Popless Week 29: The Dark Albums
After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
"On The Beach" by Neil Young
When I was in 9th grade, I had an English teacher who nurtured my interest in rock 'n' roll by loaning me copies of The Rolling Stone Record Guide and Greil Marcus' Mystery Train, and by making tapes of anything I asked for from his collection. I moved on to a different school in 10th grade, then in 11th grade—for reasons too complicated to get into—I was reunited with my favorite English teacher, who was still willing to tape for me whatever I was interested in. Only by then I had extended my music studies in directions that diverged from his; and even when we overlapped, it wasn't exact. He loved Van Morrison's Moondance; I wanted Astral Weeks. I requested Plastic Ono Band; he preferred Imagine. And while he was into Neil Young's Harvest, I was into Rust Never Sleeps and Tonight's The Night, two albums he didn't much like.
I'm sure my musical mentor chalked up my interest in drearier, moodier records to adolescence. I was also listening to a lot of The Cure, The Smiths, Bauhaus and Sisters Of Mercy at the time, and wearing my hair all swooped over my eyes so I'd look mysterious and brooding. Yet here I am in my late 30s, with a wife and two kids, and still one of my favorite things to do in this life is to drive around on a rainy afternoon, listening to slow, sad music.
Is this impulse common? I'd like to think that we all enjoy a good wallow, except that I've met plenty of people who can't stand depressing music or depressing movies, and can't understand why anybody would want to be sad. For me though, a melancholy song is like a mood-alterering drug. My breathing slows, my heart rate lowers, and my whole brain chemistry changes. It's not unlike sleeping. And when the song is over, it's like waking up from a disturbing dream, feeling refreshed and relieved.
A dark album can be transporting in a different way. When I listen to Plastic Ono Band or Tonight's The Night, I'm not focused on myself at all. I'm joining a musician on a journey through their most pessimistic thoughts and soul-crushing experiences, and commiserating. I feel sympathetic, concerned—connected. I don't mean to imply that I understand exactly where the artist is coming from, but I at least get a rough feel. I can't fully imagine what Young was going through when he wrote and recorded Tonight's The Night, but the context is built into the music, which sounds washed-out and ramshackle, like the work of man just trying to make it to the end of the day.
In 1973, Neil Young was enjoying the success of Harvest and preparing for a tour when he fired his heroin-addicted guitarist Danny Whitten—who died of an overdose the same night Young dismissed him. Despondent and unstable, Young embarked on an erratic three-month tour that saw him playing new, crankier material to sometimes hostile crowds, and recording the results for the album Time Fades Away (which bombed when it was released in 1973 and has never been available on CD). Then Young's roadie Bruce Barry also died of a heroin overdose, and Young continued his trip into the darkness with Tonight's The Night, an album that in its original form reportedly featured long spoken-word sections in between bouts of loping, disjointed country-rock. The label didn't want to release it, so Young headed back into the studio and pumped out the relatively cleaner On The Beach, another mournful record that at least sounded professional, and contained the optimistic "Walk On." When that record bombed too, Young recorded an album called Homegrown, which both his label and all his closest associates felt was the true follow-up to Harvest, and a definite hit. But Young waffled about releasing it, and instead insisted that Reprise put out Tonight's The Night in a new, more truncated form.
I've never heard Time Fades Away and I'm up-and-down on On The Beach, but Tonight's The Night is one of those albums that makes me glad to be alive and listening to rock 'n' roll. Young has always taken an active interest in the literal sound of the records he makes, and during the early '70s he was kicking around ideas about a new kind of music, a sort of "audio verité," in which a record would be a document of the musician was going through, captured in the moment, unedited and unaltered. You can hear that impulse in songs like Tonight's The Night's "Speakin' Out:"
"Speakin' Out" by Neil Young
The song starts with a slowed-down barrelhouse piano riff, acquires a touch of bluesy guitar and cowboy slide, and then Young ambles in, slurring his words, following seemingly unconnected trains of thoughts about movies and loneliness. Each band member sounds like he's off in a room by himself, with the playback turned so low on his headphones that he only has a rough idea how what he's playing fits into the mix. "Speakin' Out" recreates the feeling of a group of people each off in their own worlds, barely understanding each other, but going through the motions of camaraderie regardless.
Later in the album, the playing is more cohesive on songs like "Albuquerque:"
"Albuquerque" by Neil Young
Here, Young sounds more sober and the band is more in concert, but tamping down the recklessness of "Speakin' Out" has had consequences. The music now feels muted and mournful, shot through with shame and regret. This is morning-after music—fraught with the awareness that while partying hard wasn't as much fun as we might've hoped, waking up the next day is even worse. And so it goes with Tonight's The Night, an album about drugs, death and existential despair that doesn't express much hope, aside from the fundamental faith that getting into a room and making music with friends will eventually bring order and meaning to a life spinning out of control.
I can understand why some people wouldn't want to put themselves through that kind of experience voluntarily, as a leisure activity, but when I listen to Tonight's The Night I can smell the dank practice spaces and taste the warm beer and feel the gastric juices burning my esophagus—and when it's over I'm me again, and can hear my son reciting the total cash and prizes of some game show contestant he just saw on TV, and watch my daughter pretending to be a cat. And I can go into the kitchen and start washing and slicing the fingerling potatoes I'm going to roast to go along with the cheese omelet and fruit salad I'm going to make my family for dinner. And I can be grateful.
P.S. I have a long list of "dark albums" that take me on very specific bum trips: American Music Club's California, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, Joy Division's Closer, and on and on. What are your downers of choice?
Pieces Of The Puzzle
The Moody Blues
Years Of Operation 1964-present
Fits Between The Alan Parsons Project and Genesis
"Lunch Break: Peak Hour" by The Moody Blues
Personal Correspondence Two Moody Blues memories recur every time I hear their music. The first is recent: In a Sunday Nancy comic strip by Guy Gilchrist—a cartoonist who's increasingly used Ernie Bushmiller's strip to voice his own appreciation for all things sacred to boomers—Aunt Fritzi announces that she's going to a concert, and when Nancy asks if it's a rock or classical concert, Fritzi says, "Both." The big reveal? She's going to see The Moody Blues! Corny, yes, but I have to say: Not entirely off-the-mark. My second lingering memory of The Moody Blues involves listening to Days Of Future Past with my folks. When they got their first car with a tape deck, my mom and stepfather went cassette-shopping at Wal Mart, plucking a handful of their favorites from the bargain bin to play when we all went on long trips. My favorite tape they bought was Steely Dan's Aja—a subject I'll be getting to in a couple of months. My second-favorite was Days Of Future Past, which never ceased to surprise me. First off, the record honestly does sound traditionally symphonic—to the extent that I'd often be surprised when the orchestra faded and the spoken-word poetry and trippy pop songs started. And those trippy pop songs flow in and out of the classical passages so fluidly that sometimes it was hard for me to remember how exactly I ended up in the thick of a thumping rock number. Days Of Future Passed is completely kitschy, from its "day in the life" conceit to its grandiose "rock as art" pretensions. But it's one of the rare concept albums where the sum and the parts are equally well-conceived. Each fragment sounds rich and fully realized, and the whole listening experience is oddly satisfying too.
Enduring presence? My Moody Blues expertise is low, I have to confess. I have Days of course, and a cheap anthology that includes a smattering of the band's hit singles, from the Nuggets-y "Ride My Seesaw" to the AC favorite "Your Wildest Dream." But I haven't properly connected the dots, and every time I listen to Days Of Future Passed, I think that any band who can pull off this particular fusion so successfully probably has other triumphs I'd enjoy. (I also think of The X-Men; comic book fans will know why.)
Years Of Operation 1988-present (solo)
Fits Between Pulp and James
"Sister I'm A Poet" by Morrissey
Personal Correspondence By all rights, Morrissey's solo career should've been a footnote to the run of The Smiths, since by the time The Smiths broke up, the prevailing opinion was that Johnny Marr was the real genius in that band, and that Morrissey's preening self-absorption was becoming a distraction (and starting to verge on self-parody on Strangeways Here We Come). The first Morrissey solo album, Viva Hate, was a happy surprise, featuring producer Stephen Street and co-writer/arranger Vini Reilly doing their best to maintain Morrissey's momentum. Songs like "Suedehead," "Hairdresser On Fire" and "Everyday Is Like Sunday" were clearly Smiths-worthy, combining lush late '60s pop with new wave and rockabilly. Then Morrissey followed it up with Bona Drag, a compilation of non-LP singles and Viva Hate rehashes that started something of a trend with Morrissey: repackaging old material over and over, and flooding the market with ungainly novelties like "The Last Of The Famous International Playboys" and "Ouija Board, Ouija Board." When he's focused, Morrissey writes songs that are effortless and evocative, telling offbeat, clearly personal stories about resentful loners. He's even shown himself capable of holding it together for a full album. (Your Arsenal would be my favorite.) But there's an element of buffoonery to him too that makes him very frustrating to follow as a fan. He's too good to dismiss; too uneven to laud.Enduring presence? I hate to be one of those "if you don't like it that's your problem man" kind of guys, but there's something perversely satisfying about the fact that even now, 20 years after we went solo, Morrissey is still so hated by so many. Many of his peers are still making music for dwindling fan bases, but people don't care enough about them to get annoyed by their very existence. Meanwhile, Morrissey comes along every couple of years with another set of snappy songs about outlaws and outcasts, and finds yet another generation of 16-year-olds who feel like they've finally found someone who understands them, and yet another generation of 22-year-olds who find their former Morrissey fandom so embarrassing that they lash out. The cycle of cool rolls on.
Years Of Operation 1975-present
Fits Between Black Sabbath and Queens Of The Stone Age
"Going To Brazil (Live)" by Motörhead
Personal Correspondence In high school, some friend or another loaned me a videotape that contained about a half-dozen episodes of The Young Ones, the British cult comedy series that briefly aired on MTV in the States, alternately befuddling and delighting we Yanks with its slapstick surrealism. That tape was my first exposure to Motörhead, who performed "Ace Of Spades"—one of the greatest heavy rock songs ever recorded—on the first episode of The Young Ones' second series. With no context for comprehending who Motörhead were and how they were perceived by the rock community at large, I pegged them as a particularly badass punk band, and promptly forgot about them, until Lemmy popped up in Penelope Spheeris' documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. (Aside: When I was in college, everyone I knew looked down on the second Decline because the bands weren't as "cool" as the bands in the first Decline; but the second is a much more ambitious and thoughtful film, and it's always been the one I prefer. Of course, they're all out of circulation now, so it's a moot debate.) I'm afraid I may have given the wrong impression earlier this year when I wrote about being afraid of certain music when I was a kid. It's true; I was. But that phase passed, and I do make loud, fast, heavy music a regular part of my listening diet. It's just not a big part. (I don't eat barbecued ribs that often either, though I think they're delicious.) Because I don't listen to much in the way of hardcore punk or metal, I'm not all that adventurous with what I do consume. I have my two Motörhead anthologies—one studio, one live—and I return to them as often as I do to anything similar. I think what appeals to me about them is that much like AC/DC, if you strip Motörhead of their noise and speed, they're basically an old-timey rock 'n' roll band, bashing out roadhouse boogie. While possessed by demons.
Enduring presence? You know what else I like about Motörhead? Nearly every song in their repertoire sounds like it's the last one of the night. They go out with a bang, over and over.
My Bloody Valentine
Years Of Operation 1984-present (?)
Fits Between Cocteau Twins and Swervedriver
"When You Wake" by My Bloody Valentine
"When You Sleep" by My Bloody Valentine
Personal Correspondence My Bloody Valentine provides a reasonable counter to the "dark album" phenomenon, since the band's most celebrated album Loveless is at once a superior wallow in dismay and an uplifting journey out. I first discovered MBV via Isn't Anything, which was exactly the kind of album I wanted to hear as a sophomore in college: chaotic yet oddly beautiful, rewarding close attention and unthinking devotion. I bought the Glider EP a year later and heard "Soon," which married the MBV sound to a dance track, promising an exciting new direction. And probably because of the promise of Glider (and my ongoing obsession with Isn't Anything), I was disappointed with Loveless at first. It seemed to move too far toward tuneless murk, not really breaking into anything melodic until "Soon," the final song. But the way the record opened up at the end with "Soon" was so thrilling that I kept taking the Loveless ride to re-experience that moment, and with each new spin, I started hearing melodies and textures that had eluded me the first time. (It says something about the core quality of Loveless that when Japancakes released an instrumental cover of the whole record last year, songs that sounded like formless noise in their original renditions were still recognizable with the distortion shaved off.) These days, I can hear rays of light throughout the record, not just at the end, though I still say that the way Loveless moves from confusion to clarity is what makes it so powerful, and so enduring. As much as I love Isn't Anything, Loveless sounds like that album remixed and amplified by someone who suddenly understands what the earlier work was meant to be. It's like a My Bloody Valentine tribute album, performed by My Bloody Valentine.
Enduring presence? Well, that's really the question, isn't it? On the one hand, it's remarkable how the reputation (if not exactly the influence) of Loveless has persisted, given what a commercial washout it was at the time. On the other hand, Shields inability to come up with another record doesn't taint the achievement exactly, but it does make it hard to contextualize. Is Shields a genius, or did he just get lucky? The fact that Isn't Anything is such a strong album too is a mark in his favor. But when I saw the band live on the Loveless tour, opening for Dinosaur Jr., they sure didn't strike me as world-beaters. They were just an ordinary alt-rock band, playing too loud and too long. How they ever recorded an album like Loveless is hard to explain.
My Morning Jacket
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between The Court & Spark and Band Of Horses
"Steam Engine" by My Morning Jacket
Personal Correspondence There aren't too many great band names left, so give Jim James credit for coming up with a perfect one. "My Morning Jacket" conjures images of a crisp fall day that warms up as the sun moves over the mountains—which pretty well describes the music, too. Initially, I counted MMJ more as a promising band with a great name than one of the premier rock acts of their generation, but they started coming into their own with It Still Moves, about which I wrote: "Kentucky-bound singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim James is yet another indie-rock guitar hero attracted to big sounds with country tinges, letting his twang drift outward and upward until it fills the atmosphere. Accordingly, James' band My Morning Jacket has drawn comparisons to the epic country-rock thump of Neil Young, but the quintet sounds more like secondhand Young, perhaps borrowed from Mark Kozelek's hypnotic, somber Red House Painters. The difference, at least on the third My Morning Jacket LP It Still Moves, is that James captures the tone and texture of Young and Kozelek without adopting their personalities. It Still Moves is more lilting than its influences; the album has the joyous Americana of The Band as a defining characteristic, evident in the generous piano and brass coda of 'Dancefloor,' and in the brightly folky 'Golden,' which equates the open road with great sex (making its point sonically by mating strings with slide guitar). My Morning Jacket creates cavernous spaces for James to fill, and the guitarist (alongside stringmate Johnny Quaid) approaches each opening a little differently, from the quixotic arpeggios of 'One Big Holiday' to the Dylanesque rumble of 'Easy Morning Rebel' to the sorrowful pluck and slide of 'Steam Engine.' Like a lot of bands who favor warm drone, My Morning Jacket doesn't do enough with rhythm; drummer Patrick Hallahan doesn't swing as much as he should, and the times where bassist Two-Tone Tommy breaks from a lockstep beat to follow his own melody show him to be an underused asset. But the monumental feeling works well on loping weepers like the slow-building 'Rollin' Back,' and on heavy, resounding rock anthems like 'Run Thru,' which sounds like something pieced together from the vaults of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane (with a tribal interlude that would suit Jane's Addiction). It Still Moves courts the easygoing, the wistful and the devastating all at once, and the band's strange, wonderful gift is that it understands how those three moods are all shades of the same blue."
Enduring presence? I liked the next album Z even more, saying, "It's both rare and marvelous to hear a good band make its first really great album. This hasn't been an era for disciplined, focused LPs, which makes listening to My Morning Jacket's Z—with its ten fantastic tracks packed tightly into 47 minutes—so bracing that it's hard to trust. Maybe Z's all surface, and will tear easily with repeated use. And isn't it kind of choppy? My Morning Jacket usually follows a smoothed-out boom-and-twang sound, but Z's all over the map stylistically, and the songs don't seem to fit together too neatly. Or maybe they do. Better play it again. It's not hard. The record's undeniably the work of My Morning Jacket—all grandeur and pounding heart—but Z's take-a-shot spirit is bound up in the nutty, insanely catchy 'Off The Record,' which stacks up a stolen surf riff, a reggae rhythm, lurching vocals, and an extended, spacey coda. At first it sounds too wild and beastly to be any good, but the hook is as infectious as freedom, and around the third time through the song, doubts dissolve. If it takes some time to adjust to, it's only because it's hard to recognize a classic right away." As you might imagine, I can't wait to hear their next album. Then I can't wait to hear their inevitable "dark" album.
Mysteries Of Life
Years Of Operation 1995-present (?)
Fits Between Blake Babies and The Rosebuds
"Going Through The Motions" by Mysteries Of Life
Personal Correspondence I have a fair-sized list of critics I count as personal heroes, and towards the top of that list would be Ira Robbins, one of the founding editors of Trouser Press magazine and record guide, and a writer who's always struck me as appropriately measured in his analysis of music, and not inclined to ape or reject the prevailing critical opinion just for the sake of it. In the late '90s, Robbins began championing Mysteries Of Life, a straight-ahead pop-rock band from Indiana that released a couple of records through RCA and a couple of records on indie labels, but never garnered much in the way of radio play or press plaudits. I got a copy of MoL's Keep A Secret—either used or through a publicist, I can't recall—and enjoyed it immensely. It was clean-sounding and catchy, with a strong emotional undertow that especially appealed to my wife. But because no one was talking about them much—and because none of the friends I loaned Keep A Secret too were overly impressed—I'd chalked them up as just another pet band that I liked because they struck me right, not because they were anything worth getting excited about. Then I learned that Robbins liked Mysteries Of Life too, and his reviews gave me a framework for appreciating the band. Robbins used words like "unassuming," "economical" and "eloquent," and about their album Come Clean, Robbins wrote, "From the haunted title track to a lonely, solemn cover of O.V. Wright's 'That's How Strong My Love Is' that channels stirring soul power through the delicate folk-pop voice of a white Midwesterner, the album is a marvel one melodic song after another deftly outlines an emotional moment of regret, desire or disappointment and leaves an echo to ponder once it's done." And summing up the band's discography on trouserpress.com, Robbins wrote, "Ultimately, it's the sound of the records as much as their content that conveys what Smith and company are getting at, and therein lies the fineness of art." I know it may sound weak to say that I couldn't fully appreciate a band until another critic told me they were okay, but that's not really what I'm getting at here. It's not just Mysteries Of Life that Robbins gave me the okay to praise—it's every band that speaks to me, and few others. Being aware of the trend of critical thought is important, and being a knee-jerk contrarian isn't especially fruitful. But the best critics are the ones who learn to love what everyone else is ignoring, and can express that love in such a way that wins converts.
Enduring presence? All three of Mysteries Of Life's albums are good, but Keep A Secret is the one I'd call one of the '90s' forgotten classics. Because there's never been a huge fanbase for MoL, I couldn't find any info on-line about whether they'd broken up for good or if there will ever be another album. Even if they're gone forever, Ira and I will always have our memories.
Years Of Operation 1979-present
Fits Between The Firesign Theater and Steinski
"A Most Successful Formula" by Negativland
Personal Correspondence I bought Escape From Noise when I was in high school, based on reviews in Rolling Stone and Spin that described a visionary record that stitched found audio into a comic commentary on Reagan-era paranoia and popular culture. Which, indeed, sums up Escape From Noise fairly well. But I wasn't prepared for Negativland's freeform approach to song structure, born of years spent improvising sonic collages on the radio. I don't know that I was expecting "hooks" exactly, but I'd thought there would be a certain degree of concision, as opposed to the jumble of archival sounds and avant-garde electronica that constitutes a typical Negativland track. Still, the luxury of being a teenager with a collection of only about 150 or 200 albums is that you tend to return over and over even to the ones you don't like that much. (I can't tell you how many times I played Paul McCartney's Pipes Of Peace album when I was 15, and that album's terrible.) Eventually, I got on Negativland's wavelength and began to enjoy Escape From Noise; I also eventually realized that compared to the rest of the Negativland discography to that point, Escape From Noise counts as a pop record. Nevertheless, I continue to be disappointed every time I hear a new Negativland album that such smart, talented guys show such little interest in couching their message in actual music, as opposed to largely indistinguishable rambles. But their style is their style, and there are times when it really works—most notably on their soda-wars deconstruction Dispepsi, which isn't any more song-oriented than their other albums, but does put all the frenetic sampling to fair use (no pun intended), replicating the blitz of advertising messages that corporate psychologists and marketing gurus sweat over, and they we all largely tune out. (Or do we?)
Enduring presence? I had a lively conversation a few years back with the two main Negativland dudes about copyright law, piracy and commercialism. I talked to them separately for about 45 minutes each, edited the transcript together into a seamless conversation, then as per request, submitted the rough draft to them both for any edits or clarifications. That's not standard procedure, but I didn't mind; I'm not in the business of "gotcha" journalism, and the reasons they both wanted to see the interview before it went into print struck me as legitimate: each didn't know what the other was going to say, and given the legal trouble they'd had in the past with bands and individuals they'd sampled, they wanted to make sure that neither one of them said anything that might land them both back in court.
Years Of Operation 1962-present
Fits Between Bobby Darin and Barry Manilow
"I Got The Feeling (Oh No, No)" by Neil Diamond
Personal Correspondence For a large chunk of my life, I was convinced that I hated Neil Diamond. I've always had fairly broad taste in music, even in my snotty punk years, but riding in the back of my mom's car listening to adult contemporary just about drove me bonkers sometimes—especially when Diamond came on the radio with that deep rasp and shmoozy persona, singing "Love On The Rocks" or "Heartlight." In the '90s, I grew more familiar with his bouncy '60s pop, and grew to like the songs, even if I was still skeptical of the man who wrote them (Why do so many of them sound alike?) and the way he sang them (Why does he seem so emotionally removed from the actual content of his lyrics so much of the time?). Over the past decade I've adjusted to Diamond, and have started to lump him in with Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli (and others) as a quintessential example of a showman who actually expresses his true self through schmaltz and cliché. The difference is that Diamond isn't as ebullient a figure as most showmen, and his run of hit songs over the first decade of his solo career are almost preternaturally great—to the extent that I almost have to wonder what kind of deal he struck with what kind of devil in order to write pop music so simple and perfect.
Enduring presence? Neil Diamond is responsible for some of the snappiest hits of the late '60s, like "Cherry Cherry," "Solitary Man," and "Sweet Caroline," but he's never been a slave to quality control, and his catalog is littered with rhinestones. More people think of him as an adult-contemporary schlockmeister than a classic pop craftsman. Rick Rubin had Diamond tone down some of his Middleville Performing Arts Center theatrics for the recent album 12 Songs, and the result is an intimate recording with a rocker's restlessness and a showman's confidence. I haven't heard the follow-up, but I'll be curious to see it continues the rehabilitation of Diamond's rep.
Years Of Operation 1968-present (solo)
Fits Between John Fogerty and My Morning Jacket
"The Loner" by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
"Thrasher" by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Personal Correspondence Speaking of riding in the back of parents' cars—and when do I not?—it was in the back of my dad's car where I once heard the old man refer to Neil Young as a "whining faggot" and switch the station when "Heart Of Gold" came on the radio. I carried that impression of Young as not-good with me until high school, when my English teacher made me a tape of "American Rock Classics" that included "Down By The River" and "Helpless." (Yes, I'm sure my teacher knew Young was Canadian; so let's call them "North American Rock Classics.") That was in 9th grade, and Young has been such an integral part of my music-listening ever since that I had a hard time settling on a song to post to represent the Young I love best. Something from my first year of Young fandom, when I was all about Harvest and After The Gold Rush? Something from the second wave, when I got into punk and blasted Rust Never Sleeps, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Tonight's The Night? Something from Freedom, which came out when I was a freshman in college and restored Young as a vital player in the decade to come? Something from one of the underrated '90s or '00s records, or from one of the hit-and-miss '70s albums that Young turned into Decade-fodder? Eventually I settled on the Live Rust version of "The Loner," from Young's first solo album (a song as explosive yet finely shaded as any of the artists Young has inspired over the decades) and the Rust Never Sleeps version of "Thrasher" (a gentle country ballad featuring Young in subtle character sketch mode a side of himself that doesn't get enough play with people talk about him as the godfather of alternative rock).
Enduring presence? Neil Young is easily the most vital rock star of his generation, but that doesn't mean he can't fall into a rut. Young continues to take chances with his albums—writing ambitious multi-song narratives, hiring veteran session men and fledgling alt-rockers, turning records into movies, and so on—but his style remains stuck in the same dichotomous mode it's been in since 1970. Either Young plays loud and droning, or he plays soft and melodic. And since his gifts have mellowed greatly over the last decade, the noisy Young tends to be kind of dull these days, while the gentle Young creates beautiful things almost in spite of himself. I really loved the recent Prairie Wind, and I'm sure that before Young dies, he'll record another album or two that I'll love just as much, and a slew of stuff that I'll find boring and beneath him. (And I'm sure he'll infuriate me by postponing the Archives project again probably right after I buy a Blu-Ray player so I can listen to the damn thing.) When Young finally does expire, I expect I'll be as sad about an entertainer's passing as I've ever been. I feel like I felt when Robert Altman died—like I've lost a true companion.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
The Mooney Suzuki, "O Sweet Susana"
"O Sweet Susana" by The Mooney Suzuki
I used to hunt for big record stores with big inventories, where I might stumble across some of the harder-to-find albums on my wish-list. Now I can find pretty much everything I know about on-line, and I'd rather look for record stores where I might discover something I don't know. Such a place is Grimey's in Nashville, which opened after I left town but quickly became one of my go-to destinations whenever I returned. Grimey's was especially helpful in the early '00s, when I got interested in the neo-garage movement and needed tips about what avenues to pursue. That's how I found The Mooney Suzuki, the star-crossed New York rock band that briefly seemed like one of the best things going on the scene, until they made their big push by hiring Avril Lavigne's sound technicians The Matrix to lube and tighten their sound into a smooth-running, high-powered mechanism. The band's major label debut Alive & Amplified was a shlocky record ideal for TV ads and strip-club DJs—and not much else. Prior to that album though, The Mooney Suzuki made one fine album, Electric Sweat, about which I wrote: "The Mooney Suzuki are all about old clothes, unkempt hair, and loud music with handclaps. They're cooking up the essence of retro adolescent hormonal surge, and making music that's all 'go,' recalling an exact out-past-curfew, hours-before-bedtime moment. The Mooney Suzuki's one moment of pure rock glory is the uptempo ballad 'Oh Sweet Susanna,' with its tire-skid guitar sting and frug-friendly shuffle. When the song tails off after three-and-a-half minutes, it matters not a bit whether the band is stuck in the past, perpetually recycling. What matters is that the song demands to be played again, like immediately."
Morphine, "I'm Free Now"
"I'm Free Now" by Morphine
The late Mark Sandman and his band Morphine were blessed with a sound like no other, with a noir-ish saxophone and rhythmic rumble underscoring Sandman's basso raps. But they suffered some from the "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" syndrome. I liked Morphine from the start, and liked them all the way up to Sandman's untimely end, because they were one of those bands that was instantly recognizable. And, inevitably, a little predictable
Mose Allison, "New Parchman"
"New Parchman" by Mose Allison
Speaking of one-note acts who had a good long run, here's Mose Allison, a jazz pianist and vocalist who combined a spare cabaret playing style, soft monotone voice, and arch beatnik lyrics into his own special style—adopting the persona of a twinkle-eyed old hipster who likes puzzles and secrets. Allison's a good example of how a musician can extend a one-note style into a fruitful career, just by being the only one out there off-beat enough to play that note.
The Most Serene Republic, "Where Cedar Nouns And Adverbs Walk"
"Where Cedar Nouns And Adverbs Walk" by The Most Serene Republic
Ontario's The Most Serene Republic is Broken Social Scene's closest non-blood relation, sharing a Canadian province and a record label, though The Most Serene Republic's poppier sound (and their charismatic lead vocalist Adrian Jewett) are partly at odds with the goals of Broken Social Scene's faceless art-rock collective. The Most Serene Republic are making indie-prog with personality. Their debut album Underwater Cinematographer shifts gears so often that the lack of a formula becomes paradoxically formulaic, as nearly every song cycles through a half-dozen styles and two-dozen instruments over an average of four weird, wonderful minutes. But Jewett and company have such a gift for melody and such an enthusiasm for joyful noise-making that they make fringe music sound endearingly natural
The Motels, "Only The Lonely"
"Only The Lonely" by The Motels
It took almost a decade for Martha Davis and The Motels to get any attention from labels and record buyers, and it wasn't until the wide-open new wave era—when any LA band that dressed the part got a second look—that they were propelled into the Top 10 with this wonderful, shadowy ballad, followed by the similar-sounding "Suddenly Last Summer." Like a lot of other musicians from their scene and their time, The Motels had a little success and tried their best to tease it out, by letting go of whatever might've been distinctive about their sound in favor of something more contemporary. A couple of minor hits later, they were consigned to the hell of line-up changes, ill-fated reunions, stiff comeback records and the state fair circuit. Only the lonely, indeed.
Mother Love Bone, "Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns"
"Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns" by Mother Love Bone
Mudhoney, "You Got It"
"You Got It" by Mudhoney
As I've written before, I'd read all about the Seattle scene well before I heard any of the actual music, and the grunge sound ultimately impressed me more on paper than it did when the albums finally started showing up in Athens record stores. My first real exposure to the Seattle wave came via Mudhoney's debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff, which was certainly good—some Stooges, some Sabbath, and some Sonic Youth, casually combined—but which hardly seemed worth all the excitement in the rock press. I felt the same way about the band's self-titled debut, despite the presence of undeniably awesome rockers like "You Got It," and that's pretty much been my relationship with Mudhoney ever since. I buy their albums, and I've even seen them live twice, and while I enjoy them for what they are, I can't help feeling a little disappointed that they're not smarter or more monolithic. Of the bands that spun off from seminal Seattle band Green River, I'm more intrigued by Mother Love Bone, if only because they evolved into Pearl Jam, a band that I also have mixed feelings about, but which has shown more ambition and range over time. (I'll be covering them at length in a couple of weeks.) Had Mother Love Bone's lead singer not died, I don't know that I would've become a huge fan. They did have an appealingly mainstream rock sound, but Andrew Wood's voice and persona was a little too Sunset Strip—like a JV Axl Rose. For all his annoying personality quirks, I prefer Eddie Vedder, who has a richer voice and an essential earthiness. Vedder would look ridiculous in a silk bandana.
The Mountain Goats, "You Or Memory"
"You Or Your Memory" by The Mountain Goats
From 1991 to 2002, John Darnielle and his mostly one-man band The Mountain Goats recorded hundreds of songs on a hissy old boom box, tackling all the big subjects: failing marriages, world travel, enduring friendships, souls in crisis, and baseball. In 2002 Darnielle left his living room to record in a real studio, and allowed his plainspoken stories to develop like the literate character pieces they'd always been. My favorite of the "phase two" Mountain Goats albums (and my favorite Mountain Goats album period) is The Sunset Tree, Darnielle's extended reaction to the death of his abusive stepfather. An atmosphere of mixed feelings settles over that record like a thin web. Sticking largely to tight arrangements of acoustic guitar, piano, organ and brisk percussion, Darnielle sings songs of sorrowful defiance, full of vivid memories of childhood, sounding sounds like a youthful Bruce Springsteen backed by The Waterboys (or perhaps Mike Scott backed by a youthful E Street Band). He gets in and out of his songs quick, leaving behind a few choice lines as souvenirs. His is a life of artifacts for further study, like this list of "supplies" from The Sunset Tree's opening song: "St. Joseph's baby aspirin / Bartles & Jaymes / And you / Or your memory."
Mouse & The Traps, "A Public Execution"
"A Public Execution" by Mouse & The Traps
Nuggets brings us this garage-rock riff on Bob Dylan, trying to replicate the Blonde On Blonde sound for a buck-ninety-eight.
Mr. Mister, "Broken Wings"
"Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister
There are one-hit (or even two-or-three-hit) wonders in every era, but in the mid-'80s it seemed like the charts were crowded with bands like The Hooters, The Outfield and Mr. Mister—unclassifiable mainstream rock acts cranking out catchy, state-of-the-art radio fare and then disappearing before anyone could mistake them for one of the all-timers. Where did they all go? Did their lead singers all take A&R; jobs with their labels and spend the rest of their careers hiding out in boardrooms?
Mudcrutch, "On The Street"
"On The Street" by Mudcrutch
When I got the Tom Petty box set Playback for Christmas one year, my favorite part was hearing the small sampling of Petty's pre-Heartbreakers recordings, both from his solo development deal and with his first serious band, Mudcrutch. There's not much that especially Petty-ish about this snappy tune; there's barely a hint of Byrds-y jangle or swampy funk. And yet the way "On The Street" zips along, catchy as a fishing lure, really speaks well of Petty's inherent pop sense, which has been the foundation for his success all along.
Muddy Waters, "Mannish Boy"
"Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters
We didn't have cable when I was growing up, so I saw a lot of the biggest movies of early '80s when they aired on TV, expurgated. I taped Risky Business off of our local UHF station, and even without the nudity and profanity, the movie's take on high school pressure and sexual desire really hit home, and its sensibility became imprinted on mine. This version of Muddy Waters' signature song "Mannish Boy" appeared on the Risky Business soundtrack, and is drawn from the 1977 album Hard Again, for which Waters was backed by Johnny Winter and his band. I knew nothing about Waters when I head "Mannish Boy" on the Risky Business soundtrack, but its rawness and rowdiness were so impressive that it kind of spoiled me for the more polished and tasteful forms of electric blues—much the way Risky Business spoiled me for other, less sophisticated teen sex comedies.
Mull Historical Society, "Instead"
"Instead" by Mull Historical Society
I'm not sure why this Scottish indie-pop band didn't reap the rewards of the interest in all things rock and Scottish back at the dawn of the new millennium, but they put out three very good albums between 2001 and 2004, mixing elements of worldbeat exotica with breezy, arty, folk-rooted music. "Instead" is a good example of Mull Historical Society in their stately and dreamy mode, which balances their busy and uptempo mode. It's charming and chiming, with a stirring lyric.
Mystikal, "Bouncin' Back"
"Bouncin' Back" by MystikalNas, "Heaven"
"Heaven" by Nas
I'm not going to pretend like I'm well-versed enough in either of these artists—or in 21st century hip-hop—to register any kind of authoritative opinion about either. So I'll just talk about these two songs, both of which represents aspects of hip-hop that still resonate with me, even in my dilettantery. "Bouncin' Back" offers Mystikal as a hip-hop Cab Calloway, grunting about his resilience in a catchy call-and-response, while "Heaven" is smooth and cinematic, with Nas waxing philosophical over a moody track. It's cockiness versus thoughtfulness, but in both cases, the performers' natural charisma is the most important element in the mix.
Nada Surf, "Fruit Fly"
"Fruit Fly" by Nada Surf
Nada Surf may not have been the last band anyone expected to become briefly relevant, but their 2003 album Let Go did catch me and a lot of other people off-guard. The New York power trio began its career performing Weezer-like brat-punk, but Let Go fused post-Radiohead sweep with Death Cab For Cutie-style indie-rock, complete with airy melodies, heavy rhythms and sparkling guitar. Bandleader Matthew Caws added lyrics that invested common items like beer signs, Dylan albums, snowed-in cars and clouds of fruit flies with richer meanings, reading them as emblematic of modern lovers' struggles to connect. The album that followed was a bit of a let-down—too slick, too shallow—and I haven't heard Nada Surf's latest, but Let Go is one of those rare cases where a pretty good band works above their capabilities and produces something amazing.
Nancy Sinatra, "As Tears Go By"
"As Tears Go By" by Nancy Sinatra
There's something romantic about the very idea of Nancy Sinatra: the second-generation pop star with an idiosyncratic style and her feet simultaneously in the worlds of the establishment and the upstarts. Sinatra could've coasted on her family name, had a few novelty hits, made a few movies, and lived on as a footnote to her dad's career. Instead she hooked up with the likes of Lee Hazlewood and Billy Strange, and developed her own distinctive style—aloof, declamatory, seductive—that made her a star for a time, and then an enduring cult act.
The National, "Lit Up"
"Lit Up" by The National
By all rights, The National should probably be a Piece Of The Puzzle, and if I were doing this series in 2009 instead of 2008, they might well be. But I really just haven't spent enough time with The National. I liked their first two albums, though little about them seemed to portend that they'd become one of the most beloved bands of the '00s. Alligator was more impressive, but it came out at an odd time when I couldn't give it much attention, and then something similar happened with Boxer. Honestly, the hour or so I spent listening The National this week is about the most time I've spent thinking about them ever. They're clearly my kind of band—resounding, dynamic, moody—but I'll have to put them back in my "subjects for further research" file and get back to them next year.
The Nazz, "Open My Eyes"
"Open My Eyes" by The Nazz
And here we have the first appearance of Todd Rundgren in our little project, though far from the last. What's awesome about this propulsive garage-rocker is the way Rundgren nips snottily from The Who in the opening riff and the way he throws in a dreamy pop break that's completely unlike the rest of the song. Even here, in an under-three-minute rock single, Rundgren is showing all the wit, invention and smart-ass bluster that would shortly become his stock-in-trade.
The Negro Problem, "Father Popcorn"
"Father Popcorn" by The Negro Problem
Even more than catching up with the new My Morning Jacket and The Hold Steady—though not so much as getting my first taste of Fleet Foxes—one of things I'm most looking forward to picking up and digging into when this project is over is the cast album for Passing Strange, the recent Tony-winning Broadway musical written by and starring The Negro Problem's Stew. I first heard about the show after Popless had begun, and I confess I cheated a bit and watched the cast's performance at The Tonys, and was even more excited to hear the whole show. (Or at least to see the film of it that Spike Lee is reportedly going to shoot.) I'll cover Stew in full later on, but I wanted to share this Negro Problem song, which is practically a demo for the musical theater he was probably already contemplating back in 2002.
Neil Finn, "Anytime"
"Anytime (Live)" by Neil Finn
I haven't really given either of the Finn brothers their due in Popless to date (though Tim will be getting a big warm hug once Split Enz rolls around), but I've got nothing but love for this song that Finn recorded for 2001's One Nil and for that same year's live album 7 Worlds Collide. It's so solidly built and so direct, and yet Finn's earnest voice and plaintive melody make it sound about as close to the truth as a pop record can get.
Neil Richardon, "The Riviera Affair"
"The Riviera Affair" by Neil Richardson
Let's step out of the dark to end the week, and head into a world of intrigue and international affairs. Hurry. The jetway is about to pull off.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Moreno Veloso, Mos Def, Mosquitos, Mott The Hoople, Mouse On Mars, Múm, N*E*R*D, Nanci Griffith, Nat King Cole and Natalie Merchant
Also listened to: The Monks,
Monster Bobby, Monsters Are
Waiting, Montag, Montserrat Figueras, Mood Elevator,
Moonbabies, The Moonglows, The Moore Brothers, Moovers,
Mophono, The Mops, Morcheeba,
Moreau, The Morells, Morning
Star, Morris Pejoe, Mort Stevens & His
Orchestra, Mortlis, Moses Dillard, Moses Guest, Moth, The Motherhood,
Motion Commotion, The Motions, Motor Boys Motor, The Motors,
Mountain Con, Mountain Heart, Mouserocket, Moussa Doumbia,
Moviola, Mowett, Mr. Tube, The Mr. T
Experience, Mrs. Fletcher, Mrs. Fun, Ms Tyree "Sugar"
Jones, Ms. John Soda, MSTRKRFT, Mt.
Egypt, Mud Bluff, Mudvayne, The Muffs,
Mugison, The Multiple Cat, Murder By Death, Murs, Muse,
Mushroom, Music A.M., The Music
Explosion, Music For Animals, The Music Tapes,
Musiq, Musique, The Mutton Birds,
Mutual Admiration Society, Mutya Buena,
My Favorite, My Latest Novel, My Vitriol, Myriad, Myron McGhee, The Myrtles,
Mystiques, Naked Eyes, Nancy Wilson, Nappy Roots, The Nashville Bluegrass Band,
Natacha Atlas, Natalise, Nate Evans, Nate Ruth, Nathan,
Nathan & Stephen, Nathan Oliver, National Eye, The National Lights, The
National Trust, Naughty By Nature, Navies, Naysayer, Nazaré Pereira, Nazareth,
Neal Hefti, Ned Van Go, Nedelle. The Need, Neguinho Da Beija Flor, Neil &
Iraiza, Neil Clear and Neil Richardson
Next week: From Neko Case to Olivia Tremor Control, plus a few words on Anglophilia