Monday, July 14, 2008

The List Rolls On: 90-86

No preamble this time, because this post is pretty long as is:

90. Julian Velard -- Make Me Feel (2003)

I was serendipitously introduced to Julian Velard’s music a few years ago through a New York friend who had gone to school with someone in Velard’s band. At the time, Velard was in his early 20’s, spending his days as a kindergarten gym teacher, and we were watching him play at a bar in a remote Brooklyn neighborhood with something like six other people present. The band played for about three hours, including an intermission, and I was hooked. Velard, who admits to being most influenced in his childhood by Michael Jackson and Pee-Wee Herman, is not your average songwriter. Well, not in 2008. He’s your average songwriter in 1978. With (additional) early influences Elton John and Stevie Wonder, and a rich voice like a younger, much less ravaged version of Tom Waits, Velard can remind you of a lot while sounding only like himself.

He studied with jazz musician Yusef Lateef, and his original band -- which backs him on this live CD -- is terrific. There are trumpet and violin solos, and a general energy that wasn’t properly captured on the previous studio record. Every song here is a standout to my ears. My least favorite might be the title track, an extended, radically remade cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” but that’s only because I enjoy the originals so much.

Velard recently moved to London to capitalize on his popularity in the UK. He never found the audience he deserved in New York. Every time I saw him play, which was every chance I got, the crowds were devoted but small. In current-day hipster New York, it’s hard for a writer and musician as eager to please as Velard. He’s also moved in a poppier direction -- less obvious jazz touches and more Ben Folds-style piano rock -- as in his new, catchy-as-hell single, “Jimmy Dean & Steve McQueen.”

89. Cat Power -- The Greatest (2006)

I thought about choosing Moon Pix instead, when Chan Marshall was firmly ensconced in her cocoon of vaguely southern-Gothic weirdness, but there is something undeniably and appropriately great about The Greatest, on which she sounds soulful in a way that's much more engaged with the real world. It helps that she's backed by some legendary Memphis session players. The music is both more friendly and accomplished than on her previous records. Her smoky, disaffected, sexy voice hasn't changed, though, and it makes for a remarkable combination. The title track cribs from "Moon River," but that's not why it -- and most everything else on The Greatest -- sounds like it will last.

88. The Police -- Synchronicity (1983)

When I mentioned this record to a friend the other night, she claimed it was her least favorite by the band. It made sense, since her tastes would naturally lead her to prefer the band’s earlier, punk-ier work, but it still gave me pause. I considered whether or not this slot should be reserved for Outlandos D’Amour instead. That record has “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” and my favorite Police song, “So Lonely.”

So this turned out to be a close call, but I still give the nod to Synchronicity. First of all, it doesn’t have the same reggae influence as the band’s earlier work, and this is a judgment based on the goofiness of post-Police Sting, but the idea of him dabbling in reggae seems sillier now than it probably did at the time. On Synchronicity, there’s more of a straight-ahead pop sound, and it’s achieved so well that the songs were (are) overplayed to the point of catatonia. But to have grown tired of “Synchronicity II,” “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is not to deny the accomplishment of those four songs appearing consecutively on the same album.

87. Ride -- Nowhere (1990)

I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed with the fact that Wikipedia has a page about “shoegazing,” but I can say that this fact makes me happy in a way that I can’t articulate. This despite the fact that, according to Wikipedia itself, “This article or section has multiple issues. Please help improve the article or discuss these issues on the talk page.”

While the issue-plagued article admits that the term was probably over-extended by a British music press intent on defining and propagating scenes, it still has a definition that seems pretty accurate: “Common musical elements in shoegaze are distortion (aka 'fuzzbox'), droning riffs and a 'wall of sound' from noisy guitars. Typically, two distorted rhythm guitars are played together to give an amorphous quality to the sound. Although lead guitar riffs were often present, they were not the central focus of most shoegazing songs. . . . Vocals are typically subdued in volume and tone, but underneath the layers of guitars is generally a strong sense of melody. While the genres which influenced shoegazing often used drum machines, shoegazing more often features live drumming."

Ride fits the description fairly well. You can hear my favorite two songs off Nowhere on YouTube: “Vapour Trail” is accompanied by a still shot of the album’s cover art; “Polar Bear” by a weirdly hypnotic line drawing.

86. Hank Williams -- 40 Greatest Hits (1961)

It’s extraordinary (as well as sad) to think that he died at 29 -- he sounds like an old man in many of these songs. Williams penned songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which has been covered by a trillion people, and which includes the classic opening lines, “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill / he sounds too blue to fly.”

While classics like “Lonesome” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” are here, of course, it’s some of the deeper cuts that caused me to pick the 40 hits, rather than a smaller collection. I’m particularly fond of the terrifically titled “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” the regretful prison tune “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me,” in which Williams sings, “why don’t you love me like you used to do? / how come you treat me like a worn-out shoe? / my hair is curly and my eyes are still blue / why don’t you love me like you used to do?”

Jazz -- a genre that doesn’t qualify for this list -- is rightfully hailed as perhaps the greatest American contribution to the arts. But country music is also an American original, if an amalgam, and Williams represents it as well as anyone.



Blogger Dezmond said...

Velard sounds interesting, I'll have to check him out. A friend of mine gave me a copy of that Cat Power disc, I guess I need to give it a listen! I really like that Ride album cover. Good choice with Hank, I obviously can't argue with that. Although, I appreciate him more in the abstract than actually wanting to sit down and listen to his music. I have always loved "Jambalaya", though.

'Synchronicity' ought to be higher than that. What a way for a band to go out on a high note. Those four songs you mentioned are the core of a great album, but "Synchronicity I", "O My God" and "Murder By Numbers" are also great tunes. Funny, but 'Outlandos d'Amour' is my least favorite of their five albums.

11:19 AM  

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