December 30 – Cigarettes & Cougars…John’s A Bit Of An Enigma

John Mellencamp was ending 1983 on a high-note. His song “Pink Houses” was rising up the American top 40 (at #27) while the previous single of his, “Crumblin’ Down” was still on the charts, falling to #24. It was a week away from the symbolic change in his life, when “Pink Houses” got higher on the charts. That, because “Pink Houses” was really where John changed gears. It was when he began to sound like he wanted; “Crumblin’ Down” was a bit of a throwback to the John his record label wanted, a radio-friendly rocker they called “Cougar.”  It marked “a giant leap forward, bounded him towards a musical landscape that was more developed, richer, and more substantive than the one he’d occupied.”

So declares Paul Rees in his biography of the Indiana artist, Mellencamp. We’d rank it as one of the best music books of the past year.

Rees sat down with Mellencamp for a few interviews through the years and is probably one of the few journalists Mellencamp would consider a friend. He writes an interesting story of the “Jack and Diane” singer that ultimately might well leave you liking John less but respecting him a whole lot more. Confusing, right?

Rees goes back a ways through his family tree, uncovering a whole line of strong, aggressive, hard-working men ever since his great-grandfather moved from Germany to rural Indiana in the 1850s. Mellencamps around there soon got a reputation as tough-as-nails, hard-working, self-sufficient types who didn’t suffer fools lightly. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with John.

Mellencamp is something of an enigma, even to those who know him well. He’s gruff and apt to be rude, but also very loyal and generous. He eschews drugs and drinking but chain-smokes. When asked about how much of an honor it was for Republic Records to sign him to a life-time deal in 2010, he noted “well, I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day. I put out an album every five years. You do the f***in’ math!”. Working on records, he tends to be both a perfectionist as well as a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy. He isn’t one to do a hundred takes of a song, so if it doesn’t sound perfect, he’s OK with it. But, he expects his musicians, himself included, to be on top of their game. There’s no room for sloppiness or laziness in a Mellencamp recording session. He’s not tremendously educated school-wise, but is a serious student of the news, of American literature and the country’s musical heritage.

More than anything, you get the sense his life can really be summed up by two songs of his : “Pop Singer” and “Small Town.” On the former, he decries “never wanted to be no pop singer, never wanted to write no pop songs. Never had no weird hair to get my songs over…” . Of course, the latter proclaims “I was born in a small town, and I live in a small town. Probably die in a small town…” It’s pure Mellencamp. More than anything he is real.

The book documents his change through the years, which really isn’t so much a change in his way of looking at life other than a change in caring less and less about what the “music business” wants and more and more about maximizing the time he has left to do what he wants. And what he wants is to make roots music that reflects the country as it is, through the lens of Americana folk music and its heritage, and to paint. A major gallery owner in New York declares Mellencamp the only musician he’s encountered who is serious about painting and has a discernible style. John clearly cares more about more recent works like Plain Spoken and the play he co-wrote with Stephen King, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County or his recent duet with Bruce Springsteen, “Wasted Days” much more than he does songs like “Hurt So Good” that put him on the musical map. And while things like platinum discs seem to matter naught to him, he revels in praise when it comes from people he feels like his peers. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Guthries. (One story recounts how Woody Guthrie’s daughter found him smoking at an event in a non-smoking lounge, so she walked up to him, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it in his drink. He laughed. If some random security guard or kid starlet had tried the same, you get the picture that fisticuffs might have resulted.)

I’m colorful!” is how his daughter Justice says he sums himself up. That he is. Not always likable, but a great artist who gives a great example of how great things happen if you’re true to yourself.

September 28 – Fresh Spins : Dark Matters

We’ve all seen the old guys with toupees bombing along in convertible sports cars, rap music blaring for all to hear trying so desperately to defy time. Thankfully that’s not The Stranglers.  If not the best of the myriad British punk bands of the 1970s, The Stranglers certainly are the most resilient. “We’re a bunch of old guys now,” bassist and clear leader J.J. Burnel told Uncut. “And I wanted out music to reflect that.”

Old; perhaps not, but certainly a good deal more mature than the brawling, leather-jacketed lads who sang about being “Down in the Sewer” or “walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches” over 40 years ago. The result is Dark Matters, their 18th studio album, out this month, one Burnel has said is “our first ‘grown-up’ record.”

That too is an over-statement; the band has clearly been maturing and expanding their musical boundaries since the ’80s. But Dark Matters does feel different. And no wonder. It’s been eight years since their last record, and a lot has happened since then. Jet Black, their sinister-looking drummer went from being the full-time pounder to a guy who’d play a song at encores if they were playing close to home to a fully-retired, ailing 80-something the rest now look at as a sort of Yoda, a wise senior statesmen advisor. More significantly, of course, the world has changed in the past 18 months with the pandemic, and one of its first celebrity victims was the band’s ultra-talented but…odd…keyboardist Dave Greenfield. His odd ways and haircuts are revealed by Burnel to be attributable to his being autistic, innocent and blissfully unaware of much of what was going on around him (think a pleasanter version of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.) Thankfully, this record had been in the works for years and many Greenfield keyboard bits were already taped and ready to go leading to his eerie posthumous presence on most of the tracks. The one exception to that was the tribute “And If You Should See Dave” they did after his death, with the sad “here is where your solo would go” at the end.

Dark Matters lives up to its name. The 11-song effort isn’t cheery in feel. It is however, well-played, eclectic and full of earworms that catch you whether you want them to or not. What it is not is a load of ’70s snot-nosed punk revisited. At first listen, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the overall feel is one of British prog rock (!) aiming to not lose touch of the pop world altogether. Greenfield’s swirling keyboards add to the oft-anthemic seeming songs that at times seem almost reminiscent of early Rush or like something which might have been written for Queen late in its Freddie years. Of course there are exceptions; “The Lines”, is startling for its directness and simplicity, a spoken-word poem about aging with minimal acoustic guitar and organ accompaniment. There’s still a lot of anger and hostility barely below the surface, but unlike the Meninblack of 45 years back, now it’s a focused rage against dictatorships (“No Man’s Land”), rallying freedom-fighters (“Water”) and questioning the ever-burgeoning space race. That in the very proggy “Last Men On The Moon” (Canadian fans might think they even detect a hint of Prism in it) which contains one of the most laugh-out-loud lines we’ve heard in a long time : “with all the things you can chase/ they’re putting geckoes into space”. Which is deeper than it might seem at first glance, but does highlight the album’s weak link, which is the lyrics. While not bad anywhere in the album, they do seem rather basic in places and under-written; the bombastic “White Stallion”, for instance (about the American “ceding of moral superiority in the world” according to J.J., with China waiting in the wings to take over) gets bogged down in a nonsensical “kissing in the rain” chorus.

That said, the songs largely lend themselves to singing along and at their best do indeed make you think about this world we live in. Mostly though, The Stranglers demonstrate they can still play. Thankfully, J.J.’s booming bass really power through songs like “No Man’s Land” and Baz Warne drops in some very nice, Chris Isaak-y, almost flamenco guitar hooks here and there, and Greenfield was still as stellar upto his final days. They also still rock and as much as ever, and mostly have a great ear for a catchy chorus and hook. My bottom line is that while nothing here rises to all-time greatness, almost all of the songs are worthy and it’s an album that bears repeated listening.

A good mature rock album that looks forward while giving a nod to the past. I’m happy to report it’s already hit #4 on the UK album charts. I give it 4 flying lizards out of 5.

 

(Early purchasers get a bonus CD of live performances dedicated to Dave Greenfield. It’s worth grabbing if you’re a fan, but not their best live record and inexplicably, the man it pays tribute to – the keyboardist – seems mixed rather low in the balance.)

November 14 – Bonus Bit : I Am What I Play

Once again we present a piece shared with Hanspostcard’s site, Slice the Life, and his “desert island” picks, in which I and nine others, get to pick some of the greatest albums of all time. Today, a bit of a twist, the topic is music-related movies.

Well, the Professor must’ve found a way to make a DVD player from coconuts and a screen out of bamboo shoots, because we’re now allowed one music-themed movie or film on Hanspostcard’s “desert island.”

Now, logically I probably should go for something with lots of music I’d like to watch and hear regularly like one of U2’s live shows – maybe the Slaine Castle one in Ireland – or a video compilation from The Stranglers or Depeche Mode since I’ve neglected them so far and feel that’s not quite kosher. Maybe that’s what I should do. But…no question about it, I have to take along one which has one of my friends co-starring in it and which drives home one of my major music themes. Or at least, it’s the one I want to share here with you good readers. So the island better have wi-fi, ’cause I’m taking along I Am What I Play.

I Am What I Play is a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Roger King, and it honors not only four individuals, but a disappearing way of life. The radio DJ who was a “personality” instead of a faceless corporate voice, and radio that was fresh. Exciting. Bold. New.

If you’re a regular reader at my own music blog, you’ve probably noticed a recurring theme with me, that radio today isn’t like the radio of my childhood. And it’s not new and improved. I grew up in the ’70s listening to AM hit radio which put together a mish-mash of different sounds and genres, which seemed incongruous…but worked! Spinners, Elton, Diana Ross, Kiss, Tom T. Hall, Firefall, Yvonne Elleman in one set? Why not!? It worked. Nowadays, everything is tightly structured and narrow in range. And the DJs back then were personalities. They had personality, they came into our rooms and cars like friends. WKRP in Cincinnati might have been a little far-fetched, but the basic premise was real… radio was fun, unpredictable and personal. Johnny would have fun and play what he wanted, and then Venus would bring in his own attitude and music to spin the next shift. We liked those people, we got to hear a lot of music so in turn we liked those stations. In life imitating art, a classic WKRP episode involved Johnny Fever trying to stay calm and keep callers calm when a tornado ripped through the city. In 2009, when a tornado hit Toronto and severe storms ravaged the suburbs, my Mom told me it was one of the local DJs we meet in the movie who kept her calm as she listened to the radio… not even a program she typically tuned in. No more when you flip on the FM button. And AM … forget it, unless you want to hear people shouting at each other about politics. I Am What I Play looks back on the golden age of radio by profiling four legendary radio DJs, all of whom have been honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

There’s the outspoken and argumentative Charles Laquidara, a Boston radio fixture; the Glass Ceiling-busting Meg Griffin from New York; Seattle’s liason to the stars, Pat O’Day and the shaper of Toronto’s sounds for years, David Marsden. A full note of disclosure if necessary, I feel lucky to call Marsden a personal friend of mine, and I’ve interviewed him twice, once for a major Toronto newspaper and once for an upscale regional magazine. I’ve at times helped carry cases of CDs into the studio for him (on his last commercial gig, he said he’d cart along about 6000 songs from his own collection each night to supplement the station’s library) and have once or twice sat in the studio with him while he worked away. He’s one of the nicest people I know, and one of the most passionate about music and radio. To him, it’s a personal, ever-changing thing. So, how cool is that to see him profiled in a movie? I’m sure people in New England feel as strongly about Laquidara, in the Northwest about O’Day and in the Big Apple about Griffin as they all had great careers, knew their listeners and loved music. None of the four loved the commercial radio game, or where it was taking the media of late.

The movie gives about equal time to each of the four, showcasing their careers and the parallels between them. All of them wanted to get into radio when young and loved music, although Laquidara initially wanted to be a graphic artist and knew classical music a bit better than pop. He would throw Bach on alongside the Rolling Stones, he remembers, saying “people thought it was genius, but I really just didn’t know (what I was supposed to be doing)”. All four faced some roadblocks and started at the low end of the totem pole. Marsden had to hitchhike over 200 miles to get to his first job; Griffin’s first job was at a tiny 3000W station in upstate New York run out of a farmhouse. We see history transpire through their careers. O’Day let Jimi Hendrix play at a small concert he was promoting in exchange for Jimi letting the headliner use his amp (which was far better than the club one!) . Later on it was the same DJ who had to arrange for Hendrix’ funeral after bringing his body home to Seattle. Griffin and Marsden both knew John Lennon; he’d sometimes pop in to see Meg in her New York studio; David was at John and Yoko’s bed-in in Montreal. Needless to say, his death impacted both of them significantly. All four had glancing work in TV and video but seemed to reject it as a lifestyle or great option for delivering music to the masses. We learn of the problems and risks of being a popular DJ; Laquidara in particular had drug issues while Marsden had to keep his sexuality hidden for years and once had to escape a station which had been taken over by terrorists. Griffin had to avoid a stalker. These people have stories to tell!

We find through it the common thread of coming to the forefront when being a radio DJ was being a SOMEONE. Having thousands of people standing outside when you’re broadcasting just to get a glimpse of you, or your autograph. Having your name on the posters for concerts alongside the stars playing. At their best, at their wildest and most sincere, the radio personalities rivaled the artists they played when it came to recognition and star power. They made good money and touched people’s lives, and mostly, all four of them played music they were passionate about, as they saw fit. At times they all walked away from jobs that dictated exactly what they did or played. Not surprisingly, none of them are still active on traditional commercial over-the-air radio anymore nor have much positive to say about today’s bland, standardized , faceless radio. More and more radio stations don’t even feature DJs, except for perhaps on a syndicated morning show, and why would they? There’s nothing local or unique about Bob-this or Q-that or The Wolf or Eagle or Wolf-eagle with their tight playlists set by programmers in New York and L.A., spun out by computers. But if you search for it, you can still find interesting, exciting radio and radio people who were personalities.

Though the movie is about people who love music and brought it to us, there isn’t a great deal of actual music in it. But the careful listener will pick up on bits of great radio songs like “Around the Dial” by the Kinks, “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush and “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles during it. Nonetheless, for people who love music, and love interesting people, this is a must-see movie.

I Am What I Play is supposed to be out there on DVD, but I’ve not yet found a copy. however, it is available readily on Amazon as a streaming movie, available for one-time rental or purchase, and may show up elsewhere on the internet if you dig around enough.

It’s a great doc, and a great reminder of the times when even if you were stranded on a desert island, you wouldn’t feel alone…if you had a radio.

November 1 – Bonus Bit : Billy Joel

Once again we present a piece written for Hanspostcard’s Slice the Life site and the “album draft” of “desert island” records. This time around, the subject is compilation albums.

So, “compilation” albums…but no box sets. The best ofs and greatest hits, the quick summations of a career on one (or two) easy records or CDs. A concept I’ve always liked. Which I realize puts me quite at odds with some of the other writers here, which is fine. To me, there are some types of greatest hits compilations which make eminent sense.

For example, ones by acts which were always singles-oriented. Let’s face it, pre-Pet Sounds and Revolver, a lot of artists concentrated on just that jukebox-ready single and rushed to put eight or nine other tracks onto the LP, which was an afterthought. I’m thinking of you, early Motown, though the Supremes or Four Tops were a long way from unique in that category.

Then there are the one-hit wonders, or two-hit wonders. In some cases, they deserved better fates, but in some cases, well… no offence intended Jack Hues, but does anyone really need seven Wang Chung albums at this point? Probably one Best Of will dish up all that most of us will really feel like listening to more than once or twice a decade. In a similar vein, there are artists who were prolific and put out some great albums but maybe just don’t appeal to me as much as they do to some others. I don’t dislike Styx, for example, but might not go out and buy The Grand Illusion or Kilroy Was Here. But if I’m walking through Walmart and see a greatest hits of their in a $4 bin, it could be a sale.

Then there are even the ones that might be worthwhile if they’re redundant in one’s collection (my pick today is close to that category but not exactly). The opposite of the last area, some bands or singers you like so much you want all their work. But sometimes it’s good to the real core hits on one disc for times when you can’t be shuffling around records or CDs that much… a Beatles compilation is handy for a half hour drive around the city, for example.

For me, I have a bigger percentage of these sorts of albums in my collection for another reason. Largely budgetary. I once had a pretty large collection of CDs with a fair number of LPs and singles still from the ’70s and first half of the ’80s; alas, I lost almost all of them a bit over a decade back. C’est le vie. So, I’ve been dealing with trying to rebuild my collection since and I don’t usually have the spare cash to just go wild in a record store and haul home a cartload at a time. (Then again,where would I find a record shop these days anyway?). So sometimes a Best Of is not my dream album for an artist but is better than nothing.

All that said, it made it really difficult for me to narrow it down to one pick. I ended up with about five strong contenders, artists whom I’d really like to have a selection of along with me. Run-sew-Read narrowed it down by one by picking Gordon Lightfoot, which left me with a trio of greatest hits’ I listen to start-to-finish routinely. Shout outs to Atlanta Rhythm Section, Squeeze and Howard Jones. But to me, I really would want some Piano Man with me on that island so my pick is-

The Essential Billy Joel. A 2001 double-CD best of that covered more or less Joel’s entire career. Three dozen tracks starting with “Piano Man” and running through to a couple of interesting classical instrumentals from his 2001 concerto Fantasies and Delusions. In between, pretty much all of his hit singles (“Just the Way You Are”, “Only the Good Die Young”, “You May Be Right”, “Allentown”, “Uptown Girl”, “The Longest Time”, “A Matter of Trust”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and so many more) plus some of his better album tracks or lesser-known singles like “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, “ Baby Grand” – a duet with Ray Charles – and “New York State of Mind.” Now a diehard fan could definitely split hairs and find a worthy song or two not included – “You’re Only Human” comes to mind – or an album track that you especially like that’s omitted, but it’s a pretty solid collection that captures most of the high points of his great career.

I’ve always liked Billy’s music right back to when I first heard the piano and harmonica-laden story of “Piano Man” on radio as a kid; I got The Stranger and 52nd Street on LP I think with my first package from Columbia House when I was a tween or young teen around the beginning of the ’80s and filled in the collection right through his under-rated The Bridge in the late-’80s. There was a time when he was in vogue and I liked him, then there was a time when he was very “uncool” but I’d still listen to Glass Houses or An Innocent Man right in between say Depeche Mode and Bauhaus. Once (or if) this pandemic ever goes away, seeing him in one of his monthly Madison Square Gardens shows is somewhere on my bucket list. His song structure, voice, and story-telling always have appealed to me and there aren’t many artists around whom I would enjoy hearing 30-odd tracks in a row from. Most of the ones who do fall into that category already have been picked by me for at least one album, so now’s Billy’s turn.

By the way, some might wonder why I chose this and not the more ubiquitous 1985 Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I mean, this album is triple platinum in the U.S. but his Greatest Hits is an astounding 23X platinum. Well, two reasons. First, we get more good tracks on this compilation. While the ’80s one did have “You’re only Human” lacking here, this one contains songs from albums after ’83 like The Bridge and River of Dreams. Secondly, I have found the quality of Greatest Hits to be iffy. I once had a copy which was fine but the last copy I bought a few years back was frankly lacking. It was poorly mastered, rather quiet in comparison to most discs and very muddy sounding. Little dynamic range. In contrast, I find the sound quality on The Essential to be top notch. Much like the music.

October 27 – Bonus Bit : Forrest Gump Soundtrack

Once again we return to the companion project I’ve been working on this summer and fall over at Hanspostcard’s Slice the Life site. It, as you’re probably tired of reading by now, involved ten of us music fans writing about 100 great albums in a sort of “desert island” draft. Well, he’s added in a couple more rounds, and this one is dedicated to just movie soundtracks. Here was my pick.

I was very glad when Hanspostcard decided to extend out this very cool exercise by a few weeks and add in some soundtracks (as well as compilations and movies to come.) But just as narrowing down albums in general to just 10 to pick is a huge challenge, getting just one soundtrack is tough too with so many good ones out there.

Narrowing down the field, first it seemed obvious to me that the object here was the music, not the film. The “rules” suggest we have a stereo on the desert island (hey, if The Millionaire had golf clubs and diamonds on Gilligan’s Island, why not?) but not a TV or video player. So the best movie is of no use if the soundtrack to it is lame…we’re not going to see it or follow the story. That considered, it brought down the reasonable selections to me to about five or six.

Max already took the Beatles Help, a fine album from the Fab Four, so that got us down to four or five. I also said, “so long, farewell” to the uber-hit soundtrack of the ’60s, The Sound of Music. A little hokey perhaps, but hey, who doesn’t like classics like “Edelweiss” or “The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music.” But without the film, it wouldn’t be quite the same. And then there were perhaps three. I am not ashamed to say I like some disco, and it gets no better than Saturday Night Fever . A good album, but it fell just a wee bit short for me.

That left me with a toss-up between two. One had existing songs brilliantly picked to go with the movie, and a lot of them. The other had mostly new songs created for the movie. One was largely music from just a tad before “my time”, the other had music from my great teen or college years – or at least now my memory serves them up as “great.” Surprisingly though, that one came a close second to me. Ultimately, it came down to quantity, and the soundtrack to the newer movie with the older sounds just delivered more good songs I would like to listen to a lot. Sorry, Molly Ringwald, Pretty in Pink was great, but the soundtrack I’d be hauling with me is…

Forrest Gump. The 2001 re-release of the soundtrack on CD, specifically. That version added in two more songs from the movie that weren’t on the original 1990s edition, bringing it to 34 songs over two discs, about an hour and a half of mostly familiar, largely great music from the ’60s and ’70s.

Now, I’m sure on that island, I would listen to the soundtrack quite a bit, but also am sure I’d be frustrated at not having the movie to accompany it. I love Forrest Gump. A buddy and I went to see it days after it came out because the commercials looked interesting. It blew me away, from the camera following the blowing feather to begin, through the brilliant superimposing of Gump (Tom Hanks) in all sorts of historical settings which was ahead of its time for digital technology. It made me laugh, made me nearly jump out of my seat when the rains stopped in “Vee-et-nam” (“it’s this whole other country”). I liked it so much I took my mom to see it a few days later; she too was blown away. I believe I went to see it on the big screen one more time and still try to catch it pretty regularly when it shows up on TV, or when I dust off the DVD. To me, no wonder it took the Best Picture Oscar and five others. That however, is the movie. The music was equally solid and well-thought out. Over 40 songs (in total, a few such as “Hello, I Love You” and especially “Free Bird” are used but don’t make it onto the CD) picked carefully to fit the ever-changing moods of the film. Young Forrest running away from the town bullies to Duane Eddy’s twangy “Rebel Rouser.” His love Jenny following her dream of being a folk singer, playing Joan Baez in a strip club. CCR’s pointedly political and critical “Fortunate Son” welcoming Forrest and his buddy Bubba to Vietnam after being drafted. The Supremes “Stoned Love” as he and “Loo-tenant Dan” celebrate a cheerless new year’s in a squalid apartment with smoky hookers. And of course, “Running on Empty” (one of my favorite songs of the ’70s, I might add) as Forrest tried to make sense of it all running the miles across the country. So many vivid scenes, so many songs. The observant listener might notice all the acts included are American; director Robert Zemeckis wanted it that way. He figured Forrest was so proudly American, he’d want to hear American music. The only exception was John Lennon, who appears and talks about “Imagine” but doesn’t sing it in the film.

The listing of the songs:

“Hound Dog” – Elvis Presley

“Rebel Rouser” – Duane Eddy

“But I Do” – Frogman Henry

“Walk Right In” – Rooftop Singers

“Land of 1000 Dances” – Wilson Pickett

“”Blowin’ in the Wind” – Joan Baez

“Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival

“I Can’t Help Myself” – four Tops

“Respect” – Aretha Franklin

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” – Bob Dylan

“Sloop John B” – Beach Boys

“California Dreamin’” – Mamas & the Papas

“For What It’s Worth” – Buffalo Springfield

“What The World Needs Now” – Jackie DeShannon

“Break On Through” – The Doors

“Mrs. Robinson “ – Simon & Garfunkel

“Volunteers” – Jefferson Airplane

“Get Together” – Youngbloods

“San Francisco” – Scott McKenzie

“Turn, Turn, turn” – The Byrds

“Aquarius-Let The Sun Shine In” – 5th Dimension

“Everybody’s Talkin’” – Nilsson

“Joy To The World” – Three Dog Night

“Stoned Love” – Supremes

“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” – BJ Thomas

“Mr. President” – Randy Newman

“Sweet Home Alabama” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Running On Empty” – Jackson Browne

“It Keeps You Runnin’” – Doobie Bros.

“My Imagination” – Gladys Knight & the Pips

“Go Your Own Way” – Fleetwood Mac

“On The Road Again” – Willie Nelson

“Against the wind” – Bob Seger

“The Forrest Gump Suite” – Alan Silvestri ((the only original piece on the soundtrack))

Quite a lineup.No wonder it went to #1 in Canada and sold over 10 million copies around the world! I wouldn’t say I adore each and every one of the tunes, but it’s got a pretty great batting average, especially in delivering some of the best of the ’60s, not my overall favorite decade for music… “Get Together”, “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “For What It’s Worth”…

Well, I might be pining for my own “Jennie” so to speak, alone on that island, but with this double disc on top of the ten regular albums I previously selected, I’d at least not be lacking for great sounds for when the island birds and wildcats got quiet!

October 14 – Bonus Bit : R.E.M., Part II

As you know by now, this summer and fall I was lucky to be chosen to take part in a music event on Hanspostcard’s “Album draft” whereby ten of us music scribblers review 10 great albums each. Today we come to my tenth and final (*) pick. I put an asterisk because we’ve been given an inkling that we might extend it out a little longer to look at special categories of music releases… stay tuned.

I think my nine fellow music fans/writers in this event probably share the sense of wistfulness getting to this round of the Album Draft. Round 10, the last call so to speak, which inevitably leaves all of us with quite a list of fantastic records we have to jettison to wrap this event up.

A tough call indeed to narrow it down to just ten. For me though, since the event was first proposed I had the idea of bookending my list with a couple of albums from one act that has been central to my listening and life, good times and bad for well over three decades. My first album pick weeks ago was their best album – Automatic for the People by R.E.M. My last pick is a more divisive album by them. Some people like it, others found it a huge disappointment…but it was Fables of the Reconstruction that made me love the group. The 1985 release was their third.

On a recent pick by a fellow participant here, Bob Mould’s Workbook was mentioned and I remembered that album was one I bought after hearing no more than ten minutes of it while it was played in a record shop. It sounded that good. The rest of the record was as good as those eight or nine minutes and I never regretted the purchase. Fables of the Reconstruction was the same… so yes, there are geeks around like the ones Rob gets to buy that Massive Attack record in High Fidelity just by playing a track! I was shopping in the record store in the “Shops up top” in the mall in my city – one of three record stores in it back then, try to wrap your head around that, Millennials! – and the opening guitar wallop of “Driver 8” kicked in over the stores PA. I was mezmorized. I already knew who R.E.M. were by that point (this was maybe 1987 or so and I had at least one album of theirs) but I didn’t recognize this song. By the second chorus, I was at the counter asking about it. I have no recollection of what I might have been looking for originally that day, but by the time the next song was on, I was out the door with a copy of Fables… I couldn’t even be bothered to price check the other two stores. And once again, it was a case where I was never disappointed.

The Georgia band’s first two albums, Murmur and Reckoning, were both very good, and revered by most music critics. While they were good, and the songs were different from each other (not to mention most of what was on radio back then), the albums had a definite consistent sound and theme. Fast-paced jangly rock with a prominent Rickenbacker guitar played by Peter Buck and rather mumbled lyrics sung by Michael Stipe. A good recipe but one that could have gotten old very quickly. Thankfully, the band decided it was time to change it up a little for their third album, and they did. Thus, Fables of the Reconstruction is referred to as often as “transitional” as anything else. They didn’t abandon those beloved elements of the prior records entirely, but they did venture into other musical lanes that pointed towards some of their future work (like more country-based folk rock with traditional instruments that flourished on Out of Time) and some that were rather random, but seemed to work nonentheless, like the neo-psychedelic feel of songs like “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” If there is a theme at all to the record, it’s probably songs about “the deep south”. Odd that, as it was an album they made in Britain, with a new producer. Maybe they were homesick. That producer by the way, was Joe Boyd, who’d worked on albums by the likes of Nick Drake and Maria Muldaur as well as on Pink Floyd’s early hit “See Emily Play”

, which might partly explain some of the folkish and psychedelic tinges.

Less coherent than the previous two albums, I find the variety made the album that much better. They were expanding their boundaries musically just as they were broadening their personal worlds. We still have Peter’s cool guitar dripping through many of the songs, but it’s backed with a more rumbling low end on the train song “Driver 8”, with a nice string section on “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” and all but replaced by a banjo on the country-ish “Wendell Gee.” Wendell was a car salesman in their city, apparently a memorable one and their hometown was an inspiration for many of the songs, albeit rather obliquely. “Maps and Legends” was for eccentric local artist Howard Finster, a backwoods minister, Elvis fan and painter who’d painted their previous album cover. I have a friend who’s a singer that got to meet the now deceased Finster; she remembered him as a lovely, talkative old man who quickly painted her a tiny canvas of a school bus to take with her.

Overall it’s a headphones album, which Pitchfork describes accurately as “dark and murky”, a painterly look at old Dixie “images of railroads, small towns, eccentric locals, oppressive humidity.” Rolling Stone added “one absorbs the sounds of these songs, one by one, mood by mood” and suggest Michael Stipe’s “dusky voice (is) an extraordinarily evocative instrument, perhaps the lead instrument in this band.” Indeed, like everything else on Fables…, his voice is fine and marks a transition in the group. He sings more clearly than on the previous records, but is still mumbly compared to ’90s Michael. And more than before, we got the great combination of the Mikes… Stipe singing lead with bassist Mike Mills singing a sort of counter-harmony on songs like “Wendel Gee” and “Driver 8.”

I like every song on the album, but curiously my least favorite is the first single off it, “Can’t Get There From Here,” an upbeat single with horns and a “little bit of a soul feel” according to Buck…not a bad song, but rather a throwaway in their vast catalog despite actually being their first single to make the charts in my Canada. The highlights were many, including “Maps and Legends”, “Wendel Gee”, “Old Man Kensey”, “Good Advices” (with the lines about “I’d like it here if I could leave and see it from a long ways away” I actually made a point of playing it in my car when I came back to the Canadian border on a couple of trips in my younger years) and mostly “Driver 8.”

Ah yes, “Driver 8.” That song alone would make the album one I needed to have with me. It caught me the first time I heard it and it’s become my personal pseudo-anthem. I’ve self-published a couple of books; my publishing company is DRiver 8 Publishing. It’s a fun song, it’s a rockin’ song, it’s a song about trains and I like trains! Mostly though, it’s a song that beautifully balances realism and unbridled optimism, a balance I find useful in life. “We can reach our destination, but it’s still a ways away….” that line kind of says it all to me, no matter what the subject! Michael Stipe said after listening to it months after recording he said to himself “wow, that’s really good! You’re not the hoax you think you are.”

Fables of the Reconstruction did OK for R.E.M. It wasn’t a flop but neither did it break the door down for them. It eventually hit gold status in the States. Surprising maybe in that it was different. Peter Buck said back then “there’s a style of production that’s predominant” which was “mostly digital, real slick-sounding… real crisp and real sterile. Our records don’t sound like that.” He noted it might be hard to slot ‘Wendel Gee’ in on radio between Foreigner and Joan Jett. Maybe so but without singling out those two particular acts specifically, Fables of the Reconstruction may sound a whole lot better now than some of those super-slick mid-’80s acts. To me at least.

Pitchfork summed it up a few years back : “A fine album that has aged very well.” Indeed it has. An impressionistic aural journey through the South that holds up like a Van Gogh in a gallery.

And we haven’t quite reached our destination yet.

October 5 – Bonus Bit : Midnight Oil

Another one of my album picks for Hanspostcard’s 100 Album Draft this summer and fall, this the ninth out of ten regular picks.

It’s getting to the “interesting” part of this 100 album draft arranged by Hanspostcard. Interesting because many of us have picked some obscure albums in the last couple of rounds, exposing us to some new records and in a few cases, even artists who are new to us, and interesting as in “frustrating.” Frustrating to me at least, because as we go into Round 9, well, there are just too many great albums to narrow it down so much! I have had my tenth and final pick tentatively picked for a few weeks so Round 9 means I had to opt for a final album out of …many. So many. I had a list of at least half a dozen I wanted to do, and even had this round’s half-written about another album before changing my mind yet again. **Spoiler Alert** – there are rumblings of an extra bonus round or two for specific categories, stay tuned to find out more from Hans if that happens, so a little strategy played into it as well. If I leave “this artist” out now, I might be able to bring them back in an extra round and go for a different album this time sort of thing.

Anyway, there are many, many albums I’d like to recommend and rave about still, but for this round I’m going with the great rock and roll album of the 1980s, Midnight Oil‘s Diesel and Dust. Forget Motley Crue and Ratt, this was the tour de force hardcore rock album of the era.

It was the Aussie’s sixth album, and one much-awaited Down Under., I’m sure. By 1987, they were already immensely popular there, their previous album being a #1 hit in their homeland. But over here, not so much. Perhaps they caught a break with the timing. As The Simpsons once spoofed, in the ’80s North America had a brief infatuation with all things Australian – Crocodile Dundee, Men At Work, Yahoo Serious, Fosters beer, vegemite sandwiches. All good fun but a little lightweight. “They’re Australian too, like Men At Work. And Elle McPherson,” one can imagine Columbia Records execs telling American radio people in the day. Yes they were, but they were anything but lightweight!

Midnight Oil had always been a rock band, and a political one to boot. But things really ramped up for them when they toured much of the Outback with a number of Black Aboroginal artists in the mid-’80s, seeing the conditions in the small towns and reservation-like land holdings and hearing the story. The result was Diesel and Dust, an album Rolling Stone declared was “the last word in rock and roll road songs”, a package that “roars and throbs like the giant double-trailer trucks that chew up the asphalt ribbons” that straddle the endless desert miles of the island continent. They also picked it as the best album of the year.I figured I’d need at least one upbeat, high-energy record to get me up. out of the hammock and moving on that island, and this is a good one. Nay, a great one.

The ten songs all bubble with energy, even the relatively slowish few like “Arctic World” and “Whoah”, a song kicked off with an acoustic guitar intro that moves from lulling you to sleep to kicking you await and seethes with pent-up energy and anger one feels is about to break loose any moment. Even the chorus with its harmonic lullaby-like “Whoah”s is challenged by singer Peter Garrett’s sneering “don’t want to see you around” .

The best tracks though are full-tilt rockers like “Bullroarer”, “The Dead Heart” and of course, the international hit single, “Beds Are Burning.” A “Bullroarer” is actually an ancient tribal instrument, played by swinging it around over one’s head (shows how much I knew about Australia… I used to assume it was another name for a Bulldozer!) that can be heard at the start of the song telling people “don’t take the law into your own hands, don’t go looking for a fight” before kicking into a chorus that dares you not to join in. The song ends with some nice jangly guitars, reminding me of how Pop Matters rated the album 9 out of 10 and compared it to “punk-informed fire by way of a little REM jangle.” Not a bad description for the song, or the album in general. Two of the finest musical movements of the previous decade rolled into one booming sonic kaleidoscope.

“Beds Are Burning,” as Jim Harrington, a California journalist noted, is “an all-time modern rock anthem” which let “the rest of the world get the picture” of what Australians knew, that Midnight Oil was their most political, and best, rock band. It roared onto the North American airwaves and TV screens in the desert-like summer of ’88 (the line “the western desert lives and breathes at 45 degrees” seemed very fitting to me, and many on our side of the ocean that year, as it was an abnormally hot summer. 45 degrees, by the way, would be about 113 Fahrenheit over here…Australia use Metric.) The song, and the album as a whole captured that Australian heat and burning energy emphatically. In fact, emphatic seems to be a good phrase to sum up the album. And catchy, hook-laden too.

The lyrics tend to be political, and often Australian-specific, but on a broader level apply the world over. Again referring to Pop Matters, they mention retrospectively how “‘the Dead Heart’ conveys sentiments that feel all too relevant in today’s globalized economies : ‘mining companies, pastoral companies, uranium companies, collected companies, got more rights than people, got more say than people.” I have to agree with that, and while I’m not up on all the issues the Oil address in the songs, and might even find things to disagree with Garrett over, here and there if I were, it’s hard to dislike a message delivered so passionately. They kept the main thing about being a political band front and center on Diesel and Dust – that the music has to be the main thing above the message. When the lines became blurry for Garrett, to his great credit, he quit the band and decided to go into politics himself to work for change off-stage. He was elected three times to the Aussie government and was even Minister of Environment, as well as Minister in charge of Education for the country at times. If anyone can ignore or disrespect that, it’s beyond me how. Eventually he got tired of the politics of , well, politics, and restarted Midnight Oil not long ago.

Emphatic. Urgent. Rockin’. And Australian… what could be more appropriate for a record to take to a “desert island” than a fine example of music made on an island that is largely desert?

Diesel and Dust. Listen. Dance along. Shout along. I regret about six or seven albums I won’t name right now that aren’t here… but this album was very deserving of a top ten list.

September 26 – Bonus Bit : Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs

Another one of my additions to the fun and interesting “Album Draft” over at Hanspostcard’s site, which as I’ve said before involves ten of us each reviewing 10 different albums a piece over 100 days (give or take.) Today, my eighth pick is a little less widely known than it should be:

Time to add one to the list that may not have changed the world and wasn’t altogether original…but was outstanding. An album that just screams laid-back good cheer, an album that makes me feel good when I listen to it. Bring on “head-Bangle” Susanna Hoffs and “buddy of R.E.M’s” Matthew Sweet with Under the Covers, Vol. 1. An odd album in that both the artists are talented writers and players, but there’s not one new or original song on it. But that won’t be what you’re thinking when you give it a listen.

UTC V1 is a tribute to a sound and a bygone era…the 1960s and the smart, catchy pop music that was so intrinsic to them. Music they both loved. Happily, both Susanna and Matthew had similar tastes, although Hoffs was living it more than Sweet. As he pointed out when talking about the ’70s, “I was ten years old in 1974, so I remember it more on AOR radio, and Sue was in college then, so she had a different world view.”

The age difference also showed in their careers; Susanna was in the Bangles selling records by the score in the 1980s; Sweet was just starting his musical career in the shadows, mostly in Athens, Georgia. He was a big fan of R.E.M. (he names them and Big Star as the last two bands he “fanned out” on), met them in their early days at a show in a smallish venue in Omaha, made friends with Peter Buck (who suggested he get Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys) and after talking with Michael Stipe, got a postcard a few days later telling him “Come to Athens. Make music!” He did.

In the ’90s, he put out several popular power-pop albums that did well on college radio but had only lukewarm sales compared to his friends R.E.M. Or compared to Hoffs’ Bangles. Those two met because Susanna was a fan of Matthew’s, and living in L.A., had connections. She and her husband took Mike Myers to a Matthew Sweet concert. The actor was impressed and hired both on to sing in a fictitious band (Ming Tea) used in one scene of his Austin Powers movie. The two hit it off, finding a common love of Rickenbacker guitars and the pop records made by their users (and others.) In 2006, they decided it would be fun to get together and play a few of their favorite songs of the ’60s. Under the Covers was the result; originally it was just that, but their fans were so happy with the results and they liked working together, it soon became Volume 1, as they’d do similar album tributes to the ’70s, then ’80s. “There’s just so many cool things that we both liked!” Sweet told interviewers.

“We give a lot of weight to what the original was like, and why we found it appealing…we’re trying to be true to it,” he added. I’d say they succeeded, as did allmusic. That review site point out they “always displayed an unapologetic love of ’60s pop in their own music (so this) feels logical and right.” They add the pair “display exceptionally good taste.” That they did in song selection and playing.

Although Hoffs is a fine guitarist in her own right, for the most part she sticks to adding her lovely vocals and lets Matthew take the lead with the six-string, with the likes of Rick Menck on drums and Van Dyke Parks on keyboards. Not a bad nod to the decade there as Van Dyke was a collaborator with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys at their creative acme. “They’ve bagged the best of the ’60s with uncanny insight,” he said, “I know – I was there.”

They did and they picked a remarkable but somewhat obscure list of songs from the decade. They picked some of the best, and best known artists of the decade – the Beatles for starters, and the Who, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bee Gees (although purists will point out the Bee Gees track included “Run to Me” was actually an early-’70s release…but it fits) and the Mamas and the Papas, but supplemented them with some lesser-known acts like Love and the Left Banke. But if tackling things like “Hey Jude” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again” might have been a bit audacious, they tended to lesser-known hits by the biggies. Arguably the most famous songs they included might be “Cinnamon Girl” and “The Kids are Alright.” The songs they covered were (and the original artists) :

I See The Rain – The Marmelade

And Your Bird Can Sing – The Beatles

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Bob Dylan

Who Knows Where the Time Goes? – Fairport Convention

Cinnamon Girl – Neil Young

Alone Again, Or – Love

Warmth of the Sun – Beach Boys

Different Drum – Linda Ronstadt & Stone Poneys

The Kids Are Alright – The Who

Sunday Morning – Velvet Underground

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young (again!)

Care of Cell 44 – Zombies

Monday, Monday – Mamas & the Papas

She May Call You Up – the Left Banke

Run To Me – Bee Gees

They do a remarkable job, and to me the surprising thing is they somehow remain true to the original all the while infusing them with a sound all their own. About half the songs I knew well already (“The Kids Are Alright”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “Monday, Monday” etc., as well as “Alone Again, Or” which I knew from an ’80s cover by the Damned of all people rather than the original) and about half I must admit, I didn’t know at the time, like “Care of Cell 44”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “She May Call You Up.” But listening to it, it played through smoothly and pleasingly, start to finish. Not only are the two friends apparently, their voices work exceptionally well together. On more of the songs, Susanna sings lead in the voice we so loved in the Bangly-’80s, with Matthew adding some harmonies and backing vocals – “Different Drum”, where she channels Ronstadt very well, for example – while on a few tracks they switch over with Matthew singing lead and “Susie” doing the background . Their summery Beach Boys tribute “Warmth of the Sun” being an example there, while here and there, like “The Kids Are Alright”, they duo all the way through. The backing band is crisp and tight, whether playing the soft rock, easy-listening Bee Gees or Mamas & the Papas songs, the flamenco-guitar laden “Alone Again, Or” or even the jangle rock anthems akin to what Sweet used to make himself – “Cinnamon Girl” with its feedback, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”

So far as I know they didn’t release a single off the album and it would’ve been hard to pick one to “single” out. In a pinch, I’d perhaps think the joyous love song “Care of Cell 44”, “Run to Me” (correctly picked as “a Barry Gibb masterpiece of economy and grandeur” by Hoffs) or “I See the Rain Again” might be the standouts, but there isn’t a bad track on the record. To make it better, the pair write descriptions of the songs and why they meant something to them in the liner notes. “I guess we felt more kick-assedness couldn’t be a bad thing,” they write by way of why they included “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” as a second Young song.

Their subsequent Under the Covers were good as well, but to me, this one was the cream of the crop. Perhaps because some of the songs were “new” to me it sounds fresher, given a lack of starting point for comparison; perhaps they just picked a batch of songs they were perfectly suited to performing. Either way, a loving look back at a bygone era that sounds at once authentic but very current as well. Joyous, jangly, cheery… it lacks the gravitas of some of my other picks and other albums my colleagues have chosen here, but to me, a “Sweet” little piece of comfort food for my ears I’m sure I’d most appreciate on some desert island.

September 14 – Bonus Bit : Psychedelic Furs

Continuing on along with nine other music fans, with the “Album Draft” run by Hans at slice the life this summer, it’s time for my seventh album pick.

Some music is quite timeless, some is very much rooted in the times from which it came. However, when it’s at its best, music sometimes can be both. So for my seventh pick, I choose an album which is definitely a product of the 1980s… but still sounds great to me to this day, the Psychedelic Furs 1984 great, Mirror Moves.

I was raised on AM radio in the ’70s, but a range of FM stations in the ’80s, so my tastes in pop/rock are a bit eclectic. I love the melodies and emphasis on lyrics that so much of the ’70s delivered, but also the wild experimentation ’80s music provided. Offering a little of each, the Psychedelic Furs. Lumped in with “new wave” that was everywhere by that time, they definitely had elements of that sound but they also had a jaggedness that borrowed from the punk of the decade prior and a rather pop sensibility that would have fit in with the AM hits I liked when I was younger. Wikipedia describe them as “austere art rock, touching on new wave and hard rock.” Accurate. To me, the “post-punk” label was as good as any for them, and I usually pictured a triangle at the top of that sound’s chart, featuring Echo & the Bunnymen, Love & Rockets and the Furs. Cool Brits with guitars and synthesizers and new ideas and a great sound. They were all tall and skinny too, so around 1984 I aspired to their looks and hair, usually failing rather badly even though my lanky build was right.

The Psychedelic Furs were built around the a couple of brothers, Richard and Tim Butler. Formed in the late-’70s they were originally a rather large group, with two guitarists, a full-time sax player, drums… they created quite a large and jagged sound with obscure, artsy lyrics. Their first two albums were well-received by critics and a small core of fans, but missed commercially. For their third, Forever Now, they worked with super-producer Todd Rundgren, who imposed his sensibilities onto their sound – surprisingly to the approval of the band’s leader, Richard Butler. He wanted a more accessible sound and Rundgren delivered with the semi-hit “Love My Way.”

A lot transpired in the two years between that album and this, including a paring down of the group. Their original drummer Vince Ely quit, other members drifted away leaving a slimmed-down trio of Furs – Richard Butler, singing and doing the majority of the writing, Tim Butler the bassist (and sometimes co-writer) and guitarist Jon Ashton. This might have been important to the development of Mirror Moves, as it likely played into the choice of producers the band, and Columbia Records, picked – Keith Forsey.

Forsey was an American drummer who cut his musical teeth working with disco superstar Giorgio Moroder (who had spearheaded the career of Donna Summer and created Blondie’s “Call Me”) . A producer who drums checks two boxes for a band whose drummer just quit. Forsey had just begun producing, working on Billy Idol’s solo debut. Idol was probably a good comparison for them, a punkish figure who wanted a slightly glossier, streamlined sound which Forsey delivered, “White Wedding” and all.

Richard Butler set out to create a “pop-py” sounding record, and grow their sales (although he also has said he did not want to ever be Michael Jackson-style popular) . And Forsey being American, the band set out to L.A. and New York to record the record. Those months helped shape the sound and in some cases lyrics that went into it as well.

Forsey brought along his Moroder-style drum machines which dominate the rather predictable beat on some tracks (while others seem to utilize a real, old-fashioned drum kit) and the layering and production does indeed sound as prototypically ’80s as leg-warmers and skinny leather ties look. Still, to me, that’s not a terribly bad thing. Hey, I was young, the world was my oyster, and there was a sense of newness and freshness to everything, especially the music around me. The station I listened to most at the time, CFNY in Toronto was essentially a “college radio” station with a powerful signal and 500 000 listeners which elevated bands like Depeche Mode and Simple Minds to superstar status in the city long before most Americans had ever heard of them. Not coincidentally, Mirror Moves ended up being their #1 album of the year. It was an album that instantly connected with me and one I found myself listening to start to finish repeatedly. One or two of my co-workers on my summer job that year at the conservation authority might well still remember me proseletyzing endlessly about the merits of the Psychedelic Furs on our way out to job sites!

So the album : First off, you have Richard’s voice tying it all together. It gives the band a sort of distinctive continuity no matter what they’re playing (rather like how Michael Stipe does that for R.E.M.) . As Rolling Stone put it back then, “Oy, that Butler!”. They compared him to Bowie trying to imitate Johnny Rotten’s sneer. Nasal and raspy (I saw an interview this summer with him and he noted people usually think he chain-smokes because of his voice but he quit in the ’80s and still sounds the same), it’s a Dylan voice. You either love it or hate it, and if you hate it, you probably won’t like their music, end of story. Thankfully, I quite like his unique gravel truck voice.

The production was the paintjob, but the songs were the frame of this very good album. A remnant of the LP age, it has nine tracks and runs about 38 minutes. More tracks might have been nice, but the limitations of the day resulted in a very consistent and solid album. To me, there’s no real one standout tune on it, but neither are there any throwaway songs. There is melody enough, and hooks aplenty to grab you but enough quirky twists and surprise instruments popping up (for instance, though their old sax player had left, Mars Williams was recruited to add sax and horn breaks here and there, most noticeably on “Like A Stranger”) to keep it from being boring. Butler’s lyrics, his “slyest and sharpest” to the ears of Allmusic, are blurry enough to be painterly without being too obscure. They paint a mental picture in your mind, but it’s an impressionist work. Not abstract, yet neither photographic. For every song about love, there’s one about the way of the world and their experiences in the U.S., and of course, no band harkening back to the psychedelic-’60s in the slightest could be without a song referencing Alice in Wonderland, hence “Alice’s House”.

The best-known tracks on the record are the lovely “Ghost in You”, and the guitar-driven “Heaven”, which was a rare top 30 hit for them in their homeland. If you went out to the clubs back in the day, you probably know “Heartbeat”, with its boogie-woogie sax intro. The extended dance mix hit #4 on American dance charts, somewhere this band seldom dwelled.

I noted there are no dogs on the record, and no one shining hit that eclipsed the rest of the record. But to me, the highlights would include “The Ghost in You”, a lovely little relatively slow love song with some of Tim’s finer bass work and terrific love lyrics (“don’t you go, it makes no sense…”) ; it’s apparent companion piece, “My Time”, which slowly builds in tempo and tension and with lyrics like “It’s my time, to hold out a a hand, and it’s my time to turn on a light for you” would be a much better wedding song than its contemporary that so many people love, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. And we can’t forget “Alice’s House”, maybe referencing the Carroll book, maybe a psychiatric hospital and maybe being the sequel to the story of that mixed up girl they introduced us to in “Pretty in Pink”, the song that led to a classic ’80s movie.

And the finale, “Highwire Days”, with its backbeat drums fading in to striking effect and lyrics scolding the tabloid journalism of the day (which is even more true these days) is a “can’t miss” too.

Speaking of the current relevance, there’s also “Here Come Cowboys,” a good, flat-out rocker of a song inspired by their time in the Reagan-era America, which was a single that Butler didn’t want released. It didn’t do well on the charts but is a fine song and has a video which looks eerily prophetic now in its content that could be taken from today’s news, with the racing police cars, and images of upset Black youth.

All in all, it might not be for everyone. But I like the layer-upon-layer synthesizers and distorted guitars, steady percussion, and multi-dubbed singing. If there’s a record you won’t feel bad singing along to, this could be the one since some songs seems to have four or five vocal tracks going on, so what’s one more voice? There’s enough for me to find something unexpected every time through. It’s an example of the excesses of the mid-’80s, yes, but also an example of great songwriting, fastidious work blending the sounds in the studio and memorable tunes that somehow sounds fresh to me whilst simultaneously taking me back to the tail end of my teenage years.

The Furs just released a brand new album, Made of Rain, by the way. Listening to what I’ve heard of it, the sound is still the same but for great songs the Butler way, you can’t do better than Mirror Moves.

August 27 – Bonus Bit : Pink Floyd

It’s that time again… my sixth piece for Hanspostcard’s Slice the life summer event whereby I, and nine other fine music writers, review ten great albums a piece over 100 days (or so.) Today, I look at one of the truly iconic pieces of the 1970s…

A different kind of album for my next pick. A piece of cultural bedrock that’s about as iconic as they come in pop (and rock) music but far from typical or easy to describe. Hope I have some headphones with me, because my sixth album is made to be heard through them – Pink Floyd‘s huge 1973 opus, Dark Side of the Moon.

My last pick, Scarecrow, was a somewhat unified-sounding collection of songs, and a good one at that. Dark Side of the Moon is unified-sounding, but to me doesn’t even seem a collection of songs. Rather, it is a work. It’s a full-blown symphony put into the context of modern instruments, 20th-Century concerns and rock sensibilities. So popular and renowned is it that if there ended up being aboriginal natives on the “desert island”, I bet they’d come on in and say “Oh, Pink Floyd” if I started playing the album; many a 90-year old with dementia could probably name the record just from looking at the iconic prism and rainbow album cover designed by rock’s best visual artist, Storm Thorgerson. But so meaningless are the song titles and breaks that I imagine half the diehard fans who’ve had the album in their collection for four decades could identify it with about four seconds played from anywhere in the record… but couldn’t name half the “songs” on it.

Pink Floyd were incredibly ambitious and energetic back in the day. Even though their original leader, Syd Barrett had succumbed to a combination of mental illness and drugs so much as to be kicked out of the band and relegated to the sidelines of society, the band had rolled along. Dark Side… was already their eighth LP in only six years of existence. Along the way, they’d veered from a rather band that favored rather pop-py, psychedelic short, standalone songs into a much more complex, prog rock outfit. As well, as Barrett’s departure initially left a vacuum in the band’s leadership, when it came to writing and charting their course, that role was more and more being taken over by Roger Waters. A few years later it was essentially Roger Waters and hired hands making music, but this still showcased the band when David Gilmour had considerable input and Richard Wright co-wrote five of the album’s pieces. Even drummer Nick Mason was credited with composing one song, “Speak to Me.”

Those who argue the record is a bit pompous and overblown wouldn’t necessarily get an argument from me. Then again, many things we love – fireworks displays, Macy’s parades, weddings, Christmas trees – could be said to be the same. It is the flash and over-the-top quality which makes them special. So too Dark Side of the Moon. And a note to those few rock fans who dislike the album – if it’s too orchestral, overblown and ethereal for you, at least thank it for punk. As much as any album, it was probably responsible for the likes of the Ramones and Sex Pistols who popped up a couple of years later more or less as a reaction to the “excesses” of contemporary rock as they saw it. It also probably can be thanked for leading to the Alan Parsons Project, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Dark Side… was rather unlike anything else on radio back then. It really highlighted Richard Wright’s keyboards and proficiency with synthesizers, a rarity still in the early-’70s. And it was an album of sound effects. From cash registers and clinking coins to helicopters to a cacophony of alarm clocks ringing and Wings’ member Henry McCullough’s random adlibbing “I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time” on “Money”(the record was recorded at the Abbey Road Studios the Beatles loved, during their days and later when working solo so presumably McCartney’s band was sharing the space with Floyd), there were lots of things going on. And a sonic landscape painted by Alan Parsons who did things like run numerous tape loops, play piano pieces backwards, bring in Clare Torry to add her lyric-less operatic wailing on “Great Gig in the Sky” and record it all on a state-of-the-art 16-track recorder. For all that, the band only gave him minor credit as “engineer” – most producers do far less and get more pay and more prominent notice on records – which, it’s suggested miffed him enough as to use his skills to make records of his own, which became Alan Parsons Project.

While Waters suggests the album is a concept about “empathy” and the “human experience” (hence the heartbeat sounds which open and close the album) it’s a stretch. Then again, pretty much any record not about UFOs is likely about the “human experience,” is it not? Some of the lyrics are fine and contain great little bon mots – “don’t be afraid to care”, “ Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today” – the thing that ties it together and makes it memorable is the actual music and the way the album rolls up and down, but steadily forward like a tide. The songs all segue together quite like many symphonies but unlike most rock albums. So much is the effect that it sounds quite jarring and well, wrong, to hear a track like “Time” or “Eclipse” isolated and played as a single track on radio, or to get one of the early editions of the CD release which had tiny breaks between each track. Don’t get me wrong. The songs on it are quite great; “Time”, “Us and Them” and “Breathe” are the absolute standouts to me that rank at or near the top of anything the band ever did. Still, this is an album to be listened to from start to finish, 43 minutes at a time.

Wright notes “it was not a deliberate attempt to make a commercial album (although) we knew it had a lot more melody than previous Floyd albums.” I believe that. Melodic yes, outwardly commercial no. It came out at a time when “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” and “Crocodile Rock” were smash hits. It would seem Pink Floyd went out of their way to make a work that would get overlooked and ignored and against all odds, had turn into a hit. A hit it was by the way; their first #1 album in the States, Canada and New Zealand; a record 900+ weeks on the Billboard album sales chart and up there with Thriller and Rumours with its worldwide sales nearing 50 million. But that isn’t what makes the album great any more than the omnipresent “laser shows” run in tandem with the music at planetariums everywhere in the ’80s and ’90s were. It is just a great record.

To get ready for this review, I listened to it again a couple of times in the car. It sounded ok. Huh? That’s not too complimentary, is it? But that’s the point. Dark Side isn’t an album to be heard in six minutes snippets when driving through city traffic on a hazy, 95 degree afternoon. It’s an album to lie back and become absorbed by, let take you away for three-quarters of an hour. There’d be no traffic jams on a desert island and I’ll have records to listen to in short bursts to pump me up and get me going. This is the quintessential, “turn the motor to idle, and slow it down and chill out for the night” kind of record we all need sometimes.