Tuesday, December 21, 2010

276. XTC: Apple Venus, Volume 1 (1999)

I have never anticipated an album more than I anticipated XTC's Apple Venus, Volume 1.

I caught my first whiff of XTC in 1996 and quickly became a slavish fan over the next couple of years. When I discovered www.chalkhills.org, an amazing unofficial fan site, things got deep. There I learned not only had XTC been involved in a 7-year legal fight with Virgin records since the release of Nonsuch, but that the fight was basically over. A light had appeared at the end of the tunnel. They were soon to be free, and soon to release not one, but two, new albums!

My fervor only grew once I got my hands on a bootleg cassette of the demos for said albums (thanks to a kind fellow Chalkhills listserv member). I played that cassette to death. You'd think that already knowing most of the songs on an album would dampen one's anticipation, but it didn't happen in my case. In fact, my desire to hear the final produced versions only grew. My mania for XTC was not to be denied (and I had only been waiting a couple of years to hear new music from them; I can't imagine what it must have been like for the fans who had been waiting since 1992).

Very few times are such fevered high hopes fulfilled, but I don't remember having a single bit of disappointment upon hearing the album for the first time, on a spring day in 1999. Apple Venus, Volume 1 struck me as revelatory, majestic, and beautiful.

The album can be split fairly evenly between pastoral orchestral songs and quiet ballads. There's not an electric guitar to be heard, and I'd Like That is the only uptempo number. If you played this album next to White Music, few people would identify the two records as coming from the same band. I'd also argue that it's the most uniquely British album in the band's catalog, with English references abounding.

Leading off the orchestral tunes and the album is River of Orchids, a plinking number about nature overtaking civilisation. The song builds as it goes, with lots of lines repeating mantra-like. There's not much meaning there, but it sure sounds pretty. Easter Theatre is in a similar vein, while at the same time vying for the honor of being Andy Partridge's most sexually-charged song (and it's not like there's a dearth of competition in that realm). I love the melodic richness and Colin's backing vocals. Greenman ups the ante with a 40-piece orchestra and a hypnotic Middle Eastern sound. The themes of nature and sex rear up once again, combining into a vaguely menacing amalgam ("Please do bend down for the one called the Greenman / He wants to make you his bride").

Harvest Festival rounds out the thematic suite with a nostalgic remembrance of the yearly celebration of the crops coming in. Andy fondly recalls the festival and "that longing look" he received from a young lady he fancied. But this soon turns to regret, as he recounts how she left town and married someone else.

Speaking of that, on Apple Venus at least, things get more interesting when Andy turns to the topic of romance. Two of the album's best songs couldn't be further apart in their views on the subject. The sprightly I'd Like That is as joyous a love song as you might ask for. The thing you gotta love about Partridge's lyrics is how he constantly sends you to either a dictionary or Google. In this case, he compares his love to that of Hector and Helen of Troy, Albert and Victoria, and Nelson and Hamilton (that latter two couples serving as examples of that Brit-centricity I mentioned earlier). On the other side of the coin is the positively scathing divorce song Your Dictionary. Witness the opening verse:
Is that how you spell love in your dictionary?
Pronounced as kind
Is that how you spell friend in your dictionary
Black on black
A guidebook for the blind"
The song goes on like that, and Andy upbraids not only his ex-wife, but himself for being too passive while things went wrong. The lush I Can't Own Her takes a more regretful tack on the same theme, but to lesser effect. Andy's continued Beach Boys fixation is in full effect here.

While on the subject of lesser effect, the quieter moments on Apple Venus are not its highlights. Knights In Shinng Karma is delicate and pretty, two adjectives belied by its punny title. But it doesn't have much to say. Closer The Last Balloon doesn't suffer from a lack of lyrical ambition (it's about death and the afterlife), but it fails to make a strong musical impression.

Bassist and second songwriter Colin Moulding was responsible for some of XTC greatest moments, but he's clearly reached his songwriting twilight on Apple Venus. It seems the 7 year layoff kind of took the rock star drive away (it was never that strong; afterall, this is the man who wrote about the alienation of being in a band on Go 2). So his two songs here are minor affairs. Frivilous Tonight, all about a night out at the pub with mates, sounds like it could come from a stage show. And Fruit Nut is about being a gardener. I kid you not. And unlike Partridge's tunes, there are no sex metaphors, just the story of a man who likes to kill time outside in the dirt.

I must admit, and it's probably somewhat apparent already: Time has diminished my ardor for Apple Venus, Volume 1. Though I still feel it belongs somewhere in the first tier of the band's output (just under Black Sea, Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons, and Nonsuch), it's not anywhere near my favorite XTC album.

I think part of the blame for that falls on something that has nothing to do with the music itself. Mainly, that what felt at the time like a rebirth turned out to be a goodbye. As I wrote in my review of Apple Venus' second half, Wasp Star, we should have known. Guitarist Dave Gregory quit the band in the middle of making Apple Venus. Colin had lost his swagger and would quit not longafter Wasp Star was recorded, effectively ending the group. It's hard, listening now, to not think about it.

Nevertheless, Apple Venus, Volume 1 will always hold the title of the album I looked forward to more than any other. That is, until Colin, Dave, and Andy reunite and make a new one.

Grade: B
Fave Song: I'd Like That

Fun Fact: XTC's previous two albums had titles that had come from the lyrics of a song on the album previous to that ("oranges and lemons" is a lyric in Skylarking's Ballet for a Rainy Day; the word "nonsuch" appears Oranges and Lemons' Chalkhills and Children). Though the band claimed - somewhat unbelievably - that this was purely coincidental, they decided to do it on purpose this time around. So the words "apple Venus" come from the song Then She Appeared on Nonsuch.

Friday, December 03, 2010

2010: 8 Albums I'm Glad I Bought

Used to be I spent the better part of November and December laboring over a top 10 list of my favorite CDs of that year. It was a sacred process to me, enduring countless revisions and agonizations.

Last year I downshifted to an unranked list of "Albums I'm Glad I Bought." It felt right, given my diminished music obsession. So that's what I'm doing again. As I said last year, this doesn't mean I regret buying the other 24 albums I bought this year (well, in the case of Motion City Soundtrack and Weezer it does), but with my focus continuing to fall more on singles than albums, the CDs that stand out are the ones with at least 5 killer songs.

UPDATE (February 2011): Upon further listening I've added two more albums into the mix. Welcome, Kings of Leon and Old 97's!

Here're this year's faves:

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Check Out: Modern Man, City With No Children, Half Light II (No Celebration), Deep Blue, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby: Lonely Avenue
Check Out: Levi Johnston's Blues, Claire's 9th, From Above, Password, Belinda

Jimmy Eat World: Invented
Check out: Heart Is Hard to Find, My Best Theory, Movielike, Coffee and Cigarettes, Invented

Kings of Leon: Come Around Sundown
Check Out: Radioactive, Pyro, Back Down South, Beach Side, Pony Up, Pickup Truck

Jeremy Messersmith: The Reluctant Graveyard
Check out: Dillinger Eyes, Lazy Bones, Violet!, Knots, Tomorrow

Old 97's: The Grand Theatre, Volume One
Check Out: The Grand Theatre, Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You), The Magician, Let the Whiskey Take the Reins, Champaign Illinois
Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard
Check out: Boy, Too Dramatic, Foolish, Shadowcasting, Do You Remember

Vampire Weekend: Contra
Check out: Horchata, White Sky, Holiday, Run, Giving Up the Gun, Diplomat's Son

Monday, November 22, 2010

2010 Compilation

Every year I make a mix of some of my favorite songs. Here's 2010:

1) Arcade Fire - We Used to Wait
2) The Bird and the Bee - Heard it on the Radio
3) Ra Ra Riot - Do You Remember
4) Jeremy Messersmith - Lazy Bones
5) Belle and Sebastian - I'm Not Living in the Real World
6) Field Music - Them That Do Nothing
7) Stars - Fixed
8) Robbie Williams - Heart and I
9) Jimmy Eat World - Heart is Hard to Find
10) Broken Bells - The High Road
11) The Roots - Right On
12) Vampire Weekend - Giving Up the Gun
13) Cloud Cult - You Were Born

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rock Solid: Prince

"If you only own one album by Prince it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Rock Solid.

Prince Rogers Nelson has four albums that fans and critics have singled out as the Cream of his crop (sha-boogie-bop). Statistically, they're tied, each receiving perfect ratings from the critics at the All Music Guide and the fan reviewers at Amazon.com. This is where we have to start splitting hairs, looking at the percentage of 5-star reviews on Amazon. Dirty Mind (1980) has 78%. 1999 (1983) has 83%. Sign 'O' the Times (1987) has 85%. And Purple Rain (1984) has 86%. Thus we declare our winner by one measly percentage point. That's as close as it has gotten thus far, folks.

Purple Rain was the companion album to the film of the same name, and to put it mildly, was a wild success. It spent 24 weeks at #1 on the Billboard album charts (that's almost half a year!) and has sold over 13 million copies to date. It made Prince a household name, and is single-handedly responsible for the "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" stickers that made it so easy for youths to find their new favorite albums and artists (the story goes that Tipper and Al Gore bought the Purple Rain album for their children as a Christmas present, were subsequently scandalized and outraged by the song Darling Nikki, and created the Parents' Music Resource Center, thus the stickers).

Besides being a commercial success, the album was hailed as an artistic achievement too, with Prince and the Revolution hitting on a stirring blend of musical styles. All Music Guide king Stephen Thomas Erlewine hails the unconventional and eclectic nature of the album's songs, calling Purple Rain "a stunning statement of purpose that remains one of the most exciting rock & roll albums ever recorded."

Bold words, but they pale in the face of the enthused Amazon.com reviewers. Tall Paul (not me, I'm only slightly above average height) says, "This is by far the greatest album he ever released." John Smore remarks (in Prince-speak nonetheless): "Nothin' more 2 say. Purple Rain is the album every artist should dream 2 record, it's necessary in every house, like the Bible." Amneziak believes that the album is "one of the most highly respected soundtracks in the history of our generation." And Elizabeth Johnson opines: "Fast service. Like new CD. Plays like new."

The Amazon.com reviews also contain an inordinate number of comparisons to Michael Jackson's Thriller, mostly because the two albums were dominating airwaves at the same time and they were both by crossover black artists. Even so, this shows Purple Rain's rarified company. But don't take my word for it. Jay West declares: "The record sells [sic] may say that the biggest seller of the 80s was Thriller but for me the real be all, end all of the 1980s music, for rock, funk, dance, and tender ballards [sic] will always be Purple Rain." I, too, love tender ballards. JGC adds, "the differences between Michael and Prince were very subtle; almost like the differences between The Addams Family and The Munsters." I have nothing to add.

But it's not all rosy. A few unenlightened souls decided to praise the album while slagging off the film. Take Elvis Costello's Weiner for example. He states: "Of course, the movie is really stupid but we all know that." This is, of course, crazy talk. The movie is awesome.

A bigger problem is how many reviewers love Purple Rain but still don't believe it's Prince's greatest achievement. Costly Sunglasses starts off the parade: "Purple Rain is a timeless masterpiece. And it's not even his best album." However, he or she declines to offer an alternative. Others were more specific. Finalanu thinks Dirty Mind is better. Reviewers such as Ronald Washington and Movie Buff give the nod to Sign 'O' the Times. And Essence UK thinks Dirty Mind, 1999, Sign, AND Emancipation are all superior. Emancipation? Really? Doctor Mindbender restores some sanity when he writes, "Many people will point to Sign 'O' the Times or 1999 as Prince's best effort, but neither of these albums boast a collection of songs that cling together so organically, or pulse with so much energy."

I have to agree. 1999 has some Delirous highs, but a lot of filler as well. Sign 'O' the Times is probably Purple Rain's most worthy competitor, but also has its lesser moments, especially on the first disc (the second, from U Got the Look through Adore, is unassailable). Neither has the sheer consistency of Purple Rain. The fact that that Prince wrote the songs that the Time (Jungle Love and The Bird) and Appolonia 6 (Sex Shooter) perform in the film, and that the b-sides from this period (God, Erotic City) were excellent, are further evidence that 1984 was his best musical year.

And then there's the Purple Rain album itself. Just for kicks, let's put it through the Thriller test.

1) At least 3 hits
Done and done: Let's Go Crazy, When Doves Cry, I Would Die 4 U, and the title track. All were top 10 hits in the U.S., two number ones and Purple Rain a number two. Pass

2) Shoulda been hits
The buoyant Take Me With U only made it to #25, but could have gone higher had it not been the fifth single released. Baby I'm a Star would have been a highlight and a single on any other Prince album. Pass

3) No filler
None. The three remaining songs may not have been single material, but they were essential album tracks. Darling Nikki details a weird, dirty one night stand (in the film Prince uses the song to make Apollonia jealous, and it works). Computer Blue is just as strange, especially the "is the water warm" intro, but all is forgiven with the extended, beautifully lyrical guitar solo that makes up the song's second half. And The Beautiful Ones is downright amazing, taking an R & B quiet storm to a whole different level. It's also the soundtrack to the film's essential moment between Apollonia, Morris Day, and the Kid. The latter is up on stage at First Avenue performing the song with the former two in attendance. At the song's apex he gets direct: "What's it gonna be, baby / Do u want him? (points to Morris) / Or do u want me? (points to self) / 'Cause I want u! (points at Apollonia)" and then proceeds to screech the word baby over and over while writhing on the stage. It's my favorite part of the film by far. Pass.

4) Classic cover art
Yes, sir. A smoky alley, the purple motorcycle, Apollonia in the shadowy doorway,  the paisley borders. What's not to like? Throw in the fact that the LP came with the awesome poster you see on the right, and we're really in business. Pass.

So there it is, a more solid Rock Solid you aren't likely to find.

However, I will admit that as much as I love Purple Rain, it's not my favorite Prince effort. That title goes to 1996's The Gold Experience. Why? In 12 catchy tunes it sums up Prince's odd appeal, covering everything from civil rights (We March), petty grudges (Billy Jack Bitch), feminism (P Control), sex (Shhh), gangsta love (Shy), Al Green (The Most Beautiful Girl in the World), and being reincarnated as a water-bound mammal (Dolphin). Check it out sometime.

Author's Note: This is album review #275.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

274. XTC: Nonsuch (1992)

Nonsuch is the 10th XTC album, but it was the 3rd for me, purchased at a Circuit City for $5.99 in the infancy of my XTC fandom.

At the time, I didn't know much about the band other than that I wanted more of their music. I already owned Oranges and Lemons and Waxworks (a collection of early singles), and wasn't sure where to go next. I bought Nonsuch because I thought it was a latter-day "best of" compilation.

Why did I think that? Well, the sheer number of songs (17!) was one factor, but mostly it was the back cover. Each track was given a box and an illustration, lending it an air of individual importance. Plus, the album title seemed like a insouciant nod to the thrown-together nature of hits collections.

And though a listen and a look at the interior liner notes proved me wrong, I'd still say I wasn't too far off. Afterall, Nonsuch does contain all of XTC's major themes: the peaks and valleys of romance, war, human nature, and societal ills. Musically it falls somewhere between the pop sheen of Oranges and Lemons, the melody of Skylarking, and the earthiness of earlier albums such as English Settlement and Mummer. In fact, I'd say there's no better album to summarize who XTC were from 1982 on. So in that spirit, it is a latter-day "best of."

The album had a fractious creation. Lead songwriter and singer Andy Partridge clashed with veteran producer Gus Dudgeon (he of Elton John-producing fame) on several occasions. But you'd never know that from the harmonious result. I use the adjective "harmonious" explicitly because Nonsuch is the most Beach Boy-ish album XTC ever made, and that includes the Dukes of Stratosphear albums and Apple Venus Vol.1.

Witness: Humble Daisy (a love song with evocative imagery), The Disappointed (an elegant break-up tune), Then She Appeared (another love song, full of cultural and historical references such as Edward Lear, Marie Celeste, and Fox Talbots gel), and Wrapped in Grey (an anti-cynicism anthem that's easily one of the top 5 most beautiful XTC tracks) all feature soaring melodies and generous harmonies, either overtly or subtly nodding to Brian Wilson and company.

All four of those songs were by Andy Partridge, who was on quite a hot streak. His highlights on Nonsuch are many. Opener The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead (remade later by Crash Test Dummies for the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) is about a secular savior who unites the people beyond church and commercialism with a message of love and ultimately pays for it with his life (fittingly, his crucifixion plays out on live TV nonetheless). It's probably what would happen if Jesus came along today. The catchy Dear Madam Barnum features one of Andy's best extended metaphors, casting a cuckolded husband as a clown that quits from the circus: "Children are laughing as I fall to the floor / My heart's torn and broken / And they just scream for more / If I'm not the sole fool who pulls his trousers down / Then dear Madam Barnum, I resign as clown." Closer Books are Burning is simultaneously a scathing condemnation of those who would burn literature containing ideas they disagree with (Gainesville, Florida, we're looking at you here) and a love letter to the printed word (Andy describes books as "a wisdom hotline from the dead back to the living" and "the human right to let your soul fly free and naked"). Listen for the dueling guitar solos at the end to compare Andy and guitarist Dave Gregory's respective playing styles.

A step down in quality, but still pretty great are Holly Up On Poppy (an sweet-but-not-saccharine ode to Andy's daughter Holly, who's now a musician in her own right), Crocodile (a countryish exploration of jealousy), Omnibus (a light-hearted admonishment to Gregory to take advantage of being an eligible bachelor: ""Don't waste time, go on and taste them all / Why don't you fill your plate?"), and The Ugly Underneath (a spiritual companion to Billy Joel's The Stranger).

Rook is not a song I especially love, but it is one I admire. A dirge with a Bachrachian arrangement, it features mysterious lyrics about death, ending with a plea: "If I die and I find that I had a soul inside/Promise me that you'll take it up on its final ride." Maybe some regrets about Dear God there?

By my rekoning, Andy's only misstep on the album is That Wave, and even it has it's charms. The distorted vocals on the "chorus" are annoying, but I like the "I was in heaven / Address cloud 11" bit. And it gets points for containing the term "permanent orgasm", which would be a great band name.

Bassist and second songwriter Colin Moulding doesn't do too poorly for himself either. My Bird Performs finds the usually-dour Colin in a rare self-satisified state of mind. Though I believe the title phrase is meant to be taken literally, one can't help but notice that "bird" is British slang for "girl." So there's a little bit of a Andy-worthy double entendre here.

The Smartest Monkeys is probably the weakest song of Colin's four. The melody and prog pop production are great, but the lyrics fall short under scrutiny. I like the basic idea that, despite what we'd like to think, human beings haven't really come all that far from our primate ancestors. My main problem is that Colin couches our lack of progress in the issue of homelessness. I think he should have gone bigger than that. He does just that on his third song, War Dance, which concerns the frightening lead-up to war and the accompanying spike in ham-fisted patriotism and jingoism. Sound familiar? He was writing about Britain's involvement in the Gulf War, but it's a universally applicable song. To me, it's one of Colin's all-time best.

Finally, there's Bungalow, an oddly-affecting, slow-building track about a dream home by the sea.

All-in-all, Nonsuch is a magnificent achievement, and the culmination of who XTC were as a trio (not to undermine the fine drumming contributions from Dave Mattacks). It's not only my favorite XTC album, but one of my favorite albums ever.

Grade: A+

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Stuck, or Obsession Cessastion

You may have noticed that things have slowed down around here. I had the summer off from teaching, and I spent it with my 7 month-old son. I gave myself permission to make this blog less of a priority. Well, "less of a priority" is putting it lightly. Initially, I considered an abrupt retirement. But then I reconsidered. Maybe the proximity to Brett Favre is causing this.

If you're a long time reader, this is probably not all that surprising to you. Since 2007, it has become an annual ritual for me to soul-search about my waning interest in music. First I blamed an inability to express myself and a lack of quality music. Then in 2008 I cited new technology and the death of the album. Last year I wrote about how my changing life priorities hindered my ability to seek out new music.

I've done a lot of thinking about it this summer and in truth I believe this was all just dancing around the issue, a slow realization of something I didn't want to admit to myself: My music obsession has gone away. 

Sure, I still have an interest in music - I imagine I always will - but that interest is clearly not at the very intense level it once was. The old stuff still thrills, but in the last four years, new CDs/songs have rarely moved me in the way I'm used to. I thought for awhile this was just a funk, a phase. But four years of something is a pattern, not an exception.

So what happened? Was it really all of those factors I laid blame upon? Well, yes. But they can be enveloped into a larger, more theoretical, explanation.

That explanation starts in Daniel Levitin's book This Is Your Brain on Music. Levitin is both a scientist and a musician, and his book looks at the latter through the lens of the former. It's a bit of a dry and dense read if, like me, you are neither a scientist or musician, but it does contain several enlightening bits of information. The part I'm concerned with is as follows:

Through research, Levitin and others have found that music has a profound affect on the amygdala, the part of the brain that that processes memory and emotional reactions. In adolescence, an emotionally-raw time, the brain is busy making crazy amounts of connections. So it follows that music first experienced during adolescence is especially fondly-remembered. In fact, a study of advanced Alzheimer's patients found that they could still remember songs from when they were fourteen.

Since our neural circuits slow down after our teenage years, so do our connections. And this leads Levitin to make the following statement: "There doesn't seem to be a cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music, but most people have formed their tastes by the age of 18 or 20."

I've known this anecdotally for years. We all know people whose musical tastes seem irrevocably stuck in a certain era, our parents, our grandparents, guys at the fair wearing Ratt t-shirts. I used to think this was because these people had simply stopped trying, that they wrote off new music as the fancy of youth. Often this "state of stuck" is accompanied by a disdain of the new and popular. Rather than just admit they're out of touch, these old fogeys dismiss the new sounds as having less artistic merit than their most beloved songs. We've seen this play out consistently in every new generation and sub-generation: Jazz isn't real music, rock and roll isn't real music, disco isn't real music, punk isn't real music, new wave isn't real music, hip hop isn't real music, etc. And consistently we've seen that the latest tunes that are driving the kids wild mean/will mean just as much to them as the music of our youth meant/means to us. The songs on the top 40 will eventually be the songs on the classic rock and oldies stations.

I once thought that being aware of this would be enough to help me avoid becoming stuck in my tastes. I thought I could be an exception out of sheer willpower. I thought that because music meant so much to me, I wouldn't fall in the trap. And it did work, at least a little bit. I had a longer golden age than many, with it lasting well into my 20s. But now that my golden age has ended, I'm more inclined to believe in a biological explanation.

Obviously we're still able to make emotional connections beyond our teenage years. We fall in love, we have children, etc. Likewise, certain bands and songs do still find their way to my heart, and I'm sure they'll continue to do so. But I'm ready to accept that new songs are unlikely to give me that overwhelming rush of memory and emotion that I get from the best songs of my golden age. And lately I've that the new artists and songs I like best are ones that remind me of older artists I like. I'm now convinced this is how rock critics keep up their careers going. They write about how established artists just aren't as good as they used to be or about how this new band sounds a lot like this old band.

I'll pause to let that marinate a little bit.

There are other, smaller, possibly dismissable factors in my music quagmire. First is the Hornby Effect, which says, basically, that once I became romantically happy (I met my wife in 2006), my ability to truly identify with music (the best of which is about romantic discord) was lost. Or a more recent thought centers on how analysis of a work of art can intensify our appreciation of it, but at the same time distance us emotionally from it. It's destruction by deconstruction. Too often since I started this blog I've approached an album already starting to write a review of it in my head, rather than experiencing the music viscerally in the moment.

You'll notice the key in all three explanations is the emotion and personal connection. When I started 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds it was to share my personal relationship with music through writing. When I read back over old reviews, the ones I like the best are the ones where I opened myself up, where that personal relationship is clearly a part of the review.

I feel like I've moved away from that in recent years, at least when it comes to writing about new music. I don't tend to feel a strong connection to a lot of new music, so I don't tend to write about it. So I've dealt with this in sneaky ways. I focused on back catalogs of beloved artists (The Beatles, The Monkees, "Weird Al", XTC). And I moved toward analytical, research-based entries (the Rock Bottom and Rock Solid series) that required no personal connection at all.

And I've had fun with those, but I don't feel I can continue on that path indefinitely. Writing about music was always meant to be a reflection and manifestation of my obsession. Using writing to keep the obsession on life support, as I have in recent years, is not something I'm very interested in.

So does this mean the end of 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds? Maybe, but not quite yet. I've still got more work to do. I have 11 more Rock Solids to write, 2 more XTC album reviews, and a new feature called Versus, for which I have 5 ideas). At my current pace, that's enough to keep me going well into 2011. But from there? I don't know what that future holds.

But I know this: Obsessions are cyclical. I was an avid comic book collector from age 12 to 22 (though the last four years I basically did it out of habit; do you see a pattern?). I unceremoniously stopped collecting in 2000, only to start up again 5 years later. Now I'm back in the thick of it, visiting the comic shop every week to keep up with the adventures of the Flash and Fantastic Four.

So mark your calendars for 2015, I guess.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rock Solid: Bruce Springsteen

"If you only own one album by Bruce Springsteen it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Here are the top 8 Bruce Springsteen albums according to fan and critical acclaim:

8. Tunnel of Love (1987)
7. The River (1980)
6. Greetings from Asbury Park (1973)
5. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
4. Nebraska (1982)
3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
2. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
1. Born to Run (1975)

Only the top two received perfect ratings from both the All Music Guide and Amazon.com reviewers, and Born to Run unsurprisingly took the top spot with the most 5 star ratings on Amazon. But that's not the real story to me. Nor is it the surprisingly high ranking for The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. The real story is that these top 8 albums are also the Boss' first 8 albums. None of his work since 1987 cracked the list. Consider that for a moment.

Now here's where we could have a very interesting and lively discussion about career trajectory and the fact that nearly every established, successful pop artist's career follows a predictable path in terms of critical (and to a certain degree public) perception. It goes something like this: 1) Artist spends a couple of singles, EPs, or even albums working out their sound, 2) Artist puts it all together, beginning a golden period, 3) The first album to truly disappoint arrives, ending the golden period, and 4) Every subsequent album is a (mostly or partially) unsuccessful attempt to recapture the golden period.

Now there are a lot of subtle variations to this, but it basically holds true for any artist you want to slot in. The big question is: Why? Is it just another manifestation of our build-them-up break-them-down culture of celebrity? Probably. But is it also that rock is an inherently ageist medium? For all the honoring of rock's elders, it is the rare older musician who's beloved for more than nostalgic reasons, who is still regarded as artistically vital. Is this fair in any way? Probably not.

In the case of Springsteen, the 1992 double shot of Lucky Town and Human Touch signaled his first disappointing moments (Tunnel of Love was a commercial but not artistic disappointment, only because it followed the ridiculously successful Born in the U.S.A.; more on that later). He's never truly pleased the critics since. Even the praise for his "comeback", 2002's The Rising, was couched in the fact that he was writing new songs that sounded like his old ones.

But I digress. Let's move on and revel in the golden period, the height of which is the album that made the Boss the Boss. William Ruhlman of the All Music Guide writes in his 5 star review: "Born to Run was an intentional masterpiece. It declared its own greatness with songs and a sound that lived up to Springsteen's promise, and though some thought it took itself too seriously, many found that exalting." This latter statement brings up an important point. To whit, Chuck Klosterman took some of the air out of the the Boss' poetic aspirations in an essay in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:
"But what nobody seemed to notice is that this song [Born to Run] has some of the most ridiculous lyrics ever recorded. Half the time, Springsteen writes like someone typing a PG-13 letter for Penthouse Forum: The lines "Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims / And strap your hands 'cross my engines" are as funny as anything Tenacious D ever recorded, except Bruce is trying to be deep."
So the point here is that liking Bruce, and Born to Run specifically, requires a suspension of cynicism. You have to be willing to give yourself over to the dramatic grandiosity of it all. The reviewers on Amazon.com certainly are, indulging in purple prose that Bruce himself would be proud of.

M.J. Heilbron Jr. writes: "The cinematic sweep, from Thunder Road to Jungleland, makes you feel like you're watching a movie while listening. The epic nature and true storylines makes you feel like you're reading a classic novel. I ask you, what album have you ever listened to, that elicits a sensation of music, film and literature simultaneously? It's breathtaking." Thomas Emanual follows that train of thought when he says, "The Great American Novel is the book, better than any other, that perfectly embodies the essence of America and American life - its hardship, its joy, its defeat, its triumph. You can think of Born to Run then as the Great American Album." And J.H. Minde adds, "It's hard...to adequately measure the impact this album had. The changes it wrought in the young people who first heard it were very nearly on the cellular level (that's biology, not telephony, you 21st century yahoos!)." Finally, an anonymous contributor tells us that, "The album Born to Run is brimming with bombast and sorrow, celebrating the plight and fortune of man, with a defiance rarely heard."

Other reviewers keep things simpler but no less laudatory. Spanish Johnny declares Born to Run "the most exhilarating, most complex recording of Springsteen's distinguished career." "You can hear rock being reinvented and revisited all at the same time, all in one listen, " says Peter Guglietta. Craig Paul opines, "I can't imagine anyone not owning this recording." And, Bruce (hmmmm...) tells us: "Stated simply, this is the best rock and roll album ever recorded."

Well, is it? In short, no. Let me start by saying that I listened to Born to Run for the first time for this article, and that colors my perception. There are songs (namely the title track and Thunder Road) that I've heard hundreds of times, others that I've heard a handful, and still others that I'd never heard. Thus it's very different listening experience than it was intended to be. Even so, some songs naturally stand out over others.

Of course, there are the hits. Well, technically, the title track is the only one, and even that only made it to #23 on the U.S. chart. It's more of a hit-in-retrospect, to the point that it's been way overplayed. Even so, it's the one Bruce will be remembered for. And if you can resist the ending, where things come to a halt, Bruce counts off, the band rushes in, and "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive" then you're a better person than me. The R & B workout Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was a single, not a hit, but is nonetheless a concert favorite. So we'll throw that in. And opener Thunder Road was neither a single nor a hit, but still is a classic, and made it on to 1995's Greatest Hits.

Other tracks have varying levels of impact. Backstreets builds up a good head of steam, She's the One has a funky core, and album closer Jungleland is an intriguing, evocative epic. However, Night does little to distinguish itself, and Meeting Across the River has an interesting story-song lyrics that are nearly ruined by an overdramatic and dated arrangement (on later albums, like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, Bruce would master the art of keeping it simple).

Quibbles aside, and disregarding the fact that Born to Run isn't Springsteen's most successful album (Born in the U.S.A. went 15 times platinum and produced 7! top ten singles), the album is a solid choice for his best. Not only because it made a bold, unified artistic statement, but because it had a magnificent cultural impact. Born to Run made the world sit up and take notice. It made the Boss the Boss. Other Springsteen albums might be as strong or even slightly stronger, but none had the same impact. 

My own personal fave is Tunnel of Love, an E Street-free (well, at least as a unified group; various members still contributed) concept album that tackles various aspects of romantic love. And though I could do without ever again hearing the title track in a department store, it's a haunting, beautifully-made record.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Rock Solid: Elvis Costello

"If you only own one album by Elvis Costello it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

According to the critics and fans, Elvis Costello has four perfect albums. And he made them all in a 5 year span, between 1977 and 1982. Were I Elvis himself I'd be flattered and depressed at the same time. Flattered, of course, to have my work so highly regarded. Depressed because none of the approximately 623 albums I've made since 1982 are anywhere near as loved.

At any rate, the four albums are as follows: Debut My Aim Is True (1977), the follow-up This Year's Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979), and the divorce epic Imperial Bedroom (1982). Each one received a perfect combined rating of 10 from the All Music Guide and fans on Amazon.com.

So how do we determine which is best? Simple math. We look at the percentage of Amazon.com raters giving the albums the full 5 stars. The winner then emerges, with This Year's Model sporting a staggering 96% of reviewers bestowing it with 5 stars.

This Year's Model marked the debut of Elvis' beloved backing band the Attractions (Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, and Pete Thomas), who immediately made their value known, especially Nieve, whose organ provides the album's signature sound. The Thomas brothers' rhythm section is no slouch either. The album features the Elvis classics Pump It Up, (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea, and Radio, Radio (originally a single-only release, added as a bonus track).

The All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine labels the album "reckless, careening, and nervous." But he's a big fan of the  chaos, declaring, "Costello and the Attractions never rocked this hard, or this vengefully, ever again."

The fan reviewers on Amazon.com were similarly adoring. M.Packham declares This Year's Model "The Best Costello Has to Offer." Jeremy Young opines: "Who needs Elvis impersonators? The real Elvis is alive on this album, and he has never sounded better." One anonymous reviewer asks, "Has there ever been a better pop album released?" If he meant that rhetorically then the answer is no, but if it's a direct question then the answer is yes. And another nameless, faceless fellow claims, "No less so than Beethoven's Fifth, it states its theme squarely at the start and only builds -- dizzyingly and ecstaticly -- from there."

I could go on and on, but I noticed an interesting trend in some of the reviews. Check out these comments and see if you pick up on the pattern. Amid a passionate love letter to This Year's Model, Itamar Katz says the album is, "Not as tight or melodic as the classic follow-up Armed Forces." G. Moses reveals, "My favourite Costello album still has to be Armed Forces, but this is almost as breathtaking." And Bradley Jacobson recommends that after hearing This Year's Model, you proceed to "what will probably be my favorite Elvis album Armed Forces."

So, um, if three separate reviewers mention the superiority of a different album in the course of praising This Year's Model, doesn't that hurt its Rock Solid case just a little bit? I'd say so. And while This Year's Model's well-crafted consistency is hard to deny (every song is damn good; the only thing I don't like on the whole album is the chorus of Livin' In Paradise which wanders a bit too far into American bar band territory), I'd rank it lower than Armed Forces, mainly because the latter was such an artistic leap. For all of its energy, This Year's Model has a sameness of sound throughout. Armed Forces has a much more open and sophisticated feel; listen to the expansive opener Accidents Will Happen next to The Beat for an example of what I mean. Nieve has traded in his organ for a piano, and Elvis shows some range and subtlety in his singing, instead of spitting out his lyrics like he's trying to get rid of them.

And while the ultimate moral of this Rock Solid is that you really can't go wrong with any Elvis disc released between the years 1977 and 1982 (okay, Almost Blue, a country covers album that's better in theory than actuality, can probably be skipped), none of those 6 great albums is my personal favorite. No, that'd be 1986's King of America. Click on the link for a justification of that pick, plus a prescient discussion of which Elvis albums are the best.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rock Solid: XTC

"If you only own one album by XTC it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

If you're an astute reader of 3:49 with some knowledge of the XTC discography, then you'll be able to guess which XTC album has been designated Rock Solid. See, I've been reviewing XTC's albums chronologically, and the last proper XTC album I reviewed was 1984's The Big Express.

So it should come as no surprise that the XTC's Rock Solid is the follow-up, 1986's Skylarking. But how did we get there?

Well, Skylarking is the only XTC album to receive a full combined 10 star rating from the All Music Guide critics and Amazon.com reviewers. There was no other album that truly challenged this supremacy, though it should be noted that five additional albums (Drums and Wires, Black Sea, English Settlement, Nonsuch, and Apple Venus Volume 1) tied for second place, each with 9 stars.

Skylarking, by nearly every account, had a difficult birth. The band fought with each other and with producer Todd Rundgren (famous for his own hits Hello, It's Me and Bang On the Drum All Day, for producing Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, and for playing surrogate father to Liv Tyler). But the results are hard to argue with.

Of Skylarking, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, "Each song is a small gem, marrying sweet, catchy melodies to decidedly adult lyrical themes." He also calls the record a "pop masterpiece -- an album that has great ambitions and fulfills them with ease.

Amazon.com reviewers were similarly ecstatic. Check out this sampling of accolades:
  • Gavin B. "Skylarking is the Holy Grail of lost treasures of 1980s music. I've heard a lot of comparisons to Sgt. Pepper's, but folks, this is better than the Beatles' tour de force."
  • Christopher Minjoot: "This must be a classic album, otherwise why would I possess five versions of it on CD?"
  • Beechaka: "My only disappointment with XTC is that I have yet to find another album of theirs that tops Skylarking."
  • Dandurand: "I can scarcely think of a more perfect album than Skylarking."
  • Michael Stack: "It's to the '80s what "Pet Sounds" was to the '60s."
  • Skankersore: "One of the best albums of the 20th Century. I'm not kissing up here."
  • Neptune: "This truly is one of the finest albums ever put out by a band."
  • Todd7 (Rundgren, is that you?): "Folks, Skylarking is XTC's high moment--whether you like it or not."
  • C. Cooper: " I'm really torn between this album and The Big Express--although, there really is no sense in arguing over which XTC album is the best..." (Well, I'm sorry to waste your time, Mr. Cooper.)
It's become a rarity in this feature, but I find little to complain about with this choice. Let's take a closer look at the album. Skylarking is often praised because it feels like a complete listening experience. The thing is, I'm not sure why. There's no recurring theme, recurring characters, or intros and outros, and the songs are quite sonically different. One might say there's a romantic, pastoral feeling to the record, but that's really only present in a handful of songs (Summer's Cauldron, Season Cycle, Grass, Ballet for a Rainy Day, 1000 Umbrellas). So if that doesn't explain the album's brilliance, what does?

Basically, a good batch of songs performed and produced well. It's that simple.

Andy Partridge's contributions are uniformly strong, packed with imagery and melody. Especially notable: That's Really Super, Supergirl, where our narrator has been dumped by his heroine ("And I'm here in your Fortress of Solitude / Don't mean to be rude / But I don't feel super"). It's perhaps the most power-poppy song the band had recorded to that date. The ringing Earn Enough for Us is basically a caffeinated rewrite of Love on a Farmboy's Wages from Mummer, but with the singer serving as a bus driver instead of a farmhand. Another Satellite finds Partridge in prime egotist mode, rejecting a lover because she'd just be another moon clogging up his orbit (However, I'm pretty sure he ended up marrying the girl he wrote this about). And the jazzy would-be spy theme The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul manages to be navel-gazing and extroverted all at once.

Singling out certain songs may have the effect of belittling others, but that's not the intention. Andy's only slightly weak track is the pretty-but-slight Mermaid Smiled, and it's evidence enough that on many U.S. versions of the album that song was swapped out for Dear God, a B-side that unexpectedly (but not surprisingly, in retrospect) caught on at college radio stations.

And what about Dear God? Well, it's brilliant. Of course it can't capture all of an atheist's doubts in one song, but Andy nails one of the main ones: Why would an all-powerful deity allow such awful things to happen to his/her followers? The song is full of choice lines, but this one always gets me: "You're always letting us humans down / The wars you bring / The babes you drown."

Colin Moulding's songwriting re-emergence (after a sub-par Dukes contribution and only two songs on The Big Express) is also a big factor in Skylarking's success. He placed 5 songs on the album, which is the highest number on any XTC album before and since. Grass is sly and sexy, alluding to outdoor escapades, but also having fun with the title term being slang for marijuana ("It would shock you too, the things we used to do on grass."). The Meeting Place is equally libidinous, this time detailing a midday dalliance between factory workers. Big Day finds our narrator giving pragmatic advice to a groom on his wedding day: "Could be heaven / Could be hell in a cell for two" and "There's a lesson to be learnt / Many fingers have been burnt by the touch of gold." Colin apparently wrote it for his son. Optimistic fellow, him.

Moulding's final two songs are also the final two on the album, and they always feel like sort of a let-down to me. I think that's intentional, as the sun begins to set and the album closes up shop. Dying is a bracing, (mostly) minimalist number wherein Colin mourns the passing of an elderly neighbor and at the same time considers his own ultimate fate. Sacrificial Bonfire continues the melancholy mood, at least musically, while the lyrics speak of banishing evil, which makes for an odd mix. Taken on their own, they're clear weak-links, but in the context of the album, they serve their purpose well.

So, in case it's not clear: Skylarking is a very deserving Rock Solid. It's not my favorite XTC album, however. That'd be Nonsuch, and I'll tell you why next time.

Grade: A
Fave Song: That's Really Super, Supergirl

Author's Note: This is album review #273.

Monday, June 28, 2010

272. The Dukes of Stratosphear: Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

In my introduction to this review-every-XTC album project, I wrote about how The Dukes of Stratosphear were responsible for my XTC fandom, even before I ever heard a note of their music. It was the idea that piqued my interest and set me on the path to obsession.

That's worth a lot, but looking at the Dukes now, I find I enjoy them for what they are, a minor sidetrack in XTC's musical career. They revel in the pure joy of music-making, but only rarely rise above homage.

The Dukes appeared in two phases, first in 1985, post-Big Express, on the 25 O'Clock EP, then again in 1987, after Skylarking, on the full length Psonic Psunspot. The two albums were subsequently packaged together as the compilation you see on the right, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. Here I'll be sharing my thoughts on all things Dukes, along with some interesting historical tidbits dug mostly out of Neville Farmer's 1998 book XTC: Song Stories.

The Dukes of Stratosphear basically came from three places: 1) Andy Partridge's fondness for sixties psychedelic garage rock, 2) guitarist Dave Gregory's hobby of recreating old records, and 3) a failed project with singer Mary Margaret O'Hara wherein Andy would write songs and John Leckie would produce. As the story goes, once the project went south, Andy convinced Virgin Records to give him 5000 pounds, took Leckie (who had helmed the band's first two albums White Music and Go 2), and the Dukes were born.

Though the effort to conceal their identities was never more than half-hearted, the band did take on pseudonyms. Andy became Sir John Johns (a nod to the DC super-hero Martian Manhunter, whose Martain name was J'onn J'onzz), Colin was The Red Curtain, Dave was billed as Lord Cornelius Plum, and his brother Ian, who played drums, took the clever name E.I.E.I. Owen. Producer Leckie did his work as Swami Anand Nagara.

All of the Dukes songs are originals, but most have spiritual guidance from a notable sixties band or song. I'll (mostly) spare the song-by-song breakdown and let you suss them out on your own, but trust when I tell you that the styles of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Electric Prunes, The Hollies, and The Beach Boys are all well-represented. The band used vintage equipment, and Leckie's production work was genius. In fact, it boosted his reputation quite a bit, and led too him producing some of the most beloved British records of all time (Elastica's first album, The Stone Roses' debut, Radiohead's The Bends).

25 O'Clock features 6 songs, the best of which are the doomy, nonsensical title track, the lusty My Love Explodes, and the bouncy The Mole from the Ministry. Your Gold Dress and Bike Ride to the Moon are enjoyable but a step down in quality. All 5 of those were Andy compositions. Colin's offering, What In the World??..., is the worst thing on the EP. It's about "shocking" future events (marijuana is used to make tea, women fight wars while men stay home) and is a clear sore thumb. To be fair, it wasn't written strictly as a '60s pastiche; it was a leftover given a production makeover and shoehorned in.

From a songwriting standpoint 25 O'Clock is definitely the lesser of the two Dukes releases. It's sort of like a warm-up for the real show. Grade: C+  Fave Song: My Love Explodes

Psonic Psunspot, a sequel released after the successful XTC release Skylarking (review forthcoming), is where the Dukes really put it together, though Colin's contributions are still the weak spot, with one very notable exception. Opener Vanishing Girl is a burst of suspended chord fresh air. The lounge act chorus of The Affiliated and the carnivalesque Shiny Cage are lackluster.

Andy's work, however, is strong throughout, from the gender-confused Have You Seen Jackie? to the joyous You're My Drug to the druggy Collideascope. But the two real standouts are Brainiac's Daughter (a piano-driven piece about the irresistible offspring of a Superman villain; the character doesn't exist in the comics, but should) and Pale and Precious, a spot-on Beach Boys tribute that manages not to be derivative (a feat much much harder than it sounds, and Andy did again - and better - with Chalkhills and Children on Oranges and Lemons).

Add in the enchanting book-on-tape children's story bits between songs and you have a great product overall. Grade: B+  Fave Songs: Brainiac's Daughter / Vanishing Girl

The Dukes of Stratosphear were always an exercise in escapism and controlled lunacy, and ultimately their legacy is one of style over substance. Unlike the vast majority of Andy and Colin's other songs, they're not really about anything, and ultimately they can't be taken too seriously. However, they sound fantastic. They'll always hold a special, if not particularly large, place in this XTC fan's heart.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rock Solid: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

"If you only own one album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *
First, let's all agree that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a crack singles band. From American Girl in 1977 to Mary Jane's Last Dance in 1993, they gave us an amazing string of pop classics, songs that you still hear regularly on the radio, and will for as long as radio exists. Unfortunately, the label "singles band" often means that your albums weren't all that remarkable outside of your hits. Interestingly, Petty and the boys morphed into album artists with 1994's Wildflowers, and haven't looked back, for better (Echo) or worse (The Last DJ), producing strong records without standout singles.

These are the two extremes of modern music-making, though the very best albums manage to marry the two. It's rare for an artist to not hit on the balance at least once in his career, even accidentally, and yet it seems that's the case with Petty. Thus, his Rock Solid is a chance to see which one the critics and fans value more: Hit singles or consistent albums.

Probably not surprisingly, it's hit singles. The All Music Guide gives a 5 star rating to only one Petty album, and that's 1979's hit-laden Damn the Torpedoes. Amazon.com reviewers backed that up with a 5 star average. It's his only album to score so high, but the two closest challengers - '81's Hard Promises and '89's Full Moon Fever - are also products of Petty's radio days.

Fully aware that he can't just praise the singles and remain a member of the Rock Critic Union, good old Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide calls the music on Damn the Torpedoes "modern yet timeless" and concludes that it's "one of the great records of the album rock era."

The fans on Amazon.com are less assuming, if also less coherent. Aussie Petty Fan states, "As the album reads almost like a Greatest Hits collection, it is by far the album to get if you enjoyed the Greatest Hits because you don't get better TPATHB as this, some albums come close, none are poor, yet none better this here one." Nestor Alfredo Balbuena writes (translated from Spanish with the help of BabelFish): "The truth is that all the album I pleasure to me. Each sound was so well put, the battery sounded like the Gods, the adjustments, the guitar, in aim. I hit to me."

And The Footpath Cowboy adds, "The fact that Petty, like most rockers of his generation, advocates sanctions against Indonesia in retaliation for that country's trumped-up drug-smuggling conviction of a young Australian tourist makes this an essential purchase for both your ears AND your conscience." Though why that makes Damn the Torpedoes an "essential" purchase over any other Petty album or any album by any other "rocker of his generation" I'm not quite sure.

Non sequitur reviews aside, Aussie Petty Fan's insistence that Damn the Torpedoes is the first place to start after the 1993 Greatest Hits (or 2000's Anthology) compilation is a common theme throughout the Amazon.com write-ups. Though it's a praiseful assertion it's also an admission that, when it comes to Petty and the Heartbreakers, the hits are the main thing.

Overall, Damn the Torpedoes is not a bad choice for Rock Solid considering the circumstances, but it's important to remember that it's all relative to the career of the artist in question. The album may be one of Petty's best, but it's no masterpiece. In fact, a quick run through the Thriller Test finds it passing on only 2 of the 4 counts. It's got the singles, for sure. Four songs from the album made it on to the Greatest Hits, and serve as bonafide Petty classics. Those are Refugee, Don't Do Me Like That, Even the Losers, and Here Comes My Girl. Nothing to complain about there. The album also has some strong could-have-been hits, namely Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid) and You Tell Me. I'll even add country closer Louisana Rain, despite the noodling, minute-plus intro. That still leaves 2 not-bad-but-just-kinda-there songs (Century City and What Are You Doin' In My Life). And the cover photo may be an iconic Petty image, but it certainly doesn't belong in the pantheon of great album covers.
Since we're stuck in relativity here, failing the Thriller Test is no big deal as long as no other album in Petty's catalog does any better. So consider Full Moon Fever. The hits (Free Fallin', I Won't Back Down, Runnin' Down a Dream) are bigger, and the non-hits (A Face in the Crowd, Love Is a Long Road, Yer So Bad, I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better, Zombie Zoo) are stronger. I think it's a better choice for Rock Solid.

Personally, I'll always have a weak spot for 1994's Wildflowers, the second Petty album I bought. That's right, the Greatest Hits were first, just as they should be.

Monday, June 07, 2010

271. XTC: The Big Express (1984)

After the commercial letdown of Mummer, the boys in XTC swung for the fences on The Big Express. That album title isn't incidental. The album has a BIG sound. Mummer sounded like the work of a group bound to the studio. Though XTC's no-touring stance had not (and would not) change, The Big Express sounds like a set of songs made to be played in enormous open-air arenas.

And of course this is still XTC, so the songs, for all their bluster, are still idiosyncratic and quirky.

Colin Moulding gives us an arresting opener, the single Wake Up. Lyrically it's somewhat obtuse, with two verses about the work day, a final one about the scene of an accident (supposedly a recurring dream for Colin), and a chorus that's basically the title phrase delivered from a whisper to a shout. The guitars clang, the words come at a rapid pace, and a heavenly choir wraps things up. Colin's only other song, I Remember the Sun, is quieter and less assuming. It's a collection of hazy childhood nostalgia set in a jazzy form.

Andy's songs on The Big Express cover a wide range of emotions and styles. Single All You Pretty Girls is a lustful, singalong sea shanty. (The Everyday Story of) Smalltown sets vignettes of daily life and a staunch anti-urban sprawl message ("If it's all the same to you / Mrs. Progress / Think I'll drink my Oxo up / And get away / It's not that you're repulsive to see / In your brand new catalogue nylon nightie / You're too fast for little old me / Next you'll be telling me it's 1990") to wide-open pop songwriting. Andy also gets personal, taking on the temptation to cheat on his wife (the sporadically amelodic Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her; Andy did end up cheating, and marrying the other woman) and crooked managers (the scathing I Bought Myself a Liarbird).

But he does his best work when writing about he ravages of war, which he does twice on The Big Express. The first, Reign of Blows (Vote No Violence), is musically forceful but lyrically elegant. It's also sadly still applicable 26 years on. Witness lines like "So torture raises its head / Decked out in blue, white, and red" and "When death draws up in his car / And talks in terrorist tones / Remember violence is only a vote for the / Black Queen to take back the throne."

The second is definitely the band's finest achievement up to this point, and maybe ever. It's called This World Over, and it imagines a the aftermath of nuclear war through the eyes of a father surveying the wasted landscape with his mutated children who know nothing of the world before. Answering their questions, he lays blame squarely on an overzealous world leader with a "famous face" (a.k.a. Ronald Reagan) and his iffy motivations. I get chills at this bit, every time:
"Will you tell them about that far off and mythical land
And how a child to the virgin came?
Will you tell them that the reason why we murdered
Everything upon the surface of the world
So we can stand right up and say we did it in his name?"
Musically, it's minor key and melancholy, wisely letting focus stay on the lyrics.

Unfortunately, as wondrous as that song is, The Big Express also contains prime examples of Partridge at his most over-the-top. The psycho-county of Shake You Donkey Up and the chugging Train Running Low on Soul Coal both feature Partridge at his least restrained and most annoying. Neither is an especially awful song, but anyone who doesn't like XTC could definitely use them as compelling evidence.

Overall though, The Big Express is another fascinating album in a catalog full of them. But the boys' next move would prove to be even more audacious, surprising, and innovative.

Grade: B
Fave Song: This World Over

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Rock Solid: The Rolling Stones

"If you only own one album by The Rolling Stones it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Thriller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Holy logjam, Batman! The Rolling Stones have no less than 8 albums statistically tied for Rock Solid status. That's definitely the most so far. We can choose to attribute this to the band's sheer longevity, or we can choose to believe they truly are The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band. I'm leaning toward the former.

Anyway, as I said, eight albums received 5 star reviews from the All Music Guide and a 4.5 star review average on Amazon.com (no R.S. album got the full 5 average from fans). They are: 12 X 5 (1964), The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965), Aftermath (1966), Beggar's Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main Street (1972), and Some Girls (1978).

To break up the logjam we have to look the percentages of five star ratings within the 4.5 star average on Amazon.com. And then it becomes clear : With an impressive 87%, Sticky Fingers is our winner.

The All Music Guide's tireless Stephen Thomas Erlewine finds that Sticky Fingers has "a loose, ramshackle ambiance that belies both its origins and the dark undercurrents of the songs." He also praises its "offhand mixture of decadence, roots music, and outright malevolence."

As per usual, the hyperbole birds come out in full force on Amazon.com. Loren sez: "In my not so humble opinion, Sticky Fingers is the greatest rock n roll album of all time." Charles R. Stewart III remarks that Sticky Fingers, "will be my favorite album until I die....then they can bury me with it..." And hopefully they remember the record player, too. James McDonnell believes that, "In 50 yrs. they will still be playing this album at college dorm parties." But Patrick Farrelly, obviously speaking from experience, warns: "In a lame crowd, this is an instant party killer."

And though Amazon.com reviewers are rarely known for their vocabularies, two, count 'em, two reviewers used the word "apotheosis" (a Greek term meaning "the appearance of a theme in grand or exalted form") in their review: The Dirty Mac ("Here we've got the Stones at the apotheosis of their raunchiness, decadence and political incorrectness") and Nathan ("with the Mick Taylor period, the Stones reached the apotheosis of their own, unique, mature sound").

But does Sticky Fingers stand up to the Thriller Test?

1) At least 3 hits
Oooh, this is close. Brown Sugar and Wild Horses are the only bonafide hits on the album. Both are instant classics, with the horns highlighting racy lyrics about interracial sex (other interpretations say it's about heroin, for which the title phrase is slang) on the former and the latter is a genuinely-felt statement of commitment in an f-ed up relationship (romantic or familial, I'm unsure). No other songs were even released as singles. Fail (Though to be fair, only one of the 8 Rolling Stones' Rock Solid contenders features more than two hits; more on that momentarily).

2) Great album tracks
Bitch serves up a rockin' riff and hot horns. Sway provides the blueprint for the Black Crowes' entire output. Can't You Hear Me Knocking is a guitar orgy. Sister Morphine takes the torch from the Velvet Underground's Heroin and runs with it. And I'll even throw in Dead Flowers, though Mick's overdone twang in the beginning bothers me because the rest of the song is so respectful and affectionate toward the country genre. Pass

3) No filler
Amazon.com reviewer Robert Bykowski feels that "of the Stones' 'golden four' albums (Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street)," Sticky Fingers is the best because "though each of the four is an unquestionable masterpiece, the other three DO have at least one or two filler tracks on them." I'd argue with him on You Gotta Move (unremarkable minimalist blues), Moonlight Mile (hypnotic and mysterious if you're in the right mood; boring if you're not), and I Got the Blues (not bad, but it's standard stuff). Fail

4) Memorable cover art
Um, yeah. Whichever way you swing, you have to give kudos. Andy Warhol provided the cover photo (it's not Mick's crotch, in case you were wondering) and the original vinyl had a workable zipper! Bonus for this being the first Stones album to sport the lips logo. Pass

So, a sound fail on the Thriller Test (which doesn't mean Sticky Fingers isn't a good album, by the way; it is). So what deserves the spot instead?

Well, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Exile on Main Street, especially in light of its recent reissue and its status as the "it pick" for Stones' masterpiece. The rambling double album performed okay at the time of its release and started to pick up steam later thanks to ardent rock snob support, culminating in Rolling Stone placing at #7 on their "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list (Sticky Fingers was only at #63). Exile has some great moments, but I'm glad it wasn't Rock Solid (in fact, it fell out at third place overall, with Beggar's Banquet taking second).

My own personal favorite is Some Girls, and I'm willing to put forth that it actually does pass the Thriller Test. It's got 3 hits (Miss You, Beast Of Burden, and Shattered), lots of killer extras (When the Whip Comes Down, a cover of Just My Imagination, Respectable, the title track), and not a dull moment. Plus, the cover art is interactive, weird, and arresting.

Author's Note: This is album review #270.