Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014-Year in Review-Albums

Damn.  Didn't realize what a great year it was until I started compiling the lists.  Lots of great stuff didn't even make the short stack.  And I'm sure there are a few albums that I didn't really give a chance that will work their way into my life list (I'm looking at you, Ariel Pink and your "Pom Pom."  You got it, i know you do, I just didn't give it enough plays to compete with the big kids)

So before we hit the list, let's look at some contenders that just fell short:

Spoon-"They Want My Soul"  So nice to have them back, but sometimes consistent brilliance is a curse.
The New Pornographers-"Brill Bruisers"  Love it, and it would have been top ten if it would have just had that one song....
Kaiser Chiefs-"Education, Education, Education" (see below or above)
War on Drugs-"Lost in the Dream" I like, but just don't love compared to their other stuff.
Perfume Genius-"Too Bright" I thought this was top ten from the very first listen and my opinion has not changed, but how much is ten?  ten.
Sun Kil Moon-"Benji"  See, now no one got a present.
Ariel Pink-"Pom Pom"
Morrissey-"Business as Usual"  Really good and on Harvest.  how could i not love?
Ray Lamontagne-"Supernova" How can something I listened to so much not make top ten?
Rosanne Cash-"The River and the Thread"  This was a slow grower for me (especially compared to the list and cadillac), and as close to top ten as can be.

And now the top ten albums for 2014:

10.  Literature "Chorus"/FKA Twigs "LP1"  (Literature is a no brainer, but FKA Twigs has been coming on strong and i just can't choose between the two)
9.  Jenny Lewis-"The Voyager"  ok california sunny pop with a dark undercurrent.  great melodies, some serious lyrics and production out of the 70's.  yes. and thank you.
8.  Future Islands "Singles"  they named the album Singles.  and be damned if they weren't right.  compulsively listenable.
7.  TV on the Radio "Seeds"  Little known well known fact: I've never been that into TVOTR.  just a bit too much something (either trying to hard or pretentious, i can never tell), but with Seeds (it must be the keyboards or that they are willing to try traditional song structures) they hit my sweet spot.
6. Fanfarlo "Let's Go Extinct" Let's hope not.
5. Eno/Hyde "Someday World/High Life"  ok.  someday world would have been enough, but another great album in the same year?  excellent!
4. St. Vincent.  s/t  I have to admit this got lost in the shuffle.  and then i threw it in unaware and i was all..."wow, who is this?"  and then i shamed myself when i realized who it was.  but then i had a hit of dew and i felt better.
3. Ty Segall "Manipulator"  noisy.   a bit abrasive.  annoyingly recorded.  but so poppy.  i just kept hitting replay.
2.  Beck "Morning Phase"  ya ya.  but still.  plus it gives me goosebumps.  so there.
1.  Real Estate "Days"  i wasn't sure what was number one for the longest time.  i thought i had a lot of 3-7 items in my list.  then i put "Days" back in and everything fell into place and i couldn't remember why i had forgotten this in the first place.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

So...Now....Are You Ready to Go (Redemption 7)

You have to realize, I went into it completely blind.  It wasn’t a particularly fertile period for my music listening.  Early 2000’s.  All the old familiars were getting a little too old and familiar and all the indie blog stuff wasn’t really happening yet (for me anyway).  I was back in the cities but with nary a penny to spare.  So off the library for a little random flipping through the music collection (Walker in Uptown if you are curious…whoever bought there back in the day always seemed to know what my musical taste was and where I had some glaring gaps…not that I ever met the person). 
“It Still Moves” caught my eye.  I think I thought I might have heard of My Morning Jacket.  Or at least it sounded like a band name I thought I knew or at least should have known.  And of course, a stuffed bear on the cover was a good sign.  So I grabbed it.  And once it was in my cd player, it immediately grabbed me back. 
“Sitting here with me and mine, all wrapped up in a bottle of wine.”  What a perfect introduction to the album, to the band, to the whole shebang.
Southern fried country rock crossed with the beach boys by way of neil young in a silo, with just a little eno/cale weirdness thrown in the mix. “Mahgeetah” was such an unlikely to be accessible mash of influences but so so immediately likeable.  I bet I had that song on repeat 4 or 5 times, before I even moved on to “Dancefloors.”  And even though southern boogie jam band wasn’t exactly my thing,  I’d have done the same thing with “Dancefloors, ” but I didn’t have far enough to drive.   But there was just something in the jam and boogie piano (with some lonesome steel guitar aping swinging from verse to verse in the background) and Jim James’ silo reverb vocals that had me completely engaged.  And then there was “Golden,” a loping throwback acoustic guitar driven ode to life on the road with a harmony filled chorus that kept me in the car running. 
I was in love; delighted and entranced by my “discovery”.  And that was just the first 3 songs! 
What other wonders awaited?  Well, suffice it to say, there isn’t a dud on “It Still Moves” ten years on, it still moves.  For every skynyrd there is a crazy horse, a time to wail and a time to croon, epic solos, hard charging riffs, and delicate guitar picking.  And that’s just “One Big Holiday.”  Then there is the languid beauty of “I Will Sing You Songs,” repeatedly on the verge of falling apart, but picking up just enough momentum each time to see another chorus, before it finally gets a roll on down the hill.     “Just don’t make it last any longer than it has to.”
“Easy Morning Rebel” still makes me smile.  Still sounds like it could have been on a jukebox in the corner bar when I was a kid.  And that riffing around the 3.40 mark building to the big guitar solo is so great.  And I’m not really a guitar jam guy.  Same for “Run Thru.”  Just enough tension between the big guitars riffs and Yim’s wordless chorus to carry me through jams I wouldn’t have the patience to bear on any other sleeve. 
Smart sequencing drives the album, never too deep into the jams, rockers give way to mid tempo tracks and the ballads aren’t afraid to rip (without getting too power ballad).  And although it’s rare to have a song under 3 minutes (just one song is around 3 minutes and that one is over way too soon), the songs never feel too long.  The musicianship, the arrangements, the singing and an armload of memorable melodies all around create enough variety within each track to keep length from ever being a repetitive burden.  The longest songs just feel like a natural evolution of an idea instead of a hard forced journey for lengths sake, which is saying a lot for someone like me, who is a firm believer in the church of the 3 minute pop song.  But those 71 minutes of “It Still Moves”  fly by and I’m holding up on “One and the Same” even more than the band does, hoping to extend the visit just a little longer.
I knew I had stumbled upon a great band that day.  I immediately began making plans for a road trip to test out the album.  Because of course, although I could listen to the album in my place, music always sounds best on the road (scientifically proven) and I had a feeling, long since proven out, that My Morning Jacket albums are even more suited for long drives out in the middle of nowhere with only the occasional yard light sparking in the long dark of nothing.
PS:   I don’t think “It Still Moves” is My Morning Jacket’s best album.  And it doesn’t even have my favorite MMJ song on it. (and although my best all time moment with an album, any album, was with an MMJ album, it was not with this one), but it is and always will be my favorite MMJ AND one of my all-time favorite albums.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Blue Ribbon On My Brain (Redemption 6)

What makes the magic that is the National?  The songs you say? Perhaps.  There are certainly some gems within their discography, strongly (songly?) written melodies and lyrically deft and wise.  Is it their persona as fiercely independent intelligent indie outsiders breaking into the mainstream?  Their almost losers status made good does make them golden and certainly appealing.  But more than anything, what makes the National them and uniquely them is how in the interplay between abilities and philosophies they produce records that reflect their individuality as well as a uniquely collective vision.

Think about Matt.  Matt’s skills are his considerable ability to write non sequitur lyrics (that somehow add up to more than the sum of their individual parts), his charismatic live performances and his general all around handsome-manness, not his vocal prowess.  He’s a rocker and a shouter and he’s all about emotion and fury (and not a little bit of well caged drunkenness) and completely unlike anyone else in the band.   And for sure, his voice has some pretty strict limitations, especially in range and expression (either mournful or howling).  But beyond the obvious limitations Matt’s voice has, it does have a nice tone, especially in evoking world weariness and a certain haunted restless dissatisfaction; said milieu suiting the National’s musical aesthetic perfectly.  Think about it, if Matt’s voice were an instrument of Bubleian grandeur, it would overwhelm all the other aspects of the band.  It is a case of limitations becoming strength.  Listen to the guitars in “All the Wine” supporting Matt’s voice, giving the illusion of range.  It’s the guitars and bass providing the color in the chorus while Matt’s haughty baritone is singing the hell out of the beat.  Nothing really traditional in terms of arrangement, but everything perfectly balanced to brilliant net affect.

It is the guitar work of the brothers Dessner that give most of the National songs their humming power.  The carefully accented guitar filigrees and angular guitar lines expand the melodic reach of the compositions, extending the Beringer baritone from black and white into vivid Technicolor.  “Wasp’s Nest” is barely a monotone of a melody but with the ringing guitars cupping Matt’s voice, the song soars with a generous sprinkling of sugary Christmas bell beats.   “About Today” is yet another perfect example of this balance between monobaritone and chiming guitars (with perfectly drawn drum beats providing just a little hope to move the hopeless song into morning).  But that’s not to say the guitar solo doesn’t have a place in the National record arsenal.  “Abel” (tied with blood buzz for my favorite national song) pins all it’s promise on guitar god work (and Matt’s most unhinged vocal ever).  Would that the Dessners became more regularly unhinged in their guitar playing.  But again, would we want Matt to have to shout all the time to keep the balance?  And what would the National be if they had to be a four by four rhythm section providing structural support for guitar god roof raising?  (pretty much any other neglected indie band that had their moment in the sun, I’d wager)

Keyboards in National songs usually play a lot of the same rolls the guitar figures do, providing melody and breadth, but staying in the background for the most part.  However, there are a few National songs that use piano more predominantly if unconventionally, rolling out rhythmic figures and loping chords against the outlines of songs like a tuned drum. 

Really though, it’s the rhythm section and most specifically the drums that are the not so secret weapon in any National song.  Whether it’s the geese in Beverly Hills, fake empires, or buzzing in Ohio, the drumming and bass provide the beating heart to every National song.  Intricate, propulsive and always detailed, the brainy drumming never settles on the obvious beat or approach.  The bass playing perfectly jumps from melodic to foundational support on a dime.  The rhythm sections grants a depth and complexity to the simplest National tune. The brothers Devendorf’s work has become progressively more pronounced in the mix as the band has grown and has become more assured and complex.  So integral to the National “sound” is the drumming that it’s practically in a dead heat with Matt’s voice (another slightly less intricately syncopated monotone) as the single most identifiable aspect of the National sound.  

Now go and listen to your favorite National song.  Listen for the guitar line or piano line that opens the song, wait a beat for the insistent hesitant poly playful drumming contradicting or chasing the melody line around the center of the song, listen for the burdened hum of Matt’s vocals at the center of the swirl.   The order of introduction, the keys and the time signature might change just a little, but the elements will all be there.  It’s only a question of the mix and how high the sky goes and how deep the chaos gets.  It’s always a universe onto itself.  It’s a National song.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

I Can't Say in the End (Redemption 5)

A long long time ago.

We’d spent the day in Comstock, at my uncle’s place, for a family picnic and were heading back to the farm in the long summer evening. The August air was fuzzy with heat, humidity and the assurance of storms.  I sat in the back of the car, listening to AM radio on my ginormous radio headphones (one of the best Christmas presents ever, btw). Dire Straits and storm watches.  Farm fields rolling by, cows and crops pressed flat to the earth by the weight of the day.  Silly Love songs against a sky rouged as the sun slid towards the clouded horizon. 

And then.  and then. It happened. An orchestral opening; followed by gently strummed guitars and a haunted voice singing from another universe, strings rich as rainfall wavering in the mix.  A panoramic chorus no companion as the song drew back down to the single voice.

“Gazing at people, some hand in hand.  Just what I’m going through, they can’t understand.” 

Maybe it was because the charged ionosphere rattled the signal, but each element of the song; the plaintive flute, the hushed drums, the swell of strings, the trumping horns and plucky harp, the final gong was perfectly highlighted, enhanced even, by the warp and weave of the radio waves as the song sought out the receiver in my brain.

I was completely and utterly transfixed, somewhere between the car, the ominious sky and some mysterious other world where letters were written, but not meant to send.  Surfing the radio waves as the song built to a grand crescendo of strings.

Then a pause.

And the narration began; “Breath deep, the gathering gloom” sent goosebumps up and down my arms.  Each line seemed equally prophetic and apropos (even if i'm not still not completely sure what it is supposed to be about), “another’s day’s useless energy spent,” spinning me into space me  with the closing line, “but we decide which is right, and which is an illusion.”  The song faded out but I was still held in limbo practically unable to move.  Radio static filled my mind for ten seconds, no dj, no music, sky red with dread and building clouds chasing the car.  But I was not even in the car.  Just some other place and time, captured by the radio waves and flung into the ether for what seemed like a lifetime. 

Then.  In the distance. Distant electronic sounds fading in an out.  A ringing telephone calling.  Drawing me back into view.  “Hello, how are you?  have you been all right?”  A lifeline offered to me from the capricious waves showing me the way back.  “Hey, how you feeling?”  With each verse and chorus I came a little bit closer to myself.

“Telephone line, give me some time.  I’m living in twilight.”

By the fade I was back in the car, shaken and glorious for all that the seven other people had noticed my experience and absence.

We made it home just before the storm broke.

Best long song ever?  “Nights in White Satin/Telephone Line” accidental mash up.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hard Act to Follow (Redemption 4)

“There’s a lot of good acts around
Plenty of profound performers
But there’s only one
Who really gets through to me”

I was destined to love the Split Enz, before I ever knew they existed; probably before even THEY existed.

I loved 60’s and 70’s pop.  I was weaned on those sweet 3 minute verse chorus verse songs, with nice tight harmonies, energetic if not exactly tight musicianship and the occasional bridge in a different key.  Throw a little panache and outrageousness in the performance and I’m doubly sold.   And the Enz, for however quirky, artsy and nervy new wave they could be (none of which are any kind of bad in my book) certainly made classic pop songs, even in their early pastoral and mid punky days.  Makes one wonder if they had started putting out singles just a little early (in the early to mid 70’s) how much more famous they would have been.

And that music (title) track to the bands down under was already well greased with plenty of acts that I was already loving; Olivia, Little River Band, Men at Work, Icehouse, Billy Thorpe (and my beloved Go-Bee’s and Oils just a little bit later), so it wasn’t much of a reach to be curious about music coming out of the country next door (that’s how I found The Chills, btw).

But it wasn’t just my pre-disposition towards ear worms and pure pop music perfection.  There were other conditions aiding and abetting.  The Enz were from New Zealand, which was right next to my most favorite place in the world; Australia, so NZ became my second most favorite place in the world by geographic relativity.  (I can’t exactly tell you why Australia was my favorite place in the world.  Something perhaps about being the farthest place away that I could imagine (that still had tv and radio) I guess.  Ayers Rock, North and South Island, Sidney Opera House, platypuses (I was the king of the marsupials biology research paper), and those crazy kiwis.  All my go to topics for junior high research papers. 

And their story, a band , with no precedents, starting a whole pop scene in a country where nothing of the sort had existed certainly resonated with me (just start a band!).  And somewhere along the line I read a liner note telling the story of young Neil Finn watching his brother Tim and Phil Judd hash out songs in the early stages of the band in Tim’s bedroom, only to have Neil eventually join his brother and bring even more assured pop songcraft to the band appeals to the underdog in all of us, right?

The Enz were made for me.  Were just waiting for me to find them and fall in love.

So, here’s my secret; and my shame.  I never really knew the Split Enz until they were already over.  Seriously, I know.  And I don’t know how it happened. I could maybe blame it on the radio (or the rain), but I’m not sure that’s fair, cos I listened far and wide and I’m sure WBIZ, WEAQ, and for sure WLS played “I Got You” at least, and that had to be a chart hit on at least one of the countdown radio shows I listened to.  But I never heard them at all in high school.  And although I was all over their closest musicological sibling; Squeeze, from practically my first day in college, the Enz escaped me there too.  For the first two years at least.  Just dumb luck I guess.

But that all changed in 1985, when a clerk at the Wax Museum in Dinkytown (thank you nameless mostly forgotten-no recollection of your face whatsoever clerk) recommended “True Colours” and I bought it, took it home and gave it a listen.  History (which never repeats) was made and although it took way too long, I was finally (and irrevocably in love with the Split Enz).

And what an album “True Colours” is.  Every song is perfect, but the beginning; from the taught menace of “I Got You” to the frenzied “Shark Attack” and the practically handclap organey new wave of “What’s the Matter With You,” (which could easily be Squeeze, I might add) I can think of few albums that deliver such a brilliant opening manifesto.  A fun instrumental is followed by another run of diverse brilliance from the upbeat pop of “I Wouldn’t Dream of It” to the gorgeous minor key ballad “I Hope I Never” to maybe my most favorite song on the album, the punkish pop of “Nobody Takes Me Seriously.”  That would be enough to make this a favorite, but just like a late night infomercial, just wait because there is more, more, more with no let up in quality.  Another tight pop classic in “Missing Person” is followed by “Poor Boy” which still seems like a late night paean to some outer space lonely planet of love.  The tough “How Can I Resist Her” verses fall into blissed out choruses and the album closes with the synthey “Choral Sea”.  What variety, what great songs, what genius hooks.  What a great album and how lucky that this was the one I heard first (and still listen to the most). 

I rushed ahead to the followup to “True Colour,” “Corroboree” (also called “Waiata”) as my next slice of Split Enz.  This album certainly had plenty of highlights.  “History Never Repeats” “One Step Ahead” and “Hard Act to Follow” are all well established in the Enz Canon, and there are a couple deeper tracks I have great affection for such as “Iris” and “Walking Through the Ruins” but whereas “True” maintains the pace through the whole album, “Corroboree” falters a little after the mid point in comparison.  Mind you, the songs and performances are still fun and there are still hooks to be had, but “Corroboree” follows the “True Colours” template just a little bit too much (even with a mid album instrumental).  And with a little more filler and fewer arresting ballads, it and can’t help but fail to live up to its predecessor.  But it’s still fun and not to be ignored. 

I probably let the Enz idle for a few months after that first rush.  I’m sure I was caught up in some other band or maybe the library got a new shipment of vinyl or something (or maybe I was actually doing schoolwork?)  Whatever the case, it was a bit of time before I began exploring additional albums (chronologically of course)  in the Enz collection.  But with “Time and Tide” I found another brilliant album.

The Finn boys must have realized that “Corroboree” was a bit of a let down, because their next album “Time and Tide” reaches the heights of “True Colours” and it could be easily argued, surpasses them.  Opening with the (I assume) at least semi autobiographical “Dirty Creature” Tim Finn has never sounded so genuine and personal (the sea shanty “Haul Away” grows on me with each listen still) and although “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” could arguable be called his Enz songwriting peak, he is remarkable engaged and consistent throughout this album.  Added to that is brother Neil’s  continuing development (am I the only one who loves “Sandy Allen” as much as anything the Enz have done) with songs even more assured and adventurous and you have another high water mark for the band.  And for once, the band fully utilizes the advantages of the recording studio adding strings to ballads and wall of sound effects to color each song even more distinctly (even hand claps on “Six Months”), but never getting too cluttered or in the way of the song.   “Never Ceases to Amaze Me” is a great example of this, with lots of fun production touches, but a very tight arrangement keeps the song zipping along.  A very rich and rewarding listen and it deepens with each play. 

Tim Finn was preoccupied with his first solo album (.Escapade”) by the time “Conflicting Emotions” came around a couple years later and it showed.  He had only a handful of tracks on the album and none of them met the high bar of his work on “Time and Tide.” It’s hard not to think that the Tim songs here are cast offs or something dashed off in the studio.  They have a demo-ish unfinished underwritten quality that disappoints.   Neil must have missed the dynamic with his brother as well because other than “Message to My Girl” (admittedly one of his finest songs) none of his songs reach his earlier peaks.  Whereas “Time and Tide” certainly spared no expense in production and arrangements, it was all applied with a deft touch.  In “Conflicting Emotions” the production is much less varied, a lot more dated and applied a little too thickly.  As a result, nothing really seems to separate itself.  Which isn’t to say that the album is a complete wash.  The chorus of “Strait Old Line” soars, and “Working Up an Appetite” (production aside the best of a limited sample of Tim songs) has a propulsive drive that is enjoyable.  “Our Day” however is a standout and underappreciated gem, showing off Neil’s ability to write songs of increasing complexity and depth both musically and lyrically.

And just like that, Tim was gone for a solo career and Neil was left to end the Enz.  To his credit, with the full songwriting burden placed upon him, Neil delivers a sturdy set of songs filled out in the second half by contributions from the rest of the band with varying success.  In retrospect, it’s hard not to see this album as Neil’s audition for his soon to be formed Crowded House band with much more straightforward songs, plenty of toe tapping friendly rockers and a much more commercial production approach.  While nothing jumps off the album as a quintessential Enz song (I still see “I Walk Away” as more a Crowded House song than an Enz track), there is a steadiness to the set that “Conflicting Emotions” lacked with fewer throwaways (the obligatory instrumental “The Lost Cat”, the Hester penned “This is Massive” and the forgettable aimless synthesizer track “Adz”) but plenty to recommend for those who may have lost track of this final Enz album.  “Breaking My Back” has a wiry guitar line and some synth shout outs driving a song that would fit seamlessly on the first Crowded House disc, while “One Mouth is Fed” sounds like Neil channel Tim’s darker songwriting tendencies (to great affect) with a bright chorus.  “Voices” is a lovely ballad and shows off some great singing by Neil and a wonderfully complementary sax hook.  “Kia Kaha,” which was a leftover from the “Conflicting Emotions” sessions has a completely catchy chorus with hooks aplenty and some fun background vocals tied to a playful rhythm track. 

And that was my Split Enz (re)collection for a decade at least.  I never went farther back than “True Colours” to explore any of the earlier albums and I had a nice singles collections to pick out the finest of those early singles to fill out whatever gaps there might have been.  Added to that, I had Crowded House (too many favorites to pick, although maybe “Temple of Low Men” if I’m forced to pick a favorite, even though every album has 3 or 4 songs on it that I’ll always have to hit replay) and a couple Tim Finn solo discs (favorite of which is the self titled from 89 or so) to keep my Finn fix current.  But eventually, as all roads must, I wandered back to the Enz and started working my way through the pre-True albums.

Maybe it’s because I ignored it so long, or maybe because it doesn’t fit neatly into the either the early artsy albums or the later polished pop albums, but Frenzy is a bit of a problematic title in the Enz discography for me.  It’s the most punk/rock oriented album of all the Enz output and I certainly appreciate the energy and vitality, but there’s never been any particular song that stood out for me.  Even the big hit from this disc, “I See Red” which is a perfectly fine punky/pop song just slips right by me. But none of that really makes and sense, because there is a lot to like here.  Phil Judd had left the band, but Tim’s writing seems even more assured and direct, with his most straightforward collection of pop songs.  And I’m pretty sure, Neil was a full member of the band at this point and although his writing was really just starting to develop, I am sure I can hear his influence throughout the tracks (“Mind over Matter” certainly points towards a different direction for the Enz).  Plus, the Rootin’ Tootin’ Luton Tapes (which are a world of fun) cast a large shadow over this collection, influencing either directly with a bunch of  tracks from that session making it onto the album or more surely transferring some sense of the fun and immediacy of those sessions into the proceedings put down on vinyl.   I’m sure it’s just me and some day “Famous People” and it’s hiccup of a chorus will catch my ear and the ridiculously pulsing “Hermit McDermit” (which again certainly sounds Squeeze-ish in its synth hook)  will get repeated replays from me.  And maybe the heartbreaking unadorned “Stuff and Nonsense”  will have me sobbing my eyes out, and I’ll be doing an awkward Benes Dance to “Marooned” (an Eddie Rayner contribution).  And of course, some day I’ll be past the “The Roughest Toughest Game in the World” and those harmonies and backup vocals in the chorus will sink their readymade hooks into my ears.  At least I always liked brokenhearted “Betty” and ominous piano drive of “Semi-Detached” even if I’ve never really gotten into the album.  Ah well, an Enz album to appreciate at some later date.  

 And speaking of appreciating at a later date, how could I have ignored the earliest work of the Enz for so long?

“Beginning of the Enz” doesn’t really fit in the official discography, but it sure is a revealing album and I am completely charmed by offhand ramshackle song writing and off the cuff production. Basically demo tapes of early song writing attempts, some of which saw light of day in reworked versions on the “Mental Notes” and  “Second Thoughts” releases, it’s impossible not to be charmed by these lost treasures.  Sounding nothing like the Enz of later days, Phil Judd and Tim Finn try a little bit of everything here and it all sorta works for me.  “For You” is lovely in a bedsitter pop kind of way (with unmistakable hints of Jethro Tull in the flutes), while “Split Ends” works the same formula with a more upbeat tempo.  In “129” you can almost hear the band the Enz will become, and appreciate the charm of the song even before it was re-recorded as “Matinee Idyll” for “Second Thoughts.”  “Lovey Dovey” has a great kitchen sink songwriting and production approach that pays off on the next few albums.  And “Spellbound” is of course, spellbinding.

With “Mental Notes” the Enz burst onto the scene with a brilliant blast of pop smarts, quirky ideas, intricately arranged songs, and a sly production approach that kept the songs interesting but weird;   a weirdness that would serve them well throughout their career.  “Walking Down the Road” starts off with a simple pop structure, but quickly breaks out of the pop mold into little musical detours into rock star-ism, psychedelic noodling and back to pastoral pop before deconstructing itself into cacophony.  And that’s just the first song.  “Under the Wheel” sees the band into interstellar starship mode, proggy in a way not too far removed from Yes (but without the excessive instrumental look at me-isms).  “Amy” and “So Long for Now” amble along well enough, but it’s with “Stranger  than Fiction” a sweeping pop epic, that the band really clicks.  “Time for a Change” might be a tad melodramatic, but “Maybe” rights the ship quickly with its jaunty rhythm section, leading the homestretch into the hippy-esque “Titus” and a return to “Spellbound.”

I have to beg off any comments on “Second Thoughts” and “Dizrythmia.”  While I know versions of most of the “Second Thoughts” disc (and “Late Last Night” from various compilations) I’ve always looked askance at the whole recycled nature of the album and never really wanted to give it a listen (although I should pick it up some day just to hear “Sweet Dreams”.  With “Dizrythmia,” recorded after founding member Phil Judd had left the band, I’d heard plenty of “My Mistake” and “Charlie” and a few others (including the great “lost” track, “The Great Divide”) but for whatever reason, I never got around to giving the album a proper listen.

Purely subjectively of course, but if you insisted, here’s my ten favorite Enz songs:

1.        “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”
2.        “I Got You”
3.        “Message to My Girl”
4.        “Hello Sandy Allen”
5.        “Another Great Divide”
6.        “What’s the Matter with You”
7.        “I Hope I Never”
8.        “History Never Repeats”
9.        “Hard Act to Follow”
10.     “129”
11.     “Voices” (bonus top ten track)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Cover Me (Redemption 3)

What makes a great cover?

How about whatever makes a great song; a catchy melody, interesting lyrics, memorable singing, a fisherman’s array of hooks, and original interesting production, created again in an alternate universe, the same, but utterly different.

Example: “Alison” Elvis. Linda.
Bitter, angry accusation or tender love song lullaby?
The same but such very different interpretations (and as much as you can slag on Linda Ronstadt for being MOR, she has a lovely voice and her covers endure).

Sometimes what makes a great cover starts from an original that maybe you didn’t love but results in a cover version that you do.

Example: “Up on a Roof” Drifters, James Taylor
I have learned to love the original Drifter’s version. 

Or sometimes you have an adored original, but another version arrives that makes you rethink everything you thought about the original until you can’t pick favorites between parent and child.

Example: “Sweet Jane” Velvet Underground, Cowboy Junkies
Street tough declaration or narcoleptic lament? I defy you to tell me which is the definitive version.

And sometimes, a cover is so great that it makes you fall in love (sometimes again) with a forgotten or ignored original.

Example: “Nothing Compares to You” Sinead O’Connor, Prince (the Family)
I remember The Family. It was the heyday of prince when every other song on the radio had his input on it. I love Sinead’s version, but do yourself a favor and go back to the source (prince, by way of family) and tell me that isn’t fun and why on earth did you not dig it the first time around.

Example: “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” Love the straight ahead, heart on the sleeve barroom sprawl of nick lowe’s original. Love elvis costello’s snarly cover, love midnight oil’s punky plea. I started out with elvis’s version, swooned to midnight oil’s live version at their first ave show in 1987 (“we aren’t known as the most optimistic band in the world, but we like to think this is true” or something like that), but that original version by nick lowe does me just fine.

According to and Wikipedia, either "Yesterday" by the Beatles or "Eleanor Rigby" are the most covered songs, with over 100 versions each. Can’t rightly recall any other versions of those two versions. In fact, I can’t recall any cover of a Beatles tune that I’ve liked (and yes, Elton John and Joe Cocker, I’m talking to you). Not sure why that is, because all those songs have everything I would expect in an original. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t mess with the classics, you just have to, as an artist, have the right intent when you are covering a song.

For me to love a cover, I think the artist has to really love a song. It has to mean something to them for a long time, something essential to their understanding and appreciation of pop music (pop music meant in the broadest terms possible). Just a nod to Bob, or a cover of this week’s flavor because it’s a catchy song never really works for me. But when Rickie Lee Jones covers “Rebel Rebel” you know she’s telling you as much about herself as she is about how much David Bowie meant to her. And I’m a sucker for that layered history in a cover. (I love her “Walk Away Renee” cover too. She owns that cover like she wrote it; another of her sad, lost characters drifting along the edges and it breaks my heart whenever I hear it)

Successful covers should reinterpret or redefine a song. I don’t want a paint by numbers covers. Those carefully guided, not for note re-enactments are pointless and although they might be sincere homage to the original, they always smack of laziness or artistic bankruptcy. Hard enough to make one successful cover that compliments the original, much less exceeds it. rare is the artists who regularly delivers. And don’t even get me started on the full albums of covers. Those just mean fulfilling a record company contract and I can’t bear to make myself listen. The caveat to that corollary is Famous Blue Raincoat which is just a brilliant album and pretty much every cover on that album is genius (even getting Leonard Cohen to cover himself).

A cover should change the context or the original. Take a heavy metal tune and turn it into an acoustic finger pick (Mark Kozelek, especially the AC/DC covers, excels at this endeavor) They can either reinforce the meaning of of a song or completely subvert the intent. Either is fine with me. I just want there to be some purpose behind the cover, other than I like it and I wish I had written it (or I could maybe have a hit with it).

I would suggest the worst way to cover a song is to go all HGTV on it. A redressing of the original, with throw pillows on the couch and flower bouquets on the mantle isn’t going to make a great (or even good) cover. Slapping a new coat of paint on a wall might update the room, but this year’s color is next year’s dated, so fancy new production probably isn’t going to cut it. Video might have killed the radio star, but muzak, rock a bye baby and disco have done in their share of great songs too. I love my Kylie Minogue, but that HiNRG Stock Aitken Waterman cover of “The Locomotion” is inhumane torture. And I’m not sure Grand Funk Railroad’s rock retread is much better (although the harmonies on that cover ALMOST make me listen all the way through). And I’ll never believe that “god save the queen”, for all its supposed import as a political statement (wasn’t there can’t really attest one way or the other), is not remotely listenable in the sex pistols’ version (whether it is listenable as a national anthem is also completely debatable, but besides the point). Style only covers substance and I would rarely say it results in a good “cover”.

To me, the best covers strip a song down to the beams and find the structure underneath. Go down to the bones of the song; the melody, the rhythm, and the lyrics and work from there. I’m not saying a cover needs to be bare or anything, but that might be the place to start before you start knocking out walls or putting in new windows and reimagining lighting. Where is the meaning of the song? Is there room to change the context? Can the lyrics be subverted? Once you have the bride stripped bare, then you can start reimagining. A.C. Newman’s “Take on Me” is a great example of a cover done right. Pull the melody apart from the production, forget about the video (albeit a super fun one), layer on some fairly simple but complementary production and you’ve changed an overplayed locked in the 80’s pop hit into a great lost wistful indie anthem (also, this just occurs to me, but is A-Ha the father to Postal Service?).

Who are my favorite cover-ers?

I’ll always have a soft spot for Linda Ronstadt. I’ll make no apologies. She introduced me to a lot of musical history in her well chosen covers and her versions are indelibly etched in my younger psyche. I get that people wanted more from her, but she was just fine for the time for me. And she still is.

Surprisingly, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is pure genius. “Blinded by the light (pretty much my single favorite cover, even more incredible when you consider that I can not listen to the Springsteen original),” “For You” (ditto on the can’t STAND original part), “Quinn the Eskimo,” (believe it or not, this cover, heard when I was 10 directed me back to that Bob Dylan guy), I even am partial to their cover of the Police’s “Demolition Man.” They definitely know how to reconstruct a song and make it utterly unique and memorable.

I can’t hardly have a discussion of covers without mentioning the two songwriters whose songs are likely covered as much as anyone not in the Beatles. Obviously, Dylan first and foremost. What about his songs make them so coverable; all the above mentioned items early in this entry. And add to that his, ahem, unique voice, allowing a cover-er to make a distinct interpretation that is unlikely to adhere too closely to the original. The Byrd’s covers, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” are a couple stellar examples.

Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine, but the #2 guy behind Dylan would be Leonard Cohen. But here’s the thing as much as I love his songs, and a lot of his lesser known songs are completely ripe for brilliant covers, no one quite does Cohen right. And EVERYONE covers Hallelujah (this has got to be the song with the most covers ever, right?). And they are all shite. What is it about this song that doesn’t allow anyone to do something interesting with it? Is it a Beatles syndrome again, where everyone is so in love with the original that they are afraid to reinterpret it? dunno, but everyone is so reverential with this
song. Piano arrangement with tasteful strings, copy Cohen’s phrasing. Bring on the angels and add a little extra bombast. Boring.

Ok. I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours? What are your favorite covers? And cover-ers?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

All Our Pretty Songs (Redemption 2)

Is this sacrilege?

I'm so over Nirvana's "Nevermind". Used to love it, but now I never need to hear it again

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate it, and I agree that it is a great album. I'll even agree that it is one of the all time MOST IMPORTANT ALBUMS EVER on a couple different levels (great album critically, hugely influential on pop music and probably as important a music catalyst to pop culture/society as rap, punk and reggae.

Even on a personal level, it re-bloomed an appreciation of pop music for me back in the early 90's. Without it, i could well have just faded away, content with my memories of the good old days and remember whens, with the occasional where are they nows. Instead, I got supercharged and reinvigorated and found a ton new bands to love (and discovered a pile of bands I should have known and appreciated back in the back in the day but never got around to appreciating). I was never that into grunge (although flannel never goes out of style, baby. ) Besides, I never really considered Nirvana grunge (that was more pearl jam I think), they were really more indie, at least to my perceptions. And "Nevermind" really opened the door to a ton of contemporary indie music much like REM and the Smiths did that in the mid 80's. But unlike the 80's, I wasn't late to this party and every week brought me some amazing new sound that I was experiencing along with everyone else (added bonus, the Nirvana zeitgeist wasn't a microculture, but something that was happening EVERYWHERE so my music geekdom didn't seem quite so solo for once).

So really, why am I happy to forget "Nevermind"?

It doesn't help that they have been played to death (myself included). And it seems like every year brings some new variety of "Nevermind"/Nirvana reissue. So there is a lot of lot of overkill. But I'm not sure how overplayed matters to me. ( I'm not sick of the beatles . I'm not even sick of the early stones who have been even more overplayed.) And I barely listen to radio anymore, so it's probably been years since I heard any variety of Nirvana on the radio (or through my own devices). So aurally, not sure that is it. But I will say Musak Nirvana (and Tori Amos Nirvana....although that could be the same thing) doesn't help anything.

There is the pop culture oversaturation. You got your cobain imagery, your church of kurt (WWKD, what would Kurt think about this or that, the being /bean-ness of Frances), courtney's latest brush with inappropriate. So there is that, and it's pretty distasteful (and I suppose now I'm contributing to that pervasiveness with this ramble, so all apologies for that).

Also, I suppose, if I want to be uncharitable and revisionist, it could argued that "Nevermind" is a handful of great singles with a lot of album filler that all sounds the same. And it is a given that the Pixies did it earlier and quite a bit better. And with really only 3 albums (and even that is a stretch) there is not a lot of legacy to mine. But even though I can see both sides to the argument; great/overated, I don't really care about the comments section on this album, and I sorta think "Nevermind" transcends rants anyway.

Admittedly, Nirvana/"Nevermind" spawned a shitload of bands then and now that I just can't stand, but whatever. If people want to worship Dave Grohl and his fool fighters, they can have at it. I can easily avoid that which I do not want to hear. So although Nirvana lit a few too many creative fires on the musical horizon, I've been able to avoid too many bad music burns (and I still sorta like Dandelion, so there is that).

Maybe, when I get right down to it, "Nevermind" is so fixed in time and place for me that I can't bring it forward. Those early 90's were a pretty tumultuous time; figuring out the edumacation thing, coming out, having a pretty serious accident (not as a result of coming out, btw), realizing that I actually would have to work to make a living (not that I wasn't working, it was more just wtf kind of work/career am I actually going to have). A lot happened, in a short period of time. and more than any other piece of music (because for good or ill, I really do define periods of my life by music) "Nevermind" seemed to capture that three or four year period of moving from Minneapolis to Eau Claireand then going to grad school in Mankato. It certainly wasn't a horrible time (in fact it was pretty great other than being broke, pelvis and cash-wise both) but I don't know that I want to relive it (well....there might have been a few things I wouldn't mind going back for).

And for me, being through that period, or beyond it, or whatever, has robbed that album of all its emotional context. So now, even as I'm playing "Nevermind" while I write this, I'm not feeling it. I remember the way it hit me back then, but it's not doing much of anything for me now. It's not even hitting me like listening to a Soundgarden album now does; RAWK OUT and all that (and I have no idea why SuperUnknown has aged so well for me. Back then, at best, I found it a pleasant diversion). I fondly recall "Nevermind", and still appreciate it, and can even understand why people still love it (either for the first time or for the 1000th), and I certainly love the roads it steered me towards, but I can not (won't?) recapture that moment in time when it meant the world to me. And I guess that's why it don't need to hear it anymore.

Weirdly, Hole's "Live Through This" still plays just fine for me. Go figure.

BTW, I never need to hear Pearl Jam's Ten again either. But it's not like I was ever so in love with that one (or if I was it was only for a methaphoric weekend.) and it's not like anyone ever really critically loved eddy vedder's gulped syllables and constipated singing. (and besides, they are still making the same damn record 20 plus years later with exponentially diminishing commercial and populist favor results---also, why on earth do I keep listening/buying their albums?)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Redemption 1 Bonus

25 of My Favorite B-Sides (non-album tracks; 45 flip sides, bonus tracks on cd singles, the occasional movie soundtrack if'n it wasn't released as an a-side single )

1.  You're My Favorite Waste of Time-Marshall Crenshaw
2. Rock and Roll Friend-Go-Betweens
3.  M-Factor-M
4. Blank Slate-The National
5. Flying to My Home-Paul Mccartney
6. Kolele Mai-Midnight Oil
7. Maidenstone-Squeeze
8. When Time Stood Still-ELO
9. How Can You Be Sure-Radiohead
10. 17 Days-Prince (i know, i know, "Erotic City" should be here)
11. You and I Part One-Fleetwood Mac (if "Silver Springs" wasn't so ubiquitous i'd have picked that one.  "Book of Miracles" is pretty great too)
12. The Retreat-Elton John
13. Needle Hits E-Sugar
14. Summer's Over-Sheena Easton
15. Faces-Yeah Yeah Yeahs
16. You Don't Miss Your Water-Eno/Cale
17. Music from Electric and Musical Industries-Hot Chip
18. The Bells-Smashing Pumpkins (not sure how i am supposed to pick from just the Mellon Collie b-sides, but this one always stands out-if i can't have Glynis or Drown, that is)
19. It-Dr. Dog
20. Soft Parachutes-Paul Simon
21. Changed and Different-Little River Band ("it's just a b-side now")
22. Sand and Ice-Fanfarlo
23. I am the City-Abba (not sure if this was ever a b-side or not, "Put on Your White Sombrero" "Under Attack" and "Cassandra" are all pretty great too)
24. Modesto is Not That Sweet-Hold Steady
25. This Girl, Black Girl-Go-Betweens (they have so many great b-sides)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Redemption (1b)

Sentimental Favorites (probably wouldn’t fit in my top 25 now, but they were sure my favorites up to college, and I still love them all):

1. Barry Manilow-Even Now
2. Billy Joel-The Stranger
3. Al Stewart-Year of the Cat
 4. Christopher Cross-s/t
5. Gerry Rafferty-City to City
6. Supertramp-Breakfast in America

And although i thought the singles were hard, albums are even harder, so you are going to have to bear with me and read through numbers 50 to 26 first (and a couple caveats: no soundtracks/no greatest hits---although i don't think either would have made my lists, and i tried to avoid putting anything on the list that came out before i was really into albums (which excludes van, the kinks, and the beatles etc, who would have maybe made the list otherwise), and basically tried to keep it to music i found for myself (otherwise miracle legion would have been on this list as well:

26. Icehouse-S/t-Primitive Man (again, these two are so intertwined, can’t possibly pull them apart)
27. Sun Kil Moon-Ghosts on the Great Highway
28. Graham Parker-The Mona Lisa’s Sister
29. Art Garfunkel-Watermark
30. Strokes-Is This It
31. Hold Steady-Boys and Girls in America
32. John Cale-Paris 1919 33. Clientele- Strange Geometry
34. Mountain Goats-The Sunset Tree
35. Jazz Butcher-Fiscoteque
36. Father John Misty-Fear Fun
37. Sufjan Stevens-Illinois
38. Jellyfish-Belly Button
39. White Stripes-White Blood Cells
40. U2-The Unforgettable Fire
41. Smashing Pumpkins-Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
42. Prince-Purple Rain
43. Arcade Fire-Funeral
44. Robin Hitchcock-Element of Light
45. Elvis Costello-Armed Forces
46. M-Official Secrets Act
47. Yes-90125
48. Paul Kelly-Under the Sun
49. Everything But the Girl-Idlewild
50. LCD Soundsystem-Sounds of Silver

 and then finally, the top 25:

1. Midnight Oil-Diesel and Dust (probably always #1)
2. Radiohead-The Bends
3. The National-Alligator (I came in a little before this (Wasps Nest) so naturally this is the one.  If I'd come in at Boxer or High Violet, they'd have been my favs.  All three are just so close for me)
4. Smiths-The Queen is Dead (between junior and senior year---summer of 86---- I had a crappy job working for Daig out in Minnetonka—now part of st. jude---but there was a cool (handsome too) janitor who’d always play music and he had the best taste. He turned me onto REM and The Smiths that summer.)
5. REM-Lifes Rich Pageant (I love a lot of their other albums, but this is the one that still gives me goosebumps)
6. Wilco-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (I am an American aquarium drinker)
7. Magnetic Field-69 Love Songs (but you used to love me that way)
8. My Morning Jacket- It Still Moves (no idea how I stumbled across this album, but it immediately stuck and spun me backwards through their discography. And I’ve loved how they’ve progressed….easily could have been Z here as well)
9. John Grant-Pale Green Ghosts (maybe it won’t stand the test of time, but there has been no other album in the last 10-15 years that I have listened to front to back so compulsively than this one)
10. Sinead O’Connor-I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (give a listen to the second half of this album and tell me it doesn’t still chill)
11. Marshall Crenshaw-s/t
12. Cure-Disintegration
13. Blue Nile-Hats
14. Eno/Cale-Wrong Way Up
15. Woodentops-Giant
16. Go-Betweens-16 Lovers Lane/ Grant-Watershed (cheating, but I totally can’t pull these two apart)
17. My Bloody Valentine-Loveless (the first 2 or 3 times I heard this album I got a terrible headache. I’m not sure why I kept coming back to it, but I sure am glad I did)
18. XTC-Skylarking
19. Kate Bush-Hounds of Love
20. Grizzly Bear-Vekatimist
21. Rickie Lee Jones-s/t (the most as you’ll ever know…)
22. Waterboys-Fisherman’s Blues
23. 10,000 Maniacs-In My Tribe
24. Prefab Sprout-Atlantis: The Comeback
25. Bon Iver-s/t

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Redemption (1a)

Ok. so this was harder than i thought. But first, before i list out my 25 (sorry, i ended up with 26, because it was hard enough to get down from the 150 with which i started) favorite singles of all time (or at least what i think of as singles), i have to list out a couple bonus tracks that provided my essential single education.

  • Rose Garden-Lynn Anderson (no idea why i love/loved this song, but i did and i still do)
  • Sing-Carpenters (make it simple to last your whole life long--second grade music class)
  • Both Sides Now-Joni Mitchell (we sang this in music class in first grade, even had to print out the lyrics in class, i still really don't know clouds.  at all.)
  • Joy to the World-Three Dog Night (my performance solo in the back seat of our red car, i belted out that "Jeremiah was a bull frog, he was a good friend of mine" at full volume, shocking my parents and annoying my older brother and sister to no end. win and win. can't necessarily say i remember if i remembered any of the other lyrics, but i had that bull frog part down pat)

  1. Pop Muzik-M (naturally, my manifesto and a perfect song.  do you read me?  loud and clear.)
  2. We Can Get Together-Icehouse (i recorded this from the radio on a little cassette player to share with Shelley Christianson-my fellow top 40 fan--before catchecism.  I don't think she was too impressed.  but i still am)
  3. Easy Come, Easy Go-Grant (could have been cattle and cane, streets of your town, right here, trapeze boy or practically anything, but this one gives me the most goosebumps per surface area)
  4. Undercover Angel-Alan O’Day (alllll-right)
  5. D.W. Suite-Lindsey Buckingham (if we go,, go insane, we will all go together)
  6. Video Killed the Radio Star-The Buggles (oh, oh, oh oh oh)
  7. Bloodbuzz, Ohio-The National (abel, mr. november, apartment song, fake empire; there are so many, but this is the one i go back to the most)
  8. Speed of Sound-Chris Bell (i liked it better when this was just my little secret song, but i guess it's nice to hear it unexpectedly, so let the masses enjoy)
  9. Beds are Burning-Midnight Oil
  10. Sir Duke-Stevie Wonder (music is a world within its self, with a language we all understand)
  11. Cars and Girls-Prefab Sprout (something hurt more, much more than cars and girls)
  12. Perfect-Fairground Attraction
  13. Follow You All Over the World-Marti Jones
  14. The Whole of the Moon-Waterboys (I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon)
  15. Blue and Grey Shirt-AMC (so why didn't you call?)
  16. Running Up the Hill-Kate Bush
  17. Hey, Jack Kerouac-10,000 Maniacs (have the boys all grown up, there beauty faded)
  18. Biggest Fool of All-Cock Robin
  19. Never in my Life-Babyface (pretty hokey and maudlin i know, and nobody else knows it.but they were from Eau Claire and it was such an ear worm for me)
  20. Everyday, I write the Book-Elvis Costello (even in a perfect world, where everyone was equal, i'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel)
  21. Bring on the Dancing Horses-Echo and the Bunnymen
  22. Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want-the Smiths
  23. True Faith-New Order
  24. Throw Your Arm Around Me-Hunters and Collectors
  25. Better Be Home Soon-Crowded House
  26. Brother Sport-Animal Collective (open up your throat)

*I reserve the right to add/subtract to the this list as whim and weather strike me.