1991: Jim O’Rourke - Tamper
Jim O’Rourke gets the reissue treatment from Drag City, the Chicago label better known for hyphenated folk stalwarts like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Joanna Newsom, two artists for whom O’Rourke has done engineering or production work in the past. On Tamper, we get a much less accessible O’Rourke, reminiscent of the innovative instrumentalist who has frequented the likes of Derek Bailey, Eddie Prevost, and Keith Rowe since his college days. The three classically-minded pieces on this record dilate and deepen through quarter-hour crossfades, attaining violent crescendos and murmuring in near silence with generous stretches of overlapping, single-note loops in between. For those who appreciate drone and minimal composition, it’s quite intriguing stuff.
“Spirits Never Forgive” swells patiently toward a climactic, birthlike highpoint, starting with nearly inaudible pulses before queasy, cosmic oscillators jangle through each other and Tony Conrad-style violins squeal away like agitated bats. There may be a clarinet at the bottom of all this, but the sounds are stretched so much that instrumentation seems irrelevant; texture and mood are more central concerns. “He Felt the Patient Memory of a Reluctant Sea” is downright mournful, tracing wobbly orbits through de-tuned, echo-heavy wavelengths. “Ascend Through Unspoken Shadow” begins with a feedback shitstorm; sharp blocks of sound cleave into and through each other, resulting in a texture far more abrasive than in the two more contemplative tracks that open the record. On all three pieces, O’Rourke deftly welds a vehicle for experimental, classical, and noise music, without allowing his layered tones to veer too far into any one of those domains.
All in all, Tamper is a worthy reissue of the high caliber one would expect from someone of O’Rourke’s stature. Although the original release dates back to 1991, it sounds perfectly relevant in the context of contemporary experimental work. This should give us pause: If, some 17 years after its original release, this ‘experimental’ record still sounds fresh, we can and should praise the foresight of its creator, but we should also question the ingenuity of his would-be successors. Tamper should serve as a challenge to today’s electro-acoustic mavens to renew both the sound and structure of their work.
1997: Mogwai - Mogwai Young Team
When discussing Mogwai, it’s too easy to talk about tension and release, about loudness and its absence, about tantalizing gestures toward the industrial-strength machinery whirring behind a velvety sonic curtain. And it’s all too easy to talk about Mogwai Young Team at the exclusion of all else. Ten years on, many critics and fans would still prefer to act as though the story of this album is the period-point-blank story of Mogwai, despite the four full-length follow-ups of diminishing returns. To some (including this reviewer), news of a remastered, reissued Young Team with outtakes was more exciting than the prospect of a new album. But as tempting as the rhetoric of reissue packaging and bonus material is, take this album for the album, not the trimmings.
Only the first of the nominal tenth-anniversary bonus disc’s tracks is previously unreleased, and it’s not hard to see why. The cover of Spacemen 3’s “Honey” is Mogwai doing sugar and love as well as they can -- it's better than their own similarly themed compositions, but sweetness was never really the band’s strength. Most of the extra tracks are live takes of album material, which are interesting, but rendered irrelevant by bad mixes that fail to capture the dynamic lifts and sheer drops of the band’s concert repertoire. The alternate version of “R U Still In 2 It?” might be excepted, though only because the vocals (by Arab Strap’s Aiden Moffat) assume prominence, which ironically reinforces the track as a better portrait of a relationship arcing towards failure than anything Arab Strap ever wrote. The best of Mogwai’s ancillary work from this time is already collected on the singles disc Ten Rapid, which stands up better than the band’s last two albums and would be more worthy of your hard-earned cash if this reissue was only about odds ‘n’ sods.
But disc 2 is just gravy for the roast beast centerpiece of Young Team itself, which comes to us now from the Chemikal Underground deli case in a finer, heavier-cut slab than previously released. The debut was, and is, a straight knockout: 5 for 5, not quite like anything the increasingly sleepy band has done since. The twin trademark bone crushers “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” get a booster shot to keep them socking the air out of unsuspecting guts from the dorm room to the boardroom, though the bystanders asking if the listener’s gasping-out-loud, headphones-askew ass is alright are probably more likely office colleagues than freshman roommates these days. Beyond those two oft-cited pillars of pulchritude, the remastering job also brings out subtler, rounder tones in other highlights like “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” and “Tracy,” tracks that were squished flat on the original.
In a way, a little bit of the lower-fi mystery of the album’s original Exile on Main Street murk has departed with the high-def clarity of this version. What the remastering shows best, though, is that Young Team hasn’t gotten softer with age; Mogwai were always good at the light stuff and used to be better at keeping you interested in it.
2008: Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool
Every now and then, a “criminally overlooked” record gets picked up and re-released by a hip label to glowing reviews. The collective blogosphere, the music press, and rock lit nerds, anxious to latch onto a little piece of hidden history, are quick to extol said album’s virtues and heap praise at its feet. It’s easy to get desensitized to the whole process. I mean, can this “unknown classic” really be that great? If it’s so amazing, why haven’t I heard it?
Well, put your record industry mechanics aside, and let’s cut straight to it: Nick Lowe’s 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool is undoubtedly a rock ‘n’ pop masterpiece, and every single shining review you’ve read about it is right-freaking-on.
Perhaps you’ve noticed Nick Lowe’s name on a few of your albums. A legendary knob twiddler, he’s always been known as the man behind the boards on Elvis Costello’s best records, as well as an in-house producer for Stiff Records, where his fast-paced recording style earned him the nickname “The Basher.” But Lowe was a prominent performer in London’s pub rock scene in addition to his production credits, playing bass and writing songs with Brinsley Schwartz, who’s ruckus live shows paved the way for the burgeoning punk scene.
Cobbled together from various fly-by-night sessions and recorded on borrowed or stolen studio time, Jesus of Cool featured Nick flanked by a who’s who of the London scene, featuring contributions from members of the Rumour, Larry Wallis (Motorhead, the Pink Faries), and longtime associate Dave Edmunds. The album was released in 1978 on Radar Records, former Stiff main-man Jake Rivera’s new label, and was surrounded with ubiquitous sloganeering brought over from Stiff’s ad department: “We’ve finally nailed the Jesus of Cool” read posters all over London. “The Jesus of Cool recordeth for your sins. The Jesus of Cool is a testament to the Church of Aural Sects.”
Not surprisingly, “conservative” American audiences were given the same album under a different name (Pure Pop for Now People) and saw a slightly different tracklist. Fortunately, “Pure Pop” says as much about the album as the original title. With reckless abandon, Lowe tackles a variety of pop styles, and the results are exhilarating. We get tales of vicious show promoters sung through a Thin Lizzy-inspired lens and Jackson Five-style dancefloor pop that grinds its gears midway, launching into something like Paul McCartney’s English reggae excursions.
“Tonight” recalls The Everly Brothers; “Rollers Show” chews the bubble gum of its subject matter, The Bay City Rollers; and “Heart of the City,” recorded live, finds Lowe and company blasting their way through a straight-ahead rock tune with snarling punk rock intensity. It’s not hard to see why audiences were more than a little confused with Jesus of Cool. It was too punk for the rockers, too rock for the punkers, too traditional for the new wavers, and too new wave for the pub-rockers.
Opener “Music for Money” chugs along with heavy menace, its lyrics reflecting Lowe’s disdain for the music biz. “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” inspired by a trashed hotel room during a tour with Bad Company, is a perfect piece of new wave pop, it’s bassline pogo-ing about while tinkling piano and syncopated drums dance around endlessly. Lowe’s lyric “I love the sound of breaking glass/ Especially when I’m lonely” somehow manages to sound utterly goofy and poignant at the same time. The gleefully gruesome “Marie Provost” is similarly conflicted: a sly ditty about the silent film actresses’ mutilation by her dogs, the track certainly sounds like it would appeal to a shock-hungry audience, yet Lowe sings over it with a wistfulness that paints a more complex picture -- at once sad, funny, and lonesome. It flew smoothly over the heads of the average listener.
Jesus of Cool is indeed Nick Lowe as pop prankster, but even more, it’s Nick Lowe as pop fan -- a record collectors record: sonically all over the map, witty, charming, and fun without ever being easy. His later records maintained a master craftsman's quality, but would move in more subdued directions, embracing polite pop, rockabilly, and country sounds. “In those days I wasn’t interested in creating serious art," Lowe states in Yep Roc’s deluxe-edition liner notes. "I was much more interested in the mischief. I wanted to make music that was accessible, but just as you’ve hooked people in, you would screw it up and throw it across the room. I do regret it somewhat, but time was of the essence and it had to be disposable.”
Lowe doesn’t give himself enough credit. If Jesus of Cool is in fact disposable, then it can only be disposable in the best possible way.
2006: Los Lobos - The Town and The City
There’s something very appealing – and to be immediately mistrusted – about the standard critical narrative of Los Lobos, a band that attained heights of popularity by perseverance and hard work, held onto their relevance through pure musicianship and, at 30 years going, continue to refine with every release. Certainly they’ve overcome a series of challenges, from a near-pigeonholing as “the Mexican-American band” to being continually confused with Los Lonely Boys (a slip that, speaking candidly, makes me want to stab myself). A critical reader who was unfamiliar with the band's work could be forgiven for harboring skepticism over new praise -- especially given the well-documented ability of narrative to overpower content, throw it out of the ring, and step on its throat -- and particularly in cases where aging artists are credited with a “return to form” or with “their strongest work yet,” or anything along those lines.
It is with this expectation of skepticism in mind that I make the following statement: The Town and The City is the strongest, most focused work from Los Lobos yet. Moreover, in a year when national hysteria over immigration had begun boiling toward its present fever pitch, they made an album about the immigrant experience that crackles with feeling and relevance.
The Town and The City is located by a triptych of place-portraits. “The Valley” is an idyll from the perspective of a migrant farm worker, “The City” a breathless account of the splendor of urban America, and “The Town” a depiction of a poor neighborhood at dusk. These songs establish the feeling of movement and the allure and promise of what's beyond the horizon, as well as conjuring a faint hint of optimism to balance the darkness of many of the stories. Were it not for these establishing shots, the cynicism of “Don’t Ask Why” and the plain desperation of “Hold On” might come to dominate the record – and those themes aren't the point. This isn’t an album about hopelessness, only about hopes onto which, perhaps, too much is pinned. For example, the protagonist of the loping country-blues “Road to Gila Bend” is evidently leaving behind a whole life, but what comes across in the refrain (“Can they see me coming? Do they know I’m running?”) isn’t total resignation, but battered fight.
All of this sentiment would be wasted if it weren’t for solid songs. Fortunately, Los Lobos grasped the current fashion for artiness in rock and turned in not only a set of catchy songs, but some of their prettiest, noisiest, and most experimental. I confess that in the past, I’ve been bored by some of their more traditional output – I’m simply not of a generation that can easily appreciate classicist strains in rock. I am cynical about blues pentatonics and doubly so about such shibboleths as tasteful noodling and impeccable guitar tone. The Town and The City won me over with sparkling cascades of delay (“The Valley”), blustering fuzz (“The Road to Gila Bend”), shiny, dream-pop organ (the retro-soul gem “Little Things”), and a rainbow-colored sheen on everything (particularly on “Chuco’s Cumbia,” a snappy Latin number that stands as one of their most fun songs to date).
That the music is cast after the themes and subject matter of the lyrics further removes The Town and The City from typical classicist exercises. “Chuco’s Cumbia” is loaded with old Pachuco slang; “Hold On” is spare and dusty to match its strung-out subject; “The Town” is shaded with subdued, minor-key menace. Perez, Hidalgo, and Rosas evidently conceive of their songs as entire aesthetic experiences, which is a distinctly contemporary attitude when contrasted with other aged rockers, for whom subject matter is often treated like an afterthought – used either as an entry in an authenticity contest (hewing to the notion that the artist is always the subject), as a tedious formalist chore, or to make some cranky point with the full awareness that nobody is listening. Given the number of miles they’ve clocked, what's surprising about Los Lobos is the extent to which their songs continue to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as exhibits in the case for the artist’s relevance.
The Law of Rock Band Averages says that the next thing Los Lobos release will probably be an unpardonable dud. Of course, the whole appeal of the hard-work-and-perseverance narrative is in the way it implies that duds are the product of laziness or of style beating out substance, and not of the inevitability that talent eventually runs out. However, even if that winds up being the case – that is, if this is Los Lobos’s final seminal statement – then they nevertheless deserve recognition as one of the longest running bands to defy the odds and remain in the stream of vital discourse.
1981: Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia - Friday Night in San Francisco
It never gets fiercer in the high school cafeteria than during a good ol' Greatest Guitarist of All-Time Debate. In between sandwich bites, someone makes an innocent comment about Jack White being the all-time greatest and -- BOOM -- you instantly got yo’ self lunchtime entertainment! The next thing you know, the kid with kind of long hair brings up Jimi; the angry kid wearing a black shirt makes his case for Kirk Hammett; the slacker kid in tie-dye throws Jerry Garcia in the mix; the kid with the older brothers mouths off about Yngwie Malmsteen; and inevitably, that lonely, awkward kid will come over and get worked up about John Petrucci.
Since American youth is typically enamored with the fastest and the loudest, the “greatest guitarists” normally come from the rock ‘n’ roll universe, unfortunately shortchanging the vast talent pool in other genres. I imagine that a high schooler would probably get punched in the crotch if, as a 15-year-old, he advocated for 1970s fusion jazz guitarists that (gasp!) his parents may have seen live. Unlike the “fastest is best” mentality of the rock world, jazz talent is typically merited upon rhythmic shifts, collaborative backing, and the melodic creativity of the improvisations. As solo artists, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia’s music is not necessarily accessible by pre-driving license rock ‘n’ roll standards; but when in their collaborative trio, their shared tendency for constant, over-the-top one-upmanship should theoretically appeal to those who are enamored with guitar virtuosity. Especially on 1981 live album Friday in San Francisco, these three guitar greats transcend jazz stereotypes and rock out (acoustically) to make their respective cases for the greatest of all-time.
Originally recorded in late 1980, Al Di Meola (gypsy, Latin jazz legend) and John McLaughlin (fusion, electric jazz legend) teamed up with Paco De Lucia (Spanish flamenco legend) to record a live album and kickstart an ongoing joint tour. The five songs (the first four on the CD are from the actual concert, while the fifth is a studio recording thrown on the album for good luck) pair the trio in each possible twosome combination and together as a whole trio. Simply, Friday Night in San Francisco is a spectacular demonstration of what human beings can do with a guitar. The solos are mind-blowingly fast, the performance timing is tight, and even the backing Latin rhythmic guitar patterns are impressively difficult. Scales get climbed, strums become sonic blurs, and guess what – the assuredly laid-back (and probably culturally pompous) San Fran jazz crowd goes apeshit throughout the entire show! Careful not to take themselves TOO seriously, there are even lighthearted moments, such as Al and John's break into the “Pink Panther Theme” during the Chick Corea-composed “Short Tales of the Black Forest.”
During its more user-friendly sections, Friday Night conjures tender images of drinking sangria on hot nights alongside Spanish cobblestone streets, all before transitioning to a frantic solo, faster and more extended than the one before. So, those who will most enjoy this album are other guitarists. In fact, the entire 41 minutes are tough to appreciate (and be passionate about) unless you have tried strumming an acoustic. Demonstrating a wide stylistic range, each song is based upon lovely melodies, but the album is not necessarily intended to be “beautiful;” if you want bachelor pad music, go purchase Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy. No, Friday Night is more akin to a “biggest is best” Las Vegas casino than a romantic European villa. From the first minute, Al, John, and Paco pull out all the stops – blazing past traditional flamenco/Latin jazz subtleties like patient buildups or overwrought dramatic tension in favor of cock-out showmanship.
Now, to keep up the high school debate theme, I've purposely avoided the nitty gritty guitar details of chromatics, melodic minors, and ethnic pentatonics that the “more Guitar Center than thou” crowd will use to rate this performance. Staying on our teenage level, I heard that Paco was, like, playing so fast that he literally burnt his fingertops off from all the string friction! Yuh huh! I read it online, assface! But seriously, playing an acoustic guitar in a live setting (without the benefit of amplification, excessive studio manipulation, or a backing band) is leaps and bounds more impressive than how most other “greatest guitarists” make their mark. Friday Night in San Francisco is the album that all young, aspiring guitarists should listen to right before they quit. No greater heights can be achieved on Meola, McLaughlin, and Lucia's instrument, so you might as well stop practicing and focus your efforts on accounting, dentistry, or another field where you stand at least a remote chance of making a mark some day.
1991: Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
I don’t want to get into how or why Bandwagonesque beat Nevermind for Spin’s Album of the Year, 1991. I don’t want to discuss the obvious thematic similarities between the money bag and the baby with the dollar bill. And I’m not going to insist that, while Nevermind indeed shows some wrinkles 16 years after the fact (it’s not particularly well-sequenced, and it drags a bit between “Drain You” and “Something In the Way”), Bandwagonesque is still pretty much perfect, because it's not.
In fact, when I decided I was going to cover a ’90s power-pop album, I almost chose Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, because I figured if I did Bandwagonesque I’d feel obliged to shovel through all that shit. It’s a record a lot of people have made themselves forget about -- when Spin released their 25th anniversary top 100 list, they made damn sure they left it off. Their guilt, while regrettable, is understandable. This was 1991, the year of Loveless and Screamadelica, records that broke sonic barriers, records that screwed everything up for everyone. Bandwagonesque was derivative and retrogressive -- a ripoff, more or less, of classic Big Star, with a dash of Television’s shredded guitar workouts.
What a beautiful ripoff it is, though. I remember watching Fanclub play “The Concept” on Saturday Night Live when I was but a mere boy and laughing out loud at the part that went: “She won’t be forced against her will/ Says she don’t do drugs but she does the pill.” At the end of their performance, they all sort of hunched over and hopped around playing feedback for, like, 30 seconds. I was roughly 10 years old. I didn’t know about grunge. I had no understanding of irony or artistic debt. I was sufficiently impressed.
And now I pause, fingers hovering over the keyboard. I’m almost finished with this album review, but have yet to actually review the album. It’s just playing over on my Windows Media Player (which is what music critics do, by the way -- sit at the computer and listen to the record over and over again until something comes out; so now when any critic friend of yours starts talking about his or her “process,” you can join in the conversation). What else can I write? Teenage Fanclub's music is near-impossible to intellectualize or describe without resorting to a batch of exhausted guitar adjectives -- sweet, crisp, crunchy, fuzzy, etc. The lyrics are inane. It’s all trash, really. But Spin loved it.