1978: Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers
To label Third/Sister Lovers as Big Star’s masterpiece would be misguided. The album doesn't mark the point at which the band perfected their sound (that ship had sailed) or chose to make any sort of definitive statement (except maybe: “Fuck this”). Nor is it technically an album; in fact, Big Star was not even technically a band at the time of Third/Sister Lovers' conception.
Recording sessions began at Memphis’ Ardent Studios in the winter of 1974, when Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens were all that remained of the band's original lineup -- founding guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell had dropped out in ’72 when Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, failed to achieve the slightest bit of commercial success, and bassist Andy Hummel quit two years later, after Radio City. Produced by Jim Dickinson, the ’74 sessions featured an impressive guest list of local talent that included guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Richard Rosebrough, and vocalist Lisa Aldridge (Chilton’s then-girlfriend). The end result, all but vomited upon by Stax Records, didn’t see the light of day until 1978, when it was put out by PVC as Third. Since then, the album's been hot-potato'd from label to label, appearing in various forms under various titles. In 1992, Rykodisc released what is still widely recognized as the definitive edition, with a whopping 19 tracks -- most of what was laid down -- though Chilton and Stephens couldn’t agree on the proper sequencing.
Big Star had always undercut their classicist pop with a strange and deliberate darkness of tone, but their first two efforts still might have coughed up a few hits if not for the poor distribution and marketing -- the result of Ardent’s strained relationship with Stax and Columbia. On Third, however, that thread was cut, as Chilton fully embraced the weirdness his songs had only hinted at previously. Listening to this record, it’s easy to image him as an alien being, studying earthly notions of melody and songcraft from some distant galaxy, attempting to emulate us and failing beautifully.
“I want to white OUT!!!” gasps Chilton on “Kizza Me,” the first of the two demented rave-ups that kick off Third. Upside-down piano flourishes collide with sputtering, throbbing guitar riffs; everything swirls and heaves before boiling over into total madness. The bitter, hilarious “Thank You Friends” matches that whacked-out energy and ups the ante by adding a full backing gospel choir. Chilton knocks off a fucked-up Christmas carol (“Jesus Christ”), a chilling cover of The Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and a psychotic Who-style anthem (“You Can’t Have Me”), all the while sounding like he’s one sniff, toke, or swig away from pulling a Skip Spence.
“Kangaroo” is a smoldering ballad that sounds somewhere between the muted, melancholic pop of White Album-era George Harrison and the pyretic intensity of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop.” Over a bed of open-tuned guitars, unearthly feedback, and seemingly random cowbell thwacks, Chilton slurs his way through a series of eerie yet poignant reminiscences: “I first saw you/ You had on blue jeans/ Your eyes couldn’t hide anything/ I saw you leaving.” In the Ryko liner notes, Dickinson recalls that “Kangaroo is really where the record started to work. Alex defiantly played it for me [and said], ‘If you want to be a producer, do something with this.’”
Third documents Alex Chilton’s choice to stop making choices, to follow his whims and fascinations to whatever end. I’ve yet to familiarize myself with any of his post-Big Star material, but as I understand it, he never again created anything that could be construed as an attempt to sell out or give in. How could he? He’d already seen the edge, and you can’t come back from that.
1973: Carlos Santana / Mahavishnu John McLaughlin - Love Devotion Surrender
Once upon a time, Carlos Santana was a guitarist with lofty thoughts in his mind. Loftier than playing soulless licks over Michelle Branch and Rob Thomas hits, anyway. In 1972, under the tutelage of Shri Chinmoy, he teamed with John McLaughlin, guitarist and leader of the fusion pioneers Mahavishnu Orchestra, to put together an album celebrating the themes of Chinmoy’s teachings. Their intent was to create a work of art that dedicated itself to God and man, and love and dedication to both.
Love Surrender Devotion is the resulting work. The album finds the two with a seasoned group of their buddies: Khalid Yasin (Larry Young) on organ, James “Mingo” Lewis and Armando Peraza on percussion, Doug Pauch on bass and Billy Cobham, Don Alias and Jan Hammer on the drum kit.
The album opens with a raucous take on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, which sets the template for everything that follows. McLaughlin supplies his usual speed-demon technique, sweeping furiously across the fretboard with plenty of overdrive, while Santana opts for more elongated arcs, often bending and stretching notes in a restrained, yearning fashion. Another Coltrane reading follows, and “Naima” finds the two guitarists hushed and reverent, employing acoustic guitar and fingerpicking. It’s the first (and last) time the album relaxes before the end, and it's over before you realize it.
McLaughlin’s composition “The Life Divine” closes side one, and from its first, stuttered drum beat, one can hear the template for everything The Mars Volta are still trying to pull off. The bass guitar pulses in sync with the galloping drums, while Santana and McLaughlin hold absolutely nothing back. Over prayerful vocal incantations, the two play tug of war with each other, occasionally allowing their parts to dissipate to mere feedback before roaring back to life. It’s brilliant and terrifying, the kind of statement you might expect from Pharaoh Sanders or Sonny Sharrock, not the guy who played “Oya Como Va.”
“Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord” also echoes Sanders, who would later go on to try his own hand at the song. It features touches of the Latin rock sound that Santana was employing to great success with his own group. Here Young’s organ playing gets as far out as either of the guitarists, pushing the song into near atonal territory, while McLaughlin and Santana plow through aggressive runs, mimicking with their guitars the qualities Coltrane and Davis exhibited on their instruments. While the MC5 talked about the same thing, and helped invent punk rock in their attempt, their approach lacked the spirituality Santana and McLaughlin are dealing with here. I want to call it destructive, but that’s just not the right term. Passionate, frightening, fierce; all fall short of describing just how on fire these two guitarists sound.
Another McLaughlin composition, “Meditation” closes the album (it’s funny that this is listed as a Santana album, considering he didn’t actually write any tunes for it), allowing the peacefulness of “Naima” to return. Santana contributes graceful flamenco runs over McLaughlin’s subtle piano, and the two bring the album to a mellow close.
If Santana had kept up this sort of sonic freakiness up, you might hear his name tossed around more by esteemed noisemakers like Thurston Moore. And while McLaughlin is well regarded in jazz circles, allowing soulful collaborators like Santana to help balance his often overwhelming approach would certainly have endured him to the rock world at large. Rarely would their following work reach the heights of this album. McLaughlin would continue to hone his chops, and Santana’s work would spiral into the depths of commercial pop. Regardless of record sales, I find it hard to believe that Carlos is still “reaching” while he’s playing over that Nickelback dude’s jam. I guess he must have surrendered to someone or something other than God.
1985: The Replacements - Tim
The Replacements’ breakthrough record Let It Be is often called a masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why: it's far more accomplished than its predecessor, the (brilliantly) half-assed Hootenanny. Aside from “Gary’s Got A Boner,” the album showed that Paul Westerberg had serious songwriting skills. But despite Let It Be’s undeniable greatness, Tim is secretly my favorite Replacements album.
Why, you ask, is it my “secret" favorite then? Have you met Replacements fans? Sure, Let It Be's “Unsatisfied” is one of my all-time favorite songs -- how could it not be? -- and you can’t not-love the classic “I Will Dare,” but as a whole, Tim holds together better. This is not a popular opinion, but go ahead, look at the tracklist. There are no Kiss covers, no “Gary’s Got A Boner”; sure, there’s “Dose Of Thunder,” which has never done much for me, but I’d rather listen to that than Let It Be’s weakest spot, “Black Diamond.” Tim is simply cohesive, and despite the distortion and drum-bashing, it's wall-to-wall pop music.
Lead-off track “Hold My Life” is one of the band’s finest moments, with Westerberg pleading “Hold my life/ Until I’m/ Ready to use it/ Because I just might lose it” -- a line that, as anyone who's seen them live knows, captures The Replacements' vibe perfectly. They were continually on the verge of explosion or collapse, and this tension was what gave their music such potency. Next come the seemingly tossed-off (but emotionally insightful) “I’ll Buy” and then the record’s best track, “Kiss Me On The Bus.”
There’s probably no way to explain why “Kiss Me On The Bus” is also among my most beloved Replacements songs. It’s pretty inane, actually -- the title says it all, as do lines like “Your tongue, your transfer/ Your hand, your answer.” But filled with those incredibly melodic choruses, the last gloriously surrounded by sleigh bells, it all works perfectly. It’s stupid perfection.
Yes, Tim has a couple weak spots – the aforementioned “Dose Of Thunder” and throwaway “Lay It Down Clown” – but they fit the overall mood better than the misfits on Let It Be. People also complain about Tommy (Ramone) Erdleyi’s production, but I have no problem with it. It’s clean and shallow, but these songs -- oh God, the songs! How have I not yet mentioned “Left Of The Dial” or “Bastards Of Young”?! – sound amazing clean and shallow. As for closer “Here Comes A Regular,” the band’s song about their Minneapolis dive The CC Club (and about every dive on earth), just go find it and listen to it. Hear Westerberg’s voice crack as he sings “There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall,” tear up a little, then play it again. Then remember: it’s not on Let It Be.
1972: Larry Norman - Only Visiting This Planet
What is it about Christianity that inspires such bland, uncreative, unthinking, and unfeeling art? While undefined strands of spirituality are often cited in conjuncture with rousing free jazz, heavy psych, or mystic folk, doctrinally defined "Jesus-music" seems to come in only two forms: there’s browbeating proselyting -- more concerned with creating propaganda than art -- and there’s generic mumbo jumbo that drapes messages in a barrage of bad metaphors, with vague poetic license obscuring any real concession to the subject matter.
That hippie/folkie/Jesus-freak outsider Larry Norman is often referred to as the “Father of Christian Rock” is baffling. Here we have a crazy long-hair who was also crazy about Jesus, but rather than following course and pumping out bland praise and worship, he cranked out consistently electrifying rock ‘n’ roll. Instead of handing out easy-to-digest “God is Love” anthems, we have a dude who passionately gave a middle finger to the church-going status quo -- whose vision of Christianity included letting in the hippies, prostitutes, and unwashed. His music was creatively restless, positively un-white in its incorporation of blues and gospel sounds, and, even when he left the psych rock band People! in 1969 to start making solo albums, utterly unlike what was expected of a Christian singer-songwriter.
Larry Norman is best remembered for Only Visiting This Planet's “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”: a creepy, end-times number, made all the more foreboding by Norman’s creaky, high voice. It’s the kind of Rapture warning that gives right-wing wack-jobs like Tim LaHaye (author of the alarmingly popular Left Behind series) a hard on, but its context in the album is easier on the skeptic. Only Visiting paints a more complex picture. “The Outlaw” portrays Christ as a true outsider, while “I Am the Six O’clock News," a fuzzy psych/blues jam, vividly describes the bloodshed in Vietnam from the view of an observant but uninvolved news reporter. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” is a hilarious Little Richard style scorcher, putting conservative Christians on blast for giving Norman grief about his hair.
“The Great American Novel” describes the state of the nation in ’72, with all its racial strife and political upheaval. “You say you beat the Russians to the moon/ I say you starved your children to do it.” It rambles on in true Dylanesque fashion: “You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter/ Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence.” Ironically, Dylan would later go on to cop Norman; his “Christian” albums -- Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love -- all owe a considerable debt to Only Visiting.
It’s hard for the lyrical content not to overshadow the sonics of the album, but Norman and producer George Martin (yeah, that George Martin) made sure that their record was just as interesting to listen to as its message was to ponder. Fuzz guitar, strings, piano, and hard-edged drums underscore Norman’s singular voice; at once comforting yet unsettling, melodic yet discordant, plaintive but never pandering. The Pixies' Frank Black was one of the most outspoken appreciators of Norman’s music, his own songs often concerned with the sacred and profane, but he’s also joined by Steve Albini, U2, and Van Morrison as members of a wide fan base.
Larry Norman passed away in February, and Arena Rock Recording Co. recently issued the stellar Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer, an anthology of his work. While that set might serve as a fantastic jump-on point, Only Visiting This Planet remains the definitive Larry Norman album -- almost frightening in its relation to these modern times. Christian rock wants its performers simple, digestible, and uncontroversial. Norman refused to be any of those things. He was interested in caustic humor, stinging wit, disarming tenderness, and passionate humanitarianism, and he was too rebellious to be placed in a box. In those ways, he was a lot more like Jesus Christ than the industry he accidentally helped spawn, and regardless of one’s religious convictions (or lack thereof), that’s a hell of a trick to pull off.
1975: Ariel Kalma - Le Temps des Moissons
Listening to Ariel Kalma, it becomes clear that the 1970s French composer was something of a world traveler. While his 1977 classic Osmose featured synthesizers integrated into the tonalities of the rainforest, Le Temps des Moissons (technically predating Osmose by two years), finds him reflecting on his musical studies during an extended trip to India. Environment has everything to do with what influences Kalma’s music, and he once again proves to be a master at hybridizing modern technology with sounds that predate his existence. My purist instincts usually draw a red flag when it comes to "world music" crossovers (you don’t have to try hard to get me talkin’ smack about Tabla Beat Science), but Kalma maintains his own identity, using the Indian influence in ways similar to John Fahey, ’60s minimalists, and contemporary artists like Matt Valentine.
Although received with great fanfare upon reissue, Osmose was ultimately better in conception than execution; the album now sounds closer to new age than psychedelia or 20th Century art music. But Le Temps des Moissons hits the nail on the head both sonically and through artistic mastery. Taking direct cues from Indian form and aesthetic, Kalma builds pseudo-tamboura drones for his saxophone to solo over. And the term “solo” is to be taken loosely -- Kalma has a strict regiment of modal patters which he always comes back to.
Taking advantage of delays and multitrack recording, simple melodies weave in and out of each other, creating magnificent valleys and crescendos. Only on the album's closer, “Reternelle,” does Kalma remove his ornately short leash, allowing room for just a touch of free jazz sax skronk. Additionally, Kalma warns that he prefers a fairly pure and raw sax tone, which translates to a nasally sounding high-midrange on record. He even recommends adjusting the EQ to your desired liking, maintaining that his tone could be off-putting to some. And while it may be a distraction to most Western ears, Kalma's timbre isn’t so much harsh as it is a reflection of natural Eastern tonalities.
The most interesting parts of Le Temps des Moissons are the bonus tracks, sandwiched between the longer works that make up the album. While the titled songs find Kalma sticking closely to the basic principles of Indian music, he tends to cut loose and experiment more on the extra material. Sounding more like a predecessor to Sunburned Hand of the Man than any Shankar acolyte, these tracks cater to the “strung out on ‘ludes” style of improvisation that's more prevalent in contemporary music. Believe me, I intend that as a compliment. Even a primitive drum machine makes its way into the mix, reminiscent of the sounds on the recent Sun Ra Disco 3000 reissue.
One thing drastically missing from the reissued CD is the locked groove which originally ended side two of the LP. Beta-lactam Ring gives the track a slow, two-minute fade out, and while it sounds nitpicky, the lack of the real ending is indeed a bummer. No, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the rad bonus tracks (in fact, I want a bonus disc of bonus tracks), but Le Temps des Moissons is one of the rare albums that could conceptually occupy infinite time and space. While the main pieces swell and decay over time, they don’t cater to a beginning, middle, or end in a traditional Western sense, and the locked groove that originally declared the album's finish was without a doubt part of Kalma’s vision for this music. It’s just a tiny (mix tapes) reminder of the shortcomings of the digital medium. That being said, Beta-lactam Ring has spared no expense in their beautiful, gatefold-style LP packaging. Clearly, they still see advantages in a physical product versus the download and have made a package that is as much an art object as it is music. It couldn’t be more appropriate, for Kalma proves himself once again to be an underappreciated visionary, one who deserves a proper archive for his work.
2001: Jon Brion - Meaningless
Like Phil Spector in the ’60s or Glyn Johns in the ’70s, Jon Brion seems to produce everything and anything. That’s him behind the wheel for The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” and Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled debut. There he is turning knobs for Fiona Apple, then, famously, not. Finally, he shows up for Kanye West’s Late Registration, a pairing that is as surprising as it is fruitful.
Brion is also a ridiculously accomplished musician with a superhuman ear. His weekly stints at L.A.’s Largo, at which he plays obscure instruments and takes audience requests for impromptu covers, are legendary. Some of his songs have shown up on movie soundtracks, but his best work can be found on the self-released Meaningless.
Meaningless shows off everything Jon Brion has to offer. It’s a meticulously produced, arranged, and written endeavor, with an endless shelf life. The disc starts with “Gotta Start Somewhere,” with its sardonic opening line “I may not have anything to offer you/ I may not have anything to say that’s new/ But you’ve gotta start somewhere.” It’s a throat-clearing of sorts, a comment that Brion knows what you’re thinking: this is all bullshit. But, he’s adding, it’s inevitable, so why not?
Brion also co-produced Aimee Mann’s masterful Bachelor No. 2 around this time, and the baroque production of Meaningless matches Mann’s record, detail for detail. Mann even co-wrote the record’s best track, “I Believe She’s Lying,” which is as frenetic as it is heartbreaking. Its chorus -- “I believe she’s lying/ I trust her to undermine my faith in her/ In time, I have every confidence she’ll dismantle mine” -- is quintessential Brion (and Mann): emotional, darkly funny, and concisely clever.
The genius of Meaningless is Brion’s use of his two greatest assets: production and songwriting. In providing the former, Brion knows when to make things charmingly complicated (as on “Lying” and the funnily confident shuffle “Walking Through Walls,” co-written by Grant Lee Phillips, which features Brion sweetly singing “motherfucker” in the background) or simple (the brutally intimate relationship ballad, “Same Mistakes”). These songs are nothing short of perfect. The McCartney-esque melodies are catchy enough to make an immediate impression, and the lyrics, seemingly simple, have meanings that permeate later. From “Hook, Line, and Sinker”: “I’m feeling for all the world like I’m feeling for all the world.”
Thematically, Meaningless sticks to what Brion School fans know well: addiction (emotional or otherwise), heartbreak, malaise, and tongue-in-cheek exuberance. In this way, much of the record calls to mind the best work Brion has produced, from Mann to Apple, Eels to Wainwright. There’s happiness in spots, but it’s cautious or ironic.
For kicks, Brion ends the disc with a cover of Cheap Trick’s gorgeous ballad “Voices,” and it’s then that you realize: what you’ve just listened to, with its esoteric lyrics and detailed arrangements, is still just pop music. At its core, it’s no different from Cheap Trick, Herman’s Hermits, or AC/DC. And thank god for that.