Monday, July 21, 2008

The List Lives: 85-81

This is fun, but also pretty high-maintenance for a weekly feature. That's what I get for trying to match the obsessiveness of Dezmond.

85b. Dixie Chicks -- Wide Open Spaces (1998)

Yes, “85b.” This is the only mulligan I’ll take, I promise. Eagle-eyed readers (anyone?) may have noticed that when last week’s installment first went up there were unexplained references to the Dixie Chicks in the Hank Williams paragraph. One of my team of proofreaders (they sit around my apartment wearing headsets, like Time-Life operators) alerted me to the error, and I fixed it. The Chicks had been in that group of five albums until I realized that in trying to choose a Cat Power record, I had left her off altogether. So, I eliminated the Chicks, partly out of practicality, partly out of some sense of guilty-pleasure shame. But they deserve better.

The group had recorded three albums by 1998, but Wide Open Spaces was its first with singer Natalie Maines, whose brassy voice has come to define the band. I first heard the title track while sitting in the press box of a high school baseball stadium in Texas. It was polished and accessible and consciously twangy and had vague lyrics of empowerment. My first thought was, “Why don’t I hate this as much as I think I should?” There are plenty of moving ballads with hints of the old country tradition here, like “You Were Mine” and “Loving Arms,” and an admirable choice of source material, like songs by Maria McKee and Bonnie Raitt. The thick studio polish is made up for by the fact that they’re talented musicians, and the band’s visual aesthetics -- which can be a Miley Cyrus-like strip-mall mess, as seen in this clip -- are forgivable because the music has something like roots, and the best of it might last.

85. Bruce Springsteen -- Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

With the title track, “Glory Days,” “I’m On Fire,” and “Dancing in the Dark,” U.S.A. scores pretty high sheerly judged by the criterion of Durable Radio Hits. It might have just missed the list, though, if it didn’t also feature “Bobby Jean,” one of my favorite Springsteen songs. Allegedly inspired by the departure of Steve Van Zandt from the E Street Band (I have a feeling someone I know might be able to verify that), the song is most easily heard by the unknowing as the story of a guy who missed out on a chance to say goodbye to an old girlfriend (Platonic or otherwise) before she left town. When the song reaches its peak, culminating with the lines “I'm just callin’ one last time / not to change your mind / but just to say I miss you, baby / good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean,” I get misty every time. And that’s what Springsteen is about at his best -- unapologetic emotional music. His songs about lost souls, highways, and humming engines make him easy to parody (I wonder if someone’s created Springsteen Mad Libs yet: make of vehicle, year in the Carter or Reagan administration, depressed New Jersey town, etc.), but equally easy to love.

84. Neko Case and Her Boyfriends -- Furnace Room Lullaby (2000)

When Neko Case sings a song, it stays sung. The fact that someone with those pipes also has discriminating intelligence is something to celebrate. Everything she’s done has integrity, but Furnace Room -- an appropriate image for her pretty and burning voice -- gets the nod because of one song in particular, “South Tacoma Way.” Otherwise, you could flip a coin between this record and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I’ve written before about that song, and how she sings, “I can't comprehend the ways I miss you / they come to light in my mistakes.” It’s my favorite moment in a song that’s one long great moment.

83. The Innocence Mission -- Befriended (2003)

I’ll be writing a longer appreciation of this band later on (earlier on?) in the list. They’re too smart to ever be embarrassed, but when crystalline-voiced singer Karen Peris’ lyrics grow too simplistic, or the band’s musical accompaniment too spare, or both, the results can be underwhelming and precious. More often, though, as on Befriended, The Innocence Mission maintains a delicate but powerful balance. Peris and husband/bandmate Don Peris are Christians, but her loving attention to detail makes her broader lyrics, like “I’ve had enough of this trouble” or “tell me how I can just start over again,” sound like prayers for the religious and secular alike.

82. The Black Crowes -- The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)

I was in high school when this record came out, and I wasn’t much interested in classic rock, much less bands aping classic rock. I had liked the poppier songs off the Crowes’ debut, but this follow-up sounded too gritty and southern-fried for my taste. Luckily, my friend Brett championed it and got me interested. It’s a good thing, too, because despite the infectiousness of lead single “Remedy,” there weren’t many easy routes into the album. It remains a more impressive accomplishment taken as a whole than as individual pieces. But the pieces are pretty great. You won’t find a more driving blast than “Hotel Illness,” or a more laconic (well, stoned) groove than the anti-ballad “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye.” And then there’s show-stopper “Sometimes Salvation,” which is one long bluesy yelp (capped off by yelps that are less bluesy and more full-fledged freakout).

81. Red House Painters -- (Rollercoaster) (1993)

Mark Kozelek is now recording under the name Sun Kil Moon, but this album -- actually eponymous, but called “Rollercoaster” after its cover image, to differentiate it from a previous eponymous album -- came out in 1993, when he was still going by Red House Painters. “Katy Song” is probably the song here most indicative of the style, morose and pretty, stretching more than eight minutes and including the lyric “glass on the pavement under my shoe / without you is all my life amounts to.” But it’s the opener, “Grace Cathedral Park,” that speaks loudest to Kozelek’s talent. It might not make a list as select as my 100 favorite songs, but it would certainly get strong consideration. The lyrics, like most of his, are smart but might look maudlin on the page. The song’s full, lilting music helps, as does Kozelek’s delivery -- his voice is husky and understated, which keeps his words from inducing the cringes they might if screamed by an emo singer desperate for you to hear his lifetime of pain in every syllable.

Speaking of Springsteen, Rollercoaster also includes “New Jersey,” with its central couplet of, “you’re as good as dead / New Jersey ain’t the whole world.” Kozelek has made a recent habit of releasing entire albums of covers by the same (unlikely) artist -- AC/DC and Modest Mouse -- and he contributed two strong turns to a John Denver tribute album. The Boss’ catalog might be an interesting choice for a future project.



Blogger Dezmond said...

Maybe it is so high maintenance because you are cheating with your "86.b." bizness. You think I didn't have to make the hard choices on my list too? But 100 means 100, son.

I have been exposed to more Dixie Chicks than I would have chosen to due to my wife, but I admire their musicianship and emotional delivery. I generally dislike the New Country, but the Chicks are cool.

On Bruce, yes, "Bobby Jean" was in fact written for Steve Van Zandt (who is now back on E Street, by the way). Obviously I like this choice a lot. It says a lot for how good this thing is from start to finish that it had seven charting singles from it, yet your favorite song on it is a non-single ("Bobby Jean"), as is mine ("Downbound Train").

Neko kicks ass. I get a little impatient with the "sameness" of her albums, but they are full of great moments. I'm a bigger fan of her work with The New Pornographers than her solo work.

Dude, you pick a Black Crowes record for your Top 100 but no Rolling Stones? That's like preferring Equal over real sugar. WTF?

You've sung the praises of Innocense Mission and Red House Painters for years. I even think you gave me some samplers. I need to revisit those.

It may be lots of work, but these lists are fun. Keep it going.

6:25 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I think my list might only be fun for you, Dez, but fear not -- I'll keep going.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I'm the only one I'm really concerned about, JMW.

7:03 PM  
Blogger figment said...

agreed, neko kicks ass. it’s not often i’m as gripped by the lyrics as the voice. each alone's enough to stop me dead in my tracks. the ensemble… almost dangerous. but how to pick a best album (i don't envy you). Blacklisted would be in the running for me (Wish I was the Moon, among others. so simply addictive).

--"The most tender place in my heart is for strangers."

11:57 AM  

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