Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Artist: Galaxie 500
Album: On Fire
Label: Rough Trade
Oh man what a record. Galaxie 500 have managed to avoid becoming cool again and have avoided all of the respect they deserve by influencing so much 1990s indie with slow songs and reverb-drenched sounds. While simple songs and feedback were a staple of the 90s indie rock movement, few bands have ever matched Galaxie 500 for consistent quality, and nowhere is that more evident that on their sophomore album.
Besides the simplicity and tempo of the record, what really sticks out is the laid-back psychedelic vibe. Many in the Shoegaze movement used heavy abrasion to get the message across, and Spacemen 3 and Jesus And Mary Chain played extremely loud, guitar heavy/guitar-focused rock as psychedelic leaders of the 1980s. But Galaxie 500's music, as well as being much less abrasive, is also full of space, and not packed with dense noise at every square inch like the other bands. No instrument is secondary to another one on this record, and the beautiful guitars are complimented by lush bass, reverb-heavy drums, and soaring falsetto/high-pitched vocals.
Of course, the songs on this album are elegant, and the style they forged on their debut, the previous year's Today, is fully realized here. "Blue Thunder" and "Tell Me" are perfect album openers, with psychedelic guitars and lush harmonies. Also of note, as this band is as slow as they are, it takes a while between verses and choruses...the buildup to the chorus is like a part of the song itself. The band is big on climaxes, and the way "Blue Thunder" ends, with everyone singing: "I drive so far away" is just beautiful.
The darker pop songs are the best on the record. "Snowstorm" CRAWLS, and the lyrics, like many of the others on the album, focus on the most minute details, but they are painted beautifully. The sound of just one person and one point of view for one moment are able to stretch out for minutes with these songs, as if repeating the points over and over with different wording are the best way to let the listener feel what the singer is saying---and it might just be.
The closing moment on the album is a superb rendition of George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity," and the band were certainly masters of cover versions (see Today's "Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste" or the cover of "Victory Garden" included on the CD here as a bonus track). Stripped of George's guitar tracks and Phil Spector-production, the song still holds up beautifully with Galaxie 500's rendition.
Galaxie 500 never made a bad record, and burnt out way too quickly after their third and final album would be released the following years. They never released anything bad, really, and this is certainly the place to start if you're gonna check them out.
Galaxie 500-On Fire
Artist: The Flatlanders
Album: More A Legend Than A Band
I'd say this is the one "un"official album on the list, but of course, it's story is what makes it so great. The Flatlanders' only recordings during their first tenure as a band were released on a small-run of 8-tracks, and after the band dissolved, members Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore became country stars in their own right. This Round release takes the original 8-track, takes off two of the lamer covers, and adds 4 previously unreleased tracks from the sessions. The resulting release is one of the best country albums EVER.
The songs themselves are gorgeous. "Dallas" was the should've been hit, with lyrics full of regret and heartache associated with the town. Every song features similar lyrical themes, full of longing and regret: "Down in My Hometown" about a town that has lost its fortune, "One Day at A Time" where the lyrics follow "Yesterday's dead, and tomorrow is blind," it's beautiful pop music really through country music.
Of course, what really makes the album stellar is all of the non-traditional aspects of it, or rather, how out of place it was. Recorded in the mid-1970s as big haired Dolly Parton and mega-stadium country music was all the rage, a group of rag-tag traditional country musicians owing more to Roy Acuff than Dollywood were doomed commercially from the start. And of course, with songs like "Bhagavan Decreed," Eastern religion and drug-use are espoused to---huge no-nos in the country music community. (for a good read: the 33 1/3rd book on The Gilded Palace of Sin as Roy Acuff demands The Byrds get thrown off the stage at the Grand Ole Opry for having long hair!)
The Flatlanders More A Legend Than A Band is a short album with 13 amazing songs. The cover of "Jole Blon" is brilliant, and the instrumentation is great in its simplicity. Fans of country should already be down. Non-country fans need to get down.
The Flatlanders-More A Legend Than A Band
Monday, November 29, 2010
Artist: The Kinks
Album: Face To Face
Face To Face is the first truly magnificent Kinks album, and their second in a string of great albums that would run through 1972's Muswell Hillbillies (what is it with that year and last hurrah's?). While I'd say that they would eventually release better albums (one of which will appear later on this list), this is their final album with the early, Shel Talmy-sound. (Talmy would produce other albums, but this I'd say is the last one where that Mod sound that he perfected with groups like The Who and The Creation. The combination of a rough-sounding LP that reflects their early work and the new subject matter and songwriting focus Ray Davies has is what makes the album so special.
The Kinks' lack of hits in the last part of the 60s, along with not being able to tour America and record label mishaps, was often attributed to the lighter sound they went for. Their peers went freak-out psychedelic, but the Kinks talked about "Waterloo Sunset"s. So while they were short on hits, it certainly wasn't because of lack of song quality. And on Face to Face they still rocked out: "Party Line" slays with a hilarious take on what I can only guess is a pre-internet dating dating service...or something. "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home," is gorgeous, with awesome keyboards, and the guitar getting too-loud in the mix during the bridge is an awesome touch from the non-perfectionists.
Really, every song on the album is a kilelr. "Sunny Afternoon," and "Holiday In Waikiki" are featured on the compilation The Kink Kronikles and the former was even a minor hit, as was "Dandy" which has gained a reputation as one of their more well-known songs, it seems.
The best thing about the album, however, must be how it paved the way for Davies' sarcastic view of his home life and youth. "Session Man" criticizes people of the profession with lyrics like "He's not paid to think/just play", and "House in the Country" takes a sarcastic look at people who flee from trouble and like to look down on the common man (I think---it's my interpretation). And then there's "Fancy," which no other Kinks song sounds like. Almost psychedelic, it's a plaintive ode to a girl who has Ray's eyes.
Again, every song is great, and it's really the last time the band would rock so hard and so recklessly. Arthur and Lola would eventually bring them back from such a calm mood, but it's worlds apart from what they were producing here. This is where the band started to hit their stride, and the next two albums would be probably their two best, but Face To Face is still fun as hell and raucous as the day it was released.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Artist: The Soft Boys
Album: Underwater Moonlight
Label: Yep Roc
Big Star, with good reason, are cited as the key influence of such bands such as REM and The Replacements, who really introduced a new method of jangly guitar rock that inspired so much of today's current indie music. But there is never enough attention given to Robyn Hitchcock and The Soft Boys for their contribution to that sound. Their second and final album (save a reunion record from the early-2000s), Underwater Moonlight is fully of jangly guitars and warped, demented songs that live on nearly 30 years later.
The album is a wonderful mix of straight guitar-pop rock that fits on classic rock radio, with some darker, more bizarre songs. When you hear the epic pop of "I Wanna Destroy You," the anti-war cry "Positive Vibrations" (another nod to the 60s: the sitar in the song!) and the beautiful title track, it seems that the off-the-wall subject matter was the only thing keeping this album from being a hit!
But what really makes the album stand out are the dark, other songs. "Insanely Jealous" builds up for four minutes and perfectly gives off an air of insane jealousy from the point-of-view of the narrator. "I Got The Hots" is almost comical in the way it is delivered, and "Old Pervert," possibly the best song on the record, features a wild rhythm and even crazier lyrics. Coming from a man who really was his generation's Syd Barrett and a band whose first album featured a song called "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out," none of the eccentricities of this album should really be a surprise.
The songwriting is absolutely beautiful and the harmonies and melodies make the album a constant delight. If Big Star got credit for their gorgeous guitar interplay at a time when it was unpopular, then this album, coming at the beginning of a decade filled with synths and MTV, should get that credit 10-fold. Underwater Moonlight is one of the best albums of the 80s, and really sounds like nothing else that came out during the decade. Not a record to be passed up!
Album: Mclusky Do Dallas
Label: Too Pure
I used to be crazy, and thought no music this hard existed anymore. I then got into hardcore punk and felt very sheepish. BUT! Mclusky Do Dallas is still my favorite album of the new century, and truly an epic piece of rock and roll. Fourteen absolutely killer songs that never let up, with splendid engineering by Sir Steve Albini and hilarious lyrics...this album kills.
The band's first album was an enjoyable record. Some great songs, some decent ones, with very...odd production. I could point out multiple tracks, but I'll just focus on one: "Whiteliberalonwhiteliberalaction", the best song on the album, has hilariously loud bass that almost ruins the song. Nonetheless, any shortcoming the band had was quickly overcome for this, their sophomore album.
The record opens with "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues," a song as heavy as its title suggests, and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the record. "I'm fearful of flying! And flying is fearful of me!" Many of the other songs, such as "Collagen Rock" and "Whoyouknow" take ferocious swipes at faux-indie-rock stars (a la The Strokes) and people aiming to see and be seen. When you're working (on good terms) with Steve Albini, it's not surprising that these thoughts represent your politics.
The band showed strong diversity in songwriting, as well. "Fuck This Band" is subdued and an enjoyable track before hit single "To Hell With Good Intentions" (My love is bigger than your love song), and "Alan is a Cowboy Killer," a 4-minute, two-chord track, is the standout. I'd also be remiss not to point out just how great bassist Jon Chapple's songs are: "Chases" and "What We've Learned" are certainly two of the best songs on the record.
The magic would not last long. The band stuck around long enough for one more LP, and while it's decent, the loss of original drummer Matthew Harding is noticeable on the record. No other band has been so missed upon their breakup with so many fans finally realizing their greatness after their breakup as Mclusky, but this album will live on far longer than the work of so many of their peers, and with good reason.
Mclusky Do Dallas
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Artist: Etta James
Album: Tell Mama
Etta James, much like Otis Redding, seemed to always be overshadowed by others in their time. Hindsight has done wonders for their careers, but while at the height of their powers, they were overshadowed. Etta always seemed to be in contention with Aretha, and the thing that always seemed to hold her back was the far-too-wide of a variety of ways her voice was handled. She'd done orchestral pieces, gritty R&B, and even straight-up blues, but in 1968, after Aretha recorded at FAME: Muscle Shoals, Leonard Chess sent Etta to follow suit, and it turned out southern soul was the backbone Etta had been missing all along.
Tell Mama was not Etta's first great album. That honor belongs to 1961's At Last!, which apart from its legendary title track, features killer renditions of "Tough Mary" and "All I Could Do Was Cry," among other great tracks. And it's not the first record that really showcases her gritty side. She was recording for Kent Records as early as the mid-1950s, and Etta Rocks The House, a live album from 1964, is one of her best. But Tell Mama, with amazing playing and production all-around, is her most ferocious studio album.
Her first hit was a response to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie," and for the title track, Etta reverses the roles of a man's song and makes it her own (a rendition of "Tell Papa"). Covers of Otis Redding's "Security" and Don Covay songs as well litter the album. The horns, the Telecaster guitar, and Etta's voice really make this album erupt with energy. The feel is unbelievable, and the songs are amazing.
The CD issue features all sorts of excellent bonus tracks from the sessions that highlight that Etta had ample material to draw from for the album's release. It's really a stellar record in every way, without a bum note on it. A triumphant record for a woman that finally got her due.
Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions
Album: Maggot Brain
Maggot Brain is one of those "bridging" records that finds a band in a transitional point in time, bridging their roots and where they were headed in the future. I've always felt that the idea that Funkadelic were some rock-centric (over funk) band to be a bit misguided and embellished because in reality, the last album where they show their rock side is this one--and it was only their third. Even though this is their last rocking album, though, it's still among their best and most cohesive.
Perhaps the reason Maggot Brain works is the diversity. The band still employ drawn-out jams to open and close the record, but instead of dense psychedelic freak-outs like on their first two albums, the instruments and playing are given a lot of space to breathe--most notably with the legendary guitar work on the title track. "Wars of Armageddon" which closes the album is groovy and far-out, but again, not as in your face as this type of song was on the first few albums.
Another strength is that some of the band's best songs ever are here. "Can You Get to That" I've noticed has become a de-facto favorite of many to introduce people to the band, and with good reason. The other songs that make up the middle of the record are catchy, to the point, and diverse.
One of the best parts about the record is the soulfulness as well. It really does a great job at being an R&B record, not necessarily all funk or all 60s soul. This is most evident with some doo-wop sounds that make up the last few songs on the record. The band had begun as a doo-wop group in the mid-1950s, but this is the first time in years that the unit had pulled this out.
Maggot Brain is a tremendous record lastly, because I feel it's their last really great record. While their funk period that followed has its moments, and many would say One Nation Under a Groove is a great record, the best stuff the unit put out after Maggot Brain was through their Parliament moniker. But from the iconic artwork to the wild set of songs, Maggot Brain is an essential album to the P-Funk collective.
Album: Trans-Europe Express
Trans-Europe Express was not the first great album by Kraftwerk, nor even their first masterpiece. That title belongs to 1973's Autobahn. Nevertheless, more than 30 years after its release, T-E-E remains the group's most celebrated album, and for good reason. Cohesive themes and amazing melodies make this album today as enjoyable as it's ever been.
Autobahn's title track was a hit that nobody predicted, but 1975's Radio-Activity didn't really capitalize on the group's success, and in a lot of ways, was a step back for the group. Their early (read: first 3) more experimental records were good, but what made Autobahn so great was its full sound and beauty. The 1975 album was almost jerky at times, and not as easy to listen to. But Trans-Europe Express helped not only to permanently establish Kraftwerk as all-time greats, but stands on its own, independent from the band's reputation, as a land-mark album.
The album is full of paranoia and ease--like a Kinks record in a way, it sarcastically celebrates "how far we've come," and the tone of the album is really one of despair. Side A kicks off with "Europe Endless," almost a sort of "tour" of the post-WWII environment. "The Hall of Mirrors" questions modern identity, with lyrics like "He made up the person he wanted to be/and changed into a new personality." The side ends with "Showroom Dummies," which musically points to the direction that their next few albums would take, but the paranoid themes fit with this album perfectly.
Side B is almost a "Trans-Europe Express" suite, with the title track, and then instrumental tracks that build off of its themes. Made more famous in Afrika Bambatta's "The Planet Rock", the title track in its original context is still where the music is at its most brilliant. It's truly a tour-de-force that lulls you in to a haunting drive through Europe.
Kraftwerk made many great records, but none better than this. The paranoia and confusion are brilliant and the themes were never so dark. The album is absolutely phenomenal.
Artist: Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben
Album: Gil e Jorge
Allmusic.com laments that there "isn't another album in Gil's catalog like this." While that's true, it makes the other works of each musician that much greater. Jorge Ben was one of the most understated members of the MPB family, and Gilberto Gil, though possibly seen in Caetano Veloso's shadow, released many superb albums (especially in the 1970s) full of lush arrangements and beautiful pop. Here though, the two came together in one of the finest collaborations in pop history for a brilliant record.
Djalma Corrèa accompanies the other two on the album on percussion, and while there is very little rehearsal, the songs are beautiful. Re-records of some songs the musicians had done on earlier albums, it nevertheless sounds effortless and unrehearsed but in a freeing way. I once read from an online friend that one of the two arrived late and the other one was so pissed, he just went to his guitar and started playing, and the recording was full of tension. While I can't verify it, it certainly is one of the loosest collaborations in a genre that was no stranger to it. Milton Nascimento recorded with Lo Borges and Som Imaginario. Caetano wrote for Gal Costa and plenty others, and throughout the years, members of the MPB family always seemed to come together.
This wasn't even Gil's only album of the year, and the next year Ben would release arguably his solo masterpiece: Africa Brasil. Nevertheless, this record remains one of the most celebrated in Brazilian history, and with beautiful interplay that is really stripped down to its melodic essence, it remains a classic.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
So I'm almost a fifth of the way through this and that's very exciting. I'm going to start posting links to the album for you to hear.
Also, as I imagined, some of the rankings I'm kinda already unhappy with. As I look at the top of the list, there's definitely some stuff that should be higher/some lower. But c'est la vie!
Also, as I imagined, some of the rankings I'm kinda already unhappy with. As I look at the top of the list, there's definitely some stuff that should be higher/some lower. But c'est la vie!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Artist: The Replacements
Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash
The Replacements are the definitive every-man band. It might've been the Minutemen who always stuck to working-man's ideals, and other bands might've tried to give off the atmosphere that you can do it, too! but no band did it like the 'Mats. Throughout their career, the songs remained universal, and no album speaks to disenfranchised youth like their first one.
This album is just so goddam snotty. Lyrics include: "Irresponsibility's my closest friend." "I hate music, it's got too many notes." "I ain't got no idols, I ain't got much taste." Paul Westerberg's lyrics have this magical ability to touch on the disenfranchised of every age group.
A lot is made about the "filler" in Replacements records, and while I won't argue about how necessary and actually great those songs often are, they are hard to define here. Is the ridiculous rant "I Hate Music" filler? But it's often credited as one of the best songs on the record. How about the slightly slower "I'm In Trouble"? "I Bought A Headache?" Every song on the album belongs, and that helps it stand out as a 'Mats record.
But why am I talking about what people bitch about? "Shiftless When Idle" might be their best song ever. The first 4 songs on the record are bursts of lightning and some of the best. "Raised In The City" is sensational. Every song just rules, and with 18 songs in 36 minutes, it's somehow one of their longest LPs. But the first Replacements record is still a treat to listen to at any age, and never gets boring.
Artist: Eric Dolphy
Album: Out To Lunch
Label: Blue Note
And the award for most under-mentioned musical figure who died before his time goes to...But can you blame people? He was never a pop musician, or even a truly famous jazz figure in his time...he didn't have the chance. Dolphy's first recordings came out in 1959, and by 1965, he had passed away. Some of his earliest material was collaborations with the likes of Booker Little and Ken McIntyre, but on his own is where she truly shined, and never brighter than on this, his second to last studio session, from 1964.
The album opens with a Thelonious Monk tribute, where the time signature varies frequently, seeming to spend a lot of time in 5/4 (if I'm counting right) and featuring just extraordinary sax playing and vibraphone. The melody that opens up "Gazzelloni" is beautiful, and the song is really triumphant. The ending adds a clearer trumpet to the opening, and like much of Dolphy's music, is warped but in a wonderful way. The title track, as well, could be mistaken for a more typical Blue Note song of it's time, but is played in such a way where there is really no parallel from its time. A seemingly simple melody is just off enough to not fit in...anywhere really. Even final cut "Straight Up And Down", with it's groovy drum lines, could have been more generic if this cast wasn't so in touch with whatever it is they were trying to do.
Of course the other players deserve large amounts of credit. Bobby Hutcherson's vibraphone playing is sensational, Freddie Hubbard's trumpet playing is perhaps as interesting as it would be for the entire decade (before his 1970s CTI Records), and Tony Williams and Richard Davis hold down a great rhythm section.
But it's, of course, Dolphy who steals the show. Who knows what could have been had such an interesting and innovative figure been around in the end of the decade, as fusion and funk and new forms began to open up in the Jazz world. We'll never know, but even without it, this record is years ahead of its time and still a treat.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield's 1972 album, his final masterpiece in a string that began his solo career, is the soundtrack to the film of the same name. While many other Blaxploitation soundtracks have their own strengths and feature many instrumental tracks (Shaft and Trouble Man) this album stands out in that it's much more song-structured. While it isn't the only soundtrack to focus more on pop songs than instrumentals, it remains in a class of its own for the unbelievable songs all over the album.
Unlike a lot of the music/culture/films of blaxploitation, Superfly paints the scenarios in a negative light. Curtis always has been a moralist, but always makes sure not to preach. Think about his earlier career with "Don't Worry, If there's A Hell Below" and "People Get Ready," he's always talking about the everyman.
"Pusherman" has one of the funkiest intros ever, as does the title track, which was sampled by Beastie Boys for Paul's Boutique.
Another strength of the album is it's even more subdued in tone than Roots. Whereas his first album was all bright and shiny horns and upbeat sounds, Roots and Superfly are much more toned down, making sparing use of horns and high-end, really allowing the bass and percussion to drive everything.
I'd also like to say that "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)" might be one of my all-time favorite tracks. After a minute-or-so-long spoken word intro, the song really gets groovy, with an amazing trumpet sound throughout.
Curtis Mayfield is one of the greatest musical figures of pop history, and this album is frequently seen as his masterpiece. While I don't fully agree with that (he'll make another appearance on this list), Superfly is an amazing record.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Album: Lazer Guided Melodies
Oh god what a record. After several astounding 12" singles with Spiritualized in the first few years of the 90s, Jason Pierce released this, their debut album, in 1993. After the soaring highs of Spacemen 3 and the greatness surrounding those 12"s, the fact that this album blows so much of his earlier output out of the water is still astounding.
Originally released as 4 tracks--with several compositions per track, the album truly has a flow to it. The muted "You Know It's True" gives way to the mammoth "If I Were With Her Now" full of lush arrangements and a beautiful organ sound. Whereas on later Spiritualized albums, the instrumentals sometimes go on for too long, it doesn't happen here, and they act as beautiful segues before the next space pop gem.
One of the strengths of the album is still how calmly it moves. They weren't yet making giant, space rock opuses with orchestras and choirs, the band was still in many ways functioning without grandiose means. Yet it still feels like the kind of thing the band could create with hundreds of players at their disposal.
And of course, there are the songs. Whereas the diverse stylings of other Spiritualized releases often come off as disparate, (especially on Let It Come Down) all of the songs work together beautifully, whether the brief and subdued "Smiles" or the brilliant, career defining "Shine A Light."
Spiritualized remain one of my favorite bands ever, and they have another album that will be on this list that is perfect. Yet most days, I find myself reaching for Lazer Guided Melodies before any of their other albums, and maybe it shows J. Spaceman doesn't have to try...as hard as he does...and he could still release something sublime.
Artist: Liz Phair
Album: Exile In Guyville
Liz Phair's debut is an album that just needs to be enjoyed on its own. Don't worry about the back-story, about how it's a song-by-song reaction to Exile on Main Street cus it doesn't make any sense or add to the album at all. Don't worry about how Liz is some riot grrl making strides for women's lib in punk rock, because she doesn't hold a candle to the progress Sleater-Kinney or Bikini Kill made. Exile In Guyville is still one of the best records of the 1990s, and it's just because of awesome songwriting and great sequencing.
The diversity of songs on the album is still stunning, and the way Liz shifts between moods and styles with equal quality remains a strong point. There are the "hits" like "6'1", "Fuck and Run", and "Divorce Song" as well as dark piano songs like "Shatter" and "Canary." On top of that, folk-ier, stripped down songs as well as some really dark, almost tripped out psychedelic (in their own way) shit really build an incredible record.
The earnestness and songwriting are also remarkable. Listen to how the story unfolds in "Divorce Song": "And when I asked/for a second room/it was late at night, and we'd been driving since noon. But if I had known/how that would sound to you/I would've taken it back/for the rest of my life/just to prove I was right." Those little, mundane, and insignificant events in a relationship always end up meaning more than we realize, and Liz's storytelling reveals that. And it gets general and universal as well, as she later sings, "You put in my hand a loaded gun and then told me not to fire it. When you did the things you said were up to me and then accused me of trying to fuck it up." Really, we've all been there.
With sub-par follow-up records and awful records the last few years, Liz Phair's legend has diminished. While many of her late-80s/early-90s indie rock peers are cashing in on a resurgence of fame, her Exile shows were disasters by most accounts, and the DVD on the CD reissue is...embarrassing and boring to say the least. But none of it takes away from the quality of the 18 songs that make up Exile in Guyville.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Artist: Mission of Burma
Label: Ace Of Hearts
The final Mission of Burma studio release during their first tenure as a band (wow that's a lot of qualifiers) remains one of the best post-punk records, and one surprisingly overlooked by the punks. But though not as cool or often name-dropped as many SST or Touch and Go records of the same time, Vs. is one of the best 80s punk records.
"Secrets" really sets the stage, by building up awesome tension for over its first full minute, without a single lyric sung. By the time the lyrics and the song fully kick in, it sounds like ...well...the band say it best..."It's the pulling of the undertoe/when you can't control the wheel." It's a common theme throughout the album, musically, that it feels like the band is losing control.
The songs are constantly challenging and the songwriting goes in many different directions. The highlight is still "Mica" to me. But every song has it's own charm. And where as their previous releases were really well-constructed post-punk, here it feels like they just hit record and let shit FLY. Vs. remains a stellar album all these years later, and hasn't aged a bit, even when compared to some of that new stuff they put out.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Artist: Bill Withers
Album: Still Bill
Bill Withers was not the only songwriter-based funk artist in the early 1970s, but his story remains unique. He was never a creative genius like Stevie Wonder, never got into substances like Bobby Womack, and he never sought out the fame that those two and many others had. Instead, his whole career was subtle, from the music to the man, and his 1972 sophomore effort Still Bill still sums him up perfectly.
It's a departure from his debut a year earlier in a couple of ways. First off: while he wrote 10 of the 12 songs on Just As I Am (the cover of "Everybody's Talkin'" is exceptional), the arrangements were often subdued. A few string arrangements here and there only bring out just how minimalist a lot of the album is. Also, while I wouldn't consider it a happy album, per se, the themes of many songs seem to be positive, whether about a beautiful girl or his grandma.
Still Bill, on the other hand, is mostly a mean album. Except for the brilliant and timeless "Lean On Me," about neighbors being neighborly in a small town, Withers has a bit of a mean streak. "Who is He (And What Is He To You," and "Take It All In And Check it All Out" are directed at a women in anger, and the songs that do talk about a love existing, "Use Me" and "Kissing My Love," the message is less we're in love as it is we're both getting ours without regard for each other, so fuck it!. The rest of the songs, by and large, focus on distrust and disillusionment in some way or another.
Going back to the point about its predecessor being more stripped down, Still Bill is a damn muscular album. Leaving behind Sussex and Booker T. on production, this Columbia Records release is fuller, and while it's still held down by Withers and an acoustic guitar, the fullness of the sound brings out every instrument and gives it a punch. The album sounds just so thick and full, in ways that might've even hurt Just As I Am.
Though some of the songs on his first two albums ("Use Me", "Ain't No Sunshine", and "Lean On Me", namely) are classics, Withers is not an international superstar by any means. He had a few more hits in his career, but always laid low. Not because he was some genius recluse trying to get away from the spotlight, but just because...he...stopped playing. But Still Bill is one of his landmark records, and one of the most unique and exciting records of its time.
Foolish represented a turning point for indie rock pioneers Superchunk in a lot of ways. First off, though the band had founded Merge Records, this is the first album of Superchunk's that label released (Matador was responsible for the first three). More importantly, however, the band was at a personal crossroads, as Mac and Laura (lead singer and bassist, respectively) had split up romantically, and the effects are not only felt in Laura's damning cover art, but Mac's lyrics as well.
Foolish is quite possibly the early-adulthood breakup record. There are many "breakup" records, and there will be more on this list. But regardless of the actual age of the bands making those (Van Morrison was under 25 at the time of Astral Weeks for example) most great breakup records have an unbelievable sense of maturity for the artist recording them. Foolish however, is a rare instance of early-20 somethings singing about the early-20 something blues, and not sounding like jackasses.
There are songs that deal with reminiscing the good times ("Driveway to Driveway"), the moment you realized it all went wrong ("Like A Fool"), one of those many, many fights ("Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything") and of course, the breakup itself ("Keeping Track"). We've all been there, and in true Superchunk fashion, Mac sings about it in ways we can all relate to. In the course of such great songs, the music kicks ass, too, with some of the hardest rocking and anthemic songs the band ever did.
So with such high praise for the record, why do I have it down at 97? Sequencing. Songs 1-9 are absolutely stellar and done brilliantly, and then there are songs 10-12, which are amazing, don't get me wrong...but why not close with the gut-wrenching "Keeping Track"? Why end it on such a muted note as "In A Stage Whisper"? I don't know. Every song kills, but this continues to irk me. Foolish remains one of the best guitar records of the 90s though, and is a perfect companion for those recently-single blues.