Career In Brief: Ryan Adams

INTRODUCTION

Ryan Adams (not to be confused with the 80’s Canadian soft pop rocker of a similiar name) came to prominence as the frontman for alt-country visionaries Whiskeytown in the late 90’s. While they were critical darlings, Whiskeytown experienced a number of problems during their short time together, and by the start of the new millenium Adams was out on his own trying to make his way as a solo artist. He debuted in 2000 with the stripped down vagabond rock of Heartbreaker, a record that garnered a lot of critical praise and is considered a classic by many (though not me). After Heartbreaker, Adams struggled for some time with label issues and an identity crisis. Gold and Demolition each contain a handful of good songs, but they are unfocused and ultimately disappointing. With Rock N Roll, Adams appeared to have gone over the edge altogether, producing a rock record that was more about name-checking than craft or songwriting.

Love Is Hell, though still planted in Adams’ early solo work, marked a turning point for Adams. He found a new voice in quieter, introspective songwriting, and the result is the first truly compelling record of his solo career. But it was 2005 that saw Adams finally emerge and produce the work that everyone suspected he was capable of. Cold Roses is still Adams’ masterwork, a sprawling alt-country epic that finds him backed for the first time by The Cardinals. 2005 also saw the release of Jacksonville City Nights, a concept album that features Adams as a barroom troubadour nostalgic for his youth, and 29, a more intimate and personal collection that recalls Love Is Hell.

From 2007 thru 2009, Adams settled into a prolific groove with The Cardinals, establishing a sound all his own with Easy Tiger and Cardinology. But in 2009, he split from The Cardinals and took time away from music (though he’s been releasing archived material in the interim). Word is he’ll be back in late 2011 with his first post-Cardinals release, Ashes & Fire. Here’s hoping that ditching The Cardinals wasn’t akin to Springsteen ditching the E Street Band. Otherwise, it might be a long decade for RAdams.

NOTE: Adams is a ludicrously productive songwriter. There are at least six albums of unreleased material from his early days that haven’t seen any sort of official release: The Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours, Pinkhearts, Darkbreaker, Black Hole, and Destroyer. Additionally, in 2010 he released the sci-fi metal concept album Orion in tribute to Voivod, and a full cover of The Strokes’ Is This It? exists as well. And chances are there’s a slew of other unreleased material. I won’t be covering the unreleased material, but you can find Destroyer here. And maybe I’ll review Orion at some point, when it’s made available through the streaming services.

ALBUMS

Heartbreaker (2000) – [B]: Profoundly overrated debut. Decent in its own right, but not the masterpiece many think it is. ["To Be Young"] (my review)

Gold (2001) – [C]: Positioned for the airwaves, falls flat with a few memorable on the front end. ["La Cienega Just Smiled"] (my review)

Demolition (2002) – [B+]: Adams doesn’t try, makes best record yet. Typical. ["Hallelujah"] (my review)

Rock N Roll (2003) – [C]: Essentially annoying. ["Burning Photographs"] (my review)

Love Is Hell (2004) – [A-]: Intimate, dream-like, brilliant. ["English Girls Approximately"] (my review)

**Cold Roses (2005) – [A]: Finally makes an alt-country masterpiece. Achieves his potential. ["Easy Plateau"] (my review)

Jacksonville City Nights (2005) – [B+]: Less alt, more country. Adams briefly indulges bar room country in his own unique way. ["A Kiss Before I Go"] (my review)

29 (2005) – [C+]: Adams leaves his roaring twenties behind. Mostly quiet and murmurous, mostly a snoozer. ["29"] (my review)

Easy Tiger (2007) – [A-]: An enjoyable synthesis of his earlier workstreams. Contains some of his best songs. ["Pearls On A String"] (my review)

Cardinology (2008) – [C]: Adams confuses musical heroics with inspired songwriting and performance. ["Born Into A Light"] (my review)

III/IV (2010) – [B-]: Quantity over quality, but essokay. ["Kill the Lights"] (my review)

OTHER

Moroccan Role EP (2004) – [3/3]: Hey, alt country??? What the???? "Ah Life" is a good change of pace. Sort of a grungey Dylan thing going on. That’s how I’d classify the rest of the record.  This is actually really good. ["Ah Life"]

Follow the Lights EP (2005) – [7/7]: Gotta dig the Alice in Chains cover. Also, I like this version of "This Is It." Overall good, nothing remarkable, but I do like some of the directions he takes here. ["Follow the Lights"]

He’s got a bunch more back tracks that I don’t have access to – maybe one of these days.

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Career In Brief: Jawbox

photo_rcol_ja_orangeINTRODUCTION

Jawbox were a DC area melodic post-punk act led by J. Robbins. Beginning as a three piece in 89/90, the band toured under the radar during the underground music revolution of 91/92. When the band added Bill Barbot as a second vocalist and guitar player around the same time, they laid the groundwork for the resounding success that was Novelty. 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart found them on a major label, with the execs probably trying to position them to be the "next Nirvana", but FYOSS, while the band’s masterpiece in its own right (and one of the greatest post-punk records ever), didn’t achieve the success they and others were hoping. With that, they tried to smooth away the rough edges on their next eponymous album, but all that managed to do for them was disappoint the critics. They called it quits around 1997, and released a collection of rarities in 1998. Barbot and Robbins went on to form Burning Airlines, which released 2 excellent (if less melodic and more art-punk) LP’s around the turn of the century. Bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Zach Barocas both went on to non-musical careers in other fields.

MAIN RELEASES

Jawbox EP (1990) – [B]: Meat and potatoes post-hardcore. ["Tools & Chrome"] (my review)

Grippe (1991) – [C+]: Undercooked, but signs of promise. ["Freezerburn"] (my review)

Novelty (1992) – [A]: Who knew hardcore could be so beautiful? ["Static"] (my review)

For Your Own Special Sweetheart (1994) – [A]: A masterpiece, a brilliant set of tunes. ["Cooling Card"] (my review)

Jawbox (1996) – [B-]: Band leans radio-friendly, gets ignored, breaks up. Not bad though. ["Iodine"] (my review)

My Scrapbook Of Fatal Accidents (1998): There are some highlights here for sure (the Peel session, although it’s sort of a sub-par Peel session, with nothing new for the fan), their cover of Tar’s "Static", and rarities like "Apollo Amateur" and "Under Glass." Hey, there’s even a cover of The Cure’s "Meathook", which would be great in just about any form. You could even make a case for their cover of the R.E.M. obscurity "Low." Overall though, this is exactly what it’s supposed to be and nothing more, a clearing of the archives for a short-lived great.

OTHER

The two tracks from the "Tongues" single (now found at the end of most versions of Novelty) should not be missed, especially the title track, as it features Bill Barbot on lead vocals and is one of the best things the band recorded. Also, the 3 tracks from the Savory + 3 EP ("68", "Lil Shaver", and "Sound on Sound") are all keepers, but esp. "68". You can find them now on the FYOSS reissue. Also, their cover of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl” is cool, regardless of what Amos’ own fans will probably tell you.

VIDEO

“Savory” official video
”FF=66” live on Jimmy Fallon (reunited in 2009)

Career In Brief: Belle and Sebastian

INTRODUCTION

I remember this cartoon on Nickelodeon in the mid-80’s, a show about a boy and his big white dog and their adventures in the Pyrenees. I still remember the catchy theme song too. Fast forward ten years and we find the cartoon was biographical, and that the young man went and grew up and changed his name to Stuart Murdoch and started writing songs about all the people him and the dog had met along the way. Turns out that most of the folks read a lot of the Bible and existentialist fiction and had strange sexual fetishes. Pretty engrossing lyrical fare. Go figure.

Don’t ask about Belle though. Sad story…

ALBUMS PROPER:

Tigermilk (1996) – [B+]: As a listening experience, decent, not great. As a mission statement, spot on. ["My Wandering Days Are Over"] (my review)

If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) – [A+]: Transcendent pop vignettes. A world unto itself. ["Stars of Track and Field"] (my review)

The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998) – [A-]: Imagine 12 variations on The Beatles’ "I’m Only Sleeping" and that’s pretty much what you have here. ["The Boy With the Arab Strap"] (my review)

Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000) – [C+]: More of the same from the B&S Express. Murdoch getting too democratic. ["Don’t Leave the Light On Baby"] (my review)

Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) – [A+]: Band re-boots sound, injects with the heart of the sun, produces power-pop masterpiece. ["I’m A Cuckoo"] (my review)

The Life Pursuit (2006) – [A-]: After embracing 70’s power pop, the band mines the decade again, this time embracing funk and glam. ["Funny Little Frog"] (my review)

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (2010) – [A-]: If there’s a record that amalgamates all of the band’s periods into one cohesive collection, then here it is. For the most part, spot on.  ["I Didn’t See It Coming"] (my review)

OTHER NOTABLE RELEASES:

Storytelling (2002) – [C+]: A film soundtrack that was, for the most, rejected by the filmmaker. About what you’d expect. Lots of incidental music, a few proper B&S tunes, and snippets of clever dialogue from the film. "Scooby Driver" is short, but a hint at where they were headed on their next LP. Overall, this one’s a skipper except for die hard fans (of which there are surely many). Besides, these sorts of collaborations rarely work out well, right?  ("Black and White Unite", "Wandering Alone")

Step Into My Office, Baby Single (2003) [2/2]: These 2 cuts are more akin to the band’s 90’s output. Pleasantly popful. ["Desperation Made Me A Fool"]

I’m A Cuckoo EP (2004) – [3/3]: Between this and the other 2 Waitress singles, Belle and Sebastian were apparently piling up greatness. Gotta love the Avalanches’ remix of "I’m A Cuckoo", and the other 2 cuts are great.

Books EP (2004) – [3/3]: Worth the price of admission for "Your Cover’s Blown" by itself. It’s quite simply one of the band’s most brilliant moments, an unending source of fun. "Your Secrets" is also a great non-album cut. Even the afterthoughts of the Waitress period were excellent.

Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (2005) – [A]: This compilation may have come after the band put on some muscle with Catastrophe Waitress, but it collects a whole bunch of EP’s released in the band’s "skinny" years. This ranks up there with Sinister as one of the band’s essential releases. It features crown jewels like "Dog On Wheels", "Lazy Line Painter Jane", "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song", and "I Know Where The Summer Goes." It’s not an album proper, but this ain’t no attic dust-off either. (my review)

The BBC Sessions (2008) – [A-]: Over half of the tracks are simply BBC sessions of already released tracks, but the real treat here are the four otherwise unreleased originals that constitute the band’s session with John Peel from 2001. That set is particularly revelatory when viewed as bridging the gap between Peasant and Waitress.  [tracks 11-14]

Career In Brief: Bob Dylan in the 60’s

Bob Dylan exerted his greatest influence on American culture in the 1960’s. Arriving anonymously in New York from Hibbert, Minnesota in the early 60’s, he came with a guitar, a dream, and not much else. What helped him standout was an ear for various American music genres, a truly unique lyrical wit, and a knack for memorable songwriting that has only really been rivaled by a few other greats of his generation (you know the names).

Dylan’s 1960’s career can really be divided into 3 distinct phases: folk icon, rock poet laureate, and Americana revivalist. While distinct, these phases definitely overlap. Bringing It All Back Home in particular finds him transitioning from an idealistic folky into a visionary proto-punk. From 1962 thru 1965, Dylan re-defined the canon of folk music with tunes like "Blowin’ in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin’". In 1965, he "went electric", diving into full band rock and roll and releasing a string of three records that probably constitute the greatest triple header in the history of American rock and roll. After suffering a motorcycle accident and getting married within the space of a year, Dylan began writing simpler but no less marvelous tunes, preferring Nashville to New York City as his music took a turn back toward the subdued folk leanings of his early style. It was also during this period that Dylan began his famous collaborations with The Hawks, later to become The Band.

Albums

Bob Dylan (1962) – [B-]: An understated debut. Dylan hadn’t quite figured out how to be Dylan, and most of the songs aren’t his. Probably only interesting to Dylan diehards. ("Song for Woody", "Baby Let Me Follow You Down") [my review]

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1962) – [B+]: This album is a bit overrated, but it does feature some truly classic tunes. The best of Dylan’s "folk icon" period. ("A Hard’s Rain’s A-Gonna Fall", "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright") [my review]

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963) – [B-]: Dylan swerves toward the protest folk scene on this one. Features some pretty well known tunes, but in my book, a skipper. ("The Times They Are A-Changin") [my review]

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) – [B]: Dylan begins to hint at what was to come by re-directing toward the sense of humor that he displayed a bit of on his precocious debut. He doesn’t quite nail it, but there are some worthwhile moments. ("All I Really Want To Do", "It Ain’t Me Babe") [my review]

Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – [A]: Dylan’s first great record. Poetic rebel mysticism. ("Subterranean Homesick Blues", "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue") [my review]

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – [A+]: One of the greatest of the greatest, hands down. Dylan makes a helluva road record, and probably invents punk rock a decade before anyone knew to call it that. ("It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry", "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues") [my review]

Blonde on Blonde (1966) – [A]: Rock and roll’s original epic, and perhaps still its best. A mystical and romantic Americana road show. ("Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again", "Visions of Johanna") [my review]

The Basement Tapes (1975) – [A]: Though not officially released in the 60’s, this vital set of recordings probably marks the beginning of a number of different genres, including alt-country and lo-fi. That’s incidental though. What really matters is that these are FANTASTIC songs that simultaneously launched The Band’s career, and Dylan has never sounded like he was having so much fun. ("Goin’ to Acapulco", "Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread") [my review]

John Wesley Harding (1967) – [B]: Dylan’s early electric material gets the most press, but let’s be honest, it really was a natural and organic progression. It’s JWH that represents a truly jarring change, because it finds Dylan sounding completely stripped down and completely over his mid-60’s persona. It may not be a GREAT record, but it’s a warm and enjoyable listen, and the sort of the thing that you’ll find yourself coming back to with surprising frequency. And in many ways, it’s a sort of template for 70’s folk rock. ("I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight", "All Along The Watchtower") [my review]

Nashville Skyline (1969) – [A-]: Warm and sweet as apple pie, there’s almost no sign of the rock and roll rebel that ruled the 60’s here. Instead, Dylan swaggers through 10 tracks in a little more than 26 minutes, with a new found vocal style that sounds totally removed from anything he’s done in the past. It’s brief, but it’s a strong offering nonetheless. ("Lay Lady Lay", "Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You") [my review]

Non-Album Highlights:

  • "Positively 4th Street" (one of his best)
  • "I’ll Keep It With Mine"
  • "Percy’s Song"
  • "Mixed Up Confusion" (notable because it’s an "electric" Dylan track from 1962, well before he supposedly "went electric")
  • "I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) [live 1966]"
  • "Quinn the Eskimo" (bridges the gap between the Manfred Mann version and Dylan & The Band’s Isle of Wight version)
  • "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" (sounds like early Springsteen)
  • "Baby Got Back"

Career-In-Review: The Smiths

the smiths Overview
I like to think of The Smiths as Britain’s answer to R.E.M. After all, The Smiths released the “Hand In Glove” single right about the same time as R.E.M. released Murmur, and both bands feature ridiculously influential boy-wonder guitar players and controversial anti-frontmen. Unfortunately, The Smiths were never quite able to gel personally and artistically the way R.E.M.’s core members have over the years (it all might have been different if Andy Rourke had covered “Monster Mash” at the end of Strangeways, eh?), and the band died after four or five incredibly productive years.

The Smiths only released four proper LP’s (not gonna cover any of their live releases), and they never really made a defining statement in that format, which is unfortunate, especially for a band that was otherwise fantastic. For my money, I recommend beginning with the Singles compilation. While it is apocryphal, it’s pretty much a great listen from start to finish, and allows you to get a good feel for what The Smiths are all about. Their catalog of singles and toss-offs runs deep though, and in this age of MP3 downloads, there’s probably a couple of CD-R’s worth of great tracks in addition to the stuff on Singles to feast upon.

My personal favorite aspect of The Smiths’ music is Johnny Marr’s layered and luscious guitar playing, but there is no denying that The Smiths would not be The Smiths were it not for the utterly unique vocals and persona of Stephen Morrissey. Additionally, the work of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce often gets overlooked, but tracks like “This Charming Man” bear testimony to the fact that they were far more than bricklayers in the band’s creative endeavors.

Five Track Intro

1) How Soon Is Now?
2) This Charming Man
3) There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
4) Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
5) Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

Studio Albums and other selected releases (*** = recommended album)

The Smiths (1984) — B — After releasing a couple of classic and hard-hitting singles, the band dials it back a few notches for their full-length debut. Spotty and uneven, but holds a few highlights. (R: “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Still Ill”) (see my original review)

Meat Is Murder (1985) — B — The first definite sign that when it comes to albums, The Smiths didn’t quite get it. Not bad, but its Morrissey at his most obnoxious, and the title track is ridiculous. (R: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”) (see my original review)

The Queen Is Dead (1986) — B+ — Almost a classic, but it suffers from poor production. Features a number of “might have been great” tracks. (R: “Cemetry Gates”, “I Know It’s Over”) (see my original review)

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) — B — The best side of vinyl the band ever committed from “Rush” to “Stop Me” – all down hill after “Last Night.” (R: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Girlfriend In A Coma”) (see my original review)

Other recommended tracks: “These Things Take Time”, “Sweet & Tender Hooligan”, “Half a Person”, “Please Please Please…”, “Wonderful Woman”, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”

Wikipedia article

Career In Brief: June of 44

I came to June of 44 via Rodan. I became a huge fan of Jeff Mueller’s first band after hearing their album Rusty in early 1995, only to learn that they had broken up shortly after its release. Fortunately, the creative forces behind that musical beast were only getting started, and just a few months later June of 44’s Engine Takes to the Water hit the streets. Mueller joined forces with members of Codeine, Lungfish, and Hoover, and the band was termed an indie rock “supergroup” at the time. Mueller could sort of be seen as continuing to carry the mantle of Rodan’s angular, slightly cerebral post-rock with June of 44, but it also gradually became clear that he was looking to move beyond it. The band continued releasing records at a pretty frequent rate, and they started exploring unorthodox instrumentation and incorporating the musical influence of jazz fusion outfits like late-era Miles Davis. The band quietly called it quits in 2000. They have often been cheekily termed “boat rock” for incorporating manifold nautical themes into their music, but for me and other fans, their “hipster prog” was one of the most appealing things about the band. Four Great Points is their masterpiece, but I think Engine Takes to the Water remains the best introduction to the band, so start there.

MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES:

Engine Takes to the Water [1995] (B+): Recorded right on the heels of Mueller’s stint in Rodan, this is the band at its most Slint-inspired, and I think some of these tracks may even be the result of leftover sketches from Rodan’s final days. That being said, Engine Takes to the Water is no mere Mueller vehicle. The creative influences of all the members are highly evident, from the trumpet work of Fred Erskine to Doug Scharin’s thunderous and precise drumming. For all of the dynamic wonder of “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, the best tracks are the most subdued. “I Get My Kicks for You” and “Sink Is Busted” really shine in retrospect. R: “I Get My Kicks for You”, “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, “Sink Is Busted”. (buy from Amazon)

Tropics & Meridians [1996] (B): It didn’t take long for June of 44 to establish themselves as indie rocks heroes, and Tropics & Meridians opens with what was probably their grandest musical statement, the lumbering, tension-driven, cybernetic post-rock of “Anisette.” “Lusitania” considers things maritime and tragic in a vein quite similar to the band’s first record, but it is “Lawn Bowler”, a rustic, rickety, shadow-laced instrumental that shows the band striving for something different. “June Leaf” is good but typical, and “Arms Over Arteries” recalls the finer, quieter moments of Engine Takes to the Water. The final track, “Sanctioned in a Birdcage”, is a curious affair, the band’s first approach to the noise-jam approach they would take on later releases. R: “Anisette”, “Arms Over Arteries”. (buy from Amazon)

The Anatomy of Sharks EP [1997] (A-): The Anatomy of Sharks marks a creative turning point for June of 44. While the highlight of this 3-song extended player is most definitely the uncharted nautical epic “Sharks & Sailors”, the record’s second track, “Boom”, is a harbinger of things to come. Essentially the band’s first foray into jazz fusion, it features an exotic trumpet passage belted above repetitive drum rhythm. Final track “Seemingly Endless Steamer” should not be missed. R: “Sharks & Sailors”. (buy from Amazon)

The Four Great Points [1998] (A): 4GP is the record where June of 44 achieved a winning synthesis of their angular post-rock and their fusion-inspired jazzier imaginings. Album opener “Information & Belief” delivers like a prettier “Anisette”, while “Cut Your Face” blazes ahead at a faster pace than we’re used to, but it’s first-listen head-scratchers like “Lifted Bells”, “Shadow Pugilist”, and “Air #17” that keep you coming back for more. This is a great record, equal-parts post-Slint hard rock and post-Tortoise sonic landscaping. Highly recommended. R: “Information & Belief”, “Lifted Bells”, “Air #17”. (buy from Amazon)

Anahata [1999] (C): Suffering from a sub-standard recording and a hap-hazard approach to song-writing, Anahata comes off as the band’s attempt to take the trance-inducing experimentalism of the last few recordings to the next level. Opening with an apparent re-write of The Anatomy of Sharks’ “Boom”, “Wear Two Eyes (Boom)” jumps right into things but fails to live up to the opening track standards that, by now, June of 44’s fans have come to expect from them. While the rest of the record has its moments, with “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist” and “Equators to Bi-Polar” both achieving success in the band’s new style, attempts to write more traditional songs, like “Cardiac Atlas” and “Southeast of Boston”, come off with little impact. R: “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist”, “Equators to Bi-Polar.” (buy from Amazon)

In the Fishtank EP [1999] (B): Thankfully, after the disappointing Anahata, the band closes its career on a high-note with the spontaneously-conceived In the Fishtank EP. Given 2 days to record, this is where the band captured more perfectly the sort of open-ended, live feel that they attempted on Anahata. The results range from meditative and sublime (“Henry’s Revenge”) to energetic and propulsive (“Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”) to languid and funky (“Every Free Day a Good Day”). The rest of the EP consists of a cycle of tracks (“Pregenerate”-“Generate”-“Degenerate”) that succeeds in lending the record a necessary overall unity. R: “Henry’s Revenge”, “Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”. (buy from Amazon)

other/rarities: The band released most of their recorded output on their major releases, with one notable exception: the magnificent Rivers & Plains”, released in 1995 on the Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation Compilation CD. This track is well worth seeking out (sample it below), and is perhaps the best single recording June of 44 achieved. There are live recordings of album tracks to be found in different places, and there was also an extremely rare “Magic Eye” single recording of a song titled “1000 Paper Cranes” credited to June of 44, although it sounds like it was probably only Jeff Mueller on an answering machine.

Career In Brief: REM’s IRS Years

from Amazon.com

Career In Brief: REM’s IRS Years

REM are to indie rock what Rome was to European civilization. Arising out of an unlikely, cultured-though-backwoods town (Athens, GA), achieving early, sweeping victories (their entire IRS catalog), ascending to epic and glorious hegemony of mainstream popularity (Out of Time through Monster) and then coasting into curiosity ever since, they are undoubtedly one of the greatest rock bands of all time, at least in the top 50 and maybe in the top 20. For what it’s worth, they are definitely in my personal top 10.

While their major label career has been strong and certainly spectacular at times, in this post I will be focusing on their “IRS years”, the string of recordings that established them as one of the greatest indie bands of all time and, in all reality, have held up best over time. You’d be hard pressed to find an unbroken streak that strong anywhere in popular music (maybe Elvis Costello’s early years, or the Rolling Stones’ 1960’s albums), and I will strongly recommend that anyone who dares call themselves a fan of rock music should own everything they released on IRS, with the exception of the puzzling and incomplete sampler EPONYMOUS.

20-Track Sampler
Wolves, Lower
Gardening at Night
Stumble
Radio Free Europe (Murmur version)
Sitting Still
Catapult
Talk About The Passion
Harborcoat
So. Central Rain
Rockville
Maps & Legends
Driver 8
Life and How to Live It
Can’t Get There From Here
Cuyahoga
These Days
Fall On Me
Finest Worksong
One I Love
Exhuming McCarthy

MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES

Chronic Town EP [1982] (A+): Now found on the “odds n’ ends” collection DEAD LETTER OFFICE, the 5 songs that make up CHRONIC TOWN reveal a band heavily influenced by the angular post-punk of bands like Television and Gang of Four, all the while hinting at that “something else” that can only be described as the sound of the south. I’m a sucker for a strong extended player, and this is one of the best I can think of. “Gardening at Night” is the acknowledged classic, but I’ll put a plug in for my personal favorite, the frantic “Wolves, Lower.” (R: “Wolves, Lower”, “Gardening at Night”)

Murmur [1983] (A+): Instead of speeding into their debut full-length, MURMUR is the sound of a band taking their time to craft a record both precise and pastoral. The result is a masterpiece. “Radio Free Europe” eschews a classic rock brilliance, the sound of a band making music history, while plaintive tracks like “Moral Kiosk” and “Pilgrimmage” create a template for the band’s future commercial success. Lesser known tracks like “Catapult” and “Sitting Still” re-introduce some of the CHRONIC TOWN angularity without feeling retro-fitted. A must own. (R: “Radio Free Europe”, “Talk About the Passion”, “Catapult”)

Reckoning [1984] (B): Where MURMUR’s strength was found in taking its time, RECKONING accelerates into brilliance and then slowly and inconsequentially fades out. RECKONING announces both the end of the band’s formational era (“Rockville” and “Pretty Persuasion” both pre-date CHRONIC TOWN) and the inauguration of their early “experimental” era. Side One would have made as strong an EP as CHRONIC TOWN. Side Two, though decent (and briefly excellent in the countri-fied “Rockville”), pales in comparison. Still, RECKONING is more upbeat and poppy than MURMUR, and hints at the commercial direction the band would take in years to come. (R: “Harborcoat”, “Seven Chinese Brothers”, “So. Central Rain”)

Fables of the Reconstruction [1985] (A): The most obtuse album in the band’s IRS catalog, FABLES is the band’s experimental detour on the way to stadium-filling anthemic glory. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is an incredibly strong statement from a band that had opened their two previous albums with their hookiest songs, but it is also an epic re-casting of the band’s artistic vision. It becomes clear throughtout the record that the band has mostly grown beyond its post-punk roots, but the jangle and southern gothic vibe are still firmly in place on tracks like “Driver 8.” I once bad-mouthed this album. I’d like to retract that here, and one day I’ll get around to writing a full-blown salute in reparition. (R: “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Life and How To Live It”, “Driver 8”)

Lifes Rich Pageant [1986] (A): PAGEANT, in hindsight, comes across like an Americanized version of Oasis’ debut DEFINITELY MAYBE. Reaching back to the self-assured “taking my time” approach of MURMUR while turning the guitars up to “11”, LIFES RICH PAGEANT contains some of R.E.M.’s most recognizable songs, especially the classic alterna-folk of “Fall On Me.” “Hyena” and “These Days” rock with fiery conviction, while “Swan Swan H” points ahead to the hushed acoustic aesthetic the band would explore on both OUT OF TIME and AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE. All in all, another classic record, if not altogether perfect. (R: “Fall On Me”, “Cuyahoga”, “What If We Give It Away”)

Document [1987] (B+): DOCUMENT is the most earnestly political record in the band’s catalog. If there were a large American Socialist Party, “Finest Worksong” might as well be its anthem. Simultaneously, the catchy, grooving “Exhuming McCarthy” rails against the mid-80’s political environment by recalling the political environment of the 1950’s. But for all of the album tracks that go unnoticed, DOCUMENT will always be the record that gave us “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and “One I Love”, classic rock radio staples to this day. Not their best, but no slouch of a record either. (R: “Finest Worksong”, “Disturbance At The Heron House”, “The One I Love”)

Rarities: Most of these can be found on the collection DEAD LETTER OFFICE, but there were a few (forgettable) found on EPONYMOUS. Additionally, their IRS catalog is being reissued with early live performances and unreleased demos. I think it is easy to say that early live REM is worth hearing. (R: “Crazy”, “There She Goes Again”, “Burning Down”, “White Tornado”, “Toys in the Attic”, “Ages of You”)

Career In Brief: My Morning Jacket

photo via YouAintNoPicasso.com

CAREER IN BRIEF: MY MORNING JACKET

From A Dreamer’s Dorm Room To Indie Rock Hegemony

Indulge me – MMJ’s meteoric rise to indie ascendancy can be paralleled with Google’s synchronistic rise to technological domination over the course of the last decade. Both began as the pet projects of nobody visionaries in the late 90’s; both slowly made a name for themselves by promoting humanistic ideas and an optimistic worldview; both went “big time” around the middle of the last decade; and both continue to push the envelope of what is still humanly possible in their respective realms.

While those similarities may be general enough to warrant comparisons between my sock drawer and Google, My Morning Jacket indeed achieved a profound rock and roll transcendence over the last 12 years by putting on one of the best live shows around (stealing the show quite frequently as an opening act and on a few occasions at Bonnaroo)  and pushing the limits of what rock and roll can be in a decidedly post-rock age. Led by hyper-charismatic frontman Jim James, the band is given to some excess, which has manifested itself on albums that are sometimes a little too drawn out, but that hasn’t stopped the fans from coming back for more. MMJ is in the business of action-packed indie rock blockbusters, and even if they do manage to lose the plot every once in a while, the spectacle is so brilliant that it’s hardly noticeable.

Personally, I’ve always had a preference for MMJ’s softer side. While classics like “The Way That He Sings” and “One Big Holiday” do bring down the hammer of the gods, James’ art shines brightest in quiet, humble settings. Their full-length debut, “The Tennessee Fire”, is still one of the high music points of the last 15 years, and similiar brilliance can be found sprinkled throughout their releases, from the weird-coustic of “Sooner” to an intergalactic cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” If you’re new to MMJ, my 20-song sampler below is a good place to start, but once you’ve fallen for the band, just sit back and enjoy the ride, one album by one.

20-TRACK SAMPLER
Mageetah
Olde Sept. Blues (Ga-Ed Out)
By My Car
Sooner (AC version)
Xmas Curtain (AD version)
Heartbreakin Man
Golden
O Is The One That Is Real
I’m Amazed
Rocket Man
Wordless Chorus
Off The Record
Anytime
Two Halves
Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2
Lowdown
The Way That He Sings
Bermuda Highway
One Big Holiday (live – OKONOKOS)
I Just Wanted To Say


MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES:

The Tennessee Fire [1999] (A+): One of the most stunning debuts of the last 20 years, The Tennessee Fire radiates a sort of sleepy-eyed, post-apocalyptic Americana haze that sets it apart from the rest of the band’s catalog. It’s a slideshow of twilight dreams, the sort of record that seeps in through the pores of your skin and becomes a part of you. Magnificent. (R: “Heartbreakin Man”, “Old Sept. Blues”, “By My Car”)

Does Xmas Fiasco Style [2001] (B): The only bad thing I can say about this is that it’s merely an EP, and thus only 5 songs. Only 3 of these tracks are originals, but they come off as potential Christmas classics in the old-school sense. You won’t find corny jingles about Santa Claus (ok – you’ll find one, though it’s obscure), but you’ll find plenty of homegrown nostalgia through and through. (R: “Christmas Time Is Here Again”, “I Just Wanted To Say”)

At Dawn [2001] (B+): The band makes the jump from hushed, lo-fi Kentuckiana alt-country to full-spectrum, wall-of-sound rock. James’ muli-tracked voice really shines here, and although there is a bit of filler (“Honest Man”, “If It Smashes Down”), the highlights are so grand that you’ll barely notice. (R: “Lowdown”, “Bermuda Highway”, “The Way That He Sings”)

Split [2002] (C-): “O” and “Come Closer” would have made a solid 7″ single by themselves – the other 2 tracks are essentially throwaways. (R: “O Is The One That Is Real”)

Choclate & Ice [2002] (A): James takes a detour toward his softer side on what is essentially a solo affair, although the eccentric “Sooner” and the epic “Cobra” would figure prominently in the band’s live sets in the years to come. C&I is the sort of indulgent interlude that demonstrates that great artists sometimes make their best stuff when fewer people are looking. (R: “Cobra”, “Sooner”)

It Still Moves [2003] (A-): The band’s major label debut features the glorious “Mahgeetah” and the gorgeous “Golden.” The recording doesn’t quite achieve what they seem to have been going for (sounds a little hollow rather than cathedral-esque), but nevertheless this is an outstanding set of songs that would form the core of the band’s live sets for the next 7 years. (R: “Mahgeetah”, “I Will Sing You Songs”, “Golden”)

Acoustic Citsuoca [2004] (B+): James once again attacks things mostly by himself on this live recording. “The Bear” sounds incredible and “Sooner” sounds fantastically cross-eyed. My only complaint is that it isn’t a full-length. I would have loved a whole record of solo Jim James at this point (how about a live cover of “Rocket Man”, plus more Omnichord please!!!!). (R: “Sooner”, “The Bear”)

Chapter 1 [2004] (C+): Sure, b-sides, rarities, and demos are great, but there’s a lot of filler here. I’d rather get one CD of the best stuff. Why no “RIPVG?” (R: “Weeks Go By Like Days”, “Rocket Man”, “Olde Sept Blues (Ga-Ed Out)”)

Chapter 2 [2004] (C): See comments for CHAPTER 1. (R: “Tonite I Want 2 Celebrate w/ You”, “Tyrone”)

Z [2005] (A): An album shot through with questions about endings and what lies beyond, it’s perhaps the most soulful record in the band’s entire catalog. “Knot Comes Loose” is priceless, featuring JJ at his most vulnerable. Elsewhere, “Wordless Chorus”, “Gideon”, and “Anytime” deliver the most grandiose rock sound since the good parts of Use Your Illusion. Another masterpiece. (R: “Wordless Chorus”, “What A Wonderful Man”, “Dondante”)

Okonokos [2006] (A-): Let’s face it – MMJ have made their name as a live act. OKONOKOS is the first, full-blown testimony to that fact. The recording quality is marvelous, and you haven’t heard tracks like “One Big Holiday”, “Run Thru”, and “Dondante” until you’ve heard them live. I would have liked a tiny bit more from the older records, but there’s so much here, it’s hard to complain. (R: “One Big Holiday”, “Run Thru”, “At Dawn”)

Evil Urges [2008] (B-): The band reaches for something even bigger than Z on their fifth full-length, incorporating R&B and funk influences and even diving headfirst into some throwback numbers. Although some of it pays off (“Thank You Too”, “Two Halves”), some of it falls short (“Librarian”, “Highly Suspicious”). All in all, not bad, but a step down from Z. I’m hoping to see the band re-charge their creative batteries, re-consider their vision, and deliver a fantastic, left-field follow-up sometime in 2011. A full-length solo record from JJ wouldn’t be bad either. (R: “I’m Amazed”, “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream pt. 2”, “Thank You Too”)

Rarities: JJ is the sort of creative genius who records 5 new songs before breakfast. There exists an extensive back catalog of home and 4-track recordings from the old days, as well as early, lost recordings that will probably never see the light of day. The band hasn’t recorded a ton of b-sides since they made it big, but when they do, they are generally of a pretty exceptional caliber. Early acoustic ditty “RIPVG” is definitely worth seeking out, as is the full band recording of “Chills” and a handful of other great tracks (esp. their cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”). (R: “RIPVG”, “Chills”, “How Could I Know”, “Where To Begin”, “It Makes No Difference”)

Career In Brief: Mark Knopfler

CAREER IN BRIEF: MARK KNOPFLER

Mark Knopfler is the wildly accomplished guitar afficionado who fronted the pub-prog stadium act Dire Straits. His “sound” is easily distinguishable from that of other guitarists because of his finger-picking style, a sort of languid-staccato if you will. While the artistic output of the Dire Straits years was more focused on his fabulous guitar chops, Knopfler’s solo work has been more along the lines of singer-songwriter work, although his guitar-playing still figures prominently.

In my opinion, Knopfler is the epitome of how a rock and roll artist should mature, probably oweing something to the fact that he is a prodigious talent. Although he’s not normally put on the same pedestal as the great guitar players of rock and roll, such as Hendrix, Clapton, Van Halen, or Page, there is no doubt that Knopfler is in the same categories as these guitar heroes. The difference, I would say, is in Knopfler’s influences. Traditionally, the guitar gods have been rooted in the blues, but Knopfler’s style owes more to jazz (Django Reinhart) and Opryland country (Chet Atkins) influences.

Although his career as a solo artist proper really came post-Dire Straits, he did plenty of notable soundtrack work in the 80’s and early 90’s. Those interested in his scores should check out Local Hero and, of course, his iconic work for Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Otherwise, I’m going to jump right into his solo records, one of the most under-celebrated album catalogs of the last twenty years.

One other note: while some artists may write sad songs that don’t sound so sad and happy songs that sound the same as the sad ones, Knopfler, though under-stated, wears his songwriting soul masterfully on his sleeve. His music is devoid of irony, unless he intends to convey it. In our age of hyper-hipsterism, it’s rewarding to find an artist who doesn’t need to be hip to win our hearts.

MAJOR RELEASES:

Golden Heart [1996] (A): Come on, isn’t this really just the latest Dire Straits album? Knopfler downplays the prog grandiosity and instead takes aim at rootsy chamber folk. For a guy who spent the 80’s blowing out stadiums around the world, he proves himself adept at turning down the volume and turning up the celtic and cajun influences. It’s a true masterpiece. (R:  “I’m The Fool”, “Done With Bonaparte”)

Sailing to Philadelphia [2000] (B)
: Knopfler always had a knack for “storytelling” via song, but the way his lyrics unfold before you like a film on “What It Is”, you’ll feel like you are right there on Charlotte Street. A sprawling meditation on America’s wide open spaces, it features many wonderful moments, but ultimately loses itself somewhere around the “Sands of Nevada.” Features a great duet with Van Morrison on “The Last Laugh.”  (R: “What It Is”, “Silvertown Blues”)
The Ragpicker’s Dream [2002] (A+): As homey and comforting a record as you will ever find anywhere, what makes The Ragpicker’s Dream is Knopfler’s ability to seamlessly shift from a peppy novelty like “Devil Baby” to a sadly mortal meditation like “A Place We Used To Live” without skipping a beat. The title track may be the best Christmas carol to emerge from the British Isles since “Fairytale of NYC.” One of my all-time favorite records. (R: “Why Aye Man”, “The Ragpicker’s Dream”)

Shangri-La [2004] (A): Fourteen tracks about all the ways we try to find heaven on earth, lead single “Boom Like That” is the best satirical piece Knopfler has written since “Money For Nothing.” It’s also highly informative and educational. Elsewhere, “All That Matters” gets all sweet on us, and “Back To Tupelo” is some beautiful Elvis-perspective blues.
(R: “Back to Tupelo”, “Donegan’s Gone”)

All The Roadrunning [2006] (A): This isn’t properly a Mark Knopfler record, since he shares the spotlight with Emmylou Harris, but in all reality, he wrote 10 of the 12 songs, and it all sounds more like his work than hers. They go together well, and this is a great travelling record. Really, truly wonderful. (R: “Right Now”, “Rollin’ On”)


Kill To Get Crimson [2007] (A-)
: At this point in his career, MK isn’t really turning over any new stones, but when you know what you do better than anyone else in the world, why do anything else? At this point, Knopfler demonstrates his greatness in the sheer fact that he can churn out 12 tracks of such astounding quality every 2 years at the age of 58. Shouldn’t somebody name this guy the godfather of something??? (R: “Heart Full Of Holes”, “Secondary Waltz”)

Get Lucky [2009] (B+): Well, it is all starting to run together a little bit at this point, but for the most part, I stand by what I said about Kill To Get Crimson and apply it to this one. Knopfler has nothing left to prove – Lord knows he doesn’t need money. Knopfler is the type of guy who can just sit back and be artistic with his life for the rest of us. And tracks like “Cleaning My Gun” prove that he still has a few powerful turns of phrase left in him. (R: “Border Reiver”, “Cleaning My Gun”)

OTHER KEY TRACKS:

“Long Highway”
“Let’s See You”

What do love about Mark Knopfler?