Saturday, October 17, 2009

More Decade-ence

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

21–26 are here.

20. Barenaked Ladies, Maroon, 2000, Reprise

Sometimes, it’s all a question of context. I was a fan of Barenaked Ladies first album back in 1992—I liked their wit, humor, and somewhat unconventional instrumentation. I lost track of them after that, but was happy to hear that in 1998 they finally had a hit with the song “One Week” and the album Stunt, although I never heard Stunt until 2002, when Ken A. played in his car on one of our road trips somewhere. I liked it a lot, and a couple months later happened to be in a used record store on a visit to Torrance, California, and came across the follow-up, 2000’s Maroon. I picked it up, ripped it to my iPod, and it was one of two albums (see later this countdown) that I played in the car over and over again during my two-week trek around the American Southwest. As an album, I think it’s every bit as good as Stunt. All the wit and silliness and self-deprecating humor BNL have always had are there, and it’s become more mature and sophisticated since their debut. There is a great moment in “Conventioneers,” a tale of two coworkers who accidentally come together while at an out-of-town conference: “And we laugh...and we laugh...and we laugh/And we have to or we’ll end up in the bath/Now we’re in the bath.” It’s delivered perfectly. And only this band can makes lines like “If you think of her as Catherine the Great/Then you should be the horse to help her meet her fate” funny and yet oddly romantic at the same time. It’s really quite remarkable. “A world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer.” The two or three records they’ve released since have never quite seemed to me as strong, although they’re not bad. The song on Barenaked Ladies Are Me (2007) about the would-be bank robbers who get cold feet when they find the bank filled with nuns is very funny.

19. The Flower Kings, Space Revolver, Foxtrot Records/InsideOut, 2000

This is how I like my progressive rock—sweeping, symphonic, and Swedish. Roine Stolt is a brilliant guitarist who cut his seventeen-year-old teeth in the early 1970s with the Swedish prog rock band Kaipa. He left toward the end of the 1970s and kind of vanished, since after 1977 anyone who played—or even liked—progressive rock became pretty much a pariah. By the early 1990s, fans were rediscovering (or starting to admit that they liked) the music of Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and all that lot, and new progressive bands were starting to form which took the music of their forebears and expanded upon it—often exceeding it. Stolt released an album in 1994 called The Flower King, which was his return to symphonic progressive rock, and was the pilot project for the band The Flower Kings, which released its first album a year later. Stolt is a great guitar player, with sort of a Zappa-meets-Jeff Beck style with a little David Gilmour thrown in. He’s also the band’s chief singer (sounding like an amalgam of Roger Waters, John Wetton, and the Swedish Chef) and primary songwriter. Sweeping epics are grounded by a very strong melodic base, but they are not loath to go off on sprawling instrumental flights of fancy. And majestic guitar solos. Lyrics tend to be very positive and life-affirming, and vaguely spiritual, but not oppressively so. I think the band is utterly brilliant. If they have a flaw, it’s that some of their albums tend to be a bit much—that is, they are not shy about releasing double-CD sets, and each disc is stuffed to the limit with music. It can be rather a lot to absorb. 2000’s Space Revolver was the first single-disc set after two back-to-back double albums, and it benefits from its focus and editing. The album is bookended by “I Am the Sun” parts one and two, which is the sort of sweeping epic that is the Flower Kings’ stock in trade. Jazz elements occasionally enter the mix, courtesy of Ulf Wallander’s saxophone. Tomas Bodin’s keyboards complement Stolt’s guitar and the interplay between the two is one of the highlights of any Flower Kings record. Second singer Hans Fröberg (he has the technically better voice but it’s less distinctive) gets a song credit with the lovely acoustic “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got.” “Rumble Fish Twist” is a wild instrumental with some exceptional bass work from Jonas Reingold. Stolt also loves big power riffs, and this album has them in “I Am the Sun” and “Monster Within.” The strangely-chorused “Chicken Farmer Song” (“I’d rather be where the chicken farmers run”) is a breezy pop song with a great guitar solo from Stolt. The five-minute instrumental climax to “I Am the Sun part two” is a thing of beauty, and ends the record on a perfect note. Their music started to get a lot more diverse as the decade wore on, but Space Revolver stands as the perfect essence of this extraordinary band.

18. Rush, Vapor Trails, Anthem Atlantic, 2002

Like most people my age (i.e., horribly old), I came of age with the two quintessential Rush albums—Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. I lost track of them in the mid-80s when the synthesizers became a bit too much (come on, “Big Money” just screams “1985!” and I don’t mean the Bowling for Soup song). Rediscovering them in the late 1990s and their latter-day discography, it was actually a joy to hear them get their mojo back, so to speak, and return to a more guitar-oriented sound. At the same time, they kept developing as musicians and going into different directions that were at least better than the highly dated synthorock of the 80s. Indeed, 1996’s Test for Echo was probably their strongest record since 1981’s Moving Pictures. It’s a shame then (on so many levels) that drummer/lyricist Neal Peart’s family tragedies (he lost first his daughter in a car accident and his wife to cancer, all in the space of a year) curtailed whatever momentum they were building, and the band effectively went on indefinite hiatus. Peart took off on a motorcycle trip around North America on what he later called “the healing road,” and attempted to pick up the pieces of his life, a struggle later recounted in his touching Blue Highways-like book Ghost Rider (it’s no surprise to any Rush fan that Peart is a very good writer). They tentatively reunited in 2001 with no real expectation that anything would emerge, but it turned out that Peart was ready to continue. And the result was 2002’s Vapor Trails. The opening drum pyrotechnics of “One Little Victory” make no bones about it: Rush are back. There is nary a synthesizer to be heard, the songs are direct and loud, and rock harder than almost anything they have ever done. it sounds like they’ve been listening to all the bands that were inspired by them. And, happily, Lee’s voice has lowered with age, sounding less like a smoke alarm than on some of their mid-70s records, which has tended to turn off some people who probably might have liked the band otherwise. Lyrically, the songs—as one would expect—deal with loss, some personal (“Ghost Rider”—“Pack up all those phantoms/Shoulder that invisible load/Keep on riding north and went/Haunting that wilderness road/Like a ghost rider”) some national (“Peaceable Kingdom,” written in the aftermath of 9/11). I saw them on this tour—and two out of three subsequent ones (they usually play the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, only a mile walk from my house)—and they were phenomenal. The follow-up album, 2007’s Snakes and Arrows, is also just as good. It’s good to have them back.

17. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World, Sub Pop, 2001

I came to Oh, Inverted World a couple years after the fact, after having heard “Know Your Onion!” and “Caring is Creepy” on Radio Paradise in 2003. I liked both those songs almost immediately, but it was only a year later, when Zach Braff used a couple Shins songs in what is probably my favorite movie of the past ten years—Garden State—that I had to pick up the album. And it stayed on the iPod for a while. In fact, there is a scene in the movie, when Braff’s character Andrew meets Natalie Portman’s character Queen Amidala—I mean Sam—and she is wearing headphones. She tells him to listen to a song, saying, “It will change your life.” That song is The Shins’ “New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes),” which is perhaps a bit overstated, but I do like the song a lot. The album is rather hard to describe, as it is a strange amalgam of all sorts of parts and pieces cobbled together from all over the history of rock and pop, which is probably why I like it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of 60s pop via Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson, but with a more modern indie vibe to it. The lyrics alternate between sweet and charming and strange and surreal, sometimes within the same song (as in the aforesaid “New Slang”—“And if you’d ’a took to me like/A gull takes to the wind/Well, I’d ’a jumped from my tree/And I’d ’a danced like the king of the eyesores/And the rest of our lives would ’a fared well”... and later, “God speed all the bakers at dawn may they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns till they melt away.”) It’s one of those albums where you find yourself singing along to the strangest things. The Shins’ follow-up, 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, was in some ways better, but as I have said before, context is often what matters. As they have added layers of complexity to their music (and I still can’t make it through their third album, Wincing the Night Away, which kind of lives up to its name) one doesn’t want to disparage their continued development, but one misses the simplicity of Oh, Inverted World.

16. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America, Vagrant, 2006

Finally! You know, ever since the late 1970s, it seems like every band has had to bow down and worship at the altar of punk. What I adore about The Hold Steady (based in Brooklyn now, but from Minneapolis) is that they realize that there was actually good rock music being made before 1977. And their chief influence is classic guitar rock of the mid 1970s. Big riffs, guitar solos that would make Angus Young envious, piano bits that could have come straight off Born to Run. As if that weren’t enough, singer/lyricist Craig Finn is one of the great rock’n’roll storytellers, his songs populated by a cast of vividly drawn characters either on the fringes of society or headed there—suburban mall rats, compulsive drinkers, stoners—all told with a sense that this isn’t entirely fiction. It’s the sense of authenticity that gives Finn’s stories their added dimension. The sense of been-there-done-that is what makes these characters somewhat sympathetic, even if they’re not people you would really want to hang around with. Or at least I wouldn’t. Well, most of them. The album’s opening song “Stuck Between Stations” has grown on me over the past three years to become probably one of my favorite songs ever, opening with a Jack Kerouac On the Road reference (always a plus in my book): “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” (Sal Paradise was, of course, the narrator of On the Road. The full quote is “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”) To wit: the protagonist has met a girl who “was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” In the next verse, Finn imagines the Minneapolis poet John Berryman walking with the Devil along the Washington Street Bridge—where Berryman actually did leap to his death into the Mississippi River in 1972. “He said, ‘I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers/But big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers.’” Oh, I don’t know. Though I don’t know that Berryman “loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters.” Still, the Golden Gophers did beat Syracuse last month. “She said, ‘You’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life.’” Tell me about it. The album culminates with the almost theatrical “Chillout Tent,” where guest singers (including Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum) sort of play the parts of two young people who go to a music festival, take too much of various substances, and end up meeting each other in the titular tent. “They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kind of sexy but it was kind of creepy.” But, alas, “She was pretty cool/They kind of kicked it in the chillout tent/He never saw that girl again.” Another great line from “Citrus”: “I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.” Anyway, it’s a great record. Alas, their follow-up Stay Positive just didn’t quite capture that certain je ne sais quoi that Boys and Girls in America has. And if I am ever at Saratoga Race Track and there is a horse called “Chips Ahoy,” I will bet on it. Probably not $900, though. Yeah, this one stayed on the iPod throughout the summer of 2006, in the car with the windows down. Just the way nature intended. The Boss would approve.

To be continued...

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