Listening Post (Lullaby for the Working Class Edition)

Lullaby i

I have distinct memories of autumn in Ohio. The smell of woodsmoke rising from chimneys. Desiccated cornstalks ground into the soil beneath tractor tires. Early-morning grass rimed with frost. Crows lining a telephone wire against a gunmetal sky. I haven’t lived there for years, but Lullaby for the Working Class’ second album, I Never Even Asked for Light, is the sound of that time. Even though I was 24 and living in California when it was released in 1997, my very first listen distinctly took me back to my youth, a 12-year-old kid waiting for the bus on a November morning, breath pluming from his mouth in the chill. It’s playing in the background as I write this, and it hasn’t lost any of its power.

The album also clearly induces pretentiousness in those susceptible to it.

LFTWC has a foot in a couple different camps. Band member Mike Mogis is a co-founder of Saddle Creek Records, so on the one hand they’re part of the Nebraska scene that also gave us (among others) Bright Eyes and Cursive. Musically, there are some superficial similarities with the mid-90’s alt-country movement (hey, guys! banjos!), so it’s reasonable to lump them in with bands like Uncle Tupelo (and Son Volt and early Wilco), the Jayhawks, and Sixteen Horsepower (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to also compare them to chamber pop acts like Tindersticks and Lambchop). For whatever reason, I Never Even Asked for Light hit me harder than most anything recorded by any of those other bands. Even after Wilco started cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece, this album works for me on an emotional level that I can’t really explain.

It starts out with an inauspicious untitled track – just guitar, Ted Stevens’ tenor, and the sound of wind in the trees and chirping birds. As the song fades, the sound of birds suddenly gives way to the joyful mandolin of “Show Me How the Robots Dance.”

One lyric in this song stands out as a theme for the album: “I doubt there’s a body of water/Big enough to quench our thirst.” From the mourners “holding [their] drinks like wrecked statues” in the beautiful, brass-laced “Irish Wake” to the shipwrecked son in “Hypnotist” to the rafting narrator in the trilogy “The Man Vs. the Tide,” lyricist Stevens uses a recurring motif of water and thirst throughout many of the songs. It’s an album that seems to be about dissatisfaction, about wanting more than we can ever have, and as a result, it’s an album that’s decidedly mournful.

Mournful, but never bleak. The lush tapestry of instruments (banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, glockenspiel, organ, among others) makes even a song like “In Honor of My Stumbling” feel hopeful, despite its central metaphor: “Faith is a candle in direct sunlight.” And where this kind of Americana often begins to feel a little samey to me, LFTWC dodge that particular bullet by experimenting with different tempos, from the slow and stately “Bread Crumbs” to the pulsing, insistent “Hypnotist.” The centerpiece, though, is “The Man Vs. the Tide,” the three-part song that closes the album. Its sparse instrumentation – horns giving way to strings giving way to just Stevens’ voice and guitar – blends fluidly with the gentle crash of waves and the distant roar of an airplane as Stevens gently sings, “Will I ever attain/This blue sky?” The ambient sounds that bookend the album underscore its autumnal beauty and resonate even after the song ends.

Next steps: Three albums, and the band was done. I also really like their debut, Blanket Warm, but I never found their last release, Song, particularly compelling. Mogis of course went on to do all kinds of stuff with Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, and singer Ted Stevens is still a member of Cursive.

Listening Post (Marillion Edition)

Marillion misplaced

I think any good music fan has one band that they love but that they’re vaguely embarrassed of. So it is with Marillion. They’re one of the most ridiculous bands ever, yet I have an enduring affection for them that’s lasted almost 25 years. I was given a cassette copy of their debut, Script for a Jester’s Tear, by an older friend when I was a freshman in high school. If I had been familiar with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, I would have immediately recognized whose style and sound the band was biting, but because the only Genesis I knew at the time was the one that sang “Invisible Touch,” Marillion seemed revolutionary. Those keyboards! Those guitar solos! That facepaint! Their music was all capes and 20-minute songs about Beowulf‘s Grendel, but to a 15-year-old kid in rural Ohio who hadn’t yet grown out of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, it was a doorway to a strange new pretentious world. And the fact that I was sponging this up in 1988, at the exact same time I was discovering Hüsker Dü and the Pixies and the Replacements and R.E.M. via new albums is a testament to how weirdly exciting it was to be a fledgling music fan in the late 80’s.

Anyway.

What is there to say about this album, their third? I feel like if I write too much about it it’s going to topple under the weight of its own preposterousness. I mean, just look at that cover, for starters. I guess I’ll say this: it’s the best starting point to the band because it’s the one where singer and lyricist Fish (what seems like a dopey pseudonym until you realize his real name is Derek Dick) started to reign in some of his more over-the-top sensibilities. Their first two albums (the aforementioned Script… and 1984’s Fugazi) consist of seriously unhinged (and stupidly great) prog-rock goofiness. You know what I mean: songs that regularly clock in at the 7- and 8-minute mark, endless widdly guitar solos, KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS, and pretentious lyrics about garden parties and the Irish Republican Army.

But there’s something to it. Misplaced Childhood, released in 1985, is an impenetrable song cycle about – I think – delayed maturity, lost love, and regret. And child soldiers? Whatever the case, the album had their first proper hit, the lovely “Kayleigh” and the even lovelier piano-led “Lavender,” and there’s three or four other songs on the album that could have been hits, especially “Childhood’s End?,” which features guitarist Steve Rothery’s soaring, quasi-U2 lead. The band always had an unerring sense for melody (even when it was buried in a seemingly unending epic), and it was on this album that they simplified things enough so that those melodies could breathe. “Simplified” is a relative term in Marillion Land, of course, because the album itself, in true song cycle fashion, is one unbroken piece of music, with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. Even so, the individual tracks are some of the strongest, catchiest things in the band’s career.

Fish’s lyrics, too, are exceptionally vivid. I’ve poked fun at his more outré tendencies, but the guy has an undeniable gift for language. “Kayleigh” gives us lines like “chalk hearts melting on a playground wall,” and “Lavender” opens with the resonant image of sprinklers on summer lawns and children “running through the rainbows.” Then again, the album’s first song drifts in on a Spïnal Tap-worthy keyboard line and the first words we hear are, “Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono /Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding,” so what do I know?

But despite the inescapable silliness of some of this, Misplaced Childhood still stands up for me as a quality collection of songs. There’s the tribal drumming and spy-movie tendencies of “Waterhole,” the chiming shards of guitar (guitarist Rothery is sort of a marvel) that sparkle throughout closer “White Feather” (an ode to self-determination, with Fish singing, “I will swear I have no nation/But I’m proud to own my heart”), and even the 9-minute, multi-part “Blind Curve” doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to the hummable melodies that serve as its foundation. This clearly isn’t for everyone, and you have to enter into it with the understanding that it’s going to be a little … grandiose. But after all these years I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this is better than I think it is.

Next steps: I can’t in good conscience recommend their first two albums. I like them, but they’re definitely an acquired taste. If Misplaced Childhood turns out to be your thing, you’d do well to listen to its follow-up, 1987’s Clutching at Straws, which I almost selected for this edition of the Listening Post. It’s another confident set, with some of Fish’s best lyrics. He would leave after that album, though, embarking on a mildly successful (in Europe, at least) solo career. The band continued with new vocalist Steve Hogarth, and they’re still soldiering on to this day. I don’t like the Hogarth stuff nearly as well, but his first album with the band, 1989’s Season’s End, is quite good and worth your time (especially if you have a thing for beer commercial guitars).  1998’s Radiation is probably my favorite of this second iteration of the band, and it features “A Few Words for the Dead,” a song that builds to a euphoric chorus that never fails to raise the hairs on my arms and put a lump in my throat.  I think the video is worth a watch because I love the song so much, but if you click it you can either sit through the first two minutes of widdly-widdly noodling or else skip straight to 2:20 when the song actually begins.

Listening Post (Kitchens of Distinction Edition)

Kitchens strange

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s a dreadful name. Let’s acknowledge it and get past it so we can focus on the music, which is pretty remarkable.

When you think about great bands from the shoegaze era you understandably think about the big three: My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Maybe if you’re feeling generous you throw in Chapterhouse. Lush, too. But Kitchens of Distinction (hereafter referred to as “KOD”), despite a couple moderate-sized hits, flew under the radar and are generally unremembered and unmentioned from this time period. This makes some sense because the band were a little out of step with their contemporaries. Where MBV, Ride, and Slowdive are pretty affectless, burying their vocals under torrents of noise (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and eschewing anything resembling a personality, KOD were unabashedly optimistic and romantic, singer/bassist Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocals front and center. And where other musically like-minded bands boasted lyrics that were often little more than impressionistic fragments, Fitzgerald, as an openly gay man, often tackled tales of love and regret and didn’t make an effort to mask his own sexuality (Strange Free World‘s “Gorgeous Love” opens with the lines “I can feel the waves of your gorgeous love/And it hurts to think that this is seen as wrong,” and on their next album they would release “Breathing Fear,” a song about gay-bashing, as its first single).

It might be this markedly different approach to songwriting and performance that saw KOD kept at arm’s length from My Bloody Valentine and the rest of the shoegaze canon. This is a shame, because Strange Free World easily holds its own with the best albums from the era, and in Julian Swales the band had a guitarist that was – whisper it – every bit the equal of his more highly-esteemed peers, MBV’s Kevin Shields included. Swales, truthfully, is the band’s trump card, and the guitars onStrange Free World are nothing short of magical. At the time this album was released in 1991 I hadn’t yet heard of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive (Strange Free World actually predates both Loveless and Just for a Day), and while I owned (and loved) Ride’s Nowhere, Swales’ layered, echoing guitar seemed otherworldly.

Opener “Railwayed” was, to this kid growing up in Cowtown, Ohio, revelatory, and it still sounds fresh. We get five brief seconds of drums and bass before Swales’ shimmering guitar soars in over the top of it, floating above Fitzgerald’s plaintive vocal. The song’s chorus is both a euphoric cloudburst and a hell of a calling card for the rest of an album that doesn’t stint on ambition or beauty. In fact, I’m finding it’s hard to write about this album without resorting to all those hoary old clichés: chiming sonic cathedrals and all that. But holy cow – that guitar. It continues into the second track, “Quick as Rainbows,” which is buoyed along on layered acoustic and electric guitars before erupting in its final minute into a buzzing storm of effects. “Hypnogogic” ups the ante further, relying on Fitzgerald’s bass and vocal to carry the melody while Swales pulls double duty: he cushions the vocal with a droning curtain of guitar that lurks in the background while simultaneously etching abstract filigrees of sound over the top. I love this stuff.

My limited vocabulary shouldn’t be read to imply that this is all just abstract beauty. The melodies are strong, Fitzgerald’s voice is expressive and occasionally conversational, and there’s hidden muscle to a few of these songs. “Polaroids” is a lament for lost time and squandered opportunity that builds over its five minutes until dissolving in an angry flurry of distortion and pounding drums. “Aspray” works similarly, Fitzgerald relying on abstract aquatic imagery while Swales’ guitar mimics the angry surf in the lyrics. And if anyone knows their music, it’s probably for “Drive That Fast,” a song that got some play on MTV’s 120 Minutes. It’s not my favorite on the album (that would go to “Quick as Rainbows”), but it’s close. Fitzgerald’s high-pitched bass once again drives the song while Swales’ guitar is off doing typically astonishing stuff in the background. But again, it’s a forceful tune. Fitzgerald sings, “Take me away from these simple feelings/I know there’s places on the other sides of here,” and Swales helps the listener see just what he’s singing about.

“Under the Sky, Inside the Sea” is a stunning closer, a sun-dappled beauty that begins with a quietly loping bassline and builds to a crescendo of guitar, horns, and Fitzgerald’s vocal: “The sea eats the shore it’s always hungry/We fall from laughing at the size of it all/Drinking, wishing, smoking, hoping/He says, ‘Well, here we are at the edge of the world.'” Gorgeous.

I just can’t do the album justice. My love for it might have a lot to do with it hitting me at just the right time. For a kid just figuring out all that late-teenage identity stuff, Fitzgerald’s plainspoken romanticism got to me on some elemental level. And I’d just never heard anything like Swales’ guitar before. But I think it’s more than just “right place, right time.” Like yesterday’s pick, I still listen to this album regularly and continually find new things about it to love. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.

Next steps: If you like Strange Free World, their first and third albums (Love Is Hell and The Death of Cool) are the most worth seeking out. Their final release (Cowboys and Aliens) has a few good songs – opener “Sand on Fire” is a barn-burner – but is easily the weakest of the four.  The band reunited briefly in 2013 to release Folly, an album that doesn’t fully recapture the magic of their early days but is enough of a reminder to make it worth your time.

Listening Post (The Wedding Present Edition)

Wedding seamonsters

I stumbled across The Wedding Present in 1989, thanks to some music magazine I’ve long forgotten. I want to say it was an early iteration of Alternative Press, but that magazine’s been so bad for so long that I have a hard time believing they ever covered anyone good.  Anyway, their 1989 album Bizarro had just been released, and the magazine was touting them as “the next Smiths.” As a 16-year-old kid heavily into angst, and distraught that I had discovered Morrissey & Marr only after they had broken up, this sounded like it was right in my wheelhouse.

Turns out, the “next Smiths” label was a misnomer. The Wedding Present’s early records (pretty much everything up through Bizarro) were frenetic things – all hyperkinetic C-86 jangle courtesy of guitarist Peter Solowka and singer, guitarist, and sole band mainstay David Gedge. The only Smiths comparison I could hear was in Gedge’s lyrics. They broached the same lovelorn territory as The Smiths’ songs – infidelity is one of Gedge’s pet themes – only without all of Morrissey’s fey melodrama and literary pretensions. Instead, they were full of dry humor and easily recognizable relationship details sung in Gedge’s vaguely croaky vocals. I immediately fell in love with Bizarro and their 1987 debut George Best. The energy of those rapid-fire guitars was infectious, and the plainspoken, Everyman quality of Gedge’s lyrics was less depressing than the Morrissey and Ian Curtis quagmire I’d been marinating in for over a year.

1991’s majestic Seamonsters was released two years later, and nothing could have prepared me for it. The album starts quietly with “Dalliance,” Gedge singing over a simply strummed guitar: “You’ve told him lies now for so long/Yet still he’s ready to forgive/He’s got you back and that’s all he wants/It’s a lot more than I’m left with.” It continues in this vein for over two minutes, seemingly leaving behind the runalong rush of earlier albums for more sedate pastures. But then the 2:45 mark hits, Gedge snarls, “I still want to kiss you,” and the song erupts in the roiling, churning sea of Gedge and Solowka’s guitars. It’s a moment that still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

“Dalliance” immediately establishes Seamonsters as a wholly different beast than the previous two albums. Produced by Steve Albini, it’s a darker and slower collection of songs, the ramshackle riffing of earlier albums replaced by guitars that snarl and roar, in some cases darting in and out of the mix (such as “Carolyn,” built around an acoustic guitar for most of its running time until a buzzsaw hacks the song to glorious pieces in its final minute). They haven’t completely left behind their signature sound – “Dare” is a propulsive, crackling beast of a song and the outro of “Rotterdam” jangles merrily – butSeamonsters is the sound of a band stretching itself beyond what could have been a stylistic dead-end.

The biggest change is that Seamonsters is the first (and only, really) Wedding Present album to have an undeniable groove, all ten songs propelled by Simon Smith’s monstrous drums. “Lovenest” is Exhibit A, entering on slithering feedback before the drums push Gedge’s vocals (a simple, perfect lyric: “I heard another voice this morning on the ‘phone/But just the other day I thought you said you slept alone/And yes I knew that laughter, okay, now I see/You wouldn’t even know him if it hadn’t been for me”) to the chorus and a sudden torrent of feedback and percussion. “Lovenest” ends with a full 90 seconds of crackling feedback before plunging headlong into “Corduroy’s” tribal drumming and thunderclouds of distortion.

The album ends on a moment of quiet beauty. “Octopussy” slowly dissolves into gently strummed guitars as Gedge sings, “We don’t have to do anything/We don’t have to do anything except watch the leaves/Turning in the wind.” It’s a dark album whose brilliance the band never quite matched in subsequent releases (which is saying something since all their albums are aces). But man – for 42 minutes I’m convinced this is as good as it gets.

Since Seamonsters the band has gone through various lineups with Gedge as the only consistent member. He shelved the band in 1997 to launch Cinerama for a few albums, then revived the Wedding Present name in 2005 with all new members. Despite these changes – and the passage of time, which renders many bands irrelevant – quality control has remained remarkably high, and any of their albums is worth your time.

Next steps: I can easily recommend everything they’ve recorded, but if you like Seamonsters (and if you don’t, you’re dead to me), go with George Best (1987) to hear their early adrenalized rush, then skip to Watusi (1994) for an infusion of pop smarts.  The band’s best latter-day album is 2012’s Valentina, which will give you a good idea of what they’re up to now.

Listening Post (Blue Aeroplanes Edition)

In an effort to maintain the “write to keep myself entertained” mantra of a couple days ago, I’ll be featuring a different album on here a few times a week.  It’ll be something formative – something that got me hooked as a nascent music fan, something that helped reify my tastes in my 20s and 30s, or something that’s speaking to me now, as a grown man on the cusp of total decrepitude.  You’ll get some commentary and some videos, and, as always, I invite your feedback.  So here it is, then, the inaugural edition of Listening Post.

Blue swagger

This shouldn’t work. Some guy recites free-verse poetry over indie-rock guitars, occasionally abandoning his own verse to use that of Sylvia Plath’s. There’re songs about fossils and androgyny and the symbolic power of colors. Oh, and of the seven band members listed on the album sleeve, someone named Wojtek Dmochowski is credited with “Dance.” It should be terrible. But for thirty years The Blue Aeroplanes have been pretty fantastic. They hit an early 90’s high-water mark with Swagger (1990) and Beatsongs (1991), and I probably could’ve featured either (or both) here. But Swagger, their fourth album, was my introduction to the band, and remains my favorite.

You get a pretty good feeling for what you’re in for from the offing. Vocalist Gerard Langley intones, “Pick a card, any card/Wrong!” over Angelo Bruschini and Rodney Allen’s film-noir guitars, and opener “Jacket Hangs” lurches into motion.

Langley gets most of the attention, and with good reason. He doesn’t sing, not even in the way Lou Reed and Bob Dylan “sing,” and his spoken-word approach – which should come off like a gimmick but doesn’t – inevitably makes the listener focus on his poetry. It’s surprisingly good stuff, certainly better than a lot of conventional song lyrics, turning on striking sensory images: the “sound of violins drowned in gunfire”; hands that “flutter round the neck/like nervous birds”; the “grass bank ghosts” left by a riverside. Langley doesn’t do anything flashy with his vocals, and his unadorned recitation allows the music to do most of the heavy lifting.

And Bruschini and Allen truly do yeoman’s work on this album. Like I said, Langley commands a lot of the attention, but it just wouldn’t work without the dual guitar accompaniment. They do the bluesy spy-movie stuff on “Jacket Hangs,” unleash an echoing whirlwind on “…And Stones,” work themselves up into a righteous fury on “Weightless,” and exercise some sheer pop smarts on “Love Come Round” and “Anti-Pretty.” And then there’s what is, for me, the album’s highlight: the delicate, pastoral “Your Ages.” Over chiming guitars Langley recites some of the most vivid, affecting verses on the album, urging a lover to take advantage of the time they have: “In ten years everything will bleach to primer/And we’ll lie in the light, grass bank ghosts.” As Langley makes his final exhortation, the guitars pick up the pace and build to a churning crescendo before slowly tapering off. Strong stuff.

There are some other tricks that add to the enjoyment of the album. Michael Stipe guests on “What it Is,” adding some distinctively Stipeian “oh”‘s and “ah”‘s, guitarist Allen takes the mic on the pretty, mandolin-led “Careful Boy,” and “The Applicant” is the previously-mentioned Sylvia Plath adaptation. The band makes the poem its own, turning it into a muscular, percussive tune, climaxing as Langley bellows, “Will you marry it?” The album ends with the relentless drone of “Cat-Scan Hist’ry,” the building storm of guitars and Langley’s repeated vocal line complemented by the squeal of violins and clouds of feedback. This is a band that does a lot of different things well, and they’re all pretty much on display here. Swagger, indeed.

Next steps: If you like what you hear, the most logical place to proceed is their next album, 1991’s Beatsongsfollowed by Life Model (1994).

Listening Post (1/7/13)

JetsAfter the unforgivable sappiness of my previous post I need a little vitriol and random anger. Unfortunately lumped in with all the turn-of-the-century emo crybabies, Jets to Brazil were always rougher, rawer, and smarter than their contemporaries.  They’re one of those bands that I don’t actually know much about except that over the course of three albums they blazed an incredibly cool trajectory, moving from jagged indie (1998’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary) to Paul Weller-esque anthems (2000’s Four Cornered Night) to autumnal ballads (2002’s Perfecting Loneliness).  And then they were gone.

This is a live rendition of “Morning New Disease,” my favorite song from their debut.  Enjoy, get hooked, and enjoy some more.

Listening Post (1/4/13)

Love

The universe has a way of correcting itself, even if sometimes takes forty years.  Released the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who Sell Out, as well as debuts by the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix, Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes is every bit the classic as its better-known peers.  It sank more or less without a trace upon release, the band imploded, and visionary singer/songwriter Arthur Lee eventually ended up in jail on firearms charges.

As time progressed, though, admirers caught on to the album’s blend of dark-edged psychedelia and impeccable songcraft.  When Lee was released from prison in 2001, he returned to the stage a conquering hero, fronting a reconstituted band with original Love guitarist Johnny Echols and frequently playing Forever Changes in its entirety to sold-out crowds.  When Lee died of leukemia in 2006, “better late than never” for his band’s crowning achievement was cold comfort.

But enough bio.  I finally caught up with the band in 2000 and was immediately floored.  I’ve given Forever Changes a lot of spins in the last dozen years, but after not listening to it in a while I recently bought a copy on vinyl and it’s every bit as good as I remember.  Lee had a way with a melody, to be sure, but Forever Changes one-ups the other psychedelic bands of the era by going dark with the lyrics and relying heavily on strings and brass to carry the tunes.  Opening track “Alone Again Or” is the song from the album that (rightfully) gets all the press, but my favorite is actually the closer, “You Set the Scene.”  This video is from the band’s triumphant performance at 2003’s Glastonbury Festival and is a strong argument that every song should end with repeated trumpet fanfares.