After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking the year off from all new music, and instead revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider whether he still needs it all.
Is it possible to listen to roughly 100 songs a day–taking notes on many of them–while at the same time attending a film festival, watching 5 movies a day, and blogging the whole shebang? The answer, I discovered this past week, is "not quite." Before I left for Sundance last week, I loaded my iPod with tracks for Popless, and listened to as much as I could while traveling and standing in line, scrawling notes by hand on scrap paper. And I made it through roughly 500 songs. But I didn't make it as far as The Beatles, as promised last week, and for that I apologize. Next week will probably be a little abbreviated as well, since I'm getting a late start. But I shouldn't have another prolonged distraction until I go to the Toronto film festival in September by which point I'll likely have run out of things to say about music anyway and will just be speaking in a self-referential code. ("The Sea & Cake: Airy p-r; banana-berry smoothie; my 12th birthday party; see also Pw14, 26")
The weirdest thing about traveling and doing this project at the same time is that unlike most other road trips I've taken over the past two decades, I didn't get to have the pleasure of "road-testing." Because I was just listening to what came up on my iPod in alphabetical order, I couldn't go back and check out my newly trimmed-up playlists for acts like The Afghan Whigs and Allen Touissant, to hear how they sound "in the field." Half the fun of organizing music is in taking it out for a spin; I used to love that feeling of popping a new mix-tape into the car stereo, to see if everything flowed together as I'd imagined. And if it didn't, I wouldn't hesitate to start over, rearranging the songs that sounded good and ditching the ones that didn't.
Because the other half the fun is in the cutting. Like a lot of geeky types, I have a kind of packrat mentality, and I love to accumulate and sort. But I also love to dispose. So much of my music-collecting has been about completism, but frankly, when you put everything into the picture, the picture can lose its sense of composition. It's been liberating over these past couple of weeks to realize that, no, I don't need to keep that generic bluegrass instrumental, or that eight-minute experimental drone. Cutting these songs gives me the same rush I get from going through my house with a trash bag, tossing all my kids' un-played-wth plastic toys; or from knocking my TiVo queue down to one screen.
Of course, some people would say I could save a lot more time and simplify even more if I ditched my TiVo and iPod altogether
I don't understand those people at all.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1981-1995
Fits Between Herman's Hermits and Michael Franks
Personal Correspondence Aztec Camera is one of the exemplars of a sound that emerged from the UK early '80s: a style I've always thought of "jetset pop." It's breezy, catchy, light perfect for holiday. And yet, songs like "We Could Send Letters" off of Aztec Camera's sublime debut LP High Land, Hard Rain have a sorrow that belies their sheen. They're more like the regretful memory of a vacation than the vacation itself. Leave it to a Scotsman like Aztec Camera frontman Roddy Frame to make feeling sad seem like the height of sophistication.
Enduring presence? That jetset pop sound largely fell out of favor right around the time The Smiths started turning the style against itself and using it to express something more intimate and lacerating. Still, High Land, Hard Rain is one beautiful record, and deserves to be rediscovered.
Years Of Operation 1976-present
Fits Between The Shangri-Las and Talking Heads
Personal Correspondence Do pop songs get much more perfect than "52 Girls?" When I was in high school, I dodged The B-52's because my friends who liked them were drawn to their "quirky," "funny" songs like "Rock Lobster," while I took my alt-rock more seriously. Then I watched the documentary Athens GA Inside/Out, and during the segment on The B-52's, some grainy file footage was set to "52 Girls," and between the jittery guitar, relentless rhythm and atonal harmonies, I suddenly understoof why the band had been such a cause celèbre in the NYC underground scene in the late '70s. (It probably helped that the song doesn't have any Fred Schneider yelping.) I still merely tolerate "Rock Lobster," but otherwise that first B-52's album is a magnificent artifact, unearthed at the exact moment when the artier wing of punk discovered the unabashed pleasures of bubble-gum and girl-groups. The B-52's were "fun," but at their best they had a sharp, cosmopolitan air–largely provided by the late Ricky Wilson and his thinly twangy guitar–that seemed to suggest the good times of the '50s and '60s were gone for good.
Enduring presence? As great a single as the band's comeback single "Love Shack" was (and is), it may have branded The B-52's as terminally goofy in the wider public's eyes, and I worry that they've fallen out of the canon of Bands That Every Young Rock Fan Should Know. So if you're reading, Young Rock Fan, your homework for the week is to go listen to The B-52's. Essay topic: Are modern NYC guitar-dance bands like !!! all that relevant in a post-B-52's world?
Years Of Operation 1977-present (sort of)
Fits Between Black Flag and Sly Stone
Personal Correspondence Though I don't have much metal in my collection, I have a fair amount of hardcore, and I'm not entirely sure why one kind of loud, fast music works for me and another doesn't. Maybe it has to do with the vocals, or the lyrics, or the general attitude. When it comes to Bad Brains (at least early Bad Brains I've never had much use for I Against I or what came afterward), there's a spirit of positivity, and a sense of trying to share something with an audience of peers. (Albeit peers of a different race, more often than not.) Bad Brains makes noise seem redemptive, not corrosive. Of course, it can be cathartic to destroy, too
Enduring presence? The Bad Brains legacy has always been poorly managed, often by the band itself. I doubt a good anthology would change many minds, since the sound would change so jarringly from year-to-year, but a good remastered collection of the pre-I Against I recordings–live and studio–would be a decent start to maintaining the legend of Bad Brains.
Badly Drawn Boy
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Beck and Robyn Hitchcock
Personal Correspondence I recall being fairly underwhelmed by The Hour Of The Bewilderbeest, the LP-length US introduction to Damon Gough's homemade folk-pop; but BDB's soundtrack for About A Boy suited that movie's rumpled charm to such an extent that I became convinced he was really onto something, and that goodwill carried over to the stupidly titled but appealingly polished Have You Fed The Fish? Then both One By One and Born In The U.K. stank out loud, and I began to wonder if my initial impression of Gough–reasonably good tunesmith, clever arranger, kind of undernourished–was correct. The answer: yes and no. Listened to anew, Bewilderbeest holds up fairly well, and seems more inventive and open-hearted than sloppy and unfocused. But both About A Boy and Have You Fed The Fish now seem more hit-and-miss, with their fuller arrangements overcompensating for a lack of originality. (Though "Silent Sigh," off About A Boy, is still wonderful.) By and large, it's been a pretty steady downward trajectory for Gough.
Enduring presence? Given the critical downswing Badly Drawn Boy has been on, it's going to take a monster album to get Gough back into the top tier. But he's such a likable dude that I hope he pulls it off someday.
Years Of Operation 1967-1976 (essentially)
Fits Between Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead
Personal Correspondence I fell hard for The Band–and the album The Band, specifically–towards the end of my senior year of high school, when I went through a phase where I listened to a lot of "mature" music and consumed a lot of "down home" entertainment. (A lot of Garrison Keillor and John Hiatt, basically.) Maybe it was a growing-up/fear-of-leaving-the-nest-thing, I don't know, but it helped me receive The Band in the right frame of mind. I still feel the yearning on a song like "The Unfaithful Servant," which transcends its let's-pay-homage-to-crackly-old-gospel origins to become fresh and moving, with a horn section that sounds poignantly rinky-dink (long before that kind of thing was cool). It's because of The Band's superior recycling of old Americana into relatable new folk-pop that for years I distrusted the far looser Grateful Dead. Then I started to appreciate the Dead too, in a different way. (More on that when we get to the "Gr"s.)
Enduring presence? The Band has lost some critical standing in recent years, for whatever reason. (Theory: Robbie Robertson is kind of an asshole.) They may be due for a reassessment, especially among nascent alt-country fans.
Years Of Operation 1994-present
Fits Between Daft Punk and Gloria Gaynor
Personal Correspondence I'm no expert on electronica or dance music (or hip-hop, or a lot of other genres), but since I used to try to stay informed, I'd routinely buy one or two of the most acclaimed electronica/dance records each year. (First purchase in the genre: 808 State, back in '89, I think.) I've kept on picking up Basement Jaxx albums, enticed by reviews that use words like "exuberant" and "catchy," but I usually end up liking only four or five songs per record. It's shallow I know, but even though I prefer the ecstatic, everyone-rush-the-floor-and-throw-your-hands-in-the-air kind of dance music that Basement Jaxx excels in, a little of it goes a long way for me. Like I said, I'm no expert.
Enduring presence? Unlike a lot of the electronica/dance acts that emerged in the '90s, Basement Jaxx are still going strong. It's fair to say that, like Daft Punk, they'll be remembered as among the genre's leading lights. As for me, well, I've boiled down their best stuff down to a very enjoyable hour for my iPod, and if I ever start working out again, I'll look forward to listening to it more.
From the fringes of my collection, a few songs (some great, some not-so) to share .
Atari Teenage Riot, "Speed" At some point we're going to have to have a discussion about noise, aggression and tempo–as in, "How much is too much?" When they emerged in the mid-'90s, Atari Teenage Riot were supposed to represent the future, both for the way they blended electronics and rock and for the way they pushed the needles far into the red. Listening to this song now, though it's good, but is it the ultimate anything? The speed-metal riff is a little generic, while the vocals are kind of cutesy. My parents would likely find it intolerable, but in some ways it sounds less extreme than the average soda commercial.
Audrey Bryant, "Let's Trade A Little" This song is on a terrific compilation called Music City Rhythm & Blues, which collects well-known and rare soul singles cut in my hometown. I don't know whether this particular track counts as rare or well-known, but it sure does swing; and I like the way Bryant makes it a stealth duet, by having her male partner punctuate every line with a distracted "hmm." This song's a piece of mini-theater, easy to picture.
Audubon Park, "Ghettos Of The Sun" This indie-pop song has been arranged to within an inch of its life, and may in fact go too far, with a new sonic idea every 30 seconds or so. But it's agreeable–without ever becoming "catchy" per se–and it's got a wonderfully wild break, which tends to cover a lot of sins.
Autograph, "Turn Up The Radio" Rock Song Takes Pro-Rock Stance.
B. Fleischmann, "First Times" I used to get a couple of CDs in this "glitch-pop" style every month, but they slowed to a trickle over the past two years. I can't say I miss them exactly, though I usually found the music pleasant, and good for playing in the background while working. Just listen to this song: Is it even a song really, or just a mood-setter? And does it matter?
Bad Company, "Bad Company" How can a song so sonically muted still sound so menacing? Bad Company may have been a straight-ahead, no-fuss rock band, but this song practically demands to be packaged with a painting of an axe-wielding warrior. (Fun fact: The song, "Bad Company," by the band Bad Company, is from the album Bad Company. Not even Big Country went that far.)
The Ballroom, "Would You Like To Go" Let's ease into the still-yet-to-come discussion of Curt Boettcher by enjoying a song from one of his many failed attempts to step out of the producer's chair and make it as a performer. This track was recorded in 1966, when sunshine pop was still fairly new, and you can hear Boettcher already trying to grow the genre into more mystical places. The "choruses of angelic hosts" stuff is a little silly, but it's sung with tongue partly in cheek; and anyway, what the song's really evoking is the innocence and possibility of childhood. More than anything, Boettcher sensed how sunshine pop is about fantasy, so he tried to pull it along a little further, into the realm of a full-on "experience."
Band Of Horses, "Islands On The Coast" I love the combination of panoramic majesty and jangled urgency in this song, and it sounded extra good this week while flanked by the snow covered mountains of Park City. Just the perfect combination of setting and song, even for someone pretty far from any islands. I know some alt-rock fans are already over Band Of Horses, because they sound slick, dippy and soundtrack-ready; and okay, they did just essentially release the same album twice. But they have an aspirational quality that I find really touching.
Barbara McNair, "Baby A Go-Go" This is from a British compilation called A Cellarful Of Motown, a collection of unreleased tracks from the legendary label. The fun of the collection (which by the way was one of the more thoughtful Christmas gifts my wife has ever given me) is in trying to figure out, without reading the liner notes, why each of the songs in question fell just short of getting the official Motown imprimatur. In the case of this track, you can kind of hear the seams a little bit. The subject matter and the melody feels forced, although McNair's vocal and the bustling strings and horns are still convincing enough to make this song almost seem like a lost classic. It's not, really, but it's a lot of fun (and even a little moving during the bridge, when McNair laments that her baby's never around because he'sout ogling other women).
The Barbarians, "Moulty" This is one of my favorite nuggets from Nuggets: a blatant rip-off of The Righteous Brothers dressed up with goofy, practically improvisational spoken-word verses. If I had to imagine the model garage-rock track in my head, it would be something like this: tossed-off, odd, catchy, semi-personal and original in its lack of originality. (Because remember folks: originality is overrated.)
Bascam Lamar Lunsford, "Dry Bones" It's funny to think about how much money and energy some alt-country artists–and even some classic rockers–have spent trying to recreate the spare, effortless sound of this song from The Anthology Of American Folk Music. Then again, can you blame them? When Lunsford sings about how he "saw the light from heaven," Goddamnit, you believe him.
Listened to, unremarked upon:
Next week: From The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash to The Beta Band, plus a few words on music's "unknowables."