Archive for the ‘Great Albums’ Category

Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears

October 3, 2008

I’ve determined two things lately in my thinking about World Without Tears, which is an album I think about often.  First, once something has been released for, say, over five years, it stops mattering if people at the time thought it was great or not; the debate of the day becomes fairly irrelevant, and what really matters is if the fans of the record still find themselves turning to that record (I do, very much so).  Second, despite the great sadness chronicled throughout the record, and the great pits of emotions from which it’s clearly wrung, I don’t find World Without Tears depressing.  I remember sitting in the CU bookstore in the basement of the University Memorial Center, back when they still sold cd’s, and listening to World Without Tears before I’d bought any other Lucinda Williams records, despite liking many of her songs.  What I felt when I heard the opening minute or so of “Fruits of My Labor,” the first song, was not sadness, despite it sounding like a classic soul ballad – what I felt was excitement.  What I felt was a world of sadness and longing shared by all of us unveiled behind velvet curtains and in stale living rooms.  As the song moves into “Righteously,” her carnal, bass-driven rock plea to a lover to turn his physical prowess into emotional comfort, it becomes an album in which sadness and release run hand-in-hand, a faultline between excitement and devastation.  I felt it an unveiling of thoughts I’d often had of love and lust, of why we’re driven to things that hurt us and torn apart when they go away.  That’s what happens here – a three-day love affair has left Lucinda “so fucking alone” in the visceral “Those Three Days;” rumors from others have caused nothing but turmoil, but mostly because they’re true in “People Talkin’;” something awful and unnamed (a rape?  a humiliation?) in a hotel room in “Minneapolis,” and it’s unclear if she misses or hates the lover who wronged her.  At the time of its 2003 release, Williams was highly respected – Time had recently named her America’s greatest songwriter, which many of us had known for 15 years.  Still, the longing had stuck around, and informed a record that cleanses you of the notion that your worst fears and loneliness may never disappear.  She releases it from time to time here – a great rocker like “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” finds release in music, and “Atonement,” a 7-minute barnstomp without a recognizable tune is practically an exorcism – but what she really does is find peace in it.  “If we lived in a world without tears,” she wonders, “how would misery know which body to flow outside of?” It’s poetry of the greatest kind that leaves her calm with her anger and sadness, finally, in “Words Fell,” a song that never excuses or minimizes her pain, but accepts and loves it.  It’s art of that caliber that makes an album linger in memory like the love and longing the record chronicles so specifically.

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Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow

August 25, 2008

Blackalicious Blazing Arrow

Blazing Arrow is 74 minutes and 24 seconds long, has 15 songs, and its vocals, mostly by Gift of Gab, get released at such speed for the most part, you’re shocked the man doesn’t collapse from asphyxiation.  Released in 2002, it was Blackalicious’s only moment that approached commercial success and was modestly successful critically as well, but its astonishment crept up on me over the years.  This is the exact type of album that an age of MP3’s delays – at 74 minutes, it’s so long it’s hard to play it from start to finish, over and over again, which is what it needs.  Even worse – it’s best from beginning to end while you’re feeling thrilled, inspired, elated, stoned, or, at the very least, ready to absorb music full of excitement and inspiration, which, if truly that is what I am feeling at any given moment, makes it difficult to get through a 74 minute album.  Get to know the songs though – arriving slyly with a Harry Nilsson song in “Blazing Arrow,” the album turns into a party before “First In Flight” (with great vocals by Gil Scott Heron) turns it into a thrill of creativity and excitement.  From there, each song isn’t just original, each is an explosion of form and ability, and melts like candlewax from song to song – as “Sky Is Falling” juts with paranoia and anger, “Green Light: Now Begin” complements with hope and calmness, rapped at a furious speed that never dips into caricature or rhyme-scheme-necessitating nonsense.  Each song has the potential to thrill, titillate, and inspire, but for me each time I reach “Make You Feel That Way,” it’s something more.  If I’m lucky enough to hear the record from beginning to end, “Make You Feel That Way” with its seductive trumpet and sexy come-ons feels like a statement of purpose for all hip-hop – for all music.  It ushers in a side full of experiments and wild digressions in which each works – even a 3-part, nine-minute freak out called “Release.”  The record concludes with “Day One,” a sunset r/b song of beauty and perfection and ease.  In its soaring bridge that repeats the line “Get your soul back” like an incantation, you’re so moved and excited, you do just that.

Bob Dylan, Desire

August 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Desire

How do you follow up arguably the greatest album ever made?  If you’re Bob Dylan, spokesman of walk-to-my-own-drum ethos, you grab a fiddle and a songwriting partner.  This 9-song set was (so the story goes) laid down in such haste in 1976, backup vocalist Emmylou Harris barely knew her part.  Surprisingly, that only adds to the charm of the record, which feels casual to the point of gleeful, off-guard surprise – a spur-of-the-moment trip to the South with a host that observes like a documentarian smoking too much bluegrass.  “Hurricane,” the galvanic (and infamous) song that opens the record is amongst the most undismissable protest songs ever recorded (even if it strains at its “ass in a stir/ triple mur-der” rhyme scheme), “Mozambique” is amongst the most delightful recordings of Dylan’s career, and in the left-field tragic songs “Oh Sister” and “Joey,” it observes quiet, lonely fates with tenderness and compassion, largely due to the combination of bluegrass instrumentality and the angelic reinforcement of Harris, who’s like a goodwill ambassador to Dylan’s passion.  It closes with “Sara,” the unforgettable harmonica ode to the woman on the other end of Blood on the Tracks’s disillusion.  That song is like your documentarian allowing, for a wonderful, brief moment, his camera to turn around.

Queens Of The Stone Age, Songs For The Deaf

August 11, 2008

Songs For The Deaf Queens of the Stone Age

Sometimes you know instantly that you’re hearing an album that will become an instant favorite.  It didn’t take more than a single verse and chorus of “Give it your own, gimme some more” during the screaming blunt club of an opening number “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar But I Think I’m a Millionaire” on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 masterpiece Songs For the Deaf for me to know.  As the song concludes, well-placed hand claps and fake-out ending in tow, I started having thoughts I didn’t even know I had – about how complacent we’d become as music listeners over the past few years.  How we didn’t know what rock was anymore.  As the sexy chug of the hit single “No One Knows” takes over, we’re sure – this is THE GREATEST macho rock album of our generation, a Led Zeppelin II for the age of irony.  Consistently framed by mock inserts of rock radio stations (“KLON – Clone Radio, L.A.’s infinite repeat!”), it’s as if the album itself knows, how the rock world had been faking it for longer than we could imagine.  Even the lineup – Dave Grohl on drums, The Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan on guitar – boasted heavyweights of rock’s past proving their chops.  Think heavy rock, chugging guitars, and mind-clobbering riffs and production can’t be emotional or moving?  Listen to the sexy ease with which “God Is In The Radio” convinces you it’s one of the best songs ever made.  Or notice the unexpected gracefulness of “Hangin’ Tree.”  Or, the speed metal that overloads and titillates like a drug kicking in during “Song For The Dead.”  Each song, it seems, winds up hiding a rock idiosyncrasy we didn’t know rock was missing.  No one knows how to make rock records like this anymore, and for one shining instant in 2002, one band of rock saviors figured it out, fixed it, and winked at us to tell us they knew all along.

The Velvet Underground, White Light/ White Heat

August 11, 2008

White Light/ White Heat The Velvet Underground

Writing for Rolling Stone about The Velvet Underground, Julian Casablancas, the ineloquent lead singer of The Strokes called White Light/ White Heat a “real fuck-the-world album.”  I don’t know if I could possibly disagree with him more.  White Light/ White Heat is one of the most experimental mainstream releases ever, it’s brazenly atonal, and in its attempt, is subversively entertaining and influential.  What it’s not is angry, not in the traditional sense.  Instead, it’s a knowing, even joyful mockery of bourgeoisie morality – a morality that includes certain tropes of musicianship.  So the title song that opens the record feels the “white light goin’, messin’ up my mind,” and the result is a sort of ingestion and through-the-looking-glass capitulation of what culture really is.  The centerpiece, strangely, is “The Gift,” an 8 minute spoken tale of a bland, spoiled couple (Waldo!  And Marsha!) that turns into a tail of accidental murder – a track that’s so transfixing and barbed, it’s hard to figure out whether it’s a triumph of music or storytelling.  The rest of the record is the epitome of the Velvets prickly difficulty, like the tune of “Lady Godiva’s Operation” overtaken by outside voices, or the 17-minute opus “Sister Ray” – they’re testaments to the brave specificity of the bands noisy compositions, presenting a countercultural assault on the coming faux-peppiness of the early 70’s.  Doing so wasn’t fucking the world at all, it was saving it, with a toothsome grin.

Poe, Haunted

August 11, 2008

Haunted Poe

 

When Haunted was released in the unexpected great year for music, 2000, I don’t know if anyone knew quite how to process it (and by anyone, I mean the dozen or so people that heard it – she hasn’t released anything since).  Her debut, 1996’s Hello, was fine, produced an alright minor hit called “Angry Johnny” whose joke of a chorus was that it barely sounded salacious as she sang, poutily, “I want to blow you… away,” but the record remained completely dismissible.  So with Haunted, we first had to adjust to the idea that Poe had made a terrific, enormous leap as an artist, and then we had to figure out the woman had made a ferociously invasive and fascinating concept record.  Haunted opens with the phrase “Thought you should know, Daddy died today,” and turns the record into her experiment in talking with his ghost.  She made the album alone on her computer splicing in lost sound clips from his lectures as a professor, and it’s important to note the songs really are great dialogue – they’re epitaphs from a daughter fiercely clinging to independence and struggling to deal with feelings of loss, hopelessness, defiance, and anger toward the death of a father she never quite knew.  It’s also the sound of reconnecting to her mother, and hocking her brother’s book, House of Leaves (most notoriously in the terrific single “Hey Pretty,” the remix of which splices in the author reading part of it over the verses).  Since the sound is so idiosyncratic and made in such isolation – it sounds not like an electronic record, not quite like a pop record, and definitely doesn’t sound like a band of any kind – it could’ve been a disaster of a record, but Poe’s passion is a force unto itself.  She’s got the pipes of a soul singer (as evident in “Spanish Doll”), the defiance of a punk princess (“Not a Virgin,” “Walk the Walk”), and the tenacity of a pop market junkie (“Lemon Meringue,” “5 ½ Minute Hallway”).  Together, it’s a remarkable novel of songs that creates a life far more than it elucidates a death.

Sonic Youth, Bad Moon Rising

August 11, 2008

Bad Moon Rising Sonic Youth

 

I could go on at length about any one of the great Sonic Youth releases, but Bad Moon Rising holds a special place in my heart for the pure audacity of announcing Sonic Youth as a force to contend with – even that title prompts you to believe that changes are coming.  It may never sound like you would think it sounds, but Bad Moon Rising, with song titles like “Society is a Hole,” “Ghost Bitch,” “Justice is Might,” or “Satan is Boring” (at least, in the DGC extended rerelease of the album) is a punk album, in every way.  The difference here is that the band seems to have ingested the form and spat it back out in whatever method seems fit – think punk meets the avante garde.  An intro trickles in like running water on a totally out of tune guitar, and it turns into “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” loud, brash, and ugly – guitars that clang and meander, a bass that’s disaffected and seems brought in just to make the floorboards rattle, a second guitar that is hit for feedback and seems like it might as well be from a different song.  But what about that noise in a song that, quietly, sadly, ends on a conclusion of Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth’s sole female member, who doesn’t sing so much as talk and hold the notes) singing “Brave men run/ away from me.”  The song is scarred and loud and great, and with its emphasis on noise, seems to mirror the sensations it declares sonically – that was Sonic Youth’s goal, I am always certain.  In songs like “I’m Insane” and “I Love Her All The Time,” Thurston Moore knows how to sound disaffected and awful and like the most frustrated and unlovable geek at the punk rock show.  But with music that matches him, the noise of these songs is hypnotic and extraordinary, an elevation of the outcast, made more powerful by its difficulty – all good things in life require a little work, right?  So does this record.  What we get then is punk ethos too passionate to be punk, too importantly sloppy not to be.  The climax of the disc, the song that by all accounts got Sonic Youth their first glimpse of fame, was the Lydia Lunch collaboration on the Charles Manson-themed “Death Valley ’69,” a punk masterpiece of snarling fire that  proved SY was, secretly, just a little bit cooler than the actual punks at the punk concert all along.

Basement Jaxx, Remedy

August 11, 2008

Remedy Basement Jaxx

 

The cover of this volcanic 1999 release shows a glorious intertwining of naked bodies, looking at first glance like desert hills.  The fantastically sensual image takes on a nearly rhythmic quality that the rhythms fantastically reciprocate, leading to easily the finest release of the D.J. era.  From one end to the other, the album moves like endless foreplay, as if to capture the tête-à-tête of eventual sexual conquest, and just as you feel the beats have reached their absolute limit, they scream for more.  Songs on the way – especially “Yo Yo,” “Same Old Show,” and “Always Be There” – are fantastic, but they can’t compare to the full product which fuses each song together like that line of bodies on the cover.  The Jaxx had an international dance smash with the shake-tastic “Red Alert,” and that song turns its hook of “and the music keeps on playing on and on” into a giddy promise, using the words and beats around it to let you sense the release of that feeling – of music playing on and on.  The Basement Jaxx have released four records since Remedy, and the same sense of giddiness shows up on each, but never with the success seen here – with its sense of excitement grinding from one end to the other.

Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love

August 11, 2008

Tunnel of Love Bruce Springsteen

 

Bruce Springsteen’s long, illustrious career came equipped with myriad, easy comparisons to the long, illustrious career of Bob Dylan, but rarely with as much as ease as one could compare Tunnel of Love to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.  At the tail end of his marriage to actress Julianne Phillips, Tunnel is a rough, uncompromising recount of the fear, alienation, and uncertainty rampant in trying to keep any marriage going.  Caught between the rock of certain loneliness and the hard place of commitment, Springsteen wrote 12 of the strongest, most personal and tortured songs of his career, songs that, like the marriage itself, were hard fought, emotionally taxing, and unforgettable.  The triumph of Tunnel, which seems to run from one end of a relationship, pure necessity, to its tail, surrender, is its unforgettable title track that perfectly depicts the impossibility of getting a relationship right in a haunted house.  Bruce brings out those demons like his life depends on it, and let us all hope for a while that there was a way to figure it out.  His inevitable divorce and the album’s commercial underperformance are themselves indications of the importance of his experiment – sometimes marriages fail, and it doesn’t make the work any easier.

My Great Albums

August 7, 2008

Rolling Stone devotes an issue every couple of years to the Great Albums – 500 of them, 1000 of them, 100 of them.  They rank and divide the genres, parse the artists – we cannot be too over-representative of a style or trope.

So when I say the Great Albums, I do not mean to discuss all the greatest albums ever made, and I do not mean to declare my list as definitive in any way except for personally – and even then, it’s arguable.  I do think that a great album feels like a work from beginning to end – consistent even if the songs are different, and greater than the sum of its songs, which should also be pretty great. 

I began writing about my favorite albums in some form or another in high school, and wrote about them differently a few years later.  When I read what I wrote of those records, it’s a journal entry as much as a review – a reflection of my experience that made that record so meaningful, a context of the lens from which I viewed each record and discovered its merits. 

Then at some point, I decided I was too old to write in this way – it was me taking my opinion too seriously.  I do take my opinion too seriously – it’s my opinion.  Now I wish that I’d written about the way, say, Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf made me first feel when I heard it four years ago, or described the epiphane of falling in love with The Velvet Underground’s White Light/ White Heat.  I hope to write about why those records are great, and I hope to recall the circumstances and ideas it’s brought up for me.  But those initial sensations are lost.

Once I had a writing professor who helped me distinguish that which was personal and “incisive” (his favorite word) in my writing, from that which was “portable.”  Music is such a subjective meaning that avoiding portable language and cliche is difficult.  I hope this will be as personal as it is incisive though, and I hope it describes the music I love and has affected my life.