Popless Week One: Bye-eye-eye My Albums
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.
"Buy My Album" by Harry Nilsson
One week into cutting myself off from all new music, I shouldn't be experiencing any withdrawal, but to be honest, I've been feeling the itch since November, when I started getting early '08 records in the mail. I want to hear what the new British Sea Power disc sounds like, and the new Nada Surf, and Chris Walla's solo album, and the second efforts by the semi-reconstituted American Music Club and the reformed Eric Matthews. Up until last week, our music editor still had me on the record reviewer e-mail circulation list, which meant I had to restrain myself from volunteering when he asked who wanted to review the latest from Marah and The Magnetic Fields; and just yesterday, I saw that one of my all-time favorite albums, Pylon's Gyrate has been reissued on CD, but my excitement faded when I realized I couldn't buy it until October.
Of course it's all well and good to romanticize the experience of listening to these records, but to be honest, at this point in my life, the four or five full spins I'd be likely to do of the new American Music Club would probably be little more than a stopover on the way to distilling the album down to its best songs for my iPod.
I know this idea strikes some as irresponsible at best, blasphemous at worst, and believe me, I know where those folks are coming from. There's something to be said for just popping in a disc, playing it straight through, and letting its moods alter your moods. Also, some artists don't survive the chop-'em-up process too well. Just last month, I picked up the complete discography of Brinsley Schwartz, the ill-fated pub rock band that Nick Lowe ostensibly fronted before going solo at the dawn of the New Wave era. Brinsley Schwartz recorded three very good albums–Silver Pistol, Nervous On The Road and New Adventures–but if I were to pick and choose their best songs for an iPod playlist, I'm not sure I'd include more than three or four per record. As a whole, those albums sound terrific, balancing memorable songs with affable filler; but out of context, the best tracks sound more ordinary and the filler sounds pointless.
Nevertheless, I think music buffs who insist on the inviolable supremacy of the album as an irreducible unit of music are as annoying as the cinephiles who don't think you've really "seen" a movie if you watch it on DVD and not in a theater. No one thinks it's strange to start and stop a book, or to thumb back through it to re-read a favorite passage; and only the most persnickety fan would complain about everyone who plays CDs in their cars and turns them off when they reach their destination. But mention that you've only got your favorite four songs from OK Computer on your iPod and some people act like you just raped Jonny Greenwood's mother.
That's such a historically blinkered point of view, too. The development of the long-playing record was market-driven, not art-driven. The idea of "the concept album" was popularized by Frank Sinatra in the mid-'50s, and even then the idea was to group songs that shared a common theme, not necessarily to develop a story or grow a mood. Only in the late '60s–twenty years after the LP was introduced–did albums like Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper's and Tommy make the notion of cohesive 40-minute or 80-minute suites of songs seem natural, not remarkable. Yet even then, the average pop and rock album still consisted of three or four potential hit singles and a bunch of middling fare from the songwriter mills. (Of course, back then artists were turning out one or two albums a year, so there was little time to wait for perfection.) The CD era exposed the flimsiness of the "album is all" idea, once the same top acts who used to make us wade through 25 minutes of slop to hear 15 minutes of great music now stretched out their discs to 70 minutes, without increasing the number of songs worth hearing.
That said, I am sympathetic to the album-firsters, who probably share my own happy memories of the days when I only owned 20 or so LPs, and played each of them over and over until I'd memorized every nuance. A few months ago, I bought a CD reissue of Haircut 100's Pelican West, and though I was certain that the only songs I'd ever played off my old vinyl copy were the hits ("Love Plus One" and "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)," for those old enough or nerdy enough to care), I actually found myself singing along with nearly every track. I could probably do the same with every record I received in my first Columbia Record & Tape Club shipment, which included Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age Of Wireless, The Police's Ghost In The Machine, Duran Duran's Rio, Billy Joel's The Stranger, and four others I can't recall off-hand.
So yes, my eyes do get misty when I recall those days of knowing every crackle and skip on every song of every album I own. But on the other hand, I'm sure I listened to "Rehumanize Yourself" and "Lonely In Your Nightmare" far more than they ever deserved.
And now commences the alphabetical journey through my music collection, with notes on some acts to help explain how the collection fits together (or if it does):
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1972-1982
Fits Between The Bee Gees and The Partridge Family
Personal Correspondence For a time, I couldn't hear "Dancing Queen" without remembering the miserable year my family spent in Searcy, Arkansas, where my dad jockeyed the night shift at a pop radio station before we inevitably moved to another town and another station. (That line about "up and down the dial" in the WKRP theme song was painfully accurate.) Along with The Eagles' "New Kid In Town" and Foreigner's "Cold As Ice," "Dancing Queen" immediately evokes a kind of go-nowhere melancholy, intentionally or not. But I think it's partly intentional. As hooky and danceable as ABBA's songs can be, they carry a stiff chill that keeps them from being "joyous," per se. In their era–and now, I suppose–ABBA's often dismissed as too technically precise and frothy, but I'm constantly surprised by how many structural surprises I find in songs like "Mamma Mia," which take some crooked paths to get to their naggingly catchy choruses.
Enduring presence? From a critical standpoint, ABBA's reputation was on the brink of being rehabilitated before that damn musical opened, and in-laws and spouses everywhere dragged budding music nerds to see it, thus turning them off ABBA forever. Myself, the only ABBA disc I have is Gold, the hits collection, and I expect that 10 or 11 of that record's 20 tracks will suffice for the rest of my life. (I mean, I respect ABBA, but I wouldn't call them a "subject for futher study," to use hardcore critical parlance.).
Years Of Operation 1963-1969
Fits BetweenThe Rascals and The Yardbirds
Personal Correspondence I went through a phase early in the '00s when I was snapping up compilations and anthologies of late '60s sunshine pop and freakbeat acts, which I usually found by clicking through the "sounds like" suggestions on Amazon and All Music Guide after inputting the name of a band I already knew. Somewhere along the way I came across these wayward British Invasion obscurities, who combined an airy pop sound with some heavy backbeat and mod grit–some of it provided by Beatles producer George Martin, who considered these boys a pet project. (For an example, listen to "Never Ever," below). On the demos for what would've been their lone album Rolled Gold, The Action headed out in more highfalutin directions, with a tinge of acid staining their blue-eyed soul. But their label balked, and the songs went largerly unheard for 30 years before getting a CD issue.
Enduring presence? Both Rolled Gold and Action Packed are top-to-bottom good, and I plan to keep them both pretty much intact. (I'll trim some for the iPod, but keep the discs.) There's probably something more to be said about "lost bands" and why jaded jerks like me are so taken with them, but I'll save it for a future week.
"Never Ever" by The Action
The Addrisi Brothers
Years Of Operation 1959-1984
Fits BetweenThe Association and The Everly Brothers
Personal Correspondence Another band from my extended flirtation with semi-forgotten late '60s pop. This California duo is best known for penning The Association's hit "Never My Love," though on their own, the Addrisis put together some very enjoyable soft rock, laced with strings, bells, and free-roaming melodies. There's some undertones of Cosmic Americana to their sound too, which elevates them from the standard "AM Gold" treacle. Or maybe I'm just deluding myself because I spent money on their anthology, and want to believe I've found a buried gem. I get that way sometimes.
Enduring presence? In addition to the hit-and-miss 1972 album (the reissue of which tacks on some singles), The Addrisi Brothers are best represented by a single track included on the Warner Bros. rarities collection Come To The Sunshine. You can hear it below. This is what sunshine pop is all about: breathy, earnest sentiment and pillowy arrangements. Cynics beware.
"Time To Love" by The Addrisi Brothers
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream
Personal Correspondence It's both rare and blessed when a band comes along that's exactly what you were hoping to hear at that time and place in your life. So it was for me and Air's Moon Safari. In the mid'90s, Air fused a couple of musical trends–electronica and neo-lounge–that hadn't done much for me individually, and in some ways Air was making the music I'd always heard in my head when writers described those genres. A lot of times the hype surrounding a new band can create expectations impossible to fulfill, but even now, just the opening notes of songs like "Talisman," "Çe Matin La" and "New Star In The Sky" make me melt a little; they're just so cinematic, so spacious, so sophisticated, and so beautiful. I was a 27-year-old newlywed in a well-paying, inordinately stressful corporate job when Moon Safari was released in the US, and listening to that album made me feel more like a grownup than my paycheck and retirement plan ever did. The singles that preceded Moon Safari are a little too formless for my taste (with a few exceptions), and the albums afterward too brittle and droney (though I like large chunks of 10000 Hz Legend, and think last year's gentle Pocket Symphony was underrated). Yet even now, years after I started working at home as a fulltime freelance writer, the warm sonic wash of "La Femme D'Argent" solves a lot of problems.
Enduring presence? I worry that Air's diminishing critical reputation will retroactively tamp down Moon Safari and keep it from holding its place in the canon. Even so, it'll be one of the few albums that'll always remain intact on my iPod. (Well, mostly intact. I've never liked "Sexy Boy" sorry, purists.)
Years Of Operation 1966-present
Fits Between Gerry Rafferty and Gilbert O'Sullivan
Personal Correspondence I'm unapologetic about my love for Stewart's rambling late '70s/early '80s FM radio staples "Time Passages," "Year Of The Cat" and "Midnight Rocks," all of which have a dozing-in-the-back-seat-of-my-parents'-car-on-the-way-home-from-a-dinner-party vibe, probably because that's the way I most often heard them. These songs were like messages from the mystical grown-up night, awash in strings and horns and stream-of-consciousness imagery (and probably a guitar solo from Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, for all I know). Last year, Collector's Choice started reissuing Stewart's pre-Year Of The Cat folk albums, and I requested the first two from a publicist, because sometimes these guys who only scored a couple of familiar hits end up having a treasure trove of great material that only the cultists know about. (Case in point: consider the average person's knowledge of Harry Nilsson, versus his astonishingly rich discography.) As it happens, those first two albums aren't lost classics, but they each contain some really fine examples of that place where late-night soft-rock and legitimate folk music intersect: like the 18-minute title track of Stewart's sophomore album Love Chronicles, which compiles personal reminiscences and lovers' anecdotes and sets them to a peppy acoustic riff that's gradually joined by psychedelic electric guitar and pounding drums. (Trivia: It's also reportedly the first pop record to include the word "fucking.")
Enduring presence? When I'm done with this project, I'd like to hear some more of Stewart's early albums, though I confess I'll probably end up cherry-picking their best tracks. And I have no expectations that the larger world of rock, pop and folk fandom will ever hail Stewart, unless he lands a bunch of his old songs on the soundtrack to a Noah Baumbach film or something.
The Alan Parsons Project
Years Of Operation 1975-1987
Fits Between The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd
Personal Correspondence Okay, I'm a little more apolgetic about my soft spot for Parsons, which is based solely on the omnipresence of hits like "Eye In The Sky" and "Damned If I Do" when I was growing up, as well as the arrival of the APP's first greatest hits album at a time in my life when I was moving away from prog and classic rock toward pop and college rock. At the time, The Alan Parsons Project let me have my hooks and my pretension too, though now I can't pretend I listen to "I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You" or "Don't Let It Show" with anything other than blinkered nostalgia and a little bit of kitsch pleasure.
Enduring presence? I have a double-disc Alan Parsons anthology, believe it or not, and it could stand to be trimmed down to its best dozen tracks and then pitched. God knows I don't need to hear "(The System Of) Doctor Tarr And Professor Feather" ever again.
Years Of Operation 1992-present (solo)
Fits Between Lou Reed and Freddy Fender
Personal Correspondence Because I was nurtured in Nashville among rock critics and musicians who revere songwriting almost more than sound, I've always felt pressure to genuflect before the likes of John Prine, Joe Henry, Lucinda Williams and Alejandro Escovedo. In truth, I have no major beef with any of those fine songsmiths, though they rarely hit me on a visceral level. Of all of them, I'm inclined to prefer Escovedo, because he sports a heavy Velvet Underground influence, and can really smoke on guitar when he wants to. The main problem I have with his songs is that they sound overly similar from album to album: just an alternating set of ravers and monotone mood pieces, with the occasional Latin touch. Plus my wife's not really a fan, which may impair my enjoyment some; I didn't start trying to get into Escovedo until the live album More Miles Than Money in '96, the year I got married, so I haven't been able to spend much time driving around, blasting his music alone. But whenever I do, I fall into his zone easily–if never fully
Enduring presence? Escovedo's canonical, yes? At least among the Austin City Limits set. I still need to hear some of the early albums in full. The post '96 work I've consolidated down to its peak 25 songs.
The Allman Brothers Band
Years Of Operation 1969-present
Fits Between Lynyrd Skynrd and Santana
Personal Correspondence The Allmans are really my dad's band, since they brought together the kind of instrumental virtuosity and respect for roots music that he prized above all in music. I'm more of a dilettante when it comes to the Allmans, only delving as far as the CD compilation A Decade Of Hits and an old vinyl copy of Live At The Fillmore, the double-album that many critics cite as essential. I'm afraid I have less use for the sprawling blooze jams of the live Allmans as I do the tighter studio rock of songs like "No One To Run With" and "Melissa." And I especially I have a soft spot for the long instrumentals that border on fusion: "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed," "Dreams," and especially "Jessica," which is one of the favorite songs of the best man at my wedding, and which scored many a happy, aimless late night drive around Nashville.
Enduring presence? For me, they'll endure along with my fondness for my dad (who's no longer with us) and my best man (who certainly is, reformed though he may be).
Years Of Operation 1970-present
Fits Between The Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Personal Correspondence Did you know that Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" was Number 1 on the Billboard pop charts for exactly one week in 1972, before it was knocked out by America's Young rip-off "A Horse With No Name?" For that alone, I should hate America–both the band and the country–but have you ever really listened to "Ventura Highway?" I know America is tarred with the soft rock brush, and further tainted because of George Martin's attempts to package them as the successor to The Beatles; but "Ventura Highway," "Tin Man" and "Sister Golden Hair" are superior examples of the breezy early '70s AM sound. They're mildly rocking, needlessly philosphical, and as hooky as a tackle box. For someone who grew up in downscale southern suburbs, the silvery guitar that runs through "Ventura Highway" sounds like the blue skies, open spaces, and general mildness that are rarely found in real life.
Enduring presence? I've got the classic greatest hits collection History (cover art by Phil Hartman!), which is all anyone reasonably needs, though the 2007 "comeback" record Here & Now–half-new, half-live–has some really likeable new material and some rollicking versions of the classic fare. I don't expect America's critical rep to be rehabilitated (even with the backing of Adam Schlesinger and James Iha, who produced Here & Now) and I have no plans to explore their older albums any further, but they've got about 10 songs worth keeping around, and I'm happy to keep them.
The American Analog Set
Years Of Operation 1995-present(?)
Fits Between Low and Stereolab
Personal Correspondence File this Texas band in the ever-expanding file of Great Acts That Never Broke Through. Their first four albums–1996's The Fun Of Watching Fireworks, 1997's From Our Living Room To Yours, 1998's The Golden Band and 2001's Know By Heart–are small, well-crafted gems, that make the most of bare-bones recording conditions to create an intimate, whispery, yet fully textured sound. AmAnSet grew along the way, from the seven-minute semi-acoustic krautrock homages of the first album to the compact pop maneuvers of Know By Heart. Their two subsequent albums were alternately blandly uninspired and pleasant rehashes of past triumphs. They've been silent since 2005's enjoyable Set Free, though given how minor those last two records were, I can't say I've missed them. Still, it's too bad American Analog Set never reached even the minor league fame of bands like The Arcade Fire or The Hold Steady. Even heavy-duty indie-rock fans don't know much about AmAnSet's agreeable drone, represented well by "Know By Heart," below.
Enduring presence? The first four albums will remain in my collection permanently (though slightly trimmed on iTunes), while the rest will be salvage jobs.
"Know By Heart" by The American Analog Set
American Music Club
Years Of Operation 1982-present
Fits Between R.E.M. and Bobby Darin
Personal Correspondence I was pretty depressed myself when I bought–or shoplifted, I can't recall–AMC's intensely morose 1991 album Everclear, which came out of nowhere to top a bunch of critics' lists, and in the year of Nevermind no less. I was less than a year away from graduating, about 25 pounds overweight, and still reeling from a bad break-up with my first serious girlfriend. Though lyrics like "I'm sick of food, but I'm still hungry" were written from different perspectives than my own (that one in particular is reportedly from the point of view of an AIDS patient), I identified with both the sentiment of the words and the music's gossamer melancholy. I picked up the earlier records, and the subsequent ones (the best of which is 1993's Mercury) and American Music Club became the primary soundtrack to my first year after college, when I was living back in my parents' basement, working two minimum-wage jobs, with no career prospects, no woman, no car, and getting drunk three or four nights a week. I'm not sure if bandleader Mark Eitzel's brand of theatrical sorrow–which plays more puckishly in concert, I discovered one wonderful night in Atlanta–will ever be in fashion among the kind of people who buy rock records, but if Rhino or somebody were to put out a good, remastered anthology, that would help a bunch. (It's a shame that we can't currently hear songs like "Clouds," below, with the sonic impact intended.) The band's 2004 comeback record Love Songs For Patriots was quite good–if not quite a peak effort–and bodes well for the new one. How does The Golden Age sound? It's sitting on my shelf right now, and it's killing me not to know.
Enduring presence? I could never turn loose of any American Music Club album–not even the sludgy, misguidedly pop-minded 1986 debut The Restless Stranger, which is kind of underrated in my opinion–and I've actually loaded the bulk of them onto my iTunes. That's four-and-a-half hours of solid mope.
"Clouds" by American Music Club
From the fringes of my collection, a few songs (some great, some not-so) to share with you .
The A-Sides, "Cinematic" This is from an album that came out last year, and presents a dilemma I face frequently with indie-rock in particular. The opening is very evocative, but the mood is undone by the sing-songy chorus. So should I keep it or not? Will I skip it if it comes up on shuffle? I have seven other songs on my hard drive from this album, Silver Storms, so obviously I have high hopes for The A-Sides' future. If they can follow the instincts of the first part of "Cinematic," and skip the obviousness of the rest, they could be a band to watch.
"Cinematic" by "The A-Sides"
Al-N, "American In The 21st Century" If you want to understand why I'm tired of sorting through promo CDs looking for something to review, I offer this quasi-protest song. Imagine listening to shit like this for an hour or so a day, times 17 years.
"American In The 21st Century" by Al-n
The Aluminum Group, "Love To Know" I have no context for this sad little number about absent friends, but damned if it doesn't make me want to stop whatever I'm doing and gaze out the window at the piles of leaves in my front yard. And then to call the leaf guy to come take them away.
"Love To Know" by The Aluminum Group
Amanda Ambrose, "(I Ain't Singing) No More Sad Songs" I could listen to the verses of this song all day long, with their weird mix of Broadway, lo-fi rock and gutter R&B.; But damn if the bridge and chorus aren't so blunt and bland that they all but ruins the song. Shades of "Cinematic."
"(I Ain't Singing) No More Sad Songs" by Amanda Ambrose
Listened to, unremarked upon: A, A.C. Newman, A.R. Kane, A.M. Interstate, ABC, Abigail Washburn, The Acacia Strain, Acetone, Acid House Kings, The Acorn, Actionslacks, Adam & The Ants, Adam Arcuragi, Adam Franklin, Adam Green, Adam Sandler, Adam Zwig, Addie Graham, Adem, Adrian Belew, Adrian Quesada, Adrienne Young, ADULT., The Adverts, Aereogramme, The Afghan Whigs, AFI, Afro-Celt Sound System, Afro-Mystik, Afterhours, Against Me!, Agatsuma, Aged In Harmony, Agent Sparks, Airiel, Air Miami, The Aislers Set, AK-MOMO, Akyra, Al Green, Al Kooper, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Alan Charing, Alan Hawkshaw, Alan Reeves, Alan Tew, Alanis Morissette, The Alarm, Albert Hammond Jr., Albion Country Band, The Album Leaf, Alex Chilton, Alex De Grassi, Alex Lukashevsky, Alexis Gideon, Alexis Weissenberg, Alfie, Aliccia BB, Alice Cooper, Alice Wonders, Alicia Bridges, Alison Krauss, All Night Radio, All Smiles, All Tomorrow's Parties, The Alleghany Highlanders, Allen Clapp, Allen Toussaint, Allison Moorer, Altamont, Altar Boyz, Amandine, The Amboy Dukes, Ambulance Ltd., Amel Larriieux and Amelia White.
Next week: From American Princes to At The Drive-In, plus a few words on the non-curse of unoriginality.