Wednesday, April 26, 2006

105. Phish - Billy Breathes (1996)

Change. Sometimes, we dread it. Other times, it’s warmly welcomed. And still other times, it’s just flat-out confusing. I like to believe that some things stay constant. For example, if a record is good in 1996, it’s good in 2006, right? That’s where change comes in.

Witness: Billy Breathes. When it came out I was a sophomore in college, and it sounded pretty sweet to my ear. My roommate had played earlier Phish discs like Rift and Hoist ad nauseum, but Billy Breathes seemed like something else altogether. For one, it was cohesive, a whole album experience, rather than just a random collection of songs. And I wasn’t the only one won over. I recall a reading a review at the time in which the critic compared the album to The Beatles’ Abbey Road!

If asked for a review having not heard the album in approximately 8 years, I would have told you that it’s the only essential Phish album, given it an “A”, and declared it a viable candidate the top ten of 1996.

But I gave the CD a spin before this review, and was surprised to find myself slightly bored and annoyed with it. It seemed overindulgent, meandering, flat. And of course, this leaves me with the question, what changed? You always hear reviewers say something “hasn’t aged well,” but that never holds water for me. Sure, certain production techniques have gone out of style, but a good melody or performance is a good melody or performance. I guess the Billy Breathes conundrum is more slippery than that. Besides, music doesn’t change. People do.

It’s completely possible that as an album, Billy Breathes was never very good in the first place. Perhaps it just caught me at a time when nothing else interested me. Maybe it only spoke to me as I was then, and my musical tastes have either widened or narrowed.

Not to say the album is free of highlights. Free is a perfect opener (and minor radio hit), the kind of sunshiny pop Phish could conjure up from time to time, built on lush harmonies and ‘70s guitar. Other standouts are few and far between. Waste is a spare, sweet slow-build ballad also powered by strong harmonies. And who could resist the romantic sentiment: “Come waste your time with me”? Theme From The Bottom is an epic about an undersea creature, featuring a wonderful chorus, an instrumental freakout and a barbershop breakdown. And Prince Caspian is a satisfying classic country rock homage to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia character.

The rest is versatile, but slight. Songs careen from zany blues to modern jazz to warbled country, but without a memorable tune.

And, really, where did that Abbey Road comparison come from? Okay I can hear it, ever so slightly, in the way Swept Away, Steep and Prince Caspian segue into one another, but it’s nowhere near as inventive or interesting as the side two finale to The Beatles’ recording career (which, by the way, I listened to not two days ago and enjoyed immensely). I strongly suspect that the reviewer who made that comparison is looking back now with ten extra years of wisdom and perspective, and is perhaps a bit ashamed of his or her youthful exuberance. But hey, people change, and so do opinions.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Theme From The Bottom

Monday, April 10, 2006

104. Morrissey - Ringleader Of The Tormentors (2006)

For several years now Morrissey's music has straddled the divide between comedy and tragedy. His songs tells us about girlfriends in comas and hairdressers on fire, implore us to hang a D.J., and speak of bludgeoning people in their beds. But somehow they are never completely depressing. Even the gloomiest Morrissey song is good for some comfort, or a laugh.

That's good because lately Moz is concerned with mortality. Nearly every song on his new album mentions death in one form or another. But, dashing ghoul that he is, Morrissey knows exactly how to avoid bumming us out. Sometimes it's a line, sometimes it's a note, but he always rescues himself from pity, self or other.

You Have Killed Me
is a catchy mash note to Rome, with a flair for the dramatic: "Yes, I walk around - somehow / But you have killed me." I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero Now could be a dirge, but the money line "My one true love is under the ground" is delivered with ringing major guitar chords, as though this is something celebratory.

In other songs he bluntly juxtaposes love and disaffection. Life Is A Pigsty seems like a title to cool any cynic's heart but it's actually a pulsing love song ("I'm falling in love again," Moz says repeatedly as the song ends). To Me You Are A Work Of Art is as balladic as Morrissey gets, but he still has to frame his admiration thusly: "I see the world, it makes me puke / But then I look at you..." Later, he claims not to have a heart, but we know better.

The Youngest Was The Most Loved and The Father Who Must Be Killed are both theatre-worthy concepts. The former is told from the perspective of a family whose youngest member becomes a murderer. The latter weaves a grisly tale both modern and Shakespearean (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive). Lyrically, it's a narrative that an old blues man or grizzled country singer alike could appreciate. Musically it's as cheery as going home early from work on a beautiful spring day.

A couple of the album's strongest songs - I Will See You In Far Off Places and In The Future When All's Well - even come off the slightest bit optimistic. The first has the funniest line of the album: "If your God bestows protection upon you / and if the U.S.A. doesn't bomb you / I will see you in far off places." The second remains as hopeful as its title, at least until the end when Moz adds - a bit superfluously - that "the future is ended by a long sleep."

On The Streets I Ran best sums up the record's themes and modus operandi. Uncharacteristically introspective, Moz confronts his legacy and past ("turned sickness into popular song") while still hoping for more life. In fact, he begs for it: "Dear God, take him, take them, take anyone / The stillborn / The newborn / The infirmed / Take anyone / Take people from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania / Just spare me!" Who else can make you laugh while pleading for immortality?

And that's the beauty of Morrissey's approach. He's not really a tormentor at all, he's a comfortor. He creates songs that are about the things that make you feel bad, but don't actually make you feel bad when you listen. To me, that's the work of an artist.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: To Me You Are A Work Of Art