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.
1969: Lotti Golden - Motor-Cycle
I look forward to a time when labels will once again release hard-driving soul albums that play out like one long, campy musical. I guess R. Kelly’s episodic soap opera “Trapped in the Closet Pts. 1-whatever” is sort of in the ballpark, but while Kels offers his own Serge Gainsbourgian lecherousness, Lotti Golden leads us into the bizarre excursions of the late-’60s underground freaks. So fertile was the music scene of that period that an album of restlessly epic roadhouse suites could be released on a major label.
Golden gets help on Motor-Cycle from an impeccably arranged Atlantic Records session band. They give the album a wall-of-sound heft when called for and lay the foundation, in the midst of all that brass, with a flawless, swinging rhythm team. Then, at key moments, the curtain goes up and they’ve got rows of saxes, trumpets, vibes, and churchfuckingbells behind them, and you begin to realize that this is not the same song and dance. Furthermore, everyone is committed never to repeat the same progression for more than, say, 30 seconds, but also knows that at some point the song will return to each segment, just to remind you how great it was the first time around.
So, there’s that, and the emcee for this aberrant cabaret is Lotti Golden, nexus of the intemperate adventure starring a cast of sex fiends, drug addicts, and other proponents of the In The Now school of living. Motor-Cycle is exactly the sort of hazy deviant party you always hoped the late-’60s was. It plays out roughly like this: Lotti’s got a thing for this kid Michael, who “lets me ride his motorcycle.” But Michael’s truth machine was starting to breakdown, so she heads to Fay’s, the meet-up spot for her coterie of malcontents. Anabell’s gonna be there, Silky’s gonna be there, Billy is gonna drop by, Celia’s gonna come by. But for Fay, whose French poodles keep her satisfied, it’s her doctor’s pills that keep her high, and she’s in trouble with the meds.
“Hey man, did you hear what happened to Fay? Yeah, it’s really a drag, what a bring-down. So where do you want to go? Rosie’s? That’s cool. Out of sight man, we’ll dig it!”
And so the whole party up and moves to Rosie’s. No pause for introspection on poor Fay’s demise, no lessons learned, none of that crap; the good times must roll on. That’s kind of the M.O. of Motor-Cycle. If something heavy happens, slow the music down for a second, give a wail, then move on. With a crowd this colorful, there’s always another story to tell. Silky “had to get married quick in her mama’s red dress in a civil courthouse in Georgia.” Her baby was baptized on a Monday, an occasion for Lotti to sip milk from a champagne glass in the rain. Problem is, Silky’s got a thing for drag queens, who have great parties but make shitty fathers. Silky wants a straight man this time, a real butch guy. A bit of soul searching ensues, but not enough to interrupt the groove. Fact is, that groove is so infectious and permeating that you really have to pay attention to pick up on all the freaky storylines. It’s much simpler and just as pleasurable to latch onto that bass-line and horn hook and just ride along.
Motor-Cycle is that rare party record that’s got a bizarre story behind it while still being a freak-show record that you can throw on at dance parties. To make a crude comparison, it’s as if The Velvet Underground recorded for Motown. In short: debauchery with a beat. Dig it.
1971: String Cheese - String Cheese
After their 1971 debut album failed to register a blip in the marketplace, Chicago sextet String Cheese promptly faded away. Their failure is woeful, because with proper backing and encouragement, they could have been the next It's A Beautiful Day. Like that San Francisco band, String Cheese's sound was steeped in sparkling hippie subject matter, strongly delivered by chanteuse Sally Smaller and aided by the electric violin of Gregory Bloch. Unfortunately, their debut album was also their last.
12-string guitarist and co-vocalist Lawrence W. Wendelken wrote most of the songs on String Cheese, and there are some truly tasteful arrangements contained within. "Soul Of Man," for example, benefits from lush, live strings over folksy acoustic guitar picking and sparse drums, while a Larry and Sally duet muses on the winding road that is the human experience. Meanwhile, the harpsichord-led intro to "Woke Up This Morning" (not the theme to The Sopranos) comes straight out of a renaissance court, progressing to a summery, psychedelic electric sitar jam with lyricism glowing in sunshine-induced optimism. There is some serious talent on display here.
Sure, the electric guitar and bass on String Cheese sound more late-’70s than one would hope for, and the themes are a little vague considering America's involvement in an unjust war propelled by a criminal president, but another album or two surely would've worked the kinks out. C'est la vie, I suppose, and at least we have this Fallout reissue. There is nothing in the way of inflated liner notes or bonus tracks, but the new cover art is nice, the remastering has taken quite well, and it's the first time the album has made it to CD. The tape hiss and occasional pop noise are at worst minimally invasive and at best charming. It's doubtful you would ever find an original pressing that sounds better for less than $50, so this reissue might be your best bet. Consume this, lest ye be lactose intolerant.
1999: Einojuhani Rautavaara - Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus/Piano Concerto No 1/Symphony No. 3
Let’s be frank. If you are going to buy a CD combining the best three works of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, it’s because you are either (a) a doctoral student writing a thesis on Scandinavian classical music or (b) an open-minded music geek who heard that the work uses recorded bird calls as an instrument -- and you think that’s just some gnarly obscurity that you can use to impress your hipster friends*. However, unlike virtually all other “this-music-is-so-great, because-you-don’t-know-about-it” crap, Rautavaara’s music is truly enjoyable and rewarding. The composer's output is not obscure in the United States because it's bad; it just bears an unfortunate headline -- 20th Century neo-classical music from Finland.
You know, modern (or postmodern if you gotta be a dick about it) orchestral composers have it pretty rough. Their music is often unimaginably difficult to create but usually gets hidden somewhere behind a hundred Beethoven albums in the antiquated, all-encompassing “classical” section. Generations after classical music's golden age, these newer composers are unlikely to have an important page in the history books, and because the internet has effectively destroyed any chance for a lucrative career selling records, they must resort to lugging around cumbersome symphonies to half-filled community-sponsored theater halls to get any notice or paycheck (except for those who are more skillful at receiving governmental artistic grants). Einojuhani Rautavaara took a slightly different route, purposely changing up his musical styles (serialism, operatic, romanticism, avant-garde, neo-classicism, etc.), which kept his audiences on their toes and kept his music relevant. By the time he started experimenting with magnetic tape samples, electronics, and mysticism, no one saw him as an old kook resorting to record selling gimmicks; he was simply continuing his innovative path while earning the prestige associated with the most renowned Finnish composers.
Now, not to take anything away from this compilation's pianist (the lovely and talented Laura Mikkola – who is perhaps best known for performing Rautavaara’s works) nor the other works contained therein, but the highlight is Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra). What is noteworthy about the 1972 piece is that Rautavaara himself recorded Arctic bird calls in Northern Finland and composed an entire concerto based on -- and utilizing -- the recordings. Even more remarkable is that he slightly re-tuned the woodwinds in the orchestra to better match the featured avian guests. The end result comes together beautifully, delivering on the intent to transport the listener to an isolated Arctic island inhabited solely by mysterious birds, seen only in fleeting moments by ancient Nordic sailors. Rautavaara builds a delicate work that does not relegate the tapes to artsy ambiance, but relies upon them as the star of the show --the vital component that brings the entire concerto together. The (taped) birds bring life to the orchestra, and the orchestra makes the chirps and tweets lyrical.
An ample comparison to Rautavaara’s music are the building designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Both bodies of work are unmistakably modern, seemingly natural extensions of their surroundings, and will frustrate purists for sidestepping the true-to-form status quo. However, most of Rautavaara’s work should not necessarily strike the listener as overly radical -- in fact, some of his best work (including Symphony Number 3 on this disc) is quite characteristic of late-19th Century romanticism. One must only imagine the effect if Lizst, Wagner, or Chopin had the technology available to blast recorded samples through speakers alongside their symphonies. Einojuhani Rautavaara is still alive and well today, still waxing mystical (as he has done for the later part of his career), and proudly stands as one of the most exceptional names in Finnish culture. Who knows, perhaps 50 years from now, when the Arctic birds have been killed off by global warming, the world will use Cantus Articus as the best means to visualize what a cold, Arctic environment was once like.
* Please note that the writer of this review does not intentionally intend to broadcast his ulterior motives for choosing this album.
1990: Galaxie 500 - This Is Our Music
I can’t stand song lyric websites. They have too many pop-up ads and their message boards feature comments like “I really dig this tune. It drives me to a serene and moody state.” But occasionally I’ll give in and log on to see if someone has been able to decipher a particularly obscure line of My Bloody Valentine or Young Marble Giants. And I’m always sorry afterwards. Cobain was right. Words suck.
Most recently, I looked up the lyrics on This Is Our Music, the final album by Galaxie 500. It’s not that I can’t understand what Dean Wareham is singing; I just can’t seem to make myself pay attention. My brain says, “Eh. We’ll catch ‘em the next time.” My brain doesn’t care.
Neither did Galaxie 500. “It’s not like Dean said ‘I wanna be a singer,’ and had all these Morrissey lyrics,” said bassist Naomi Yang. The few phrases that do bubble up and stick are rapturously silly; lines like, “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ But your dog refused to look at it” and “It’s all too much/ Cause you have another eyelid.” Keep in mind, everyone in this band attended Harvard University.
But, honestly, I kid because I love. At the top of this review, you'll see I’ve cited slowcore bands Low and Codeine as similar artists, and while both groups share Galaxie’s minimalist, measured technique, neither came close to matching either their weird humor or bright, albeit smeared, pop hooks. These are perfect pop songs -- funny songs, sad songs, love songs. Our Music’s two centerpieces, “Summertime” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” (they were a great weather band), achieve a majestic, burning magic that transcends any subgenre.
In 1997, all three Galaxie 500 records were reissued by Rykodisc, and today, considering the band received so little attention (even in their hometown) during their six-year lifetime, they’re pretty easy to find. In fact, due credit is still rarely given when it comes to their exceptional influence on modern indie pop; My Morning Jacket, The Shins, Slumber Party, and Band of Horses (to name a few) all owe something to Galaxie 500, the best Boston band of all time.
1969: The Beatles - Abbey Road
By 1969, the once promising, fresh-faced Fab Four had, in essence, transformed into the weary, resentful Truculent Two. Guitarist George Harrison, drummer Ringo Star, and millions of melancholy fans watched on as the most successful songwriting duo in music history -- guitarist John Lennon and bassist Paul McCartney -- became bitter adversaries. Lennon and McCartney's lives were diverging along with their music. The once subtle differences in their influences -- compositional and stylistic predilections which led to the conception of peerlessly popular, exhilarating music -- had become an irreconcilable divide. Lennon’s influences were quickly shifting from the world of popular song to more broad, avant-garde art, similar to the works created by his girlfriend Yoko Ono. Contrastingly, McCartney, still heavily influenced by the ’50s rock of his childhood, remained fascinated with creating timeless pop anthems (though his broader artistic ambitions had become exceptionally inventive, such as his suggestion for the group to personify the fictitious Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band). Never was this artistic split more obvious musically than on the dialectic Abbey Road -- the final album recorded by The Beatles.
The initial eight tracks that comprise the album's first half are a traditional arrangement of full-length songs, as Lennon preferred. Fittingly, his memorable “Come Together” opens the album. Beginning with a superb McCartney bassline, an iconoclastic Lennon farcically strings together illicit drug and sexual imagery, while his eerie calls to be “shot” are accentuated by a clever Ringo hi-hat. Although the opener is a strikingly traditional composition in Lennon’s later-Beatles catalogue, his other full-length contributions are more telling of how he had matured and where he was heading creatively. The menacing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” progressively combines an incessant blues riff, a hissing Moog synthesizer, and a sparse vocal track bound by a wall of guitars into a magnificently portentous testament of his love for Yoko, while the poignant “Because,” stripped of all rock ‘n’ roll archetypes, eloquently employs sophisticated harmonies to enliven and beautify some of Lennon’s most innocent lyrics: “Because the sky is blue it makes me cry/ Because the sky is blue – Ah – love is old, love is new/ Love is all, love is you.” The opening section is also memorable for Harrison’s contributions (“Something,” “Here Comes The Sun”), which portend his brilliant post-Beatles solo album, All Things Must Pass.
The final portion of the album encompasses the famous medley, spearheaded and dominated in content by McCartney. His eclectic “You Never Give Me Your Money,” a light-hearted, ultimately hopeful rumination on the band’s label troubles (“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven/ All good children go to heaven”), opens this section, but it is on McCartney’s climactic four-track finale where he truly shines. Whether it be his captivating melodies (“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Carry That Weight”), his knack for pithy, teary balladry (“Golden Slumbers”), or, as Lennon described to Playboy, his ability to be “philosophical” with a poignant Shakespearean couplet (“And, in the end/ The love you take/ Is equal to the love you make”), all of McCartney’s musical trademarks are at work. Combined with Lennon’s playful vocals on “Polythene Pam,” the group’s lush harmonies on “Sun King,” Harrison’s diverse guitar play -- including a memorable use of arpeggio (“Carry That Weight”) -- and Ringo’s notable drum solo on “The End,” the medley proves to be one of the most inspired and enjoyable pieces of music in The Beatles' extraordinary catalogue.
For a band that exceedingly composed their music around motifs of love, the breakup of The Beatles was dissonantly vitriolic. However, by putting their differences aside and recording Abbey Road with a passion for music they had nearly extinguished with petty disputes and grudges, The Beatles gave music fans another blissful musical experience that is still producing joy decades after its creation.