I must apologize for falling asleep on the job, so to speak: my summer has been filled with a torrent of activity, the least of which is planning (and paying) for a wedding to my lovely wife-to-be, Meredith. 2013 has been a whirlwind of activity, so it’s only understandable (to me!) that some of my hobbies will suffer as a result. Sound Round, unfortunately, has been one of those hobbies that’s suffered; music in general has been something I’ve digested more and thought of less than in the past.
But, every so often the inspiration will strike – and you can thank Fiona Apple for that. I’ve always been aware of her music, going back to 1996 when Tidal was released, but I was never a fan, because I felt that she didn’t appeal to a slightly chubby, acne-scarred high schooler boy. Her music is more emotional, more impactful, than what a teenager like me was looking for.
My betrothed and I saw her last year at the Tower Theatre, which was a magical experience and one that turned me into an instant fan: I listened to her four albums with unrestrained glee, marveling at the arrangements and the depth of her lyrics. She isn’t simply a musician writing music for the sake of writing music; she’s an artist, and she’s lived every line of her lyrics. Instead of simply spitting out the words, she puts her all into every syllable. I can’t imagine how drained she must feel after a show.
Last night at the Merriam Theatre, though, was a completely different experience. It was a tense, brooding atmosphere, with some jackasses in our row ruining it for all of us (more on that later). It also felt like a therapy session to some degree, with devout fans shouting words of encouragement to her between songs – and this seemed to loosen her up a bit. She smiled, she laughed, and she bantered a bit.
Apple and drummer Barbara Gruska walked out onto the stage at approximately 8:30pm, approached a chalkboard, and wrote “Teach me how to be free” before taking their respective places onstage. Guitarist Blake Mills and upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg fiddled with their instruments before the band launched into a (seemingly) new song called ‘Tipple’. What followed was an hour-long set of musical surprises, with arrangements vastly different from their studio counterparts.
(Unfortunately, because I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Apple’s yet, and there’s no set list available at setlist.fm, I can’t remember all of the songs that were played. You’ll have to forgive my ignorance until I can find a source to jog my memory.)
The musical accompaniment was minimal at times, which worked to the songs’ advantage, though when the arrangement called for it, the band would work itself into a heavy groove. This can be attributed to Mills, who I wrote off initially as a blandish, inoffensive singer/songwriter dabbling in Americana, but who is actually an amazingly proficient guitarist. On ‘Seven’, he played around with the volume settings on his Telecaster, going from loud to “unplugged” with relative ease, confusing some of the audience into believing there were sound issues. To his left was a whole stack of guitars, and after each number he would strap on a new one, to make some weird and wild noises that defied his appearance.
But Apple, whether she liked it or not, was the star of the show, with the audience whooping and cheering practically every move she made. And this is something I found utterly amazing: she is so electrifying, that it’s hard to focus on anyone else onstage. I was transfixed to her every movement, whether it was something subtle like her tapping some percussive instrument on the sides of her neck, offering up a barely perceptible nuance to the song, to her battering a concert bass drum, dancing in place while she waited for her cue. Apple is a true performer, and she seemed wholly at ease the entire night, and appeared relieved and grateful after each song received rapturous applause.
The audience was a mixed bag, as most Philadelphia audiences are. Die-hard fans would shout words of encouragement and thanks after songs, which would normally annoy me, but judging by Apple’s fanbase, they were very positive and uplifting. However, not everyone was as into the show as most were: the person next to Meredith kept making suicide jokes and wrist-cutting movements during every song, and even commented that anyone who was cheering at Apple should be in therapy. After ‘Dull Tool’ they left in a huff, apparently offended by the repetition and increasing intensity of the lines “You don’t kiss when you kiss/You don’t fuck when you fuck”. Then, four other people in our row were laughing to each other and showing each other images on their phones, the brightness of which finally got to me. “Turn off your phones!” I shouted to them during an applause break. This prompted one of the drunk members of the party to sit down next to Meredith and try to explain that her phone was silent. “I\t’s not the sound that’s bothering me, it’s the brightness. Turn off your fucking phone,” I seethed back. Of course, they didn’t, and they continued to talk and laugh to each other during the next song before someone in the row in front of them told them to shut up.
(I sound like a curmudgeon, of course, but when you’re in the presence of someone like Fiona Apple, who throws her all into every song, why would you want to be fucking around on your phone if you weren’t even remotely interested in her? The seats we were in were not cheap, so why spend all that money to effectively ignore the person you came here to see? I just don’t understand. Put your phone away and enjoy the concert, or else just stay home and let someone more deserving have those seats instead.)
One of the undoubted highlights of the show, and one that transfixed me the first time we saw her, was her cover of Conway Twitty’s ‘It’s Only Make Believe’. I’ve never heard a bad version of this song, but Apple’s is undoubtable the benchmark for anyone who dares cover it. The power and sheer emotion she instills into the performance is truly breathtaking – and the same can be said of her entire set list. It’s the kind of performance you want to numb yourself to so that her presence can wash over you in waves. It’s an exhausting, thrilling, and emotional experience, the only kind of feeling I’ve ever felt at her concerts.
One of the joys of writing this blog is that even if you think you’re aware of all of the music that’s out there, there’s still someone who knows more than you do. I hardly claim to be an expert on music – I’m tone deaf, can’t carry a tune to save my life, and can’t read music – but I know what I like, and when I do like something, I tend to become a little obsessive with it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lead to very thrilling conversation with someone who doesn’t love music as much as I do, meaning I have to either suffer in silence or go onto the Internet to discuss all this great stuff.
By happenstance a few weeks ago one of my very good friend’s neighbors joined us at a Sunday afternoon beer brunch. While everyone else was talking about beer and wedding planning, my new friend and I gushed over the kind of music we loved, and he rattled off a dozen or so musicians I should check out. Neu! was one of those bands I had always heard about but never listened to, and with his recommendation I dove headlong into their discography – queueing up Neu! ’75 on a drive home from work one night, I was hooked by the album, and mentally slapped myself for having not checked them out sooner. (As it always goes.)
Neu! stemmed from two former members – Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger – of Kraftwerk, before they hit it big (tellingly, Neu! ’75, that band’s final album, was released the same year as Kraftwerk’s breakthrough, Autobahn), who produced two beautiful, ambient Krautrock albums before personal differences ripped the two apart, and their third album was practically two solo efforts slapped together. The first side consists of three lengthy instrumentals, derived from Rother and his fluid guitar and synthesizer work; ‘Isi’ has a propulsive drumbeat, coined “Motorik” and a style that was used heavily in a lot of Krautrock at the time, with waves of synths and effects gently enhancing the strident piano and guitar work. ‘Seeland’ is pure ambience, and fails to develop any real tension – almost as if you’re waiting for the tension to kick in – ultimately fading out instead of going anywhere. It meanders at times, but doesn’t feel overlong, especially with Rother’s languid, repetitious guitar work. The first side finishes with ‘Leb’ Wohl’, a sprawling, plaintive soundscape, with a thin sheet of white noise frequently interrupted by piano notes, a ticking clock, and foreign warbling from Dinger.
Side two begins, rudely enough, with jagged guitar chords and shouted lyrics from Dinger, who takes center stage on the back half of the album on guitar, while drumming duties are doubled by Thomas Dinger and Hans Lempe. The vocals sound like a young Mick Jagger, and Johnny Rotten was almost certainly listening to ‘Hero’ when he developed his signature sound. It doesn’t matter what Dinger is singing; it’s all about the attitude, so it’s no surprise that Neu! were credited with developing proto-punk. The attitude continues with ‘E-Musik’, a more organic conjoining of Rother’s ambience with Dinger’s belting. This time, the drums are the stars, fed through a phase shifter with assistance from Rother’s synth work. After the high of ‘E-Musik’, anything else would seem anticlimactic, and ‘After Eight’ is yet another high-octane thrash, not quite as exhilarating as ‘Hero’ but a suitable finale to one of rock’s most underrated – and unknown – influential bands.
Essential listening: Isi, Seeland, Leb’ Wohl, Hero, E-Musik
Like a lot of Yo La Tengo’s songs, my appreciation of this glorious band was something of a slow burn: in need of some new music a few years ago, a coworker recommended them to me, and I picked up I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. For anyone who knows Yo La Tengo, this wasn’t exactly the perfect introduction to their music, and I listened to it a few times and went on my merry way, revisiting it every now and then but not really paying much attention to it. It wasn’t until last year that I finally bit the bullet and listened to something else – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One – and immediately fell head over heels in love with this band. I absorbed the rest of their discography, and, as I do when I immerse myself in a band, read all I could about them.
Fade is their first new album since I became a self-described fanboy, and, as before, was a slow burn of an album with me. There was nothing as immediately striking as the first songs on Beating As One; nothing as laid-back as Summer Songs; barely any lengthy, meandering, yet hypnotic jams as on Beat Your Ass or Popular Songs; this was a seemingly new Yo La Tengo, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
But I gave it time, as you should when you listen to an album for the first time. This is a natural progression of their more recent stuff, with some songs benefiting from some delightful orchestration (‘Is That Enough?’, which sounds vaguely like a Preston School of Industry song), turning a familiar sound into almost orchestral pop. There are also excursions into Tamla/Motown on ‘Well You Better’, appropriating the ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ bass riff (though it sounds more like an amalgam of ‘Town Called Malice’ and ‘Hitsville, U.K.’), and two lovely acoustic ballads in ‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘The Point Of It’.
However, Yo La Tengo shines when they’re acting like themselves, and the spaced-out rock of ‘Paddle Forward’ and lazy shuffle of ‘Two Trains’ are among the best of the tracks. But for pure beauty, ‘Cornelia And Jane’ is an utterly astonishing ballad, accentuated with some subtle trombone, a touch that is barely noticeable but entirely effective; and the album is bookended by two of its best tracks: the psychedelic opener ‘Ohm’, with some Eastern touches by way of swooping synthesizers, a jangly, Byrds-like guitar riff, and percolating percussion; and ‘Before We Run’, a sweeping, glorious epic, with powerful, clattering drums, and a triumphant orchestra that brings the album to an outstanding close. Fade isn’t perfect, but it’s more concise and accessible than most of the band’s output since And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Whether or not that’s your kind of Yo La Tengo is up to you, but it’s a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure.
Essential listening: Ohm, Stupid Things, Cornelia and Jane, Two Trains, Before We Run
Being a high schooler in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early – very early – 2000s wasn’t easy. As a budding drummer, I drew influences from the classics instead of the contemporaries, so while bands like Blink 182 and Green Day might have had pretty good skin-smackers, I would dismiss the bands outright, saying, “Gimme Bonham or Moon any day!” This was a point of amusement to my friends, who would snicker outright at some of my music purchases; I can distinctly recall going to a Best Buy to pass some time with a friend, and the amount of ribbing I got for acquiring the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work and the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse was relentless. “Oh, is this ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’?” he asked, completely straight-faced, as I drove us back home. Incredulous that he would know this, let alone before I did, I responded in the affirmative. “Oh, I love this song.” He repeated this once more before I caught on: he was simply eyeing the back of the CD case.
My tastes have since matured, but – as much as I like them – the Black Crowes don’t have the same joie de vivre as the Faces (and whoever the modern day Black Crowes is, well, I don’t even want to know), and when I listen to any of the Black Crowes’ albums, I can hear traces of certain bands – Faces, the Rolling Stones, some Little Feat – but I too often get frustrated and simply go for the originals.
Needless to say, I spend several minutes in my car before heading out for a destination in search of the perfect album to listen to, before throwing my hands up in frustration and saying, “I have no idea what I want to listen to!”
In the increasingly rare instances when I fall back on the Faces, I find myself gravitating toward this, their seminal break-out album. They’d released two albums before this – their self-titled debut and Long Player – but both were received somewhat tepidly, which brings me to an interesting point: there was a time when Rod Stewart wasn’t as well-known (or well-regarded) as he is today. Hard to believe, but the Faces struggled to find an audience, especially in England, their home country, though America embraced them more warmly. So Wink was their first, most cohesive album, due in no small part to production wonderboy Glyn Johns. There’s a fair amount of grit with just a pinch of ramshackle, striking the perfect balance that was so sorely lacking on their first two albums. It’s evident in particular on opener ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’, with a dirty guitar riff from Ronnie Wood before Stewart howls on about being a submissive sex slave to a dominatrix named Judy. (This ain’t no ‘Maggie’s Farm’!) The band locks into a groove for a minute or two before Wood brings things to a halt, Kenney Jones’ drums clatter in, and the quintet barely makes it into the double-time coda, with Ian McLagan’s electric piano well to the fore.
Ronnie Lane turns up the charm and the humor with ‘You’re So Rude’, a delightful song about sexytimes with his ladyfriend, who – in a rare display of role reversal – is the prime mover in the act, hoping to be done before her family gets home. ‘Love Lives Here’ is a surprisingly slow song that touches on nostalgia, with the physical destruction of a house serving as a metaphor for a crumbling relationship. Stewart dials back the gruff growl from the album opener, even allowing a tinge of sadness to infiltrate his good natured bonhomie, while Wood’s and McLagan’s guitar/keyboard interplay is delightful. It leads into ‘Last Orders Please’, penned solely by Lane, which takes the nostalgia and sadness from ‘Love Lives Here’ and amplifies it into the next part of the grieving process: the drunk stage. While propping up a bar, the protagonist runs into his ex; the two engage in a bit of emotional foreplay before she leaves him high and dry once again. Has he learned his lesson? (The song was derived from an earlier song titled ‘I Came Looking For You’, which, apart from the melody, has little in common with the finished version.)
Then we get to the song that everyone came for: ‘Stay With Me’, a raunchy, good-timin’ rocker that everyone who knows anything about the Faces – or even Rod Stewart – is familiar with. Written about a reveler who had a bit too much to drink and takes a random woman upstairs for a few seconds of pleasure, the protagonist preemptively rejects any outpouring of emotion, making it strictly clear that this was a one night stand, and nothing more. There’s some fine slide guitar work from Wood, and the instrumental coda, with each band member getting a few bars to solo in, before it all comes to a glorious, crashing close. ‘Stay With Me’ gave the Faces their one and only US single, and was instrumental in providing its sister album some much-needed sales.
Side Two isn’t as outstanding as Side One, though Lane’s ‘Debris’, obliquely written about his father, is perhaps his finest song ever written, and the others provide a gorgeous, restrained backing, letting Lane pour his heart out, though Stewart harmonizes beautifully with him on the choruses. The Faces weren’t well-known for their ballads, but this rivals only ‘Ooh La La’ as the top of the heap. It’s followed clumsily by a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, which benefits somewhat from Johns’ production, but it’s a fairly mundane version that would have been better released as a B-side instead of occupying precious album space. ‘Too Bad’ returns us to the well-worn exuberance of a Faces show, with Stewart lamenting their poor treatment by the upper crust at a party they crashed. Their inebriation – and Stewart’s regional tongue – was their downfall, and the worst part about it was that he didn’t even get to shake a leg. The album closes with ‘That’s All You Need’, a slide guitar workout with lyrics about Stewart’s musician brother, run down by the pressures of reality. Stewart offers him a “cup of coke” and shows him a good time out on the town – a simple solution indeed. Wood’s deft guitar work is the star of the show, though the others get a chance to play in the extended instrumental outro, which even includes some steel drums from Harry Fowler.
I’m having a hard time trying to decide which Faces album is their best – is it Wink or the well-polished follow-up, Ooh La La? While both have their fair share of excellent tracks – and one duff track each (‘Memphis, Tennessee’ on Wink, ‘Fly In The Ointment’ on Ooh La La) – my decision is gravitating towards Wink, as it’s a cohesive, fun, and well-oiled album. Ooh La La may have been more mature, with better songwriting all around, but the Faces sound like they’re having a blast here, as if they were recording this album simply as an excuse to go out on the road and have a good time with anyone who’s willing to partake.
Essential listening: Miss Judy’s Farm, You’re So Rude, Stay With Me, Debris, Too Bad, That’s All You Need
Solo albums by primary songwriters in bands used to confuse me. What was the point in branching off and writing a solo album when 90-95% of the material they wrote was for their band? Was it a need for name recognition? It just made no sense to me.
Little did I know that some musicians had other stylistic interests than those that their respective bands were interested in. Take, for instance, Pete Townshend. He watched his other band mates go off and have hit solo records, while he was stuck writing grandiose concepts for The Who. Now, there’s a certain style of music that The Who was loopholed into: powerful guitar anthems with themes of fighting conformity and teenage rebellion. But his solo material was more introspective, more thoughtful, and had more spiritual overtones to it than would be allowed within The Who. So, while an album like Empty Glass might have been the Who album that never was, it was different enough from The Who’s output that it could stand alone as a Townshend solo album.
Someone like Ray Davies releasing a solo album is a little more confusing, but considering The Kinks ceased to exist in 1996, that it took him until 2006 to release his first proper solo album (Return To Waterloo, a vanity album/film project that was planned as a Kinks album – and even features three songs from the most recent Kinks album – doesn’t count) is what’s most confusing. Honestly, it’s long overdue; Davies’ take on antiquated humanity had always been an alluring and endearing aspect of Kinks records, but the need to move with the times meant he had to update his stance in the late 1970s and 1980s. Having managed to largely avoid the latter-day Kinks albums, apart from a perfunctory listen, I was a little worried that Davies would keep the overblown arena rock/cod heavy metal approach on his first solo album, and approached it with mild trepidation.
Happily, on Other People’s Lives, Davies’ songwriting chops are back in full force, he abandons the thrashing drums and guitars, and his quirkiness shines through remarkably. The album truly sounds like an updated Kinks for the new millennium, with Davies opening up with the dark and brooding ‘Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)’, where he makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he’s no longer the young buck of yesteryear: “You feel shite, the air bites, oh will I ever learn? / Your ear’s deaf, your girl’s left, never to return”. ‘After The Fall’ is another dark, mortality-based song, which seemingly references Davies’ 2004 gunshot kerfuffle (though it was written two years prior), but, more symbolically, is a narrative on the admission of failure and the processes taken to dig oneself out of the hole. It’s no surprise, then, that ‘Next Door Neighbor’ breaks down the perceived perfection of suburbia by exposing infidelities, financial crises, and mental breakdowns. Set to a charming shuffle, with a subtle brass band punctuating the verses, the song strolls along nicely, and is a welcome change from the darkness before it.
‘All She Wrote’ is the first stumbler, and while the production – as it is on the rest of the album – is stellar, with clattering drums and ringing guitars, it’s a bit too curmudgeonly, as Davies receives a “Dear John” letter, his ex more than willing to rub in his face that she’s met someone new and he’s a whole lot better than him. There’s still some subtle humor with the jabs, making its inclusion justified, but Davies was never good at writing mean-spirited farewell songs. Returning to a clearly favorite subject of infidelity, ‘Creatures Of Little Faith’ is another song about perception, chronicling an untrustworthy couple (perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Horrible from ‘Labor Of Love’?) trying to catch each other in the act of cheating, but each payoff is more glorious than the last.
While most of the album is excellent – there aren’t any duff tracks, which is a rarity – there are a handful of classics that outshine the rest by a large degree. ‘Things Are Gonna Change’ is the first, while ‘Run Away From Time’ is the next – yet another song about mortality and the futility of escaping aging. With strident guitar chords and a quivering Hammond organ, the song could have fit in nicely on any of the Kinks’ renaissance records (from Face To Face through Arthur), and its inspirational verses are offset nicely by the hard-hitting, anthemic choruses. Counter that with ‘The Tourist’, where Davies takes off to a foreign country for a bit of rest and relaxation, only to be amused by the local customs and to expect to be treated like royalty with the wave of his magic credit card. Returning to a trick used on ‘Lola’ and ‘Supersonic Rocket Ship’, with a ringing guitar intro that isn’t used anywhere else in the song, ‘Is There Life After Breakfast?’ is the third classic song, and, much like ‘Run Away From Time’, serves as a voice of inspiration to the older generation – or perhaps to the clinically depressed (apply as you see fit).
The next two songs break the string of high quality that had faltered only slightly on ‘All She Wrote’. ‘The Getaway (Lonesome Train)’ is a lengthy ramble, unfolding its story over 6 1/2 minutes, but it tends to meander and despite some moments of beauty, runs out of steam rather quickly. The title track is a sarcastic rail against the tabloids, and predates the increasing prevalence of online journalism, though a passing reference is made. It’s a slinky, sexy track, with some gratuitous, seedy female caterwauling, but it’s not particularly enjoyable. ‘Stand-Up Comic’ is, however, with Davies taking his curmudgeonly act and basing it around a washed-up comedian, who prefers to spend his time ridiculing the abusive audience than actually telling a joke. “What do you think of me so far?” he asks. “Rubbish!” they shout back. “I thought you’d say that,” he grins, recalling 1979′s ‘Low Budget’.
The last two songs are some of the album’s best, and while they both don’t tackle anything that Davies hasn’t addressed already on the album, they’re more sentimental. On ‘Over My Head’, Davies is once again rattled by circumstance, overwhelmed by the simplistic chore of everyday living while trying to get over a failed relationship. “In a world that’s close to breaking, I thought that you were my friend / In a world that is full of hating and about to descend / I just smile and pretend,” he sighs, resigned to facing a life by himself. ‘Thanksgiving Day’, meanwhile, finds Davies reminiscing about family gatherings, and is a warm portrayal of those present and absent. The chorus – sung by a choir – strikes a poignant note, and while it’s technically a bonus track, having been released as a standalone single two years prior, it’s difficult to imagine Other People’s Lives without it.
As a debut solo album, Other People’s Lives is a superb, stellar release, proving that Davies hasn’t lost any of his creativity, and that he’s regained his nod-and-a-wink slyness that was so sorely lacking on latter-day Kinks albums. The whimsy is balanced by the realistic, the light balanced by shade, the humor masked by reflective introspection. If it weren’t for the modern-day production, this could have been the follow-up to Everybody’s In Showbiz.
Essential listening: Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After), After The Fall, Next Door Neighbor, Run Away From Time, The Tourist, Is There Life After Breakfast?, Stand-Up Comic, Over My Head, Thanksgiving Day
Throughout the early 2000s, once all my friends departed for college and started expanding their minds with campus living, I clung steadfastly to the notion that classic rock and commuting to school were the best things for me. Turns out I was wrong on both counts: driving an hour to school was a chore to my already apathetic mind, and classic rock wasn’t giving me much relief, instead sounding incredibly samey; it also didn’t help that the bands I liked had failed to exist since the early 1980s, and they weren’t in any rush to get back together and release an album.
One of my friends at the time implemented a “Song of the Night” exchange, where I would live vicariously through his musical discoveries and he would send me a song of a band that he particularly liked at the moment. One night in 2002 he sent to me ‘Date w/IKEA’, a track by indie rock gods Pavement, and prefaced it by saying it wasn’t their best song ever, or even his favorite, but that he just happened to be listening to it at that moment. For whatever reason, it clicked with me instantly; I loved the jangly guitar, the incredibly obtuse lyrics, and the melodic chorus. The next day, instead of going to class, I stopped by Borders, picked up all five of Pavement’s albums, and went for a long drive.
I was disheartened to discover that they had disbanded in ’99, but considering the bands I frequently listened to, this was an unsurprising trend. Craving more Pavement-related material, I had the option of the two major songwriters – Stephen Malkmus or Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg. As much as I loved Malkmus’ off-beat, almost David Byrne-esque lyrics, Kannberg’s thoughtful material resonated deeper, and so I purchased All This Sounds Gas, Kannberg’s debut solo CD but credited to a band named after the infamous reform school.
In my brief spurt of research regarding the album, I discovered that some of the songs had been written for Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight, but had been shelved or remained unrecorded. Intrigued with this bit of George Harrison-esque trivia (hey, the album title even sounds like Harrison’s debut album!), I found the album to be a nice, mellow alternative to Malkmus’ weirdness; I didn’t even give Malkmus’ eponymous debut solo CD a chance, and wrote him off as a dick because he rejected ‘Whalebones’, ‘The Idea Of Fires’, and ‘Encyclopedic Knowledge Of’. As a result, the album became a mainstay in my CD player, and was a constant soundtrack for both summers when I worked at an amusement park – but time hasn’t necessarily been kind to my perception of the album, so while I’m able to now look at the album a little more objectively, its standing has diminished quite a bit.
Opener ‘Whalebones’ has a lazy, somnambulist feel to it, its summery guitar licks trickling out over a strident rhythm, Kannberg’s deadpan voice intoning the mostly obscure on-the-road-again lyrics, though hints of Pavement’s demise are evident: “Played their final show of a lifetime”, “Does it hurt you to feel this bad, man?” ‘Falling Away’ is more energetic, with Kannberg not only sounding more like the Spiral Stairs of old, but that he’s actually having fun. The countrified twang of ‘A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s For Real)’ furthers the atmosphere of a lazy summer day, but the lyrics are so impenetrable (“It’s a polyester bright day now, and the dinosaurs are for real”) that it does little more than confuse instead of illuminate.
But the first epic of the album, ‘Encyclopedic Knowledge Of’ (think a combined ‘Wah-Wah’ with ‘Isn’t It A Pity’) is a scathing riposte of Malkmus’ disinterest in Pavement, with Kannberg willing to have made things work but finding his hopes thwarted. The song takes nearly eight minutes to unfold, and starts off with a barely-contained simmer, ending up as a primal scream, with Kannberg howling “Yeah we know that you like us!” and “It’s a fucking chore!” as drums clatter, guitars squeal, and horns blast, all becoming a glorious cacophony. ‘History Of The River’ is a thudding, thundering rocker, with fuzz bass, whispered lyrics, and a searing guitar melody, but it goes nowhere, and adds so very little to the album. ‘Doping For Gold’ is significantly better, continuing in the C&W vein established with ‘A Treasury @ Silver Bank’, and even sounds a bit like Wilco at times. This is probably the strongest, prettiest song on the album, with a lovely, caterwauling guitar solo that meshes beautifully with the jangly melody, and a distinctly weird instrumental coda. This would have fit in nicely on any Pavement record.
The second half of the record loses some steam, but ‘Solitaire’ is at least a decent acoustic rocker, with a more memorable melody than its lyrics, wherein Kannberg appears to rant nonsensically (“Solitaire / Is a chair, uh huh / It’s a chair / That you wanted from there”), unconcerned if the microphone is picking him up. ‘Blü Sön’, meanwhile, is ponderous: a 43-second instrumental of bleeps, blips, and programmed percussion. It adds nothing, and classifying it as a track in its own right makes little sense. ‘Monkey Heart And The Horses’ Leg’ is a shimmering country ballad, but its blandness, meandering running time, and indecipherable lyrics don’t help its case. At least ‘The Idea Of Fires’, with an insistent guitar riff, some lovely backing vocals, and a jaunty pace, sounds like Kannberg has regained some much-needed energy. I can see why album closer ‘Take A Stand’ (likened to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin”) would divide fans, as it is a lengthy (nearly seven minutes), 3/4 time rocker, with loud drums, persistent piano, and some nonsensical lyrics, but I love the “sha-la-la” backing vocals and the bed of acoustic and electric guitars. As on ‘Encyclopedic Knowledge Of’, the song builds in intensity over its lifetime, until the ending is a noisy whirlwind of drums, zooming bass, and soaring guitars, coming to an end with Kannberg giggling and saying, “A fucking brilliant rock odyssey!” It’s an epic, towering conclusion (apart from a hidden 90 second acoustic demo of the title track) to a spotty album, though, for all its faults, All This Sounds Gas is still a strong debut.
Essential listening: Whalebones, Falling Away, Encyclopedic Knowledge Of, Doping For Gold, The Idea Of Fires, Take A Stand
Thanks to the freedom of the Internet, I often find myself perusing Wikipedia at any particular time, finding myself entangled in a web of articles of useless information. (Still, this helps me immeasurably when I watch Jeopardy!.) While I was excited to read that Paul McCartney was releasing a new album, my reaction to news that Ringo Starr was also releasing a new album was more muted.
It took me back to the last time I actively pursued a new Ringo Starr album. It was the summer of 1998, and I was a mere 15-year-old kid who had little interest in anything the “new” musicians of the day were putting out. Bands like Fastball, Matchbox 20, and Dave Matthews Band made no impact whatsoever to me, and I preferred the old guard – musicians who had been there and done that and were still putting out quality music. For whatever reason, Ringo Starr was a big deal to me, and when I found out that he was releasing Vertical Man, I was overjoyed. FINALLY! A new Ringo Starr album! His last one had been in 1992, the forgotten Time Takes Time, so this was a big deal to me. I got the album for my birthday and loved it – often listening to it while playing Banjo-Kazooie on Nintendo 64.
Since then, I’ve come to my senses. Not that I’ll begrudge anyone for enjoying a Ringo Starr album – his eponymous 1973 album is his best, and I’ve even got a soft spot for Stop And Smell The Roses – but as my musical tastes have matured, I find that I don’t really need a new Ringo Starr album in my collection.
The question is, does the world really need a new Ringo Starr album? Granted, he’s not taking up valuable real estate in independent record stores, and, for what it’s worth, latter-day Starr albums like Ringorama and Choose Love were strong, if flawed, but Ringo 2012 has a lot of problems with it, the biggest being its running length. Nine songs are presented across 28 minutes, with two being re-recordings (‘Wings’, from his 1977 album Ringo the 4th, and ‘Step Lightly’, from Ringo) and one being a previously released cover (‘Think It Over’, from the Buddy Holly tribute album Listen To Me).
What perplexes me about Ringo 2012 is that it’s so average. Even Starr sounds utterly bored on album opener ‘Anthem’, in which he intones, “This is an anthem / About peace and love”. There’s some scorching guitar work from Joe Walsh, but at its 5 minute running length, it overstays its welcome. ‘Wings’ isn’t much better, though its a lively reworking, with some clattering drum work (Starr admitted to listening to a lot of reggae before and during the recording of the album, and it’s pretty obvious here), but the synthesized horn blasts date it horribly to the late 1980s. The solution to Starr’s lifeless vocals is found with a chorus of backing vocalists, who beef up the sound and make the song sound more fibrous than it actually is.
‘Think It Over’ is perhaps the best tune here, with Starr actually trying to sing – and sounding a lot like he did on ‘Honey Don’t’ – but those damn synthesized steel drums ruin what could have been a cute track. ‘Samba’ also finds some life infused in it, even though it’s not the kind of song anyone would actually try to dance to. There’s some interesting flamenco guitar accents littered throughout, but it’s not enough to make it more than a curio. Starr’s handling of the traditional ‘Rock Island Line’, a song he’s probably played in rehearsals a million times already, is lively and joyous, and, along with ‘Think It Over’, is the highlight of the album. But the quality drops with ‘Step Lightly’, a pointless reworking of an already inconsequential song from the 1973 Ringo. Was anyone really clamoring for a reggae remake of this song? Of course not – but as Ringo’s first sole composition since ‘Early 1970′, the original has a certain affable charm that is completely demolished on this limp remake.
‘Wonderful’ is anything but, and is bathed in guitar and synthesizer atmospherics, with Starr striking a poignant chord in what is obviously an ode to his wife, Barbara Bach. This uninspired tune drags on for nearly four minutes, and it was at this point that I discovered there was an undeniable sameness to the seven songs (thus far). Though there were accents that differentiated one from the other, Starr’s voice and drumming are so painfully similar throughout that even though I was a little over 20 minutes through, it felt like the album had been going on for at least twice that length. ‘In Liverpool’ is at least a little better, a nostalgic ode to Starr’s Beatles-era life, though the lyrics are cringe-inducing: “Me and the boys, me and the gang / Living out fantasies / Breaking the rules, acting like fools / That’s how it was for me – how was it for you?” This touching autobiographical tune nevertheless is a highlight of the original material.
The album ends, mercifully, with ‘Slow Down’ – no, not a cover of the Larry Williams rocker that the Beatles themselves covered in 1964 – a slight rocker that features Starr hollering the inconsequential lyric, backed up by a quivering organ line. It’s a middling conclusion to an inconsequential Starr album, and its titular allusion to Ringo would give the impression that this was a star-studded affair – and with Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Benmont Tench, Edgar Winter, and Van Dyke Parks the biggest names here, whether this constitues a “star-studded affair” is up to the listeners’ interpretations. But while Starr famously lost himself among drugs and drink in the ’70s, and was able to sober up and rejuvenate his career in the ’90s, Ringo 2012 is a huge step backward toward anonymity. It’s bland, inessential, and simpering – at least his output from the ’00s felt like he cared. One can’t help but escape the nagging thought that Ringo 2012 was designed to simply shift product – any product – before another lucrative All-Starr Band tour. It’d be interesting to see if any of the material from this album features in the repertoire.
Essential listening: meh