Friday, January 30, 2009

100 Albums, 100 Words (10-1)

10. Johnny Cash – American Recordings (1994)

In 1970, Johnny Cash recorded a song called “What Is Truth?” The answer to that question is found here in the honest and unadorned voice that fills this record. Cash’s albums for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label are all excellent, but this stands above the rest. Unexpected covers (Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen,” Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me”) abound, and often flirt with Cash’s darker side. The humility which suffuses tracks like Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?” makes it not too surprising that Cash considered naming this album after his two dogs (the two sitting on the cover), Sin and Redemption.

9. The Who – Who’s Next (1971)

Sometimes I wish Lifehouse had come to fruition, but it would be tough for Townsend to improve on this album, a bargain at any price. The Who are known for being raucous virtuosos, but this albums shows they weren’t lacking in melodic chops. Splendid experiments in synthesizer – its first use in popular music – bookend this album and augment several other tracks. Nicky Hopkins' soulful piano is pure and easy on "Song is Over," lending the near epic a light, breathy yearning feel. And still Keith Moon bangs the drums harder and faster than anyone else in the history of rock.

8. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)

A man howls like a dog lying wounded, his voice echoing the hollowness of humanity across the rolling plains – this is the landscape of Bruce Springsteen's
Nebraska. Down lonesome country roads roll killers and gamblers, and their pathos fills the stark soundscape with a wall of regret. This is the album that is borne out during the dim hours of midnight, sung from the hood or a rusted out Ford truck whose engine might never rev again. The desperate cracks of steel strings snap against the soul as the desperate vocals of roughshod earth and iron deliver you from nowhere.

7. Prince – Sign O’ the Times (1987)

On the cover, a blurred Prince walks through a world that is all surface, a rich carnival scene painted on a yellow cotton sheet. In the materialistic facade of the mid-eighties, one couldn't have blamed Prince for losing his artistic focus; as it happened, it sharpened into its finest point. In turns frenetic, apocalyptic, sumptuous and effervescent, Prince turns his talents loose over jazz, techno, balladry and the best George Harrison imitation outside of a Ween album. The subject matter is equally diverse: abstinence, broken homes, AIDS, and starfish as a breakfast food. So what keeps it together? Sensational bravado.

6. Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)

With vocals more harmonic than Crosby, Stills and Nash and guitars brighter than any sun, the Jayhawks cook up a late summer jam session. Despite song titles like "Blue" and "Bad Time," the music keeps a friendly veneer throughout. It sounds so casual it could have been recorded in your kitchen. The album lives up to its name, planting a seedling in the heart of the listener so that their days will grow greener as each morning arrives. Even when it's a "bad time to be in love," it is a good time to be in love with this record.

5. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)

It wasn't until I heard Joni Mitchell sing that I realized how badly I want to be a redneck on a Grecian isle who knows how to do the goat dance very well. The introspective melancholy that pervades this album shoots right through the soul, but it’s often enough a price paid for ecstasy that the listener isn't left wanting to slit their wrists. Mitchell's fingers caress the piano, massaging fertile tone from its keys. The original detail, especially in the "Last Time I Saw Richard," brings a warm, quotidian realism to the album that makes it accessible to anyone.

4. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968)

In listening, I followed you –
a young lad, rosy-cheeked and leather-clad,
you roamed the streets of Dublin,

ducking in and out of Cypress Avenue,
down past the shops,
to where she lay beside you.
You still found the strength

to look straight in her eyes
and see the pale horse galloping

through her lens.

You found the courage to finger the jagged grain
and accept that pain for all of us, to etherize your love,
to stretch your pain across a starlit sky.

And here I sit, ears taut with grief,
afraid to touch

those twelve jagged bars of rejection.

3. Brian Wilson – Smile (2004)

“Nick Walusko – vocals, guitar, eye-patch, carrots.” I have no idea what an eye-patch sounds like on record, but it makes me proud to know that someone out there is playing one. The carrots are easy to identify as their crunchy chomp provides the percussion on “Vega-Tables.” Is this album overly drug-laden? Probably, but it’s still the happiest hodge-podge of Americana ever put on record. Sure, there are a few melancholy twinges, most noticeably in the horns on “You Are My Sunshine,” but for the most part this album is guaranteed to raise more smiles than Sgt. Pepper’s or Pet Sounds.

2. The Costello Show – King of America (1986)

Costello’s first record featured the phrase “Elvis Is King” hidden among checkered boxes. On King of America, he steals the King of Rock’s, the other Elvis’s, band to do what no other foreigner has done so exquisitely – deconstruct the American Dream using the nation’s most proto-typically American idiom, country. From “Brilliant Mistake”’s opening cocktail chatter to the soldier circle jerk that closes “Sleep of the Just,” Costello points a contrarian microscope at Americana. Even the two covers are memorably revealing, especially “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” where Costello Americanizes a British bastardization, albeit a great one, of American R&B music.

1. Nellie McKay – Get Away From Me (2004)

If you blend torch ballads and hip hop, stir in a cup of political angst, sprinkle in some virtuoso keyboards and garnish with irony, you get Nellie McKay. The album cover says it all: our heroine busts a chorus-line pose in a red, hooded pea coat in front of a graffitied construction site. Every track is melodically eargasmic and McKay’s lyrics are filled with the wit we would expect from a twenty-first century vaudevillian. From the moment she starts scatting in Yiddish (hcabnesie? maybe?) on “David,” McKay performs a sultry intellectual seduction that anyone who can hear falls victim to.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Prozak and the Platypus

So when I heard that Jill Sobule was prepping a new album, I got excited. When I heard that the album was a rock opera, I was ecstatic. Now that I've heard it, I'm back to excited.

The packaging is great. The cd booklet is a forty-page graphic novel that lays out the story line. The story itself is a bit jumbled and confused at times, but it has great potential. The protagonist is a young woman named Prozak. She has given herself this name.

After Prozak's mother committed suicide after a long battle with depression, her father uprooted the family and took them to Australia. He is working on studying the sleep patterns of everyone's favorite cloacal monotreme, the platypi. His hope is that by studying their patterns, he can figure out the chemical balance of the mind during REM sleep and develop an anti-depressant for people who have trouble dreaming. Prozak, distraught after her mother's suicide, thinks he's just doing it to ruin her life by dragging her away from the comforts of home. In rebellion, she runs away, names herself Prozak and fronts a punk band.

Meanwhile, Prozak forges an unlikely frienship with a talking platypus her dad is working with. With this friendship enters a fair amount of imagery drawn from aboriginal mythology. Prozak enters the platypus's mind and is then able to make peace with herself.

That is a pretty complex story line, and the album's 11 songs barely top the 32 minute mark combined. I really feel there was some more space available to further develop the album's complex themes. For what is there, the music is pretty good. It shows a good deal of variety. "Watch me Sleep" is the kind of singer-songwriteresque, guitar-piano-violin arrangement I'd expect, but from there its all over the map. "Talkin' Platy" is, sadly, not a talking blues, but is a fair stab at punk. "Skyhook" sounds like it could be an outtake from Ween's "The Mollusk." "Jitters and Creeps" features what sounds like some nice, alt-countryesque 12-string picking.

Somehow, I suspect the song "Empty Glass" is a tip of the hat to rock opera entrepeneur Pete Townsend, who used Empty Glass as the title for a solo album. (I also suspect the title "Deep Blue" is a reference to the George Harrison b-side of the same name, but I have no idea how to tie that to the concept of the rock opera.)

The lyrics were composed by Elise Thoron, which means I did miss out on Sobule unique brand of cynicism for much of the album, but I was pleased to discover her as a new talent.

The website for the album,, offers up a script and direction for those willing to stage the musical in all its glory. Anyone got a platypus costume I can borrow?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

100 Albums, 100 Words (20-11)

20. Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece (1974)

From the first strum of “Fair Play,” Van Morrison pours out the fallout from his failed marriage to Janet Planet through coded sorrow. Morrison creates a series of metaphors, using literary figures and outlaws to stand for various aspects of their relationship. The result is impossible to figure out, on a literal level, but the emotive singing more than makes up for this because the listener understands everything that Van intends. This is the logical extension of the second half of Astral Weeks and would have made a fantastic double album coupled with the romantic rural paean of Tupelo Honey.

19. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On? (1971)

This album has the tireless, friendly flow of a neighborhood meeting, except instead of planning the next block party, the participants are planning the next protest, be it against the war, the destruction of the environment, or the poverty that continues to sap the ghetto. Gaye had to fight hard against Motown brass to get this record on shelves, but once he did it became an immediate landmark and paved the way for several excellent Stevie Wonder albums. Filled with gorgeous vocals and horn fills that trickle between beats, this remains a true measure of the far-reaching power of soul.

18. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

It is hard to believe there was another side of Dylan left to show after all of the faces he revealed on this masterpiece. The music here, in both form and subject matter, is more diverse than most double albums. Dylan showcases his mastery of dead-pan humor, rollicking blues hollers, sermons, aching ballads, and topical songs. Not only is this Dylan’s best early album, but it is one of his best albums. Armed with only a guitar, Dylan takes on the world and comes out ahead, winning over listeners every time the ragamuffin troubadour steps out onto the album’s battleground.

17. The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

Quadrophenia is the Ulysses of rock, the art form’s truest use of stream of consciousness. While Quadrophenia lacks Tommy’s linearity, it creates its own rules as we bounce around between our narrator’s different personalities. While Quadrophenia may lack the sophisticated instrumentation and expert production of Who’s Next, it rocks out rawer than any other Who album, with the possible exception of Live At Leeds. If that’s not enough, you get rare audio footage of Keith Moon attempting to sing on the character sketch “Bell Boy.” They even sample themselves. The joys found here are four times that of most records.

16. Neil Diamond – Hot August Night (1973)

If Neil Diamond was only cool for one night in his life, this was it. Beginning with a scathing critique of society’s reaction to true individuality, “Crunchy Granola Suite,” Diamond goes on to kick props to Lenny Bruce, Humphrey Bogart and Mao Zedong in “Done Too Soon.” Side two features ripping satires of mainstream country (“front teeth missing; well, that’s fine for kissing”). Side three rounds out with a series of ballads, and the aching performance of “Morningside” is downright weepy. I learned to love this record in my crib; I love it more now that I can appreciate it.

15. The Band – The Band (1969)

The Band is the rot-gut swigging Southern granpappy you never had – except he’s four-fifths Canadian and has at least three distinctive, often sublimely overlapping, voices. In twelve songs, this musical troupe nails Americana so completely that Levon Helm should name them all honorary Arkansans. Don’t be dispelled though; everything here transcends its backwoods trappings. The bass on “Up On Cripple Creek” could be being played by Bootsy Collins. “Look Out Cleveland” drives like Deep Purple. “When You Awake”’s majestic, mysterious melody creeps around between every genre and sounds like none of them. The cover is the only thing monochrome here.

14. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

Wouldn’t it be nice if all experiments in symphonic pop sounded this nice? Brian Wilson loved Pet Sounds’ songs of self-doubt and lost love like normal people love dogs, but instead of scratching these tunes behind the ears, he gave them lush arrangements which bring out the full range of their beauty. The arrangements are phenomenal, especially the plodding bass heartbeat that grounds “Don’t Talk.” Carl Wilson’s vocal on “God Only Knows” is heavenly. Mike Love’s vocal makes “Here Today” raise the listener’s spirits. Despite its heartache, Pet Sounds produces empathy, and, through it, fills the listener with newfound love.

13. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Yeah, I waited till number thirteen and then picked A Hard Day’s Night. I didn’t even lead off with one of their “good” albums, one of George Martin’s drug-laden masterpieces of masturbatory production, because the truth is early Beatles rock. The chiming guitars are bubblegum, but who doesn’t love a little ear candy? Not only are all the songs originals, but, uniquely, they are all Lennon/McCartney compositions – and this is back when they still wrote together! Each cut is three minutes of sugarpop honey bliss. It’s the music of punch and pie parties, but Sara Lee never sounded this good.

12. Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)

It took nine years after Elvis passed for Graceland to truly become graceful, and when it did, it celebrated and made money for the blacks who Presley arguably stole from, except they were from South Africa rather than the States. Graceland developed more from Paul Simon’s love of South African music than from a desire to shake up apartheid (though he probably didn’t mind that effect). Simon’s love for his source material allows him to effectively overlay it with his own bouncy vocals and blend it with zydeco, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, folk, and the rest of the musical landscape.

11. Bob Dylan – Blood On the Tracks (1975)

It would be easy, and a bit cliché, to point out how Dylan took the corkscrew from “You’re A Big Girl, Now,” gouged out his aorta and spurted his lifeblood all over the ten tracks contained here. Sad as the album may be, however, it has strengths beyond the ability to depress you. Dylan is using unique and powerful ways of dealing with time in narrative. Shifts in tense and point of view fill the album, allowing the songs to be read in several different ways. From "Shelter From the Storm" to “Simple Twist of Fate,” this album contains multitudes.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 Supplement -- Best Female Songs Ever, Vol. 1

1. Jill Sobule - "Jetpack"(from Underdog Victorious, 2004)

This tender, heart-wrenching acoustic ballad is proof positive, for those that ever doubted it, that both the lower classes and lesbians have emotionally complex relationships. Its brillaince is that Sobule doesn't take the easy route many songwriters do of telling the audience these things. She shows us she is poor -- "but I don't have a jetpack, I don't even have a car. All I have is this token and a head full of stars" she cries in anguish. As for being a lesbian, you mostly have to pick that out of the other tracks on Underdog Victorious, an album that begins with a failing relationship, goes into some social work as a way of healing, reflects on the relationship, and ends with a potential fling with a butch cop. Of course, one could look at the speaker's obsession with baseball and dominant role in the relationship as defying gender normatives.

2. Mary Lou Lord - "Shake Shugaree" (from Got No Shadow, 1998)

Despite being a talented songwriter in her own write [sic], Lord provides what may be her best performance on this traditional folk song collected by Elizabeth Cotten. The double-tracked vocal, providing an imperfect, folksy harmony lends the song the proper sense of both awe and sorrow as the speaker sells away any hope at livelihood.

3. Mary Fahl - "Going Home" (from Gods and Generals soundtrack, 2003)

Originally a member of a Boston group known as the October Project, Mary Fahl made her solo debut on the soundtrack for the Civil War film Gods and Generals, and it was a glorious debut. The soundtrack featured numerous symphonic compositions and two with vocals -- this composition of Fahl's and Bob Dylan's "Cross the Green Mountain." Reissued on Tell Tale Signs, "Cross the Green Mountain" is now getting the credit it deserves as one of the finest songs in Dylan's canon. As great as it is, though, it may not be the best song recorded for Gods and Generals. Lyrically, Dylan may win out but Fahl's rich and textured voice lends this period piece a pathos deep enough to be plowed through.

4. Suzanne Vega - "Ironbound/Fancy Poultry" (from Solitude Standing, 1987)

In this song, Suzanne Vega dreamily imagines an open market in Portugal where women are bound in iron, then butchered and sold in parts -- "breasts and thighs and hearts." The metaphor to women being pieces of meat is obvious and a bit cliche, but in the song Vega makes it visceral enough that it sounds new and engaging.

5. Peggy Seeger - "Gonna Be An Engineer" (1970, reissued on Best of Broadside 1961-1988, 2000)

This song systematically deconstructs so many of the barricades which have attempted to hold women back, and brillaintly so. It looks at how women are forced into being objects, locked into marriage, robbed of fair pay. Every line is a direct protest. And all of it set to a poppy, bouncing beat that creates a tense contradiction, simultaneously undercutting and sharpening the song's edge. Like Roberta in Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, Peggy Seeger is not content to sit idly by and let men take all the fun jobs.

6. Kimya Dawson - "Loose Lips" (2006, reissued on Juno soundtrack 2008)

Really, this song is more or less a nonsensical string of allusions. We start off with World War I propaganda about spreading was strategy to the enemy. We get some lines which do get a bit more serious, though -- calling for Bush to be ousted and arguing the ills of suicide. The real treat though comes from Dawson's rhyming skills. She has more verbosity than Paul Barman with lines like "They think we're disposable? Well, both my thumbs're opposable. Spell that on a double word and triple letter score."

7. Joan Baez - "All My Trials" (from Joan Baez, 1960)

This spiritual about finding hope in the afterlife, hope that God will repay us for our trials, carves deep into the soul. It may not be Joan Baez's best known song, but it is one of her best performances, one that, like the river Jordan, chills the body but warms the soul.

8. Joni Mitchell - "A Case of You" (from Blue, 1971)

Prince's Joni Mitchell rip-off, "Ballad of Dorothy Parker," sounds like it could have come off of Court and Spark, but when he decided to record a cover of one of her songs, he chose "A Case of You." Blue is filled with brillaint evocations of heartbreak and regret. "A Case of You" is about the difficulty of letting go while knowing that the person you are leaving behind will continue to effect your life ad infinitum. Mitchell sings that her man is in her "blood like holy wine." She has internalized him, and what's more she's built him up to be like Jesus, an implicit comparison in that he has transubstantiated within her. Mitchell misreads a metaphor, visits a fortune teller and is drawn to devlish men; an impressive feat to cram in to less than four and a half minutes.

9. Billie Holiday - "Strange Fruit" (1939, numerous reissues)

This is often cited as the ultimate protest song. Writted by Abel Meeropol, adopted son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg -- the American communists who sold the bomb to the Russians --, this song describes the fruits of racism -- black, rotting bodies, bloated and swollen, swinging from poplar branches. Seventy years on, it is still urgent and necessary, as evinced by such songs working against it as "Barack, the Magic Negro." How sad America sometimes is. We must hope it can heal from these wounds.

10. Scarlett Johansson - "Fannin St." (from Anywhere I Lay My Head, 2oo8)

I think this song is about avoiding priggish conformity on one level, and also about the dangers of going one place only for the purpose of escaping another. Anyway, when we escape, we often don't know what we are leaving behind. What I do know is, after listening to this song I want to observe Fannin St., but only from a protected spot far, far away, safe from whatever allure might try to trap me there.

11. Nellie McKay - "It's A Pose" (from Get Away From Me, 2004)

Nellie is an idol of mine. While I think this song essentializes men a little too much at times, and I'm not entirely comfortable with it, I realize that McKay is trying to make me uncomfortable and I like it. In a 1993 issue of Esquire magazine, there is an article that defines what they term the post-sensitive male, a term which resonated with me at the time, though I recognized myself as not a part of it, and which I have seen more and more as I've grown older and wiser. This seems to be the kind of constructed masculinity -- faux intellectual and faux feminist -- that McKay so incisively deconstructs in "It's A Pose," which may constitute her most striking set of lyrics to date.

12. Tom Tom Club - "Genius of Love" (from Tom Tom Club, 1981)

The Tom Tom Club is more or less Talking Heads minus David Byrne, a fruitful side project while the rest of the group waited for their mastermind to prep his next cerebral soundscape. This song may be better than anything Talking Heads released, though. Musically, this is an extension of the naked funk sound Prince was experimenting with back in 1980. Lyrically, its a whole nother beast. The speaker is a woman recently released from prison and trying to find herself a funkified man. She wants "natural fun" with a rhythmically-blessed black man. Among those she expresses interest in: George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bob Marley, Smokey Robinson, Sly and Robbie, and Kurtis Blow. The lady was surely up to date. Near the end, the genius himself shows up on the scene, breaking down some old school hippity-hoppity and laying down his love for James Brown. True genius.

13. Natalie Imbruglia - "Wishing I Was There" (from Left of the Middle, 1997)

This song is a brilliant example of how phrasing can help a song out. The beat is cool, the melody is great, the chorus is catchy, but what really makes this song stand out is the start-stop rhythm of the vocals when Imbruglia lingers over phrases like "well, fine.... till I think of the problem."

14. Maria Muldaur - "Midnight At the Oasis" (from Maria Muldaur, 1973)

This song is basically just a pean to sultry sex in the Sahara. At times, it can be a bit stereotypically offensive in how it presents arabs, but it is never jingoistic. It stereotypes, but is respectful of the culture. What makes it memorable, though, is Muldaur's shimmering, slinky vocal and that near-disco beat that seems fit for a moonlight rendezvous.

15. Northern State -"The Man's Dollar" (from Dying In Stereo, 2002)

One of the great traditions in rapping is boasting, and there is no dearth of boasts in this bad-ass romp through American culture. I mean, who else writes a book report about the Federal Budget? Of course, my favorite might be that "like Derek Jeter, I'm-a make you stop short." But then, there's always "I'm more European than an English muffin." Decisions, decisions....

16. Loretta Lynn - "Mrs. Leroy Brown" (from Van Lear Rose, 2004)

In the tradition of response songs, Loretta Lynn calls out Jim Croce's classic "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." In the voice of his wife, Lynn sounds pissed to hell that Leroy has left her alone and destitute to watch after the kids. She has been good and faithful; I mean, she's almost drunk from the drink's that [she's] turned down." She doesn't deserve a prick like Leroy Brown. What is she gonna do about it? Take his money from the bank, buy a new car, beat the fuck out of the woman Leroy's sleeping with and skip town from the sound of it.

17. Lorrie and Larry Collins - "Mercy" (1958, reissued on Loud, Fast and Out of Control, 1999)

Guitar-slinger Larry Collins was only fourteen when he lay down the searing axe work on this song. His sister Lorrie was sixteen. Her breathy, raspy voice, calling out that her man makes her cry mercy, sounds like it belongs to a cougar in heat. This song is the exact reason why people thought rock was so dangerous.

18. Hollywood Jills - "He Makes Me So Mad" (1968, reissued on One Kiss Can Lead To Another, 2005)

This song is a great girl group track in the tradition of the Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack." The lead singer calls out complaints about her boyfriend while the other girls respond. The end result is pretty hilarious. None of the complaints are really valid, and the other girls opinions reflect that.... for the most part. The final complaint is that the girl's boyfriend takes her to see movies at the dollar theatre. Finally her friends turn on the boyfriend and call him out. Its incredibly kitschy, but it is also incredible fun set against a steady rhythm guitar that is punctuated by some well-placed horn charts.

19. The Runaways -"Cherry Bomb" (from The Runaways, 1976)

Joan Jett has always rocked, and this was the earliest evidence of that rocking. Total punk attitude about a girl who is explosive telling herparents to deal with it and quit dictating morality. Many will remember this song from when it was expertly used in Dazed and Confused.

20. Blondie - "X Offender" (from Blondie, 1976)

This song introduced the world to Deborah Harry. Masquerading as another "Leader of the Pack"esque number, "X Offender." The song is sung to a cop from a dominatrix attempting to seduce him. The spicy tale is propelled by some plowing runs on the Farfisi organ and what sounds like a guitar solo based around the F7 chord -- not the easiest shape to make.

21. The Revillos - "Motorbike Beat" (1980, reissued on Children of Nuggets, 2005)

Arguably, the women here may be on background vocals, but they do sing the chorus and they make the verses. In this breakneck ode to motorcycle mayhem is made by the women singing about how they love men on motorcycles. It's surf guitar and revved up engines gived it the amphetamine-fueled feel it needs to flow from the speakers like molten lava.

22. Samantha Ronson - "Pull My Hair Out" (2004)

One listen to "Pull My Hair Out" and it becomes clear that djing and being Lilo's girlfriend is the wrong career path for Samantha Ronson. The punk guitars with a metal grind and cheerleader-style chants coupled with a dance floor bass beat make this a syrupy, irresistible pop confection that is still edgy enough that most listeners might be afraid to sink their teeth into it. Even though this single got no attention upon its release, Roc-a-fella made a big mistake in shelving Red, the full-length rock album this was drawn from. After paying for Ronson to record it, they mysteriously sat on it after the failure of the first single, instead releasing only a few of the lighter weight tracks on ventures like the soundtrack to Mean Girls. This is the only song released from the sessions with real bite, and its ready to draw blood.