Friday, December 26, 2014

Favorite Albums of 2014, Part I

My favorite albums of 2014, Part I

General observations:

- lots of electronic music
- the more traditional stuff is pretty mellow: pop songs, classic rock, guitar-based indie pop, etc.
- a few 'experimental' sound collage-type things

21. Mica Levi - Under The Skin (soundtrack): Mica Levi (who often uses the stage name Micachu) is a 26-year old English composer, singer, and musician based in England who has done quite a bit of experimental and pop music in a lot of different genres. This soundtrack, to one of of my favorite movies of the year, Under the Skin, is the most unsettling film soundtrack I've heard in a while. Evoking the sound of 1970s horror and sci-fi movies, she uses massive strings and slightly atonal harmony to communicate menace and foreboding very powerfully. Even if you've never seen the movie (which is extremely unsettling) this is amazing stuff. Not perhaps suitable for casual listening but certainly rewarding if you're in the right kind of mood. Listen to the sample track "Love."

20. Rodrigo Amarante - Cavalo: He is a Brazilian songwriter and singer who has been playing around in several pretty cool Brazilian bands for many years. Cavalo is his first solo album. The music is soft, float-y, sometimes barely there, sometimes uptempo, a bit of electronics, drums, here and there. Beautifully recorded, surprisingly eclectic organic music. A half-an-hour concert here.

19. FKA twigs - LP1: Another English singer who's a woman (she must be in her mid-20s) and is most famous among teenagers because she is the girlfriend of that guy from Twilight. But she has a pretty great pop sensibility. There's a little bit of Bat for Lashes in her but more synthetic pop, with some R&B thrown in. Apparently she likes Siouxsie & The Banshees but I don't see that at all. Good intelligent pop though. Sample track: "Water Me."

18. Pink Floyd - Endless River: Some critics have not been kind to this, most certainly the last album to be released by the band Pink Floyd. What it is, is basically soundscapes put together by guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason playing with their late compatriot (and keyboardist) Richard Wright during sessions for the 1994 album The Division Bell. Gilmour & Mason basically took outtakes from those sessions--with suitable embellishments--and created Endless River. I quite like it and honestly I did not expect to. I like it a lot, notwithstanding the terrible vocal track that ends the album. Certainly a dignified end to the Pink Floyd story and at times lovely. Sample track: "It's What We Do."

17. Caribou - Our Love: I've followed the career of Dan Snaith, electronic music artist extraordinaire, since the early 2000s (back when he was "Manitoba") through excellent albums such as Up In Flames (2003), The Milk of Human Kindness (2005), and Andorra (2007). He mines a kind of softness in the electronic beats he cooks up, part psychedelia, part euphoria, some melancholia, and full-on electronica. If before he was trying to merge Brian Wilson with (danceable) Aphex Twin, here he attains a kind of half awake, half asleep dream pop, just a little bit odd, yet undeniably dance music. Like all of his music, the video for the song "Our Love" is romantic but just a bit odd, even haunted, by the ghosts of past genres.

16. Peter Murphy - Lion: Probably not the hippest singer to like these days, but who knew Peter Murphy would ever make another album worth listening to? This sounds a bit like late period Sisters of Mercy, but you know, what redeems it is that Murphy had one of the best voices of the '80s post-punk, and he appears not to have lost any of his bite. And this album has a lot of bite. It weirdly kinda rocks. I'm not going to start wearing all black again anytime soon but it's nice to hear an old geezer come up with something good. Sample track: "Hang Up."

15. Arca - Xen: Arca is the stage name of a Venezuelan producer, DJ, electronic musician-type dude (actual name, Alejandro Ghersi) based in London who's been making some original music recently (while also producing stuff for Kanye West, FKA twigs, Bjork, etc.). This is the strangest music I've heard in a while. It's like he literally dismantled a fairly conventional pop song and then put together the music in the most unintuitive way possible. Nothing seems obvious. People have said that this is almost a new kind of musical genre, but I'm not so sure. There are obvious reference points (such as sci-fi film soundtracks, Bjork, Aphex Twin, even Kanye) but it also sounds like it dropped here from outer space. Sample track: "Xen."

14. Phantogram - Voices: The band is basically two people who live in New York and do electronic pop. It's very atmospheric, hook-laden, and wouldn't be out of place in the 1990s. In fact, the most obvious reference is the 1990s semi-shoegaze band Curve (remember them?). You run into Phantogram music a lot, without really knowing it's Phantogram--their music is on a lot of 1-hour drama shows (like, I think Revenge or Scandal and stuff like that). The new album is song after song of perfect electronic pop, no weak numbers, just a steady stream of good stuff, suitable for the Top 40, right between Depeche Mode and Florence + The Machine. This album would probably be much higher on my list but for the fact that I just started to listen to it only a month or so ago. There's a pretty good recent show on-line (ignore the idiot host). See here.

13. Interpol - El Pintor: Well, well, well, who'da thought? I kind of lost of track of Interpol for many years. They put out one of the greatest debut albums of all time (Turn On The Bright Lights), then slowly but inevitably sank into mediocrity. Now they're a 3-piece band (Paul Banks plays guitar, bass, and sings) and appear to have rediscovered the muse. It's not a classic album but it is a good one, where you don't have to skip over tracks. There's still that tremulous sense that even when you're in despair, at least you can be dressed well for it. Here they are doing "All the Rage Back Home" on Letterman.

12. Real Estate - Atlas: This is the kind of music that would have fit in very well with American "college rock" in the late 1980s. They sound a lot like bands at the time (see Dumptruck) who were trying to emulate R.E.M., taking stuff from classic '60s pop like the Byrds but updating it for the times.  Real Estate are a three-piece band from New Jersey (although I think they live in New York now). I've posted stuff by them before on this blog. They have produced a bunch of great sublime guitar-based songs, songs that remind me of being in college (in fact, remind me of the kind of songs I wrote back then). Slow, mellow, understated indie pop. Here they are doing "Talking Backwards."

11. Clark - Clark: Yet another electronic musician (full name: Chris Clark) on the Warp label who has been around for a while under a mind-bogglingly large number of guises. This is his first album actually under his own name. He's English but I think lives in Berlin now. The hipsters at Pitchfork say "[t]he world is ending, and Chris Clark is writing its soundtrack." I don't know if I believe that, but the album does feel like it's a soundtrack to things falling apart. It's basic techno dance music, but for a future that you know is gonna be much much less than you hoped it would be. The album itself is remarkably eclectic, moving from different sub-genres of techno, a bit of Aphex Twin here, a bit of Boards of Canada there. There are points where the album sounds really emotional, perhaps even a bit muzak-y, but it's all invested with real feeling. Apparently he made all this up in a barn in the English countryside. Check out this track "Unfurla."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mark Linkous

Not to go off on a morbid bent here, but Mark Linkous died four years ago at the age of 47. It's hard for me to think of a musician death that hit me harder. I kind of never expected that. Anyway, so here are a couple of Sparklehorse songs.

The first is "See the Light" from Sparklehorse's album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006).

The second is "Maria's Little Elbows," a song off Good Morning Spider (1998). There's a lovely and unexpected reference to the Velvet Underground's song "Candy Says" (from their self-titled 1968 album):

She said, "I've really come to hate my body
And all the things that it requires in this world."
I bet you're out there getting drunk, with all your friends
And it'll get you in the bathroom of a Texaco

Bled White

One of my favorite Elliott Smith songs, "Bled White," from the album XO (1998). Lovely arrangement, with piano, bass, guitar, and drums, all complementing each other, and all played by him.

"I'm never going to become what you became."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Elliott Smith - Waltz #2 (XO)

Elliott Smith died almost 11 years go. He was 34. I remember hearing about it, being shocked, saddened.

"She shows no emotion at all / Stares into space like a dead china doll."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


This is another repost, from March 4, 2010:

I saw the band Low a long time ago, opening for the Swans in Philadelphia back on January 26, 1997. They used to successfully capture that odd combination of ennui, navel gazing, loneliness, and melancholy ether that I would imagine my life being but never really was. If I tried hard enough, I would imagine that my life's banality hid some deeper meaning. This was, of course, self-deception on the grandest scale. But upon reflection, it's not so bad to think that way. And music is often my ticket to that self-deception.

Tonight I post two songs from Low, both of which I've posted before.

The first is a song called "Sunflower" which is possibly one of the most beautiful songs recorded in the last decade or two. I don't know what the song is about but it's a mini-story involving a death, a crime, and perhaps a betrayal. But it's also about a dream lost.

The lyrics are:

When they found your body
Giant X's on your eyes
With your half of the ransom
You bought some sweet, sweet, sweet
Sweet sunflowers
And gave them to the night

Underneath the star of David
A hundred years behind my eyes
And with my half of the ransom
I bought some sweet, sweet, sweet
Sweet sunflowers
And gave them to the night

The other song I'm posting is "Shame." The lyrics are:

A long time you waited
You thought it had abated
Shame of it all
The harm that it causes
Pours down like a faucet
Shame of it all

Tonight these two songs capture my mood.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Harmony Rockets - Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void

This is a repost from May 2008:

... Which brings me to Harmony Rockets, who released a single full-length CD in 1995 entitled Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void. The music on this CD consists of one single piece of music lasting 41 minutes and 40 seconds. One website calls it an "experimental album of epic proportions," and I would not disagree with that description. The band set up shop in a hotel in upstate New York and just played. They forgot about verses and choruses and beginnings and ends and scales and chords and keys and just kind of improvised some spacefreak music of magnificent proportions. Yet, there's some precedent for what they do: I detect bits and pieces of Sun Ra and even parts of the Velvet Underground's unreleased (at least in a studio version) "Melody Laughter."

But you don't have to know or care about that. How does it sound? For all of its so-called experimental nature, it actually sounds rather cordant (I know that's not a word, but I wish it was) and not at all cacophonic. The band--seven people--use guitars with massive effects, a rumbling bass, a saxophone that weaves in and out. A voice murmurs words and sentences for a while. It builds, it ebbs, at one point sounding like you're literally in the middle of a cyclone (in the key of C). The music slows down everything and puts your existence to total slow motion. Great to listen to while you're waiting for someone to show up. And the conclusion is like a reprieve, you feel the light sweat on your upper lip, as if you're just coming out of a dream. I highly recommend it for those who might be a little adventurous and have about an hour to kill late... late... very late at night.

Point of note for artifact fetishists: the original CD came in a beautiful package, with silver embossed writing on the cover. The CD also comes with a picture of the tape machine used to record the album. The liner notes say the following:

Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void was performed live at Rhinecliff Hotel by the group Harmony Rockets. It was recorded on a hand-held Arrivox-Tandberg 183 analog cassette recorder. Due in part to the out-dated [sic] nature (ancient by today's standards) of this machine and an inadequate P.A. system . . . periodic portions of the music undulate and appear to distort. . . . Thus, the sounds on this disc are unaltered, and remain true to the nature of the original performance.

An important point to make here is this: Harmony Rockets was basically a side-project of the much better-known band Mercury Rev who produced a bunch of great albums in the 1990s, including the classic Yerself Is Steam, one of the most insanely fantastic albums of that decade. Speaking of Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void, Jonathan Donahue, the lead singer of Mercury Rev, later noted, responding to an interviewer:

Donahue: It's mostly instrumental, but there's some vocals on the beginning of it, it's me singing. Basically, what it is, is most of Mercury Rev, that you see up there [on stage], were trying to kill a Friday night in the mountains, got really wasted and wandered down to a local Civil War bar. They needed an opening band, so we brought some old analog effects with us and some guitars and just whooped up whatever we were doing for, like, forty minutes and stopped. Somebody had a tape, figuring it was ya know, Mercury Rev, so they sorta recorded it shittily.
Interviewer: So, the entire album is live?

: Yeah, just made up on the spot. There's not a damn thing that was practiced ever, it just sort of happened, but it came out really nice. We like it, we were pretty surprised.

Looking up my trusty 1,088 page version of The Great Indie Discography (2nd ed), I see that Harmony Rockets released one other thing, an e.p.. That stuff is very very different from Paralyzed Mind: on the e.p. they cover "I've Got a Golden Ticket" from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and (of all things) Vangelis' "L'Apocalypse des Animaux." The music veers from disco to moody instrumentals. Not really worth tracking down.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

All Gone

So Tommy died. Joey died in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, and Johnny in 2004. All the original Ramones are gone.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Pete Townshend

Although I wouldn't say that I'm a terribly big fan of the Who, I have a fondness for their output in the 1965 to 1973 period, which is really mostly unimpeachable. After the Beatles, I think, Pete Townshend was really the first great songwriter in modern pop music. People say that the Who's double album Tommy (1969) was a kind of iconic moment, and maybe it was, but it's actually not terribly good. It's awfully produced and not all the songs really work. It's actually after Tommy, in the 1970-71 period, that the band hit this amazing peak, first with Live At Leeds (1970), which in my estimation is still the very best live album of all time and then with Who's Next (1971) a fantastic suite of top-notch songs. In 1970, the Who were, bar none, the best live band in the world. The three-piece punk rock combo of Townshend, Keith Moon (drums) and John Entwistle (bass) was just like a machine gun, an aural assault that could completely outplay Led Zeppelin, the Doors, heck, even the Stooges, who were the 100% epitome of kickass rock'n'roll at the time.

The Who's subsequent album, Who's Next, was an about turn from the controlled chaos of Live at Leeds. It was full of innovative studio flourishes, especially with the presence of a synthesizer. The songs on Who's Next, have, of course, been overplayed to death on Classic Rock radio in America.... but it's still possible to imagine how incredible it must have been to hear these songs for the first time. Full of muscle and aggression, tenderness and self-reflection, dynamic, bursting out with energy, yet sensitive to the core, this was the corporate brand of Classic Rock at its peak.

As some of you may know, Who's Next was actually cobbled together from a much more ambitious project known as Lifehouse which Pete Townshend considered his 'next' concept album after Tommy. A strange and often confusing science fiction story about the emancipatory power of music, with bits and pieces of a futuristic internet-like network framing the story, the album was deemed too ambitious by the band. As a result, most of the approximately 20+ songs on Lifehouse were left on the cutting room floor with only nine released on Who's Next.

Over the years, bits and pieces of Lifehouse have appeared on other compilations, bootlegs, and such. The most important in this regard was Pete Townshend's solo 6-CD release called Lifehouse Chronicles (2000) which, on its first two discs, collects all the demos made by Townshend during 1970-71 for Lifehouse. These demos are revelatory for several reasons. First, it's amazing how fully formed and produced they sound. He wrote the songs, played every instrument, and produced them in pristine sound quality, Any of these songs could have been released as fully produced songs by any artist at the time and be considered classics. Yet, Townshend made these songs not for public consumption but so the band (the Who) could learn them. Second, the songs are uniformly fantastic. This was Pete Townshend firing on all four cylinders, an artist at the peak of his powers. A songwriter as great at the time as Lennon/McCartney or Lou Reed or Jagger/Richards or Syd Barrett.

Because these are solo tracks rather than music from the Who, they lack the bombast of that band, in particular Keith Moon's explosive and counter-intuitive drumming. But the good thing is that Townshend is singing the demos instead of Who singer Roger Daltrey--who I have never really liked. I don't think Daltrey was really a good interpreter of Townshend's musical compositions; he basically growled his way through everything, not having any capacity for subtlety. Since Townshend is singing the demos, there is a lovely tenderness and vulnerability to these demos which makes the songs intensely personal rather than just big dumb classic rock anthems. They sound like something Big Star might have put out. In fact, at times, Townshend's voice sounds a bit like that of the late great Alex Chilton.

Anyway, I'm posting here a three songs from Lifehouse Chronicles. Enjoy the pop genius of Pete Townshend:



Let's See Action

Monday, May 05, 2014

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works, Volume II

I suddenly turn around and it's been 20 years--20 years!--since 1994. What does that mean in musical terms? Well, probably a lot of things. A lot of good music came out that year, but the one that completely blew my young impressionable mind was Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II (henceforth abbreviated as SAW2). I don't know how, but probably by accident, I picked up this double CD sometime soon after it came out completely unaware of its history, the man behind it, or what it even sounded like. Usually, I am way behind the curve on new music but there I was, in 1994, in a record store in Northampton, Massachusetts, buying this CD with my hard-earned money, which, to put it mildly was very miniscule at the time. It then proceeded to blow my mind.

So why is this album one of my favorite albums of ALL time? Mainly because no album before or since has opened up the possibilities of electronic music for me in the same way that SAW2 did. There's a been a few anniversary write-ups recently on the album, most notably on that website that shall not be named. A new book has also just come out on the album in the 33 1/3 book series, written by Marc Weidenbaum who did an astonishing amount of research trying to track down its gestation, its sound, and its meaning.

Naturally, given that pretty much every single person dabbling in electronic music since the mid-1990s has been influenced by SAW2, going back to listen to the original might evoke familiar sensations, like you've heard it all before. But that's the weird thing about the original album: it still feels just as weird and "out of time." It's ambient electronic music in the sense that the each track (which were all unnamed in the original release) was based on the seeming repetition of identical musical phrases. So you might get seven minutes of the same thing repeated but as you delve deeper you begin to notice the almost-microscopic changes occurring through each track, sometimes a minor change in beat or meter, sometimes in a single note introduced suddenly. There's a palpable sense of unease throughout the recording, designed to make you feel comfortable but not entirely comfortable. We hear very little percussion on the album so most of it just kind of floats by. When we do hear drums, it's jarring, like a tribe of extinct locusts marching to destroy a field of crops as in here:

Sometimes, it's the creepy resonance of floating tones as you enter a house that was once haunted but now remains in your imagination:

The person behind all this, one Richard D. James, is an odd character. An English musician who has almost no use for the trappings of modern fame, he basically keeps to himself and releases stuff occasionally, with no rhyme or reason or any attention to the winds of change in music. I don't really know much about him, which is fine. You've probably seen his face in the infamous "Windowlicker" video which I will not post here but is worth checking out if you are not at work.

Anyway, I'm listening to it right now. And honestly, it's still just as strange, beautiful, and ingenious as it sounded twenty years ago to me. I had been schooled in your basic guitar-bass-drum format for so many years that this album opened my eyes to an entirely new world out there. And so began a few more years trawling through all manner of techno/electronic music.

Friday, April 11, 2014

DIIV - Air Conditioning

DIIV (pronounced "dive") is a band from Brooklyn with one album out, Oshin (2012). Basically the brainchild of one Zachary Cole Smith, the band's music harks back to late 1980s dream guitar pop, the kind of stuff that might have fit comfortably on 4AD or opening for Ride. It's less shoegazer and more psychedelic pop, sounding a bit like the long forgotten Ocean Blue. Someone told me DIIV recently opened for How To Destroy Angels (Trent Reznor's other band) and I can sort of see the overlap there. Smith says that DIIV is influenced by krautrock (who isn't these days?), Nirvana, and the music of Mali, particularly Baba Salah.

The big 'hit' off Oshin was a song called "Doused" but I like this song better: "Air Conditioning."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Learn How To Fail

This is an officially unreleased track from the Replacements recorded sometime in late 1986 or early 1987 during sessions for the album that became Pleased To Meet Me. Amazing that they kept this off the album.

"... no Easter Bunny and no Santa Claus..."

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Beck - Morning Phase

I was going to write a review of the new Beck album but why bother writing a review when the one you were going to write was written (pretty much exactly) by someone else? Everyone makes the obvious comparison to Beck's 2002 classic Sea Change, one of my favorite albums of the past 20 or 30 years, and yes, there is certainly a resemblance to Sea Change, particularly in the tempos, the choice of instrumentation, the lush production, and his voice. Sea Change came reportedly after a bad breakup so the songs tend to have a deep melancholy tenor. Here, the tone is slow, languid, but ever so slightly positive. There is a weariness to the joy, but it is joy nevertheless. If anything, in tone, the album resembles some of the slow songs off the Velvet Underground's 1967 Velvet Underground & Nico ("Sunday Morning," "I"ll Be Your Mirror," etc.). Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Beck did a cover of that entire album a few years ago, which was actually quite good.

Although I have known about Beck and heard his music for decades, until about 2009, most of my interaction with his canon has been passive. I remember hearing "Loser" when it came out in the early 1990s and loving it (I still do). His various party albums were played at college and we danced to them. Love me some "Devil's Haircut." But I never actually went out and got one, even if I knew exactly what he meant when was talked about "two turntables and a microphone." And honestly this has to be one of the best dance songs of all time:

So it was a shock when, around 2009, I heard Sea Change, which was COMPLETELY different. First of all, it was earnest, there was not a single ironic note on the album. The songs were simple, they weren't trying to bridge entirely different genres, and largely based in a kind of folk rock idiom, kind of like Buffalo Springfield's softer moments, maybe the Flying Burrito Brothers. You know that song "Moonlight Mile" by the Rolling Stones, the song that closes Sticky Fingers? It is a gorgeous song (apparently written mostly by Mick Jagger and Mick Taylor):

While Beck does not approach such genius stratospheric heights, Sea Change was a little like the sound of "Moonlight Mile" (but with better production and more acoustic guitar) spread across an entire album. Morning Phase, the new album, is a bit like that and a pleasure to listen to. All the lush orchestration, the muffled drums, and upfront acoustic guitars envelops you, like bathing in sound. The songs are generally simple in terms of chords but rich in terms of arrangement. Beck's voice is aglow with reverb, like he is speaking to us from a canyon.

The first song on the album ("Morning") pretty much communicates its ambition and scope:

It's amazing how similar it sounds to the very first song on Sea Change:

Here he is performing another track from the new album, "Blue Moon," on Saturday Night Live last week:

Anyway, it's a great album, for sure. One of the best of the year so far. I've been listening to it non-stop since it came out.

Monday, February 24, 2014


Beck's new album, Morning Phase, is streaming (at least for now) here. It officially comes out tomorrow. Will have a review soon. It kinda fits my mood so far. Had a bit of a bummer of a day.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Clann Zú - There Will Be No Morning Copy

It's rare to have songs about such a charged conflict as the one between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It's rarer to have one that is actually a good song. Clann Zú was a bi-national band from Australia and Ireland who mixed together a bunch of different styles, including punk, folk, electronic, classical but mainly in the rock idiom. Their songs frequently used both the Irish and English languages. They were mostly around in the early 2000s, and broke up around 2005 before leaving a bunch of albums including Black Coats & Bandages (2004), their final album. This particular song from that album, "There Is No Morning Copy," is amazing. The song, while more conventional sounding than their earlier stuff, builds in intensity and power and grace as it reaches its end with an electric violin fighting a guitar. It's nice to have a band that is completely earnest with no irony, singing about a cause that is important to them. More information and mp3s from the band can be found here.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nirvana - A Denial

So about two years ago, the online magazine Inflatable Ferret (which alas, folded... although they still blog) asked me to write something on the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind. So I just basically vomited out about 4,000 words in a couple of hours and sent it to them. Unfortunately, they packed up shop right around that time and the essay never got published. Anyway, thinking about Nevermind, grunge, and that whole alterna-rock nineties thing seems kind of hokey these days. Like trying to say nice things about James Taylor or Ace of Base. Still, given that soon it's gonna be twenty years since Kurt Cobain killed himself, I thought I would pull it out and publish it on my blog. It's a bit of navel-gazing of course, but I think gets to the reason (especially near the end of the essay) why music means so much to us when we are in our twenties, and why we carry those feelings ahead into our thirties and forties.

Nevermind: A Denial

Nevermind changed everything! It sold 30 million copies and completely revolutionized the music industry by ushering in an era of heavy guitar-based music into the mainstream. It knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the number 1 spot in the Billboard charts in a move that was the symbolic death of the era of facile hair metal and R and B muzak. Angst became cool and nothing was the same ever; it was the “voice of a generation.”

This view is so deeply entrenched in popular thinking—and reproduced ad nauseum recently on the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nevermind—that it no longer makes any difference whether it’s true or not. There is, however, one part of this story that is incontrovertibly true:

Nevermind did sell 30 million. According to Wikipedia, it is number 27 on the list of best-selling albums of all time. But it’s equally eye-opening to excavate some other numbers from the 1990s. Guess what? Nevermind, it turns out, wasn’t even the top-selling album of 1991. Here are the best-selling albums of the decade:

Top seller: Michael Jackson – Dangerous (32 million)

Top seller: Whitney Houston – The Bodyguard (44 million)
Next in line: Abba - Abba Gold (28 million), Billy Ray Cyrus – Some Gave All (20 million)

Top seller: Mariah Carey – Music Box (32 million)
Next in line: Ace of Base – Happy Nation/The Sign (23 million), Celine Dion – The Colour of My Love (20 million)

Top seller: Bon Jovi – Cross Road (20 million)

Top seller: Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (33 million)
Next in line: Mariah Carey – Daydream (25 million), Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (22 million), Michael Jackson –HIStory (20 million)

Top seller: Celine Dion – Falling Into You (32 million)
Next in line: Spice Girls – Spice (23 million)

Top seller: Shania Twain – Come On Over (40 million)
Next in line: Celine Dion – Let’s Talk About Love (31 million), James Horner – Titanic soundtrack (30 million), Backstreet Boys – Backstreet’s Back (28 million), Spice Girls – Spiceworld (20 million)

Top seller: Madonna – Ray of Light (20 million)

Top seller: Backstreet Boys – Millenium (40 million)
Next in line: Britney Spears – … Baby One More Time (26 million), Santana – Supernatural (27 million), Dido – No Angel (21 million), Cher – Believe (20 million)

So what did Nevermind change? Not much it seems. Nothing at all. Awful pop, which ruled the zeitgeist of the 1980s equally dominated the cultural currents of the 1990s. But numbers don’t really tell the whole story. Something did happen with Nevermind, something maybe not on the level of a Mariah Carey album or Celine Dion’s utter saturation of the airwaves, but something nevertheless. I concede already that identifying that “something” is difficult, maybe even impossible. Given all the baggage surrounding such an iconic album, writing about Nevermind is much like dancing about architecture (to invoke Elvis Costello’s much-quoted one-liner.) It can’t be done. And if you try hard enough, you’ll just come off looking silly. If it’s impossible to exactly unearth what happened with Nevermind, the other equally defeatist option is to try and rip the album out of its historical context and evaluate its music on its own terms. Another foolhardy exercise, that. This is not only because so much has been written about it, but also because at this point, twenty years after its release, Nevermind has become entrenched in the overarching narrative about the history of rock’n’roll (see above).

I haven’t listened to Nevermind much in the past decade or so, and honestly had no plans to do so. But in preparation to write this, I put it on a few times last week. I heard it on the subway, at home, sometimes as background music, sometimes paying attention. There’s a weird quality to it: not many albums make me feel nothing. Nevermind kinda makes me feel nothing. I’m not saying that it doesn’t evoke a lot, or that it doesn’t remind me of things, but it feels emotionally absent—more intellectually alluring than emotionally stirring, if that makes sense. At this point, the album feels neither good nor bad, it just is. It’s like the monolith on the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey—it seems awesome but you don’t really know why. This is all the more odd since Nevermind used to mean a lot to me. A lot.

I guess I should get this out of the way then. My first memory of Nevermind is this: listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on KTRU (the radio station at Rice University in Houston). To say that KTRU was eclectic is to understate the issue. Back then (circa fall 1991) the station might play an hour of straight Bulgarian folk followed by 90 minutes of the sound of a helicopter, followed by back-to-back plays of the Swans’ Filth and Cop, and then finally topped off with a full hour of the sound collage “band” Negativland whose biggest “hit” up to that point was “Christianity is Stupid.” You never really knew what you were getting with KTRU. So hearing a song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was kind of odd. I’d barely heard of Nirvana at that point (late 1991) and they sounded, well, almost tuneful. Why was KTRU playing a pop song? As the weeks turned into months, I watched in bemusement as Nirvana suddenly got to number 1. Number 1! From what I could tell, they came out of the “underground” scene, what most of my friends would generally call “punk rock.” At the time, punk rock was a sensibility that pretty much described everything that wasn’t (a) on the radio or (b) classic rock. I studiously avoided both radio music and classic rock so the fact that a “punk rock” band was at number 1 was totally weird. It just didn’t make any sense. These guys were on MTV!

Gradually in early 1992, by which time I moved to the cultural mecca of Houston, Texas, I started to listen to the album a lot. I had a cassette tape with Nevermind on one side and the Smashing PumpkinsGish on the other. I remember at a party talking to my friend Greg—a drummer in a band—and him declaiming in all seriousness that the Pumpkins were the “real thing” and Nirvana was a “sellout.” This was news to me, since I had only the dimmest idea of who Nirvana was. Either way, I was initially drawn to Gish and put off by the glossy production on Nevermind, but increasingly as 1991 turned to 1992, I kept forgetting to play Gish. Weird to think about it but at the time Smashing Pumpkins had a lot of cred among the indie rock kids (“alternative,” they used to call it). Gish sounded full of muscle; it was agro and masculine. Nevermind sounded muddled, poppy, and androgynous. But somehow, inexorably, I got sucked into the Nevermind world. I have a strange kodachrome memory of me looking for a parking spot at a grocery store one spring day, not being able to find one, and as I circled and circled … and circled, “Come As You Are” built up into this hypnotic crescendo. My unexpected first thought was, “Shit, this is awesome.”

But you haven’t labored this deep into a review to hear me say, “Shit, this is awesome.” Actually, within the confines of 1992, the album was undeniably awesome. First, the songs were perfectly composed, arranged, and played. These guys wrote twelve amazing pop songs that had killer melodies. And there was one peculiar thing: Kurt Cobain had an eerie mastery over how to sing a vocal melody. Most pop songs are just constructions of successive chords with a vocal melody that essentially matches the chord progression, maybe veering off a little bit here and there. Cobain’s trick (and let’s face it, this was part of his genius) was to sing at odds with the chord progression. Take the penultimate song, “On A Plain.” There’s a relatively simple pop chord progression. But you start following the chords and the vocals are always going off in opposite directions, swooping up and down in a way that is not intuitive at all—in fact, it’s entirely counter-intuitive if you’ve only heard the chords. What this does is to create a three dimensionality that’s kind of unique. It makes the song levitate, almost float by you. You want to take a deep breath and fly away with it. It’s striking.

At the time, I loved all the songs on the album—and I mean every song. Ripped out of its mega-star-cultural-moment context, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a big dumb rock song. It rocks harder than anything made by Black Sabbath but it sounds a bit like the Monkees. There’s something sinister about the introductory bars to the song, just before the vocals come in; those double-note ambulance-like notes ring out ominously over a driving bass. For months, I had no idea about the lyrics (they were first printed as an insert in the “Lithium” CD single) and in a way, I wish I still didn’t. The first couplet was apparently: “Load up on guns / and bring your friends.” In concert, Kurt often sang them as: “Load up on drugs / and kill your friends” which I liked a lot better. I liked the almost comical nihilism set up against this palatable pop sheen.

Much has been made of Nevermind following a loud-soft-loud dynamic perfected by the Pixies on Surfer Rosa, and sure, that’s part of the charm (or annoyance, depending your perspective) of the record, but the band work it to good effect. Undoubtedly, the loud-soft-loud dynamic made the album especially exciting to bonehead jocks who could go get a beer during the soft parts and then dump it over the heads of weakling nerdy kids during the loud parts. But behind the “cheap trick” of the loud-soft-loud dynamic was a real subversiveness to the album. If you were gonna introduce “punk rock” (again, used very expansively) to the malls of America, then you couldn’t find a better album with which to do so. If you look back on the pre-Nevermind year of 1990, other contenders were Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual, Sonic Youth’s Goo, the Pixies’ Bossanova, maybe Nine Inch NailsPretty Hate Machine, maybe even Gish. But really, all those albums were kind of conventional counter-cultural statements. Nevermind was completely unique. It was a pop rock album that had songs with singalong choruses about bipolar disorder (“Lithium”) packed in right next to manic punk rock (“Territorial Pissings) and the relentlessly racing punk flight of “Stay Away” which ended with the glorious exclamation of “God is gay.” (In the written lyrics, he added the equally sophomoric and funny “Burn the flag.”) How many unsuspecting middle-aged suburban moms knew that those lyrics were buried in the songs of Nevermind? And the coup de grace? Once the album finishes, after about ten minutes of silence, the by-now dozing listener is awakened from her stupor with the greatest abject noise-skronk freakout (“Endless Nameless”) this side of the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues.” Now that was a tour de force.

And for all the subversiveness, there was also an emotional wallop in the album. It didn’t feel distant, remote. It was warm. You could hear the ringing three-note variations at the beginning of “Come as You Are”  like a lover’s come-on; until, of course, Kurt starts singing “And I swear, I don’t have a gun,” and you knew, right then and there, that he did indeed have a gun. “Polly” and “Something In The Way” are the obligatory acoustic songs, the former a deeply uncomfortable-to-listen-to song about rape from the rapists’ perspective, and “Something in the Way” a grim reminder of some long lost memory. Even the filler tracks are packed with candy and bullets: “Lounge Act” rocks away like the greatest Cheap Trick song that never happened, while “Breed” rips out of the speakers like a rush of blood, as you imagine yourself crowd-surfing over a genius riff that has been embossed into your brain cells.

There’s a real dynamic quality to the album, both in terms of its sonic qualities, but also in its range of emotions. This is an album that over a period of 45 minutes makes you want to “fuck shit up” (as Juliana Hatfield so succinctly put it in her song “Nirvana” from her 1992 album Hey Babe), curl up in a ball, raise your fists like antennas to heaven, or smile with glee. And that’s the other part of its appeal. It’s like an album made by committee to appeal to every imaginable disaffected youth demographic: the jocks (the big dumb choruses of “Lithium”), the punks (who could mosh with “Territorial Pissings”), the girls (who could bounce up and down with “Come As You Are”), the sensitive poets (“Something In the Way,” duh), the feminists (“Polly”), the Sonic Youth fans (“Endless Nameless”), and of course, the mildly interested yuppie demographic (the whole album).

Not too many people talk about the musicianship on the album, but Kurt was a good guitar player; not just a competent one, but an actually good one. He had a keen melodic sense and his rhythm guitar playing is taut and to the point, not a note wasted. His lead runs are either sub-Sonic Youth atonal bursts, or note-for-note reproductions of the vocal melodies, which many people found strangely lacking in creativity. You could imagine that the same songs, in the hands of Motley Crue, would have full-scale wanker guitar solos, totally ruining the songs. Instead, the solos here are simple, tasteful, and repetitive … in a good way. Dave Grohl was a beast on drums; Butch Vig’s production makes his snare sound massive without being overpowering. I dare you to not move your body when he hammers down on the multiple snare hits at the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a bit like those hammer-of-the-gods stick-pounding that begins Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” but sped up and brought into ‘90s production mode.

So it was a good album, for sure. It was produced well, the songs had mass appeal. In a weird way, the music on it enabled a kind of popular imprinting. By that I mean, you could project anything you wanted on it. It’s a rare album that makes that possible. For the 13 to 28-year old demographic, this album was like an empty frame where you could paint in your aspirations, frustrations, yearnings, and expectations. There are few albums that succeed on that level alone. Some that come to mind: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or the BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., maybe. These albums, when they came out, were at the crest of a cultural consensus, albums which transcended the genre of music fans and beyond into broader popular culture. Your parents heard of these artists and albums. Your grandmothers too. But unlike these albums, the cultural consensus of Nevermind was principally a narrative of rebellion, youth rebellion.

The Clash once sang about the music industry and its habit of “turning rebellion into money.” It’s an old story of course, the commodification of dissent. Nevermind came out at a time when the entire machinery of mass media was perfectly poised and ready, cocked and loaded to sell packaged rebellion. There was a window of opportunity in 1990-1991 for guitar-based angst-ridden music to break through into the popular mainstream, a niche for “authenticity,” the kind of authenticity that could be approved of in a board meeting and sold through the appropriate channels. By the summer of 1991, the cultural project of “authenticity” was given a big boost by the first Lollapalooza shows which traveled all across the country with a diverse group of “alternative” bands. Again, a slightly different course of events and Lollapalooza headliners Jane’s Addiction might have ended up where Nirvana was. But Jane’s imploded pretty soon after and the band was a little too glamed up for “authenticity,” too arty if you will. Compared to the members of Jane’s, the guys in Nirvana were kind of middlebrow but clued in. “Alternative” music was beginning to be a cash cow for the major labels already before Nevermind—note the major label successes of Sonic Youth and the Pixies.

So who was doing the commodifying of rebellion? Well, mostly MTV. The music video channel had been around since the early 1980s and it had gained in massive influence by the late 1980s where the network could make or break bands. For marketing reasons, MTV began slowly shifting its programming to “alternative” music in 1991, from a small trickle that became a massive deluge by 1992. It’s hard to remember a time now when MTV mattered but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, shows like 120 Minutes were the only vehicle through which adolescent kids were exposed to music outside the mainstream. Before the internet, if you lived in suburbia, you had to be pretty industrious to be clued in. And for a 13-year old kid from Palos Verdes outside of LA to be clued in was to have her mom drive her to Sam Goody or the Wherehouse or—much easier—to watch MTV. A 13-year old is not going to know the difference between rebellion and commodified rebellion. In fact, it’s a distinction that is grossly unimportant. Add to that mix, the fact that 24-hour entertainment/news networks were finally becoming household names—think CNN and its crucial role in bringing the (first) Gulf War to American homes in 1991—and you have a potent mix: a great album with pop songs where every disaffected youth demographic could project their anxieties, a marketing machine that sold Nevermind as an “authentic” antidote to soulless hair metal and/or R&B, and the existence of a powerful 24-hour machinery of conspicuous communication. And let’s face it, it didn’t hurt that Kurt Cobain was a blue-eyed blonde-haired Adonis. You mix up all of that and you get a mass cultural phenomenon that exploded into the sensibilities of the white middle class.

So yeah, there were all these structural reasons, the political economy of Nevermind, if you will. But what did it really mean? What did it mean on an individual level? Each person brings something to a piece of music that is intensely personal. Why some albums resonate while others barely register have a lot to do with when one experienced that music. Popular music, especially since the 1950s, has been, by-and-large, a phenomenon of youth, and it strikes a person, it resonates deeply in the peculiar balancing point between adolescence and adulthood. The best and most resonant pop music is about being young, about the usually haphazard and contradictory awareness of meaning and escape in one’s life. There’s something about listening to a song when you’re 14 or 24—it could be Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” or Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”—that gives it a revelatory charge. It’s not that we can’t appreciate music when we’re 40 or 50 but that by that time there is an element of clinical and cognitive appreciation in it. When you’re young, there’s no rationalizations, only deep-rooted awareness. We invest our souls in those moments when music makes sense. The music becomes larger than life, assuming a kind of surrogacy, where your fucked up adolescent emotions are given life in songs. That’s powerful when you’re young. It may happen for over a span of years, it may happen with many bands. Serendipitously, I happened to be in that window of time, actually on the tail end of it, and this album began to mean something to me that was entirely larger than its practical import in my life.

To say that I loved Nevermind in 1992, 1993 would be an understatement. If my CDs and tapes of that album were edible, I would have eaten them, that’s how much I loved them. Sure, I loved the songs. They were, yes, awesome. And yes, I felt vindicated that my (my, my) own little world of “punk rock” was selling millions of copies. But honestly, there was little mystery as to why exactly my like for a band crossed over into some sort of vaguely pathological identification: it was the cheap and sophomoric distortions of youth telling me that I was just like the singer. I developed some ill-advised and idiotic identification with Kurt that had no basis in rationality. Some of it was certainly me swallowing the media’s perfectly presented image of a talented punk rock guy who was going against the grain even as he was co-opted by the very machinery which he was railing against. This is also not a new phenomenon: when late 1960s counterculture musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors were railing against the establishment (“the man”), I’m sure it was not lost upon them that they were on major corporate labels owned by “the man.” I was acutely aware of this fundamental contradiction in 1992 but I didn’t care. The corporate package was, in fact, perfectly suited to me. I liked the fact that Nirvana was both popular and yet constantly complained of being too popular. This condition mirrored the contradictions of my own life (well-read but constantly railing against intellectuals, etc.). And for sure, I loved wallowing in my navel-gazing angst. I was the perfect demographic. I too wanted to scream my fucking head off at the world and sing “Territorial Pissings.” I too wanted to tell Rolling Stone magazine that they were corporate shills. I even liked Flipper’s Sex Bomb Baby just like him!

I also bought into the dichotomies reinforced in packaged interviews: the forced Beatles vs. Stones rivalry that was now played out in Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam; my absolute and utter antipathy towards Guns n’ Roses who represented the evil “other” even though as Steven Hyden so insightfully identified in a recent series of articles on “alternative nation” on the A/V Club that Axel Rose and Kurt Cobain were in fact much more alike than not; and finally, my constant need to defend Nirvana against charges of “sellout” to my purist punk rock friends. All of these right vs. wrong dichotomies were neatly personified in this mega rock star who, let’s face it, was probably an asshole. This intense identification with Kurt Cobain, while somewhat foolish, was at its core, briefly very cathartic. It gave some sort of vague private space where I could exist outside of the very evident inertia of my “real” life. (Naturally, when Kurt killed himself in 1994, this deep and misguided identification caused all sorts of unexpected, um, disruptions.)

So the music of my youth bred this kind of extremely meaningful but highly contrived identification. But … at some point, for everyone, deeply personal investment in music ceases to happen. It stops. It may be because you get busy with other things or because you don’t have time or because you get into relationships, have babies, or just get old. But it stops. And at that point, something else happens: nostalgia, or more precisely false nostalgia, kicks in. Nirvana has been the focus (or victim, depending on your take) of so much nostalgia, that it’s hard to recover anything of value about it besides the actual act of remembering. People now even remember how they remembered Nevermind. And the narratives are firmly calcified. You know when John Stewart hosts a special Town Hall meeting on SiriusXM radio to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind with Dave Grohl, Kris Novoselic, and Butch Vig, that we are a culture that fetishizes remembering, nostalgia, the past, memories, tributes, anniversaries, etc. The new Nevermind 4 CD/1 DVD boxset edition is but one symptom of how pop culture is now constantly cannibalizing its past. Do we really need so much Nevermind? And the weird part is that when I saw ads for the box set, I was drawn to it, like an adult being shown a long lost toy from his youth, attracted by the alluring lost but yet treasured quality of it. But I held myself back. I tried to remind myself of that feeling I get when I see yet another Rolling Stone cover on Kurt Cobain at the airport, or every time I see Nevermind as the token 1990s album to make babyboomer lists of the top 100 albums of all time. It just makes me nauseous.
The album doesn’t exist outside its history anymore. The songs each have long footnotes that explain every historical detail about the band; looming large over all this is of course The Suicide™. It has become almost impossible to imagine Nevermind without that most famous of footnotes, which looms larger than the text itself.

Now, twenty years later, without the meaning, without the youthful attachments, without the superficial hero identifications, and without the footnotes, does the text hold up? I just listened to it. It’s damn good. It may not be the best album of the 1990s (hell, it’s not even the best album of 1991—that honor is reserved for My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless), but it is indeed a good-to-great album, full of fine songs, massive music, tender moments, subversive commentary, and unintelligible lyrics. Sure, it’s hard to find meaning in it anymore, but it’s hard to find meaning in anything that happened twenty years ago. Like the album, I am also twenty years older now and there are other things to devote attention to. But I know this for sure: it’s aged much better than me.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Megafaun - Get Right

Megafaun is based in Durham, North Carolina. Although they seem to have emerged from the jam band scene, their sound is not much like the bands who populate the H.O.R.D.E. festivals. Instead, their music is wildly experimental, psychedelic, but inexplicably grounded in pop. Their last (and fourth) album was the self-titled Megafaun from 2011, after which they went on some kind of hiatus. Here is "Get Right" from that album, an eight-and-a-half minute swirling vaguely psychedelic masterpiece that reveals new sounds lurking out there on the edges of the sound with every successive listen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Instant Karma

OK, OK, I've been on a big hippie baby boomer kick, but really, come on, who gets better than the Beatles? (OK, I have to admit I'm a bit um tipsy.) But I was thinking of all the Beatles tributes in the U.S. recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their arrival in the U.S. By accident I suppose, John Lennon and George Harrison were not there for all the various celebrations. So it's basically the Paul and Ringo show. It's not really anyone's fault (well, I guess it is the fault of that fucker who shot John Lennon). But it's a real pity that the other two aren't around. Lennon would have been something like 73 this year. One wonders what he would have been like, given his acerbic and generally punk rock younger self. Maybe he would have mellowed. I doubt it, but then again who knows. He did write and record a bunch of sappy stuff before he died. But then again, before he died, he was energized by the energy of post-punk and new wave. Who knows.

So I thought I'd post a picture of him when he was like 30 or something. We all were once 30. Most of us anyway. What is one's attitude to life at 30? At thirty, John Lennon was already done with the Beatles. Every single genius song he wrote for the Beatles was already done. He was already one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Now what to do?

Anyway, I post here a song he recorded and released around the time he turned 30, in 1970, in his first few months as a solo artist. Recorded on January 27. Released as a single just ten days later. Amazing. Sort of like a news flash from the world of pop music. I first heard this song when I was nine years old. And honestly, I still think it is one of the best singles of all time. About three minutes long, basically three chords, not that complicated, a bit of attitude, no guitar solo. Pretty good.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fujiya & Miyagi - Ankle Injuries

I know I've posted this about a hundred times before but I can't get enough of how awesome this song is: "Ankle Injuries" by the English band Fujiya & Miyagi from their album Transparent Things (2006). The whole album is FANTASTIC. Great for a Sunday of writing and working.

Kenji Kawai - Ghost In The Shell [original soundtrack]

Kenji Kawai is a funny looking man but a prolific composer of music for a vast range of anime movies and video games. I don't know his works that well but I've heard some of it, mostly through passive listening in movies in such as Ring and Dark Water. The one that I have been listening to a lot recently was pointed out by a reader of this blog (thanks!), his soundtrack for the animated movie Ghost in the Shell (1995), a great film that has some interesting things to say about gender and identity in a futuristic world. Kenji Kawai also did the soundtrack for the even more brilliant Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), which draws on everything from Max Weber to Isaac Asimov.

For the soundtrack to the first Ghost in the Shell movie, Kawai used a "spatializer ... to alter the sound, specifically in the electronic brain conversations, to modify the voices." His composition "is a mixture of Bulgarian harmony and traditional Japanese notes," whatever that means. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

David Crosby [Repost]

David Crosby's new solo album (Croz), the fourth in his career, came out a couple of days ago. I don't have much to say about the new one yet (still pondering it) but to take note of the occasion, I thought I would repost an older post of mine from 2009. Crosby is a kind of a guilty pleasure of mine, especially his work from about 1965 to 1971 when he was at his creative peak. Hence.....

[Repost]: David Crosby

Sometime in 1991, I remember picking up a vinyl copy of David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, his first solo album released a full twenty years before then. At that time, there could possibly be nothing uncooler than David Crosby (well, I guess Stills and Nash). But I'd always had a soft spot for Crosby, and frequently embarrassed for it. It was hard to justify to my friends who (like me) were into the Smiths, Pixies, Ministry, or Big Black that I also liked David Crosby (or, God forbid, Crosby Stills and Nash). But I did. I always liked his music. In fact, I loved it. His two acoustic contributions to the CSNY live album Four-Way Street ("Triad" and "The Leeshore") were incandescent, just gorgeous acoustic meditations that were, yes, very hippie, but at the same time, peculiar, strange, and deeply evocative of dreams.

David Crosby has had an extremely checkered career but luckily for his audience, was at the peak of his musical abilities between about 1965 and 1971. His sensibilities were an interesting mix: chamber folk, jazz, unconventional guitar tunings, hippie/utopian lyrics whose subject matter ranged from medieval myths, free love, politics, and nature. First with the Byrds and then with Crosby Stills Nash (& Young), he would write some wonderfully innovative songs, taking the folk (rock) idiom into new places. Some of these songs ("Deja Vu" and "Mind Garden," for example) followed no discernible song structure, i.e., no choruses, verses etc.

But nothing really prepares you for the solo album. From start to finish, this album is guided by the notion that music can be beautiful, experimental, and accessible, all at the same time. And (cough) transcendental. If you can get over the fact that this is David Crosby, inveterate hippie and member of the absurdly self-indulgent group, Crosby Stills & Nash, who have produced some of the most bland music this side of Dan Fogelberg, I urge you to seek this CD out. Yeah, it's a pot album, but it's much more than just that.

It would be tedious to go through the album track by track but it's worth it to offer a little background. A whole host of the usual California "soft-rock" cognoscenti dropped in on the sessions, including members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Crosby wrote the songs and played guitars but as he noted elsewhere, the guitars were tuned perfectly. You can hear the perfectly tuned guitars on the song "Laughing," one of my favorite Crosby songs of all time [mp3 posted below], as they strum in perfect unison through the song, a strum that builds into moments of sheer transcendence (that word again) as a steel guitar plays out the coda. The lyrics are even better. Like all the best lyrics, they are both general and specific. I have to excerpt the whole thing here because part of its beauty is its brevity:

I thought, I met a man, who said he knew a man
Who knew what was goin' on

I was mistaken

Only another stranger
That I knew

And I thought, that I'd found the light

To guide me through my nights and all my darkness

I was mistaken

It was only reflections of a shadow
That I saw

And I thought, I've seen someone, who seemed at last

To know the truth

I was mistaken

Only a child laughing
In the sun

In the sun

I love the fact that the song is called "Laughing." Nothing more, nothing less.

There are a couple of instrumental jams, one called "Tamalpais High (At About 3)" and the other called "Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)" that are drop dead beautiful. You can hear the latter here at NPR which picked the track as one of its "songs of the day" a couple of years ago. There's also an eight-minute long "rock" track, "Cowboy Movie" which is a fantasy cowboys-and-Indians story written as if a movie was filmed armed only with several awesome rhythm guitars. An unreleased version featuring Neil Young on lead guitar is, as one might expect, totally ragged and crazy. The album ends with an acapella song that is not unlike something you might find on an early Dead Can Dance album (like Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, for example).

It's worth noting how deeply uncool this album was for decades. Famous rock critic Robert Christgau, later champion of all things punk and post-punk, gave the album a D- and called it a "disgraceful performance." Now you have uber cool people like Devendra Banhart and the Fleet Foxes referencing this album as a touchstone for the new(ish) "freak folk" scene.

So what can I offer today? A version of "The Leeshore" from a September 1970 performance with Crosby & Nash. Nash talks too much. Just ignore it. The song soars on its weird tunings. Sends chills up my spine. Amazingly, the song was never released in its original form until 1991.

A couple of more videos. The first is "Laughing" in its album version. The second is "Kids and Dogs," a song recorded at the original sessions for the album but left off and not released until 2006.

For completists, there's a detailed account of the recording of If I Could Only Remember My Name here, focusing especially on the recording of the song "Laughing."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dead Can Dance - Hymn for the Fallen (live)

Here is Dead Can Dance doing "Hymn for the Fallen" from their 2005 tour. The song was officially unreleased at the time and later showed up, under a different title ("Sleep") on Lisa Gerrard's third solo album, The Black Opal (2009). Not sure what it's about but it has a dreamy quality to it, and sounds unusual for Dead Can Dance (or Gerrard's solo career) in that the idiom is more the classic American songbook rather than the world music-types stuff she's known for.