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52 Albums, Week 52: The Weavers At Carnegie Hall

Sometime in the early 2000s I went in the library and I ran across a CD of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I don't know why I checked it out; maybe because it had Pete Seeger name on it and I always liked his voice and music. When I got home I played it straight through. It was undoubtedly the most purely enjoyable CD I had ever heard. The Weavers had a joyful and relaxed playful spirit about them and the songs were all ones I like or instantly learn to like.*

 The Weavers’ good musicianship was a delight. My favorite cut is “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” It has the perfect blend of joy and trials that characterize a good marriage.**


 I like Seeger’s non-bluegrass banjo, as featured on “Darling Corey.


 They also had good humor. There was a running gag throughout the show on the words to “Greensleeves”. There were also some more serious songs, like “Sixteen Tons”. In fact the album gets more serious as it proceeds.

 The voices are not that great, except Seegers. Ronnier Gilbert’s alto is too harsh and Lee Hayes’s baritone sounds like he has something in his throat. My least favorite song is the last one, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”; It is musically pretty flat.

 There is a lot of controversy from all sides surrounding the Weavers, especially Seeger. Seeger was a communist who early on distanced himself from Stalin and Soviet communism, but his reputation lingered. Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was unable to perform on national television until a 1968 Smothers Brothers broadcast.

 The Weavers have also been criticized for lifting “Wimoweh” from the South African singer Solomon Linda’s “Mbube” without sufficient compensation.

 Linda’s version: 

 Weaver’s version (“Wimoweh”): 

Then there was the question of authenticity, commercialization, and exploitation. They certainly popularized the American folk tradition for a broad audience. This concert and the recording of it may have been on of the most important events precipitating the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 60s, paving the way for a Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peter Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Smothers Brothers, and Bob Dylan, whom Seeger strongly promoted early on.

Here is a closing shot: “Pay Me My Money Down”:

 *My tastes tend more in the direction of pop than most of those who contribute to this series. First of all, I'm not as interested in the lyrics, although they sure don’t hurt. Nor is “authenticity” particularly important category, since I don’t really understand the boundary. My criteria are melody, harmony, arrangement, complexity and theme. A really good voice doesn’t hurt, either. Which makes it odd, I suppose, that I'm a big fan of those Neil Young albums. I’m also a hopeless romantic.

 **Not all the videos in this review are from the concert at Carnegie Hall because there aren’t very many on Youtube. The original song order from the 1955 recording, if you can find it, is much better than the strange playlist on Spotify, which seems to be In a random order. Or perhaps the Spotify list is in the order in which the songs were actually played. I made my own playlist on Spotify,

 1. "Darling Corey" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:58

2. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 3:14
3. "Pay Me My Money Down" (Parrish) — 2:36

4. "Greensleeves" (Traditional) — 2:39

5. "Rock Island Line" (Lead Belly) — 2:19

6. "Around the World" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:37

7. "Wimoweh" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:46

8. "Venga Jaleo" (Brooks) — 2:09

9. "Suliram (I'll Be There)" (Campbell, Engvick) — 2:05

10. "Shalom Chaverim" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:02

11. "Lonesome Traveler" (Hays) — 1:59

12. "I Know Where I'm Going" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:51

13. "Woody's Rag/900 Miles" (Woody Guthrie) — 1:34

14. "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis) — 2:03

15. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman ...) — 2:09

16. "When the Saints Go Marching In" (Traditional) 2:15

17. "I've Got a Home in That Rock" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:48

18. "Hush Little Baby" (Campbell) — 1:03

19. "Go Where I Send Thee (One for the Little Bitty Baby)" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:35

20. "Sylvie" (Lead Belly, Lomax)

21. "Goodnight, Irene" (Lead Belly, Lomax) — 4:02

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.

52 Albums, Week 51: Takk... (Sigur Rós)


I first heard Sigur Ros around the year 2000, but at the time I wasn’t much taken with them and they fell off my musical radar until I unknowingly heard them again in 2008. I had watched the movie Breaking and Entering and was struck by the song that played over the closing credits. As it turned out, it was their song “Se lest,” and I traced it to their 2005 album Takk. Around this very same time a friend who was visiting England saw the video for “Glosoli” in some sort of church service or religious gathering. When I emailed him to tell him about Takk… he responded by saying he had been planning to write me about “Glosoli” in his next email. Not long after that I watched the documentary/concert film Heima, and it’s that, really, that turned me into a fan.

This album then is near the top of my all-time favorites list, being my favorite release from one of my favorite groups. Most of the songs are in the band’s native Icelandic, although their made-up language “Hopelandic” appears here and there, and is featured on three of the album’s tracks. Musically the album does a lot with time signature variations, which makes it somewhat more interesting rhythmically than your typical rock album, even if most of the tempi are on the slow side. There’s only one song I don’t really care for, and even that one I don’t think of as bad, just so-so.

Takk… opens with the title track, a two-minute long ambient introduction leading directly into “Glosoli,” the video of which Mac has posted here a number of times. Following that is probably the album’s best known song, “Hoppipolla” (“Hopping in Puddles”), which has been used in several films and TV shows and reached the Top 25 on the UK charts. It’s the most accessible, “radio-friendly” track on the album and like “Glosoli” has a great video:

For “Se lest” (“I See a Train”) the song that prompted me to buy the album, I’m including the live version from the Heima film. I love the shots of the audience, especially the children, and the use of the local marching band for the horn section is a neat thing. Heima is full of beautiful footage of Iceland, like the shots that appear in the video. By the way, the word written on paper as the song begins is the name of the town where that particular song was filmed. The band had done free unannounced concerts all over Iceland, and the film documents the various towns in which the performances occurred.

“Saeglopur” (“Lost at Sea”) was another popular track from the album, also used in movies and on TV, perhaps most prominently in a video game ad for “Prince of Persia.” This one starts quietly, but like “Glosoli” turns a good bit noisier a couple minutes in.

For me the highlight of the second half of the album is the soft and lovely “Andvari” (“Zephyr”), which ends with a breathtaking section featuring the strings continuing to play by themselves after the band has faded out. It’s my favorite string arrangement in all of pop music, with the unusual time signature adding to, rather than distracting from, the peaceful beauty of it all.

The album ends with another quiet song, “Heysatan” (“The Haystack”), mostly voice and piano, a very fitting way to close the album.

I don’t want to get rhapsodic about how much I like this record, so I’ll just say that what I find most attractive is the combining of strong melody with sheer power. I’ve always liked bands that were able to pull that off (Chameleons, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive) and I think that Sigur Ros may be the epitome of that. Listen to Takk… or watch Heima and I think you’ll see what I mean.

--Rob Grano

52 Albums, Week 50: Joshua Judges Ruth (Lyle Lovett)

Joshua Judges Ruth_html_caf20e30fff094e5

Sometimes music feels like the soundtrack to your life. I have been avidly listening to Lyle Lovett since the release of his third album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Also since that time, I have seen him in concert as much as has been possible without traveling a long distance. I managed to make each of my wives and my parents converts to the Lyle Lovett cause. That cause is simply music played brilliantly, being a classically cool performer, with quirky songs that cross many genres of musical style. David Bowie was the musical hero of my youth; Lyle Lovett has filled that role in my adulthood.

Joshua Judges Ruth was released in 1992, and typing that makes me wonder in a vague sort of way where I was in life twenty-five years ago, besides just geographically and employment-wise. Having purchased the aforementioned previous album I of course also bought this one and recall being more entranced with it than its predecessor. I guess the “where I was in life” comment goes back to my first sentence about music being a soundtrack to your life. How is it that at whatever age I was then I was so taken by Lyle Lovett’s music?

The first time I saw him on tour must have been in support of this album, so the set list was heavily filled with its songs. If you have ever seen him in concert then you know that Lovett has a knack for between song banter; he is quite funny, and at least it seems that most of what he says is spontaneous. After (or, maybe before) singing the opening track, “I’ve Been to Memphis”, he explained to us that the refrain had nothing to do with any part of a woman’s anatomy. It goes:

Sherry she had big ones
Sally had some too
But Allison had little ones
What hate to go to school

This is a good example of how Lovett likes to do amusing things with lyrics to catch the listener off guard.

“Church” is the second track, and is the only song that Lovett seems to play at every single live show; at least all of the fifteen or so shows I have attended. It is an amusing story about attending a church service where the preacher goes on and on, not allowing anyone to leave. The album version has what sounds like a full gospel choir, so I enjoy it in concert when he has many back-up singers with him, and not as much if it is only he and the band. It is a fun song, and along with the opening and closing tracks, one of only three upbeat songs on the album. That does not sound like a ringing endorsement (lack of upbeat tracks), but these songs are so good, so well played by the musicians, and so meticulously sung by Lyle Lovett that I really feel Joshua Judges Ruth is the high mark in his catalog, more so than even Pontiac, his second and very highly regarded album.

“North Dakota” may be my all-time favorite LL song. It is just lovely, with backing vocals by Rickie Lee Jones, and tells us about cowboys in Texas and in North Dakota. I am always very happy when he plays it in concert. Here is a video of the album version:

“She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”, “You’ve Been So Good Up To Now”, “All My Love Is Gone”, and “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To” all fall in the realm of man who has been wronged to some extent by a woman and is now unhappy. The last one does at least give us a little LL humor with its title. The first time I heard him play it in concert he introduced it as being “about the happiest woman in the world, my ex-girlfriend”. The older I get the more these songs kind of make me sad, but in an appreciation of art melancholy kind of way.

“Since The Last Time” and “Family Reserve” are exceptionally well-written and interesting songs about death. The first is rather long with a lot of set-up to eventually lead you towards the surprise ending, which is that the singer is the person dead and in the coffin at the funeral described:

I went to a funeral
Lord it made me happy
Seeing all those people
I ain’t seen
Since the last time
Somebody died

While “Family Reserve” describes how we never really lose our loved ones because they live on in our memories:

And we’re all gonna be here forever
So mama, don’t you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

My own “family reserve” seems to be getting smaller and smaller, and listening to this song recently made me tear up a little. Again, there is humor abounding within a song with such a morbid theme.

Despite all of this sadness, loss, and melancholy LL chooses to end Joshua Judges Ruth on an upbeat and funny note with “She Makes Me Feel Good”. He has found love again, if perhaps not with quite the right girl:

She’s got big red lips
She’s got big brown eyes
When she treats me right
It’s a big surprise
She won’t do anything
That she said she would
She makes me feel good
She makes me feel good

I will attach one more video, but it does not have any songs from JJR, instead it is a fairly recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert featuring Lyle and his fiddle player Luke Bulla (who is really great). The story goes that Lyle contacted NPR and asked if he could perform for one of their Tiny Desk concerts, they obliged. It is just under 18 minutes, and a lot of fun. Three songs, banter, two performers. Watch this and you may want to catch Lyle Lovett in concert next time he plays in a city near you.


--Stu Moore is in need of finding the woman described in “She Makes Me Feel Good”. But then again, he might not be able to handle it.

52 Albums, Week 49: Suburban Light (The Clientele)

Clientele-SuburbanLight-2One rainy Saturday evening in 1976 I wandered into the only serious record store in town. By “serious” I mean it was like the record shop in the movie High Fidelity—the owner, Paul somebody, and most of the people who worked there were passionate music lovers, zealously evangelistic for the music they loved and mercilessly contemptuous of anything they thought at all meretricious. Having more than a little of the obnoxious music geek in me, I often got into lengthy discussions and arguments there. The store was dim and dusty and crammed with record bins of unfinished wood, not much better built than packing crates, and generally had a slovenly look about it, which was quite misleading, as the stock was meticulously organized. And if you still had trouble finding what you were looking for, most of the staff knew exactly where to find it, or could explain when it was expected or, possibly, why they would not soil themselves by stocking it.

I wonder if there are still such stores. In big cities, I suppose so, but this was a small college town, and the store is long gone. I moved away, so I don’t know for sure when it folded, but I don’t think it survived the transition to the cd era; somehow the cd was never quite as romantic as the lp.

The reason I had nothing to do on this Saturday evening was that I had recently been on the losing end of a breakup. Maybe I was looking for company at the record store. And, thinking back on it, I expect I had unconsciously decided to buy myself a present, an album I’d never heard before that would give me something besides her to think about for a while. The bright friendly windows gleaming through the heavy rain, full of new releases and rarities, were as inviting to me as a bar might have been to someone more convivial. I went inside, shaking off the rain, and found the store empty except for Paul—it was Saturday night. After a few pleasantries he left me alone to browse. I made a mental note not to stay past his nominal closing time, even though I knew he wouldn’t chase me out. An aging unmarried hipster with wire-rimmed glasses, hair vanishing in front and pony-tailed in back, pudgy, he didn’t have anything better to do, either.

I couldn’t find anything I really wanted. In a what-the-hell sort of mood I started browsing the expensive imports and collector’s items, something I rarely bothered to do, as I couldn’t afford them. In the second category I found a used copy of an album called Suburban Light. I’d never heard of it or of the group, but something about the title phrase appealed to my mood, as did the cover art.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“The Clientele? Oh yeah, that’s great. A totally unknown classic. It came out at the end of 1966 and flopped, then the critics rediscovered it a few years ago, but it’s hard to find. Sort of early psychedelic English kind of thing. It doesn’t sound like the Kinks but since you like Something Else so much you’d probably like it. Bring it here.” Another nice thing about the store was that Paul remembered your tastes: Something Else was one of my top five post-British-invasion/pre-Sgt. Pepper English albums.

I took it over to the counter. He slipped the disc out of its jacket—although it was used, it seemed to be in very good shape—and dropped the needle, expertly, on “Reflections After Jane.”

It was beautiful and under my circumstances almost preternaturally appropriate, so that was enough. I bought the album, even though it was outrageously expensive at something close to twenty dollars. I was so bowled over by the song that I probably would have paid that much for a 45. I thanked Paul, hurried back to my apartment in the rain, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the album several times in a nostalgic haze. It turned out that “Jane” was probably the best thing on it, but at least half of the songs were in its class, and if it didn’t quite deserve the “classic” designation it was certainly a very happy discovery.


Except for the description of the music, and the fact that I was living in a small college town in 1976, the preceding is pure fiction. But it’s very believable fiction: that’s what the music sounds like, and that would have been an appropriate time, place, and manner in which to discover it. Suburban Light actually came out in 2000. Its best moments capture a mid-‘60s feeling in a way that anyone who has either actual or vicarious nostalgia for the time won’t be able to resist. It’s definitely one of my top ten mid-‘60s-English-pop-revival/nostalgia albums. And I hear it’s not even their best.

(This was originally written and posted in July 2007. I've heard a couple of other Clientele albums since, and they're good, but haven't grabbed me the way this one does.)


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 48: Lubbock (On Everything) (Terry Allen)

Week48-Lubbock (On Everything)_html_6853d339b276d321Several years ago, a friend gave me a burned copy of this CD and while listening to it I marveled at how something so wonderful had been out there that I was somehow unaware of until that moment. The first sentence of the album review on AllMusic.com reads:

Although it’s all but unknown outside of a devoted cult following, Terry Allen’s second album, 1979’s Lubbock (On Everything), is one of the finest country albums of all time, a progenitor of what would eventually be called alt-country.

In my experience, this album will make you laugh, cry, sing along, and then start it over again from the beginning, all the time wondering how Terry Allen was able to do it. I have never listened to anything else by Allen, for fear that I will be disappointed. Nothing else he recorded could possibly be this good.

About a year ago there was a “deluxe reissue” CD, which I should really buy since all I have is the original burned copy given to me many years ago, and along with that reissue a YouTube documentary short (around 11 minutes) was filmed. Without going back to re-watch this to make sure my facts are accurate, in the documentary short the story told by the producer is that Terry Allen came into his office, sat down at the piano and proceeded to play the entire album for him (all 79 minutes). This convinced him the music should be recorded.

Allen opens with “Amarillo Highway (for Dave Hickey)”, with the chorus:

I’m panhandling
Man handlin
Post holin
High rollin
Dust Bowlin…Daddy
An I ain’t got no blood veins
I just got them four lanes
Of hard…Amarillo Highway

After I hear this refrain once, I am happily singing along until the end of the song. Terry Allen has a very distinct way of singing and putting accents on his syllables that suit the lyrics. Well, here is the song.

Terry Allen is also an artist and graphic designer, and I believe that is what he does these days, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is a good place for artists. Four years ago I was married just outside Santa Fe and a few days after the ceremony the new family and me journeyed down first to Carlsbad Caverns, and then to Marfa, Texas. Marfa is in the Big Bend area, and though the population is under 2000 it is known for artists and art installations out on the highway into town (such as a fake Prada store). There was a bookstore across from the hotel and the following day I walked over, surprised that such a small town had a store of this size. While purchasing my treasures I noticed there were small stacks of CDs at the counter, and all of them were by Terry Allen. I asked the proprietor about this and he said that Terry and his wife used to live in Marfa, but they had since moved to Santa Fe. The proprietor was a funny little guy with an odd lisp (I think there may have been a cleft palate or something going on) and he knew Terry and his wife.

Lubbock (On Everything) is a long and interesting journey, and through the first four songs, nothing appears to be amiss. Then you get to “Lubbock Woman” and that one is kind of different, a little outside what a country singer might be singing about. “The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma” takes a distinct right turn, as the singer meets a woman at a party sitting in a chair naked, who then begins to dance. Then you arrive at “Truckload of Art”. With the initial narration explaining the events of the song, a truckload of art being driven across the country, which ends up on fire. Then he sings about it. I feel like I’m giving away plot lines talking about these songs. The “Art Mob” song doesn’t seem to make much sense, but why does he keep singing about art?

“Oui (a French Song)” [I’m sure you have noticed by now that Allen enjoys parentheticals] has the wonderful line:

Now some say it’s pathetic
When you give up your aesthetic
For a blue collar job in the factory
But all that exhibiting
Was just too damn inhibiting
For a beer drinking
Regular guy… Like me

Shifting tones, several short songs in a row, occasional speaking and narration, along with subjects perhaps only sung about in country music by Terry Allen, are what make this album special. As I have listened to it in order to charge my brain enough with memory to write, I am surprised at the emotional response I have to songs not heard for a while now. I’m not always sure about the content of a song based on its title, but am then happy when I hear it and know the chorus and perhaps some other lyrics as well. But I suppose that is how it always is with art, and our response to what works for each of us individually.

I am most affected by the song “The Beautiful Waitress” on listening to it just a half hour ago or so. In our brand new age of strict sexual harassment protocol, the singer would be arrested for his maudlin attempts at love with the waitress, but nonetheless I find the lyrics very apropos and lovely. Here he is singing it live a few years ago:

Cause you’ll only love her once
Only this one time at lunch
And she might as well love you too
Ahhh…it’s the last time
You’re passin through

On the album version there is a little narrative at the end wherein the singer tells of meeting a waitress once and discussing art with her, especially the drawing of horses. This is of course also available on YouTube, for anyone interested.

Lubbock (On Everything) is one of those special pieces of music that always makes me very happy when I listen to it.

Here is a bonus song not found on this album for all the Catholics in the group: 

—Stu Moore often wishes he still lived in the desert Southwest. Apparently, he did not play enough cowboys and Indians as a small child.

52 Albums, Week 47: Symphony No. 2 ; Violin Concerto ‘Distant Light’ (Peteris Vasks)

I don’t really know enough about classical music to write about it technically, so I’m going to rely here on notes from CD releases combined with personal impressions. I don’t remember exactly how or when I first came across the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, but it would have had to have been sometime around 2004, and possibly from Robert Reilly in Crisis. The first CD I bought was a collection of shorter orchestral works, and I was enthralled. It was modern but melodic, emotionally demanding but ultimately peaceful. I bought several more discs in short order, and my favorite piece soon became the violin concerto “Distant Light.” I rank it up there with my other two favorite contemporary orchestral works, Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa” and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Here’s part of the description of the piece from the liner notes:

Tala gaisma (Distant Light) is a concerto for violin and a large string orchestra. The concerto, in one single movement, is one of the most meditative, ethereal concertos ever written; yet with an underlying tension and drama. [Composer Vasks says] ‘Distant Light is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of miles away.’

The concerto consists of three episodes interspersed with three cadenzas by the soloist.

The first cadenza leads towards a sudden increase in tempo and a jagged figure as in folk music which, in turn, is followed by a second cadenza and, beyond a dramatic change of scene, a return to relative lyricism. Some of the later passages create an almost romantic aura, but a moment of what Vasks calls ‘aleatoric chaos’ sets in shortly before the end.

From the notes on another recording Vasks describes the ending this way:

The aleatory chaos is interrupted by a waltz rhythm, robust and even aggressive. In the recapitulation, we hear musical ideas from the beginning of the piece. Although there is a momentary sense of anguish here, the concerto ends on a note of bright sadness.

Vasks, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in 1946, and lived the first four decades of his life under the Russian Communist yoke. Being a Christian, and the son of a Christian, in an atheistic country was a barrier to a “free” musical life. His music reflects this, but it also reflects the freedom achieved by Latvian independence in 1990. Thus his works have a profound mixture of turbulence, sadness, and joy, the latter often represented by musical evocations of birdsong. His music is “a unique representation of Latvian culture and spirit,” much in the same way that Arvo Part’s represents Estonia, Kancheli’s, Georgia, and Gorecki’s, Poland.

I have four recordings of this piece. The one here by John Storgards and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is fantastic in and of itself, but the other reason I chose this particular recording is the pairing. Symphony No. 2 offers another side of Vasks, his full-scale symphonic side. This is a 40 minute symphony, composed in the same basic sound world as ‘Distant Light,’ but with all the dynamics and “bells and whistles” of a full orchestra. It’s a very good piece and one I like a lot. The other recording I’d recommend is the one on Teldec by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica. This one features Vasks’ Symphony No. 1, the string symphony “Voices,” as the pairing. This is a very good piece as well, but being all strings, it doesn’t offer quite the contrast that the second symphony does, although it must be said that Kremer’s performance is outstanding, and that the concerto was written at his request.

For those who’d like to sample the piece, we are fortunate to have a very good recording of it available in its entirety on YouTube, played by one of its champions, the British violinist Anthony Marwood, who has himself recorded it in an excellent version on Hyperion with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Unfortunately it’s paired there with a recording of the jazzy, modernist Kurt Weill concerto, which I don’t like at all. (Your mileage may vary, as they say.) In this clip Marwood plays it with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The piece doesn’t really “kick in” until about the 3:20 mark, so give it a bit of time. I think the section which starts at about the 3:50 mark and runs through the beginning of the first cadenza at 6:00 is just gorgeous, and it’s not the only highlight by far.

--Rob Grano

52 Albums, Week 46: The Velvet Underground and Nico


I've heard it said of this album that when it was first released in 1967 only a thousand people heard it, but that they all went out and started a band. Neither part of that is very accurate. I heard it when it was released, and so did all my friends, and many of us bought it. And this was in a small college town in Alabama. Granted, there were only a few of us. But still, the fact that it was available in record stores there means it must have received the same sort of distribution that most pop albums of the time did. It certainly was not successful, but neither was it something that only a handful of people knew about. After all, it had Andy Warhol's name on the cover, which guaranteed some attention. (The band had provided music for some Warhol performances and he was credited as producer.) It did manage to hang on to the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 200 for a while.

And none of us started a band, though I did make a stab at learning a few of the songs on my acoustic guitar. More to the point, I don't think it had much, if any, noticeable influence on other music at the time. The next few years were the flowering of hippie music, and if anyone else in that period, besides the Velvet Underground themselves in their next few albums, followed in their footsteps, I didn't hear it. (The Stooges, who are sometimes compared to them, seem to have been more parallel than following. And I don't hear that much resemblance myself.) 

But there is something to the "thousand copies" story. It's a somewhat exaggerated version of something Brian Eno said in 1982

I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

In 1982 that was justifiable hyperbole, because it was sometime in the 1970s that the album's influence really did begin to make itself felt. Over the following years it became a generally recognized classic, at least among critics and those musicians and fans of indie- or alt-rock. And yet even now, fifty years on, neither it nor the band that produced it can be considered a stodgy, once-edgy-but-now-dull mainstay of classic rock radio or the casino circuit. It's still powerful, still almost shocking, still about as far from formulaic pop as anything can be without tipping over into noise. 

I had considered writing about it in this series, and more or less decided not to, until last week when I wrote about the Incredible String Band. The ISB's elaborate, melodic, poetic, mystical work represents very well one aspect of the late '60s. I suppose the popular image now is that flower power, peace-and-love, etc., were the whole picture. But that wasn't true. There was always something dark in that picture. The times were a sort of explosion of energies, and by no means was it all positive. The Velvet Underground and The Doors were the most striking instances of that dark side. And I might add that Dylan in this period was not exactly a flower child.

I can't remember where I heard the phrase "the glamour of ruin," but this album has it. The music is mostly ragged, noisy, abrasive. The lyrics are mostly about ugly things: heroin, perverse sex, the hard edges of life in the concrete jungle. What did I, an 18-year-old college student in Alabama, hear in it? There was that glamour, of course, the fascination of looking into the dark side (from a comfortable place outside it). But fundamentally it was the music, by which I mean the whole package of sound and words. I listened to the album for the first time in many years before writing this, and it is just as powerful as it was in 1967.

It's not all noisy. The opening song is sweet and wistful, the empty pause of a Godless Sunday morning in the city.

Then the very next song comes crashing in with an almost mindless but driving I-V riff and a story about meeting a pusher. Another sweet song, but with an edge: "Femme Fatale," sung by the icy Teutonic goddess Nico, a German model with very limited but in the context effective vocal ability. Then perversity, with "Venus in Furs" ("Taste the whip..."). Another gripping hard rocker, "Run Run Run." A droning dirge for a troubled beauty, "All Tomorrow's Parties," sung hauntingly by Nico. 

Then the song that pretty much blew everybody away both sonically and lyrically, "Heroin." I knew someone who said he knew someone who was so fascinated by this song that he wanted to become a heroin addict. It certainly didn't affect me that way. I took it as a straightforward description of the user's psychology and experience of the simultaneous longing for transcendence and oblivion, which ultimately must mean death.  

"There She Goes Again" comes closest to something one could imagine hearing on Top 40 radio, thought it was too raw for that. And in the context of the album the lyrics suggested that she was going somewhere very sordid. "I'll Be Your Mirror" is another Nico vocal, a gentle declaration of some kind of love and support, whether romantic or not isn't entirely clear. It's these sweet moments that help to give the album its poignancy.

And the album ends with the somewhat scary "Black Angel's Death Song"--take that, American Bandstand--and "European Son,' which still seems to me a disappointing ending. Perhaps if it had more lyrics it might have been better, but after a few lines at the opening it's seven minutes of somewhat monotonous instrumental racket.

The Velvet Underground as a band didn't outlast the '60s, but Lou Reed and John Cale went on to successful solo careers. Cale appeared here early in this series. He collaborated with Nico on a couple of albums that were credited to her alone but are obviously at least as much his work. They are extremely weird and I like them a lot.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 45: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band)


I don't know, maybe you had to be there. I suspect this album and this band don't have a great many fans who didn't experience their music when it was new in the late '60s. The album is as good a candidate as any that's appeared in this series to meet with enthusiasm from absolutely no one apart from the person who's writing about it. Perhaps Rupert Hine's Waving Not Drowning ranks with it in general listener non-appeal, though for utterly different reasons.

I'm writing about it anyway, partly because there's always a chance that someone who's never heard it will read this and listen to the sample tracks and be converted, and partly in simple homage. The Incredible String Band were a decidedly eccentric outfit and were never widely popular, but they had and still have a very zealous following. They were very important to me at one time, and still are on the rare occasions when I take those old albums off the shelf. Their music was eclectic to say the least, and their richly imagistic lyrics spoke of an equally eclectic spirituality with a significant Christian element. It was a light to me in some fairly dark times, almost the only thread connecting me to the transcendent and to a sense of (or just hope for) cosmic meaning.

"Those albums" are principally three: this one and the two that came a year or so after it, Wee Tam and Big Huge. The latter two were originally intended to be a double LP but for whatever reason, probably the record company's wish, were released separately in the U.S. There's little reason to choose any of the three over the others: all have many great and a few not-so-great tracks. There are a number of other albums, and most of them, too, have some very-good-to-great stuff. I own them all (I think) and am happy to have them, but the good in those is to my taste mostly not quite so brilliant as the best of these three, and is lesser in proportion to the not-as-good.

The band consisted principally of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, with some assistance on this and a few other albums from their then-girlfriends, Licorice and Rose (respectively?). They started out as a folk duo, and more or less remained in the not-rock-and-roll area. I will send you to Wikipedia or AllMusic for more information on their history. 

I first heard of them when they were compared very negatively to Pentangle in a review, treated simply as failed folkies. It was an early lesson in not trusting critics unless and until you have reason to think they are more or less on your wavelength. I had a similar experience with Astral Weeks, a reviewer in one of the mainstream stereo magazines dismissed it as a lot of meaningless yelling; I was stunned when I finally heard the album.

"Koeeoaddi There" is the first song on the album, and therefore the first of the ISB's music that I ever heard, and I was immediately fascinated. There's a bit of a story about that first hearing, which I relate in my forthcoming-one-way-or-another book--nothing dramatic, just a very vivid memory. I've made occasional efforts since the internet, Google, Facebook, etc., became available to find the person who made that introduction, but haven't been able to. I'd like to thank him. (He also gave me my real introduction to Leonard Cohen, whom I'd mistakenly dismissed because I'd only heard "Suzanne" and thought it was sentimental.)

One learned pretty quickly to distinguish the Robin songs from the Mike songs, even more perhaps than the Paul songs from the John songs in the Beatles. "Koeeoaddi There" is obviously a Robin song. "A Very Cellular Song" is a Mike song. It's thirteen minutes long. The "Goodnight" part is a Bahamian gospel song. The Grateful Dead used to close out their shows with it.


I said the ISB had a cult following. Some members of that cult, having spent years amassing information on the band and posting it on a web site, published a book called beGLAD: An Incredible String Band Compendium. Another long-time fan provided an introduction: Rowan Williams, who was at the time he wrote it Archbishop of Canterbury. 

There was no one quite like them.... If I go back to the start, I'd have to say again that it was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such--risking the embarrassment that so regularly goes with my particular vocation--I'd also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and makes you laugh and which above all makes the landscape different once and for all.

I wouldn't say it was a discovery of poetry for me--Williams is a couple of years younger than me, and I had already made that discovery when I heard the group--but otherwise, yes. None of that would have made much difference if it hadn't been set in very appealing, rich, and imaginative music which, though obviously and even amusingly of the '60s, nevertheless sounds as fresh today as it did fifty years ago--at least to those of us who, as I said earlier, were there. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 44: (think of these as a triptych) (Neil Young)

I’ve been trying for months to decide which of three consecutive Neil Young albums to review: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After the Gold Rush (1970), and Harvest (1972). I give up so I’m going to talk about all three. I’ve never owned any of these three records. For a time, they weren’t on Spotify so I had to settle for Youtube. Now they are on Spotify, so I get to listen to a different set of ads. I don’t know much about his other music except Rust Never Sleeps.

Week43-everybody knows this is nowhere cover

Week43-after the gold rush cover

Week43-harvest cover

Each album is distinctive, but they all seem to go together like a triptych. Everybody is county/folk/bluesish/hard rock. After the Goldrush emphasized harmony and piano and is (relatively) less jammish. Harvest has the mouth harp and the steel guitar—and some orchestration. It also is the most cleanly produced. On all the albums his guitar playing is dirty, but it seems appropriate (I mean “awesome”). The albums are well-produced in a way to accent the positive quality of his distinctive guitar style. Crazy Horse was the main backup on Everybody and After the Gold Rush. Harvest didn’t have Crazy Horse, but had James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash plus some other session musicians.

Young’s distinctive voice should be irritating, but it isn’t. Why he sings in falsetto, I don’t know. He is one of those singers who can get away with a weird voice—like Dylan or, to a lesser extent, Jon Anderson. I could listen to all three of these albums in a row and not tire of the voice. His producers use more or less reverb in a way that enhances the sense of the song. On “A Man Needs a Maid,” for instance, there is none whatsoever, which gives it more of a sense of loneliness and isolation. This is enhanced by the pronounced reverb on the previous song, “Harvest.”

He is a confessional singer like James Taylor and Carole King, who were also recording at that time, but his interior life is much more interesting than either of theirs—and more poetic. I must admit many of Young’s lyrics are opaque to me. Somehow, though, the evocative images coupled with the arrangement make them emotionally charged. When they do make sense, such as in “Old Man,” or almost so, as in “Cowgirl in the Sand,” they are great.

I will include my favorite cut from all three. These are arbitrary, especially for Harvest where it is a three-way tie.

“Cowgirl in the Sand.” I chose this one for the music. The lyrics I’m not so sure of. In the acoustic intro you can barely hear a note or two from the rhythm guitar in the “right” speaker before it breaks loose when the song starts in earnest. 

“After the Gold Rush.” Man, what a song! Just Neil, the piano and the French Horn. And the dream is so rich and in some ways terrifying, including the space ship taking the remnant to a new home.

A Man Needs a Maid.” You can just feel his pain and the tension between just giving up by getting a maid and actually seeing her again. It has a cool use of the orchestra’s bells.

Probably if it was a different day I would have chosen “Old Man” or “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which is a great song to play on the guitar.

Young supported Reagan in the 1980s, but I don’t think he could be accused of being a Republican. He is more a libertarian. He sometimes gets political in his lyrics, such as “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” He doesn’t seem to like the South much.

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.

52 Albums, Week 43: Heart Food (Judee Sill)


This is a classic, another of the albums that I figured I would work into this series. I had thought I would just write a couple of paragraphs and see what I could find on YouTube to show the best of the album. And then I thought Wait, didn't you write something about Judee Sill on the blog a long time ago? and went looking for it. Indeed I did, back in October of 2004, the blog's first year, almost exactly thirteen years ago. It was more extensive than I remembered. So I listened to the album for the first time in at least eight or ten years, to see if my opinion had changed, and it hasn't. If anything I may think more highly of it now. 

Back in the early ‘70s I worked in a couple of record stores and I heard a lot of music to the point of satiety and well beyond. Sometimes music that I liked mildly, such as the Eagles’ Desperado, was run into the ground, and music that I didn’t much like, such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, became hated. Records that weren’t very popular didn’t get played very much, which was fine with me whether I liked them or not: if I didn’t like them, it was nice not to have to hear them, and if I did like them, they didn’t get ruined by over-listening. One of these less-popular works was Judee Sill’s Heart Food. I remember feeling that there was something a bit haunting about it, something that was kind of getting under my skin, but for reasons I can’t now remember I never bought it and soon forgot about it when it stopped being played in the store.

More than ten years later something brought it to mind again. I can’t remember now what sparked the memory, but I do remember that a couple of lyrics came to mind: something about a road to Kingdom Come, and something that included the Kyrie. And I had a vague sense of Out West—deserts, cowboys, horses, tumbleweeds—as well as the notion of some kind of Christian-sounding spirituality. So I asked my old friend Robert Woodley, who for a long time seemed to know every pop album ever produced, and to own most of them, about it. He knew right away what I was talking about and, the record being out of print, made me a tape with Judee Sill on one side and the best of Ultravox on the other. Now there was a contrast: mystical Christian cowboy folk-pop paired with alienated world-weary synth-pop. I listened to both sides a lot, and the tape is much the worse for wear. I eventually bought most of Ultravox’s work, but Judee Sill’s remained unavailable.

In the mid-‘90s as more and more music resources became available on the web—retailers, fans, reviews—I made it a point to go looking every now and then for Heart Food. At a time when it seemed that almost everything that had ever been available on LP was appearing on CD, Heart Food remained absent. At one point I almost paid $50 for a copy of the LP on Ebay, but was held back by imagining the scene in which I attempted to justify to my wife paying that much money for a used LP.

This past summer Dawn Eden happened to mention it on her blog, The Dawn Patrol [2017 Note: there was a link here but it no longer works], which reminded me that it had been a while since I looked for it. Happily, it was now available, albeit at $26. I emailed Dawn complimenting her on her taste and complaining about the high price. She advised me to buy it anyway, quickly because it was a limited edition, adding that I shouldn’t balk at the price because I would get $260 worth of enjoyment out of it. [2017 Note: I believe it was after this time that Dawn Eden entered the Catholic Church; she is now a writer and theology professor, using her full name, Dawn Eden Goldstein. She still posts updates on her life and work at The Dawn Patrol.]

Still put off by the high price, I didn’t buy the CD right away, but put it on my birthday wish list. My wife having granted the wish last week, I can now say that Dawn’s advice was right on. It has probably been ten years or more since I listened to my old tape copy, and hearing it now in CD-quality audio is almost like hearing it for the first time. The sound is far richer and warmer and more detailed, and the music itself seems better than ever.

It’s always difficult to describe music, and this more so than some, because it produces an effect which is somewhat at odds with its raw materials. That is, if I say that in addition to Sill’s voice and guitar the first song (“There's a Rugged Road,” the “kingdom come” song I remembered from 1973) includes steel guitar and fiddle and in general sounds somewhat country-western, it will be accurate as to the sound but not as to the atmosphere, which is mystical. Country music is pretty down to earth and straightforward, as is the folk-country music of people like Kate Wolf and Nanci Griffith. But there is an indefinable air of mystery about this song. Those images that I mentioned earlier—deserts, cowboys, and the like—are there, but as archetypes and symbols, not as their down-to-earth selves. Perhaps one way to put it is that the Western-ness is movie-Western: cinematic, not really meant to be the real thing, lifted out of history and put to work for other purposes, in this case to provide imagery for spiritual matters. Not all the songs are in this Western mode; there are touches of gospel, Gregorian chant, and soft rock. The album as a whole really should seem like a hodge-podge, but it’s held together by Sill’s voice and visionary songwriting.

Although the lyrics are full of Christian symbols and allusions, and at least two of them seem to be quite explicitly Christian, the album’s liner notes make it sound as if Sill’s Christianity was eccentric at best. That’s as may be, but it needn’t bother the listener. I’m always at risk of hyperbole when praising a work that I really like, but it seems to me that this album as a whole is worthy of being ranked with anything produced in post-1965 popular music. And the final song, “The Donor” (this is the one I remembered as including the Kyrie) is, whatever Judee Sill may actually have believed, one of the most moving cries to God that anyone has ever put to music.

Strong words? Well, listen for yourself. And say a prayer for the soul of Judee Sill. She had been a drug addict before getting straight enough to pursue a serious music career and make Heart Food and its predecessor, Judee Sill. Like a lot of addicts, she apparently never really shook off the lure, and returned off and on to heroin and other drugs, including pain-killers for injuries suffered in a car accident. She never made another album, although there are some demos for a projected third, and in 1979 died alone of an overdose which, as in the case of Nick Drake, may or may not have been suicide.

A long and lonely road to Kingdom Come, says the first song, and I suppose that’s what Judee Sill had, although in years it was not so very long. But “The Donor” pretty well describes her relationship to the rest of us. The making of art is a curious thing. The artist does his work for motives almost never entirely pure—Judee Sill apparently wanted very much to be a star—completes it, and moves on. The gift remains.


This is the "road to Kingdom Come" song I remembered. It's the first song on the album. 

And this is the last song, an 8-minute masterpiece. 

So sad, and so true.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear some people say they don't like her voice. It does have a rather pronounced western twang, which I think works best with the folky songs, but for me it doesn't detract from the others. Listening to the album now, I was reminded that Robert had left one song off that tape, "Soldier of the Heart." I think he was right to do so; it's not bad but it's closer to rock than anything else on the album and seems out of place. He also included at least two songs from Sill's first album, Judee Sill, which I've never really given much attention.

There is a lot more information on Judee Sill, her life and work, on the web now than when I wrote the 2004 piece. There are live performances and at least one documentary on YouTube. And it turns out that the third album was very close to completion, and has since been issued. It's called Dreams Come True, and according to Thom Jurek at AllMusic is very good. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 42: Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Brian Eno)


I'd been thinking since this series began that I would include at least one ambient album, just in the interests of making the scope very broad.  I had in mind a few favorites as possibilities, and I finally started thinking about my choice a few weeks ago when Rob G gave us a techno album. (The association is that both techno and ambient tend to be all or mostly electronic.) 

But in listening to those favorites I found at least one or two tracks that I didn't much like, that spoiled or disrupted the atmosphere. And since ambient music is at least 80% atmosphere, that's a pretty big flaw. There was, for instance, Steve Roach and Roger King's Dust to Dust, which conjures a western desert feeling, more accurately described as a western desert movie feeling. I like it, but it has a couple of rhythmic tracks that to me don't really fit. Here's a sample track, "Rain and Creosote," which also has a nice video. And Ishq's Orchid, which I have described as an auditory tropical vacation, and have sometimes called my favorite ambient album; it, too, has its infelicities. A sample: "Bhakti." (Both these use "environmental" sounds--real-world, non-musical sounds, like rain and birdsongs, also a common feature of ambient music). Some others I thought were just very unlikely to appeal to anyone who reads this blog--too weird and dark (there is a whole sub-genre called "dark ambient," to which I'm somewhat partial)

So in the end I decided that, as the song says, the original is still the greatest. Music for Airports, as people generally refer to it, was released in 1978, and has the distinction of being the first ambient album to be described explicitly as such. You can read Eno's account of what he was trying to do with the "ambient" concept in the liner notes for the album. I hadn't heard it for some time, and when I got out the CD and listened to it I thought it was if anything better than I remembered. 

I think most of the sounds on it are "real," i.e. not produced electronically. Certainly the piano is, and I think the voices are, too. But the album is constructed with looped segments--tape loops, I assume, this being 1978. Also, this being 1978, the concept of "sides" was important. There are four tracks, two to each side of the LP. They're not named, but numbered by side and track. 

I'm pressed for time, so that's enough talk. If you want more discussion, the album's Wikipedia page has some. Here's 1/1. Or should that be "1/1"?

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 41: Rattlesnakes (Lloyd Cole and the Commotions)


By the time this record came out in 1984 synth-driven pop had begun to dominate the music scene, and while there was a fair amount of guitar-oriented stuff circling under the mainstream radar, generally speaking you didn’t get to hear much of it unless you actively looked for it. I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to check this album out – I’m sure I had read a review somewhere – but I’m glad I did, because it became a favorite of mine, and Lloyd Cole grew to be a very dependable go-to artist for me.

Although I was a little put off at first by the album’s comparative polish (at that time rough edges tended to be generally viewed as a plus) I liked it all, finding it enjoyable both musically and lyrically. I was 23 when I bought the record (the same age as Cole was when he made it, actually) and I wasn’t quite sure how much of Cole’s lyrical shtick was tongue-in-cheek and how much was really autobiographical. That kind of thing matters far less to me now, but as it turns out Cole has said that it was both.

He can be a bit pretentious, but it’s mostly a fun sort of pretention. In the Wikipedia piece on the album he says, “I was a young man! I really was. You can just imagine me trying to wear a French trench coat at the time, thinking I looked very cool when, in fact, I looked really stupid. But maybe that's why people liked it."

Although Cole is English, the band was formed in Glasgow while he was at university there, so sometimes you’ll hear that the band was “Scottish,” which isn’t entirely untrue. When the album was released in the UK the opening track, “Perfect Skin,” became the album’s biggest single but both the title song and “Forest Fire” also got considerable airplay, and the album actually made it into the Top 20, peaking at no. 13.

The title track is quite representative of the album as a whole, while “Forest Fire” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I’ve also included “Four Flights Up,” a fun number that contains some good samples of Cole’s memorable lyricism, including the memorable line, “Must you tell me all your secrets when it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing?”



Also worthy of mention are the soft and haunting “Down on Mission Street” and the album’s wistful closer, “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”

Cole and his band did two more records, Easy Pieces and Mainstream, and while both are enjoyable and have their great moments, neither is as good overall as Rattlesnakes. The band then broke up and Cole moved to New York City, where he continued as a solo performer, producing four more albums, the best of which is 1991’s Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, arguably his best record after Rattlesnakes. In all he did seven albums between 1984 and 1995, all of them worth hearing except for 1993’s Bad Vibes, an ill-advised foray into a darker, harder-edged sound. I haven’t been much taken with his more recent acoustic material, but those records from his earlier period have been constant companions of mine over the years. Rattlesnakes has remained my favorite of those, and one of my favorite records period.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Albums, Week 40: Goths (The Mountain Goats)


My eldest son, who heard so much folk music as a baby, has now for perhaps four or five years listened to very little else but the Mountain Goats, which unavoidably means I have been exposed to their music too. His predilection makes long drives additionally trying when he has any choice of music, since with few exceptions the songs are not music to drive to. I have nevertheless become acclimatised to them. There are a couple of songs on the previous album, Beat the Champ, as well as one or two from earlier albums, that I like well enough to put on myself when nobody else is around. I even went along with my two eldest children when there was a Mountain Goats concert at a surprisingly small venue in Brussels (my eldest also attended the same tour’s show in Amsterdam, which I thought was taking things a bit far).

My grandmother used to watch the wrestling on television, back in the days when there was only one screen in the house to watch anything on. Although it was never something I would watch from choice, there’s something achingly evocative about the way the song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” describes a lonely and put-upon child’s fixation:

Before a black and white TV in the middle of the night
I'm lying on the floor, I'm bathed in blue light
With the telecast in Spanish, I can understand some
And I need justice in my life, here it comes
Look high, it’s my last hope
Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope

This kind of sympathetic recognition is something I find even more strongly in their latest album, released this year. The unifying theme of Beat the Champ was wrestling; that of Goths is the 80s youth subculture of those who called themselves (in South London at least) “Goffs”.

There are definite dangers in a youth subculture that revels in morbidity and decay, to the extent of using satanism as a style accessory. Nevertheless, as someone with a liking for the Gothic side of Romanticism (far more responsive to the “alone and palely loitering” than to the “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”) I was always rather sympathetic to the Goth aesthetic, however cartoonish it can be in comparison to the genuinely Gothic: so many Goths recognisably felt the same pull. There’s also something endearing, as well as a bit pitiful, about alienated teens making a mascot of their alienation, social “outsiders” forming an in-group for outcasts. The way this is then packaged and commodified by the music and fashion industries, making suckers out of those seeking solace, is one of the saddest things about it. The album Goths somehow manages to speak of the phenomenon, or style, with a nostalgic affection and a critical distance that conveys all of this.

I’m not sure how much of the album is straight autobiography, how much is ventriloquizing in imagined lives things the writers have themselves felt, and how much is an inhabiting of the unfelt imagined. I say “writers”, as there are two writers credited, but the bulk of the writing on this, as on all the other Mountain Goats albums, is by John Darnielle, the central figure in a changing line-up.

The opening track, “Rain in Soho”, has an insistent beat, and backing vocals from the Nashville Symphony Chorus, which makes for a striking combination with the cryptic lyrics.

Although oblique in specifics (perhaps through allusions that escape me), in general terms it’s clear that the song is about time past and faded, the irrecoverably lost:

No morning colder than the first frost
No friends closer than the ones you've lost
Nothing sharper than a serpent's tooth
Nothing harder than the gospel truth
Though you repent and don sackcloth and try to make nice
You can't cross the same river twice
The river goes where the water flows
No one knows when the Batcave closed

One allusion that I do get, and that astonished me, is the Batcave, a London nightclub that was the epicentre of the emergence of the Goth phenomenon (as reported on local news at the time). “Rain in Soho” perhaps suggests a later attempt to find the vanished birthplace of the movement. I saw the news clip linked above when it was first broadcast, or one very like it at about the same time, and as a 12-year-old Batman fan the name stuck with me (as did the vision of those strange young people, who seemed utterly daft yet somehow enviable). When I did encounter Goths in the flesh, maybe five years later, they seemed a sorry bunch of misfits, but by then these were the provincial diehards of an already fading fashion. It fills me with amazement that somebody from the other side of the Atlantic should be singing about the Batcave thirty-odd years later, when to me it was just a brief (though never forgotten) item on the local news.

Goth’s English origins also come up in We Do It Different on the West Coast (“The papers write about it back in England / It’s practically a lifestyle in Berlin / There’s probably some pockets in Ohio / There’s always something happening in Ohio” — like so much else, the reference to Ohio puzzles me; is it true, or does it show how hopelessly provincial the speaker is if even Ohio seems like a “happening” place?). The specifics of the English history of the Goth also crops up in the album’s second track, Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds. This narrates a low-point in a musical career, yet to take off, while other songs on the album hint at musical careers abandoned (Paid in Cocaine: “Baubles and bangles, a lost age / Still all aglow with the radiance of the stage …. Work to pay down the interest on the mortgage / Used to get paid by the gramme”), or not yet abandoned despite never really taking off: “Shelved”, with the chorus “The ride’s over, I know, but I’m not ready to go”; Rage of Travers, “Still draw pretty good in Ontario / Nobody wants to hear the twelve bar blues / From a guy in platform shoes”; For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands, with the wonderful line “Headline really big festivals every other summer in Brazil”; and Abandoned Flesh: “However big that chorused bass may throb / You and me and all of us are going to have to find a job”. All of these songs could be a memento mori, or a meditation on transitoriness and failed ambition, cast in terms of popular music. Perhaps it’s far-fetched, but I can’t help thinking of the lutes, flutes and sheet music in Dutch Vanitas still-lives.

Some of the songs are written not from the perspective of washed-up performers, but of insecure young fans, uncertain of their place in the outcast in-group that could all too easily exclude them should they be “uncool”. This is hinted at in The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement with the lines “Leather and lace and good friends / Most of them good, most of them friendly” and the repeated chorus of “I’m hard core, but I’m not that hard core”; and it’s as good as stated outright in Unicorn Tolerance (“Try hard to look hard behind my blackout sunglasses … Feel shame, real shame, for what my friends must think of me”).

“Leather and lace” in “The Grey King”, a “purple crushed velvet waistcoat” in “Stench of the Unburied” (on which more below), “dark paisley” in “Paid in Cocaine” the whole of the song “Wear Black”: the central importance of clothing, the “look”, to the Goth experience is brought out in all sorts of ways. (“Rage of Travers”, in contrast, has “aviators and a buckskin frontier hat: how come they dress like that?” — a buckskin frontier hat is just about the most un-Goth item of clothing I can imagine, after a lumberjack shirt.)

“We Do It Different on the West Coast”, incidentally, beautifully evokes just how hard it was for young people to get information about musical subcultures before the Internet:

I heard some good things from some friends about Chicago
I gotta see with my own eyes about Chicago…
Skim through such magazines as I can get my hands on
Glue circuit boards to plywood on the weekend
Trellis modulation for the children
There's a whole new world just up around the corner…

“Stench of the Unburied”, already touched on above, stands out from the other songs in sketching a single moment of drink-and-drugs-and-music-fuelled elation crashing into reality:

Heading up the Golden State Freeway toward Eagle Rock
Ice chest full of corona and pineapple crush
It'll take twenty years for the toxins to flush
And when the sirens wail
I know we're going to jail
And outside it's ninety two degrees
And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees

To finish, I will mention simply that “Abandoned Flesh”, the final song on the album, ends with the lines:

Because the world will never know or understand
The suffocated splendour of the once and future Goth band

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Albums, Week 39: Hourglass (Kate Rusby)


In 1997, the year my first child was born, Kate Rusby, the Barnsley Nightingale, brought out her debut album, Hourglass. At the time I was working on my doctorate, and sharing a flat with an old school friend, also a doctoral student, who spent money on music. I had not yet then myself got out of the habit of spending money only on books. The combination of a colicky child who was quiet only when held, and my friend’s purchase of the newly minted CD of Hourglass, meant that I spent many, many hours rhythmically ambling around the flat with a baby in my arms, to the sound of Kate Rusby’s voice (Eliza Carthy sometimes providing variety).

The album’s centre of gravity is traditional. About half the songs are anonymous folksongs, and those that aren’t are stylistically similar. The performance is acoustic. None of Steeleye Span’s or Fairport Convention’s electric folk here. The opening track, “Sir Eglamore”, is a light version of a combat between dragon and knight (in the spirit of the St George of winter entertainments), with the knight of the title unable to pierce the dragon’s hide with his sword, and finally jabbing for its open mouth, only for the dragon to run off home with the sword stuck between its jaws. It is related to the American “Old Bangum”, in which a hunter fights a wild hog.

As I Roved Out” (Roud 3479) is perhaps more familiar from Planxty's version of the 1970s . “The Jolly Ploughboys” was entirely unfamiliar to me:

When six o' clock comes, me boys, at breakfast we'll meet,
And cold beef and pork we'll heartily eat.
With a piece in our pockets, to the fields we do go
For we're all jolly fellows that follows the plough.

And so on through the day. Two of the songs, both about drownings, were sung by Nic Jones in the 1970s: “Annan Water” (a Child Ballad) and “The Drowned Lovers”, my absolute favourite from the album, and the one the baby most often slept to. It is not only a tragic story of thwarted young love, but also a dramatic piece in different voices, as much direct speech as narrative reporting. 

A little under half of the songs are original or new compositions — “A Rose in April”, “Radio Sweethearts”, “Old Man Time”, and a couple more. These are very much in the same style but somehow, to my taste, do not match up to the traditional material. A piece that falls somewhere between the two is another of my favourites, “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” (recorded by Sinead O’Connor a few years before, but in nothing like so effectively creepy a rendition), a modern translation of an old, and anonymous, Irish poem. 

 —Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Albums, Week 38: A Deeper Understanding (The War On Drugs)


I think this will be the first piece in this series to look at a current album (this one came out three weeks ago) but this is a good enough record to warrant the attention. I also thought about doing either Slowdive’s recent self-titled comeback album or Ride’s Weather Diaries, both of which are also current and also very good, but this one’s the most recent, and it’s been spending a lot of time in my player, which makes it easy to write about.

I first heard of Philly band The War on Drugs in 2015 after the release of their widely acclaimed album Lost in the Dream. Upon my first listening I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, but I liked it a lot and listened to it fairly incessantly. The new album continues in a similar vein to the last one, and except for one small misstep is very close to its equal. Imagine a mash-up of Dylan, Tom Petty, and Springsteen, with some 80’s influence as spice, and you’ll have some approximation of what W.O.D. sounds like. That, and layers. Lots of layers. (Some of the songs on here have as many as a dozen instruments being played at once, often in overdubs.)

One of the things I love about this band is that it seems that lead man/songwriter Adam Granduciel takes a strong devil-may-care attitude when it comes to arranging and recording. You want six guitars and a glockenspiel included in a song? Got it. You want the album’s initial “single” to be an eleven-minute slowburn folk-rocker with an intermission in the middle? You got it. You want a stinging feedback-laden electric guitar solo to show up in a slow acoustic ballad? You got it. Unexpected harmonicas show up out of nowhere, odd snatches of 80s-sounding synthesizers appear in places where they shouldn’t, and on several songs it’s hard to tell if the drumming is real or electronic (or both). Believe it or not it all works wonderfully.

Granduciel’s voice does sound a lot like Dylan’s, and the songs are often constructed in a basically Dylan-esque manner, but the resemblance probably stops there. Ditto Petty and Springsteen – at their best they’re both better songwriters than Granduciel, but Petty’s never been nearly as musically creative, and The Boss only came close in his early days. Some of this risk-taking creativity may be due to the fact that Granduciel is in his late 30’s, and thus has had a fair amount of time to hear and process what’s come before him, unlike some of the younger artists currently taking a stab at being “retro.” As one reviewer put it, The War on Drugs is simultaneously one of the newest sounding and most retro things you’ve probably ever heard.

The other thing I like is the way that the songs take their time in developing. Most of the tracks on A Deeper Understanding are five minutes or longer, and even the ones that seemingly start off rather plain usually take interesting turns. Which brings me to the one minor negative about the record. I’m not sure why it was decided to end the album with two long slow songs back-to-back, especially when one is much more interesting than the other. It serves to reduce the magic of one of the album’s best tracks, the majestic “In Chains,” by following it with the okay-but-not-brilliant “Clean Living.” I think the feel would have been better maintained in going straight to the album’s excellent closer, “You Don’t Have to Go,” a slow song with some real power. But this is a small complaint when gauged against the album’s strengths.

I’ve included videos for two songs, one slower, one more up-tempo, and can say that if you like these two you’ll like the rest. Best way to listen to these is loud and/or with headphones. Cheap computer speakers will not do them justice. 


—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Albums, Week 37: A Salty Dog (Procol Harum)


Seems like I recently said that something was one of the great albums of the '60s...what was it?...maybe not...well, anyway, this one is, or close to it. I've always felt that Procol Harum was under-appreciated. Most people only know "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which is a great song wonderfully performed, but there's much, much more to them than the one song. I think the whole album, which is just called Procol Harum, on which that song appears is very fine, though reportedly it was put together hurriedly. Their second, Shine On Brightly, is a mixed bag, with several very good songs in the vein of the first album but marred by an grandiose 17-minute suite which in my opinion doesn't succeed. A Salty Dog, released in 1969, was their third, and I think their best, though the next one, Home, is very good as well. The one after that, Broken Barricades, seemed a real falling-off, and I didn't hear the ones that came after, though I've heard good things about a couple of them and should give them a listen.

My only reservation about A Salty Dog is that the second side doesn't quite measure up to the first. Yes, I still think of all the albums from that period in terms of "sides," not just because they were physically sides but because you tended to hear each side as a unit; at minimum there was going to be an interruption when you turned the record over. I don't think there's a better side in all of pop-rock music than side 1 of this album. If I had to, I'd swap at least half of the Beatles' catalog for those five tracks. I say "tracks" instead of "songs" because although these are very fine songs the performances and arrangements are essential parts of the package.

Having written the two preceding paragraphs a couple of days ago, and not having heard the album for years, I thought I should listen to it again and see if I'd changed my mind. I listened to the "sides" separately, a day apart. Side 1 is at least as good as I remembered, maybe even better. The title track, the first on the album, is simply a masterpiece. It's not rock, exactly-- I don't know how you'd classify it. It's a slow, majestic, soaring tune with a haunting piano and string arrangement, and lyrics that tell a story of a ship and crew that sail right out of this world. There are no guitars, and the drums don't come in until halfway through. If I were going to pick one song to make my case that a deep spiritual yearning sometimes showed itself in '60s rock, this would be my best choice. I found it almost unbearably moving when I heard it all those years ago, and it hasn't lost any of its power. I almost hesitate to include it here, because if you don't know it you're liable to hear it in some inconvenient setting where you can't fully appreciate it. But here it is anyway. 

Procol Harum was one of the few groups who had a lyricist who was more or less a member of the group but not a musician. This might be his best lyric.

The other four tracks of side 1 are all different and all more or less brilliant: pretty straight-up rock ("The Milk of Human Kindness"), a gentle song about failing love ("Too Much Between Us"), heavy(ish) rock ("The Devil Came from Kansas"), and a lively and whimsical complaint about "Boredom."

Perhaps the side should seem like a hodge-podge. Maybe some people think it is. But to me it all flows together very nicely.

Next day I listened to "side 2." For the first three songs I thought You were wrong. This is great. "Juicy John Pink" is a blues with potent death-and-judgement lyrics:

 Won't you have mercy on your wicked son
Take me up to heaven not hell where I belong

"Wreck of the Hesperus" is a great song, classic Procol. But they made a mistake in having Matthew Fisher, the keyboard player responsible for that majestic organ in "Whiter Shade," sing it. His voice is not bad but Gary Brooker was one of the great rock vocalists, and the song would have been even more powerful with his voice. "All This And More" is more classic Procol, deficient only in comparison with their absolute best--and Brooker sings it. 

With "Crucifiction Lane" came the big letdown, reminding me why I didn't like side 2 as well. It's a long, slow, bluesy song, at five minutes the longest on the album. It's not that great a song, and Robin Trower sings it, and he's not that great a singer. 

But then it's back to excellent with the closer, "Pilgrim's Progress." Once again Fisher sings, and it probably would have been better if Brooker had. but it's still fine, even if it seems to be trying to be another "Whiter Shade of Pale." It's freshened up with an outro that makes for a nice farewell.

If side 2 isn't as good as side 1, it's better than I remembered. That means it's an even greater album than I remembered. I'll amend my earlier statement: I'd swap half the Beatles' catalog for this album minus "Crucifiction Lane." 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 36: Dummy (Portishead)


I think I first encountered the term "trip-hop" in a description of this album. I don't remember exactly what the description said, but it was intriguing. I also don't remember if or how I managed to hear a bit of it, as this was in the late '90s or early '00s, before YouTube and various other means of sampling music online were available. (Napster was probably around, but I scorned it; it seemed little different from theft.) It seems unlikely that I would have bought it entirely unheard, but maybe I did.

At any rate I did hear it, and I did like what I heard, and I did buy it, and I did like the whole album, quite a lot. Moreover, I soon learned that I could count on the label "trip-hop" to be pretty much a guarantee that I would like the music to which the label was attached. Not that I would necessarily like the particular instance a great deal, but I would like the basic sound, the basic style, enough to listen to and enjoy even a run-of-the-mill effort. 

What is that sound? Well, the name would seem to mean "trippy hip-hop," but the relationship is a little obscure to me, since I don't know that much about hip-hop. I guess it refers at minimum to the slow-ish, smoky, shuffling beats, like those you hear a lot in rap and hip-hop, and to the use of samples. (Dummy also includes scratching, but I don't think that's typical.) "Smoky" is a good adjective in general. Trip-hop tends to be smoky, slow, mysterious, melancholy, somewhat strange, heavy on the electronics, maybe somewhat jazzy. Moody and warm female vocals are favored. Samples of old recordings sometimes give it a nostalgic or retro feel.

At any rate all of that applies to Dummy. the 1994 debut release of Portishead, a three-person group consisting of singer Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley. The album is basically a studio concoction put together by the three of them, and I think they have to bring other people on board to perform it live. Barrow is credited with various tasks involving electronics, and Utley usually with guitar and bass. The writing credits go to all three, though I think I read somewhere that Gibbons is the lyricist. 

So. A listen will be far more helpful than more verbiage from me in acquainting you with their sound, if you aren't already familiar with it. Here are the first two tracks, which are very representative of the whole, as the album is remarkably consistent in style and quality. The spy-movie-sounding guitar in "Sour Times" is a sample from an album called More Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin, who did the famous TV show theme music.


One more. This one is a special favorite because of the surprising and effective quotation from Jude 1:3. 

Portishead have not been very prolific. They put out a second album, just called Portishead, three years after this one. I bought it a few years ago but am embarrassed to say that I have yet to hear it. I think part of the reason is that this one album seems such a complete and perfect statement of a particular aesthetic that more almost seems superfluous. There are also a live album and, ten years later, in 2008, one called Third. And Beth Gibbons has a solo album, Out of Season (2002),which I own and have only heard once. It seemed at first hearing rather different from Portishead. I'll get back to it eventually.

I'm having trouble thinking of a lot to say about this album, but it's not for lack of enthusiasm. It's actually one of my favorite popular music recordings. As you can probably imagine if you've listened to these tracks, it's great for listening to in the dark, with a drink in hand. (I don't know, smoke might be more appropriate, but I don't do that.)

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 35: Triplicate (Bob Dylan)

Week35-Bob Dylan Triplicate-Stu_html_5f3ae80987b18121

In popular music, it is quite exciting whenever an important artist re-invents him or herself. Now that I wrote that sentence I am struggling to come up with any besides Bob Dylan and David Bowie (BD and DB?), but I’m sure there are more. Many of us have written about how much Van Morrison’s music has meant to us. Most have also picked out time periods of Van’s vast discography that meant more, possibly due to “coming on board” during the time of those albums. I submit to you the thesis that Mr. Morrison, however wonderful he may be, has never really changed his musical direction very much. Therefore, everyone eventually tends to get a little bored with his output.

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, has a habit of re-inventing himself every now and again, and just when his legion of fans thinks, “this is it”, he’ll go and do it again. Those thoughts come more and more the older he gets, now in his mid-70s. A few years ago to the surprise (I think) of all of us, he released Shadows in the Night. Ten songs from “The Great American Songbook”, all sung by Frank Sinatra during his career. Sinatra is even listed as the co-writer of the first cut on the album, “I’m a Fool to Want You”. I do not think I’m going out on a limb to say that pretty much everyone considered this album an odd anomaly along the lines of the Christmas disc from a few years previous. Then the very next year we got Fallen Angels, with eleven of the twelve tracks sung previously by Sinatra. I dutifully bought both of the CDs as released, as I have done with all of his studio albums since around Empire Burlesque, which probably coincides with the first time I saw him in concert.

Everyone took a breath, and wondered, “What the hell is going on?” Some said it aloud. Unlike most other artists, Dylan gives no feedback (in this way, Van Morrison is just the same). The albums are released, the critics gush, and he tours and sings the songs. He never really makes any statements, does any press, has anything to say about why he might make any sort of move. Years will sometimes pass and he eventually does an interview (famously on 60 Minutes about a decade ago), and he will just circle around the questions in an obstinate manner. Answering them in his own way, which usually boils down to something along the lines of “the music takes me where I go, it’s all about the music, why would anyone want me to comment on any of this when you can just listen to the music?” Amusing and annoying at the same time. I’m not sure Van Morrison has even said that much, but perhaps he throws a bone to the press in Belfast, as Dylan occasionally does here.

But back to the music! I am a big fan of “The Great American Songbook”, and for instance those five (yes, five) Rod Stewart CDs are guilty pleasures of mine. I love to drive in my car listening to these songs, whether it is Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, and now Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan. So what makes Dylan different from all of those other people? His voice. And what is the first reaction to any sane music fan when confronted with now five (yes, five) discs of GASB music from him? Why? How? Won’t he sound terrible? For those of you less interested in this sort of thing than people like me (and Mac), Triplicate is a three-disc set. Each disc has 10 songs, and runs exactly 32 minutes. So put that together with Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, and we have the aforementioned five (yes, five), just like Rod Stewart. Did he want to match Rod? Does he want to make more? Who knows?

I really like all five, and I think his voice is sort of terrific for these songs. Dylan visited Mobile last November, and I was curious what he would do. This was before the release of Triplicate, but nonetheless his previous two albums were standards. Would he dare play an entire concert of them? The two albums together would be 22 songs, your average amount played at a live show. He put on what I thought was a great show; there were three songs from Shadows, two from Fallen, and one other “I Could Have Told You”, that ended up on Triplicate. The rest of the show was heavy on Tempest, and then a scattering of earlier songs.

There is the school of thought that you go to a concert of a classic rock icon in order to hear your favorite songs. Although I understand that thinking, I really prefer my rock n’ roll heroes to continue to be productive and roll out new songs. Especially in the case of someone whose voice has changed so much in the past fifty years, you will inevitably be unhappy with the way your favorite song from the 1960s now sounds. However, I have seen Dylan at least twelve times, so that forms my expectations perhaps a little differently.

The reason I like these albums, and Triplicate is my favorite of the three, is twofold. First, I think Dylan does an amazing job interpreting these songs with his craggy old vocal chords. You can tell he is very familiar with them, he has lived them, and in many cases listening to the lyrics, they are better sung the way he does it. Not all songs are meant to sound bright and chipper. If you remember the famous Frank Sinatra versions of “The September of My Years”, or “Once Upon a Time” he did the same, the context of the verses should be reflected by the singer. When the lyrics are light (and as I look at the 30 songs I don’t see too many of those), the accompanying music speeds up, and Dylan’s voice attempts to reach a higher pitch to match. In reference to the music (and, secondly), all of these songs star Dylan’s travelling band (Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier, et al), with of course added musicians as needed. I do not think this is a normal thing for big stars to do, but since he has The Never-Ending Tour always going on, it is a little easier to keep the guys together. They are great, they do a fabulous job, and this is most likely not an easy thing for rock musicians to do – slow things down and let the music live with the song and its lyrics.

I have written enough. Here are some YouTube videos of favorites, but they are all good!


“P.S. I Love You”

“Once Upon a Time”

--Stu Moore is a proud member of the alt-left, but he doesn’t like to be in crowds, so his membership is lapsing.

52 Albums, Week 34: Tranceport (Paul Okenfold)


While I like this sort of music a good deal I don’t know much of the technical stuff about it – the lingo escapes me, as do the monikers for the various subgenres. What I do know is that among all the varieties I gravitate towards the material with the recognizable musicality of chord progressions and melodies, or at least semblances of them (not all techno/trance has these qualities).

This particular album came out in 1998 and is considered an early classic of the genre, but I didn’t know that when a friend gave me a copy six or seven years ago. As it turns out it comes in at #23 on Rolling Stones Top 30 all-time list of EDM albums. (EDM stands for “electronic dance music,” now the current term for all music of this general type, including everything from Kraftwerk to Moby to Skrillex.)

You have to listen to this music somewhat differently than other styles, as it doesn’t develop like most Western music. Instead it has more in common with minimalist music, and some threads of its origins can be traced back to musicians experimenting with combinations of minimalism and electronic music.

Not sure how accurate this is but I’ve come to think about it this way: Most music we hear develops from a starting point to an end point: it’s going somewhere, and the various voices, instruments, etc., are arranged in such a way as to get the listener from point A to point B. Trance doesn’t really work that way. The songs are constructed primarily for continuous dancing, and thus are arranged to flow directly from one into another without stopping. Hence, the musical development all happens vertically above the basic axis and not along it, so to speak. Sounds, instruments, and voices are added and subtracted in such a way as to propel the song to the next one, rather than to bring closure. For the casual listener this gives the illusion that the songs are repetitive and “don’t go anywhere,” but if you listen attentively this really isn’t true. It is this for me that makes it listenable and keeps it interesting: how will things be added and subtracted in order to maintain the ongoing motion without the whole thing becoming just an exercise in repetition? This is especially important when most of the songs run six to eight minutes in length, and sometimes longer.

One thing that becomes very noticeable the more one listens is that since the music is generally all in a very strong 4/4 time signature, the changes almost always occur on beats with multiples of four with eights or sixteens being very prominent. Count in your head either two or four measures of four beats and something usually happens, whether very noticeable, like a full stop and restart, or very subtle, like a change in the tone of a keyboard or the addition or subtraction of a percussive sound.

The song “Gamemaster” is a great example of this type of arrangement, in that it is both a very musical piece, and one in which the adds and drops occur regularly and noticeably. The song is at the tempo of eight beats in seven seconds, so it’s slightly faster than 120 bpm, and everything happens in even-numbered multiples of seven. To show how this works here’s a partial list of the adds and drops for the song “Gamemaster” so you can follow along while listening. I’ll say upfront that the spoken voiceover that comes in about half way through is rather silly, but it doesn’t really detract from the song itself. It’s notable that even though the audible beat drops out during this section, the metronome is kept running, and the spoken bit lasts 42 seconds (6 x 7 seconds, or 12 measures).

After the song starts things remain basically static for the first 42 seconds, then:

:42 – a double time (16th note) synth starts

:56 – another different synth comes in

1:10 – beat drops out

1:24 – synth comes in without drum beat

1:38 – high-hat cymbal is added

1:52 – drum beat returns, which leads to first chord change at

1:59 21 seconds later to

2:20 – first appearance of an arpeggiated synth

2:48 some dropouts occur, then more at 3:02.

3:16 – second keychange

3:30 – spoken voiceover begins, lasts 42 (6 x 7) seconds, then full beat kicks back in exactly 8 beats (7 seconds) later.

The remainder of the song roughly follows this same pattern, eventually bringing everything back in and adding a couple new things, including loud piano chords and a high choral female voice, until at the 6:36 mark the “breakdown” begins, gradually stripping away almost everything except the bass drum line, which allows the dj to use this “outro” to blend the song seamlessly into the intro of the next one.

When it’s done well I find this stuff to be very exhilarating, and it’s one of my favorite kinds of music to listen to while driving. I recognize I’m probably in quite the minority hear so your mileage may vary. I often wonder what a guy my age is doing listening to this stuff but I take some comfort in knowing that Paul Oakenfold’s still at it, and that he himself is only a couple years younger than me!

So here’s another one just for the heck of it.

(For more info see the Wikipedia article on “trance music.”)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Albums, Week 33: The Harrow and The Harvest (Gillian Welch)

Slightly revised from an October 2011 post.


I liked Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator a lot (you can read my 2008 review of it here), though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and The Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in sound, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others. And of course the lyrics are not exactly cheerful, "six white horses" being a traditional motif signifying a funeral.

Six white horses coming after me
Six white horses coming after me
Pretty as a picture, certain as a scripture
Six white horses coming after me

Time the Revelator is ten years older that Harrow, and yet the latter sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.
--Welch, quoted in the Wikipedia article, from a New York Times interview

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in her first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings
And come on you dogs (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. She recognizes the inaccuracy: in an interview I read some time ago she said that "'Gillian Welch' is the name of a two-person band." So perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding.

At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

By the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”




--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 32: A Glorious Lethal Euphoria (The Mermen)

This was my Music of the Week post on August 10, 2008--exactly nine years ago today. I didn't pick it for that reason. Without working too hard at considering alternatives, I'd say this is my favorite instrumental rock album. But that's a very narrow field.

The Mermen are an instrumental trio roughly classified as neo-surf, but the relationship between their music and that of, say, Dick Dale (“Misirlou”) or The Chantays (“Pipeline”) is about like that between Beethoven’s symphonies and Haydn’s. This album might be described succinctly as Dick Dale meets Jimi Hendrix. The reverb and the minor-key melodies—that general early ‘60s vibe—are here, but they’re only the starting point for a pretty wild ride, sweetly beautiful or hard-rocking passages spiced with howling and shrieking distorted guitar, a combination of melody and noise that I love.

I’ve forgotten how I first heard of the group, but it was a good ten years ago that I bought this album (it was released in 1995). I was very taken with it, and in fact I put it on a desert-island list here a year or two ago. But I hadn’t listened to it for some years until I got a yen for it last week. It doesn’t seem quite as good as I remember, but it’s still really fine. My favorite tracks are the long ones, especially the nine-minute-plus “Between I and Thou” and “And the Flowers They’ll Bloom,” which are basically fairly simple, pretty figures that serve as a basis for variations exhibiting a wide, wild range of guitar colors and dynamics.

This was the first time I’d ever listened to the album on my home stereo—I had previously heard it only in the car, where there is almost no bass detectable. I was a little surprised to discover that the group has a real thunder-lizard low end. And the bass player is really good. 

Here are a slow one, a fast one, and a long one.

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 31: Heaven or Las Vegas (Cocteau Twins)

Once again I'm in a hurry and obliged to recycle an old post, and a very minimal one. I had thought from the beginning of this series that I would include a Cocteau Twins album, and that it would probably be Treasure. But I don't have time to write a new post and I already had this one, such as it is. I think I actually like Treasure a little better. It's a little stranger and maybe a little darker. But Heaven or Las Vegas is very good, and if you like one you'd probably like the other.


We all know about the alienation and inauthenticity of technological civilization, we all wonder if it’s sustainable, etc. But I couldn’t help feeling fortunate to live in this time and place a couple of weeks ago when I found myself driving east across the bay at twilight, with the full moon directly in front of me, listening to Heaven Or Las Vegas. If you know and like the otherworldly, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes wistful sound of the Cocteau Twins, you have an idea of what I mean. Someone once described Treasure, an album considered a masterpiece by most Twins lovers, as sounding like a roomful of angels. I don’t know how accurate that is but it serves well enough as an indicator of the sort of magic the group can work.

I only recently heard this album, having let it slip by for a long time, partly because of the mistaken idea that it came after the group moved from 4AD to Capitol and became more mainstream and, to my taste, less inspired. But it was in fact their last 4AD release, and if Heaven is at all inferior to Treasure, it’s by very little. I’d say at least half the songs here are as good as anything they ever did. And for someone who likes them that’s very, very good. There are a couple of songs where Elisabeth Fraser’s cascading melodies (I’ve always assumed she writes them, as they seem so inseparable from her voice) attain the uncanny ability to make you feel as if your spirit is literally being lifted. 


The very best Twins album might be one combining the best tracks from their many EPs. "Aikea-Guinea", for instance.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 30: Befriended (The Innocence Mission)


I'm once again digging into my old music posts for this series. This one is from July of 2004, only seven months into the life of this site. Before deciding to post this, I listened to the album for the first time in quite a few years, and would not have been surprised to find that my opinion of it had changed a bit. I remembered that I had been very enthusiastic about it, and wondered if I might be less so now. No, I'm not. The six months mentioned in the post turned into thirteen years, but if anything I find the album more deeply moving now than then.

This is the original post, with only a few minor changes. A few years later they released a new and similar album, We Walked In Song, and I liked it just as much. I haven't heard it for a while.


I was not at all prepared for the most recent album by The Innocence Mission, Befriended. The Innocence Mission have been around for some time, their first album having been released in 1989. The only one I’ve heard extensively is the second, Umbrella. It’s a good, well-crafted album, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me, and except for a few tracks from Glow (1995), I had not heard any of their later work. Listening to Umbrella again now, I think it’s better than I gave it credit for being. It has a dense, crowded, sound, and although all the elements are excellent I wonder if some brutal excision might have helped the overall effect. I don’t know much about recording, but I have the sense that certain frequency ranges are crowding each other, and that the guitar and voice parts are competing for my attention more than they should do. The songs are complex and intriguing, both musically and lyrically, although a bit diffuse.

But however good Umbrella is, Befriended seems to be in another class altogether.

Before I say anything else, let me admit that my first impressions don’t always last, and that I have been known to retreat from initial enthusiastic judgments, especially where music is concerned. In six months or so I’ll revisit my opinion of this album and find out whether I still concur.

With that out of the way, I must say that Befriended has gone immediately into a very select group of pop music works which affect me so deeply and engage my attention so completely that I can’t listen to them in the car, which is where I most often listen to music, having a daily thirty-mile (each way) commute. Pop aficionados will get a sense of the company in which this places Befriended if I say that other albums in this very small group are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and the best of Nick Drake’s work.

These are all very different artists, but what they have in common is the ability to evoke something which I find myself calling “transcendence” without really knowing exactly what I mean. This is a word we abuse, I think, often meaning merely “very very good.” But what I mean here is something different, and “submergence” would do almost as well: it’s a sense that the work puts us in touch with the most essential core of our souls, which is, paradoxically, the point where we are most directly connected to the literally transcendent—i.e., that which is above, beyond, out of reach, but nevertheless what we most want and need. I’ll venture to suggest that the emotional power of these works arises from the fact that they are able to make us aware, equally and simultaneously, of both the object of our desire and its unattainability. They give us almost unbearable joy and almost unbearable sadness: a yearning which is more desirable than most pleasures.

It would of course be impossible for me to explain exactly what it is about Befriended that produces this effect in me. It’s also certain that it will not produce this effect in everyone. But I’ll make some attempt to describe the music. It might be described as light, almost minimalist folk-pop. The basic texture is one voice and a couple of acoustic guitars, only lightly embellished with electric guitar and a touch of strings (or string-like synthesizer) or piano. Some tracks have a very restrained acoustic bass. There’s very little percussion. Terms like “wispy” and “gossamer” come to mind, only to be immediately discarded, because in spite of its delicacy the music seems to have a deep core of strength. “Sparse” is perfectly accurate, though, and all is done with immaculate taste and restraint, leaving the listener with a sense that absolutely nothing is out of place, superfluous, or absent. I can in fact imagine a critic complaining that the music is a little too controlled, though I wouldn’t really agree with him.

The songs are full of gorgeous and affecting melodies. And as is the case with all first-class pop music, the lyrics are indispensable. Karen Peris, the singer and main songwriter, showed, on Umbrella, a level of skill and care with words that is far beyond that of most pop songwriters, and she has only gotten better. There are fewer words here, and simpler, but they somehow cut much deeper. Most of them are firmly rooted in very ordinary things:

When Mac was swimming
I was running late
Walking around New Orleans
Looking for a birthday cake
It was a great surprise to him
So many people came

Some of the lyrics leap from these humble things to mystical heights; some (like the one above) remain very much down to earth but still refer, by implication and gesture, to the heights, sometimes in the simplest possible way, as in a song called Beautiful Change:

The snow is here
The light is bright

Of course it's the tune that gives that most of its effect.

The lyrics seem very feminine and somehow domestic. One feels that one is eavesdropping on the inner life of a suburban housewife who also happens to be a mystic.

One slight reservation: Karen Peris has an odd voice. I have tried a couple of times to describe it and failed. I didn’t entirely like it on Umbrella. Whether that was an effect of the style and production of Umbrella, or her voice has just gotten better with age, I don’t know, but on the more restrained Befriended it’s beautiful, rich and warm in the low registers and almost unbearably poignant in the higher. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. She also has some oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words.

There is only so much a listener’s praise can convey, so: 


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 29: Hounds of Love (Kate Bush)

Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love: A Deeper Understanding


(Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1150912)

She’s a flower of the mountain. I see only see her face, framed by hair the color of chestnuts. Full red lips blossom into a smile, eyes full of stars. We do not touch, but warmth fills my heart to the point of tears as I breathe the perfume of recognition. When she approaches me, I wake myself. I remember who I am: a man with nine kids and married to someone else. I remember who she is: Kate Bush, the neo-romantic British pop singer who attained great popularity in the eighties. This is the fifth time I’ve dreamt she is my wife.

Later that morning, as I fill my travel mug with coffee and wrap my almond butter wheat toast in paper towel, I tell my wife about the dream. “I dreamt I was married to Kate Bush again. Isn’t that funny?” She utters a sound somewhere between “indignant scoff” and “incredulous pshaw.”

“Nothing happens,” I explain. “I’m just married to her. I think she’s supposed to be you.”

Indignant scoff. “So do I. Why isn’t she?”

“I mean she represents you. Like a cipher. Something to give me objectivity.”

“What time are you coming home, Mister Objectivity?”

I know when to stop.

I grab my mug, my toast, and my book bag. I hug her and kiss her lightly on the lips. She’s under ice.

“Cut it out,” I say. “Nothing happened.” Then I add, “She reminds me of you.” Which is true (one of my kids even thought a video of Kate singing “Hounds of Love” with David Gilmour was his mom), but it is not necessarily the right thing to say at the moment.

I am not going to win.

I first encountered the music of Kate Bush in 1985. I was twenty-three, a struggling songwriter and guitar player given to idealism, when I heard the end of her “Running up that Hill” on the radio. Intrigued, I went out the next day and bought a cassette copy of Hounds of Love, the album on which it appears. I didn’t play it right away. I saved it.

That night, a rainy Thursday in November, I decellophaned the cassette alongside my friend and bandmate (and very recently my brother-in-law) Jason as we sat in a party store’s parking lot inside my grey Chrysler TC3, trying to drink enough of our Cokes so we could top them off with a little Grand Macnish. The TC3, while it was not the slickest ride on the strip, did have a fine Pioneer sound system. Our beverages in order, I popped the tape into the deck: Track A:1, “Running up that Hill (A Deal with God).” As the opening C minor chord on the Fairlight swelled and then bled into a martial yet profoundly emotional drum cadence, we sat enthralled. In the song’s passionate bridge, when Kate sings, “Let’s exchange the experience,” a drum fill climaxing in thunder, Jason turned to me and yelled over the soundtrack, “I’m going to marry her!” We are both guilty. So guilty.

Years after Jason and I were blown into the ethers by the English girl from Kent, my wife and I were awaiting the arrival of our fifth child. The due date was July 25th. July 25th came and went and no baby. On July 29th, on a trip to the grocery store, I heard a disc jockey on public radio, one of those pretentious bastards who peppers his between song banter with words like “oeuvre” and “zeitgeist,” introduce a set of Kate’s songs in honor of her impending birthday on July 30th (coincidentally, also Emily Bronte’s birthday). Once home, I told my wife what I’d heard. Stupidly, I asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if the baby came tomorrow?”

“Just great,” she said. But she didn’t sound like she meant it.

The baby, a girl we named Zelie, was born at home on July 30th at around 11:30 pm, just squeaking in under the deadline, as it were. Now almost fourteen, Zelie loves to sing and dance, write poetry, and play the piano. A coincidence? I think not.

Hounds of Love is one of about four CDs I have in rotation (the others are The Waterboys’ This is the Sea, Derek and the Domino’s Layla and other Love Songs, and Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief). Okay, so I’m kind of stuck…but the record has only gotten better with age The imaginative scope of the album is astounding—from the heartache of the opening track, the Romantic stoicism of the title track, the optimism of “The Big Sky” and the memorial to Wilhelm Reich in “Cloudbusting” on side one (I still think in terms of album sides) to the Ninth Wave sequence on side two, particularly the exhilarating “Jig of Life” and the haunting “Hello Earth,” the album is a masterpiece from start to finish. And, even though the sound of the Fairlight permeates the songs, they don’t sound dated. No doubt, this is all due to Kate’s lyrical imagination which is lent clarity by the pure splendor of her voice, uncompromised as it is by the sordid need to sell product so characteristic of the music of our current moment.

But, then, it may be that I can no longer tell the difference between biography and aesthetics.

Kate Bush impersonating my wife:

Original version: 


Jig of Life: 

—In addition to teaching philosophy and English at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer living with his wife and most of his nine children in Waterloo Township, Michigan.


52 Albums, Week 28: Floating Into the Night (Julee Cruise)


(By Source, Fair use)

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about Disintegration I mentioned that it comes in second behind this album for the Saddest Pop Album Ever award. I had not heard it for maybe ten years when I wrote that, but now, having listened to it again in preparation for writing this, I'll stick with that opinion. More importantly, of course: it's really beautiful.

It's credited to Julee Cruise, who is primarily a singer, but it's really a collaboration among her, Angelo Badalamenti, and David Lynch. If you've seen Twin Peaks, you've heard parts of it, and will have a good idea of what to expect, not only in purely musical terms but in general atmosphere. You'll remember the haunting instrumental theme music, written by Badalamenti. The song "Falling" on this album is that music, with lyrics. Pretty simple lyrics, but very powerful with that melody, ending with the simple question "Are we falling in love?" on that last rising phrase of the melody. 

Some of David Lynch's work has a quality which I've described as "bent nostalgia" and which I suspect is most powerful for people of a certain age--people who can remember the America that existed between the end of the Second World War and the revolutions of the late '60s, and the pop culture of that time. It must be available to younger people, too, in some fashion, because some do seem to get it. It references certain visual and musical motifs of the time, but gives them an odd, dreamy, and sometimes sinister twist. The heavily reverb-ed guitar in the Twin Peaks theme is a good example: it sounds like Duane Eddy on opium. That aspect of this album is presumably mostly the work of Angelo Badalamenti, but I'd be surprised if Lynch didn't have a good deal of influence. The song credits assign the lyrics to him and the music to Badalamenti, but he has some musical ability himself and has released a couple of albums under his own name (which I haven't heard). So I figure that at the very least involved he was involved with the music itself to the extent of saying "Yes," "No," "More of that," etc. 

You could call it a concept album, even a narrative. The concept is an old, old one: lost love, a broken heart. The songs, all in first person, begin with the moment of falling in love, then move on to abandonment, desperate yearning and loneliness, and something close to despair, with just a hint of acceptance in the title of the last song, which also comprises its last words: "The Word Spins." It all seems superficially fairly straightforward and simple, but as in some of David Lynch's superficially conventional and even banal scenes, there is an atmosphere, and subtle twists. that give it a deep and powerful resonance--at least for those of us who are susceptible. And I would say now, listening to it with the printed lyrics in front of me, that there are profundities in that simplicity.

I first heard it in roughly 1992 or so, on the radio program "Schickele Mix," in which Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach, played a variety of music centered around a particular musical concept or technique. Most of it was classical, but he would throw in a bit of pop and folk here and there. I was transfixed when I heard "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart."


That last bit really touches me, that little reminiscence of the simplest and sweetest of moments. And it's clear that the singer is remembering something lost, not found. It occurs to me now that what makes it so powerful is not that it describes or expresses those moments so well as that it describes and expresses the experience of remembering them. This, possibly, is where one's age plays a part: the music touches on a specific cultural past, and is probably more powerful for anyone with a personal memory of it. 

By the time the song was over I was listening eagerly to find out who it was. I had never heard of Julee Cruise and never seen Twin Peaks, though I was somewhat aware of David Lynch's reputation as a very...challenging filmmaker. A few years went by before I actually acquired the album--this was during my years of buying very little music--and many more before I saw Twin Peaks, which only added to my appreciation of the album. I probably haven't heard it more than half a dozen times. For me it's not something to be played casually. Its mysterious sadness and its strange and fragile beauty might be spoiled by overexposure, and anyway it's only appropriate for certain times and moods.

As I've said about several of the albums I've reviewed in this series, if you like the tracks I've included in this post, you will surely like the whole thing, so I'll leave it for you to discover rather than including more samples here.

A few weeks ago I picked up from the local library's discard table The Rolling Stone Album Guide. I've disliked Rolling Stone since the '70s, when I realized it had become in essence an upscale fashion magazine, and would never have paid money for this book, but figured that the magazine does have some good critics and so there ought to be some worthwhile reviews in the book. Today I looked up this album in it. The reviewer gives the album two out of a possible five stars, indicating that the work in question is a "failure." Here is the entire review, which is, as far as I can recall, the single most wrong-headed and obtuse opinion of a piece of music that I've ever encountered:

With a voice that rarely rises above a whisper and a songbook (lyrics by David Lynch, music by Angelo Badalamenti) wreaking [sic] of camp and irony, Cruise comes across as a sort of post-modern Claudine Longet--an amusing concept, to be sure, but hardly worth an entire album.

The review at Allmusic is much better.

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 27: Sleep No More (The Comsat Angels)

Week27-The Comsat Angels

Back in the early 80’s when I first started paying attention to the post-punk/new wave scene, mostly via college radio, The Comsat Angels were a frequently mentioned band among others like Joy Division, U2, and The Teardrop Explodes. Although I heard of them often back then I can’t say I ever heard much of their music, if any at all, as my radio listening was fairly scattershot and at that time I was listening just as much, if not more, to “Christian rock.” I’m inclined to think, however, that if I would have heard the Comsat Angels back then I would have liked them.

My interest in them was kindled earlier this year when I watched the film Control, which tells the story of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Reacquainting myself with some of the music of that period, The Angels were one of the bands that came up a lot in various searches, and quickly became one I wanted to revisit.

Sleep No More, which was released in 1981, was their second LP, coming after the well-received debut Waiting For A Miracle. Good as it is, the first record has the feel of a band still trying to find itself. With Sleep No More everything has fallen into place. Somewhat darker than the first album, it also features instrumentation that’s more spare – guitar, bass, and drums, mostly, with keyboards playing a largely supportive roll. Still, it sounds remarkably full for a record from 1981: the guitars are loud, the bass is fat and prominent in the mix, the drums sound huge. I remember a long time ago reading a review where the writer said that an album, I forget what, “sounded like it was three feet thick.” That’s the way I’d describe this one.

The guitar work is jagged and angular, but still musical, a little like early U2 but more complex and fuller sounding. The songs, though not exactly catchy, are consistently engaging and interesting, the general feel being fairly bleak and angst-ridden (Cure fans take note!) And despite clocking in at only 38 minutes (many of the songs run less than four minutes) Sleep No More feels more substantial, probably due to this intensity of both musicality and tone.

When playing the album for the first time “Be Brave” was the track that really grabbed me on that initial listen:


The other song that I loved instantly is “Our Secret,” which closes the record. Despite the guitar line being the virtual apotheosis of “jagged and angular,” the song has a great hook, augmented by the most prominent use of keyboard on the entire record – the wonderfully inspired presence of a very “retro” sounding organ in the chorus. At 4:12, the song simply ends too soon!


I’m pretty sure that if you like these two tracks, you’ll like the rest.

I haven’t had the chance to listen to their subsequent records yet, although it seems they went in a more commercial direction in the mid-80’s, only returning to their early form on 1987’s Chasing Shadows. The 1982 follow up to Sleep No More, Fiction, is supposed to be a little lighter in tone but still quite good. I haven’t heard it yet, but I do tend to check out the rest of their material. In the meantime it sure was fun discovering this album, even if it was 36 years late

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Albums, Week 26: Distintegration (The Cure)

Week 26-TheCure

Like most people who grew up when what is now called “classic rock” was new, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing some very incongruous music in public places. I think it was back in the ‘70s when I first heard an easy-listening instrumental version of a Dylan song in the background music of a dentist’s office or a shopping mall. It’s still a bit amusing to hear something that was rebellious and subversive in its day so domesticated, like hearing a Black Sabbath riff from a high school band at a football game (very common). But it’s not usually a shock anymore.

One night in the grocery store back in 2006, though, I was shocked. I realized I was hearing “Pictures of You,” from The Cure’s Disintegration, a sad song from an album which would surely be among the candidates for saddest pop album ever made. If I were the only voter in that poll, Disintegration wouldn’t win—it would come in behind the Julee Cruise/David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti collaboration Floating Into the Night, which is the saddest pop music I’ve ever heard, too sad for me to listen to very often. But Disintegration would definitely be in the top ten or so.

So I stood there in front of the dog food, half-hypnotized by “Pictures of You,” then began to smile when I thought about what the CEO of Food World might think about a store providing these lyrics as an accompaniment to the grocery shopping experience:

Remembering you
fallen into my arms
crying for the death of your heart
You were stone-white, so delicate,
lost in the cold,
you were always so lost in the dark

On the album, "Pictures of You" is 7 1/2 minutes long.  A single, two minutes shorter, was fairly successful. This is the single version. If I remember correctly, the biggest difference is in the length of the instrumental intro, which I think is very effective in establishing an atmosphere before the vocal begins. But the single version is good enough to give you a feel for it: 

Disintegration was released in 1989. As with Jane Siberry's The Walking, my acquaintance with Disintegration came by way of a younger co-worker at the time, who made me a mixtape of then-contemporary music in the generally goth-industrial sort of vein. If I remember correctly, the track "Plainsong" from Disintegration was the first thing on the tape, as it is on the album, and it very effectively sets the mood: a long dirge-like thing, mostly instrumental with some half-mumbled words of which "so cold" are the most distinct. 

There was a lot of good stuff on that tape, including at least one group who will appear later in this series. And I think it also included "Fascination Street," a darkly catchy picture of the night-club party life as a sort of dance of death: "Let's move to the beat like we know that it's over."

I find it amusing that the ghoulish-looking singer, who is also the main writer, is named Robert Smith.

A couple of years later my old friend Robert (not Smith), with whom I'd always shared a definite leaning toward the melancholy, sent me a tape of the whole album, and I found that I liked it a great deal, and moreover that it's one of those pop albums that carries a definite sense of unity. It's a unity of gloom, very effectively portrayed, and insistently melodic. It manages to sustain a basically similar style and sound through its hour-plus length without becoming monotonous. As I tend to find  CDs (that is, albums originally produced for CD) too long, this is a relatively unusual thing for me to say. (I did eventually buy the CD.)

Toward the end, the 8-minute-plus title song gives us a picture of "stains on the carpet and stains on the memory." Enjoy!

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog. This is a somewhat expanded version of a post from 2006.

52 Albums, Week 25: The Allman Brothers Band


I haven't yet mentioned Gregg Allman's recent death here, so am going to take this occasion to honor him and the entire original Allman Brothers Band. I don't have much time, but then I don't really think it's necessary to talk at length about this album. In my not-so-humble opinion, the Allman Brothers at their best, before Duane was killed, were the greatest blues-rock band ever. It's difficult to imagine anyone ever surpassing them, because the whole cultural and musical landscape has changed so much. I'm sure there will be many other musicians working in this basic style, but the roots that nourished the Allmans, the historical moment in which they flourished, are gone now. (That's true for other groups that appeared in the Sixties, too, for instance the Beatles, but that's another topic.) You can read the band's long story at Allmusic.com.

The Allmans never, to my thinking, did anything better than this album, which was their first. As good, yes--the Fillmore recordings certainly meet that criterion--but not better. It came out in late 1969, when I was still in college. I think I became aware of it through a musician friend, who moved in some of the same southeastern musical circles as the Allmans, though I don't think he knew them himself. I recall listening to it for the first time one afternoon after class, probably a few months into 1970, and even on that hearing thinking it was really good. After a few hearings "good" became "great", and that's still my view, almost fifty years later.

Duane Allman is of course a legendary guitarist now. I wrote about him in the 52 Guitars series a few years ago. I'd argue that Gregg deserves equal respect as a blues or bluesy singer. I don't understand how a 22-year-old could sing like he did on "Whipping Post," which he wrote, and which became something of a signature song for them.  

A couple of years ago in comments on some post or other here there was some discussion of whether a vocal talent like Gregg's was a gift of nature or something he learned. The obvious answer, I think, is that it was both. Later I read his autobiography, My Cross to Bear (the title of another of his songs, which also appears on this album), and can say definitely that it was both. Obviously he had a rare gift, but he worked long and hard to develop it, and had a lot of tutelage from a black singer, Floyd Miles, in whose backup band Gregg and Duane played for a while.

I call them the greatest blues-rock band, but that term doesn't describe all their work. This is another signature tune, also written by Gregg. His singing is of course very bluesy but the song itself is not especially. That of course is Duane's long slide guitar solo.

The only thing wrong with this album is that it's too short, only thirty-three minutes. But it's thirty-three mighty fine minutes.

Gregg Allman, Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, and Butch Trucks, RIP.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 24: The Walking (Jane Siberry)


A couple of weeks ago Stuart Moore and I were discussing our differing views of what we wanted to do with this 52 Albums thing. He wanted to sing the praises of classics and reminisce about them, as he just did with Sgt. Pepper’s, while I had in mind drawing attention to albums which I think are unjustly neglected, in some cases downright obscure, or at least not as well-known as I think they should be. I thought from the beginning that Jane Siberry would be one of them, in spite of the fact that I hadn’t heard her music for quite some time (apart from one or two songs like her beautiful collaboration with k.d. laing, “Calling All Angels.”)

Around 1989 I worked with a young woman who was a music lover—with pretty good taste, I might add, meaning it was compatible with mine—and who was a bit of an evangelist for female artists. She introduced me to several whom I probably would not have heard otherwise. Jane Siberry was one of them, and the one that I liked best. Robin (the co-worker) lent me several of Siberry’s albums, and I ended up buying them for myself. These were LPs, which were on the way out in favor of CDs by then, but were still available, and I didn’t have a CD player. There were three of them: No Borders Here (1983), The Speckless Sky (1985), and The Walking (1988). I listened to them a few times, and then in 1990 I left that job and we moved from north Alabama to the coast, and what with one thing and another, including intermittent problems with my turntable, I didn’t listen to very much music for some years, and when I did it was usually not LPs.

In short, almost thirty years went by between the last time I heard those Jane Siberry albums before I changed jobs in 1990, and last week, when I listened to The Walking. I picked it because it was the one that had really stuck with me. Though I probably hadn’t heard it more than three times back then, even after all those years I could still hear a couple of bits and pieces of it in my mind.

I was not disappointed. The Walking is as good as I remembered. Siberry is a little bit like Kate Bush, not in any specific musical way, but in a broad sense: both strike me as representative of a type which I’ve encountered a few times, and to which I’m going to give the possibly offensive, but not badly intended, name of Flaky Chick. The Flaky Chick with whom I’m most familiar is a hippie girl who seems to live in a world of her own, a world of dreamy and obscure but intense emotions, moods, whims, and visions. This can be irritating or charming, depending on a number of things including whether one senses that the flakiness is genuine or contrived. The word “quirky” is usually applicable. She’s capable of apparent nonsense but also of great insight, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. There’s a sense almost that she’s listening to voices only she hears, or following a vision that only she sees.

In Jane Siberry, or at least in this album, those qualities are in the service of a prodigious musical talent. (That’s true of Kate Bush, too, but I’m not writing about her now. And just in case there is any question, both of them seem to be utterly genuine, their eccentricity not contrived in the least. In that respect their work reminds me of the poetry of Hopkins.) She has a very very good voice, and she’s a gifted writer in both words and music. Somehow the word “songwriter” doesn’t seem quite appropriate for the compositions on this album, at least the longer ones. And those are the best, to my taste.

The first track on the album, “The White Tent The Raft,” and the second, “Red High Heels,” are the ones I remembered most from my 1989 hearing of the album. They clock in at 9’12” and 7’19” respectively, and are not “songs” in the usual sense of the term, but swirling, tumbling, eddying streams of music and imagery, sometimes sweet and poignant, sometimes driving. When some songwriters deploy a series of apparently disconnected and obscure word-pictures, you get the sense that they’re throwing together things that just sound evocative of whatever state of mind they’re trying to establish. With Siberry it seems more that the bits and pieces are, for her, very particular and concrete, that she is referring to definite people and incidents, and that they only seem obscure and disconnected because she declines to provide the whole picture, as if she’s showing you only certain details from a series of photographs. It works, for me anyway, because the music is so good, and because those details are often so intriguing and effective. The arrangements and playing are very effective, too--she has a great set of instrumentalists working with her, and the fact that she’s listed as co-producer suggests that she had a big hand in the arrangements.

I’m only going to include one track here, “The White Tent The Raft,” because it’s so long. If you don’t like it, never mind. If you do, you’ll want to hear more. And please don’t decide that you don’t like it without listening to it more than once. And you really must read the lyrics.

The reviewer at AllMusic.com, in an unenthusiastic 4-out-of-5-stars review, says that the album is “bound to lose the casual listener quickly.” Well, so much for the casual listener’s taste.

Possibly my special liking for those first two tracks is only because I heard them more. It often happens that I start listening to an album and don’t get all the way through, so this is a common occurrence. I’m very much looking forward to getting more familiar with this album, and the other two I own, and to investigating her later work. Apart from “Calling All Angels” I haven’t heard any of it later than The Walking, though I know some of it has been well-received.

P.S. Thanks, Robin, wherever you are.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Albums, Week 23: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles and George Martin)

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As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s I would like to say that I DO think that it is the greatest Beatles album, and I am also in agreement with Rolling Stone magazine that it is the number one and therefore greatest album in the history of mankind. So there. I always state, when asked, that The White Album is my personal favorite Beatles album, and it is; it is quirky and fun, and has four sides that are each different and fun to deal with. However, Sgt. Pepper’s is the greatest.

My parents divorced when I was 12, and my father initially rented a room from some guy down closer to the airport in Miami (he worked for Eastern Airlines). One day that guy gave me a bunch of record albums for some reason that I cannot remember. I don’t recall everything that was in that pile, but Sgt. Pepper’s and The White Album were amongst its treasures. Now, thirty-nine years later, I can only imagine what it was like to be 12 and listen to those albums for the first time. It is hard to get my mind around it. All of the Beatles are still alive at that point, and Sgt. Pepper’s has only been out for eleven years. Wow.

Who knows what I had been listening to previously? 12 is relatively young to be interested in music. I have watched stepchildren grow through that age and the boy had no interest in music (still doesn’t), while the girl at age 12 seemed to be interested in music as a reflection of teeny-bopper culture (first Justin Bieber, then One Direction). She and I would have these silly discussions where One Direction would be compared to The Beatles. “Let’s wait fifty years and see what happens”, I would reply to this nonsense game. I will most likely not be around in fifty years, but I feel confident in my position.

Just owning the album back then, now I have a smaller CD, and the current generation would only have an even smaller picture on their phone, was a treasure. The cover montage with all of the famous people, most of whom I had never heard of and did not recognize (I knew Marilyn Monroe!); the inserts of each member of the band, the bright colors…none of the other albums in my free pile could match it for a 12 year old’s studious inspection.

Then there is the music. Again, thirty-nine years is a long time to try and remember first impressions and memory becomes something that you partly recall and partly make up to suit your narrative, but it all seemed joyous, new, fun, odd, circus-like; there was nothing that I did not love. My favorite would still be where the opening track introduces Billy Shears (Ringo Starr) who then begins to sing “With a Little Help from My Friends”. I thought this ingenious and marvelous. But the next track was enchanting, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and the next three were all good, and finally to end Side 1 “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” I was thrilled by. I had a friend whose last name was “Henderson” and still to this day I picture he, his brother, and mother all dancing and singing as mentioned in the song.

I feel like I need to stop here and comment on the fun it would have been to have to turn over the record now in order to hear the rest of the album. I know albums have made a little comeback, and I see them and enjoy looking at them in Books-a-Million, but they are no longer ubiquitous and all of mine are long gone and replaced by maybe 1200 or so CDs. So I turn over the album, place the arm onto the spinning disc and am rewarded with the strangest track of the record, “Within You Without You” by George Harrison. I don’t know what I thought of it, but as an adult it is simply marvelous and perfectly placed within the context of the rest of Sgt. Pepper’s. But what fun for (most likely) George Martin to make the decision to put George’s song in that spot. Now it occupies the middle spot in CD or download, but remember it used to begin Side 2, a much more interesting distinction.

Following Mr. Harrison’s contribution, we are back to normal, with “When I’m Sixty-Four”, “Lovely Rita”, “Good Morning Good Morning”, the reprise of the title track …. And for years I forget about what is probably the finest song of them all, “A Day in the Life”. For some reason I always feel like the album is ending with the reprise, and “A Day in the Life” is a sort of post-script. Most likely another intentional move by George Martin.

I don’t need to say very much more about this great album. More has been written about it than probably any other, to the point that fans and the general public most likely became sick of it at some point and will always shout out their favorite Beatles record, with it never being Sgt. Pepper’s. Nevertheless, it is still the gold standard, the album other great albums are measured up against, and I can certainly never forget the first time I sat down and listened to it as a small boy.

All of you know the songs, no need to embed any music with this post.

—Stu Moore is currently vacationing in Arizona and New Mexico, probably without any Internet at all, and will have to respond to comments at a later date.