Monday, November 19, 2012

Certain Songs Part XVII: With Surgical Focus

To finish out the bottom 52, this installment of my favorite 152 records of all time will comprise four titles, taking us from 104 to 101.

The story so far:

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.
Part VII (132–134) here.
Part VIII (129–131) here.
Part IX (126–128) here.
Part X (123–125)here
Part XI (120–122)here
Part XII (117–119)here
Part XIII: (114–116) here.
Part XIV (111–113) here.
Part XV (108–110) here.
Part XVI (105–107) here.

The Kinks
Face to Face

Although I was a very big fan of the mid-80s Kinks (see later in this list), it took a while before I discovered their back discography; it was largely due to the reissue of definitive remasters of their first seven Pye Records albums (Velvel also contemporaneously released remasters of the 1970s and 80s RCA and Arista albums) in the late 1990s. But one of those early great albums is their fourth, Face to Face, where Ray Davies first solidified his art and storytelling style, hinted at in earlier singles like “A Well-Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” At first, it sounds like the old Kinks (“Party Line”), even if the lyrics concern a strange voice calling the narrator on the titular public phone (party lines vanished by the end of the 60s):
I’m on a party line,
Wonderin’ all the time,
Who’s on the other end
Is she big, is she small?
Is she a she at all?
Who’s on my party line?
By track 2, a plea for sister Rosie to return from Australia, where she had emigrated, a new sound was emerging. “Too Much On My Mind” deals with Davies’ perennial topic of insomnia. “Session Man” pays tribute to Nicky Hopkins who played keyboards for just about everyone. “House in the Country” deals with a rich pratt who could very well turn up a few songs later having to sell his the house in “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale.”
He don’t need no sedatives to ease his troubled mind.
At work he is invariably unpleasant and unkind.
Why should he care if he is hated in his home,
’Cause he’s got a house in the country,
And a big sports car.
“Holiday in Waikiki” is not exactly happy, fun time, it being massively commercialized: “Even the grass skirts are PVC” and “a genuine Hawaiian ukulele cost me 30 guineas.” The single was “Sunny Afternoon,” a quintessential late-60s Davies composition that still gets massive applause today:
The tax man’s taken all my dough,
And left me in my stately home,
Lazing on a sunny afternoon.
And I can’t sail my yacht,
He’s taken everything I’ve got,
All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon.
The B side “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” has become quite rightly a classic in its own right.

“Rainy Day In June” and “Fancy” added different shades to the typical British Invasion sound, the latter a bit more Eastern sounding. The cover art could not have been less representative of the music.

The next Kinks album was Something Else, which it assuredly was. See later in this list.

Guided by Voices
Do the Collapse

In summer 1999 I was in Tower Records in Torrance, CA, and for whatever reason was impelled to pick up this record (I can’t recall if I had read a review of it or had heard about previous GbV records and took the plunge with this one). Anyway, it is the most atypical of all GbV’s massive discography, in that it is very slickly recorded and produced (by Ric Ocasek). It divides GbV fans to this day, and stands in stark contrast to the lo-fi recordings that endeared them to their fans. At the time, I was unaware of this history, and just loved the songs. From the opening “Teenage FBI,” there is none of the usual GbV filler; all the tracks are fleshed out (well, relatively speaking) and sound great. Yeah, sure, maybe too slick, but tell me “Surgical Focus” isn’t a classic. And even if “Mushroom Art” is lyrically inscrutable (like most of songwriter Robert Pollard’s songs), damn if it doesn’t cook. The bandmembers had been switched up again, but a great find—a holdover from the previous album—was lead guitarist Doug Gillard, who makes mincemeat out of tracks like “Zoo Pie,” “In Stitches,” and “Much Better Mr. Buckles.” They even had something like a radio hit with “Hold On Hope”:
Invitation to the last dance
Then it's time to leave
That's the price we pay
When we deceive
One another animal mother
She opens up for free
Everybody’s got a hold on hope
It’s the last thing that's holding me
And one can’t help singing along with the chorus to “Liquid Indian.”

I spent most of the rest of 1999 digging this record and, yes, as I uncovered their past discography it kind of paled in some ways, but listened to objectively, is a great pop-rock album.

The next two albums sought to find a middle ground between this and past records—and I thought Universal Truths and Cycles (“Everywhere With Helicopter” being the greatest song ever) was the most successful. Still, the record does conjure up a brief, somewhat happy period in Southern California. This was taped and on the car tape deck for a long time (this was before iPods; my car at the time didn’t even have a CD player).

The Smiths
The Smiths

Meat is Murder (see later in this list) was the record that got me into the quintessential 1980s college band, and of the four original studio albums, only Strangeways, Here We Come does not make this list. This is a great debut, but has some things that annoy (such as Morrissey’s falsetto, which he’d quickly ditch). Opening “Reel Around the Fountain” is a sublime love song (I only recently learned that the line “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice” was nicked from Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey; Morrissey’s appreciation for Delaney would eventually lead to a photo of the playwright as the “cover star” for the singles collection Louder Than Bombs). (The BBC version on Hatful of Hollow is actually better.) “Miserable Lie” starts off great—gentle and calm before turning into punk thrash and decidedly bitter lyrics, directed both at protagonist and antagonist (“you have destroyed my flower-like life, not once but twice,” “I look at yours, you laugh at mine and ‘love’ is just a miserable lie”). The falsetto wailing detracts a bit. I have it on good authority that the studio version doesn’t come close to doing the justice to the song as live versions. “Pretty Girls Make Graves”—title from Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums—chronicles the narrator’s impotence when propositioned by a somewhat aggressive female suitor. “I could have been wild and I could have been free/But nature played this trick on me.” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” has the distinction of being the first song Morrissey and Marr wrote together.

“This Charming Man” was the classic single (the line “a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place” was nicked from Michael Caine in Sleuth). The first great Smiths song. The other (which was actually the first Smiths single) is “Hand in Glove.” “What Difference Does It Make?” is vague enough that it could be about any embarrassing detail one might have, which us what makes it timeless. It’s hard to imagine what a shot in the arm this record was in 1984 (with REM’s 1983 debut Murmur) which brought energetic guitar rock back amid a sea of 1980s synthesizer sludge (some of which I liked). For more from The Smiths, see later in this list.

Richard and Linda Thompson
Shoot Out the Lights

Richard Thompson was always something of a cult figure, a critical favorite (and amazing guitar player) who never quite hit the mainstream. In the 1970s, he and his then-wife Linda recorded a number of hit-or-miss records before culminating in their last album together (and as a married couple), Shoot Out the Lights, often a fixture on many critics’ best-of lists. The songs alternate between Linda- and Richard-sung, and I suppose I prefer the latter, simply because I think they’re more interesting songs (in general; Richard wrote all the songs). Most of the songs detail doomed relationships—ironic, in a way, as the Thompsons were fine when they wrote and recorded the album; it was only afterward that they split. “Don’t Renege on Our Love” kicks the basic theme off from track one: “When my heart breaks/It breaks like the weather/If you leave me now/It’ll thunder forever.” The highlight is the Richard-sung “A Man in Need,” detailing the guy who did indeed renege on someone’s love. It rightly opened the mid-1990s 3-disc compilation Watching the Dark (the title of which references “Shoot Out the Lights”). I do love “Backstreet Slide,” but I think a slightly better version appears on Watching the Dark.

In the gorgeous Linda-sung “Walking on a Wire,” the narrator blames herself for any marital discord: “I wish I could please you tonight/But my medicine just won’t come right/I’m walking on a wire...and I’m falling.” Richard’s mournful guitar punctuates her laments. “Wall of Death” (another cheery title!) sums up the appeal for some of extreme amusement park rides: “You can waste your time on the other rides/But this is the nearest to being alive.” If there is a song here that seems slightly out of place (and this wasn’t intended as a concept album), it’s the title track, inspired by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It’s a great, powerful just seems to stick out here. But who am I to complain?
The spare production suits the material beautifully; given this was 1982, there could have been all kinds of attempts to tart it up for mainstream commercial appeal. Thompson’s subsequent solo albums (which continue to this day) have been spotty, but have evinced pockets of brilliance (Amnesia, Rumour and Sigh, or Mock Tudor should have appeared on this list somewhere).

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