The Album ‘vs’ Collection of Songs

There were quite a few records that came out this year that were on my ‘highly anticipated’ list.  For the sake of this discussion, we’ll use My Morning Jacket as an example.  I haven’t been a fan throughout their entire career.  I didn’t start listening till ‘It Still Moves’ came out.  And even then, I bought it on the endorsement of one Dave Grohl.  He told me I should check it out one night while we were hanging out.  Anyways, what I heard were some truly great songs completely drowned in massive amounts of reverb.  To me, it felt like these guys were completely self-conscious of themselves.  So much so that they hid in this ocean of echo.  So I politely told Dave they were ‘okay’.  A couple years later, on a whim, I bought ‘Z’ at a local Borders.  I had a gift card and could only buy so many copies of the new Clive Cussler thriller.  So going on rave reviews and a weird album cover, I bought it.  I listened to that record 3 times on the way home(okay, so it wasn’t a ‘local’ Borders).  Point is, I was hooked.  This was an amazing step forward in my opinion.  They stepped through the threshold between finding your sound and artistic statement.  This wasn’t a great collection of songs, but a full blown album.  Each song lifted and connected to the next.  ‘Wordless Chorus’ and ‘Dondante’ were bookends.  It was, to these ears, an actual listening experience.  Color me smitten.  So 2008 rolls around, here comes ‘Evil Urges’.  An often neurotic album, on first listen it left me confused, then a little mad.  But the more I listened the greatness began to show.  Here’s the thing, there were some stinkers.  But like before, those stinkers had a purpose.  They were there to move you along to the good stuff.  They may have been lame, but they were part of the experience.  So when My Morning Jacket announced that they were releasing ‘Circuital’, I was excited.  I’d heard they were going back to a more straightforward album.  Recording in an old elementary school gym, live and to analog tape.  First time through, I thought it was a great collection of songs.  And honestly, I think Jim James had written some of his best stuff to date.  ‘Circuital’, ‘The Day Is Coming’, ‘Outta My System’ and ‘You Wanna Freak Out’ were outstanding tracks.  But the more I listened, I found myself skipping around, getting to the good stuff.  The songs in-between just seemed like filler.  They weren’t bad songs.  There isn’t a bad song on it.  But they didn’t hold my attention.  It wasn’t a great album, but a collection of great songs.

So what am I saying?  I’m saying if you don’t have it, get it.  But for these ears, it doesn’t gel from song to song like past albums.  I feel that way about Wilco’s ‘The Whole Love’.  I’m a die hard fan of Wilco.  I’ve argued their greatness amongst talk of ‘dad rock’.  But, like their previous record, I find myself skipping around to the songs I love.  I don’t want to skip.  I want to enjoy the album as a whole.  And it’s not that I don’t want my favorite bands to change or evolve.  I think changing and evolving are good things.  I don’t want to hear ‘Z’ over and over again.  Nor do I want Wilco to release ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ or ‘Summerteeth’ over and over again.  If it means they release an album of 8 or 9 songs, instead of 14 or 15, in order for that group of songs to come together to create the best listening experience possible, then I’m for it.  Sometimes less is more.

Maybe it just comes down to the changing times.  Folks these days, at least the greater majority of music listeners, don’t really care whether it’s an album or just some songs.  They hear a song they like, download that one song, and they’re happy.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I’ve never been that way.  I grew up listening to side A and side B.  I didn’t stop midway through the side of a record and go back later.  It was an experience.  Enjoying a record the whole way through.  Whether there was a concept behind that record, content-wise, it didn’t matter.  That album as a whole was a statement from a band at one particular time in their music making career.  When the next album came out, they were a little different.  They were somewhere else in their lives and so you caught up with them.  The experience of enjoying that album start to finish was just as much a part of the music.  I’m more long play than single, I guess is what I’m saying.

My Morning Jacket and Wilco put out some great songs this year.  I’m looking forward to their next great albums.

Lou Reed and Metallica-Lulu

First off, let me say that I haven’t listened to this record.  I have heard a thirty second clip of one of the songs.  I think it was called ‘Trainwreck’ or ‘Death of a Career’.  Even in interviews for promotion of this record(which seem to have only been done in Germany for some weird reason) those guys in Metallica come across as being embarrassed as hell to even be involved in this fiasco.  Lars looks like he’d rather be selling some more artwork than talking about how he played with one of rock’s most cantankerous and unamused royalty. 

I get the feeling that what was supposed to a humoring session with Lou, turned into a full blown album that none of these guys really wanted to do.  Lou included.  The whole idea sounds like a weird dream.  “I had this dream that my head was a sponge and I was cleaning up confetti on the floor, when I saw the new Loutallica record sitting on the shelf.  Yeah, I said Loutallica.  Lou Reed and Metallica did a record together in my dream.  It was awful!”  If this is a dream, then this is the longest, weirdest dream I’ve had.  Right next to the one where I was harrassed by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew leaving the YMCA with Butch from The Little Rascals. 

Wake up, Mr. Hetfield.  For all our sakes, wake the hell up!!

The War On Drugs-Slave Ambient

There’s a feeling that runs throughout the entirety of The War On Drug’s newest album ‘Slave Ambient’ that has been sorely lacking in new music over the last couple years.  Sincerity.  It’s almost a sin for a band to write something that makes you feel good.  And God forbid you write something catchy.  Adam Granduciel, TWOD’s principal songwriter/singer/guitarist, has gone rogue.  He’s written an album filled with anthemic, grandiose, and quite brilliant rock songs that wouldn’t sound out of place next to Springsteen and Petty on the FM dial back in 1984. 

The best way to describe this record is to say it bridges the gap between Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’,  Tom Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever’, U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’ and My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’.  There’s moments in ‘Come To The City’ that feel like it could go right into U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’.  Granduciel’s voice, though at times brings to mind former bandmate Kurt Vile, has a uniqueness all it’s own.  While Kurt Vile’s sleepy time, Robitussin-drawl haunts certain songs(‘Brothers’ comes to mind), Granduciel’s voice has an immediacy Vile lacks.  He wants you to stand up and be counted.  He wants to move you.  He sounds genuinely happy to be singing for you.  ‘Baby Missles’, one of the albums highlights, brings to mind Springsteen’s  ‘Dancing In The Dark’.  It’s a fun, up-tempo song that makes one long for the days when good music was popular and played often on the radio.  If ever there was a radio hit on this record, this is the one.  Instrumental ‘City Reprise #12’ brings to mind My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Touched’ and ‘To Here Knows When’ off of 1991’s ‘Loveless’.  I hear alot of My Bloody Valentine on this record.  Kevin Shields is hiding inside those drones that hover behind these arena-ready tracks.  Album closer ‘Black Water Falls’ is a beautiful tune with a lilting acoustic strumming throughout.  A pleading tone in Granduciel’s voice gives the song an immediacy that makes you want to hit repeat as it closes the book on one of the great records of 2011.

This is an unapologetic, arena-ready rock album that isn’t embarrassed to wear it’s heart on it’s sleeve.  Indie cred?  Who cares?  Turn it up and enjoy.  Adam Granduciel’s glad you came.

1991: The Year of Sir Psycho Sexy

The year was 1991.  It was fall.  And the school day had just ended.  I was a senior at WCHS in Warsaw, In.  It was music release day and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’ was officially out.  So, along with my girlfriend(who is now my wife) and my good friend Jason(who is now tattooed head to toe) hopped in my 1977 Chevy Nova and drove 30 miles north east to the Concord Mall and bought this amazing nugget of music history at Super Sounds record store.  I can’t remember why we actually drove clear to Dunlap to buy it.  We actually had a record store in Warsaw.  Come to think of it, we had two different places to buy music.  Butterfly Records downtown and Video World.  Ehh, this was back when gas was probably $1 a gallon and there was nothing better than a road trip.  So off we went.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “RHCP??  Seriously?”  Well, to that I say, “Hell yes the RHCP!”  This was a tight, funky, filthy musical statement.  1991 was dominated by Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’, Soundgarden’s ‘Badmotorfinger’, and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, all of which I played obsessively.  RHCP’s ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’ is included in this group.   Of those four albums, BSSM is the only one I can still listen to.  Of all the musical statements made in those aforementioned albums, the Red Hot Chili Peppers statement was the clearest, and it was this:  “Tube socks are good genitalia warmers.”  Previous releases showed a bunch of horny southern California dudes that loved Parliament, the Minutemen and Gang of Four records.  They also loved their genitalia.  There music was fast, with a ton of slap bass and filled with sexual innuendos ‘rapped’ by some dude that looked like Iggy Pop’s bastard son.  It was novelty music, at least to my ears.  When ‘Mother’s Milk’ was released in 1989,  it sounded like those horny southern California dudes might actually be taking the art of songwriting a bit more seriously.  ‘Knock Me Down’ was damn good.  And their cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ was inspired.  Was I completely sold?  No.  But I was intrigued.  Intrigued enough to dub my brother’s copy of it.  So then in the fall of ’91 MTV debuted a new video from the Chili Peppers upcoming release.  The release was called ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’ and the song was called ‘Give It Away’. I hadn’t seen or heard anything like it.  It was funky as hell.  Catchy as all get out. And the video was completely messed up.  These dudes are out in the desert covered in silver paint,  with weird ass costumes, horns coming out their heads.  Even their instruments were silver.  And the thing was shot in black and white.  But what got me the most was the music.  It made this gawky white boy want to move.  It wasn’t about teen alienation.  It wasn’t about a kid blowing his brains out in the front of his class.  It wasn’t about a Jesus Christ pose.  It was about….what the hell was it about??  You know, that’s the beauty of it.  Who knows what it’s about, and who cares?  It made you feel good.  It made a gawky teen not feel so gawky.  There was no lesson trying to be taught here.  There was no plight of the working man being sung.  There was no declaration of true love.  No pleading to save the environment.  This wasn’t Dylan.  This wasn’t Springsteen.  Nor was it alternative.  This was just raw, loud, funky rock, executed beautifully by 4 guys that finally figured out playing with their instruments can be just as rewarding as playing with their tube sock-covered johnsons.

One of the reasons that made this record so different for me was that I think they let John Frusciante have a much bigger say in the music.  They slowed things down.  They added more melody.  There were even elements of psychedelia(Breaking The Girl).  ‘Under the Bridge’, although completely burnt out and overplayed, is a great example of the step forward these guys took.  The production values improved greatly.  I think that’s what makes this record still very palatable to the ears.  It doesn’t sound dated.  It’s like a classic record from the 70’s.  Recorded dry and raw, with alot of low end punch.  For all the shit Rick Rubin catches as of late, the guy knows how to make a record sound unprocessed and true to the artist(visit Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ and any of the latter year Johnny Cash recordings for further proof of this).  No reverbed or gated drums.  No over-processed vocals.  No gimmicky guitar sounds.  Just very natural.  Like a band in a rehearsal space at their most sweatiest best.

The lyrics.  Well, what can you say?  This is one of those albums you would strategically turn down at certain points while driving in the car with your parents.  I didn’t really want to have to explain lines like “creamy beaver, hotter than a fever, i’m a givin’ cause she’s the receiver”.  This wasn’t singer/songwriter stuff.  This was just filthy words to go along with the nasty funk.  And it’s perfect.  But not perfect for a drive with the parents.  Kiedes was no poet laureate.  He was just high on heroin and coming up with lyrics in between fixes.  And it works.

Musically they were as tight as they’d ever been.  The rhythm section of Flea and Chad Smith had done their homework.  Emulating seventies funk rhythm section from bands like Parliament, Ohio Players and even ‘Jungle Boogie’ era Commodores, to punk and post punk bands like Gang of Four and the Minutemen.  They didn’t drop a beat, and they found that confounded bridge.  Every time.  John Frusciante gave them the soul they had lacked.  He brought a Hendrix psychedelic-fueled tenacity to the music that wasn’t there before.  That jangly, single coil buzz the permeated every song is what brought those tunes down from the skies to the ground.  Without it, it would have lost an element that made this recording vital.

I’m not kidding myself.  This is a goofy album.  It didn’t change anything in the musical landscape.  And if I’m being honest, it may have even helped to create that godawful genre we call rap-rock, which begat nu-metal, which begat the decline of western civilization as we know it.  But in my mind, this record exists in it’s own little sphere of beauty, lust and arrogance.  It defied the trends of the day.  It didn’t try to hide it’s blatant sexuality and pomposity with a ‘meaning’ or ‘lesson learned’ moment.  It was unadulterated music you felt on a gut level.  Music for the sake of music.

‘Sir Psycho Sexy’ still makes me cringe and blush, as if my parents were still in the front seat.

Some Thoughts

It’s that time of year again.  The time of the year where we rush around trying to find that perfect gift for that not so perfect relative.  That time of the year where despite all efforts you can’t find enough excuses to get out of having that awkward holiday dinner with family you see, well, one time in the year.  Where you will be asked to bring a ‘dish’ and that oh so hillarious white elephant gift(make sure it’s not that colorized Shirley Temple video cassette box set you got last year that was NOT a white elephant gift).  And let’s not forget the questioning of where that one cousin’s husband and or wife is, only to find out they divorced as part of a New Year’s resolution LAST year.  The loud, obnoxious children that run around the quaint home that is barely enough room for 10 people, let alone 30.  And there’s the older relatives(probably great aunts, great uncles, grandparents, old neighbors that have outlived all their family members and are invited over to gum down some way too salty ham, or bussed in old people from the church down the street), that tend to say very uncomfortable things waaay too loudly.  And of course ‘grace’ before dinner, where the man of the house is asked to thank God for this fine meal, for the protection of the soldiers fightin’ for our freedoms in(insert some third world country), for the safe arrival of Stan from the correctional facility and for the successful removal of his wife’s in-grown toe nail.  Yes, the Christmas season is upon us once again.

Seems like we’ve just put those last few homemade ornaments away under the stairwell when old St. Nick is getting ready for another breaking and entering.  When the  grocery shopping trip to Walmart is soundtracked by Carrie Underwood and Sugarland singing Christmas standards(very apropos, I know).  When the awkwardness of celebrating a holiday that is based on the birth of Jesus Christ and my lacking of  ‘faith’, as it were, is buried under the excitement my kids have about this particular and prominently Christian holiday.  Am I a hypocrite?  Yeah, probably.  I’m aware of my hypocrisy, though.  So that counts for something.  I have a love/hate relationship with this holiday.  I love seeing my kids get so excited about it.  I love that my son asks and asks to get the decorations out.  My Grinchian ways are broken down by his child-like wonder.  It reminds me of me when I was 6.  It brings back those wonderful memories.  Hanging the stockings.  Finding my favorite ornament(some bizarre looking Christmas man that I made out of a roll of Lifesavers that over time became very soft, and this was before gummy Lifesavers), the candle holders that held tea light candles that burned at night.  But most of all what I loved were the bubble lights.  The wonder of the bubble lights on the Christmas tree.  It was as if when those bubble lights warmed and the liquid inside began to heat, then bubble, as it were, that’s when Christmas began.  They would bring back memories of previous Christmases.  And as I got older, those bubble lights would still have that same affect.  Even more so.  The memories became clearer instead of hazier.  I could see my grandpa, long dead, sitting at the kitchen table drinking his coffee, smoking his More and complimenting my mom on the wonderful meal.  I could see my brother, sitting in his ‘Mork and Mindy’ pajamas on the couch, hair every which way, opening the box with the Topps Baseball cards he collected.  I could see my dad sitting at the kitchen table carefully putting the 60 or so miniscule decals on the Boba Fett  Slave l I’d opened up minutes before.  I see the same memories being made in my kids eyes.  It makes me re-appreciate this time of year.

So what do I hate about this time of year?  Hell, maybe I don’t hate anything about it.  I mean,  I know what I believe.  In my heart I know what’s real and what’s not.  Nooone can make me ‘get’ the real reason.  Or what they claim is the real reason.  Thanksgiving we give thanks to what we have.  What we have around us.  The loved ones.  The food on the table.  The roof over our heads.  The friends we laugh with.  We concentrate on the cup that’s half full.  Not the one that’s half empty.  So Christmas is the holiday that we appreciate these things.  What’s the difference?  We thank an act.  We appreciate what comes from the act.  Christmas is when we appreciate all those kinds acts.  All those great things in our lives.  Our husbands, wives, kids, parents, siblings, jobs.  And we appreciate what came before us.  What our parents did for us.  What they sacrificed so we could have presents to open.  What our grandparents did to make sure our parents came up right.  It’s a day of reflection.  Not of just the past year.  But of years gone by.  That’s how I saw it as a kid, and that’s how I see it now.  This is not the Christian perspective.  And a lot of  Christians would want to do rather un-Christian like things to me for saying all this.  You know what I have to say about that?  What would Jesus do?

He’d help me with the decals.

Merry Appreciate-mas

Albums

So here’s a list of albums that were released in 2011 that I acquired, either through money exchanged or the kindness of friends. There’s no special order. I can’t just make a top 10 list, or top 20 list. There’s too much damn clutter in my head to be able to do that. On a later post I’ll go into greater details as to the ones that ‘moved’ me and the ones that ‘meh’d’ me. Are you ready? Hey you in back, sit the hell down. Class is in session. Here we go:

1. The Dodos-No Color
2. The Strokes-Angles
3. J.Mascis-Several Shades of Why
4. My Morning Jacket-Circuital
5. Panda Bear-Tomboy
6. Radiohead-The King Of Limbs
7. Yuck-Yuck
8. Stephen Malkmus & Jicks-Mirror Traffic
9. St. Vincent-Strange Mercy
10. Wilco-The Whole Love
11. Mark Hutchins-Liars Gift
12. Unknown Mortal Orchestra-Unknown Mortal Orchestra
13. Real Estate-Days
14. The War on Drugs-Slave Ambient

Shit. That’s more than I thought. And that’s just the new stuff. There’s a lot jazz records and older albums that I’m not putting on this list. I guess this is my version of the ‘best of’ list at the end of every year. I have a very short attention span, folks. So, my lists are going to be a little different. I can’t rank. I can tell you my favorite and my least favorite. That’s it. What the hells the difference between number 7 and number 6 on the list. What distinguishes those two albums? I don’t know. So I’m just going to talk about my favorites and why I love them so much. Hope that’s cool with you. If not, head over to Pitchfork.

Updated:  These were also albums I bought that came out in 2011.  Forgot about ’em the last time: Kurt Vile’s ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ and Foo Fighter’s ‘Wasting Light’.  I really didn’t HAVE to add those, but I figured why not?  So there you go.