I’ve now downloaded and listened to my penultimate eMusic set for the year, so given that I won’t have enough time to absorb next month’s in time to make a reasonable judgement, I thought I’d do my Albums Of The Year now. If nothing else doing it this year will give some googlejuice to the post, which will in turn hopefully bring some attention to these artists, many of whom are very obscure.
My criteria for this are simple – the album goes on here if either I’ve obsessed over it and listened to it repeatedly (even if I didn’t think it was very good at first) or if I’ve not listened to it as much but have listened enough to know it will one day be a favourite.
The only album to be released this year that I haven’t listened to but think I might include is Joanna Newsom’s new one. It’s not on eMusic, and I use that for pretty much all my new music these days. I’ll get it one day.
I’ve created an 8tracks.com playlist, containing my two favourite tracks from each of these albums (8tracks is a legit streaming service and pays royalties) here . Take a listen and let me know what you think, and if you like them I’ve included links to the eMusic pages for most of the albums.
EDIT Didn’t embed properly, but you can get to it here.
1) Kristian Hoffman – Fop (emusic link)
Kristian Hoffman’s last album, &, which I wrote about here, is a very strong candidate for best album of the last decade, and while I’m not sure Fop is of quite that quality, it’s definitely the album of the year.
Hoffman writes about religion, politics, sexuality and the intersections of the three from the perspective of a gay, liberal (in the USian sense) sceptic, but manages to avoid polemic – there’s nothing as strident and obvious as Dear God or Tramp The Dirt Down. Rather, he’s one of the most subtle, moving lyricists I know of.
Those two songs are not chosen at random though – Hoffman is a unique talent, but XTC and Elvis Costello are two of the reference points I would point to to give some idea of his music. The others, though, would be Queen, ELO, Sparks, The Kinks, 20s revivalists like Janet Klein, Rufus Wainwright, Candypants (and the rest of that LA powerpop set of musicians, especially the Wondermints), Corn Mo, Van Dyke Parks, Stephen Sondheim, Abbey Road era Beatles…
Basically if you like witty lyrics, a glam feel, a sense of fun, intricate arrangements and strong melodies, that manages to do bombast while still showing restraint where necessary, buy Fop – straight after you buy &.
The two songs I’ve chosen from Fop are Imaginary Friend, which starts out as a foxtrot with fairly accurate 20s-style instrumentation before going into a gigantic Queen big ballad chorus, about the solace that can be gained from religion even when the religion in question is controlled by people with less than benign motives. Hey Little Jesus on the other hand is a fantastic strutting rocker, a 50s pastiche melody (with more than a touch of Stupid Cupid to it) about the crucifixion, from the perspective of someone taunting Jesus, with a wonderful arrangement, far more subtle than it first sounds (a harpsichord, hammond organ and steel guitar solo, just for starters, and the string part is wonderfully detailed).
2) Blake Jones & The Trike Shop – The Underground Garden (emusic link)
Some might accuse me of bias here, because Blake is a friend of mine, and guested on my last EP. He’s also, though, a wonderfully talented songwriter and performer who gave the single most impressive live performance I’ve ever seen when he and the band played the Love Apple Cafe in Bradford to an audience of less than ten paying customers but still played an hour of everything from Zappa pastiche to a performance of Harlem Nocturne on the theremin. His songwriting is astounding, reminiscent of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson – but *ACTUALLY* reminiscent of them, not just copying their musical and lyrical tics in a pale imitation. Rather, he’s doing the same thing as them. While the two selections I’ve chosen here don’t show it, as well, his music is also remarkably varied, showing influences as varied as Dick Dale, Frank Zappa, old horror films and the Beach Boys, often in the same song.
Sing Along is my personal favourite of the songs on the new album – the lines “sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still play guitar/It’s not like they’re in line to be rock stars/There must be some kind of belief in a better world/Where we can strum and smile and get the girl” got to me especially. And Christmas Sale is a nice attack on the people who complain about the “War On Christmas” – “Your money don’t say feed the poor/And your courthouse won’t say blessed are the merciful/And your fences don’t say love your neighbour now/But you’re mad ’cause Macy’s won’t call it a Christmas sale…”
3) The Asphalt Orchestra – Asphalt Orchestra (emusic link)
The Asphalt Orchestra are a marching band from New York, but one that plays fiendishly complex jazz and art-rock covers. Their debut album features pieces by Stew & Heidi Rodewald, Charles Mingus, Bjork, Frank Zappa and Goran Bregović among others, and they just recorded a single with David Byrne. They make very good skronking noises indeed.
The two tracks I’ve chosen here are Zomby Woof, a cover of the Zappa track from Over-Nite Sensation, and Carlton, a specially composed piece by Stew & Heidi of the Negro Problem (which is how I first heard about them), which sounds like TV theme music, but in a good way (Tilt will know what I mean).
4) Imagined Village – Empire And Love (emusic link)
The Imagined Village are a ‘supergroup’ of sorts, a loose collective of musicians brought together by Simon Emerson of Afro-Celt Sound System in an attempt to reinterpret the English folk tradition in a way that incorporates elements of all the different cultures in the UK today – partly as a gigantic “fuck you” to Dickibegyourpardonnick Griffin, who tried to link traditional folk to the Bastard Nazi Party. (Incidentally, apparently Dickibegyourpardonnick is in hospital at the moment, with suspected kidney stones. Apparently they can be very painful…).
Their first album, a few years ago, was interesting but suffered from too many cooks – it featured Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah… basically everyone who anyone who read the Guardian in the 80s likes, and so was a bit amorphous. This one, on the other hand, while still featuring a large backing band with English and Indian traditional instruments mixed with electronic music, limits the vocals to folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood.
The two songs I’ve chosen here are Space Girl, an old Ewan MacColl song about the dangers of copping off with a spaceman, and Scarborough Fair.
5) Roky Erickson – True Love Cast Out All Evil (emusic)
This was the real surprise here. For those who don’t know, Roky Erickson was the leader of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, a seminal mid-60s psych-rock group, but was arrested for marijuana possession, took an insanity plea, and unfortunately, because of the state of psychiatric medicine in the late 60s, became severely mentally ill. His music since then has had moments of power, but has been for the most part best judged as ‘outsider music’.
This new album, though… it’s still clearly the work of an ill man, but for the first time in decades he’s working with musicians who are sympathetic to his songs, and a producer who knows what he’s doing. The result is something close to Skip Spence’s Oar, The Beach Boys Love You, or Syd Barret’s early solo work, rather than to Wesley Willis or someone. Still the work of a fractured psyche, but one with the tools to express himself properly.
The two songs I’ve chosen are the first two from the album. Devotional Number One is deliberately recorded in the style of a field recording, and features the best vocals I’ve ever heard from Erickson. The organ coming in on the line “Jesus is not a hallucinogenic mushroom” sends shivers down my spine. Ain’t Blues Too Sad is a short alt-country song, and the difference in vocals is astounding – Erickson sounds like a totally different singer here, but an equally good one. And anyone with any knowledge of his personal history will be moved to tears by the line “Electricity hammered me through my head, til nothin’ at all is backward instead”.
This is raw, harsh music, borne out of immense torment, but still beautiful.
6) Al Jardine – A Postcard From California
I wrote about this here, but in brief this is a Beach Boys reunion album in all but name, featuring the full band on one track and Brian WIlson and David Marks on several, and better than any Beach Boys album since 1979’s LA (Light Album). That still doesn’t make it great, but it’s surprising what a grower this one is – a lovely, pleasant, relaxing album, that has absolutely no ambitions other than to be nice background music, but fulfils that ambition admirably.
The two tracks I’ve chosen are Looking Down The Coast, the most interesting song on the album, if overproduced – a miniature suite originally dating back to the late 70s, and a remake of Jardine’s old Beach Boys song California Saga, done as a duet with Neil Young, and also featuring Crosby & Stills, Jardine’s son Matt, and a sampled Brian Wilson. They’re probably the most representative tracks from the album, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
7) Eliza Carthy & Norma Waterson – Gift (emusic)
Emusic lists this as being an Eliza Carthy solo album, but it’s definitely a mother-and-daughter collaboration – Emusic just seem to randomly label albums by the members of the Waterson/Carthy family, but that’s fine, because they’re all worth getting. Singer Norma Waterson and her daughter, vocalist/fiddler Eliza Carthy are two of the greatest interpreters of traditional English music alive, though they occasionally venture into other territory.
While this album is mostly folk, the two tracks I’ve chosen aren’t. The first is a medley of the 20s song Ukulele Lady and the old Amen Corner song If Paradise Is Half As Nice, while the second, Prairie Lullaby, is a solo vocal by Eliza Carthy backed by Martin Simpson on banjo. When I say this version stacks up well against the versions by Jimmie Rodgers and Mike Nesmith, you’ll know what high esteem I hold it in.
8) Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
I wrote about this here and my opinion pretty much stands – this is a fundamentally flawed album. But it’s a fundamentally flawed album by one of the great creative forces of modern popular music, interpreting music by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Of the two tracks I’ve chosen here, I’ve Got Plenty O’ Nothin’ is a showcase for Paul Mertens, Wilson’s principal collaborator on the album, who provides the various lead harmonica parts. But the clanking, banjo-driven arrangement calls back both to Wilson’s own Smile and to the ‘hot jazz’ early arrangement of Rhapsody In Blue, and makes this easily the most successful track on the album. Someone To Watch Over Me, on the other hand, is the most ‘Wilsonesque’ track – while one can, again, question how much input he had into the arrangement (which sounds like someone trying to be Brian Wilson, rather than like Brian Wilson), the subject matter is so close to Wilson’s other work that this still sounds the most heartfelt track on the album.
9) Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard (pay-what-you-like download)
I only discovered Messersmith this year, but my wife’s known about him for ages – he’s from her home state, Minnesota, and very popular on their NPR affiliate. He seems to be popular in ‘geek’ circles too – he seems to have done a song about Star Wars or something, and gets webcomic artists to design his T-shirts. Don’t let that put you off, though, there’s some genuinely good stuff here. Unfortunately, all the comparisons I can come up with are people like Elliot Smith or the Eels, and he’s not really very like that either. I don’t want to put people off, so just listen.
The two songs I’ve chosen here are John Dillinger’s Eyes, a Big Star-esque powerpop song about John Dillinger, and John The Determinist, a chamber-pop song about determinism, with a nice string backing (obviously going for an Eleanor Rigby feel).
10) Mark Bacino – Queen’s English (emusic)
This is actually the kind of music I criticised earlier, in that this album sounds exactly like a Harry Nilsson album. I could honestly believe that Bacino has never heard an album other than Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet and maybe, maybe, Nilsson sings Newman. Maybe.
But the music sounds so exactly like those albums that it’s hardly fair to criticise him for it – because I like Nilsson, and this really is like having another prime-era Nilsson album.
Of the two songs I’ve chosen here, Happy sounds like a Harry Nilsson song, while Middle Town is the least Nilssonesque song on the album, sounding closer to Squeeze or Marshall Crenshaw.
Bubbling under – Thom Hell – All Good Things (sounds like 70s soft rock crossed with the Beach Boys – for fans of ELO and LA-period BBs, but a little derivative) Heaven Is Whenever – The Hold Steady (they’re missing Franz Nicolay’s keyboards), Apples In Stereo – Travellers In Time And Space (sounds like every other Apples In Stereo album, which means it’s great but breaking no new ground). Belle & Sebastian Write About Love (sounds like every other Belle & Sebastian album, which means it’s pretty good but breaking no new ground)
Note for people coming here from Watertownology — you should probably read this.
If ever I’m asked why I think hipsters are wankers, Watertown is exhibit one.
Watertown is an album whose good qualities are absolutely self-evident. Anyone with ears – and I do mean anyone – would have to admit this is a very good album. In terms of thematic unity, quality, and feel, this site easily with the first four Scott Walker solo albums, Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks and the first couple of Leonard Cohen albums. While it was never a hit, it’s not like Sinatra is a horribly obscure artist, and so by rights this should, at the very least, be one of those albums that get ‘rediscovered’ by that weird coalition of hipsters and Mojo-reading dadrock lovers that brought Nick Drake, Big Star and Pacific Ocean Blue out of obscurity.
But the difference is that all the music I’ve mentioned above is essentially juvenile, and therefore ‘cool’. The concerns of, say, Pet Sounds, magnificent as it is, are those of a teenager – does she really love me? How can I balance what I want with what my parents say? Do I really love her? And teenage angst is cool and romantic.
Even Sinatra’s own earlier work – say Sings For Only The Lonely, no matter how downbeat, are the loneliness of a rinky-dink, shooby-dooby-doo swell kinda guy man about town, sat depressed in a New York bar at midnight with his suit disheveled and his tie hanging loose telling the barman about the one who got away.So they’re OK.
Watertown on the other hand is different. It’s a concept album, like many of Sinatra’s early albums, but this is a specially-composed song cycle, and it’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged divorcé trying to bring up his two kids as a single parent in a small town, reflecting on his wife’s adultery, constantly reliving the last moments of his marriage, and trying to find a way to make it not have happened.
Where’s the fun in that?!
Actually, before I continue, I’m going to put in a Spoiler warning, because this album does have a plot, and a twist in the tale, and all those kind of things, and it really is best experienced without knowing much more about it. If you haven’t heard the album before, and you have any respect for my opinions whatsoever, go and buy it. The CD is out of print and is apparently selling for sixty quid on Amazon UK (but I’m not selling mine), but Amazon US has it for sale as MP3s for $9.99 (you could save nine cents if you wanted by not bothering with inessential CD bonus track Lady Day). Go and buy it, and listen to it, now.
Then do like I just had to, having listened to that album once already while writing this, and have a little cry on the shoulder of your spouse or closest approximation thereto.
Finished? Eyes dry? Then I’m going to start talking through this track by track. I’ll be talking mostly about the lyrics, but the music (by Bob Gaudio, produced and arranged by Gaudio and Charles Calello) is absolutely astonishing. Gaudio was the principal composer for the Four Seasons, and you can definitely imagine that other Italian-American Frankie singing these melodies, but he keeps carefully within Sinatra’s notoriously limited range, allowing Sinatra to do what he did best, just act the role in that gorgeous voice.
In fact, the album Watertown resembles most in this respect is Macarthur Park, Jimmy Webb’s suite of songs for the similarly-limited Richard Harris – but of course Harris didn’t have Sinatra’s voice, or his musical sensibilities, and while Webb’s songs were great, they were nothing compared to these. And Sinatra here has the advantage that every track here is sung from the point of view of the same character – it’s one half-hour monologue, not a series of sketches.
Gaudio and Calello also do a marvellous job of orchestrating the album as a whole, with leitmotifs recurring throughout – the high, slightly out of tune piano chords, the drums emulating the rhythm of the train – giving the whole album a unified theme like no other album in popular music outside possibly Smile.
The lyrics, meanwhile, were by Jake Holmes – a very strange figure from whom Led Zeppelin stole Dazed And Confused, and who later wrote the Be Who You Can Be In The Army jingle, but who had just finished collaborating with Gaudio on another astonishing album, the Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, which I wrote about here. Astonishingly, Holmes was only thirty – younger than me – when he wrote these astonishingly mature lyrics.
The album itself was (like that other great narrative concept album Arthur by The Kinks) originally intended to have a TV special attached to it which never materialised, and the opening track, Watertown, is clearly the music for the opening credits. Starting hesitantly, with a slightly out-of-time bass, we get a portrait of a small town from a distance, slowly zooming in (and it’s so cinematic I can see precisely the shots in my head, and I’m not a visual person) on one man standing alone in a train station.
The only song on the album not sung from the perspective of our narrator, this is the establishing shot before the main story starts, but even here, the narrator’s voice breaks in, and is singing to someone – “It’s gonna be a lonely place/without the look of your familiar face”, and immediately after we get hints that maybe the narrator isn’t to be trusted (“But who can say it’s not that way?”) before woodwinds, bass and arpeggiated guitar take us out over a train sound that is, in context, much sadder than the one at the end of Caroline, No.
Goodbye (She Quietly Says) is a wonderfully sparse, distanced description of a relationship breaking up (“Just two always-strangers avoid each other’s eyes/One still make-believing, one still telling lies/She tells me that I’m not to blame but when I ask the reason why/She reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says ‘goodbye'”).
I’ve read some interpretations of this song which suggest the woman in it is actually dying, not just leaving our narrator (which puts a whole new spin on the last song) but it’s too mundane for that. It’s the ‘always-strangers’ that gets me, here. The narrator, who is never named, clearly adores his wife Elizabeth beyond all reason, but doesn’t actually know her at all.
For A While is, in the context of this album, almost a cheerful song – “Lost another day, turned another way/With a laugh, a kind hello/Some small talk with those I know/I forget that I’m not over you for a while”. Musically, this sounds quite a lot like some of the waltzes Brian Wilson was doing around the same time, like Time To Get Alone – all light and breezy. Sinatra genuinely sounds like he means lines like “Days go by with no empty feeling/until I remember you’re gone”. It’s also the first song to be addressed, as most of the album is, directly to his lost love (incidentally, if you *do* want to argue that she’s dead rather than just having left him, this is an important point – the song about her leaving is told abstractly, not to her as a listener. Possibly because our narrator doesn’t want to face knowing that she knows it’s not true?)
Michael And Peter is a letter to Elizabeth about their two children (“Michael is you/he has your face/he still has your eyes/remember?/Peter is me/’cept when he smiles/And if you look/at them both for a while/you can see/they are you/they are me”) and about the mundane details of everyday life (“I think the house could use some paint/you know your mother’s such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can/she sure needs a man” – and what does THAT say about the relationship, that the mother-in-law is still helping out her son-in-law, while her daughter is God knows where?). Constantly skirting around the problems he’s having, we still have hints that something’s not right in this narration “As far as anyone can tell, the sun will rise tomorrow”, “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing”, “Guess that’s all the news I’ve got today/Least that’s all the news that I can say”
I Would Be In Love Anyway is one of the most conventional songs on the album. The main message is that even though their marriage has ended, it was worth it (“If I lived the past over/saw today from yesterday/I would be in love anyway”) and once again we have the recurring themes of the lack of communication between them, the narrator’s unreliability and general inability to talk (“Though you’ll never be with me/And there are no words to say/I would be in love anyway”).
The thing I’m not getting across here is that this is, by this point, a fully-rounded character, who isn’t even aware of everything he’s telling us – “If I knew then, what I know now/I don’t believe I’d ever change, somehow”. Yes, he’s saying that he’d still love her – that he *DOES* still love her – no matter what, but he’s also saying *he won’t ever change and has never changed*. She changed, and grew up, and he didn’t. And the poor man doesn’t even realise it.
Elizabeth is just a fairly standard song of lost love sung to the person lost, one of the comparatively weaker songs on the album, although the narrator’s view of his wife as a fantasy, a dream, and the utter lack of detail about her other than her name, is telling. And “Dressed in memories/you are what you used to be” is simultaneously beautiful and creepy as hell.
On the other hand What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be) says *far* more about his wife’s character. “You always had a thousand things to do/Getting so involved in something new/Always some new recipe, the kitchen always looked like World War Three/What a funny girl you used to be”. “You’d fall for lines so easily, whatever they were selling, you’d buy three”. Suddenly, for the first time on the album, the ex-wife is a character, and we can see that someone so full of life and energy could never, ever have stayed with someone so fundamentally conservative (not to mention patronising – he almost sounds more like her father than her lover. This is especially worrying when you factor in the lines a few songs earlier about how her mother ‘needs a man’). He’d never understood that the things he loved most about her were precisely those things that meant they could never stay together.
What’s Now Is Now is… Christ, this is just the most astonishingly upsetting song ever. “Some day I know you’re gonna find/Just one mistake is not enough to change my mind/What’s now is now and I’ll forget what happened then/I know it all and we can still begin again”. The song is all about him forgiving her for her adultery – and assuming that the reason she’s left is just because she thinks he won’t forgive her, or that she thinks the people around will disapprove. He thinks she’s *run away from him*, rather than having grown away from him. The turning point of the song: “Now that you know how much I understand/You have no reason to be gone”.He’s talking about how much he understands, how much he knows, but he doesn’t have a clue. The poor, poor man…
She Says… and he’s actually got a letter back from her. And she says she’s coming home! So why is the song all minor chords, and why do we have a creepy chorus of small children singing “so she says” at the end of each verse?
The Train And we’re back where we started. “And now the sun has broken through, it looks like it will stay/Just can’t have you coming home on such a rainy day”. “This time around you’ll want to stay/Cause I’ve had so many nights to find a way” “Pretty soon I’ll be close to you and it will be so good/We’ll talk about the part of you I never understood” Just like at the beginning, he’s waiting at the train station. This is where we came in.
Except… when we came in, it was the morning. And now “the kids are coming home from school”.
And “I wrote so many times and more/but the letters still are lying in my drawer”.
He’s been standing there in the rain all day, waiting for her, because of a reply he got to a letter he never sent…
the passengers for Allentown are gone
the train is slowly moving on
but I can’t see you any place
And I know for sure I’d recognise your face
And I know for sure I’d recognise your face…
And the album ends there, with the train pulling out in the fade.
And now, after having listened to that album three times during the writing of this, I’m going to have to dissolve into a quivering mass of sobs. Goodnight…
Normally when I write these ‘albums you should own’, I’m writing about an album by a performer. Today is rather different – I’m discussing a compilation album featuring performers as diverse as Bobby Vee, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis and the Monkees. Nonetheless, there is an overall artistic voice to the album, but it’s not a performer, or even a songwriter or producer (although he does take on all those roles at various points during the album) – it’s the arranger, Jack Nitzsche.
The job of the arranger, like that of the professional songwriter, is very much a dying art in these days of the self-contained band, and many people reading this will have no idea what an arranger does, so a brief explanation is in order. An arranger is someone who takes a song and works out what instrument will play what part. This may sound like a trivial job, but in fact it’s the single most important step in the progression from a song to a finished record. Every time you have heard an instrument playing something other than the simple vocal melody or strummed chords to a song, what you’ve heard is the work of an arranger – either a formal arranger, or (more usually these days) a producer or band member taking on that role. An arranger will come up with a bass-line, string parts, decide when the music should build and when it should fall off, decide when there should be a solitary flugelhorn and when there should be a barrage of electric guitars.
Many of the best arrangers in the last few decades have doubled as producers – like George Martin or Brian Wilson or Quincy Jones – and the job of arranger as a separate job is mostly a historical one, with most of the most accomplished arrangers (like, say, Nelson Riddle or Fletcher Henderson) having their success in the big band era. Jack Nitzsche is one of the few arrangers who made a very successful career in the rock era. While he did other work, both as a performer (having a hit with the instrumental The Lonely Surfer ) and as a composer of film scores (he wrote the music for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest among others) as well as being an occasional member of Crazy Horse, Nitzsche’s main claim to fame was as an arranger, working with artists such as Neil Young, The Tubes, the Neville Brothers and others.
But he’s best known for, in essence, being Phil Spector. Nitzsche arranged almost every hit record Spector produced (with the exception of the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, which was done in a deliberate imitation of NItzsche’s style when Nitzsche couldn’t fit it into his schedule) and he, not Spector, was responsible for the ‘Spector sound’. While Spector produced some fine records after stopping working with Nitzsche (such as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies Man) none of them had the ‘Spector sound’. Nitzsche, by contrast, was able to make ‘Phil Spector’ records with or without Spector, as well as having the ability to create great records in other styles.
This stylistic variation is evident in the first two songs in this compilation. The opener, Hard Workin’ Man, is a song written by Nitzsche and Ry Cooder and performed by Captain Beefheart for a film soundtrack. Essentially a rewrite of Mannish Boy but in the style of Howlin’ Wolf rather than Muddy Waters, it’s a metrically distended driving blues driven by percussion like hammers on metal, and shows that even the slickest LA session musicians can make ‘authentic’ Chess-style Chicago blues if directed by an arranger who understands the genre. This is then followed by Nitzsche’s own Surf Finger, an instrumental that is very much in the style that Brian Wilson would use a few years later for the Pet Sounds instrumentals, all reverbed guitar and echoing percussion.
Much of the rest of the album is in the ‘Spector’ style, some of it (such as the Righteous Brothers’ magnificent Just Once In My Life, a good contender for most powerful single of all time) actually made with Spector, but much done in collaboration with others. Some of these tracks will be familiar, like Merry Clayton’s It’s In His Kiss or Frankie Laine’s I’m Gonna Be Strong, both oldies staples to this day. But others are revelatory. Baby I’m So Glad It’s Raining by the Satisfactions (a song so rare it had to be mastered for this release from a crackly acetate) is a magnificent over-the-top grandiose ballad of the type the Ronettes were known for , building from a quiet arpeggiated guitar/harpsichord in the verses through the bridge to a chorus which sounds like every instrument in the world is there. As Long As You’re Here by Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful sounds like the Spoonful turned up to eleven, with jew’s harp solos and gigantic overblown arrangements reminiscent of The Modern Folk Quartet (Spector’s attempt to create his own Lovin’ Spoonful soundalike band). And Don’t Touch Me There by art-punk band The Tubes is just magnificent, Nitzsche pastiching himself absolutely deadpan while the band sing:
The smell of burning leather as we hold each other tight
As our rivets rub together crashing sparks into the night
This moment of forever, darling if you really care
Don’t touch me there
There are also a couple of examples of the country-rock that Nitzsche became known for in the 70s, including the original of I Don’t Wanna Talk About It by Crazy Horse (later a hit in a soundalike version by Rod Stewart). The best of these is a version of Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield song Mr Soul by the Everly Brothers, arranged in the style that Nitzsche would later use for Young’s first solo album. Slowed right down, with wailing soulful female backing vocals, steel guitar, wood block percussion and picked mandolins, it’s a magnificent example of the arranger’s art.
On top of that there are a few songs, like the Monkees’ Porpoise Song and the Turtles’ You Know What I Mean that are classics of sixties bubblegum pop, and a few oddball tracks like a collaboration between John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis.
Not everything on the album works, but the highlights are so stunningly good that this compilation is one of my all-time favourite albums. On top of that, anyone listening to it will be able to hear the common threads that run throughout Nitzsche’s work, no matter what the genre and no matter who the performer or ostensible producer, and will get a better idea of what an arranger does, and the importance of good arrangements to a good record, and may get an idea of what is missing from a lot of substandard records.
This week’s Albums You Should Own is hamstrung a little by my presence in the US. I haven’t brought the vast majority of my record collection with me, for obvious reasons, and I don’t like writing these things without re-listening to the album in question. So this one is going to be about a less obscure album than the last few, but a good one – Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.
In 1995 Brian Wilson was considered even by his most ardent fans to be a washed-up failure. Since the Beach Boys’ eponymous album of ten years earlier, his musical output had consisted of one pretty-good solo album in 1988, an unreleased and not-very-good follow-up, a couple of terrible singles and a single track on the Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin’ album, all of these more than six years earlier.
But rather astonishingly 1995 was to be the biggest turning point in Wilson’s career since 1966. To start with, MOJO magazine voted Pet Sounds the greatest album of all time, causing one of those occasional resurgences in the album’s profile that happens every few years. There was also a general wave of popularity for id-60s pop music at the time, caused partly by the Britpop boom in the UK and partly by the release of the Beatles’ Anthology series. So the time was ripe for a comeback. But rather startlingly, unlike the earlier ‘Brian is back’ campaigns, this time Brian actually did come back.
The end of 1995 saw two new albums from Brian Wilson. While neither contained any new Wilson songs, that was still more than the previous decade had seen. One of these albums, Orange Crate Art, his collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, I’ve dealt with in an earlier post. The other, however, while breaking no new artistic ground, is a rather lovely introduction to Wilson’s work.
In the mid-90s Don Was was busy trying to work with every legend of rock music he could. He produced the Rolling Stones’ Stripped, a Jerry Lee Lewis comeback attempt, and while he couldn’t do the Beatles, he did the next best thing and produced the Backbeat soundtrack. So it was probably inevitable that he would try to work with Brian Wilson. The result was a black & white documentary, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, designed to show non-fans why musicians so often refer to Wilson as a genius.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack album for some reason misses the three best musical moments from the film, all intimate round-the-piano performances. One is Wilson and Parks sat at the piano together performing Orange Crate Art, but the really special performances are Brian at the piano with his brother Carl (also of the Beach Boys) and mother Audree, singing God Only Knows and In My Room (heartbreakingly, both brother and mother would be dead in a little over two years from the film’s release).
What is released, however, is essentially that most 90s of artifacts the Unplugged album. While these aren’t actual live performances, they’re ‘as live’ – Brian overdubbed his lead vocals onto otherwise straight live cuts. The arrangements are subtly different from the originals – more ‘commercial’. The interesting edges have been smoothed off, and a glossy AOR sheen applied, that makes the music much less compelling for those like myself who are as interested in Wilson’s unique arranging skills as they are in his songwriting. While there’s nothing as actively distasteful as the arrangements on Wilson’s 1998 Imagination album, there’s nothing at all striking about them either – everything’s acoustic guitar, piano, drums, and not much else.
But there’s still the songwriting, and the vocals. Wilson’s vocals here are strained – he’s not been a ‘good singer’ since the late 60s – but that’s not really the point. What he is, is someone who believes in the song he’s singing like no-one else. He can communicate the feeling in a song better than any other vocalist I can think of.
And the songs are impeccably chosen. Almost hit-free, they’re instead chosen from the very best songs he’s ever written, and this short album does manage to do what Was wanted, to explain why Brian Wilson is a genius.
The album opens with Meant For You, originally from 1968’s Friends, a little 51-second piece of beauty, before going into This Whole World. This Whole World is the greatest pop single that was never a hit. In under two minutes the song sums up everything positive about pop music, with a dazzling, extraordinary race through almost every key and harmonic ambiguity imaginable, never settling on one tonal centre for more than a bar or two. Just gorgeous.
The rest of the album continues like this, going through obscure Beach Boys classics like Let The Wind Blow (from 1967’s Wild Honey album) and Wonderful (a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks from the Smile album which may well be the most perfect song ever written), as well as remakes of the two best songs from his first solo album. But the best thing on it is a song that wasn’t recorded for this album, but 19 years earlier.
Still I Dream Of It was from a bunch of songs written during the time of the Beach Boys Love You album, and originally intended for the unreleased album Adult Child. A full studio version from 1977 had been released on the Good Vibrations box set a few years earlier, but the version on here was Brian’s solo piano demo.
Written during a time when Wilson’s mental illness was at its worst, but his compositional ability was still as good as ever, Still I Dream Of It is the howl of pain of a scared little boy crying for his mother, and for a world that makes sense, but filtered through the sensibilities of a man with an absolute command of music. The lyrics are almost incoherent – Wilson never being the most verbally articulate of men at the best of times – but heartbreaking in their implications:
Time for supper now, day’s been hard and I’m so tired I feel like eating now
Smell the kitchen now, hear the maid whistle a tune my thoughts are fleeting now
Still I dream of it, of the happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love
And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above
Young and beautiful, like a tree that’s just been planted I’ve found life today
I’ve made mistakes today, will I ever learn the lessons that all come my way?
Still I dream of it, of that happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love
And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above
A little while ago, my mother told me Jesus loved the world
And if that’s true then why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl, and find my world?
Til then I’m just a dreamer
I’m convinced of it, the hypnosis of our minds can take us far away
It’s so easy now, to see someone up there high in heaven’s here to stay
Still I dream of it, of the happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love
And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above.
Hearing these lyrics, both childlike and childish, sung by a man who was at the time in his early thirties but sounded more like someone in his late 60s, with a voice prematurely ravaged by alcohol and cigarettes, recorded on a crackly old cassette, is one of the most emotionally intense musical experiences I’ve ever had. And getting just a couple of minutes of the pure, unfiltered power of this music makes you grateful for the gloss and sheen and emotional distance that comes from the more ‘professional’ sounding tracks surrounding it.
Brian Wilson’s music communicates to me like no-one else’s does, and if you’ve yet to understand why the man who’s best known for I Get Around and Surfin’ USA commands any respect at all, you could do a lot worse than tracking down this album or the film for which it is a soundtrack.
Mark ‘Stew’ Stewart has become a Broadway sensation over the last year – the musical Passing Strange, for which he wrote the book and lyrics, and the music for which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, has won him a Tony award for best book, and it’s going to be filmed soon by Spike Lee. He’s famous among other constituencies, as well – my eleven-year-old niece loves Gary Come Home, the song he wrote for SpongeBob Squarepants.
But even as recently as three years ago he was unknown enough that he would every so often write songs on commission – he’d put an offer up on his website and then write and record custom songs for anyone who wanted them, as birthday or Christmas presents or whatever. I had one written for my wife for our wedding, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best things he’s ever written.
And while Stew is now fairly well-known, his earlier work is still unknown. The three albums he did with his band The Negro Problem (Joys And Concerns, Welcome Black and Post-Minstrel Syndrome) are all out of print and command prices of £50+ on Amazon – a shame as TNP are a *great* band, also featuring Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints and Lisa Jenio of Candypants. Their material ranged from Ken (a song about the problems of being a gay Ken doll (“the people at Mattel/the home that I call hell/are somewhat baffled by my queer proclivities”) ) to beautiful ballads like Come Down Now, to a note-perfect cover of MacArthur Park, but one in which the crack rather than the cake has been left out in the rain.
However, it was as a solo artist I first became aware of him – as the support act to Arthur Lee and Love (at the time Lee’s touring ‘Love’ were Baby Lemonade, another band from the same LA powerpop scene as the Wondermints and TNP). At what would have already been an astonishing gig (the first time I saw Lee live, and he was simply superb – I also saw Brian Wilson that same week, doing a fifty song set, and got a backstage pass to that one. Best week for gigs of my life), for possibly the only time an unknown-to-me support act overshadowed the headline. Stew and Heidi performed songs from TNP and Stew’s first two solo albums, and were just extraordinary.
Thankfully, Stew’s three solo albums (Guest Host, The Naked Dutch Painter and Something Deeper Than These Changes) are all still in print (and available from eMusic – a site which I will keep plugging until every reader of this blog is a member, because it’s fantastic), and with luck those albums will get increased exposure now that Passing Strange is a hit – several of the highlights of the musical are reworked versions of older songs. There’s not a bad song on any of them, but probably the best album – both as an album and as an introduction to Stew’s music – is The Naked Dutch Painter.
I feel rather anxious about writing a review of Stew’s music, partly because I know there’s a lot going on in his lyrics that I’m not getting (a lot of his lyrics are very culturally-specific, and he can also be quite an oblique writer), and also because he’s both more articulate than I am and very caustic about reviewers – even positive ones – who don’t get it. I just hope that either he never sees this or I *do* get it.
The Naked Dutch Painter is a more-or-less live album, including some of Stew’s great between-song chatter (“I’ve been wondering… why is there only one photo of Che Guevara? Why isn’t there a photo of him, like at some kid’s birthday party, snorting milk out of his nose?”). The live-ish nature means that it has neither the college-rock production of the other two Stew solo albums, nor the baroque pop complexities of the Negro Problem music, but rather a loose-but-sophisticated sound that makes me think of piano bars (there’s a lot of piano on the album) or people like Stephen Sondheim.
Every song is good, but to my mind the two highlights are The Drug Suite and the title track.
The Drug Suite, as the name might suggest, is actually three songs linked by the common theme of drugs. The first song, I Must Have Been High is a gorgeous ballad with minimal instrumentation – mostly just piano and what sounds like a melodica:
Wasn’t that me in the electric chair?
And isn’t it true I spent two days there?
See my friend’s folks they were out of town,
So we bought a sheet and we all got down
And every song sounded like an angel’s choir
My edges were rounded, I had wings of fire
Soaring through the sky, I must have been high
Sitting on the balcony watching the rail rust
Slipping through my fingers like angel dust
The lyrics are both hilarious (“Didn’t we vow to live in a tree while staring at static on the TV?/And when she said ‘I am a bird’ I hung on tight and drank every word”) and at times beautiful – the line about angel dust is one of those “I wish *I’d* thought of that” lines.
I’m Not On A Drug, the second song in the suite, is one of my very favourite of Stew’s songs, as it describes a situation I’ve been in all too often – being the only person at a party who is completely sober and straight. “I know this is a happening party and I don’t want to make you yawn my darling, but I’m not on a drug.I didn’t want to tell ‘cos you might tease me – I really wish I was right now believe me”. With its staccato piano chords and skittering violin, this sounds like something Noel Coward might have performed were he feeling rather daring.
Arlington Hill, the last part of the drug suite, is apparently a description of Stew’s first acid trip, and it sounds musically very like a gentler version of Strawberry Fields (in fact, what it sounds *exactly* like is Darian Sahanaja’s reworking of Wonderful in the style of Strawberry Fields for the soundtrack of David Leaf’s documentary about Smile, Beautiful Dreamer). This points to another thing about Stew – while I’ve been talking mostly about his lyrics (and they are some of the wittiest, cleverest lyrics I’ve heard from any songwriter active in my lifetime), he apparently writes music-first, which I personally find astonishing. His music is always both interesting and catchy (while firmly rooted in traditional song structures – Stew very much regards himself as a craftsman rather than some tortured artist racked by the muse) and perfectly fitted to the lyrics – given the relative complexity of his lyrics and the simplicity of the music (not a criticism in any way of it – as three-minute pop songs go Stew’s are among the best) I would have thought that writing the lyrics first would be much easier.
The album finishes (apart from two hidden tracks) with the title track, which combines one of the best melodies of the album (accompanied by Stew’s own guitar, prominent for almost the first time on the album) with a great story that deserves to be posted in full:
The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you
She’s got seventeen boyfriends and an eight o’clock class to get to
She’s smoking hash all night with some coffee amaretto
She’s asking stupid questions ’bout my groovy black ghetto
And the naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you
The naked Dutch painter in your bed does not want to sleep with you
She just feels like being naked you don’t think that you can take with her next to you
She says “Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women”
But you’re not the Mahatma that’s a whole ‘nother religion
And the naked Dutch painter in the bed does not want to sleep with you
The naked Dutch painter in the morning does not want to need you
She missed her eight o’clock class ’cause she couldn’t get her ass up off of you
So you walk along the Rhine and jump back in the sack
If this is how they do it then you’re never going back
And the naked Dutch painter in the morning does not want to need you
The naked Dutch painter in the gallery does not want to love you
She’s throwing fluoresecent paint accompanied by a Mingus tape that she stole from you
It’s performance art porno under trippy black light
She left with her professor, he can stretch her canvas tight
And the naked Dutch painter in the gallery does not want to love you
The naked Dutch painter in his arms does not want to see you
You are drunk and you are sore, you busted down professor’s door yet he feels for you
So a wicked joint is rolled and it mellows out your head
But you’re not feeling too bold when he invites you into bed
While the naked dutch painter in his arms does not want to see you
So now you’re on your own in a freezing pay phone around daybreak
You’re feeling so shitty that you’re calling Culver City just to bellyache
But there’s nobody home except your answering machine
So you write a stupid poem about the freaky shit you’ve seen
Like the naked Dutch painter in the morning sky who hovers above you
The naked Dutch painter at your door says she finally loves you
But she said “I’ll see you later” when she saw another naked painter sitting in the kitchen with you
Well she seemed a little shattered then she got a little pissed
When she saw that you were flattered by the fact that you’d be missed
While the naked Dutch painter at your door says…
All Stew’s albums deserve a much wider audience, and after The Naked Dutch Painter I recommend Joys & Concerns, the second (and to my mind best) Negro Problem album. Unfortunately, on Amazon a ‘new’ copy goes for $299 , but you can probably pick up a second hand copy significantly cheaper (or torrent it, given that it’s been out of print for many years – but if you do, make sure you buy it if it goes back into print. This is music worth paying for…)