Ghosts of a Different Dream

Bluebells sistersDiscogs Challenge #2

In my inaugural Discogs Challenge post I claimed that my musical wheelhouse has been, since about 1988, “fey honkies playing guitars that go jingle-jangle.”  Turns out Discogs has a sense of humor, because the album it pulled up for my second post doesn’t get much feyer or honkier than The Bluebells’ 1984 album Sisters.  Even that name – The Bluebells – conjures up images of Dutch schoolgirls frolicking in a meadow before settling down to a lunch of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sans crusts, and you just know at least one band member regularly wears a cardigan and/or horn-rimmed glasses.  The band isn’t completely dissimilar from fellow early-80s Scots Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, but the tunes just aren’t the same caliber.  It’s all pleasantly inoffensive – quite nice for cleaning the house or grading papers, but it’s not a band that will change your life.

Part of the problem, I think, is the band’s occasional willingness to dabble in instruments and styles that butt up against their otherwise genial indie rock.  Opener “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” comes sailing in, buoyed by a gently parping harmonica, and the very next song, “Young at Heart,” brings the fiddle in a virtual hoedown.  There’s absolutely overlap between Scottish folk music and American country or bluegrass, and while I can hear the lineage the band is following, the result – especially considering the album’s later songs – comes across more as a band that doesn’t quite know what it wants to sound like.  An album like The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues (a record I hope Discogs pulls up for me at some point) makes this instrumentation central to its effect; it isn’t just grafted onto the songs like a Frankenstein’s monster made out of an unholy marriage of mandolins and Marshall stacks.  Fisherman’s Blues weaves the instruments into a tapestry; Sisters proclaims, “Hey!  Here’s our fiddle song!”  We get a brief respite in the really quite nice double-feature of “I’m Falling” and “Will She Always Be Waiting,” but the harmonica makes its return at the end of Side 1 in minor radio hit “Cath.”   At least the instrument works better here, accenting the guitars and underpinning the ebullient “Whoa oh” chorus in what is probably the album’s best song.

(Re-reading those last few sentences, it strikes me that maybe I just have something against the harmonica.  But I don’t.  Promise.)

I don’t mean for this to sound as negative as it does.  While I’m not a stone cold fan of The Bluebells, the record fits nicely into my love of bookish indie, beginning with the previously mentioned Aztec Camera and continuing through The Smiths to modern-day nice guys Belle & Sebastian.  And, to be fair, Side 2 begins with a hell of a 1-2 punch in “Red Guitars” and “Syracuse University.”  On the latter, especially, the band nearly breaks a sweat, abandoning the folk pretensions and relying solely on a churning electric guitar line.  But then, as if to say, “Hey gang!  We’ve still got some unplayed instruments in the closet!,” “Learn to Love” opens with a brass fanfare and turns into a none-more-Motown stomper, complete with wailing female backing vocals on the chorus.  I take back what I said earlier; this is the album’s best song.

(Of course you don’t get the brass or the backing vocals in the above video, but such is the paucity of Bluebells material on YouTube.)

It initially seems as though the album is ending on a subdued note, transitioning to a cover of Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot’s Game” (a flute is present and accounted for, if you’re keeping score at home), but the Falklands-referencing “South Atlantic Way” is a stirring protest anthem complete with martial drums and the kind of ringing guitars we’d expect to find on a U2 album.  The song escalates into a dervish of an outro – drums, guitar, and pounding piano combining to almost make us forget the album’s timid openers.

The high points on Sisters are so good that it makes me wish the weak spots were better.  It’s obviously not a bad album, but it feels in places like the band needed a better editor, someone to rein in some of their less successful impulses.  This was their only album, alas, so if anyone told them, “More ‘Learn to Love,’ less hoedown, please,” we never got to see how it played out.

Next up: Built to Spill’s Untethered Moon (2015)

Read the rules of the Discogs Challenge here.

What More Can I Say

Jay blackAs ubiquitous as hip-hop has become, it can be difficult to remember just how far outside the mainstream it was in the 1980s.  Now it’s on the TV and in movies and soundtracking commercials and on the radio (people still listen to the radio, right?).  It’s a musical language most people are familiar with, if not entirely conversant in.  We’ve come a long way from “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” where even the most recalcitrant rap naysayer (i.e., my dad) at least knows who Kanye West is, even if he can’t hum the hook to “Gold Digger.”

But it wasn’t that way in the late 80s, when I was developing my musical identity.  In rural Ohio, hip-hop was still very much a dangerous prospect.  All the “Walk This Way”‘s and Beastie Boyses in the world couldn’t diminish the perspective that rappists and their fans were hooligans at best, criminals at worst.  And this was before N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and the kerfuffle a bunch of scared white people brought down on everyone.  But I loved it, almost from the get-go.  True, starting in 1988 (my 10th grade year), my musical bread and butter has always been fey honkies playing guitars that jingle-jangle, but Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back blew the top of my head off.  I couldn’t begin to relate to the rage Chuck D was expressing, but there’s always been an anti-authoritarian streak running right below the surface of my personality, and I could absolutely relate to Chuck’s “fuck the Man” sentiments.

I loved Public Enemy so much that I had to figure out what else I’d been missing.*  In a year or so I discovered Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr and De La Soul.  The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest were just around the corner, and of course so were N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and Ice-T and the continued fear that hip-hop was going to pollute the precious bodily fluids of a bunch of suburban white kids.  (Which it kind of did.  Which is good.)

All of which is to simply establish some street cred where hip-hop is concerned.  I’m not the most obvious hip-hop fan, but my love for the genre runs deep and is 100% genuine.  And all of that brings me to my inaugural entry in the Discogs Challenge, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003).

Like any good middle-aged hipster, I actually first encountered this album via Danger Mouse’s 2004 Beatles/Hova mash-up, The Grey Album.  I of course knew “99 Problems” (because I was a a breathing, carbon-based life form), but that’s about as far as it went.  Truth is, I had stopped listening to much hip-hop – where early rap spoke to me as modern-day protest anthems, the rise of gangsta rap just felt like sensationalist nihilism – so I really didn’t know anything at all about Jay-Z when I first gave The Grey Album a listen.

In some ways this now makes a kind of prophetic sense because huge swaths of The Black Album have now entered the pop culture canon to such a degree that they sound as familiar as anything by The Beatles.  The thing that strikes me now listening to The Black Album is that’s a near-perfect juxtaposition of braggadocio and vulnerability.  Nothing captures this more than “December 4th,” an origin story as compelling as anything in the Marvel Universe.  Backed by a melodramatic brass fanfare, Jay tells his story: from birth to early childhood, his later introduction to drug dealing and ultimate decision to leave that career behind to pursue music.   Running parallel to his own narrative we get spoken-word interludes from his mom that serve to fill in some gaps from her perspective.  But the really striking thing is how Jay (and his mom) includes details that run the risk of softening him in a genre that rarely values perceived weakness: “But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matchin’ my gear”; “Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me”; “I pray I’m forgiven / For every bad decision i made.”  It’s a hell of a statement of purpose for the album, and it’s such a strong track that on many albums it would be the high point.

(skip to :40 if you want to avoid some early-video tomfoolery)

Unbelievably, The Black Album improves from there, running from strength to strength for nearly an hour in a melding of styles that ensures the album never gets old.  There’s the relentless momentum and breathless flow of “Encore,” the slinky grooves of “Change Clothes,” the film noir menace of “Moment of Clarity,” the sultry whispered hook of “Justify My Thug,” and the Latin spice of “Lucifer.”  And of course there’s the Twin Towers of the album, the angry and defiant “99 Problems” and the empowerment anthem “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”

For what it’s worth, while “99 Problems” is the song that gets all the press, I think “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the album’s true standout.  The hook is more indelible, the lyrics more nuanced, the production more subtle.

Whatever your own preference is, the important thing to remember is this: an album that could boast just one of these songs would be remarkable; that Jay-Z can bury both of them in the middle of The Black Album is the sign of a record making its case for immortality.


* Full disclosure: I make it sound as though It Takes a Nation . . . was my first exposure to hip-hop, which just isn’t true.  Like anyone who was watching MTV in the early 80s, I was a fan of the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith hybrid “Walk This Way,” and I recorded LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” off the radio a year or two before my Public Enemy epiphany and played it incessantly, fancying myself a loverman-in-training.

A Design for Life

IMG_0955A note from the management, primarily to establish the rules of a new game in its own post that I can link to later.

A couple days ago – here – I posted my musical canon, the records I own that have shaped the listener and, in many cases, the person I am today.  In that post I said I’d eventually be discussing these albums, one at a time.  That’s still true, but that discussion will now be subsumed under a larger project I’ve been kicking around for a while.

Here it is:

My record collection is inventoried in Discogs, a terrific site that music nerds like me can use to catalog our collections and buy and sell records from dealers and other collectors.  But it also has a nifty feature in the “Random Item” search button.  Click it, and Discogs pulls up a random album from your collection.  For instance, I just clicked it, and out of the 1,600 records in my collection, Discogs pulled up Jay-Z’s 1999 masterwork, The Black Album.

My plan is to use this feature to talk about music.  Rather than simply walk through my canon, where the narrative will probably get a little samey – “Gee whiz, this is an awesome album!” – using the “Random Item” feature will generate some different types of discussion and analysis.  Some records I own because I genuinely love them.  Some I own because I’m a completist, and while I feel warmly toward them, I own them mainly to fulfill a collector’s compulsion. And then there are also some that I know less well, impulse buys or records that I purchased after enjoying a cursory listen or two online.  The point being, my experience with The Black Album will be very different from my experience with U2’s The Joshua Tree or R.E.M.’s Greenand I think that difference will result in what I hope is an engaging snapshot of popular music post-1965 through the lens of my obsession.

So I’ll click the button, give the record my undivided attention, and then see what kind of writing it generates.  Look for this – thinking optimistically here – a few times a week, when I can find the time to put the effort into it.*

First up, to prove I’m not cheating and just clicking until I get one of the albums from my canon, I’ll tackle The Black Album, a record I admire more than love.

* but, true to form, I’ll probably do it a couple times, get bored, and quit.

Connected to Life

recordsPrompted by a friend, I’ve spent part of today thinking about a personal musical canon. We all presumably know about – for lack of a better term – public canons, those works that are largely (if sometimes erroneously, which is a conversation for another time) considered to be the best works in a particular medium or genre.
But what about a personal canon when it comes to music? What are the albums that best represent me as a music fan? This morning I tried to figure that out.
The rules:
1) I had to own it on 12″ vinyl. That immediately rules out certain albums that are out of print on vinyl or are otherwise prohibitively expensive. Guerrilla by Super Furry Animals or The Last Broadcast by Doves would’ve made the list if I owned them. But I don’t. Alas.
2) Only one album per artist. This is the only way I could make sure half my list wouldn’t consist of albums by R.E.M. and The Wedding Present. Certain musicians can show up more than once if they’re recording under different names or with different bands. For example, Bob Mould shows up with both Hüsker Dü and Sugar, and Kim Deal makes it onto the list twice with Pixies and The Breeders.
3) There had to be at least some effort at curation. I couldn’t just list any album that seemed to apply (see #4 below), although that might be what the list initially looks like. I started at 151 albums, then made a second pass to eliminate anything that wasn’t essential. I ended up with 130 records, and any cuts beyond that would mean getting rid of records that I consider vital to who I am as a music fan. Still, it really hurt to eliminate Rainer Maria’s Look Now, Look Again.
4) In order to be considered for the list, the album had to be one that I consider in some way formative or truly representing a specific point in my life. It can’t just be a record I like a lot or that has one or two really cool songs. It has to be a record that resonates with me on a deeper level, and whose songs have in some way become part of my DNA. This goes beyond “favorite albums.” I love the debut album by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but it isn’t transcendent in the way it would need to be to make this list.
5) I’m a nerd.
So here it is, my canon, as of August 8, 2016.
  1. Ryan Adams – Gold
  2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
  3. American Music Club – Mercury
  4. The Auteurs – Now I’m a Cowboy
  5. The B-52’s – Self-titled
  6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  7. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head
  8. The Beatles – Abbey Road
  9. Beck – Odelay
  10. Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister
  11. The Beta Band – The Three E.P.s (Champion Version, Patty Patty Sound, Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos EPs)
  12. Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix
  13. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
  14. The Blue Airplanes – Swagger
  15. The Blue Nile – Hats
  16. Blur – Parklife
  17. The Boo Radleys – Wake Up!
  18. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  19. Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This at Home
  20. The Breeders – Last Splash
  21. Built to Spill – Perfect from Now On
  22. Buzzcocks – A Different Kind of Tension
  23. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream
  24. The Charlatans – Tellin’ Stories
  25. The Chills – Submarine Bells
  26. The Church – Gold Afternoon Fix
  27. The Clash – London Calling
  28. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
  29. Coldplay – Parachutes
  30. Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide
  31. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – This Year’s Model
  32. The Cure – Disintegration
  33. De la Soul – Three Feet High and Rising
  34. The Delgados – The Great Eastern
  35. Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
  36. Duran Duran – Rio
  37. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
  38. Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
  39. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues
  40. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
  41. Electronic – Self-titled
  42. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
  43. The Fall – Extricate
  44. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
  45. Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker
  46. Peter Gabriel – So
  47. Gang of Four – Entertainment!
  48. The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane
  49. Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump
  50. Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand
  51. Happy Mondays – Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches
  52. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Globe of Frogs
  53. The House of Love – Self-titled (1990)
  54. The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4
  55. Husker Dü – Warehouse: Songs and Stories
  56. Idlewild – The Remote Part
  57. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
  58. INXS – Kick
  59. Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
  60. The Jam – All Mod Cons
  61. James – Laid
  62. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
  63. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
  64. Kitchens of Distinction – Strange Free World
  65. The Long Winters – When I Pretend to Fall
  66. Love – Forever Changes
  67. Love and Rockets – Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven
  68. Lush – Gala
  69. Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go
  70. Marillion – Clutching at Straws
  71. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs
  72. Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust
  73. Moby – Everything Is Wrong
  74. Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West
  75. Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People
  76. Morrissey – Vauxhall and I
  77. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed
  78. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
  79. The National – Alligator
  80. New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies
  81. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
  82. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
  83. The Ocean Blue – Cerulean
  84. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
  85. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
  86. Pixies – Doolittle
  87. The Pogues – Peace and Love
  88. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
  89. Public Image Ltd. – Second Edition
  90. Pulp – Different Class
  91. Radiohead – The Bends
  92. Ramones – Self-titled
  93. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic
  94. R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant
  95. The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me
  96. Ride – Going Blank Again
  97. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
  98. Sigur Ros – ( )
  99. Slowdive – Souvlaki
  100. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
  101. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead
  102. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
  103. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
  104. Squeeze – Cool for Cats
  105. The Stone Roses – Self-titled
  106. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free
  107. The Strokes – Is This It
  108. Suede – Self-titled
  109. Sugar – Copper Blue
  110. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
  111. Swans – White Light from the Mouth of Infinity
  112. Talking Heads – Fear of Music
  113. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque
  114. Television – Marquee Moon
  115. The The – Mind Bomb
  116. They Might Be Giants – Lincoln
  117. Tindersticks – Self-titled (1993)
  118. The Trash Can Sinatras – Cake
  119. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
  120. Tricky – Maxinquaye
  121. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters
  122. U2 – Achtung Baby
  123. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
  124. The Verve – Urban Hymns
  125. Tom Waits – Bone Machine
  126. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues
  127. The Wedding Present – Seamonsters
  128. Wilco – Being There
  129. XTC – Black Sea
  130. Yo la Tengo – Painful

Soon to come in this space I’m going to walk my readership (all two of you) through as many of these as we have patience for, sharing memories and songs, and trying to explain why each one had the impact on me that it did.  Stay tuned.


Current listening:

Wells watch

Wells Fargo – Watch Out!