Thursday, May 23, 2019

100 Albums: "Bringing Down The Horse" by The Wallflowers

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The Wallflowers
Title: Bringing Down The Horse
Released: 1996
Genre: adult contemporary roots-rock


Bob Dylan was a funny looking man with an odd but unique voice who couldn't sing particularly well but managed to completely upend the 60's folk scene and become one of the most influential musicians of all time. His son Jakob is an extremely handsome fellow with a beautiful singing voice and hoo-boy his music has been hit-or-miss. Conveniently for us, The Wallflowers--technically a band, although Dylan is the only permanent member--were kind enough to put almost all of their hits on a single disc, their sophomore album Bringing Down The Horse.

Leaning hard on their roots-rock sound, the slide guitars and organs are front-and-center in the mix, just behind the vocals. They marketed this album directly to Counting Crows fans by putting no less than Adam Duritz himself on the first single, 6th Avenue Heartache. The songs aren't really about anything, but the album is hook-heavy, passionate, and compulsively singable. And it sounds terrific. Every note is crisp, clear, and perfect. Just listen to the slow build-up at the front of the opening track One Headlight, with that flanged guitar giving way to the drum and then letting the other instruments creep in. Listen to the warm atmosphere of Invisible City or the driving drums under The Difference or the chirping keyboards on Three Marlenas or the smooth ascension of the verses in Angel On My Bike. It's a pristine sound underscoring some first-rate songwriting.

It's honestly kind of hard to understand why their other albums aren't better. You have to think it was the producer, or something, right, who was able to bring out the brilliance from an otherwise lackluster band. Or maybe it was the 4 year gap after their previous record, which gave them time to write and cull new material. Who can say?

Further Listening: They had a cover of Heroes on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie Godzilla that's pretty decent, although it prompted my wife to quip: "Bob Dylan's son covered David Bowie on the soundtrack to a remake. How many coattails can one man ride?"

Monday, May 20, 2019

100 Albums: "Purple" by Stone Temple Pilots

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Stone Temple Pilots
Title: Purple
Released: 1994
Genre: alt-grunge / hard rock


Stone Temple Pilots appeared on the national scene in 1992, alongside other first-wave grunge acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. The "grunge" monicker covered a variety of musical styles: post-glam (Pearl Jam), punk (Nirvana), metal (Alice In Chains), and hard rock (Soundgarden). STP's debut Core is a solidly in the "hard rock" camp, and the most popular singles from that album--Creep and Plush--are also its mellowest. They followed this up with Purple, a record that transitions between their hard rock origins and the vintage pop-rock sound that would dominate their future records. I've mentioned earlier that "vintage" sounding bands are specifically aping Jimmy Page's guitar tone, and you can see the beginnings of that with STP on this record, especially in the album's most enduring single, Interstate Love Song. It should not be a surprise that the only cover STP ever released as a single was Led Zeppelin's Dancing Days.

Purple is a best-of-both-worlds record. It has some the band's best hard rock tracks in Vaseline and Unglued as well as some of their best mellow music in Pretty Penny and Big Empty. Silvergun Superman has a great deconstructed ending. Kitchenware & Candybars is--alongside Nirvana's Something In The Way--a quintessential grunge album closer. Still Remains is one of my favorite rock-and-roll love songs. The album wraps up with a hidden track called My Second Album, a lounge-style tune that satirizes the idea of hidden tracks while also showing off singer Scott Weiland's amazing singing voice in the same lounge context that he would later put to use in his amazingly bad solo Christmas album.

STP the band was consistently stymied by Weiland's drug addiction. Tours got canceled, the band broke up and reformed multiple times. Supposedly while recording No. 4 they would just finish the music and then prop him up in front of a microphone so he could record vocals while blasted out of his mind on heroin. Meanwhile the band recorded an entire other album with Dave Coutts of Ten Inch Men under the name Talk Show. But Weiland was so integral to STP's sound that they've never really been able to get any traction without him, and like so many other heroes of the era of music STP helped usher in, Weiland's habit would eventually lead him to a premature death.

Further Listening: The follow up to this was Tiny Music... Songs From The Vatican Gift Store, and it's a weird one, but I like it quite a lot. Big Bang Baby is my jam. I also like the subsequent album No. 4 for songs like low-key crooners like Sour Girl and I Got You. Their records after that range from forgettable (the recent self-titled album with Jeff Gutt) to really, weirdly bad (Shangri-La-De-Da) Weiland has some solo music that's almost unlistenably bad, and the rest of the band's forays without him are pretty disappointing.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

100 Albums: "Jagged Little Pill" by Alanis Morissette

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Alanis Morissette
Title: Jagged Little Pill
Released: 1995
Genre: alt-rock / adult contemporary


Well this came out of freaking nowhere. A minor Canadian pop-star who was probably more famous for her brief stint on You Can't Do That On Television records a DIY album with Glen Ballard in his bedroom recording studio and the thing explodes like a bomb on MTV and rock radio, selling sixteen million copies and spawning six hit singles. The lead single was the bolt-from-the-blue You Oughta Know, featuring instrumentation from a couple of Red Hot Chili Peppers and more angst than people realized was possible in someone from Canada.

It's a big, sloppy mess of an album. Ballard messed up the levels while tracking vocals for You Oughta Know and clipped the hell out of them, but it was a great take that sounded good in the mix and this record was only going to move 20,000 units or so anyway, so who cares? Then, when it was an unexpected hit, and he was asked for raw tracks so people could remix it, all he could say was "yeah, sorry, we scorched that." I mean, what the hell is Hand In My Pocket even supposed to be about? It's a tone poem more than a song, and the main guitar part is one chord repeated over and over. It's the sort of record that you can't make on purpose. It was crafted by two people who were having the time of their lives writing music with absolutely zero stakes.

But here's the thing: it's kind of an amazing album. It was angsty enough for the alt-rock crowd, but you could still listen to it in the car with your mom and not feel too embarrassed when the lyrics let fly with an occasional F-bomb. Morissette is an animal on the rock tracks and a sweetheart on the ballads. She sings frankly about obsessing over ex-boyfriends, losing faith after years of Catholic school, and famously has an entire song devoted to the concept of irony that doesn't actually get around to describing anything that is genuinely ironic. Which is, itself... unintentionally ironic. And Head Over Feet may be the perfect love song? Maybe? All I know is that I developed a monster crush on Morisette after hearing it. You Oughta Know has an alternate mix as one of the two hidden tracks (don't ask, it was the 90's) in which Flea is allowed to just go crazy with the bass-line, and it's an astonishing thing to hear.

Further Listening: Nothing else in Alanis Morissette's catalog comes anywhere close to being this good. This was a happy accident of a record. She did release an acoustic version that's not as good, but is definitely interesting. It features an amusing lyric change in Ironic: "it's like meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful... husband." And no, that's not technically irony either.

Monday, May 13, 2019

100 Albums: "The Big Folk Hits" by The Brothers Four

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The Brothers Four
Title: The Big Folk Hits
Released: 1963
Genre: folk


The Brothers Four were wart of the 1960s folk music that also produced acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary or The Kingston Trio. It's the same movement that was parodied in A Mighty Wind, referenced in Inside Llewyn Davis, and summarily destroyed when Bob Dylan arrived on the scene. The band was best known for their take on Greensleeves (the tune was borrowed for the Christmas hymn What Child Is This, although the original is equally haunting and low-key bawdy).

The Big Folk Hits was another car album for me, and I associate it with vacations and long drives. It includes a variety of standards which that band didn't appear to update at all. Silver Threads And Golden Needles is clearly sung from the perspective of a woman, but they don't change the lyrics at all. The John B. Sails keeps the Nassau dialect you'll find in the earliest versions of the song. There are more popular versions by The Kingston Trio and The Beach Boys under the title Sloop John B, but this version is the default version in my head. Similarly, when I think of the song El Paso, I will always think of The Brothers Four and not Marty Robbins.

In addition to standard folk fare like 500 Miles or If I Had A Hammer or Michael Row The Boat Ashore (which is a dreary album closer; I usually skip it), it also has some seriously wild tunes, like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport or Darling Corey, both of which are energetic and just a bit zany. It's an album I still like to put on for long car trips and share with my kids.

Further Listening: It's a short album and if you try to buy it on disc you'll probably find it paired with Songbook which contains their version of Greensleeves. For car trips, my dad had taped his LP and on the other side of the tape had Today by the New Christy Minstrels, which is a fun album, although a bit more irreverent and Southern-oriented.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

100 Albums: "Lateralus" by Tool

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Tool
Title: Lateralus
Released: 2001
Genre: halfway between prog-rock and art-metal

The poster of this video put the wrong album cover on it.

My gateway to Tool was A Perfect Circle, which featured singer Maynard James Keenan doing more radio-friendly songs with his friend Billy Howerdell. Tool albums pre-APC tend to be didactic and philosophical, but starting with Lateralus, Tool's driving math rock began to feel a bit more introspective and personal. The lead single Schism is about trying to heal a damaged relationship. "I know the pieces fit, 'cause I watched them tumble down." The Patient is about wanting to help others without really understanding why. "If there were no desire to heal the damaged and broken met along this tedious path I've chosen here, I certainly would have walked away by now. And I still may." Disposition is a quiet song whose lyrics in their entirety are "Mention this to me. Mention something, mention anything. Mention this to me. Watch the weather change."

My favorite song is the title track, a nine-and-a-half-minute opus about embracing randomness and seeking out surprises, all of it keyed to the Fibonacci sequence. The lyrical syllables, in fact, follow that sequence pattern through the verse (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8...) "Black / And / White are / All I see / In my infancy / Red and yellow then came to be..." It's all very cool and very nerdy at once. The album peters out a bit at the end. It's almost 80 minutes long, so once you get to the hefty instrumental Triad my attention is pretty spent. Tool wants you to work for your audio enjoyment, it seems. Which is fine. It's important to also have anti-pop in your life.

Further Listening: The albums on either side of this--├ćnema and 10,000 Days--are both quite good, and if not for the whole one-album-per-artist rule then 10,000 Days would definitely be on this list, if for no other reason than it contains my favorite Tool song, the batshit crazy Rosetta Stoned, which is definitely worth eleven minutes and change of your time. ├ćnema is in the more didactic camp of Tool albums, but the title track is an excellent ode to Bill Hicks, and it's got 46 & 2, which is built around a phenomenal rock riff.

Monday, May 6, 2019

100 Albums: "Masseduction" by St. Vincent

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: St. Vincent
Title: Masseduction
Released: 2017
Genre: post-alt pop rock


When Annie Clark, virtuoso guitarist formerly of The Polyphonic Spree, started her solo career, she took her stage name from the hospital where Dylan Thomas died. She's always been a bit of an eccentric--like that one time she dressed like a toilet for a benefit concert in Glasgow. Her music frequently feels more like a deconstruction of pop music than actual pop music, where songs feel sonically like they're mostly about the space around the melody. The result is a string of brilliant albums that are great to listen to but barely memorable.

Masseduction is a bit of a reinvention. Clark allows the pop elements to breathe and works all the sonic weirdness in around the edges, and the end product is a masterfully crafted, personal statement from a truly gifted composer who is also an excellent lyricist. I love the build of the chorus from Los Ageless: "How could anybody have you / How could anybody have you and lose you / How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind, too?" or this line from the first verse that captures her contempt for star culture: "In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young." Happy Birthday Johnny revisits a character who has shown up since her debut. Here, Johnny is a former friend turned junkie who explodes at her because she hesitates to give him "dough to get something to eat". It's a heartbreaking track, as is New York, a song about Clark's then-crumbling relationship with Cara Delevigne in which she sweetly croons "you're the only motherfucker in this city who can handle me." The other standout is Slow Disco, a gentle ballad that asks "Don't it beat a slow dance to death?" It's been redone as a dance track called Fast Slow Disco (very NSFW video, so Google at your own risk) or as a piano balled called Slow Slow Disco.

Top to bottom, a great record that is frank, inventive, and earwormy.

Further Listening: Her albums are all pretty solid, but my other favorite is Actor, which has my two hands-down favorite St. Vincent songs: Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood and Actor Out Of Work (the video for that song is amazing--and SFW). It doesn't really sound like any of her other music because she fired her producer halfway through and was left with a bunch of orchestral arrangements she had to fit songs into. It's definitely a "happy accident" record. There's also an album called Masseducation (note the added "a" turning "seduction" into "education") that is Masseduction stripped down as piano-and-vocal only. It's interesting, but it doesn't really stand up to the fully-rendered version.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

100 Albums: "The Sign" by Ace Of Base

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Ace Of Base
Title: The Sign
Released: 1993
Genre: euro club pop


Circa 1992, a Swedish pop quartet sent their "Mr. Ace" demo tape to an up-and-coming producer named DenniZ PoP. He hated it. It was basically unlistenable. But his car radio broke and the tape got stuck, so he had to hear to it over and over for weeks, at which point he decided that there was something salvageable in the song and he agreed to work with the band.

Music. It's a glamorous biz, yo.

The resulting album was called Happy Nation, which was released in the U.S. with some slight alterations as The Sign. It was not only a commercial juggernaut, but it became the template for an entire wave of pop music. After The Sign was released, PoP would found Cheiron Studios and hire songwriter Max Martin, and together the would launch the careers of N'Sync, The Backstreet Boys, Robyn, and Britney Spears. Ever wonder why a generation of pop songs have lyrics that sound like they were written by someone who doesn't quite understand English idioms? Odds are, it's because they were either written or influenced by Max Martin. According to Ace Of Base, "all that she wants is another baby," which sounds like a woman wants to get pregnant, but in the context of the song "baby" here clearly means "lover." See also Britney Spears' breakout ...Baby One More Time. "Hit me" is supposed to me "call me" and would probably have been more naturally rendered as "hit me up." No natural English-speaker would phrase it that way. But you know who would? Max Martin. Ever wonder why The Backstreet Boys want you to "believe when I say 'I want it that way'" but also "don't ever want to hear you say 'I want it that way'" and never bother to talk about what that way is? It's because Max Martin wrote it. For a full treatment on the Swedish Pop machine, I recommend Slate's Hit Parade episode on the subject.

I enjoy this album without any irony. For as much as it is prototypical of the late 90's pop renaissance, it's not as formulaic as you might expect. It takes the early 90s fast-but-brooding dance club sound (think Real McCoy or Everything But The Girl) and blends it with bright bubblegum pop melodies and reggae instrumentation. In my most recent re-listen, I was surprised at just how much reggae is in there. The keyboards favor organ and horn sounds over piano. The bass is forward in the mix with the higher-end instruments mostly accenting upbeats. The tone of the bass and drums are clearly reggae-influenced--the song The Sign even has timbales in it. It doesn't have quite the same leisurely pace of a reggae song or the high-tempo drive of a club hit, but instead bounces jauntily in between. The Sign, All That She Wants, and Don't Turn Around were big radio hits in the U.S., and that club-with-reggae vibe is evident in non-radio (in the U.S. anyway) songs like Happy Nation, Wheel Of Fortune, or Living In Danger, but my favorite tracks are the ones that just go full-tilt into trashy eurodance mode, like Dancer In A Daydream, Waiting For MagicYoung And Proud, or Voulez-Vous Danser. It peters out a bit towards the end with a weird and not-great dance mix of a song called My Mind and a not-terribly-interesting remix of All That She Wants, but for the most part it moves along merrily between aggressively dancey or danceably poppy without fully committing to--or getting bogged down by--either.

Further Listening: Nothing else the band did would be as popular as The Sign, but they did have modest hits with Beautiful Life and a cover of Cruel Summer.