Monday, October 29, 2012

Certain Songs Part XII: My Nation Underground

So far, the Frankenstorm has yet to do much of anything up here, if it even will. Best comment ever, from Albany’s Palace Theatre’s Facebook page: “We regret to inform everyone that tonight’s showing of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is ironically cancelled due to the threat of the incoming storm.”

The countdown continues.

Julian Cope
My Nation Underground

As is often the case with the records on this list, My Nation Underground was not the best-reviewed of Cope’s albums, and I think even he disliked it. And it does represent that 80s-esque overproduced sound at odds with his other, less fussily produced records. But, again, the titles on this list are often about context, and this was the first I had heard of Cope; “Charlotte Anne” was played occasionally on WFNX (Boston) when I was home for Christmas break in 1988. I liked the song and the pun (“Charlotte Anne”/“charlatan”—get it?) and Spectrum (the SU campus record store) was having a get-rid-of-all-our-vinyl sale, so I picked this up for $1, and played it endlessly for a while.

A good track is the opening cover of The Vogues’ 1965 hit “5 O’Clock World,” slipping in a bit of a sci-fi rewrite of “I Know a Place.” A relative epic ends the first side (in the old days of vinyl), the title track, which is an apocalyptic call to arms of sorts (“Says Nostradamus, it’s coming soon”). (Side two ends with the slightly shorter “Great White Hoax”—Cope loves puns.) “China Doll” opens side two on a quiet, tender note, before launching into a cover of Shadows of Knight’s “Someone Like Me.” “Easter Everywhere” is another apocalyptic song: “We’re on an earthquake island on an alien planet/Gotta find someone who can help me out/Don’t care about the others/Just care about me....” Sums up the Reagan years pretty succinctly.

Cope followed up My Nation Underground with two bare bones indie-released records (which I have never been able to find) called Droolian and Skellington, before returning on his major label with the epic statements Peggy Suicide and Jehovahkill, both of which received heavy play upon their original release. I lost track of him throughout the 90s, and he apparently releases stuff through his Web site, although I have not investigated any of it. Sorry.

Syd Barrett
The Madcap Laughs

Barrett, of course, was the founder and original songwriter of Pink Floyd (see Piper at the Gates of Dawn waaaaay down this list), but mental instability thanks in very large part to drug use curtailed his tenure with the band, and cut short his brief attempt at a solo career. 1970 saw the release of a brace of Barrett albums—the extent of his solo output, aside from a collection of outtakes released in the 1980s—and this entry could stand for either (or both) of them, as between the two is one terrific album.

One listen to the first of them—The Madcap Laughs—indicates why his solo career was going to be a dodgy proposition: Barrett was incredibly erratic, in and out of the studio. For every genius song like “Octopus” or “Terrapin,” there is an equivalent “If It’s In You,” aptly titled, as it is preceded by false starts, studio banter, cracking voices—I don’t know, but I think including it on the album just seemed kind of mean. (Ironically, the worst of the stuff was produced by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, who surely had no ill-intent.) But when The Madcap Laughs is good—which is almost all of side one and most of side two—it’s quite good. “Late Night,” the concluding track, is quite beautiful.

The second album, Barrett, may lag in places, but at least they kept the bloopers off. As a Pink Floyd completist, I picked up the Barrett records early on (circa 1983) and while they likely appalled casual Floyd fans used to The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon, I liked them—and still do—for the unusual genius they represent. There is literally nothing like these albums out there, although they did inspire most of Robyn Hitchcock’s career. Syd died in 2006.

Simon & Garfunkel
Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme

In the 1970s, when I was growing up, S&G were all over the radio, and my mother had and often played their greatest hits album, so I was intimately familiar with their hits. In 1986, I bought Paul Simon's Graceland, and took the opportunity to acquire S&G’s five studio albums which throughout my sophomore year in college received heavy rotation. (I was so hip.) They’re all good, in their own ways of course, but two made an especial impact on me. This was the first (Bookends appears later in this list), and it reflects perhaps the best mix of Paul Simon’s poetic aspirations, Garfunkel’s angelic vocal contributions, and the emergence of folk-rock post-Dylan. It bears mentioning that Simon did not like Dylan (Dylan snubbed him at one point), as evidenced in the humorous “Simple Desultory Phillippic” which mocks Dylan (and other 60s figures) at one point.

Opener “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” perhaps sums up the M.O. at the outset—Garfunkel’s soaring voice singing a traditional English folk song, with Simon’s lower, less angelic pipes chiming in with more relevant, socially relevant lyrics. The two blend beautifully. PSR&T has been called pretentious, and it’s true that many of the lyrics do seem very “English major-y” (I was an English major when I discovered the record, so no criticism here!). But when a record contains “Homeward Bound,” “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” and “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” (a Garfunkel showcase), you can forgive the literary name dropping of “The Dangling Conversation.” Which, being a pretentious English major myself, I have no problem with. The final track, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” is really quite the chilling—and depressing—juxtaposition. The actual news report may be a tad dated (i.e., 1966), but I doubt any contemporary news report would be any more uplifting. Just a wonderful record.

No comments: