14 May 2013

Album Reviews: 3rd Edition

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The Beastie Boys — Licensed to Ill

There is no way to underestimate the impact of this record. It brought together rock, hip-hop, frat boys, idiots and proto-hipsters smart enough to get the joke. It is a loud, brash, joyous beer soaked ode to arrested adolescence and freestyle rhyme that seriously pissed off the PMRC. They even opened for Madonna. Track for track, it’s still the best record the Beastie Boys ever made. From the hard rock stomp classic “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” to the ridiculous and minimalist put down of “Girls,’ this was mid 80’s New York underground culture come to the fore. Sonic Youth were artier, Madonna was dancier and poppier, but the Beastie Boys were the delirious heart of the scene, raised on hardcore, rap and Mad Magazine, music in the 80’s doesn’t get much better.

Lucinda Williams — Essence

This is Lucinda’s honey album. Everything is sticky, sweet and slow. For a woman who drawls at the drop of a hat, it could be an annoyance, but it’s also her simplest record. She is aching over lost love. Not raging, aching. Aching with rememberence, aching with regret, aching with desire. And like all Lucinda Williams, it is meticulously crafted with some of her simplest, most direct lyrics. It only picks up speed in the last tune, “Get Right with God” because after love on earth fails you, well, where else can you turn?

The Afghan Whigs — Gentlemen

Greg Dulli is a dick. Not a pretend for the camera dick. An actual, all out, self loathing dick that all women with a brain in their head and a heart worth breaking should stay away from. One didn’t. And he wrote an entire album about it. And I love it. Love, love, love it. Because Dulli is a great songwriter, who writes dynamic, catchy, rock-soul gems, with a delivery that makes him sound like the white Levi Stubbs and a thrashing, rocking band behind him. Each song is devoted to how he hates himself and hates the women who fall for him even more. Sample lyrics: “If I inflict the pain, then I’m the only one who can comfort you,” “Resentment always goes much further than it’s meant to go,” “Angel, forever, Don’t you promise me what you cannot deliver” and after tearing the girl apart and agonizing and dissecting his essential assholeness, he ends the record with the soul classic “I Keep Coming Back,” a desperate, lonely plea to start the whole shebang all over again. Essential.

Sarah McLachlan — Surfacing

The earth mother of the emergent (or to more accurate, finally recognized) mid-90’s female singer songwriter movement, Sarah McLachlan uses her alto voice and ethereal arrangements to surround lyrics rife with romantic and personal turmoil. Fumbling Toward Ecstacy is a better album song to song but Surfacing really comes together as a complete work, enveloping you in a melancholy, reflective mood. Tracks that stand out are “Building a Mystery” about a man who constructs himself to be as attractive to women as possible while protecting the wounded child inside, the gorgeous post-breakup, “I Love You” and the ambivalent caretaker of “Aida.” It always interested me when artsy or punk folk diss her as dull when she writes such fierce, emotionally raw lyrics. Oh, and her band is ridiculous. Ah well, their loss.

INXS — Kick

INXS are the great lost white soul band. They came up from the bars of Sydney, Australia to reign as kings of new wave, yet their music was, even at its most polished, brasher and bluesier than their brethren. Michael Hutchence’s blue eyed soul voice was the cherry on the cake and this is their best record. You know all the songs. “What You Need,” “Devil Inside,” “Never Tear Us Apart” all driven by stripped down three or four note riffs. But the songs are great top to bottom. And the production is polished and clean which gave a streamlined edge to their sound. Celebrating the erotic and joyous side of life, INXS was by far the sexiest band of the 80’s.

REM — And I Feel Fine: The Best of the IRS Years

Before they become arena stars, REM were the arty band that could. Their music was jangly, opaque and mysterious. Influenced by punk rock, Patti Smith, Wire, garage rock and just plain being southern, they created another way of being in a rock band. And their music was just plain beautiful. Eventually, they cleaned up their sound and headed to the arena. This record collects songs from before that period. It has all the classics, with a couple of fun ringers. I personally would pick up all the IRS records, but this does serve as a greatest hits of sorts and is great music for driving or just chilling with a beer (but not both at the same time)

The Replacements — Pleased to Meet Me

No words could quite describe how this album hit me when I first heard it. I was a sophomore in college and vaguely heard of these guys. I bought it on cassette (!!) on a recommendation. Put in the cassette deck (!!!) and immediately found my new favorite band. This is The Faces with an inferiority complex and a wicked passive aggressive streak. Raucous rockers extolling the virtues of cheap red wine and cheating at pool sit side by side with heartrending ballads. This is as close to a perfect record as your going to get. Paul Westerberg was well on his way to becoming one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songsmiths. And then the self esteem issues that every teen in America could identify with and the alcoholism that they simultaneously embraced and reviled got the better of them and they flamed out. Not even spectacularly. Just slowly and sheepishly. Which for these guys, is the only way to do it. Own this record.

Johnny Cash — The Legend

This is one of the great dying breeds: A box set. Four CD’s, each taking on an aspect of The Man in Black’s career. You have one CD devoted to hits, another to the great American songbook, another to duets and the fourth is everything he’s done with his family. I don’t need to go into much detail here. This is Johnny Cash. He is Legend. The cornerstone of where country meets rock. You’ll find essentials, surprises and stuff you’ll never need to hear again. Oh, and get the box set. Don’t download it from iTunes. It’s bulky, but it’s handsome and you get to show it off.

Jason & the Scorchers — Lost and Found

Alt-country didn’t start with Uncle Tupelo, it started in the early 80’s with bands like Rank and File, The Long Ryders and these guys. They fell under the made up title of cowpunk and let me tell you, they make Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy look like pussies. The Scorchers are loud, raucous barn burning rockers. Their country is the country of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, etc. Lonesome, drinking blues type of country. Lost and Found is the one to get. It captures their punk rocking edge with “White Lies,” the title track and a revved up “Lost Highway” and then slow it down with a pensive ode to drinking, “Broken Whiskey Glass” and “Blanket of Sorrow.” Jason Ringenberg is the real deal. A wide eyed preacher of rock and roll sermonizing as Werner Hodges spits out Stones inspired riffs with Perry Baggs and Jeff Johnson as rock solid and driving a rhythm section as you would ever want. Like a lot of 80’s underground bands, they went for the brass ring, shaved off their rough edges and ended up bland and generic. But here, they are anything but.

Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang — Dislocation Blues

Chris Whitley was an arty, expressionist blues player that camped on the Lower East Side. His music was generally ethereal and haunting and he had a quavering, barely above a whisper type of voice. But his albums were never really that good. He was a restless spirit and never quite settled into his sound. Jeff Lang is a journeyman blues artist from Australia. They toured once and decided to make a record. It turned out to be the best of Whitley’s short life. Matched with the gruff Lang, trading riffs and songs, he seems renewed. The songs here all first rate and the playing is superb. But what really knocks this thing out of the park are the Dylan covers. Yes, the Dylan covers. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and in particular “Changing of the Guard” could not be heard in a better setting. This one may be a bit difficult to find, but if you like your blues plaintive and just a little bit arty, this is for you.

Elvis Costello– Armed Forces

This is my favorite Costello, with the possible exception of King of America. Wired on caffeine (among other, er, stimulants), heartbroken, and consumed by politics, Elvis combines all three and writes about them as if they were all the same thing. So you get relationship politics in “Two Little Hitlers,” the crushee in “Chemistry Class” asks his intended if she’s ready for ‘the final solution’ and he’s more than happy to be emotionally subsumed by his “Party Girl.” And the Attractions are with him every step of the way. Simultaneously jittery and gorgeously baroque, they pull out all the stops. They are the epitome of sympathetic players. Bruce Thomas in particular is some kind of genius. All of this produced by Nick Lowe who contributes the last song, the ubiquitous “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding)

Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama — There Will Be a Light

Highly recommended gospel record by two unlikely collaborates. They toured together in 2004 and decided to go into the studio for a couple of days and see what came out of it. And what did was masterful gospel-blues. Most of the songs were written by Harper in the studio but you could never tell. They sound like decades old spirituals. Most of the songs are pleas to the Lord more than songs of comfort, which just makes the whole thing feel more urgent and connected. Harper acquits himself quite nicely in the company of these masters of Gospel, but the highlights belong to the Blind Boys, particularly on Dylan’s “Well, Well, Well.”

Indigo Girls– Indigo Girls

This was not their debut but their first major label offering. And it is an instant classic. They’ve been around for twenty years now and have not come close to matching it. That being said, nothing on the radio sounded like this at the time. It was huge on college campuses and helped kick off a mini-folk revival. Of course, like practically all music at the time, this is folk inspired by punk. So, earnest as all the songs are, there is a particular urgency in their quest for enlightenment, perfectly exemplified in their hit, “Closer to Fine” It is also just a beautiful record. When Emily Saliers’ and Amy Ray’s voice entwine with Michael Stipe’s in “Kid Fears” it will give the most cynical of cynics shivers. And that’s not even the best song on the record. My vote goes to “Prince of Darkness” but it’s irrelevant, since the entire thing is perfect almost all the way through, only losing energy on the last couple of songs. Again, essential.

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