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.

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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.



Bob Dylan Reviews #10

 

Bob Dylan Reviews

Album #10, Self Portrait

Columbia Records, 1970

 

In Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, he writes in the chapter entitled “New Morning,” “I released one album–a double one–where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.

Bob Dylan’s, Self Portrait, is one of rock and roll’s most notorious album duds. It’s also one of the few albums in the artist’s canon that few people, critics included, have actually sat down and listened to in its entirety.

 

Hype is a funny thing. Coming off an impressive run of nine solid, and universally lauded albums in the 1960s, Bob Dylan released an album that puzzled fans, yet again, but also garnered one of the most infamous reviews of any album in rock and roll. Greil Marcus’ scathing Rolling Stone review of the album opens with, “What is this shit?”

 

Self Portrait is not a great album, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation claims. Self Portrait is, rather, an experimental album, possibly intentionally executed by Dylan to kill some of the spotlight swarming his life.

 

Let’s take a look at Dylan’s current predicament: In 1966, he had survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, that no doubt opened his eyes a bit. He was fed up with the media and his fans labeling him the messiah of rock and roll and a voice of his supposed generation. He seemed completely ready to ditch this built up “false persona” in lieu of a normal life with his family in upstate New York.

 

Nashville Skyline had left listeners and critics, “scratching their heads” as Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume 1. By the end of the decade that made him a star, Dylan was ready to move on. He recalls spreading rumors that he was going to retire from music all together. He took a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and wore a skull cap in front of the press just so he could be written up as a zionist and ultimately shed the baggage of his followers.

 

That Self Portrait’s title alludes to Dylan trying to show the world his true side (or perhaps an imagined-self that would send obnoxious his fan-base and critics alike running) shows that once again, Dylan was eager to send a message to the public.

 

The music on Self Portrait is not bad, it’s just not as good as everything that preceded it.

 

The 24-song collection is comprised primarily of studio B-sides from the Nashville Skyline sessions, covers of traditional and contemporary folk and rock songs, and a handful of live tracks recorded with The Band at the Isle of Wright Festival.

 

What’s striking about Self Portrait is that it’s a mish mosh of songs carrying no overlying message or theme, setting it apart from the previous nine records. Nashville Skyline came as a surprise to some but at least it felt like a concise exercise, channeling a love of country music and showcasing a new style of singing. Had Portrait been released solely as a “bootleg record,” much like the still-ongoing Bootleg Series that would eventually arise, the album might not have incited Marcus and others to impale Dylan and call this album the end of his career.

 

If you look at the year Self Portrait was released, it’s understandable that many fans felt betrayed by Dylan.

 

1970 saw The Beatles’ breakup, not to mention Simon & Garfunkel (but more on that later). Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both bought the farm, and a wave of long-winded progressive art-rock from Europe seemed to be ready to explode. It was a sudden and harsh end of a fruitful decade for rock and roll.

 

Leading up to the release of Self Portrait Dylan had given the public plenty of warning signs that he was an unpredictable artist unwilling to play into the media’s portrait of his place in the world. Why fans and critics would be that shocked by Portrait remains the album’s biggest mystery.

 

Self Portrait opens with the enchanting but bizarre “All the Tired Horses,” which upon first listen must have seemed even more out of left field than Skyline’s introduction of Dylan’s country crooning voice.

 

“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any riding done?” This is how Portrait opens. Sung by three gospel singers and set to swelling strings and a simple guitar riff, the song instantly puzzles the listener, but does so in a surprisingly beautiful way.

 

Some view the song’s sparse lyrics as a nod to the fact that the album is admittedly void of the epic Dylan songs we’re used to. “How am I supposed to get any riding done?” could easily be mistaken for “How am I supposed to get any writing done?” which some see as Dylan saying that he’s done writing the “protest songs” that the masses still expect.

 

At only two lines, it’s also worth mentioning that this song is the only track on side one that is a Dylan original, the remaining songs being covers and arrangements of traditional folk tunes.

 

The cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” is forgettable but feels like a direct spawn of the Skyline sessions.

 

“In Search of Little Sadie” gets things moving at the end of side one, and carries into its sister song, “Little Sadie” on side two. The arrangement of a traditional folk ballad about a man coming to grips with the fact that he murdered a woman in cold blood is actually a perfect Dylan song. It wouldn’t have felt out of place on say, John Wesley Harding.

 

The “Sadie” tracks differ only in terms of instrumental arrangements, and both feature choppy production, again giving the impression that Portrait truly is an officially released collection of outtakes and bootlegs.

 

“Woogie Boogie” is a fun instrumental that again feels like an extension of the Skyline songs, most notably “Nashville Skyline Rag.” The song builds to an eventual onslaught of brass culminating in a rip-roaring sax outro. The song, which was written by Dylan, is the result of an artist no doubt having fun in the studio. It’s an ode to “the blues” that Dylan so often returns to in his career and is an all around standout track on Portrait.

 

“Belle Isle,” another arrangement of a traditional folk song, carries on with the crescendo of strings first heard on “All the Tired Horses” and is one of Portrait’s more tender moments, save for the fact that Dylan’s vocals seem off key. Nevertheless, the tale of a man falling in love with a mysterious Celtic maid on “the banks of Belle Isle” is enough to warrant the song’s beautiful orchestral arrangement.

 

The live version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded a year earlier at the Isle of Wright Festival, is not the best live cut of the song available, but it captures perfectly the time of its recording. The Band’s presence is understood with Garth Hudson’s organ and the backup vocals from Robbie Robertson and company playing a vital role in the late 60s sound.

 

Self Portrait was officially released before the monstrous double album with The Band, Basement Tapes, but many of the songs on Portrait seem to be rejects or leftovers from those fruitful sessions. The version of “Like a Rolling Stone” is also an early sign of how Dylan would often deconstruct and alter his songs throughout his career. To this day no single live version of his hits are the same. His music always seems to evolve over time, taking on new forms–sometimes improving, sometimes causing fans to cringe.

 

The live version of “She Belongs To Me” (taken from the same 1969 concert) is another noteworthy example of this idea. Dylan’s songs take on different lives over his career. It’s an aspect of his music that fascinates some and infuriates others. Still no matter how you feel about it, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t keep things interesting.

 

Self Portrait’s most famous song, that is to say the only one people seem to reference when talking about the album, is “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” one of the album’s more successful covers and easily one of Dylan’s more underrated songs. Period.

 

Again blending strings, backup female vocalists, and a simple, albeit off-key vocal style from Dylan, this song seems to be one of several tracks on Portrait that carries a similar style and mood. Combined with “Belle Isle,” “All the Tired Horses,” and “Let It Be Me,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” takes the tenderness of Nashville Skyline and ups the production ante by adding, dare I say, a Phil Spector “wall of soundesque” level of instrumentation.

 

The song, a cover of a traditional folk song set during the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States is an ode to back-country moonshining. Its a romantic portrait of the love of homemade whiskey and a lawlessness that was required to keep this passion alive during a time when the taxman wanted a piece.

 

Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak
Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them just a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Listening to “Copper Kettle” you again get the feeling that, like many of the other folk songs recorded throughout Dylan’s career, this is a song and a setting in America’s past that Dylan cherishes deeply. It chronicles the kind of simple life Dylan yearned for.

Unfortunately unlike “Copper Kettle,” not all of the covers on Self Portrait end up as successful. The most criticized examples being Dylan’s lackluster covers of “Blue Moon” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”

“Blue Moon” is a rock and roll standard that has been covered by a countless array of different musicians. Perhaps Dylan wanted to join the party, perhaps he just likes the song; whatever the reason, Dylan pulls out his “Lay Lady Lay” vocals but does little else to amp up the performance. It’s not that the version is horrible, it’s just boring, predictable and doesn’t bring anything new to the fold.

On Nashville Skyline Dylan’s crooning, soft-toned vocals work best when paired with “Girl From the North Country.” Here he takes one of his immortal classics and sheds new light on an otherwise familiar sound (this move is aided by Johnny Cash of course). Dylan’s “Blue Moon” sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound like, which does the song a disfavor.

On the other hand, Dylan’s rendition of “The Boxer” is one of Self Portrait’s moments that must have really inspired Greil Marcus to famously open his Rolling Stone review with such a harsh choice of words.

Many of posited that “The Boxer” is one of the Dylan’s more humorous offerings. It has been seen as a parody of a song by one of his contemporaries that he either respects or loathes. Some see it merely as Dylan messing around in the studio, possibly while under the influence of something that toys with one’s judgement. Whatever the reasons are for the song’s existence, the fact remains that the cover just doesn’t work.

For starters, Dylan records a duet with himself, channeling both the scratchy Dylan vocals we grew accustomed to throughout the 60s with the country crooning imagined in Nashville. It’s an interesting move that, in this writer’s humble opinion, backs the argument that this is a song in which Dylan is poking fun at “The Boxer,” a classic song recorded by musicians who have truly beautiful voices at their disposal. Whether or not this is a direct response to something personal between Simon and Dylan remains unknown.

Dylan has always had a very subtle sense of humor. It pops up on songs throughout his career, and most notably during his mischievous probing of the media during his now infamous interviews. You don’t have to look farther than Dylan’s most recent album of Christmas songs set to blues and polka music to realize that behind those serious eyes there is a clever and dark sense of humor.

Self Portrait is hardly Dylan’s worst record to date (many argue that its sloppy follow-up compilation of Portrait outtakes, Dylan, is an even more dismal affair) but it still remains one of his most discussed mishaps.

During the eighties Dylan went through creative slumps that produced songs that make the music on Portrait seem like classic Dylan. What Self Portrait teaches us is that the media does in fact have power over listeners.

During the research for this entry I discovered a fan-made documentary on Self Portrait. What’s most striking is how many of the commentators who bash the album have never listened to the record all the way through. This is, of course, a sign of an unsuccessful album, however, when taking into consideration that Self Portrait contains 24 tracks, it should be assumed that amidst the duds there are some high notes.

Had Self Portrait been released simply as a collection of bootlegs and B-sides more people wouldn’t be as quick to follow suit and judge the songs. Countless magazine lists heralding the supposed “Worst Albums of All Time” place Portrait on a pedestal of disdain. Instead, I feel that Self Portrait is one of Dylan’s more curious moments in his career. How else should he have started a new decade? How does one follow a string of immortal, game-changing albums? Dylan would follow Portrait the same year with New Morning, one of the artist’s most underrated albums to date and one that garners this title because it comes in the wake of Portrait’s dismal press.

Self Portrait enabled Dylan to personally diminish the hype revolving around him, ultimately allowing him to start over and take his music into a new direction. He did this when he alienated fans by going electric, he would later do this during his “born again” years, and in the 90s, when his music and style changed so drastically that he worked diligently to attract a completely new fan base to his music.

David Bowie is often labeled a “the chameleon of rock and roll” for his many musical and physical transformations over the years, but its Dylan who really makes the best use of this career concept. For Dylan, the music always came first. The collection of songs on Self Portrait are exactly the kind of songs you would expect Dylan to release. He is a lover of obscure Americana and folk music (his current radio program showcases this passion perfectly) and he has always yearned to shed his musical skin for something new and less obvious.

Self Portrait is possibly Dylan’s most fascinating career move and is an album that demands to be revisited at least once more by skeptics. It’s not perfect but succeeds at capturing a moment in Dylan’s life and musical career. Sure The Basement Tapes is the better double album, but that documents, first and foremost, one of the truly rare and magical musical pairings in rock and roll.

Greil Marcus is a prolific music writer and his admiration for Dylan’s canon is unprecedented, however, one can’t help but think that his now infamous Rolling Stone review might have been the exact response Dylan was looking for at the time. It’s as if he walked right into the trap which makes Dylan’s persona as trickster and media manipulator, all the more intriguing.

6.0/10

Essential Tracks: “All the Tired Horses,” “In Search of Little Sadie/Little Sadie,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” “Bell Isle”

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.


Top Albums of 2009

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.

The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).

Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.

Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.

St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records

Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.

Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.

How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger

Who I’m not supposed to see

Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records

To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.

“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you’d sigh yourself to sleep

When I’d rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.

“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.

Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.

Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.

The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.

Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”

“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.

Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.

This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.

The Best of the Rest

Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia

The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records

The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”

Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute

Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK FOUR

Week Four

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.



“Left of the Dial”
The Replacements
Album: Tim
1985
Sire Records

Don’t trust anyone who says the 1980s was a horrible decade for music. They clearly haven’t listened to The Replacements.

In the midst of countless hair bands, MTV airwaves-ready pop hits, and Toto, homespun bands like The Replacements were making great rock and roll, plain and simple. The group is often lumped in with the punk movement of the mid 80s, joining the ranks of Husker Du, Black Flag, et al, but this assessment only really works for the band’s early records. Instead, The Replacements remains one of the best truly American rock bands, making music that spoke to countless generations of regulars.

I wish I could say I grew up with The Replacements. I wish I could say my parents played its records for me at a tender age, schooling me musically like they did with so many other great artists. Sadly though, I didn’t discover The ‘Mats, as their also known as, until my last year at University after a dear friend’s band mate told me bluntly, that both Let It Be and Tim we’re must owns.

I had heard “Favorite Thing” from 1984s Let It Be before, but didn’t really fully appreciate the song until I heard the record as a whole. But what a dose of musical enlightenment discovering The ‘Mats was.

The ‘Mats lead singer and key songwriter Paul Westerberg is one of the truly great everyman American voices to come out of rock and roll. The Minneapolis native writes songs that range from the silly (Let It Be’s “Gary’s Got a Boner”), the tender (Tim’s “Kiss Me on the Bus”), the admiring (Please to Meet Me’s Big Star homage, “Alex Chilton”), the cruel (Tim’s “Waitress in the Sky”) the heartfelt (Let It Be’s magnificent “Unsatisfied”) and epics (Let It Be’s closer “Answering Machine”).

Westerberg’s lyrics are simple enough but carry a lot of weight. He writes about low-life Joes, average souls, salt of the earth folk, the people he grew up with and above all his love of rock and roll music. He doesn’t tell grandiose stories like Springsteen, and doesn’t carry the political muster of say Dylan, but he has a way with words that is unlike any other songwriter out there. Some liken Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (a great songwriter in his own right) to Westerberg, but I tend think that’s wishful thinking for Tweedy.

On Tim’s “Bastards of Young” he laments about sons and daughters of his generation finding their place in mess of things–finding one’s way in an unforgiving world.

The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them

The summer after I graduated was truly a summer of The ‘Mats. After discovering Let It Be I bought up the two other essential records in its catalogue: 1985s Tim and 1987s Please to Meet Me. All lingered in my car’s CD player for most of that summer as I said goodbye to college and went into the unknown of the real world, without a job and with no clue of what I was supposed to do with myself.

The ‘Mats music is essential driving music and the one song that ultimately ends up on most driving mixes is “Left of the Dial.”

To say this is The ‘Mats best song would be unfair since it’s damn near impossible to pick a favorite. This is, however, the best song to speed along to down a country road in Southern Indiana during the spring with the windows down, while testing the limits car stereo’s speakers.

I can remember vividly returning to my alma mater during the spring of my first year out of college, after a year back home and a job that paid well but left me, to quote The ‘Mats, “unsatisfied.”

Indiana University is tucked away in a truly beautiful part of the country, a place that even caught me off guard when I first visited the campus during my senior year of high school. Brown and Monroe Counties are known for their rolling hills, picturesque state parks and lakes. Outside of Bloomington is Lake Monroe, a scenic getaway that is worlds apart from the industrial Northwest Indiana neck of the woods that I grew up knowing.

One particularly nice day, I ventured out with my dear friend Chris and his girlfriend for a drive by the lake. No plan, just a chance to check out the area and enjoy the beautiful spring weather. The trip as a whole, like many visits to Bloomington was an escape from the then heavy weight of the real world resting on my shoulders. As we drove chatting and listening to various tunes, I felt bliss.

We toured the winding hill roads in my 95 Toyota Camry (not quite the ideal Replacement’s chariot–that would probably be a dilapidated relic of the Detroit automotive 1970s decade of excess, maybe a Gremlin–but close enough) with the windows down, the sweet, wholesome southern air rushing through the car. I had a number of mix CDs swapping in and out and a copy of Tim. We chatted, reminisced, shared some laughs, but were instantly silenced when “Left of the Dial” exploded through the stereo.

The song is one of a handful of Westerberg-written love songs. It’s an ode to a female musician that Westerberg either had a relationship with or simply lusted after. It’s also very much an ode to joys of listening to the radio, specifically the hipper college stations that reside “left of the dial” on most tuners around the States

According to Allmusic.com’s write-up of Tim, the song was written about Angie Carlson, the guitarist of Let’s Active, who may or may not have had a fling with Westerberg. Personally I think the song’s muse is best left unknown.

Pretty girl keep growin’ up, playin’ make-up, wearin’ guitar
Growin’ old in a bar, ya grow old in a bar
Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name

And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial

There is a level of comfort in the closing line, knowing that wherever she is he can always find her through the airwaves of obscure radio stations. It’s a romantic line but it also speaks volumes about what great music can become.

For me the song is as much a love ballad as it is a passionate ode to finding comfort on the radio through the songs we cherish. No matter where you are or how you are feeling, a classic song can bring you home.

When it comes to the airwaves, good radio is hard to come by these days but there is nothing like discovering a station or program that truly speaks to you–one that you can sync with aimless drives in the car as heard in the lines:

Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state

Long driving trips alone can be lonely for some but for me I find them the perfect time to think. When tuning into local radio stations, it’s also a great way to soak up the lay of the musical landscape wherever you are. On one long drive from D.C. back to Bloomington, Indiana I did just this. Checking the stations in West Virginia to Ohio.

Musically, “Left of the Dial” is also a hell of a tune and is quite possibly the closest the band ever got to an arena rocker. Chris Mars’ drums are perfectly orchestrated, lacking the sloppy garage rock of some of the band’s earlier tunes. Bobby Stinson’s guitar solo leading up to the aforementioned closing stanza is one of his finest moments.

While I discovered The Replacements late in the game (still, better late than never) the band remains one of my favorites. I can play its records anytime, anywhere and find comfort in the music and Westerberg’s pure and honest lyrics. “Left of the Dial” will always bring to mind those times in the car. It will remind me of a great friend, the end of one memorable chapter in my life (college) and the uncertain start of another. It’s a powerful song that evokes all kinds of memories and is also just a great song to get lost in after a hard day.

NOTE: Sadly this was the only video of the song I could find.
It is not The ‘Mats but rather Westerberg solo.
Tim is a must own for anyone interested in great rock and roll.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWO

Week: Two

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.

“Release”
Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
1991
Epic Records

I am a child of the grunge generation; if that’s the label we’re sticking with twenty years later. While music enthusiasts will argue about the true pioneers of the alternative rock wave–for the record looking back on the progression of music at the time, it’s hard not to side with the “Pixies were the true forefathers of the movement” argument, over the more universally recognized credit to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana–my gateway to the genre was through Pearl Jam.

I was too young to fully appreciate The Pixies during its heyday (though my dad’s friend’s offering to me of Doolittle at the tender age of eight always intrigued me, what with lead singer Black Francis’ screeching vocals and obscure choice of terrifying lyrics). While I wish I could say I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind instantly upon its release along with the masses, it was Pearl Jam’s debut Ten that was my first real musical obsession.

I remember one summer in particular listening to the song’s on Ten over and over again through a pitch black Sony boombox by day, and through a matching black Sony Walkman from a audio cassette ripped from said boombox by night–those were the days, weren’t they? The liner notes on my original CD copy of the album have been unfolded and refolded countless times (those in the loop will remember the notes unfolding to form a poster of the band members standing in a circle, hands raised high and joined in a badass high-five of sorts). And I can clearly remember looping the opening moments of “Porch,” since it was one of the few songs with cool sounding curse words–the opening line verbatim, “What the fuck is this world”–that I had managed to slip by my somewhat censoring parents.

Pearl Jam is one of the few groups from the era that has survived and is still relevant in modern times (hell, its latest album Backspacer was a breath of fresh air in the band’s canon). Part of its success is based on its loyal fans like me who were mesmerized by Ten.

The album remains the band’s masterpiece. It’s a flawless execution of a budding sound that was, with all respect to the band members, all due to Eddie Vedder’s soaring vocals, which somehow meld gritty and epic into a style that remains unrivaled.

It’s also one of the few albums out there with a flawless flow that begins and ends on two perfect notes. Even for this project entry I was torn between going with the album’s slow-burning opener, “Once,” a completely unassailable way to kick off the album, or its more restrained, dare I say beautiful closer, “Release.” Ultimately I had to go with the latter.

I don’t know how many mix tapes and CDs I’ve capped off with this song. It’s an epic. Like “Once” it takes it time to build, allowing Vedder to test his deep vocal tones in front of a wall of rising guitar crescendos. Of all the songs on Ten this is where Vedder really shows he’s a musical force to be reckoned with.

His vocal range alone is enough to send chills down the spine especially towards the song’s magnificent closing moments when he carries the line, “release me” through an onslaught of distortion and commanding use of the ride cymbal from drummer Dave Krusen.

Even the song’s instrumental outro that is linked to the song (a continuation of the intro to “Once”) is worth the time on the record, adding an eerie finish to the already perfect closer.

Lyrically this song is very much akin to John Lennon’s shockingly personal, “Mother” off Plastic Ono Band LP. Both songs are heartbreaking laments about a lack of strong or loving parental figures. In the case of Vedder, it refers to the two father figures during his childhood and coming to the grips with the passing of his true father. He was apparently raised by a cruel stepfather and never got to know his real dad on a personal level before his passing. He realizes that he carries a piece of his real father but he’ll never know how or which part of his makeup. It’s this realization that makes the songs truly heartbreaking.

Oh, dear dad, can you see me now
I am myself, like you somehow

Casual interpretations of the song can be linked to the lines,

I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

which could reference escapism through drugs or simply, the release of stress in life. Letting go and living how you want to live is very much the unofficial manifesto of the grungers (it’s also the message I take away from the song since it’s difficult for me to relate to Vedder’s personal story). Hell, even surfers could relate to this song since the lyrics remain intriguing in their simplicity no matter how you perceive them. When matched with the song’s grandiose music, it’s also easy to just focus on the elevating line, “release me.”

Mention must be made of the rumor that this song was written during the studio time in about 20-minutes while the band was doodling through possible riffs. If this legend holds true, then this backs the theory that some songs are just meant to be written and can arise in an almost spooky fashion. Artists have often commented on moments of brilliance coming out of nowhere during unexpected moments.

“Release” is a song that I can remember falling asleep to as a child and as an adult, one that I remember imagining in my head during daydreams. It’s a staple cut from a one of the greatest debut records out there and one that instantly made me a lifelong devoted fan of Pearl Jam. During the 2003 tour for Pearl Jam’s Riot Act the band opened its masterful set at Chicago’s United Center with “Release,” catching most of the audience off guard and cementing the song’s importance for me as I was carried away by its strength.

It will always be a headphone song, or the kind of tune that must be played through a car stereo at full blast while driving alone, preferably at night, with the windows closed to create the perfect sonic environment to ride the wave.