Friday, October 23, 2009

Even More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past ten years continues.

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.

15. Sunny Day Real Estate, The Rising Tide, Time Bomb Recordings, 2000

Sunny Day Real Estate’s 1994 debut album Diary pretty much defined the style of what is called “emo,” and while emo is not my favorite genre in the world (or Emo Phillips my favorite comedian for that matter), I do like SDRE rather a lot. Singer Jeremy Enigk’s high Jon-Anderson-of-Yes-meets-punk voice perfectly suited his often cryptic yet emotionally wrought lyrics. (He had a tendency to make up words, and song titles often seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the lyrics—and, more often than not, consisted of a random number.) The band quickly became a cult hit, but they had broken up before their second album was released in 1995. Two members joined Foo Fighters, and Enigk decided to become a born-again Christian. There were various solo projects, but three-fourths of the band reunited as a trio in 1998 and released the oddly titled How It Feels to Be Something On, which had a more progressive rock feel to it, a style that came to the fore on their fourth and final album, 2000’s The Rising Tide. The album kicks off with a decided bang with the driving “Killed by an Angel,” featuring some of the bleakest lyrics this side of Joy Division (“Welcome to the lonesome world of Abel/Where everybody’s knife is set to slay you/And paranoia keeps you healthy/Crooked deals can keep you wealthy/Serum vials to help you when you’re sad.” It gets darker from there. “When you see the sores you can’t believe them/Pathogenic lovers in a basement room...” And it’s all set to propulsive power-trio rock; it sounds like if the love child (if that’s the right phrase to use) of Morrissey and Ian Curtis fronted Rush. It’s great! Things cheer up a bit on track two (“One”), which almost does sound like an outtake from a Rush album. Track three, “The Rain Song,” is a tender acoustic ballad replete with washes of strings, and it does feel like a cool rain after being pummeled by the opening two songs. “Snibe,” another made-up word, is another pounding track that can rattle the windows. One adjusts one’s subwoofer with care. They turn to breezy pop (and Enigk’s voice comes down a few octaves...well, for a little bit, anyway) on “Television,” which has some great lines like “She’s cruel and she’s free like television.” Despite the gloomy and doomy opening, the album closes on a high note (and with Enigk’s voice, how could it not?), with the soaring title track: “Morning comes in the dream before we rise/When we linger side by side/It’s my heart that speaks this time:/We will ride the rising tide.”

By the time the album had come out, the record label had gone broke and could no longer afford to support Sunny Day Real Estate. And they broke up again. Enigk, drummer William Goldsmith, and original bass player Nate Mendel (who had left in 1995) reunited in 2003 as The Fire Theft. They reunited as Sunny Day Real Estate for a tour in late 2009, and there are rumors there is new material coming out. Still, even if they never recorded again, The Rising Tide, sweeping, complex and often majestic, remains the band’s high-water mark, so to speak. If I’d had (or there’d been) an iPod in 2000, this album would have remained on it for most of the year

14. The Callen Sisters, The Callen Sisters, Moon Mouth Records, 2007

Okay, I cop to a slight bit of nepotism here (The Callen Sisters are friends of mine, so I am admittedly starting from a biased base), but it’s worth it. Saratoga Springs natives Jessa and Beth Callen play harp and guitar, respectively, and both are singer/songwriters. They have often performed unplugged as a duo (the highlight of their shows—and their sound in general—is the interaction between the harp and guitar, as well as their vocal harmonizing). This, their debut album, was recorded with a full band, the result being, for want of a better term, folk-rock or, perhaps, harp-rock. The album kicks off with “Anomie,” featuring a chiming Byrds-via-R.E.M. guitar jangle that I’ve always been a sucker for. “Irrelevant,” another top track, starts off with solo plucked harp sounding fairly un-harp-like, and builds with squonking electric guitar and keyboard swirls and becomes kind of a “folk noise” epic. Ah, but then there’s “Like You.” This will likely not affect most listeners the way it affected me (or will affect anyone who knows Jessa and Beth), as it is about their mother Kim, a good friend of mine who passed away in 2004. Whenever they perform this song live, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. On the record, though, it’s given a rousing, almost Celtic arrangement, turning a sad song into an Irish wake-like celebration of a person’s life. “Life”—not about ice cream—is perhaps a good signature tune, since it features all the sisters’ strengths in one place. “Nothing lasts forever/We are changed by each endeavor.” “Lullaby” (one of Jessa’s songs; each sister wrote six of the 12 songs) is a standout solo acoustic song live, but on the record it starts off very sparely with vocal and solo harp, and other instruments gradually come in and built until the full band kicks in. It’s very effective. And the vocal is the very definition of beauty. “Tangled Up” is another haunting track that builds from a simple acoustic start.

A lot of talk naturally focuses on the harp—after all, it’s not a typical rock band instrument. (And for good reason; having seen Jessa lug it around I have often asked her if she wouldn’t be better off taking up the harmonica.) It doesn’t have that typical arpeggio-y “harp-y” sound that everyone expects from a harp, but gives the songs a distinctive sound, without being distracting in its novelty. Half the time, you don’t even realize you’re hearing a harp.

Lyrically, the songs focus on love and loss—and, well, given their family history, it would be difficult for them not to—but it’s not all a dirge-a-thon; there is hope and beauty here. I remember having heard some of these songs in various incarnations over the years at various local venues, and on record they still sound fresh. And there are moments when they seem to be having a lot of fun, too. They are wonderful live, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway). I know their mum is up there somewhere listening to this record over and over and foisting it on all the other angels.

Yeah, I know I’m biased, but I still maintain that this is an incredibly beautiful, haunting, and amazing record. As I write this, I just got an e-mail pointing out that this week marks Jessa’s 27th birthday. 27?! I could have sworn she just graduated high school...

13. Spock’s Beard, V, MetalBlade/Radiant, 2000

Like The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard is a modern progressive rock outfit that draws on the prog of the past and yet makes it sound fresh. Spock’s Beard (you probably knew the name of the band was going to get my attention) appeared in the mid-1990s; piano player Neal Morse was writing songs and doing the Billy Joel/“Piano Man” thing—and going nowhere. In 1994, he decided to form a progressive rock band, enlisting his brother Alan on guitar, Dave Meros on bass, and Nick D’Virgilio on drums. The ease of quality recording technology and the word of mouth of the Internet meant that they could bypass the traditional music industry. And after their debut 1995 record The Light, they started to build a following, Their second album, 1996’s Beware of Darkness (yes, the title track is an over-the-top prog-rock cover of the George Harrison song that works better than you would think) brought on board keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, and further honed their sound. By V (surprisingly, their fifth album; go figure), they had a definitive style—a harder-edged variety of prog rock than their Swedish confreres (Neal Morse was also in the prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic with The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt, Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy, and Marillion’s Pete Trewavas) but still with very strong, almost Beatles-esque melodies and harmonies. Spock’s Beard’s 1997 album The Kindness of Strangers would definitely figure on my list of the best albums of the 1990s.

V starts with the short epic (a scant 16:30) “At the End of the Day,” probably one of the best Beard tunes. It runs through a few different movements; a section of beautiful vocal harmonies jumps into some raucous metal-like playing. And it works. At the end of the song, it returns to the main theme—“At the end of the day/It’s what you do not what you say.” Track two, “Revelation,” gets very close to Led Zeppelin territory, and “Thoughts (Part II)” as its name implies, is a follow-up to the song “Thoughts” on Beware of Darkness, but this one riffs on the fear we all have of opening up to others; “I thought I’d come to you and say/All the things I had on my mind/I thought it might be really great/To show you how I feel inside” but of course the fear is that “You wouldn’t speak to me/I would be left behind/We’d be through if you knew/All the things in my mind.” And musically, it’s even more Led Zeppeliny. And a string section sounds like it’s going nuts at one point. “All On a Sunday” is a great prog power pop track.

The centerpiece of the record is the 27:18 final suite, “The Great Nothing.” Yeah, sure, a diatribe against the evils of the music industry isn’t the most unique idea in the annals of music, but it does humanize it in a way you don’t often come across. And, musically, there is a very strong Jethro Tull Thick as a Brick/Passion Play vibe going on. I think that’s a good thing. (“There’s no limelight only lime/And tequila’s made you blind.”)

Alas, this was to be the band’s apotheosis; after a 2002 rock opera/concept album (Snow), which had its moments, Neal Morse—the band’s founder, singer, songwriter, and producer—decided to become a born-again Christian and leave the band. Meanwhile, the Beard have forged on without him (drummer Nick D’Virgilio became the singer; does this sound familiar?), but while they are all amazing musicians, they lack a cohesive vision—or someone who can write really good songs.

12. Rilo Kiley, Take Offs and Landings, Barsuk Records, 2001

I first heard Rilo Kiley in 2003 when they played “Wires and Waves” on Radio Paradise, an Internet radio station I discovered in 2003. and I loved the track immediately, and sought out the album. Take Offs and Landings was the debut album of Rilo Kiley, a Southern California-based quartet, fronted by singer/guitarist Jenny Lewis (who started as a child star in the late 1980s/early 1990s; she was a regular on a TV show I liked a lot—which is why it got canceled, like most shows I like—called Brooklyn Bridge in the early 1990s and would go on to have a somewhat successful alt-country solo career). Their debut is a catchy melding of pop, folk, indie, hard rock, some country (but not enough to be annoying), and even torch song. Lewis and lead guitarist Blake Sennett write extremely catchy melodies, and Lewis’ lyrics are often bittersweet but perceptive, direct, often cynical, and sometimes quite funny, with some great lines. (“I used to think if I could realize I’d die then I would be a lot nicer” in the great “Science vs. Romance,” but then, “Used to believe in a lot more but now I just see straight ahead.” Still, “we’re not robots inside a grid.”) Lewis’ voice veers from innocent and almost girlish (as on the spare, folky “Go Ahead” and “Bulletproof”) to powerful and bitter (she has a tendency to drop f-bombs every once in a while, more on later albums, though, which can be jarring if you’re not expecting it). “Plane Crash in C” gets a bit twangy, but once the mutant horn section kicks in, it veers off into a different direction, and it really becomes a Lewis showcase. (“It’s all the stupid things that are so overwhelming to me/Like paying my bills or showing up for work early/Or laughing at your jokes”) “Don’t Deconstruct” features a plaintive trumpet, strings, and a simple keyboard throb, over which Lewis sings “Something is changing inside of me/Colors seem darker in light/I don’t know what that means but it’s not a good sign,” and, later, “Judging from picture books apparently heaven is a partly cloudy place.” Take Offs and Landings was recorded before Lewis became the band’s focal point, and Sennett sings lead on a few tracks. He is not a great singer, so the most successful of these is “August,” while the least successful are “The Rest of My Life” and “Small Figures in a Vast Expanse.” He wisely let Lewis do more of the singing on future albums. Still, he is an excellent guitar player, and once the guitar solo kicks in in “Small Figures...” the song really takes off. “Shut Up ’n’ Play Yer Guitar,” as Frank Zappa would say. There are also a couple of “Variations on a Theme,” short mutant keyboard- or horn-based instrumental versions of “Science vs. Romance” and “Plane Crash in C.” They do indulge in the dubious idea of putting a secret hidden bonus track after a minute or so of silence at the end of the record (why did anyone ever think this was a good idea?). Unfortunately, it’s the Sennett-sung “Salute your Shorts!” so it’s not entirely worth unearthing.

I don’t know that 2001 was the best year to have released an album called Take Offs and Landings that had a song called “Plane Crash in C” or one (“Wires and Waves”) whose chorus includes the line “Sometimes planes they smash up in the sky.” (It was released in July, so who knew?) Still, it’s a great debut album. Their follow-up, 2002’s The Execution of All Things, was good, but a little too alt-country for my taste. They soon went to a major label and while 2004’s More Adventurous and 2006’s Under the Blacklight were not bad, they tended to veer a little to the slick, commercial side and lacked a lot of the charm of Take Offs and Landings.

11. eels, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Vagrant, 2005

Back in the early 1990s, I had picked up (and subsequently got rid of) the album A Man Called (E) by a singer and multi-instrumentalist who simply called himself E, based on hearing the song “Hello Cruel World” on the radio. It was the only thing I liked on the album, hence its ultimate one-way trip to Bleecker Bob’s. I point this out because E, whose real name is Mark Oliver Everett, started the band eels in 1996, and had an alternative hit with “Novocaine for the Soul.” Eels are a mélange of styles—as if the last fifty years of music were put in a blender and mixed with modern flourishes such as samples and beats. Although they started off as a proper band, it became quickly obvious that eels was largely Everett himself. Their/his second album—1998’s Electro-Shock Blues—was written and recorded after Everett’s sister committed suicide, and his mother died from cancer. As a result, it is a dark yet utterly brilliant record that channeled emotional distress into music. It made many best-of lists in 1998, so I picked it up, but never really got into it—until 2004 (see album #14 above) when it became relevant, and I just “got it.” It’s not the record you would put on at a party (well, I would) but like other classic records that channel raw emotion into music (like, say John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band) it can be a harrowing listen, but in the right frame of mind, very cathartic. Eels have released cheerier records since (I recommend 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy), but 2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was a sequel of sorts to Electro-Shock Blues. A sprawling, two-CD, 33-song set, disc 1 starts with Everett’s birth (“Ten pounds and a head of hair/Came into without a care/What they thought were cries/Were little laughs”) and disc 2 ends with him leaving a note for his grandchildren summing up his life (“I knew true love and I knew passion/And the difference between the two/And I had some regrets/But if I had to do it all again/Well, it’s something I’d like to do”). In between is literally everything but the kitchen sink. This is one of the most personal, confessional, and emotional albums I think I have ever heard. It’s also a messy album; it careens all over the map conceptually and stylistically, and yet it all works and, against all odds, holds together. Again, it’s not the kind of record you would put on at a party, but is one of those albums you put on when you want to try to understand life. You don’t necessarily come up with any good answers, but you do get some compelling questions. Everett’s world-weary vocal delivery and often deadpan and self-deprecating humor sell the whole thing.

Everett’s parents loom large in this tableau. His father was Hugh Everett III, a somewhat famous physicist who first proposed the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics. The idea of the “parallel universe,” a staple of science fiction, was based on Everett’s ideas. Everett père was also a drunk; “a most unpleasant man,” as the lyric to “Son of a Bitch” has it, “the wrong look his way/Well, that could really wreck his day/And believe me when I say/It would wreck your day too.” “Trouble with Dreams” is an obvious single, with its mutant keyboards that make the coda sound like a carnival of souls. Gotta love “Railroad Man”—“Feel like an old railroad man...this train is just too slow/And I know I can walk along the tracks/It may take a little longer but I’ll know/How to find my way back.” There is a line in “The Last Time We Spoke” that just nails some failed relationships: “Nothing hurts/Like someone who knows/All about you/Leaving you behind.” This song is immediately followed by the psychotic organ of “Mother Mary,” and then “Going Fetal,” the imagining of a new dance craze (featuring a Tom Waits sample): “You just get down and curl on up/Just like a little helpless pup.” It’s really quite funny. There are a few guests; Peter Buck of R.E.M. co-wrote and plays his trademark chiming guitar on “To Lick Your Boots” (“People spend their days/Trying to find new ways/To put you down all over town/But they’re not fit/To lick your boots”). One song that had me clearing away the cobwebs of my memory was “Whatever Happened To Soy Bomb?” Whilst I never watch the Grammy Awards, I do vaguely recall the incident at the 1998 Grammys during a Bob Dylan performance when a shirtless man with the words “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest appeared on stage and began doing a bizarre, upsetting dance. (Later identified as Michael Portnoy, the guy said he did it as “an act of revolution.” I’m not sure what the heck he was revolting against; perhaps he was just revolting.) As the album draws to a close, E declares that “My losing streak is done,” pointing out that the world can’t be all that bad because “Where else could a creep like me/Meet such a pretty face.” At the end, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know” ends everything on a hopeful note.

The packaging makes you realize what’s lost as we transition to digital music; the extensive CD booklet features old Everett family photos that really help put the music in perspective and visualize some of the characters. It all works as a whole. It’s like reading a discursive biography. (Everett actually did write and publish a memoir last year.)

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is longer than it probably should be yet seems to fly by, and is by turns sad, funny, exasperating, joyous, irritating, beautiful, clumsy, graceful, depressing, uplifting, and above all messy—just like life. If bits of this record don’t affect you, then you’re just a pink robot. Yoshimi!

To be continued...

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