Sunday, November 08, 2009

Still 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.
11–15 are here.

10. Mark Knopfler, Sailing to Philadelphia, Mercury, 2000

One of my favorite bands since I had their debut 45 “Sultans of Swing” back in 1978, is Dire Straits. The reason, of course, was singer/guitarist Mark Knopfler’s guitar playing. He is probably my favorite guitarist, and his playing is the purest of ear candy. I have the first five Dire Straits’ albums on vinyl—and 1985’s Brothers in Arms has the distinction of being the very first compact disc I ever bought. After Brothers in Arms was a massive hit, Knopfler wasn’t all that fond of being a rock god, so he retreated into movie soundtracks and didn’t reconvene any type of Dire Straits incarnation to do a follow-up until 1991. That was pretty much it for Straits, and Knopfler officially launched his solo career in 1996 with Golden Heart. Sailing to Philadelphia followed in 2000. I confess I was unaware of his solo stuff until 2002, when I was visiting California and I was in friend and former editor David G.’s car and he had Sailing to Philadelphia on. I thought “What It Is” sounded like a good early Dire Straits track (upon further listening, I really doesn’t, but it’s really good anyway) and I liked on first listening the rest of what I heard. Afterward, I went back to a used record store in Torrance I used to haunt (shortly after I moved away they went out of business) and found Sailing... I ripped it to my iPod and it was the second album—with Barenaked Ladies’ Maroon (see number 20 in this countdown) that I played endlessly while driving around the American Southwest.

“What It Is” is followed by the title track, which is about Charlie Mason, Jeremiah Dixon, and the founding of the Mason-Dixon Line. (Supposedly it is something of an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Mason & Dixon which had come out a few years earlier and I couldn’t get very far into it). It takes the form of a duet between Knopfler (Mason) and James Taylor (Dixon). Knopfler has always written character-based songs, and “Baloney Again” tells the story of a couple of black gospel singers trying to spread the Good Word in the South in the 1950s (“We don’t eat in no white restaurant/We’re eatin’ in the car/Baloney again...”) and yet despite the peril that lurks they still can’t be swayed from their duty (“Well I’ll never get tired of Jesus/But it’s been a heavy load/Carryin’ his precious love/Down a long dirt road/We’re a long way from home/Let’s just pay the man and go/Baloney again.”) The song ends with an extended slow beautiful guitar solo from Knopfler. “The Last Laugh” features another duet, this time with Van Morrison. “Do America” pokes fun at the rock touring machine (“Take a 777 over to LA/Gonna party all night and sleep all day/Wake up and drive around/Get the coolest girl in town.” It’s a sequel of sorts to “Heavy Fuel” on the last Dire Straits album. Any chance he gets to put down the trappings of the rich and famous, he’ll take it. And if anyone thought that the most intense Knopfler guitar solo was the five-minute climax of “Telegraph Road” on 1982’s Love Over Gold, well, they’d be right. But the end of “Speedway to Nazareth” is a close second. It starts at 3:07 and builds in intensity, intertwining with the violin of guest player Aubrey Haynie. (This is also true of album opener “What it Is,” a classic track from the first note.) When it finally ends around the six-minute mark, you’re completely spent. It’s one of the most musically spine-chilling moments on a record that I can recall in a long time. Vocal guests return toward the end of the record; Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook (Squeeze) lend their harmonies to “Silvertown Blues.”

Later Knopfler records were more quiet and almost country-esque, and were good, of course, but Sailing to Philadelphia was the last time he really rocked out. It’s almost a Dire Straits record. And that ain’t bad.

9. Ray Davies, Other People’s Lives, V2 Records, 2006

Ray Davies was one of the most influential songwriters in the history of rock music, and has been voted one of the best English songwriters ever. He was of course the singer/guitarist/songwriter for The Kinks, whose first dozen or so singles (including “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All Night”) influenced almost as many bands as The Beatles. (Funny; in 1977’s “1977” when the Clash sang “No Elvis Beatles or the Rolling Stones” it’s uncanny how much the riff they used sounded like The Kinks.) Davies’ songwriting became more nuanced and character-driven, and he became noted for his deft characterizations of the “little people.” (He would parody himself on 1975’s A Soap Opera’s “Starmaker” (“I can turn the most ordinary man in the world into a star”)—a song using a riff ripped off from The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” which was, in turn, ripped off from “You Really Got Me.” It seems odd, then, that such a great songwriter should take until 2006—and more than a decade after The Kinks disbanded—to release his first real solo album. But as he explains in his extensive liner notes to Other People’s Lives, he was daunted by his own back catalog. Of all the British Invasion bands of the 60s, The Kinks are probably my favorite, and so I went into Other People’s Lives with almost as much trepidation as Davies.

Neither he nor I should have worried. Other People’s Lives can stand up against just about any Kinks record (not just, say, Preservation Act 2)—including some of the best. The opening song, “Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)” is a classic, while track two, “After the Fall,” is also a classic, with some great lines—“I shouted to the heavens and the vision appeared/I cried ‘Can you help?’ it replied ‘Not at all’”; “Even at the gates of Heaven I’ll be waiting in a queue.” Ultimately, though, “When the mist clears the sun will shine again.” “Next Door Neighbors” hearkens back to old Kinks portraits like “A Well, Respected Man” or “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” but treats his subjects with more respect and less satire. Maybe he’s mellowing with age. Then again, in “All She Wrote,” he was blown off by his ex with the line “‘I’ve met this person in a disco he’s really special reminds me of you.’” Zing. In the liner notes, Davies says that “Is There Life After Breakfast?” was dedicated to founding Kinks drummer Mick Avory, an old mate, especially the line, “Just because the plumbing isn’t all it used to be.” Uh, Ray? Too much information.

If there’s no standout player on the album, like, say, brother Dave Davies, guitarist for The Kinks, it’s still a tight band that brings the songs to life. Mi hermano and I saw Ray live in Boston in 2006 and it was a great show. The new songs really did fit seamlessly with old Kinks classics. This one never left the iPod for most of 2006.

8. Guided By Voices, Universal Truths and Cycles, Matador, 2002

The one truism about Guided By Voices is that if you don’t like one of their songs, just wait a minute. In the 1990s, GbV were low-fi heroes. For many fans, the fact that their albums were chock full of tape hiss and other audio blemishes was a large part of their charm. The other part was that leader Robert Pollard is a genius at writing the world’s greatest rock riffs. If there is one frustrating thing about GbV, it’s that those riffs don’t often amount to much in the way of fully developed songs. Still, they’re often the greatest 1:30 you’ll hear. Seminal albums like 1994’s Bee Thousand or 1995’s Alien Lanes are classic GbV touchpoints, and it was after these lo-fi classics that the band became to be more “produced.” 1999’s Do the Collapse was the pinnacle (or nadir, depending whom you ask) of their career, produced by Ric Ocasek and boasting a very slick sound that was a million miles away from the charm of their el cheapo records. They retreated from this approach afterward, but in the 2000s, even the cheapest digital recording was still often a lot better than what was possible in earlier days.

Universal Truths and Cycles, I think, perfectly balances for perhaps the only time the low-fi aesthetic of the 1990s with the pseudo-hi-fi technology of the 2000s. With GbV, you don’t pay much attention to lyrics; what does one make of the opening song “Wire Greyhounds”: “My tongue that moves slow/A minute before the evil street/Breath woman captures a ghost/Blurring sweatheads eat noodlestuff.” Like any good GbV album, it alternates between more fleshed out songs and <1 style="font-style: italic;">Tommy.

Of course, the real reason for including this album is that “Everywhere with Helicopter” is, to use a dubious orthography, The. Best. Hard. Rock. Song. Ever.

Pollard recorded two more Guided By Voices albums—which veered quite some distance from their lo-fi aesthetic, to the point of near-blandness—before breaking them up.

7. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, S-Curve Records, 2003

Sometimes, a band doesn’t have to be revolutionary in the slightest. Sometimes, all they need to do is be able to synthesize everything that has come before, and be able to refine songs and hone them into what seems like perfect gems. Such is New York City-based Fountains of Wayne, a power pop quartet led by songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood. Fountains of Wayne endeared themselves to me in 2007 on Traffic and Weather with the opening couplet of “New Routine”: “Two men sit in the corner of a diner/Both of them look quite a bit like Carl Reiner.” These guys are masters of great couplets. Fountains of Wayne have never been the most prolific band in the world (since 1996, they have only released four albums) but they make up for it in quality.

The “hit single” from this record was “Stacey’s Mom,” a somewhat mocking song of teen lust boasting a rent-a-Cars opening riff. Schlesinger and Collingwood specialize in songs about hapless characters, and Welcome Interstate Managers has ’em. “Bright Future in Sales” tells the story of a would-be salesman whom you get the sense has tried everything else after first having “Seven Scotch and sodas at the office party/If there’s time I might have just one more” but ultimately, “I gotta get my shit together/Cause I can’t live like this forever/You know I’ve come too far/And I don’t wanna fail/I got a new computer and a bright future in sales.” Sometimes it’s easy to see where they get their inspiration. Such as, say, “Halley’s Waitress”: “Halley’s waitress/Never comes around/She’s hiding in the kitchen/She’s nowhere to be found.” When they finally get to the chorus—“It’s been so long/So long/Darling don’t you know/We miss you when you’re gone”—the music is so lush and mock-symphonic that it sounds like they’re singing to a long lost love or deity. It’s really quite funny. And FoW are probably the only band that has ever written a song about a football quarterback who has the benefit of a good offensive line and thus has time to throw the play he wants (“All Kinds of Time”; obviously not about SU)) and at the same time have his mind wander over the events of his life. It’s as if “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” were about a football quarterback rather than a Confederate soldier being hanged.

There is the requisite mock-country song (à la Squeeze’s “Labeled with Love) based around the pun “Ever since you hung up on me/I’ve been hung up on you.”

Welcome Interstate Managers may not be as strong as 1999’s Utopia Parkway, but it is still a great record that still finds itself in regular rotation on the iPod.

6. Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Rough Trade, 2003

Steven H. first recommended this to me back in 2003, so I picked it up and loved it, never having heard Belle & Sebastian before. Named for a French cartoon about a dog (Belle) and a boy (Sebastian), the band started as a project for Glaswegian Stuart Murdoch’s music business class at university—his thesis was actually the band’s first album, Tigermilk. Although only 500 copies were pressed, it became a highly sought-after cult hit, and the band quickly recorded a proper album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, easily one of the best albums of the 1990s. By the start of the 2000s, they had started to lose their way a bit and, despite a series of terrific non-album singles and EPs (finally collected on the superb two-disc collection Push Barman to Open Old Wounds), albums like Fold Your Arms Child, You Walk Like a Peasant had more than a few dry patches. So the band regrouped and with the unlikely assistance of producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes’ 90125, ABC), came up with an album that didn’t necessarily change their basic sound, but expanded upon it. Horn did what a good producer does: he found the essence of the band and made it come to the fore. The songs are more lush than had been the case in the past; Murdoch has been overdosing on 1970s AM radio hits. It’s a much fuller sound, but at the end of the day, the songs are there, and they’re some of the strongest he’s penned.

The opener, the funny “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is probably a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen, but the hapless protagonist doesn’t seem to mind (“Step into my office, baby/I want to give you the job/A chance of better pay/Say my place at nine.”)

Some songs hearken back to the “old” more “twee” Belle & Sebastian (“Piazza, New York Catcher,” which is a bit of an anachronism; I barely even remember the brouhaha that led to the line “Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” and “Lord Anthony” with its return to schooldays). But it’s songs like “I’m a Cuckoo” and “Wrapped Up in Books” that really make the album, and are probably two of my favorite B&S songs.

The follow-up album, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, is just as good, as Murdock seems to have rediscovered 1970s glam rock.

To be continued...

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