Friday, November 07, 2008

The List is Really Dragging This Out: 15-11

15. Counting Crows -- August and Everything After (1993)

Loving this album (and liking this band, generally) is a bit like loving an early Quentin Tarantino movie. They both have clearly displayed influences, they both accomplish their goals remarkably well, and they are both made by people who probably shouldn’t open their mouths (or even appear) in public. Yes, Adam Duritz’s personality could use some work (at the very least, someone should have put scaffolding around him sometime in 1994 and only taken it down when he was ready for viewing again). But as a fan-critic -- ahem -- I try to judge cases on their merits, and August and Everything After is a plaintive, moving record, its occasional melodramatic excesses hardly alien to acclaimed rock music. Songs like “Round Here,” “Perfect Blue Buildings,” and “Raining in Baltimore” suffer from stretches of excessive mewling, but they all have redemptive qualities. The band (especially Duritz) leave themselves less open to criticism when they set a quicker pace -- “Mr. Jones,” “Rain King,” and “A Murder of One” are all terrific songs. “Sullivan Street” might best capture this album’s tone -- the nostalgic and heartsick lyrics, the pretty back-up vocals (by Maria McKee), and the shameless straining after something you can’t quite name. I’m not going to make claims for the band’s singularity -- their sound is just a successful knitting together of influences, but how many good rock bands are more than that? I do believe that Matchbox 20 and countless bands that followed miss some of the genuine existential feeling that makes Counting Crows’ worse qualities worth overlooking. Anyway, I think it’s just me and Greil Marcus who are still willing to loudly champion these guys, and I don’t know how I feel about that alliance.

14. Paul Simon -- Graceland (1986)

I’ll get the tangential criticism out of the way first. I’m sure this album is single-handedly responsible for any number of terrible pseudo-world-music compilations put together by such cutting-edge music distributors as Starbucks. That’s fine. It also opened the gates for some legitimately great global music to be heard widely in the U.S. for the first time. So on balance, it was a good thing.

According to Wikipedia, Simon has said the title track is the best song he’s written. I don’t know about that, but it’s very good even by his standards. I might give that honor to "Under African Skies," with its lovely additional vocals by Linda Ronstadt. Other favorites include “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” which both feature the stirring vocal work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The hit single, “You Can Call Me Al,” is as good as it is goofy.

13. R.E.M. -- Murmur (1983)

R.E.M.’s full-length debut remains a bizarrely timeless record. It certainly doesn’t sound like stereotypical ‘80s music. Even smart ‘80s music. In 1983, The Police and U2 released Synchronicity and War, respectively, and those (very good) records were forceful and even radio-friendly. The murkier, humbler production values of Murmur, which might be associated with a work not looking to draw attention to itself, ironically made it stand out. Rolling Stone named it the best album of that year, ahead of the two mega-bands previously mentioned and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

More than half the time, it’s hard to make out what the hell Michael Stipe is singing, which we’ve come to learn is not always a bad thing. Instead, his expressive voice acts more as an additional instrument. When certain cryptic phrases do emerge clearly from the mix, they have an inexplicable potency. Every part of this next sentence has been said a billion times by now, but let’s make it a billion and one: Murmur married the Byrds with an aural equivalent of Southern Gothic, and "alternative rock" was born (only to die sometime around the formation of Candlebox).

12. Son Volt -- Trace (1995)

Trace is full of terrific songs, written and sung by Jay Farrar, who, unlike Jeff Tweedy, didn’t move from Uncle Tupelo to universal hipster fame, for which reason I like him even more. I’ve always thought there was something more authentic about Farrar, even if Tweedy’s grab-bag approach has resulted in a lot of very good music. I’ve made fleeting mention of sub-lists before, as a way to describe things, and this one’s easy: If I were making a list of my Favorite Albums to Bring on a Highway Drive, Trace would be number one, and whatever is second would be a long way off in the distance. It starts with “Windfall,” a country-ish tune with a chorus of “may the wind take your troubles away / both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel / may the wind take your troubles away.” It also features these lyrics: “Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana / sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven.” Other songs include lines like, “Southbound, you can taste the weather / it feels like home.” Basically, just typing the album’s lyrics, sitting in Park Slope without a car, is enough to drive a person mad. It really is.

Also, I’ve always believed that if I had a rock band, “Route” would be an ideal song to open a show with. (Oh, like you’ve never thought about stuff like that.)

11. David Gray -- A Century Ends (1993)

I’m a big fan of David Gray. And yes, I’m forced to be one of “those people” when it comes to his music -- I was listening to him six or seven years before his big breakout in the U.S, so I feel a bit territorial about him, and probably overly defensive about some of the criticism he's received since becoming a big star, since I don’t think there’s much to be defensive about. (Wait, is that defensive?)

Allegedly a punk rocker of sorts when he was younger, there’s more than a trace of that feeling left on his debut album, A Century Ends, released when he was in his mid-20s. It mostly features Gray and an acoustic guitar, but a consistent passion and occasional anger keep things from the more cloying end of the singer-songwriter spectrum. There’s a bit of Billy Bragg here, if that means anything to you, an alternating between English romanticism and political dissent. I don’t know whether he would still say this or not, but a good friend of mine (and someone with much less tolerance than I have for the mushy, I think he would agree) once said that Gray is among the very few who can sing the word “soul” without sounding cheesy.

The far more successful phase of Gray’s career has been marked by tasteful electronic accouterments and smoother vocals, and I think it’s a nice, warm sound for him, but because I discovered him when he was in a rawer mood, I think I prefer his songs that way. The opening “Shine” and the closing “It’s All Over” are regretful but forceful (especially the latter, which really builds a head of steam), and spaced almost evenly between them is “Gathering Dust,” a heartbreaking song about leaving a relationship without any real reason for it.

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Blogger ANCIANT said...

I think you also give short shrift to Adam D as a lyricist. He's really good. (Even on the 2nd album, his lyrics stand out despite the often humdrum musicianship.)

I didn't know anyone DIDN'T like that album. I mean, yes, it's dated. But it holds up. I heard "Mr Jones and Me" on the radio yesterday and felt moved again, after all these years. It suffered from overexposure, that song. That album. But that doesn't mitigate its essential glory.

You have inspired me to revisit Murmur, which was always my favorite of their albums. I'm in store for a long car ride next week; it's first in the rotation.

I bought the Son Volt solely because of you. It's never affected me much. I'll give it another go, I thinks. Although I'm perhaps not as much a romancer after mythic American vistas as you.

You know my JMW summary: driving through the desert at night, thinking about what might have been with a girl (who you dated in 1998), en route to a AA baseball game.... If I had to depict you in a movie in 4 seconds only, that would be your shot. There'd be a copy of the NYRB and maybe some Celine, and a Horse Racing Journal in the back of your car.

But that would be it.

"Round HEEEEERREEEEE. She's always on my mind...."

12:43 AM  
Blogger Dan Carlson said...

I've really enjoyed these list entries. Great albums. I still listen to August and Everything After, and still love it. That album will always be high school to me, and college, and now, and the sense that if I drive long enough I'll get where I need to go. Plus "Anna Begins" kicks my ass more every year. That one grows with me.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Love the Crows pick. That and 'Hard Candy' are their best records.

'Graceland' is certainly a worthwhile record, but this high? I enjoy Peter Gabriel's integration of world music into his tunes more than Simon's.

'Murmur' is great, even with my overall REM reservations. One of those records for which the term "mood album" was invented.

Glad to see Farrar, in any of his incarnations, on the list. We've discussed this before. While I like 'Trace' and subsequent Son Volt and solo Farrar, his most potent work was with Uncle Tupelo.

Ah, you and David Gray. We all have our inexplicable favorites who we like much more than we should. I guess Gray is one of yours.

12:08 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Didn't mean to give Adam D short shrift as a lyricist -- I think he's a good one. Including "Anna Begins," which I didn't mention but should have.

Dez, I guess we just disagree about the Gabriel/Simon thing. For me, it's less about the world music angle and more that I think Simon is a much, much better songwriter than Gabriel.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I'm not going to sit here and say that Paul Simon is a bad songwriter. He's great. Especially in the S&G era. But "much, much better" than Gabriel as a songwriter? I think not. Perhaps he's a slightly better lyricist, but as far as overall musical composition, Gabriel is infinitely more interesting.

5:25 PM  
Blogger calliejane said...

Wow. Fifteen, 14, and 13 are so shockingly dear to my own little heart that you've totally made me want to listen to everything else that you've listed here, just to see if you're not, like, my twin separated at birth and sold to U.S. baby brokers. Thanks. Murmur, especially. I will never ever get tired of that record :)

4:02 AM  

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