52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWELVE

Week 12: Rock and Roll is Here to Stay

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life? Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Thirteen”

Big Star

Album: Number 1 Record

Ardent Records

1972


“They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?

I’m in love with that song.’”

“Alex Chilton”by The Replacements

 

Martin Scorsese’s masterful documentary, “No Direction Home,” chronicling Bob Dylan’s ascentfrom his early Minnesota roots to his electric rebirth in the late 60s, gives fans of Dylan a rare glimpse into the music that Dylan was influenced by. Combined with Dylan’s own personal memoir of the time, “Chronicles: Volume One” shows the musical cartography of how Dylan’s sound was born.

 

It’s comforting to hear a musician talk about his or her idols. It takes them down to the listener’s level, reminding us that they, too, were once and are avid fans of music. Discovering the musical influences of truly inspired musicians is one of the many joys of carefully listening to music. Art imitates art. Some musicians seem reluctant to trumpet their idols, others come right out and say it. It’s one thing to be turned on to a band or artist by a friend, it’s entirely more satisfying for a song to accomplish this feat.

 

When I first discovered The Replacements, through a completely fulfilling survey of its trifecta of masterpieces–Let It Be, Tim, and Please to Meet Me–one song caught my attention for its unapologetic hailing of one of lead singer Paul Westerberg’s musical heroes, Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton.

Please to Meet Me’s second track, simply titled “Alex Chilton,” explodes into action with crisp snare drum notes and barroom guitar riffs. What follows is more than a simple ode or homage to Chilton, it’s a sermon of praise for an artist that before hearing this song I was completely unaware of.

 

Well, this is not entirely true.

 

During one verse of “Alex Chilton” Westerberg describes Chilton as an, “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” a fitting and painfully truthful description of one of rock and roll’s most unsung voices.

 

Big Star was ironically never a big band. It released only three major records in its 1970s heyday,none of which made much of a splash. It managed to maintain a cult-driven legacy since then, elevated recently by Chilton’s untimely death last March.

 

The band’s song “In the Street” found a second life when power pop band Cheap Trick covered it and it was eventually was used for the opening credits of Fox’s television sitcom “That 70’s Show.” Beyond that, it’s safe to say that most people don’t know Big Star.

 

Thanks to Paul Westerberg I can happily add Big Star to my growing list of the essential pioneers of rock and roll.

 

It’s fitting that Westerberg, a gifted lyricist with a penchant for writing songs that bring to mind the joys of youth, was drawn to Big Star at a young age. Alex Chilton and band also excel at writing great rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. It crafts classic love songs that never tread on being overly sentimental but rather feel nostalgic of the times when the word love and the grasp of how big life is, in general, was thought to be understood but not always fully.

 

Take Number 1 Record, It opens with “Feel,” a rip-roaring plea to a girlfriend who is toying with its character’s emotions. On “The India Song” Chilton fantasizes about escaping the mundane for love, luxury and endless gin and tonics in a mystically portrayed India. “Give Me Another Chance” plays out out like an apology, or rather a plea to be forgiven and taken back for actions that may or may not be unforgivable. Chilton and band mate Chris Bell write innocent love ballads that hearken back to the days of drive-in-movie dates, school dances and the pursuit of meaningful but often naive love.

 

Number 1 Record’s “Thirteen” is widely considered one of Chilton’s best songs by fans and for good reason. The song has been gorgeously covered by the likes of Elliott Smith and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, singers who, like Chilton, reserve chillingly soft-toned vocals for the song.

 

The aforementioned innocence of youth is at the forefront on “Thirteen.” The song brings to mind the nervousness of having a crush and the downright fear that comes when it’s time to ask for a date (subtly emphasized with the music’s gradual increase in tempo throughout the song’s duration and Chilton’s slightly reluctant delivery of its last verse).

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint it, Black”.

Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s “no,” well, I can go

I won’t make you.

 

Lyrics aside (and make no mistake, these are some of the best lyrics ever written–simple, to the point and utterly unforgettable), “Thirteen” is a lasting effort thanks to Chilton’s beautiful vocal performance and his gentle acoustic guitar picking.

 

It name-checks The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” not so much as an homage to a specific idol but rather as homage to rock and roll’s early days when the music presented teenagers an escape.A song like “Paint it Black” must have brought a level of fear to parents or people who hadn’t yet jumped on the rock and roll bandwagon. For those who enjoyed its dark undertones it was something new and unique to rebel to.

 

“Thirteen’s” most impressive feat is that it has the ability to make the listener yearn for these days, back to a time that was much simpler.

 

On The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg sings:

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

 

Big Star’s music can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. It’s perfectly crafted rock and roll. You can fall in love with its songs like you fall in love with sentimental cuts from The Beatles’ canon or say Simon and Garfunkel. Since I was fortunate enough to discover it I regularly return to its records. “Thirteen” is a song that makes you pause and remember; to recollect the past.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK ELEVEN

Week 11: You Made Me Realize

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life? Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Only Shallow”
My Bloody Valentine

Album: Loveless

Creation Records

1991

The opening track of My Bloody Valentine’s masterpiece, Loveless is an explosion of guitar wizardry. It’s a track that stops you cold in your feet. Its thunderous waves of sound swirl around your head for days. It’s an assault on your senses–a truly remarkable feast for the ears that sounds powerful through headphones and, when played live through monster amplifiers, produces sounds that tickle the nostrils.

Loveless’ opener, “Only Shallow” perches high above the rest on the short list of great album openers. Read as: while the phrase often comes off as cliche, this song literally blew my mind the first time I heard it, an appropriate response that I’m sure many others can relate to.

Shoegazers, distortion wizards, or heavy guitar rockers, pick your label of choice. In my opinion the music of My Bloody Valentine can be best described as the closest thing to flying through space.

To date, My Bloody Valentine only released two studio albums, with Loveless being its current swan song. But what a way to clear the stage.

Besides being the band’s masterpiece, Loveless is also one of the truly remarkable “studio” albums of all time. Its notoriety is unprecedented. Recorded over two long years, in 19 different recording studios, Loveless was the painstakingly-realized brain child of Valentine frontman, Kevin Shields. The album nearly bankrupted the bands label, Creation Records; was selfishly worked and reworked by Shields alone, with the other band members serving more as studio session musicians than as part of a creative congress; and was crafted in various mental states, often aided by a sampling of certain mind-altering substances, mainly ecstasy. While he might deny rumors of drug abuse during the long two-year stretch, it is widely rumored that Shields was rarely sober during its recording.

The album’s signature swirling guitars and waves of distortion required hours of over-dubbing and contemplation. Shields, and self-professed control freak played almost all instruments featured and recorded much of the album on little to no sleep.

The result is an album that was truly unprecedented back in 1991 and since its release will probably never be matched in terms of its shear brilliance and ambitions of creating an ethereal sound.

While often heralded as an essential album in rock and roll (Pitchfork Media’s pick it as the Best Album of the 1990s, and then bumped it down to a silver medal pedestal to make way for Radiohead’s Ok Computer), I was turned on to My Bloody Valentine late in the game. To put it bluntly: my university introduced me to Loveless.

I remember my father’s response when I told him that I would be filling some senior year elective credits with a music course covering the history of rock and roll during the 1970s and 1980s.

“So what are those tests gonna be like?” he would say. “An exam on how to play the air guitar?”

The truth is Andy Hollinden’s fascinating Z301 course opened my eyes to a plethora of new music, first and foremost among these musical revelations, a detailed and appreciated, albeit overdue, window into punk music.

Mr. Hollinden never played “Only Shallow” in class, in fact his lecture on the “90s Alternative” sub-genre breezed past My Bloody Valentine completely. Instead, “Only Shallow” remained a mysterious “extra track” on the courses listening syllabus (which was accessible online as either an MP3 stream or download. Tuition well-spent!). I happened upon the track late one night with my headphones snugly comforting my ears, the song’s true modus operandi for preferred listening experience.

Extreme moments of musical revelation are harder to come by in the digital age. We as listeners inhale copious amounts of music of all varieties and as consumers have access to everything at all times. As a result the discovery of a true gem, the kind of sound that makes you pause to speculate on what you just heard, ends up becoming the fix music aficionados pine for.

“Only Shallow” opens with four tight snare drum hits, immediately followed by an onslaught of menacing guitar riffs–calculated fuzz delivered with the kind of perfection seldom found in rock. What follows is a symphony of distortion that pierces the ear drums (My Bloody Valentine’s music beckons to be heard on speakers turned to eleven) followed by band member, Bilinda Butcher’s dreamlike, non-sensical lyrics cooling the raging fire.

It’s a hell of a way to open a record. A no-holds-barred exploration of what sounds can be unearthed with a guitar, a tremolo bar and a carefully executed recording process. It required an immediate repeat, followed by another, and eventually another.

The day after exposure, I bought Loveless and listened to the album’s song cycle as the ambient waves merged in and out of each other, never allowing for a break.

Loveless is an album that must be listened to in its entirety. The songs unfold as a kaleidoscope of sounds that push the limits on what a guitar is capable of. What’s most striking about the record is that despite the layered sound, the majority of Loveless was recorded using very basic equipment tuned and performed in a certain way, and rehearsed over and over again in order to secure that one-of-a-kind sound. The album was recorded pre-Pro Tools leaving much of the studio wizardry to basic techniques pushed to the edge. It’s as if Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” manifesto was digested alongside a couple doses of ecstasy and the music of Sonic Youth.

My Bloody Valentine disappeared completely from music after Loveless and its short-lived tour that followed its release. Shields lent his talents to a handful of side projects, most notably new songs for the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and an experimental ambient/spoken-word record with Patti Smith.

Then came the brief reunion tour in 2008.

When it was announced that My Bloody Valentine would play a number of shows in the states, including one at Chicago’s Aragon ballroom, I was ecstatic. I had to get a ticket. I had to go. I had to see how this intriguing record might transfer to a live setting. Would it carry the same weight as the album I’ve played over and over again? Would “Only Shallow” pack the same punch as it does kicking off Loveless? Will the band even sound good 15 years later? My eager anticipation curbed any concerns. After all, it was My Bloody Valentine!

The show at the Aragon Ballroom, an admittedly lousy auditorium (if acoustics matter to you), remains the loudest concert I have ever attended. I scoffed when ear plugs were handed out at the entrance but was glad I took a pair once the band kicked off its set with the mesmerizing, “I Only Said.” That the band’s set was closed with its standard encore, “You Made You Realise” stretched to a twenty minute assault on the senses that literally made one concert goer standing nearby hold his ears, as if surrendering to the sonic chaos that filled the auditorium.

The show remains a highlight amongst many incredible concerts I have experienced in my life to date. The show was not exactly what I expected but it had enough surprises to keep it unique. Sure the beautiful melodies that make listening to Loveless a religious experience for anyone who finds spiritualism in rock and roll were replaced by ear-piercing noise, but the energy that exploded from the massive stacked speakers was unlike anything I had ever been a part of.

My Bloody Valentine took its name from an obscure 80s slasher film (the original was actually remade not too long ago) and it invokes an image of a metal band, the kind of music that takes its cues from skeletons and the color black. Summed up: before I actually heard “Only Shallow” I had no idea what to expect from the band’s oeuvre.

Loveless is an album that will be studied and listened to for years. Whether or not My Bloody Valentine comes through with new material remains to be seen and is irrelevant. Some bands get a pass for birthing a singular masterpiece and then clearing the stage. Mission of Burma is a definite candidate, as is The Stone Roses with My Bloody Valentine joining the ranks.

Like all the music covered in this humble project of mine, Loveless is a record that I cherish and return to constantly, though arguably one that comes with its own decorum, strict guidelines that must be obeyed.

1) It must be listened to on ear smothering headphones.
2) It must be listened to at night.
3) It must be listened to in its entirety.
4) An irresponsible volume level is understood.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TEN

Week 10: Sign O the Times Mess With Your Mind

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Prince

Album: Sign “☮” the Times

Paisley Park/Warner Bros.

1987


What is the definition of a successful double LP? Is it a cohesive package–a collection of songs perfectly paired and organized to tell a story? Should the album have an epic underlying message? Or should it merely be a document of some creative spree, the result of which can’t be limited to a single album?


Why do some of the truly great double albums somehow manage to pull off the feat of piquing interest, despite their long-winded running time?


Consider some of the obvious contenders: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles White Album, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Clash’s London Calling (and later its Triple LP extravaganza Sandinista!), Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. These albums run the length of some major motion pictures, but even after multiple revisits, still demand to be experienced in their entirety.


They don’t hold the same grandiosity of, say Pink Floyd’s slightly overrated The Wall. Instead these albums are effective because of their musical breadth and ambitions. Take as much as we can come up with and release the lot of it. Give the listener the ultimate listening experience. Tear the walls down. A tried and true motto.


There’s something magical about a perfectly executed collection of songs, and it’s even more remarkable when the album is a hodgepodge with no overlying message or theme.


Prince’s Sign “☮” the Times is the artist’s greatest achievement to date. It skates around damn near every musical genre Prince could conjure up, features pop at its catchiest, rock at its most visceral, ballads at their most tender, and a couple of head scratchers thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.


The origin of Sign “☮” the Times goes like this: coming off the massive success of Purple Rain and his mid-1980s Revolution run, Prince was working on three simultaneous projects–Dream Factory (leaked in early production stage), Crystal Ball (a triple-LP that induced panic from Prince’s label) and Camille (a solo-endeavor showcasing Prince’s alter-ego). The projects were either abandoned, and the scraps and highlights from all three records were assembled for Sign “☮” the Times.


On paper the album sounds like a disaster–the result of tensions between band members and label executives. A bastard record of the time. Summed up; this could have easily been career suicide. Instead Sign “☮” the Times is not only Prince’s best effort but easily one of the greatest, and most surprising albums to come out of the 1980s.


I first dove into Prince’s purple prowess with 1984s Purple Rain. Obvious, sure. But what a masterpiece of unrelenting pop music. While some people pose the musical identity question, “Beatles or Elvis?”, I’ve been become more fascinated with the responses I get when asking: Purple Rain or Thriller?


Purple Rain is perfect. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and gives Prince reason enough to scream, “baby I’m a star!” Still Purple Rain is pop, plain and simple, with few genre-bending moments, save of course for the epic, guitar-heavy title track.


There are moments on Sign “☮” the Times that pick up exactly where Purple Rain left off. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” takes the catchiness of Rain’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star,” and tacks on an extended blues-inspired instrumental outro to, you know, up the ante.


“Housequake” takes dance music into the future by running funk and soul through a drum machine and synthesizer (hints of drum and bass genre to come down the line), and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is just as sexually raw as Rain’s “Darling Nikki.”


Fortunately Prince doesn’t stop with what he was already too familiar.


“The Cross” is an epic slow-burner that blends gospel, arena rock and roll, and even a sitar to create a sound that references early Prince records but in a more polished final package.


At just under three minutes, “Starfish and Coffee” is Prince tackling a children’s song, while also embracing the magic of food and unflinching individuality.


The album’s title track is exactly what the title promises, a socially conscious soul number that truly captures the time. One of Sign “☮” the Times’ greatest feats, however, is following the direness of “Sign of the Times” with the silly, bubble gum pop of “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s as if Prince deliberately wants the listener to know that nothing about this album’s ride will seem predictable.


“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” an intoxicating live cut that showcases Prince’s stage routine of the time, accompanied by the Revolution at the top of its game. Carried along by Matt Fink’s driving drums, Wendy and Lisa’s sultry backing vocals, and even a bit of rap and jazz thrown in, the track is easily the culmination of everything heard before it. That the song might be the only time pop music will ever be able to tinker with The Wizard of Oz and live to tell about it (as seen through the song’s intro/outro of uniform “ohhh weee ohhh”) only adds to the song’s allure.


Sign “☮” the Times closes with “Adore,” a slow, sexy R&B tune perfectly suited to cap any evening. The song creeps along with its horn interludes, gospel-inspired pipes, and Prince’s unique high-pitched vocals. Its lyrics are corny at times but miraculously the song manages to feel anything but.



When we be makin’ love

I only hear the sounds

Heavenly angels cryin’ up above

Tears of joy pourin’ down on us

They know we need each other


It’s easy to mock Prince or at the very least, underestimate him. Sure he was a product of eighties glam but the man knows how to write great songs and is a masterful guitar player (his performance at Superbowl XLI remains one of the best in the event’s long-running, half-time show tradition).


Sign “☮” the Times remains one of my all-time favorites. I liken it to Stevie Wonders’ Songs in the Key of Life, in that both albums are thick with content but never bore. Certain songs pack enough energy to get you going in the morning, while others help you ease into the night.


Sign “☮” the Times was also one of those rare surprises for me. I stumbled upon its title track during a downloading sweep of Prince songs, in the wake of an unhealthy obsession with Purple Rain and the song “Beautiful Ones.” “Sign of the Times” was unlike any other Prince song I had heard prior.


It’s dark, timely, and completely honest in its perception of society. In its foreboding meanderings through the front pages of a social world in flux, Prince preaches:


In France a skinny man

died of a big disease with a little name…

You turn on the telly and every other story

Is telling you somebody died

Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it

And we’re sending people to the moon

Some say a man ain’t happy

Unless a man truly dies


The song was visceral in a way I never would have suspected from Prince and instantly made me seek out the album on CD.


Though he is relentless in the amount of music he currently releases every year, Sign “☮” the Times is his last true masterpiece. It captures everything that made Prince a star–channeling the sounds from his early days, carrying through his ascension up the pop charts–and even gives listeners hints of what was in store. I’m convinced that it’ll convert any Prince non-believers, or at the very least give listeners a glimpse into a different side of the man who famously made doves cry. Hell, it even inspired the title of the blog you’re currently reading. Enthusiasm manifests itself in many ways.



52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK NINE

Week 9: Got Me This Song, Ha Ha Ha Ho
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today



“Ana”
Pixies

Album: Bossanova

1990

4AD


She’s my fave

Undressing in the sun

Return to sea – bye

Forgetting everyone

Eleven high

Ride a wave

–”Ana” Pixies


With Bossanova the Pixies made what might be the best modern day surf record. Considering the band hails from Boston, Mass. this feat is all the more impressive.


My appreciation of the Pixies maturated in waves. When I was younger my father passed on to me a cassette rip of Doolittle that his friend had given him. Up until high school, this was my only window into the band. I didn’t appreciate everything on Doolittle at that young age. Lead singer Black Francis’ exercises in primal scream found on tracks like “Tame” or the frightening lyrics on “I Bleed” warranted pushing the fast-forward button on my Walkman.


As for the rest of Doolittle, however, I liked what I heard.


The Pixies are masters at producing seemingly cool sounds. “Monkey Gone To Heaven” was catchy enough to make me utilize the rewind button, “Silver” was eerie, in an intriguing way, and “Mr. Grieves” was just plain weird with Francis’ menacing laughs opening the fast-paced chaos of the song.


Doolittle was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time, and was almost too much to take in. The album is non-sensical at times–pairing familiar pastime musical genres–surf rock, bubble gum pop, traditional hymns–with bizarre, often terrifying surreal lyrics (read: “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs” from the rip-roaring opener “Debaser,” which, as I would later discover in college, brilliantly pairs Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel with rock and roll).


Francis’ words aside, the adornment I have for the Pixies and Doolittle has always been attributed to guitarist Joey Santiago’s masterful blending of sound assaulting guitar shredding with Beach Boys era surf rock. While present on all of the band’s records, this style was best put to use on 1990’s Bossanova.


I uncovered the Pixies short, but sweet discography over a long stretch of time. For a long time Doolittle was all I knew (and maybe all I wanted to know). The release of David Fincher’s film Fight Club shed new light on the superb track, “Where Is My Mind,” which ultimately encouraged me to check out both song’s album of origin, 1988‘s Surfer Rosa and also The Pixies debut EP, 1987‘s Come on Pilgrim.


For one reason or another it took another four years, well-into my stint at University, for me to explore Pixies’ latter two efforts, Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Why, you ask? Not sure. Perhaps a band like this should be examined over time.


Attention was first turned to
Bossanova one summer towards the end of University after I raided my cousin’s iTunes music library, which happened to have a handful of random Pixies tunes, including “Ana.”


I remember vividly the moment I first heard the song when it came on while my stereo shuffled through my newly acquired library. I didn’t know at first that it was, in fact, Pixies and Black Francis. The song is a rarity in the band’s canon in that it is the epitome of sleepy beach sounds. If the Beach Boys had ever had a truly menacing trip, they might issued something like this.


Opening with a quick drum crash and build, Santiago’s melodic guitar harmonies come in to set the mood. Enter Francis‘ whispering lyrics as he runs through an acrostic poem about a dreamy surfer girl riding an eleven-foot high wave. Carry the groove on for over two minutes and that’s all she wrote.


The song is dark, fairly simple in its music and lyrics, but intoxicating.


It’s safe to say that before I even ventured through the rest of the tracks on Bossanova I was obsessed with “Ana.” It was like a fix for the addict in me. The song was on damn near every mix CD made during my Junior and Senior year of college, and more often than not when it was played, one singular listening was never enough.


Eventually I bought Bossanova and was blown away, yet again by its offerings. The album’s opener, “Celia Ann,” an obscure cover of a Finnish instrumental surf rock band (?!?!?!) called The Surftones, is perhaps Pixies best album opener, besting Doolittle’s “Debaser” and Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine,” respectively, in terms of setting the proper mood for the songs that follow. Bossanova is surf rock, stripped down, run through a wave of distortion and taken to some dark places. It’s surfer rock on peyote.


The album is twisted yet brilliant. Loud and jarring at times, then suddenly and without warning, cool and melodic. Its “girlfriend” series of songs–starting with “Cecilia Ann,” followed by the epic “Velouria,” then the concise, angry “Allison,” and finally ending with “Ana–remain four of the band’s greatest songs.


Deeper cuts like the album’s beautiful closer, “Havalina,” the haunting “Down to the Well” or the insanely-energized cluster fuck of sound that is “Rock Music,” don’t require much adornment but get some nonetheless.


Still if I had to pick a favorite on Bossanova and really, in Pixies’ oeuvre, it would have to be “Ana.” The song is simple but musically packs a lot. It’s a song to unwind to. A song best heard at night. It’s on a short list of my favorite driving songs, and has a truly mesmerizing guitar riff.


When listening to Pixies my ranking of which album is the best slides in direct proportion with Joey Santiago’s guitar meanderings. When I discovered Bossanova it was, for a time, number one. Eventually the ridiculous title undoubtedly returned to Doolittle. When I finally got around to uncovering Trompe le Monde, it was a surprising victor, thanks in large part to its standout masterpiece, “Motorway to Roswell,” a moving tale of an alien visitor’s capture and eventual tomb of experimentation told in a way that only the Pixies could.


Sure both Bossanova and Trompe le Monde showed signs of cracks in the band’s infrastructure, most notably the tenuous relationship between Francis and co-singer/songwriter and bass player, Kim Deal. Many are quick to tag the latter two records, primarily when referring to Monde, as essentially Black Francis AKA Frank Black solo albums. While Deal isn’t as present during these records, they’re very much Pixies efforts, especially when you consider Santiago as an essential part of the band’s unique sound.


In the pantheon of rock and roll the Pixies doesn’t demand much more praise than it already receives. The band influenced an entire genre of music. Its blending of music and surrealism is ingenious and Black Francis is a masterful wordsmith. His songs are dark, violent, funny, bizarre, lovely, and, as the cunning linguist recently said in an interview on NPR’s rock and roll radio show, Sound Opinions, he “likes words for word’s sake.”


“Ana” never ceases to blow my mind. It’s a song that I can always turn to if I want to cap a long night. If I smoked cigarettes I’m guessing it would be my favorite smoking song, especially on a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background. I’m still waiting for someone to utilize the song in a film soundtrack since, like many Pixies tunes, it feels like a score to a “surf noir” film, if such a genre ever came to life. I can always fall back on a Pixies album to take me away from reality for a bit, even if it’s to a dark, dark place full of “Stormy Weather” or “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.”


Summed up: if, according to Pixies reasoning, “man is 5, the devil is 6, and God is 7” then Pixies is just shy of a perfect 10.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-“Heaven”


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads’ transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on ‘77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car’s glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors’ dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SEVEN

Week 7: When Joni Met Jaco

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Hejira”

Joni Mitchell

Album: Hejira

1976

Asylum Records


“Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo


During my senior year of high school my budding interest in jazz music had come full circle. I played drums alongside two electric violinists in, dare I say, an eclectic seven-piece jazz combo. I was enrolled in a full-year jazz studies course (something of a rarity for a high school), and I regularly raided the public library’s respectable jazz CD collection. With the limit set at ten albums per visit, I could walk away with more than enough to soak up in a week, and I ultimately pieced together a fairly comprehensive collection of “burned” albums.


It was in my senior year that I first gave hip-hop a chance. It was the year I seriously dove into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and it was the year I discovered Jaco Pastorius. For most, Jaco is hardly a household name, but rather his is a tragic tale in the music world–a master of his craft, a musicians musician, cut short in his prime by a tragedy that still puzzles his admirers.


Arguably one of the greatest electric bass players to have ever picked up the instrument, period, Jaco got his start in the light jazz fusion ensemble, Weather Report, but quickly established himself as a leading force, releasing two solo studio albums and collaborating with a number of artists in and outside of the jazz world. That this legend would die from injuries contracted in a mysterious bar brawl in Southern Florida, makes the story all the more tragic.


I first became privy to Jaco’s self-titled debut album one day when I entered the jazz practice room of my high school’s music department to find a number of my peers hovered around a stereo blasting Jaco’s rendition/mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” through the room’s significant sound system. Awe was understood.


That afternoon I picked up the CD version of Jaco Pastorius at the bookstore and spent the evening listening as Jaco turned the fretless electric bass guitar into a lead instrument.


His ability of combining traditional bass lines with melodic, tender harmonic chords to create entire, unaccompanied compositions on the bass changed the game for bass players everywhere. Not to go overkill on the praise, but it’s fair to say that without Jaco’s contribution to music, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Vic Wooten, and other prolific masters of the instrument may have never found their way. He’s that important.


In 1976, as Pastorius unleashed his debut masterpiece, he also started what would end up being a four-record collaboration with folk singer Joni Mitchell, starting with her underrated album, Hejira.


I had grown up with Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, easily the siren’s two greatest achievements, but was unfamiliar with her forays into the jazz world until I stumbled upon copies of Hejira and 1979’s Mingus at the aforementioned library’s audio/visual department.


I didn’t link the two artists until I actually played the album and instantly heard what had to be Jaco’s tender bass harmonics coupled with Mitchell’s equally tender vocals. The four tracks that Jaco played on–”Coyote,” “Hejira,” “Black Crow” and “Refuge of the Roads”–are in my opinion four of the greatest musical parings out there.


Two masters of their individual crafts producing music of such beauty; it was enough to leave me wide-eyed. While Joni can make her pipes weep with melancholy, Jaco figured out how to do the same on the fretless bass.


It makes sense that Mitchell sought out Jaco (or vice versa). Both have extremely distinct sounds, and Mitchell has always walked the fine line between folk and jazz with her music, eventually devoting whole records to the genre she adores (she name checks “strains of Benny Goodman” on Hejira’s title-track and would later pay her respects to Charles Mingus on Mingus).


While slightly flawed as a whole album, Hejira is definitely one of the Mitchell’s most fascinating efforts. Written almost entirely on the road as Mitchell drove from Maine to Southern California, the album, which gets its name from the Arabic word for ‘journey,’ invokes images of traveling alone by car through America, a spiritual journey documented by so many artists over the years.


She paints pictures of desert landscapes, old highway motels, and on one of the album’s great standout tracks, “Amelia,” airplane vapor trails which she tags as “a hexagram of the heavens.” She’s always had a way with words.

While music journalist Ron Rosenbaum gives a strong argument for “Amelia” being Mitchell’s strongest and most intriguing song to date at Slate.com, I’ve always been moved by “Hejira,” that epic title-track that makes the best use of the Jaco/Joni marriage of sound.


On “Hejira,” Mitchell sings of “comfort in melancholy” while Jaco meanders in and out of her verses fingering his six string with the same warmth that Mitchell calls upon with her vocals and lyrics.


The beauty of jazz music has always been its language of improvisation. Most jazz standards are based around a series of simple notes. The players muse on the bridge and then each go off into their worlds playing off each other the way people share thoughts in a conversation. It’s a musical art-form that finds its finest moments in the surprises that can arise. Put a group of masters in a room and listen to the magic unfold.


On “Hejira” Mitchell sings, “I see something of myself in everyone / Just at this moment in the world.” When listening to “Hejira,” and the other three Jaco/Joni tracks on the album, it’s hard not to deny that the two artists found an instant connection in the studio. The fruit of this pairing is, in my mind, the heart of what makes Hejira such an incredible album to return to again and again. Lyrically, I still favor Blue and Court and Spark for giving the world lines like,


Oh I could drink a case of you darling

Still I’d be on my feet

–“Case of You”


I used to count lovers like railroad cars

I counted them on my side

Lately I don’t count on nothing

I just let things slide


–“Just Like This Train”


I stumbled upon Hejira shortly after diving into Jaco, (not to mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson) and found the connection between both geniuses to be serendipitous (this was before I relied on the Internet for musical fact checking to aid my listening habits). Liner notes would confirm that what I was hearing was, in fact, Jaco, but I had no doubt in my mind.


Later on that year I stumbled upon a forgotten Herbie Hancock homage record to George and Ira Gershwin,
Gershwin’s World (1998), which features, among a number of beautiful collaborations, a Mitchell guest vocal spot on “The Man I Love.” I played it for my father who I knew was a longtime Joni fan, and he knew the minute her lush pipes poured into the microphone who it was.

Jaco and Joni have musical voices that are completely their own. While you can hear Joni’s influences on countless modern day singer songwriters, not to mention her contemporaries, Jaco’s presence still carries strong in and out of the jazz world. Both are unmistakable to ear.


Later that year I discovered Martin Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, a moving swan song performance from Bob Dylan’s great backing band,The Band and was pleasantly surprised to find Joni performing Hejira’s opener “Coyote.” It was eerie how Hejira linked together a number of my musical explorations of the time. While now I credit resources like Allmusic.com or Wikipedia as terribly informative fact-checking sites for exploring musical range, their absence that year provided me with countless surprises of collaborations that changed my perception of the music world. Suddenly jazz wasn’t just some side genre that only the hip or the old dug, but rather a music that was without genre boundaries.


Miles Davis’ foray into funk and rock, Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz instrumentation, and Joni’s pining to walk the line between folk/rock/pop/jazz were all part of a musical awakening that year. It cemented the notion that music is a universal language and while we can typecast and catalogue it into genres and sub-genres, its ultimately a form of expression that is completely unpredictable.


52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SIX

Week Six

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Station to Station”
David Bowie
Album: Station to Station
1976
RCA Records

The title track to David Bowie’s 1976 album, Station to Station begins with the sounds of train bursting into motion. The hush of the locomotion, presumably pulling away from a its station of origin, pans from the right to left channel and is eventually coupled with a restrained frenzy of distorted guitar and synthesizer sonic waves and a menacing clang of heavily-fingered piano keys. The thumping bass line enters, as does the echoed thunder of sparsely-played tom tom drums and a twangy rhythm guitar. A simple organ riff joins the fold and a shortly after the song’s third minute we are introduced to the ring leader of this slow-burning melee of sound.


The return of the Thin White Duke

Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes

Here are we one magical moment

Such is the stuff from

Where dreams are woven


Station to Station is one of the great milestone records in the history of rock and roll. For David Bowie it was the record that bridged two of the artist’s most vibrant creative periods during the 1970s; for rock music as a whole it was the spark needed to merge a polished sound from America’s respectively growing soul and disco scene with the ambitious budding art rock scene happening in Europe. For me, it was an album that instantly changed all my pre-conceived notions about Bowie the lavishly-costumed performer and musician and granted me a portal into a side of the artist’s canon that literally shook my perceptions of music.


At six tracks, Station is one of Bowie’s more concise efforts to date, but it still manages to pack the punches. Its title track remains his longest song to date, clocking in at over 10 minutes, and is one of those songs that I never tire from listening to. It unfolds like a symphony, rising from dark and mysterious to groovy, eventually culminating in a amalgamation of disco, funk, soul, Krautrock, early techno, glam and pretty much anything other sound Bowie had lying dormant in his inner-psyche. It’s a track that I’ve listened to in too many different settings to count, under various mental states and it remains one of the most fascinating offerings Bowie has ever released.


Recorded during Bowie’s coke-fueled soirée in Los Angeles from 1975-1976 while Bowie was filming Nicolas Roeg’s great science-fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Station to Station is an album that both excuses drug use for the sake of art while also affirming the notion that drug use can rip apart the inner psyche. Summed up: Bowie almost died making this album but it was this waltz to a dark place that helped produce this masterpiece and was the catalyst the artist needed to flee hellish L.A. for Western and Eastern Europe to start his much-lauded “Berlin Trilogy” of records. In an interview Bowie once said of Los Angeles during the mid-70s: “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth”


It’s safe to say my fascination with Bowie’s late 1970s period–beginning with 76’s Station to Station, spanning the “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, ‘heroes’ & Lodger, and finishing with 1980s spectacular Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)–is unending. Bowie has often said in interviews that he seldom recollects anything from the Station sessions (most musicians involved are also fuzzy when it comes to memories from the studio). The rock and roll rumor mill spins out yarns painting Bowie as a skeleton of a man, living off various dairy products and copious amounts of easy to get L.A. coke. There are notes of paranoia fueling the recording of the album. Magic and the black arts were both weighing heavily on Bowie’s mind and soul, as was an unhealthy interest in the occult and German philosophy. Still despite everything pulling Bowie deeper and deeper into madness (and a likely “rock and roll” demise) he managed to gather some of the finest musicians of the time, including a number of his previous musical peers (most notably dueling guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, the latter playing extensively on Bowie’s “Berlin” albums) and assembled an unprecedented shortlist of songs that to this day remain gems in Bowie’s extensive repertoire.


My true gateway to Bowie’s music came during my junior year of university. Before departing for a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, I coaxed a high-school friend into swapping music with me, most notably his digital Bowie discography. I already had a piquing interest in Bowie before this chance meeting of digital piracy/musical exploration. For those who still doubt the benefits of music downloading in the digital age understand this: there are some musicians or artists out there who should be explored in lumps, preferably through a chronologcial survey of their canon. Bowie, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Prince, to name a few giants that come to mind, evolved over their musical evolution in a way that was often unexpected, not always without its flaws but always fascinating. To listen to these transformations from early to late is such a rewarding gift for a music enthusiast.


If you go through Bowie’s catalogue of records during the 1970s, Station to Station seems like a natural way to divide his most lucrative decade.


Following closely on the heels of Bowie’s foray into Philly soul and disco sounds, the flawed but catchy Young Americans, Station seems to develop partially on the sound that Bowie was cultivating on Americans, while also adding enough needed experimentation to prove that he, in fact, had a lot more up his sleeve. The big musical jolt would follow with 1977s Low, an album so dear to my heart that I will eventually get around to adding it to this project.


“Station to Station” as a track has taken on many incarnations in my life. There was a seldom a time the track didn’t manage to make it onto a series of car mix CDs circulating the stereo in my Toyota. Like so many of Bowie’s tunes, I am always brought back to Salamanca, Spain. As I walked the streets my soundtrack was often set to Bowie, as my Iberian stint somehow became the environment where I fully-discovered his music. “Station to Station” was (and still is) a favorite track to run to as its slow-building crescendo coincides perfectly with the gradual ascension to full-on sprinting that runners plan during routes.


Lyrically the track is a window into the intrigue surrounding Bowie’s mental state of mind at the time. There are references to the Jewish Kabbalah, read as the crown and base of the tree of life:


Here are we

One magical movement

from Kether to Malkuth


Bowie references love and loss, possibly a sign of the times, most notably his separation from his wife and disconnection with his son while also referencing is physical and mental state:


It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine

I’m thinking that it must be love


Towards the end he finally gets to the point of the song and the album of its origin when he croons: “It’s too late / The European canon is here.”


It is widely known that Europe was beckoning Bowie, particularly through the music and art coming out of the East. His retreat to Europe, leaving behind L.A. was ultimately his saving grace. He has often said that he would have died in L.A. had he continued his lifestyle. That he also coaxed friend and musical influence Iggy Pop to join him in Europe, only moistens the intrigue of this period of musical exploration. Whether or not Bowie predicted or really knew what would ensue, musically, in the coming years of his career is up for debate, however, he knew that the art and changing tides in Eastern Europe would play an important role in the future of rock and roll. He, of course, wanted to be along for the ride.


My interest in this period of Bowie’s life would later lead to the reading of various accounts of the recording of this album, most notably Thomas Seabrook’s detailed book, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in Town. I still listen to Station to Station on a semi-regular basis. It’s title tracks is one of the truly great epic songs in rock and roll. As for the rest of the album, Bowie’s at his finest.


“Golden Years” took everything that was good about Young Americans and fused it together with the twisted grooves that would find their way to “Station to Station.” “Word on a Wing” is a heartbreaking ballad of sorts that tests Bowie’s vocal prowess and ultimately showcases a range seldom heard. “TVC-15” feels like a Warren Zevon song was blasted into space and collided with disco tunes that time forgot. “Wild is the Wind” is a noteworthy cover that is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier days. Then there’s “Stay,” which, besides featuring one of the truly great guitar riffs in rock and roll, is a sly number that would make Maggot Brain era Funkadelic envious.


Station to Station will always be a favorite in Bowie’s rich catalogue. Other venture and efforts would do more with this new found sound, most notably Low, however, it was Station that served as the jumping off point for Bowie’s major changes in the latter half of the century. Bowie released eleven near-flawless records in the 1970s, a feat that few artists working today could accomplish, especially when you consider that along the way he changed the sound and vision from album to album, station to station. After discovering Station to Station and the subsequent “Berlin Trilogy” I was officially hooked on Bowie, an unhealthy musical obsession that holds strong even today. Friends often scoff and wonder where this interest came from. They clearly haven’t listened to “Station to Station,” from its mesmerizing train whistle prelude to its coda, funk/disco/rock nirvana.

“Stay” featuring Adrian Belew