Classic Albums

Classic Album Review: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Rattlesnakes [1984, Geffen]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Article Series, Classic Albums, Everything, Music | 3 Comments

I put Lloyd Cole and the Commotions‘ Rattlesnakes album  in the same category of relatively-unheard-in-North-America U.K. 80’s  releases not dissimilar to Prefab Sprout‘s Steve McQueen. They both contain some of the most fluid and sophistopoppy songs of the decade that have held up through the test of time. Rattlesnakes achieves the distinctiveness of being very reminiscent of the mid-80’s (this is just good pop music, not new wave) while still retaining its contemporary status.

I remember very little about 1984-1985 aside from some very distant memories of my sister bringing home a classroom guinea pig that stunk up our entire house, and an uncle who spent the summers with us while he was at the University of Waterloo flipping over my mom’s station wagon. I was 4 years old, and the internet-age of music was a long way off, bringing home how radically different music channels for distribution have been revolutionized. I have no idea how easy or difficult it would’ve been to go to a record store in Toronto and pick this release up, but I would imagine that the guy running the store probably looked like Boy George.

Do the kids still know who Boy George even is??

Before I start running down the block chasing kids away with my slipper in hand, I’ll get on with the review. What makes this a classic album? More than anything else I think it’s the fact that it still plays as well as an excellent contemporary album would today. Rattlesnakes has an erudite timelessness that most college bands implicitly have due to the fact that we know so-and-so went to Harvard, Columbia, or wherever, but that few explicitly reference with academia. It oozes with substance while managing to stay warm and fuzzy, accessible (these songs may very well be considered adult contemporary by today’s standards) in a way that last week’s Roxy Music is not. We wouldn’t imagine Lloyd Cole to be an art school snob; on the contrary, I’m sure most of us would imagine him to be a nice man. He likes golf, and Wikipedia tells me he likes booking dates that are suspiciously close to golf courses (a man after my own self-serving heart), on top of which, he has been married to the same woman since 1989.

None of this really adds or detracts from the overall quality of the album (aside from highlighting the fact that Mr. Cole is now probably quite old), which I’ll get into right now:

Perfect Skin – An homage to the most underrated female organ, something that often seems forgotten in these days of Jersey Shore tanning beds (hello enlarged pores and unnatural burnt sienna crayon complexion). One thing I most appreciate about Cole’s lyricism is his ability to be specific without overwriting, “She’s got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin and she’s sexually enlightened by cosmopolitan” says it all. He gets caught up in gleaning the obscure details that make something extra descriptive; a quality that I especially prize.

Speedboat – A lot of bluesy pre-Charlatans keyboards going on here, which I suppose was prominent enough at the time. The careful addition of strings in just the right places makes this feel slick, though. Brilliant sounding chorus too. I hadn’t ever listened to this closely enough to catch what I would imagine to be this story about a couple drowning tragically.

Rattlesnakes – It always pleases me when the best song of the album is also the name of the album. I would also venture to say that Rattlesnakes is the magnum opus of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ brief 3-album career, period. I’m trying to think of a primary element that this incredible song might be missing, and I’m coming up empty. Brilliant lyrics, check. String arrangements, check. Unforgettable beginning, check. Spectrum of deep emotions, check. Reference to intellectual French Feminist and legendary actress, check. This song is just chock full of everything there might be to love about a smart *flawed* (read: real) woman, full stop. “She looks like Eve Marie Saint in On the Waterfront / She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance”.

Tori Amos’s cover of this song is also fantastic.

Down On Mission Street – The saddest ditty on the entire album, chastising a guy who sounds like a bit of a pathetic dick. Another stellar example of well-arranged strings (and not just strings for the sake of strings).

Forest Fire – Despite some choice bass work, this song is hearkening back to an 80’s easy listening song that is on the tip of my tongue, but not quite coming out (it’s late; I started this to combat insomnia but instead of have sashayed myself into that annoying limbo of being tired but not quite stopping and forcing myself to sleep).

Charlotte Street – Harmonica happiness. Kind of reminds me of The The’s This is the Day. Sweet guitar solo 2/3 of the way through.

2cv – Did Suckers creatively borrow from this song for Save Your Love for Me? Allison’s answer is: yes.

Four Flights Up – A little bit Traveling Willburys, a little bit Chris Isaak. All good. And I’ve just learned that the Cars’ Rik Ocasek produced this along with Patience and Perfect Skin, which makes me like it even more.

Patience – What Freur’s Doot Doot song wishes it could be.

Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken? – This is likely the one our regulars will be familiar with due to Scottish dour faces, Camera Obscura. As much as I enjoyed Let’s Get Out of This Country and generally don’t mind anyone creatively borrowing as long as it doesn’t border on aping, I have to note how much better this song is due to its heartfelt sincerity. Yes Lloyd, we are ready to be heartbroken. We are ready to bleed.

Classic Album Review: Roxy Music – Roxy Music [1972, Island]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music, Reviews | 2 Comments

It saddens me that most people my age will only strongly identify Roxy Music‘s “wuss rock” period towards the end of their run with Avalon, due almost entirely to the excellent scoring Sofia Coppola accomplished with Lost in Translation. Listen…it’s not that songs like “More Than This” are bad; in fact, More Than This is gorgeously cynical (read: the words of a disappointed romantic, where idealism wants to co-exist with an uncompromising reality) showcase of Bryan Ferry’s songwriting skills. It’s just that there is no comparison to Roxy Music 1972. Their debut album takes you to the outermost limits of the spacey universe and back again, a journey that is often achieved within the frame work of ONE song, all captured within the single spun thread of the album narrative. This is what modern experimental music wishes it could be. This is what “indie” music was before it knew it existed. This is where you can use words like “eclectic” and “avant-garde” without sounding like a pretentious dickhead.

One of its greatest triumphs is that it has one of the best Side Ones known to man, and a Side Two that takes you into the depths of alien tumbleweed country, where people (and extraterrestrials) are probably doing lots of drugs. Though I don’t believe the band needed to resort to massive acid dropping to record this masterpiece, it can sometimes feel that way because it’s so otherworldly.

Virtually every song is actually four to five songs in one, making this recording feel like the definition of an epic adventure, borrowing from numerous genres ironically without seeming like it’s trying to pull off hipster schtick. This is Roxy fuckin’ Music after all, whose 1972 line-up is probably the only one in the world that could possibly make oboes sound this cool. In fact, this incarnation of the Roxy Music line-up is the very definition of a tongue-in-cheek dream team. See below for brilliant rock ‘n roll recipe:

1. Bryan Ferry – vocals, piano, Hohner Pianet, Mellotron
2. Brian Eno – VCS3 synthesizer, tape effects, back-up (a kindred spirit, in that we both fail to see the appeal of sports and the desire for musical reunions)
3. Andy Mackay – oboe, saxophone, back-up
4. Phil Manzanera – guitar
5. Graham Simpson – bass
6. Paul Thompson – drums

Is this a modest recording in any sense of the word? Hell no, and why would you want it to be? Roxy Music has a Godzilla-sized ten showy songs strung together and woven into an anti-lo-fi  masterpiece. I guess if you’ve got the plumage, you might as well flaunt it.

Now let’s get into the meat:

Re-Make / Re-Model – Some kind of spastic saxophone-infused frenzy that I could imagine being played in that Star Wars bar (nerds, help out with the name) at any time of day or night. One of the best features of this song is the multitude of solos interspersed with short barely pauses, gradually droning out to a faded end that takes over a minute to fizzle out. In reflecting upon the drum bit at the end, I think Paul Thompson may have doubled as Animal from the Muppet Show.

Ladytron – The beginning of this tune brings us some of the finest oboe music known to man with a creepy lulling effect and a jaunty little middle. Ferry’s voice sounds increasingly like a bleating goat here, and nothing could be more perfect. Those crashing bits meshed with the weird space echoing effect makes you long for about seven minutes more of it.

If There Is Something – In spite of my intense dislike of equine, I would choose this song if I ever had to make an entrance riding on one. There seem to be at least three distinct parts to it: the first is a happy go-lucky western-ish romp through the countryside, the second is a darker bit on the trail, the third is prolonged oboe sadness, the fourth is a vocal masterpiece in which Ferry makes us feel like we’re sitting in his gospel.

Virginia Plain – I remember first hearing this in high school alongside Brian Eno’s Burning Airlines Bring You So Much More, resulting in my listening to little else throughout Grade 11. The artists of today only wish they could write a song ending as appropriately punchy as this. Virginia Plain has all the virile energy of a bajillion tiger penises, and then some. Chumps drink Red Bull to harness the energy to stay awake. I listen to Virginia Plain.

2HB – Here’s lookin’ at you kid. Not my favorite track off the album, but you can’t win ‘em all. It starts to get awesome around the 2:30 mark with the subtle keyboard playing a more prominent role than the sax.

The Bob (Medley) – One of the trippiest things ever recorded with a purely rock the fuck out tearing through starting at the 0:50 mark, and the best example of distinct songs working within the same narrative / framework. Around 1:35 your mind gaskets start being blown to bits again by weird unidentifiable sounds that somehow don’t seem the least bit arty for the sake of being arty. 3:05 brings us to 70’s-infused LSD-ville, dipping again into the somber, lifting up again to the rock out. A fine masterpiece of a song.

Chance Meeting – Kind of a sad swansong, but also one of the flatter songs on the album.

Would You Believe? – At first you think this is going to be a bit of a sleepy number, but then you hit 1:12 and it turns into an electric take on Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, eventually cooling down into a tambourine-happy fade out.

Sea Breezes – Every time I hear this one it absolutely slays me. I could lie in the middle of the floor listening to this on extended repeat. If I were overdosing on something in the 70’s, I’d want to listen to this as I was being taken to the hospital…but wait, 3:35 rolls around and the intrepid change in tune indicates that I’m clawing my way back to a respectful member of society again. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is the power of different sweeping cadences.

Bitters End – Du-wop-ish, very Twin Peaks, very Platters, very good.

Fucking very, very good.

Classic Album Review: Fleetwood Mac – Tango in the Night [1987, Warner Bros.]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music, Reviews | 5 Comments

The Classic Album Review is back after a two week hiatus. Maybe it was the trip across the pond that did it, and got me thinking of the best cross-Atlantic musical collaborations to date. Fleetwood Mac naturally came to mind first, and seeing as it’s suddenly become cool within the past few years to celebrate them (Radiohead and Deerhunter have openly professed their love), I figured it was their turn.

When people think of Fleetwood Mac, they undoubtedly think of Rumors, copious amounts of cocaine consumption, incestuous affairs where every band member sleeps with every band member, and Steve Nicks.

I’ll be the first to admit that Tango in the Night is not some kind of  rarity, with critics dismissing it as the final demise of the band into a mushy-adult-contempo-soft-boiled-soft-rock -commercial-radio-mess. As the second bestselling FM album, a heavy rotation on CHFI to this day, and the last release from the legendary McVie-McVie-Buckingham-Nicks-Fleetwood line-up, there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely indie about it. But who cares? What it is, is a damned good recording with some of the best guitar, drum, and bass lines known to man. Besides, that’s not what this series is about anyway.

Here’s the long and short of it: Tango in the Night has some of the happiest songs that take me to the crux of  musical glee. There’s something about upbeat Christine McVie songs that puts me into a temporary, lulled yet elated state of mind, and there’s no funk too deep that it won’t drag me out of.

In its heart of hearts, Tango in the Night is a Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham (who I still have a crush on, despite his increasing resemblance of a deep fried Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future) show. They both produce all of the best tracks (Everywhere, Big Love) on the album, along with some of its guiltiest rockin’ 80’s pleasures (Isn’t It Midnight, You and I Part 2).

Let’s go through a play-by-play:

Big Love – The original is still by far, my favorite Buckingham penned and voiced FM tune. It’s very synth, slick, and is simply an odd little ditty that works, even with the weird “uh-ah” wheezes that serve as some kind of back-up vocal substitute.

Seven Wonders – This is Stevie Nicks’s greatest contribution to Tango in the Night. I’m not sure if this is because this was the time period where she was addicted to tranquilizers that her doctor at the time had prescribed to help defeat her cocaine addiction, or if she was doing this as a favor in-between her solo career. Either way, it’s one of the few Stevie songs that’s not a downer, and though I love her more melancholy songs, I’m happy this one came along as it serves her nomadic spiritual crystal-collecting image well.

Everywhere
– This might as well be the only song on the album, because it would single-handedly make Tango in the Night one of the best albums of the 80’s . I listen to this song an average of three times a day, everyday, and there’s nothing in my life that it can’t seem to solve. Last.fm indicates that I have listened to it around 200 times since January 15, 2010, and if you hear it for yourself, you may understand why. There’s something about it that is akin to magic…it’s got that fairy-dustsish feeling that pacifies me to the point of stupid grin for no apparent reason. Maybe because I would imagine this is what it feels like to be dumb and happy all the time must feel like (or young love, as this was co-written by McVie’s new and second husband, which must have been more than awkward for alcoholic ex-husband John).

Caroline
– Kind of what Peter Gabriel was doing at the time with all of his tribal-beat-new-age-sex-sounding songs, only with an anthem-ish edge.

Tango in the Night
– I can imagine how this might be the type of song I will be playing around the house a decade from now, much to my childrens’ mortification at their uncool mom. OK, so it’s got a bunch of terrible cliched 80’s mood guitars churning away unnecessarily to fill the oddly high number of dramatic pauses. But how can you resist that opera-like chorus, or that ridiculously over-the-top guitar solo towards the end??

Mystified
– A surprising Buckingham/McVie collaboration that isn’t what you might expect from them. Slow, methodical, and longing. One of those long-forgotten adult-contemporary FM songs you dust off that makes you remember how good it was.

Little Lies
– The other huge McVie standout that still reminds me of riding in the back of my parents’ car in the late 80’s / early 90’s, where I would always downplay my joy at hearing something my parents might have liked, too. I’m still riding in the back of their car, but no one plays this song nearly as often as they ought to.

Family Man – This one just puzzles me, as does its placement in their Greatest Hits collection. Well, maybe Buckingham just had a kid or something.

Welcome to the Room Sara – The first of Nicks’s two slow numbers, and neither of them are very memorable. Her voice is sounding increasingly goat-bleatish at this point.

Isn’t It Midnight
– Completely shameless 80’s rock-out that I hate to admit I love in a nostalgic Ray Ban, caped neon cap kind of way.

When I See You Again – See above.

You and I Part 2 – A slightly higher class rendition of Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, demonstrating Buckingham’s irrepressible ability to make even the tackiest beat sound catchy.

Now that I have the opportunity to, I want to talk a bit more about Christine McVie. Tango in the Night demonstrates that she had become a songwriting force and performer in her own right. I always felt she deserved more attention as an equal force to be reckoned with along with Nicks, but that she wasn’t really recognized publicly as one-half of the female talent of the band. Maybe that’s my false perception coming into play, but I thought her equally tawdry but comparatively unglamorous personal life contributed to some of her being downplayed in the group. Buckingham, too I felt carried much of the band in its heyday both as a songwriter, vocalist, and plucky guitarist. He added a distinctive flair to everything he wrote, usually with some sort of staccato accent.

Classic Album Review: Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand [1994, Scat]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music | 2 Comments

Guided by Voices is one of those bands that, much to my chagrin, most folks will only recognize because of Scrubs. That in itself isn’t a negative thing; the fact that Zach Braff chose to use the absolute worst GBV tune in existence (Hold on Hope), is.

Coming out of Dayton Ohio, Guided by Voices is the mastermind of Robert Pollard, a former elementary school teacher cum indie rock god whose fourth grade class apparently inspired much of the contents of Bee Thousand. He’s been around for decades, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally started dipping into his world record breaking songwriting well. Pollard is not-so-arguably the most prolific songwriter of all times, penning one or more songs a day for every day in his life. The hardest working man in music, GBV is one of those bands whose name I have always been familiar with, but whose artistic existence somehow managed to completely bypass me. That is rare, considering my obsession with all things college radio in my early high school days–though if I had to wait 16 years to find out about Bee Thousand, it was worth every second.

Bee Thousand is like that knight on a white horse of an album that just comes up out of nowhere and wallops you. I have consistently listened to it more than any other album within the past couple of years for good reason. As someone who has music O.C.D., dog-earing something with repeated non-stop listening once I get my hands on it, I appreciate the endurance of this collection of 20 odd 1-2 minute ditties that Pollard has churned out. “Genius of mammoth proportions” is not something I’d splash across just anything but, this album is just the best example of spawningly inspired songwriting that has ever been captured.

Let’s forget for a moment, that this is a lo-fi masterpiece. Wikipedia tells me that Pollard and his band were getting high when the epiphany of low production values equaling huge savings suddenly occurred to them. No one was buying their records anyway, so what did it matter if it was recorded on a shitty, hissing four track recorder? Funny how I never think of this as a lo-fi album. What I remember and consistently come back to has more to do with random, bizarre subject matter (legitimately strange, even for someone as jaded as myself) crafted into something surprisingly beautiful. Kind of like organic musical outsider art, if you will.

If you need any further evidence of the songs’ epic originality, you need only consult our friend Google. I challenge you to punch in any of these song titles and get anything other than an accurate hit.

Tracks:

Hardcord UFOs – A weird little two minute song about…I don’t even know what. Watching UFOs and waxing poetic about life and love or something. I stress the or something part.

Buzzards and Dreadful Crows – Surprisingly eloquent metaphor for …………………………? No amount of philosophical deliberation can make sense of this, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Tractor Rape Chain – Probably my third favorite track on the entire album. Something about it makes me want to get buckled into the passenger side of a car and belt it out at the top of my lungs, likely due to the fucked up but somehow adult-contempo-singable chorus, “Parallel lines on a slow decline – tractor rape chain / Better yet, let’s all get wet on the tractor rape chain / Speed up, slow down, go all around in the end”

The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory – The most cinematic / story-centric song in Bee Thousand about a broad who runs through the night like nobody cares. How this is crafted into one of the most beautifully simple love songs in my mind, remains a mystery. It must be the use of the use of a single tooting recorder at the end of the song. It reminds me of Grade 3 when the York Region District School Board’s idea of introducing music class involved having a bunch of 8 year olds play Hot Cross Buns really poorly.

Hot Freaks – There’s something awfully “Roadhouse” about this tune. It’s sexy as hell, slimy, reminiscent of guys in wifebeaters in dive bars. No wonder I like it so much. Never before have I heard so many bizarre-ass sexual metaphors piled up on each other. It starts off as “I met a non-dairy creamer / Explicitly laid out like a fruitcake / With a wet spot / Bigger than a great lake / Took me to the new church / And baptized me with salt / She told me, liquor / I am a new man”, petering out to “This one is on the house / This one is better than ever”

Smothered in Hugs - Another oddly beautiful tune that is a kind of “stand by your woman” runaway anthem. That’s all I’m piecing together from it, anyway.

Yours to Keep – Every time I listen to this album, it occurs to me that there wouldn’t be a more perfect thing to score a set of short stories to. This sweet little song demonstrates Bee Thousand’s ability to take you on a wildly oscillating unexpected ride.

*Note, I’m starting to run out of reviewing steam at this point, so I’m going to selectively write about the remaining 20 songs*

Gold Star for Robot Boy – Apparently a residual from Robert Pollard’s day as an elementary school teacher. If Robert Pollard was my fourth grade school teacher, you’d better believe I’d be purposely failing every year to remain in his class.

A Big Fan of the Pigpen – Glorious little singable (and happy) jaunt that just makes me want to go BA BA, BA DA BA BA DA DA DA all day long.

Kicker of Elves – Running less then a minute long, this is my top pick of the album. I often have this song running through my head as I walk the streets and fantasize about drop-kicking things and people. Little people, vases, what have you. There’s something very satisfying about this one even though it’s not even long enough to be scrobbled by last.fm.

I Am A Scientist- The most sophisticated / polished example off Bee Thousand running over a whopping two minutes long with a well developed beginning, middle, and end. This isn’t to say that the 30 second songs don’t; but it’s easy to see why the end result impressed Pollard’s new caliber of songwriting skills upon himself.

Peep-Hole - If it was socially acceptable, and if I ever got married, I would love to have this as my wedding song. Don’t ask me how we’d waltz to it. It’d probably go down as the most awkward wedding song ever with a series of weird spastic slow dance movements akin to Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse at her Junior Prom.

As many of you may know by now, Guided By Voices is reuniting under their classic Bee Thousand line-up for the Matador 21st Anniversary Celebration in Las Vegas. Robert Pollard never stopped touring (or drinking to get onstage) after GBV broke-up, and is really the DNA of GBV, but even he swore off live performance back in 2006. So if you have the chance, go see them live. My understanding is that he achieves the perfect level of drunkenness before getting onstage…a physical condition that requires a finesse that I both admire and aspire to maintaining.

I guarantee that hearing anything from this album live will blow your gaskets.