Archive for the ‘Great Albums’ Category

Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

July 22, 2009

Bruce Springsteen NebraskaNebraska


“You wanna know why I did what I done/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  These are the final words of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” the first track on his 1982 album of the same name.  If you’ve heard or even become a fan of Nebraska, it likely took a while to remember and warm up to this song – just a quiet, plaintive guitar melody and lightly vibrant harmonica that slowly reveals itself as a tale of murder.  Taken from the tale that inspired Terrence Malick’s equally surface-dispassionate 1973 movie Badlands, the supposed blandness of that melody underscores that meanness, and our powerlessness to affect it.  Sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.


The album’s second song, “Atlantic City,” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, but I should do my best to avoid labeling “one of Springsteen’s best,” because that label misses the point.  There’s a quality to the song that serves as contrast to “Nebraska,” and using the two songs to open the record is exactly the contrast Springsteen wanted to sing about – “Nebraska” sings of the quiet madness that exists – killing sprees and ferocity that cannot be defeated.  On the opposite end – mind you, still with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica – “Atlantic City” is a tale of total economic desperation.  “Down here there’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” 


“Atlantic City” is a story of a man who has “debts no honest man can pay” and decides to do some not honest deeds to compensate.  His world is full of men getting blown up, houses burning down, cops who can’t compete, and a world going to hell, so a man, desperate to survive, tries not to get caught on the wrong side of that line.  Where “Nebraska” takes you some time to get along its strumming, psychotic structure, “Atlantic City” plugs you instantly inside the desperation of normal, lost, struggling Americans.  A song of class and anxiety, stitched together with the hope of innocence and release – “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City” like a beacon in the night, a dream that seems impossible and enormous.


Nebraska is an album length exploration of these twin themes – desperate, ordinary people on their last breath of sanity, and a madness that creeps along calmly and cannot be defeated.  The songs take these varying approaches – sadness and impossible dreams running so closely with the decision to do very bad things.  “Mansion On The Hill” takes a view of a mansion nearby that’s like gorgeous scenery, an idea of perfection that’s as distant as the moon.  It sits on the album next to “Johnny ’99,” a song of a killer driven by his economic desperation, repeating that line “Judge, I got debts no honest man can pay.”  There’s the “Highway Patrolman,” an honest man who helps his “no good” brother escape the confines of the law because “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.”


That Highway Patrolman’s morality is exactly the conflict Springsteen explores and exploits – there are inconsistencies with our firm moral beliefs and the world we live in.  Those of us living by codes have tough awakenings when we come close to the meanness in this world.  One man on the record sings “Mister, the day the lottery I win, I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again.”  Who of us haven’t had that thought, dealing with the week in week out of economic turmoil.  That’s the same turmoil that have driven a man from his father in “My Father’s House,” who hears, across a chained door, that his hopes of reconciliation are impossible.


Springsteen’s Nebraska is the cause célèbre of artists trying to speak of The Boss’s greatness – it’s the album that shows his everyman approach isn’t disconnected from the struggle of what that everyman actually experiences.  Which is all just a fancy way of saying something even more obvious – what other album even speaks of economic struggle?  How many of us have experienced concerns about money and been confronted and oppressed by a music collection full of only songs about love?


For the Springsteen layperson, I’ll provide just a little background, though not much, because I think this subject has been to death.  It’s been said of Bruce that when he experiences some success, he goes back to create something a little more rim and “honest” because the more theatrical side of himself begins to feel removed from the ordinary man he is purported to represent.  This album was released between the grand double album The River in 1980 and Born in the USA immediately afterwards in 1984, which made Springsteen a megastar and had 7 top 10 hits.  Nebraska is like a purification of his soul before taking in the fame and fortune of doing songs like “Dancing in the Dark,” but please don’t take that as a judgment of any kind – I love “Dancing in the Dark.”


But I love Nebraska more.  This album is often compared to 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils and Dust as the “pure,” acoustic Bruce speaking for the common people.  These albums are actually pretty distinct from each other for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Nebraska is so superior to both of those records.  Tom Joad speaks to even more desperate Americans – ex-cons and homeless men – and its construction is even more acoustic and forgettable.  The harmonica that runs like a thread through the songs of Nebraska mostly disappears on Tom Joad, and its great songs seem even quieter than “Nebraska.”  I loved Devils and Dust but I almost feel the comparison is a phony one – Devils is defined and invigorated by its glossiest songs like “All The Way Home” and “Long Time Coming” that pop up throughout the record, propelling its acoustic numbers into supporting roles that bracket the album’s true theme – love, even when it comes from soldiers, workers, and dead immigrants, unites us all.  That’s hardly the populist Bruce back to work.


Love doesn’t unite the characters of Nebraska, a morality that’s slipping away and feeling astonishingly remote is what unites them.  Yet Nebraska is, I believe, the great Bruce Springsteen record because it affirms its existence.  In “Reason to Believe,” the magnificent final song, Bruce observes a whole host of beliefs that begin from the delusional (a man standing on the highway over a dead dog “like if he stands there long enough, the dog’d get up and run”), to things we want to believe in but may be just as delusional (a man baptizing his baby).  “Struck me kinda funny,” Springsteen muses, “that at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe.”  We keep going, the desperate and anxious, in the face of madness, of cruelty, of disbelief, and hard times.  Still, Springsteen finds reason to keep going, and finds a world full of beauty and hope.  Nebraska isn’t simply the best Bruce Springsteen record because of its “edginess” and “purity,” it’s everything he hoped his music would accomplish.


Madonna, Like A Prayer

June 24, 2009


I never actually knew a Madonna that hadn’t released Like A Prayer – I was 7 years old in 1989 when it was released, and it was always as equally available to me as a kid as Like A Virgin or True Blue was – my family had all the tapes, despite my mother’s protestation that Madonna was “so weird.” 


She wasn’t that weird, she was hot – uncomfortably hot.  In that video for “Like A Prayer, that low-cut tank top and her flowing brown hair, I think Madonna was the sexiest she’d ever been before or since – but this, of course, was not the thought of a 7-year-old.  Now with the benefit of being able to put these things in context, it was a bold move of Madonna’s to cap a decade long string of hits with something that had the ability to be more controversial, darker, and sexier than she’d already been – in fact, it’s amazing to think Madonna even courted any controversy in a pre Like A Prayer world (well, there was that thing about humping MTV’s stage in a wedding dress…).


Regardless, Madonna’s cleavage in a field of burning crosses, and making out with a black Jesus was only the beginning for Madonna.  Those iconic video moments in the video for “Like A Prayer” just helped capitalize on that single’s desperately anxious sexuality.  “Like A Prayer” is, I think, Madonna’s best single, and it’s because it’s the clearest she ever was about the exalting power of love and desire, the apotheosis of love and sex being transformative, life altering.  More than that, it was Madonna’s religious call to arms – did God and religion account for everyone standing alone?  For hearing a lover’s voice and having it “feel like home”?  Posing these questions with the help of a gospel chorus was quite a bold move by any standards.


I think about these things because they get dotted along like power lines across the record, a perfectly crafted pop record.  She sings of a desperately failing relationship in “Till Death Do Us Part” (of course, at the time, this must have been Madonna’s answer to tabloid questions regarding her marriage to Sean Penn), of child abuse in “Oh Father,” and – quite gorgeously – takes the perspective of a woman praying to and questioning God to spare the life of her lover, who may get killed, in “Pray For Spanish Eyes.” 


“Spanish Eyes,” with its aching Spanish guitar and elliptically sacrilegious lyrics is, in its way, the most beautiful song Madonna ever performed, and it caps off the boldness of Madonna’s ability as a pop star.  Sure, the album is loaded with a sly bit of empowerment in “Express Yourself,” and a giddy love song in “Cherish,” but there’s no getting away from the snarky seriousness of the material.  Even in a shockingly blasé duet with Prince called “Love Song,” the chorus sings “This is not a love song.”  This is also not a love album.  It fits as a pop record, but it’s the sort of pop touchstone that 80’s music can’t be imagined without – like Thriller or Purple Rain, the pop was perfect, but it was also just the beginning (like those mega records, Like A Prayer was a hit machine with 5 Top 20 hits).


Her boldness climaxes with that gospel chorus picking up again in the final song of the record, “Act Of Contrition,” which is sort of a joke – the gospel chorus now sounds like angels at heaven’s gate.  But it’s also a bold reaffirmation of everything she is.  Madonna hums along her song of contrition and forgiveness, climaxing in “I reserve, I resolve, I reserve… I have a reservation,” and finally yelling, “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!”  Madonna kicked from the gates of heaven?  It must mean what we get of her on earth in Like A Prayer is far riskier and far more worthy.  Such a banishment has justified 20 additional years of Madonna superstardom and remains the crown jewel of her catalog.

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

June 24, 2009

I love Neko Case, and in a way, she’s come to a spot where she’s a little overrated.  Just a little.  Let me clarify.  There was a time when I would have thought of Blacklisted, her 2002 record that truly defines her renegade-spirit-with-a-Patsy-Cline-twang persona, as one of the greats of this decade.  I don’t think that now, and not simply becauze 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a better record, but because I’m a little annoyed.  Case is wonderful but idiosyncratic and difficult.  She doesn’t write songs so much as she writes ideas and gives them melodies, and because her voice is so exciting – a classic beauty melded with modern, elliptical subject matter – the song retains the era of floating mood poems.

All that sounds like the description of a real artist, yes?  Of this she most certainly is.  But a great one?  That’s the qualifier.  Do I think of her as fondly as, say, PJ Harvey or Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen?  That is the standard I am hoping for, and I’m not sure all of her work qualifies, as much as I adore her.  Her voice is intoxicating, and how refreshing that in 2002, she moved from making wonderful neoclassical country albums like Furnace Room Lullaby to Blacklisted where she indulged her quixotic, unique style.  That was a very good record surrounding an idea of being true to the odd impulses that guide you.  She sang in its banjo-assault opening number “Things That Scare Me” of blackbirds frying on a wire for no particular reason but to say “I am the dying breed that still believes/ haunted by American dreams.  Hunted by American dreams.”  I felt strongly at the time that I knew exactly what she meant, that I too needed to be true to myself and my own brand of internal strangeness.

But Fox Confessor Brings The Flood pushed that thesis forward, and did a better job of it, too.  In its penultimate song “At Last,” which lasts barely a minute and a half, sings “And if death should smell my breathing/ as it pass beneath my window/ let it lead me trembling trembling/ I own every bell that tolls me.”  She’s singing of the same type of devotion to her own independence (not that there’s a statute of limitations on how many times that subject is ok to sing about), but her writing was not that good, that precise, and that direct.  “At Last” is a song that articulates Blacklisted without needing to be on the record, and coming at track 11 of Fox Confessor nodding towards death, it also reinforces the strange, more viscous theme of Fox Confessor – the struggles of those who are destined to speak, the consequences of their lives.

Of the two women in the album’s opener, “Margaret vs. Pauline,” we find out “One left a sweater sittin’ on a train/ the other lost three fingers at the cannery.”  Of the witness on the second song, “Star Witness,” we learn she lives in a place “miles from where anyone will find you/ this is nothing new/ no television crew/ they don’t even put on a siren.”  Of Case herself leaves a party with a “Valium from the bride” cursing the songs that lied to her with that cry “Hold on, Hold On.”  She too learned to write songs to speak her truth – a far kinder destiny than those around her.  It only gets worse from there – widows of the St. Angel plane crash, Ukranian stabbing victims, love that leads into lion’s jaws, poor John the Baptist speaking of the lord.

That is interesting, in its way, but what makes Fox Confessor great is that it invites you back for discovery with the quality of the songs’ fullness, even the minimal ones that don’t hit the 2 minute mark.  If I were to think of 2006, one song’s melody would follow  me everywhere I went, and that is “Star Witness,” the rare Case original with an unforgettable chorus that’s repeated three times.  This witness knows more than her compatriots on her record and sings about it beautifully, but here, she’s part of a community, and part of Case.  Case, of Ukranian background, breaks out her native tongue for an intoxicating bridge on “Dirty Knife,” and it’s the same narrative thread, in its way, that snakes its way from John the Baptist in a magnificently vivid interpretation of the traditional “John Saw That Number,” as well as moves into “Lion’s Jaws,” a romantic song of anguish and destruction… if you truly ever “understood” it.  On an NPR report on this record (it gathered quite a bit of attention), the report opened up by saying “In a way, the title of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood says it all – you don’t totally get it.”

Maybe not totally, but I do think I do get it.  It’s an exploration of Case’s identity, of the tfox confessorhings she believes to be true – that it is difficult to speak the truth, but you must do so anyway.  She takes that identity and shifts perspective on it, because it’s an idea that has never been simple or fully elucidated, but has always been understated.  There are so many beautiful songs on Fox Confessor, and none flag – even the wandering reverie of the title track takes hold in its murky, sea-green hypnotism – but why it’s great is that ultimately, they’re one endless, beautiful, tragic, liberating song.

The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed

May 18, 2009

letitbleedThe Rolling Stones Let It Bleed


“A storm is threatening my very life today” are actually the opening words of Let It Bleed, coming amongst the sinister onslaught of guitar that is “Gimme Shelter.”  It would be a lie to say that’s the theme of Let It Bleed, which is not a particularly “dark” record, but it does indicate the storm clouds that inform the album – it tells us rape and murder are just a shout away; that’s a hard truth to live with, eh?


So much of my thinking about the nature of music and of rock n roll comes back to the Stones in general, and because their sound at their peak in the late 60’s and early 70’s is so distinct, it’s retained a timelessness unlike anyone else.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better than anyone else, simply that still, no one sounds like the Stones in their heyday (plus, the band has been so trigger happy with law suits over the years, you almost begin to think they have their guitar sound copyrighted).  That means also that if I were to think of the core elements of what constitutes rock and roll music, I would think of a Stones song, and a great Stones album.


There was Beggar’s Banquet, then there was Let It Bleed, then there was Sticky Fingers, then there was Exile on Main Street.  There were, of course, Stones records before and many many after, but these are the four from which we truly represent who the Stones are.  Is Let It Bleed better than these other records?  Not necessarily (unless we’re talking about Exile On Main Street in which case the answer is no – Exile On Main Street is the best album ever made), but it’s Let It Bleed I want to discuss 1) because it’s a stretch of 9 extraordinary songs, and 2) because it does, in its drunken party-guy way, does find some answers to that storm threatening our very life.


Let It Bleed, on its initial record release in 1969, began side A with “Gimme Shelter” and ended it with “Let It Bleed,” the song whose famous line sings, “We all need someone we can bleed on, and if you want it, well you can bleed on me.”  The friendlier, and, well, more fun among us can imagine singing these lines with a beer raised, looking affectionately at the friends and lovers in our lives.


As a 27-year-old male, I sometimes am surprised to find out that, amongst my best friends, no one loves the Stones as much as I do.  When I talk about the Stones to my friends, I often get two responses.  1) They’re overrated.  2) “Yeah I know someone who saw them a while ago.  Keith Richards has such big ears.”  I often feel the need to clarify – when I say I love the Stones, I mean that I have love for this string of perfect records in the 60’s and 70’s, healthy admiration of 1978’s Some Girls, and love for occasional songs before or since that I think represent the band in typical horny, drunken fashion.


Here’s another thing friends and I have discussed in my love for the Stones: The Beatles never really sing about sex, and the Stones always seem to sing about sex – constantly, over and over again.  This is actually the other reason I’m surprised to find out I’m a 27-year-old male who is alone in his love for the Stones.  Isn’t this the life of any other guys living out their lives in their 20’s?  “Don’t you think there’s a place for us in between the sheets?” Mick Jagger coos to a potential lover in “Live With Me.”  “Country Honk” finds the band fiddling up the dirtiest lines from “Honky Tonk Women” into a wilder, looser hoe-down version, and that somehow makes the song slyer, more seductive.


The sex and bravado is all there in Let It Bleed, as are the stoner guitar concoctions like “Midnight Rambler” that take over your best music fantasies, but there’s also something more, and it’s most prominent in the totemic songs at beginning, end, and middle of the record.  There’s that glimpse of the coming storm in “Gimme Shelter,” the sweet affirmation of support in “Let It Bleed,” and finally a certain acceptance with all of it in the classic, 9-minute “Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  Let me guess something about you, whoever might be reading this: you know this song.  Someone (maybe your parents?) with seriousness may have said to you something like, “As Mick Jagger would say, you can’t  always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need.”  The truth is, despite its infantile drunken logic, there’s an ease and a truth to that line – a tossed off bit of wisdom from a man trying to have fun and live however he pleases, but knows that concessions are part of the world we live in.  When I hear Let It Bleed, I hear that things are tough and we can still be our core, carefree self when we want to – and if we’re true to that, we might just get what we need.

Sonic Youth, Evol

April 25, 2009


I don’t have my physical copy of Sonic Youth’s Evol with me anymore, not in one place.  I left my home state of Colorado in a Subaru with my father towards Seattle, and a cd wallet with all my cd’s made it out here – not many liner notes, and no cases.  This is not unusual now, but for quite a while – we’ll say, ages 17-20 – I treasured my physical copy of Evol, and I’d say this was, beyond the music, beyond the great scribbled-over shriek of a cover, for the fascinating liner notes from the 1993 reissue, written by Lisa Crystal Carver (now available online at

Carver recounts a story of moving to LA as a 17-year-old drop out and finding a copy.  She saw herself drawn to Evol’s opening song, “Tom Violence,” by the word violence.  17-year-olds, after all, enjoy violence, right?  She said followed by that, “Shadow of a Doubt,” the second track on the album, did not need the word violence because “it was violence.”  Finally, she wound up discovering this was the album that spoke for her transformation from a New Hampshire teenager to an Los Angelino having a life.

I don’t want to call her becoming an adult, I want to say a “young adult” but hopefully free myself of the middle school library connotation.  Because she hits the nail on the head with Evol – it’s an album of beginnings.  Violent, furious, exciting, romantic, programmatically bold beginnings.  As I mentioned in discussing Bad Moon Rising, Sonic Youth, with that record, entered into a 10 year period of astonishing productivity and the core of their legacy of musicians is contained in that 1985-1995 period.  Evol, from 1986, is the album that speaks to opening that journey.  1995’s Washing Machine – an album of closure and finality – marks that journey’s end in extraordinary bookmark fashion.  I ask any music fan to get to know Evol, then 1987’s Sister, 1988’s Daydream Nation, 1990’s Goo, 1992’s Dirty, 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, and then Washing Machine now and not find a band in extraordinarily sustained creative command.  It’s not for nothing I consider Sonic Youth the greatest band in the world – this ten year period featured one defiant, off-key, time-defining noisy masterpiece after another.

What Evol creates, though, that the others stray further and further away from – perhaps appropriately – is a sense of youth, and a sense of idealism and possibility.  “Tom Violence” seems sludgy and remote, but with its cry of “I left home for experience/ carved ‘suk for honesty’ on my chest” (sic), you begin to glimpse the dream forming out of the mess.  It’s a description of a man setting out to quest for experience.  It’s followed in enticing, sensual off key strumming with “Shadow of a Doubt,” which, yes, is violence.  A tale of strangers on a train colluding in a whisper to kill… well, someone… the song speaks to a desire to alchemize rage and create something.  Even the loud, stalker piece “Star Power” that follows seems to find some raging freedom in off kilter obsession, represented by Kim Gordon’s most on point out-of-wack voice, a punk holdover that, in retrospect, Gordon did better than anyone.

The themes of Evol are simple and repetitive – there’s love and violence, and both are part of the same breath, releasing a sense of possibility, and a sense of life.  Lee Ranaldo, SY’s beat poet guitarist, brought out his first real “Lee” song, “In The Kingdom #19,” a spoken-word tale of a man getting hit by a car and winning, and it still makes violence that is “inching towards truth,” as he describes.  And that thought segues into a very simple love song, “Green Light,” in which Thurston Moore sees “a green light,” and turns the raging off-key number into the heights of sweetness.  This is, of course, followed by “Death To Our Friends,” a loud instrumental track whose guitar riffs even seem violent.

I can’t imagine my love of Sonic Youth over the years without my love of Evol, without feeling it plunge itself right into my own desires for excitement and possibility.  The material, being so insistently violent, coaxes you right into finding the trademark dissonance in the guitar and rhythm of the tracks; it makes you love every antisocial impulse you’ve ever felt.  The album properly ended with “Madonna, Sean, and Me,” more commonly known as “Expressway to Yr Skull,” which is a little of both – a violent promise (“We’re gonna kill the California girls”) and an ode to learning how to be happy (“We’re gonna find the meaning of feeling good”) – trailing off in one descending guitar cord after another.  It’s perfection, but the reissue – which is the only Evol I’ve ever known – ends in another song, the Kim Gordon led “Bubblegum,” a passionately straightforward rock number.  Its chorus screams “Love is so much fun, life has just begun.”  I cannot imagine Evol being as perfect without “Bubblegum” bracketing “Tom Violence.”  These are songs that define, glorify, and exalt the wild rough edges of youth.  Falling in love with this record, you won’t think anything you feel is rough again.

Aimee Mann, Lost In Space

February 27, 2009


Aimee Mann Lost In Space

I’ve fallen in love with Aimee Mann and lost it again. I bought I’m With Stupid when I was 18, and I was a little heartbroken myself, and found a line like “All that stuff/ we knew before/ just turned into/ please love me more” to be the height of wounding precision. Mann was always jaded and dispassionate, but she also was onto something – dismissive without being glib, wallowing in feelings while also mocking them. I’m With Stupid is still the vintage Mann record, representative of who she is. In 2008, when Mann released her weakest record @#%&*! Smilers, Spin pulled a Mann on Mann – unfairly, I think – describing it as “Another nuanced collection of mid-tempo ’70s-pop-referencing tunes that document the lives of folks who manage only fleeting moments of happiness between protracted stretches of frustration.”

That was the Mann project, the stuff Mann would refer to as “my normal stuff.” By the time 2002’s Lost In Space came around, Mann had found some amount of mainstream success after early 2000’s Magnolia soundtrack, and the freedom that gave Mann to purchase back her most successful record, Bachelor No. 2. The truth is the nuance, mid-temp, 70’s-referencing collection is Bachelor, and it doesn’t hold up well. By 2002, critics took it out on Lost In Space. Rolling Stone gave it a two-star review saying her writing was obvious and her hooks were non-existent, citing “The Moth” that was drawn to the flame and “Humpty Dumpty” who had a great fall. But is that really fair? I actually find some bravery in an opening number called “Humpty Dumpty,” especially this “Humpty Dumpty,” with its ferocious chorus: “Better take the kids/ and drive forever/ Staying won’t put these pieces back together/ All the perfect drugs and superheroes/ wouldn’t be enough to bring me up to zero.” The truth is the line is just crankier than anything she’d written before, but also, sung in a lower register, more forbidding.

I had Lost In Space for at least a year before I got the whole thing, and each year I value it a little more – and, in truth, the rest of Mann’s catalogue a little less by comparison. “Humpty Dumpty” is cranky alright, but it also has bridges of soaring vulnerability – “I’m not the girl you once put your faith in,” she sings, “just someone that looks like me” in her highest register, before switching out of it to that vicious chorus. Lost In Space, then, seemed to me to be the first record of Mann’s to really indulge her viewpoint, the true emotional coldness that underlined her cynicism, sarcasm, and nuanced dismissal in her previous records. Its cover features a cartoon drawing of power lines across a spare night sky. You follow its stars and bouncing lines that connect a personality adrift in misery.

As I said, it was a year. During that year, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to “It’s Not,” the album’s final song, but eventually something struck me – this song was perfect. At first, it merely seems like the most resigned song of Mann’s career, the opposite of an affirmation – a disaffirmation, that you think things will get better but they won’t. It just seemed too simple and whiny. But the coldness that echoed through the record eventually caught up in my own life – it was a remarkably cold winter in Colorado, and I, in a phase of my life readjusting from a long study abroad, felt remarkably alone. I first got hooked on the more directly enticing songs of “This Is How It Goes” and “Pavlov’s Bell,” but “It’s Not” kept me coming back. It was a line in its bridge – “People are tricky/ you can’t afford to show/ anything risky/ anything they don’t know.” But sung with such sadness, it went from being an observation by the loneliest girl in school to being wise with hard fought, isolated lessons. That’s because the desperation that Mann’s dispassionate work had covered up comes to bubbling, thrilling fruition on Lost In Space. This is Mann embracing her inner PJ Harvey but retaining her own eloquent style.

From there, every song eventually takes hold, even “High On Sunday ‘51” and “Guys Like Me,” which I skipped on my cd player for months. Each is constructed with just the right malaise and revealing resentment. Like “It’s Not,” the album, rather than being a pick-me-up, is a rather comforting, deeply moving confirmation of your worst fears. Each song seems to reveal a line of deep poetry about the pits of self-loathing, like in “Real Bad News” which sees Mann singing, “I won’t make you feel bad/ when I show you/ this big ball of sad/ isn’t worth even filling with air.” Or in “Invisible Ink,” which finds Mann singing to a lover, “I feel like a ghost whose moving your hands across some Ouija board in the hopes I might spell out my name,” and of herself, “I suppose I should be happy to be misread – better be that than some of the other things I have become.” These are most certainly not lines written by an artist in a slump.

There’s another element that binds the album together like the lost telephone wires on the cover, and this is still to me the album’s strangest elements – drugs. They’re mentioned in at least half of the songs recorded – in “Pavlov’s Bell,” Mann implores a lover to “give her the fix,” in “This is How It Goes,” she muses, “It’s all about drugs, it’s all about shame,” and in “High on Sunday ’51,” the chorus sadly begs a love to “Let me be your heroin.” Was Mann experiencing the world’s most transparent chemical dependency? I doubt it; I think it has more to do with that over half of the “This Is How It Goes” couplet – it’s all about shame. Mann floated around the notions of humiliation and, really, of sadness with her wise, omniscient, perfectly-rhymed eloquence for years. Lost In Space goes so fervently for its own sad underbelly that it turned off the core Mann fans who fell in love with her dejection in the first place. What’s brave about it is that it revealed what was there all along.

Tori Amos, Boys For Pele

February 7, 2009


Let’s be very clear about this – I used to be a much bigger fan of Tori Amos before I figured out how nuts she was.  Perhaps all artists are a little nuts, but Tori is nuts.  On VH1’s Storytellers in 1998, when describing why she wrote Pele’s “Hey Jupiter,” Amos recounted a tale about a dead man that sat on the edge of the bed in her hotel room while on tour.  On that same broadcast, she described the tale behind a song, from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel, called “Iieee,” which being told on television, in her description of a little boy who told her to drive to distant cities and start fires, would be enough proof of hallucinations to get your average citizen hospitalized.


Yet even as my embarrassment for Amos’s public appearances cooled my teenage love of her, my admiration of 1996’s Boys For Pele hasn’t subsided – I’m still certain it’s her best work, and the work of a personality we’re lucky to have.  At the time, Rolling Stone gave it a two star review calling it “self-indulgent,” and Entertainment Weekly echoed the sentiment, labeling the record “histrionic.”  The aim was often at Amos’s bewildering lyrics, which I could try and waste everyone’s time in defending as quasi-mystical, or feminist calls to arms.  But really, they are mostly bad.  The amazing thing is that doesn’t matter much.  Even more amazing is that they occasionally are pretty successful anyway.


Boys For Pele is, to me, great because it is self-indulgent – it’s the only record of Amos’s catalogue that fully explores her crazy-feminist-pissed-at-men-and-God lunacy and sublimates it.  It combines her best melodious instincts with her fiery consciousness and creates a result that’s as creative, as vital, as it is crazed.  She begins with quiet piano trembles in “Beauty Queen/Horses,” adds a harpsichord in “Blood Roses,” includes a trumpet and a bass in “Father Lucifer,” and by the time track 4, “Professional Widow,” explodes into a cavalcade of industrial synth, you’re willing to believe that Amos has abandoned all of the wise A/C melody she cultivated on Little Earthquakes and tweaked, sorta, on Under The Pink.  Frankly, those records don’t hold up well – they’re sanitized and half-cooked, even when the material is good.  Boys For Pele succeeds because it feels like so frenzied, it might explode at any moment.  For an album titled after a goddess who sits in a volcano waiting to swallow men thrown at her, that frenzy fits.


But for a minute, let me say what I mean about how it doesn’t matter that the lyrics don’t work.  I think if you wanted to pull out Amos’s lyrics and read them like a poem, like you could with Joni Mitchell, you would be disappointed.  But what are song lyrics supposed to be?  Amos has a knack for small phrases that evoke winces of emotion, that complement her idiosyncrasies.  In “Professional Widow” – still Amos’s most whacked out track to date – a line like “Everywhere a Judas as far as you can see/ beautiful angels calling” doesn’t exactly mean anything, but it sounds good.  On the big-band backed “Putting The Damage On,” a line like “I’m trying not to move, it’s just your ghost passing through” sounds deeply wounding and lovely.


Looking at the initial release information of Boys For Pele, I realize that I’ve been listening to the album in some form or another now for 13 years.  For most, “Professional Widow” and “Hey Jupiter” – if not Amos’s entire career – are flits of distant memory.  For me, I can hear the record and admire its ups and downs.  A song like “Professional Widow” that can turn, with a jump, into a sweet, lovely soft song like “Marianne.”  The beautiful “Doughnut Song” that gets exploded by sitting next to a fiery, wonderful number like “In The Springtime Of His Voodoo.”  I, for one, am happy I have Amos’s lunacy to admire, even if I’m less than overwhelmed with the rest of her catalogue – Boys For Pele is the album that Amos, acting also as producer, dared to put her lunatic head into, and we’re all a little saner for it.

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

February 7, 2009

Sonic Youth Daydream Nationdaydream-nation


“Everybody’s talkin’ bout the stormy weather/ what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?” Thurston Moore asks in the opening track, “Teen Age Riot,” setting off an album that sounds both like stormy weather and “working out whether it’s true.”  That is, seeking the truth past the way we describe it.  Would you describe it as melodious listening to that clanging, off-tune guitar in “Riot”?  It repeats like a melody certainly, but it is dirtier, much noisier, full of static and feedback.  “It’s getting so stormy in my city’s head/ it takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed,” Moore muses, and what the band spews forth over 74 minutes and 14 sprawling songs is not just that riot, it helps start what will become grunge and the rock mainstream in just another few years.


Is that an overstatement?  The album, centered with gorgeous cover art featuring Gerhard Richter’s painting Kenze (Candle), is full of bombastic tendencies – symbols for each of the band members to echo Led Zeppelin’s IV, songs that allegedly reference Saul Bellow, Joni Mitchell, ZZ Top, and that featured an art film music video for the song “Providence,” a song of an off-key piano recorded on a walkman, played over an answering machine message left from Providence, RI.  Everything about the album declares its position in the rock pantheon, but amazingly, as the years have gone by, it’s not only evidently influential in the rock records that came in its wake, it still declares and blasts its conceptual daring, its rock virtuosity, and its astonishing beauty and wisdom on succeeding listens. 


This is easy for me to say – Sonic Youth has, since I first heard the record ten years ago, consistently been the band I refer to as “my favorite band.”  Is it that I love them that much more than, say, the Velvet Underground, or Sleater-Kinney, or the Rolling Stones?  Maybe, maybe not, but Sonic Youth continue to have a quality that has never been matched in any other artist – perhaps because they’ve stayed together under the same iteration for so long, perhaps because they’re schooled in the background of New York’s art-rock scene and is often more art than rock.  Daydream Nation is so singular a triumph even in their excellent catalogue, though – the collision of their noise with their melodiousness.  Art that never overshadowed the drive of the music.  Feedback that underscored emotion.  “Teenage Riot” goes into the furious “Silver Rocket,” and then into Kim Gordon’s song “The Sprawl,” a song that is pissy (“I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell/ does this sound simple?/ Fuck you/ Are you for sale?”) as it was rather sweet and wondrous, blanketed by a wall of noise that was propulsive, lovely, and gave way to a meadow of noise on song’s conclusion.


For a record often described as “conceptual,” “sprawling,” and “ambitious,” what exactly was its sprawling, conceptual ambition?  I have theories – I hear in songs like “Eric’s Trip” and “Hey Joni” a desire to break free from the common understanding of the things we say in society and find some “truth.”  But that’s far too cerebral.  In 1994, the band would leave as an epigram on the back cover of their (great) Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star record, “Once it leaves your head, it’s already compromised,” a quote from No Wave creator Glenn Branca.  That’s a quote that defined what worked about their music – of getting infinitesimally closer to the confusion, the riot in our heads simply by making the guitars cacophonous instead of melodious.  Over time, the noise turned into melody anyway.  Another quote would be from “Confusion Is Next,” a rather middling song on their first full length record Confusion is Sex: “I maintain that chaos is the future/ Confusion is next/ and next after that is freedom.”  Consider this a little more of columns B and C than column A.


This would always be the MO for the band, and, particularly in the records released between 1985 and 1995, I don’t think it’s ever not worked.  The truth is, even on records (like 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, or 2004’s Sonic Nurse) that don’t feel as conceptually full as their best work (Daydream, Dirty, Jet Set, EVOL, Bad Moon Rising), there are still qualities on the record no one else in music can approximate.  Because Sonic Youth was always a band most beloved by music critics, there tends to be a lot of snobbishness and revisionism in describing their music also.  But Daydream Nation is the record that justifies all of that – an album that feels as revolutionary as it sounds, that explodes in your heart as much as your head.  By the time the band reaches its 14-minute, sorta-conclusive “trilogy” that closes the record, blazing “It’s an anthem in a vacuum in a hyperstation/ daydreaming days in a daydream nation,” you’re aware of hearing the sound and the feeling of a generation represented with as much beauty as volume. 

Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World

January 23, 2009

sweet-old-worldI did write about Sweet Old World some years ago, when I realized what a warm and extraordinary collection of songs it was.  I loved how pure, how simple a song like “Something About What Happens When We Talk” could be – exploring the loneliness that lurks between two people who think so fondly of each other.  I loved that she made tire irons and casseroles sound sexy in the rollicking yodel classic “Hot Blood.”  Now, I hear something else also – it’s 17 years later into Williams’s career, where she first indulged her country muse to great perfection in Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and then remade our understanding of desire and loneliness in aging from Essence even through her “happy” 2008 release Little HoneySweet Old World is as much of an evocation of her consciousness at the time as any of those records are.

This is where the country songs were more simple and lovely, opening with “Six Blocks Away,” which could have been a jaunty, great country single.  This record, though, is a happy record marked by great grief and disappointment.  She sings of her brother’s death, gorgeously, in “Little Angel, Little Brother,” and a friend’s suicide with tremendous mystery and excitement in “Pineola.”  She tells, with stark, elevating simplicity, the story of a woman compromising her ideals in “Memphis Pearl.”  She even closes the record with a deeply naked, 3 a.m. cover of Nick Drake’s “Which Will,” which sounds, actually, like the themes Williams wants to approach.

I do now think there are themes on Sweet Old World, and I mostly feel that way from the two songs that stand out to me the most, although all are great songs here.  The first is the title track, “Sweet Old World,” in which Williams, presumably to her brother, asks someone to notice all the wonderful elements of the world that were so extraordinary, and lost when that person killed himself.  This could be a song of great sadness, but it isn’t – it’s a song of strength and wonder.  That’s even truer for “Sidewalks of the City,” which is as simple as it sounds – a sweet, quiet walk at 3 a.m. down a city street, bars closing, bums sleeping in doorways.  Yet she sings to a lover, “Hold me, baby, give me some strength… give me good things, tell me that my world is safe.”  Again, this could be a song of loneliness, of sadness, of fear.  Instead, it’s a plea of appreciation, of loving the world around, of begging, as she does, for grace.  I’ve loved the Williams who later in life got lonely and sang so precisely about it.  This is the Williams I love for wanting, so gorgeously, to truly be in the world.

D’Angelo, Voodoo

October 19, 2008

Voodoo D’Angelo


I feel like I owe something to Voodoo.  I remember exactly where I was when I bought the album (East Lansing, Michigan, on a mid-February college tour of MSU that I checked out of after 2 minutes of waiting for a bus), and remember feeling compelled to write about it for my high school newspaper.  It’s funny to think this album’s been a part of my life for the better part of a decade now, because D’Angelo’s career did nothing since then (word on the street is he’s fat now, but that’s about it), and because of the way my thoughts about it have changed.  In 2000, in Woodland Park, Colorado, I wasn’t a fan of hip-hop and sorta liked soul thanks to enough of my dad’s doowop records.  To me then, the way to write about Voodoo was in terms of its liner notes, that call out “fake” emcees rapping about nothing, and stating that hip hop had strayed from the genuine example of the Marvin Gayes and Otis Reddings that precede it.  I felt I had to contrast it to all other hip hop music, which was boring and clearly unworthy of occupying a sales mantle next to my heroes of popular music in the late 90’s, Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails.


Now I love hip hop, and I love soul music even more than I used to – then, the high high falsetto D’Angelo employed seemed grating, and seemed to keep him from the full range of his voice; now, knowing what to expect, his voice seems possibly even more expressive, and more rooted in the soul it wants to express.  Voodoo gets better the more you know.  Beginning with a slew of conversation that a cymbal crash and bassline emanate from in “Playa Playa,” we get breezy jazz and hip hop, a groove and a chorus of voices arriving from the most packed jam session in Harlem.  The music gets shape and moves forward – a backbeat and DJ’s record comes in “Devil’s Pie,” and moves into “Left & Right,” a full-on single with Method Man and Redman.  You begin to have thoughts, already, that this album seems to have everything – jazz horns, funk bass, hip hip dj’s, an emcee a great vocalist, and a great producer.  Even more overpowering a thought – these songs are long, almost none clocking in at less than 5 minutes.  The truth is the album is a commemoration of a great hip-hop experience, a release of melody and creativity that would have once defined the work of Bob Dylan or Van Morrison.  There’s great grooves – “Spanish Joint,” “Greatdayindamornin’/Booty” – followed by soul that would make Al Green proud – “The Root,” “One Mo’ Gin.”  A warm, breezy remake of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” even seems to legitamize that song’s dippy blissfulness.


At the time of Voodoo’s release, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” was a single, and one I liked enough to buy the record.  It was famous for, among other things, D’Angelo’s video, which is one sustained shot of a supposedly naked D’Angelo – ripped from long long hours at the gym – shot from mid-pelvis up singing the song.  Now, much was made of this successful appeal to female viewers, but it was also something else – an expression of the sincerity, the “nakedness” of the song.  That song is still, to me, the greatest of all neo-soul releases in the late 90’s and early 00’s – better than Lauryn Hill or Alicia Keys or Raphael Saadiq – but now it also occurs to me as something else.  As the 12th of 13 songs on the 79 minute lineup, “Untitled” is also the most exciting and moving expression of the creativity on the record.  Now, 79 minutes is a long time to devote to an album, but I think the process of working up to “Untitled” is key to its success as an album – following “Feel Like Making Love and “Greatdayindamornin’,” the album has been lightened, relaxed a little.  “Untitled,” afterwards, is all feeling and authenticity, and the song itself is a process, beginning with a drum beat and climaxing in a full-on guitar section and chorus of various D’s in ecstatic harmony.  What a release it is – it makes the album around it and before it.  It’s a release for the listener, too, and it caps an album that matches – and surpasses – the soul music legends it attempts to emulate.