1997: Pavement - Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition
I’ve always felt that Brighten the Corners, Pavement’s penultimate album, was a record with an identity crisis, though of a different sort than the preceding, incredibly eclectic Wowee Zowee. On one hand, BtC was another step towards rock “maturity” -- more nuanced production, a greater degree of multi-tracking, less of the gawky warts-n-all approach that made Pavement easy to root for. On the other, with the benefit of hindsight comparisons to the later Terror Twilight, Brighten the Corners is downright rollicking.
Perhaps not coincidentally, BtC’s songs are even sequenced like an adolescent growing up. The record’s funnest tracks are its first few, the much-beloved “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” -- “Stereo” in particular is so canonized that one can find several YouTube videos of hipster parents’ toddlers singing it. “Date with IKEA” remains a great power-pop song, and the sardonic “Type Slowly” is a worthy ancestor of Terror Twilight’s “Spit on a Stranger” -- a twinkling, smirky gem of a tune that actually merits its five minutes. “Embassy Row” tacks a lackluster preamble onto a bona fide barnburner.
And depending on who you ask, “Embassy Row” is either the last worthwhile track on a Pavement record or simply the band’s last true rocker. Either way, it’s hard to argue that Brighten the Corners' second half is as strong as its first, which is as good as anything the band ever recorded. “Passat Dream” and “We are Underused” probably qualify as filler for Pavement, but for nearly any other band they’d be lead-single material. “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Fin” are pleasant enough, but together mostly represent an eight-and-a-half minute attempt to end the album.
If you’re reading this, though, you’ve likely already listened to Brighten the Corners and formed your own opinion. So what does Matador’s reissue -- dubbed the Nicene Creedence Edition” -- add? We’ve got the original album’s 12 songs, remastered (I can’t tell the difference, maybe you can). Then there’s another 31 tracks of B-sides, unreleased session material, and live songs to wade through, split over two discs. I’ll touch on some highlights:
- A jam session called “And Then (the Hexx)” that was apparently planned to be BtC’s first track. They made the right decision. (It appears in a different incarnation on Terror Twilight.)
- Three quality rockers from the “Stereo” single: “Westie Can Drum,” “Winner of the,” and “Birds in the Majic Industry.”
- A pair of lighthearted (if inessential) numbers from the “Spit on a Stranger” single: “Harness Your Hopes” and “Roll with the Wind” (the unreleased version of “Roll” is even better).
- An unfortunate honky-tonk two-step reinvention of “Type Slowly” (“Slowly Typed”).
- A cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” which old-timers might remember from the classic What’s Up Matador compilation
- KCRW, BBC, and Peel sessions whose collective highlights are the Peel session’s playful cuts of “Date with IKEA” and Wowee Zowee’s “Grave Architecture.”
- Two silly themes recorded for an appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast
And that’s about it. Pavement were primarily a pop band, and great pop bands are also good self-editors. Thus it stands to reason that a reissue that tacks on stuff that didn’t make the first cut (from a band that had just knocked out the sprawling Wowee Zowee) might not be consistent. With a couple of exceptions, the Nicene Creedence Edition is the least essential of Matador’s Pavement compilations. But even with this caveat, the package performs the service of reminding us how good Brighten the Corners still is -- it bats well above .500, and if it wins the original album any new listeners, Nicene more than validates its existence.
1983: R.E.M. - Murmur: Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition
It’s hard to believe a lot of things about Murmur. That R.E.M. actually made the album; that they used to sound this weird and original; that Murmur is now 25 years old; that it spurred listeners to toss around newfangled terms like “college-rock” as something new and distinct from the old punk-rock orthodoxy; that R.E.M. started out so right for an act that went so wrong. That, ultimately, this band and this album are the godfathers of so much of your favorite music, whether you’d like to admit it or not. But you know all that already from countless “100 Best Albums Of All-Time” lists that slot Murmur somewhere in the high 80s or low 90s -- every music hack seems to instinctively know it belongs in the ranks but can’t always remember why. So, let’s just talk about the reissue-ish parts of this package.
Disc one is the original joint straight, no chaser. The remastering job brings out the snap, crackle, and pop missing from the murky, mysterious original cut, especially in the percussion. The lack of bonus tracks may seem like wasted space, especially stacked up against, say, the forthcoming 10th-anniversary reissue of Pavement’s Brighten The Corners. One might think Universal would at least append the band’s Chronic Town debut EP. But the label was smart to stay away from repackaging odds ‘n’ sods. Everything from this era already showed up on the largely shitty old relic Dead Letter Office and 2006’s great best-of-the-indie-years And I Feel Fine. However, it would have been nice to toss in the Hib-Tone single version of “Radio Free Europe,” since, as they freely admit, it crushes the album version like a grape.
But that’s where the live set comes in: crushed grapes? Why settle for wine when you can have blood and whiskey? The previously unheard 1983 Toronto show that takes up the entirety of disc two has sharper teeth than any studio versions of the songs, drawn mostly from Murmur with a sprinkling of Chronic Town and some early takes on Reckoning’s best tracks. Who needs Chronic Town itself with such vicious versions of “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars),” “Gardening at Night,” and “1,000,000” in hand? Why isn’t the audience clapping harder for “Harborcoat” and “7 Chinese Bros”? Oh yeah, they’ve never heard those before.
If you want all the B-sides from this era, you’ll find them without too much trouble -- but you might wish you hadn’t. This concert is much more satisfying than any hoary old chestnuts from the studio archives, an exhilarating reminder that R.E.M. really did come roaring out of the (post) punk era with furious style (on par with contemporaries like Mission of Burma) and a reputation built more on devastating performances than through quietly confounding albums that didn’t fit into any nerdy sub-genres at the time. Block the last 15 or 20 years of R.E.M.’s sputtering output when you throw this on, and you’ll never need to ask what the frequency is again.
1965: Quarteto Em Cy and Tamba Trio - Som Definitivo
It’s difficult to find vocals more compellingly arranged than on Quarteto Em Cy’s frightfully beautiful Som Definitivo. Having released a broad array of popular bossa albums (including children’s recordings), Cyva, Cynara, Cybele, and Cylene, four vocally virtuosic sisters, are among the most significant of female bossa and MPB groups. While the Quarteto released a body of formidable work spanning over three decades, it is Som Definitivo that fully reveals the group’s mastery of bossa nova, jazz, and pop.
“Imagem,” written by Tamba Trio pianist Luis Eça, is a microcosm of the broad genre synthesis that began in the ’60s. The composition begins with an almost stereotypical bossa nova flute section, which, due to the appropriation of Brazilian music, American ears may associate with elevator music. Then comes a jazz-inflected vocal line, sung in hauntingly low -- though imperceptible -- unison; the sisters match their vibrato flawlessly. The harmony breaks into two groups, then four as the section modulates to a new key, insinuating each chord change with as little sound as possible.
The show stopper, though, is the bossa standard “Arrastão,” which Eça engineers away from the piece’s usual pop bombast (search it on YouTube for a nauseating experience). The vocal delivery in relation to the presumed genre is again fascinating; the piece doesn’t actually sink into a recognizable “bossa” feel until the very end, favoring a straight bass line full of jazz and vocal pop tensions. It’s hard not to think of Brian Wilson’s vocal breaks as harmonies circulate around the memorable melody.
This delayed gratification in “Arrastão” also reflects Som Definitovo's astute politics. Bossa nova’s tendency to signify upper-class leisure is subverted by delaying the “bossa” until the very end. The contoured harmonies reflect both the anticipation felt in the first section ("Hey, there’s a raft out to sea!") and the leisurely relief felt in the finale ("We’ll never see as many fish as this!").
Although the Quarteto continues to exist today, the lineup is vastly different and the transglobal resonances of pop as a (potentially) all-encompassing genre are noticeably absent. So, what foresight the group had in calling their masterpiece “Definitive Sound.”
1974: Randy Newman - Good Old Boys
The more recognized Randy Newman is in mainstream culture, the more reviled his presence becomes. Despite enduring critical popularity with Pixar, his songs for their films -- think “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story or “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. -- have made his name synonymous with mediocrity. They’re fine songs, but regular Oscars viewers turn hostile seeing this potato-shaped old man on the red carpet every year. (Though I’d like to make a case for the beautiful “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2. Maybe that’s a separate column.)
It wasn’t always so. Newman’s records, including this year’s decent Harps and Angels, are elegant character portraits and sharp satirical documents. As a writer, Newman ranks with Mark Twain as one of the country’s finest and funniest social critics; as a musician and composer, he stands with McCartney and Lennon, and the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Sail Away, released in 1972, is often cited as the pinnacle of Newman’s satirical work. And while it’s a great record, Good Old Boys is the subtler, more complicated effort. In fact, satire doesn’t get more complex than opening track “Rednecks,” whose hick narrator sees Georgia governor Lester Maddox on the Dick Cavett Show and spits out a rant about the patronizing response the politician receives from the northern-elite audience. The result is Newman singing from the southerners point of view, himself singing about the northern hypocrites who mock his kind: “We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/ We’re rednecks, and we’re keeping the niggers down.” This is followed by a critique of segregation: “[The black man is] free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/ He’s free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago.” That’s just the first track.
Things get a little less complex from there, but no less vivid. The narrator of “Birmingham” is a proud Alabama resident who works in a factory (“that’s all right with me”) and owns Dan, "the meanest dog in Alabam." He is also married to the title character of “Marie,” one of Newman’s finest compositions. The heartbreaking ballad is sung by Marie’s drunk husband, who tells his wife the things he’d never say sober: “The song that the trees sing when the wind blows/ You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” (He won’t remember this in the morning.)
Good Old Boys' centerpiece is “Louisiana 1927,” an account of the Great Mississippi Flood. The song’s refrain is “they’re trying to wash us away,” a comment on the theory that the city’s levees were dynamited to preserve the wealthier sections of New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, the song gained new popularity in 2005, after similar theories arose from Hurricane Katrina. It's simply a gorgeous track, accomplishing in a few words what lesser social critics attempt with entire books. And, like the rest of the record, the song just sounds great. There's just enough orchestration to inject some theatricality, but Newman's tight band -- which included session veterans Jim Keltner on drums, bassist Russ Titelman, and Glenn Frey and Don Henley as guest vocalists -- provide its R&B backbone.
At the time of Good Old Boys' release, some criticized Newman for patronizing his southern subjects. However, though these narrators are seemingly inarticulate, they’re simply direct: “they’re trying to wash us away”, “he’s free to be put in a cage.” These aren’t idiots, and in using the vernacular of a hick stereotype, Newman has pulled off a bait and switch, a record of misdirection. If you think this is a crude caricature, you can almost hear him saying that you’re the one recognizing the stereotypes, so you’re the crude one. See what I mean? Complicated.
2008: Arabian Prince - Innovative Life
There’s a reason people associate the sound of NWA (and West Coast hip-hop in general) with Dr. Dre instead of Arabian Prince. The Prince was a founding member of NWA (under the moniker Professor X) but left after Ice Cube came back in 1988. Now, consider the lack of common knowledge about the group before 1988, which of course means before Straight Outta Compton, and you'll begin to understand Arabian Prince's dilemma. Aside from a few minor vocals on “Something 2 Dance 2,” he just isn’t there. He’s the Pete Best to NWA’s Beatles, the guy who exited at the wrong moment and got left in the dust as a result.
Innovative Life proves that his departure was hardly a tragedy.
While G-funk itself is a pungent leftover dish these days, Arabian Prince’s electro-rap has aged worse, and this compilation shows that there’s not much reason to look back. While opener “Strange Life” provides a great mission statement in the verse ("The end’s not near so don’t scream and shout/ Live a strange life until your time runs out”), Arabian Prince’s definition of strange only went as far as pushing the weirder-sounding buttons on the newest synth of the day. The poorly paced compositions rely on then-new electro sounds to cover up unimaginative riffs and chord progressions, and the results are predictable.
Of course, you could argue that The Prince's music was made explicitly to get booties shakin’ rather than titillate some pasty, sofa-bound reviewer playing the collection in his living room. This is simple dance-floor fuel, and you wouldn’t go wrong slipping one of the tracks into a housewarming party playlist (once you kicked that pasty reviewer off the couch). Maybe Innovative Life is just meant for DJs rather than casual listeners, a handy compendium of tight, funny-ha-ha electro tracks that will effortlessly flow into a Spank Rock remix or something -- as long as no one’s listening too hard and there aren’t any real dance music fans in the house. But ’80s retro parties aren’t even in style anymore: it’s all about the ’90s these days, from Brooklyn to the Bay, and even so, you don’t hear any of the crate diggers at Academy or Amoeba wishing someone would reissue all the old EMF 12-inches, no matter how “Unbelievable” they sounded back then.
1968: The Incredible String Band - The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
Though they didn’t go over too well with the mudslingers at Woodstock, The Incredible String Band were some of the biggest thrill-seekers in late-1960s psychedelic folk. Judging from the group photo on the cover of their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, their lives were just as full of fairy-tale images as their music. In 1968, when The Beatles donned white kaftans and absconded to India to study transcendental meditation, Robin Williamson had already returned from Morocco carrying an oud, a gimbri, a sitar, a water harp, and a bag full of melismatic vocal licks. Though former bandmate Clive Palmer seemed lost to India and Afghanistan forever, Williamson reunited with rock guitarist Mike Heron and set up house in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where the Scottish duo experimented with communal living, ran around wearing Renaissance costumes, and mastered enough non-occidental string instruments to justify their towering moniker.
After their second LP, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, confirmed their movement away from traditional Celtic roots, The Incredible String Band hit upon a distinctive marriage of East and West that would become their signature sound. With The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which expanded their lineup to include girlfriends Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, the group pushed the logic of cultural hybridization further than anyone else had dared. Unlike other members of the Sgt. Pepper’s generation, Williamson and Heron were ready to do more than just quote the Middle Eastern and East Asian musical traditions; they allowed these influences to explode the very fabric of their songwriting.
If only for its hallucinogenic quality, listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is a lot like watching the dream sequence in Walter Lang’s 1939 remake of A Little Princess, where the film suddenly switches from monochrome to Technicolor, sublimating the life of an orphaned Shirley Temple into a tale fit for the Brother’s Grimm. Shirley, now styled as a petticoated princess, arbitrates a dispute between an evil witch (her tight-lipped headmistress) and a lovely shepherdess (her beloved teacher) over a “stolen kiss” as she is regaled by a swirling cavalcade of pied pipers, court jesters, and cooks armed with over-basted suckling pigs. If we can’t triumph the powers that be, the film seems to suggest, why don’t we just drop out of reality for a while and write our own tall tales?
Equally enchanting and enchanted, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter provides a potent musical antidote to today’s daily grind. Taking off from the group’s farmhouse in Pembrokeshire, Williamson’s soaring tenor catches on a gust of wind and sweeps us into a promised land filled with panpipes and misty garden walls, frankincense and minotaurs, spinning castles and witches wearing black cherries on their fingers. Though each song unfurls like one of those long-winded adventure stories that bards rattled off to the ladies back home, Hangman’s is a movement not only across the seven continents but backwards through time, where childhood make-believe magnifies into courtly love and a stroll down a tree-lined lane becomes a caravan down the Silk Road. In “A Very Cellular Song,” a 13-minute ode to an amoeba that joins a Sikh hymn with a Bahaman spiritual, the group enumerates the joys of “living the timeless life” -- perhaps hitting upon the secret ideal of all true-blue hippies, past and present.
But while The Incredible String Band were busy luxuriating in their own escapist fantasy, they were also working long hours to break apart traditional song structure and confront their glut of exotic instruments with their wickermanian aesthetic. With the advent of 8-track recording, they had finally discovered a way of putting all of their ideas (and all of their instruments) down on tape. And Williamson and Heron were overflowing with ideas -- so much that they didn’t see the point in drawing any one of them out into a verse-chorus-bridge-chorus number.
“I did not write this song,” Williamson sang on their first album. “It was my joys and sorrows that bore it.” Obviously, The Incredible String Band did write their songs, and we cannot overestimate the amount of time it probably took them to sync up each microtonal flutter of Williamson’s voice with a corresponding sitar arabesque. But, listening to Hangman, we cannot avoid the feeling that Williamson and Heron were trying to reverse the equation that had come to dominate even the most “eclectic” music of their time: the channeling of sentiment into form, as opposed to the accommodation of form to sentiment. Though their transitions from raga to music-hall parody were nothing short of virtuosic, The Incredible String Band were less interested in blowing their own pennywhistles than in confronting the fact that no single melody, no single musical language, suffices to capture all the colors in the psychic rainbow.