work. In fact, the Kinks are almost invariably skeptical of romance, their songs from "Fancy" to "Waterloo Sunset" celebrating solitude in every form, exemplified here by the delightfully deadpan "I'm on an Island." There is an important exception.

The album highlight and a career landmark, "Till the End of the Day," is one of the Kinks' most potent early singles; its lack of chart success is criminal. The brilliantly raw arrangement defies the poignantly romantic lyrics for a juxtaposition both exhilarating and touching. As exciting as "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," this song is a firecracker that still retains all of its bombastic intoxication. On a record that closes with a Randy Newman-prophetic song called "You Can't Win," you can tell what song is more genuine by which one is infused with more passion. The only other item resembling a hit is the classic bonus cut Castle includes with their CD (and Sony with their new two-disc collection), "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," here along with an adorably stupid song called "Sittin' on My Sofa." Both work decently with the LP's context.

Fans who've been deprived of the early Kinks will have no trouble growing with this even if they're not obsessed with the prime British Invasion music of which this is the absolutely perfect example (right down to the cover). And the folks who love the sound of the radio hits and want more will be in heaven. Is it slight in comparison to the works to follow? It's too much fun for that to matter. For all their stylistic shifts, the Kinks were always the Kinks, and Ray Davies indeed may never have made a smarter, more cutting observation than "Yesterday was such an easy game for you to play / But let's face it, things are so much easier today."

[Note: This is a modification of a review I posted in an older venue in 2004. Also, I wrote a piece for Metro Times about the recent Sony reissues of the first three Kinks albums, this one included, a few months back. Here it is if you're curious!]

The Kinks (1964)
Kinda Kinks (1965)

Mates of State: Mountaintops (2011)


Read my review at Metro Times.

I love this band, so I feel kind of guilty that I've now basically trashed them in print. Please note that I am one of the few dissenting voices about the new record.

Imani Coppola: Chupacabra (1997)



You can probably find this in a bargain bin near you for $1 or $2 and it's one of those rare cases of such in the CD era when you'll be amazed at the bargain. Imani Coppola is a difficult-to-pin-down R&B-tinged singer-songwriter whose work now sounds somewhere between Ani DiFranco and Macy Gray, pushed and prodded on a major label payroll in the late '90s but retaining at least a convincing illusion of rigorous individuality. She released this album, had a minor hit with the wondrous and valuable "Legend of a Cowgirl," and was unceremoniously dropped from Sony and scarcely heard from again. Which is a pity -- Chupacabra suggests she was far ahead of her time.

Coppola's schtik is more Merrill Garbus or Janelle Monae than Rihanna -- in addition to her compelling, versatile vocals, she is the person you're hearing on the fiddle during the hit, and she is credited with guitars, string arrangements, and keyboards throughout the record. The explicitly feminist "Legend of a Cowgirl" is still a stirring, funny firecracker -- undoubtedly a better, braver song than the one it heavily samples, Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" -- with wicked, rapid-fire raps, slippery beats, and a triumphant chorus. No wonder Coppola was critical of Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan; her music actually offers female nonconformity, as opposed to the adult contemporary chameleon acts of the McLachlan - Cole - Colvin set.

If you dig "Legend," and you should, you will almost certainly enjoy the rest of the album, which forecasts the playful, literate, and incredibly versatile soul of The Love Below and The ArchAndroid. That's versatility as a writer, vocalist, and a stylist. Opener "I'm a Tree" is as energetic and wily as the single, but inexplicably never caught on with radio; it's the only thing here that really sounds like "Legend of a Cowgirl." Despite some overly slick production, Coppola investigates a head-spinning number of ideas on the rest of the album. There's watery folk-rock on "Naked City," tribal menace on "Piece" (her finest, most breathtaking vocal performance, somewhat akin to Kate Bush), trip hop bossa nova on "It's All About Me, Me, and Me," traditional alternative rap on "Soon (I Like It)," and true surreal disorientation on the hidden track "My Day," which is as wild and weird as mainstream music gets.

Of course, Coppola's mainstream status lasted barely a fortnight before MTV and her label lost interest; in 1997, the national heart had room for only one unorthodox soul singer (Erykah Badu), and that sadly has not changed. Serious creativity like Coppola's is still blacklisted, and she's roamed the underground ever since. But in an era when audiences for offbeat bands and characters has grown exponentially since 1997, she's ripe for rediscovery and renewal. Something of a prophetic maverick, she continues to record and perform, and deserves to be more widely appreciated. I hope the music business finds room for her again.

Iceage: New Brigade (2011)

(What's Your Rupture?)


Read my review at Metro Times Blogs. (scroll down a bit)

Thing I Was Too Polite to Say (But Did Manage to Imply) in the Official Review Above: The way I feel about this is the way I wish I felt (at least) about Fucked Up's album.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Adam Green: Jacket Full of Danger (2006)

(Rough Trade)


Oh, stop it, it's not that witty -- not in a league with former fellow Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson, who can run lyrical circles around Green's tired, droning joke-songs. But Green's music is funny, and sleazy, and smart, and at very very scattered times even charming; we miss the warmth Dawson gave, but he certainly brings the scrappiness in a higher-fi guise, and ridiculous Elvis-in-Vegas moments like "Party Line," "Nat King Cole," and "Hollywood Bowl" have little precedent in the indieverse. "Party Line" in particular has such massive utility, sounding so divinely correct coming out of oversized speakers at a shitty dive bar, it can turn the average depressive night out into some casually nihilistic Sweet Smell of Success reenactment. Green may be a cynical asshole, but he can belt a tune convincingly, if not all that technically well. Still, I felt something more from "NYC Is Like a Graveyard" all those years ago, and somewhere beneath all this snotty humor and scorn, somewhere beneath Green's recasting of classicist musical backdrops as a feverish bout of self and world-loathing, is a trace of that wound. I wouldn't mind if he were more in touch with it. But I wouldn't mind if most dudes were more in touch with the undercurrents they bury in their macho tomfoolery. We all know boys get lost in their indulgences; what he really needs is an equally playful girlfriend. Again.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: I'm with You (2011)

(Warner Bros.)


I don't know how wholehearted that recommendation for this album is because for one thing, it's marked by some level of cultish bias in the sense that I like the way this band sounds to me and you likely don't, and as much as it improves on this seminal and unfairly drubbed California pop band's prior album, the overlong Stadium Arcadium, it is a fat and happy group stagnating. But it is also one of the most purely fun and at times affecting records out this year, so much more enjoyable and consistent than Tomboy or Helplessness Blues or Bon Iver. From the thrusting disco and persuasively joyous melody on "Monarchy of Roses" through the ridiculous piano trills and pop beltalong of "Happiness Loves Company" to the mumbling balladry of "Meet Me at the Corner," it sounds just the way one would hope. There's not a lot to say about it, except that it's a bit of a minor miracle. The Peppers would've been spent by the close of the '90s if not for a creative injection provided by returning guiarist John Frusciante, who helped them through a commercial reemergence with the strong Californication and then guided their artistic zenith, the still-stunning By the Way. It seemed that without Frusciante, a gifted and fascinating musician, the Peppers would just be technically proficient old men with little zeal.

Much to my delight, that isn't the case; RHCP unexpectedly bring it here, and though I'm with You offers nothing as distinct as their three '90s albums at their best, it is second only to By the Way in its careful, emotional sustaining of mood -- and of course, in charm. It's a kick to hear everyone giving their all here. Anthony Kiedis' lyrics may still be sophomoric and tired but he is also one of the most passionate singers mainstream rock's ever offered, rendering his banalities trustworthy if hardly worth pondering. Flea and Chad Smith have continued to adapt their hand-me-down funk rhythm section heroics to increasingly conventional pop-rock, almost soft rock, environments; the mellowing suits them, Rick Rubin's adult contemporary sheen allowing them the freedom to sound like the middle-aged rock & rollers they are. But special mention has to be made for new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who blends in seamlessly and gives an injection of vibrant youth that is in large part what makes the record, particularly its second half, so endearing. And as Brent DiCrecenzo (one of the few major rock writers with the balls to take the Peppers seriously) has pointed out, the femininity of Klinghoffer's backing vocals changes the entire dynamic of the band's songs. I hope they're using him liberally in live rearrangements of their older material. The presence is strongest on the slow ones, the adult easy listening of "Did I Let You Know" overflowing with comfort and feeling. I didn't think I would ever say this again, but hey, why not. Long live the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Everly Brothers (1958)



It's no Here's Little Richard or The "Chirping" Crickets, but Phil and Don Everly's debut album may come closest of them all amongst the grand '50s rockers to craft something that we'd now think of as a modern rock LP. Varied but cohesive in mood, carefully paced with peaks scattered, and nearly absent of filler, the album is a strong and consistent listen that goes far beyond the typical structure of hit followed by filler. Of course, the hits do put everything in their shadow, but what's surprising is how few of them are here. Of the Everlys' ten Cadence singles, only the first two A and B-sides were ever included on an LP. That says something, something vaguely prophetic, about the sheer volume of strong material they had at their disposal.

"Bye Bye Love" enters with its earthshaking, heartstopping intro three tracks in, the entire song's hopping, grandiose desperation jutting out from its surroundings on the first half. The first of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's extraordinary contributions to the Everlys, it remains one of the most striking, spirited songs about heartbreak in the entire rock idiom. The bigger miracle about it, of course, is the same fusion of ideas that carries over to the record as a whole: flavored with country but inescapably something else, clearly and unreservedly influenced and driven by rhythm & blues but not speaking in its vernacular, it's the definition of music that can be defined exclusively as rock & roll. The same goes for the Bryants' followup, "Wake Up Little Susie," a thinly veiled, mortified virginity loss anthem about what the young couple will do when their folks find out.

The Bryants surprisingly provide only one other composition here, the mournfully sung "Brand New Heartache," marked most strongly by its sweetly chiming guitar lines. The couple's interludes here are evenly matched by three of the Everlys' own songs, all three of them more impressive than cultural memory has allowed. "Maybe Tomorrow" displays an emotional maturity and confidence far beyond what one would expect for their second Cadence 45, a stirring ballad lifted by a vocal and melody as shattering as anything on the two hits. "Should We Tell Him," in the meantime, is full-on country with excellent lead guitar work, its radicalism defined by its seating on the same slab of vinyl with non-neutered Ray Charles and Little Richard songs.

It is "I Wonder If I Care as Much," though, that makes the sheer incongruity of the Everly Brothers' entrance into the marketplace seem most pronounced. Not merely a folk song but an unrestrained (and beautifully written) Appalachian ballad, and far beyond the fashionably rustic hits of the time, this is raw, unkempt Carter Family stuff (with a bit of Leadbelly), graceful and audacious within the context of supposed teenage music. The duo's Kentucky hearts and their rock & roll persuasions are powerful because they are both irreducible. When they hit the chorus and sing "wonder if I keer as much," it is to lose one's breath at the capability of early rock & roll to transfer so much that is disparate into a seamless whole.

The six covers that occupy the other half of The Everly Brothers give a closer idea of the group's evolutionary track. "Hey Doll Baby" is a bright enough performance that is firmly in the conventional folk camp, and Gene Vincent's "Be Bop a Lula" comes off rote and generic in their rendering, so we disregard those and end up with two songs each by Little Richard and Ray Charles. The former's songs seem to make the Everlys slightly nervous, a tension they ultimately would learn to use to their advantage (especially on "Lucille," not included here), but as of "Rip It Up," they're still changing "and ball tonight" to "have a ball tonight" and thus losing much of the song's crucial debauchery. "Keep a Knockin'" points the way forward in an appropriately pensive revision that works well in context with "Wake Up Little Susie." Charles' songs, though, are the unlikely perfect match for the Brothers' sensibilities -- opener "This Little Girl of Mine" is convincingly exuberant, and by "Leave My Woman Alone" they have learned to give a song a full enough stylistic transition that a Ray Charles classic sounds like one of their own tunes.

This debut LP made merely a fraction of the impact that the Everlys' Cadence singles did, but there's a sense in which the lack of fanfare afforded these songs allows them to feel new again. In recent years, this record has found a large audience and become a minor classic, a just conclusion for it -- the fan of the Brothers' more famous sides who hears this gains the wonderful position of feeling stopped in time and hearing what amount to new songs from this storied first decade of these two masters, and of rock & roll at its peak.

Cadence Classics: Their 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60)
Walk Right Back (Warner Years) (1960-69)

Male Bonding: Endless Now (2011)

(Sub Pop)


Read my review at Metro Times.

Nothing Hurts (2010)