Still catching up on birthday splurging. . .
Rites of Spring — Six Song Demo (1984)
I've had a tough go of things with pre-Fugazi Dischord bands, generally speaking. I was never much into shouty hardcore punk, so that pretty much cancels out most of the label's output until about 1985-1986. But, I've tried to make a concerted effort as of late to get into less pretty, less melodic sounds (especially those of American bands) because I feel like maybe I've prematurely written off things that I might actually like. Obviously looking at the score up there, you know that I've made at least one such discovery. I've been into Embrace for a while and just figured that the label didn't really do any other fairly standard "punk"-sounding records at the time. And while Guy Picciotto does do a lot of screaming and squealing on the band's initial demo here, Rites of Spring played mid-tempo, nearly fist-pumping rockers. And it makes all the difference in the world, in terms of approachability. I bought this and the CD of the band's proper output at the same time, with the intention of familiarizing myself with this intentionally before the rest of the material and I have to say, in some cases, I like these initial versions better. 'Hain's Point' and the group's most ambitious number 'End On End' are building, passionate numbers that seem to have been their most potent in their debuts. Overall though: this Ian MacKaye-produced ten inch EP (released officially by Dischord just last fall) easily trumps all bootlegged versions in terms of fidelity and it's definitely something I overlooked unfairly.
Atoms for Peace — Amok (2013)
Thom Yorke's other band that's been around for a few years finally releases an album annnnnnd. . . it sounds like Thom's solo album, but with better songs. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Eraser like any Radiohead whore (Radiowhore?) should have, it was just a little bit of a hard sell initially because the songs are so lyrically focused. Not to say that the lyrics here are bad —quite the contrary— it just seems like Thom benefited a lot from sitting around and jamming the songs out with other people in the room. And while the band here does include some seemingly odd matches for Thom (Flea is the band's bassist), there is still a lot here that invites comparisons to Radiohead and that's most likely because the band is filled out by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and his buddy Joey Waronker. And the percussive polyrhythmic electronic pop sounds they conjure up here really are not that far removed from the King of Limbs. I guess, if anything it's more intentionally rhythm-driven. Tunes like 'Stuck Together Pieces' and 'Before Your Very Eyes' are clear highlights and, upon repeat listens sound like a mish mash of OMD-meets-Fela Kuti — something that logically shouldn't work, but somehow does. Thom's vocals just seem to get better with each record these days, and this one's no different. He just swoops into these moments of falsetto harmonies at times that feel like the ground has dropped out out from beneath your feet and you are momentarily weightless — they're that good. I've had this one for over a month now and while it's initial lustre has worn off just a tad, it's settled into my regular rotation nicely and, if nothing else, it will be interesting to see where Thom goes from here.
Neil Young — Old Ways (1983)
Okay: not my favorite Neil Young album of all time. And not just because it's Neil's country album, but because it's so danged overproduced. The opener, a cover of 'Wayward Wind', has the promise of being one of those classic eerie Neil Young openers, but is instead drown down with an overbaked string accompaniment and cheesy female background vocals. Likewise 'Misfits' and that's pretty much what brings those album down. The only tune here that doesn't really succumb to such is 'My Boy' and it's no wonder that I'd consider it the album's highlight as well. One of Neil's infamous 80's sidesteps for a reason; it's only for the truly devout.
Rites of Spring — self-titled (mid-1980's)
And this is Dischord's compilation that assembles the complete proper Rites of Spring catalogue onto one disc. Pretty much essential American punk rock, by anyone's measuring stick. 'For Want Of' strikes me right away as the default highlight. An emotive, confessional masterwork of frustrated energy and fantastic riffs, it's a good one. The rest of the band's End on End full length from 1985 is in a similar vein: rapid fire, affecting punk songs with Guy Picciotto's "near mental breakdown" style vocals. There's a lot more to enjoy throughout the remainder of the album, but it finds a very similar notch for the duration (except for the tambourine groove of 'Nudes', which in retrospect sounds nearly Happy Mondays-ish — I can't be the only one that's noticed this?). The real grabber here is the four song All Through A Life EP from 1987 that closes out the disc. It finds the band turning down amps and tempos with fairly astonishing results. The nearly jangly title track is as close to landmark as this band would ever come (which is pretty much arrived, from where I'm standing). 'Hidden Wheel' is another brilliantly quieter move, while the disc closes out with the more back to basics 'In Silence/Words Away' and the more subdued 'Patience.' Thinking man's punk. Really good.
Wilco — Summerteeth (1999)
I was into this album a lot in the post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot euphoria that a lot of us record dorks went through around 2002. So, this is technically a reacquisition, but I'm hearing it very much with new ears (get to that in a minute), so I'll just say right now: I didn't remember how twee this thing is. 'Can't Stand It', 'A Shot in the Arm', 'Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again)' and 'ELT' are just pure pop with big, orchestrated, overwrought charts and charmingly earnest lyrics. And yet, there's an ambitious middle trilogy of 'Pieholden Suite' (SMiLE, much?), 'How to Fight Loneliness' and the surprisingly dark 'Via Chicago' that illustrates just how far this band was willing to venture in those days to satisfy their urges. Later in the album, the title track and 'In A Future Age' (one of my all time favorite Wilco tunes) provide the balance that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would manage to pull off mid-song just a couple years later. History has relegated this album to precursor status and it's almost too good in that regard — because, at this point, nobody can hear it without knowing what came afterwords. And, on those terms, as the warm up to a masterpiece, it's hard to see it as anything other than brilliant. Listen here.
Wilco — Sky Blue Sky (2007)
I was in a bad place when this album came out. I was working a terrible job at Barnes and Noble that paid next to nothing and was struggling through a relationship that I was just beginning to realize was a complete failure. It was not the wonderfully gloomy and romantic escape that A Ghost is Born was. It was honest, no nonsense and blunt. And, most of all, not necessarily sad, but realistic. It had songs for days, but they talked about things in a way that was not fun, in any stretch of the imagination. I went to work every day, had to hear this fucking thing confront me —usually two or three times in a shift— like a small child sticking its tongue out, taunting me, "I'm one of your favorite bands and I just made you feel worse about your life!" I, of course, trashed it, like any honest person in my position would have. And I basically swore off Wilco after walking out on that job (my first walkout of two, within a year's time, in case you were wondering [you weren't]). So, yeah, fuck these guys, right? Fucking assholes; providing such wonderful escape for two albums and then going MOR dad-rock and forcing me to pay attention to the lyrics — because, let's face it, the simple arrangements here don't offer much in the way of hearing the words "that aren't there." And what about these lyrics? They suck, right? Well, me of years past says, "YES, OBVIOUSLY" and gives you this look. Me now, for lack of better words, gets it. Ghost is Born was recorded while Jeff Tweedy was in the grips of pill addiction, while Sky Blue Sky is the first thing he attempted after coming clean about his dependence. I was doing my own chemical coping in those days, so why shouldn't I have loved Ghost is Born, despite my own issues? But when Sky Blue Sky came out, I was still toiling. Such stark emotional confrontation was not what I wanted from one of my favorite bands when, in the previous five years they had provided the ultimate escape: a look back at youth through the eyes and mind of someone awestruck with America's (now inexplicable) enduring prominence in the post-World War II era. Jeff Tweedy even sounds angry at his own generation (one which was now officially "old" when this album was released). His —and the band's— ambitions here seem so much less interested in being "cool" than they are in being honest with themselves. You have to rewind a bit here and understand: these were the last days of GWB's run in office and they were —and I don't think I'm going out on much of limb here saying as much— a rather bleak time. We all knew that we were under the leadership of somebody that was not looking out for us. Couple this with my own internal issues, another horrific season of summer wildfires in Reno and, yeah, it was like this plastic, sugar-coated version of someone saying, "Hey, you're not going to be okay" and then smiling the most unpleasantly empty smile at me. Fuck them. Fuck it. Fuck it relentlessly. It was not fun to hear your favorite, previously unpredictable band go Prozac Dave Matthews on you. It was excruciating, to be completely honest. They truly were the one thing I had that I knew would be mine for all time. And now, a meddling soft rock turd was excreted to leave me alone and floating again forever. Except, why now, do I hear it and just acquiesce? Like it was just a really good album all along? I have not answers for that question. But, as bleak and creepy cheerful 70's AM pop as this thing is, I have only more questions. Why was it recorded as crappily as it was? That's not what Jim O'Rourke would have done. He would have forced the band's ambition to be emotionally stark naked for their audience into the background where some keen investigative listening would have revealed it. In other other words, he would forced the band's most human album to be another weird collage of good tunes and obscure sounds (he does, however, contribute some ultimately inconsequential string arrangements). But there's a lot to be said and admired about the fact that the band chose to just streamline everything and mask nothing. I also know that this was the second of two big lineup changes in Wilco in those days, so coupled with Jeff's substance dependence-shedding, it just reeks of a back to basics strip fest. Throw things out that you can't deal with anymore. The sort of record where it sounds relatively tame to the rest of us, but was actually a very traumatic and life-changing event for those involved (see also: David and friends). What is it about? Everyday life. What does it mean? It means you're okay while you're listening to it — in the classic sense of the blues, its misery wants your company until you both just want to hug each other and smile without effort. It's very 70's soft folk rock (think the Crosby/Nash albums, America's third album and Aztec Two-Step) and there's not a whole lot here that sounds that great when played outside of the context of the album. It will pat you on the back in the locker room after dunking on your head in a game of one on one and say some sidestepping compliment like, "Your new sneakers are cool." It's one of the friendliest arch rivals you'll ever encounter. That said, 'Impossible Germany' is easily one of the band's best tunes. One generation taking the next to task through an overthought metaphor, it's an absolute masterpiece on an album that definitely needed one. This is probably my most personal review ever; very telling that it's for this album — and this band. For such a lightweight sounding album, it's pretty fucking intense on closer inspection. I just. . . I mean I can't even. . . just. . . man. It's a lot better than it's reputation. Just wish I had known better at the time. Listen here.
Wilco — Wilco (The Album) (2009)
And this was released when I was in full-on Wilco denial, so it figures the time or two I heard it in passing, I figured that it was only confirmed what I had decided the band turned into: a soft rock bunch of sellouts. But, I'm the walking contradiction, because I was totally into Crowded House the entire time. Maybe I was just charmed by Neil's accent — who knows? But had I actually paid attention, 'Wilco (The Song)' —joke or no— would have meant a lot to me. And yeah, this one is another album of mid-tempo, jangly roots rock, but if you can sit with it for a minute, tunes like the near anthemic 'One Wing' (complete with noisy freakout), the completely great Fleetwood Mac-aping throwback Leslie Feist duet 'You and I', the Northern Soul-ish 'I'll Fight' or the completely soul-bearing closer 'Everlasting Everything' will open up and make good on the on title track's promise. It's very much a "NEW WILCO" that you hear on this album. One that doesn't care what the world views it as, just as long as its creators and fans are happy with one another. "I know this might sound sad, but everything goes both good and bad. It all adds up and you should be glad." Indeed. Listen here.
Wilco — The Whole Love (2011)
And yeah, if I had just been patient with Wilco, it would have paid off. This album is definitely in the vein of "NEW WILCO"™ but, it's also got some stuff that is just completely out of left field and, truly, this album sounds like the spiritual follow up to A Ghost is Born, just completely content (as opposed to borderline sociopath). It's definitely their most diverse work since that album. The opener 'Art of Almost' is so incredibly different, I actually said to my lady friend upon my first play of the album, "This is the most un-Wilco song I've ever heard." Epic and sprawling, it brings in the orchestra (David Axelrod, much?) only to go all noise rock at the end. It's weird pop, for sure. Winner. On the very next song, they turn into Belle and Sebastian, for some reason. Oh, I love it! When the band goes back into the more introspective-toned material that they built their name on, magic occurs. The lush, David Crosby-esque baroque folk of 'Black Moon' has got to be one of their very best tunes. In a similar vein, 'Rising Red Lung' pops up late in the album and it's a good one, too. Then, RAWK. However, through all the silly genre exercises and songs being played through smirks and smiles, the album ends on possibly the band's best song. 'One Sunday Morning' is Jeff Tweedy's autobiographic, soul searching epic, masked as a tribute to his father. Rarely has the band sounded as poignant and genuine as they do here. Twelve minutes and repetitive as hell, but still somehow doesn't feel long enough. Ultimately, this ends up as a scattershot of an album that is book-ended by, quite arguably, the band's two best overall songs. And that counts for a whole hell of a lot. Redemption achieved, however belated (though not the band's fault at all).
Bad Lieutenant — Never Cry Another Tear (2009)
When that first track kicks in, with its undeniable latter day New Order sound, it's hard to think this album will be anything other than a near masterpiece. But, not to say it's not great for us New Order fans wanting more (it is), it's just a little too lengthy. They could have trimmed this down to nine or ten tracks and every single one would have been great. But, instead, it feels like they top-loaded it with the highlights. I mean, honestly, most of the album's top tracks are in the single digits. Barney's 'Summer Days' is, without question, the most personal tune he's ever done. And, as such things go with me, wins immediately. The other vocalist in the band, Jake Evans, sounds a bit like Jimi Goodwin — and, you know, there's some gems later on in the album that he sings (but not many people listened that long). But ultimately, this album ends up sounding like Electronic's underrated second album — and that was thirteen years before this one was released. I didn't buy this when it was new because it was an outrageously priced import and part of me thinks that this interim time between my expectations and my actually hearing it was a good thing. This album is great for dedicated Barney fans, but it's nothing we haven't heard before. Even still, it's very listenable (and rather good, as it were).
My Bloody Valentine — EP's 1988-1991 (late 1980's-early 1990's)
Playing catch-up with last year's reissue campaign. This stuff —some new to me, some not— is just absolutely indispensable in understanding the evolution of rock music in the late 80's. Disc one, track one is just about as close to a one song manifesto as any band came. But, they did other stuff too. That was later, though. In the interim, there's all kinds of stuff. This collection is pretty much essential, for the second half of disc two, which is all rarities and previously unissued stuff. Behold: the Public Enemy-sampling 'Instrumental No. 2', the full version of 'Glider', the band tries to be the Cure (or something) and, finally, Sonic Youth-y. This is a darn good release —the gatefold digipack and booklet are gorgeous— but a bit more discography info in the liner notes would have been damn near perfect. Overall though, yeah: pretty essential stuff.