Sadinista!

sandinista

Album: Sadinista!

Artist: The Clash

Released: December 12th, 1980

Highlights: The Magnificent Seven, Hitsville UK, Something About England, Somebody Got Murdered, Up in Heaven (Not Only Here), Police on My Back, The Call Up, Washington Bullets, Charlie Don’t Surf

The fact The Clash was a pretty eclectic group was relatively well-known prior to the release of “Sandinista!”, their fourth album. After all, this was the band that in the early fiery days of their career had not only thrown a reggae cover – Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” – into the mix of their debut work but also released an original single – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that merged the Jamaican rhythm with punk rock. Further cementing that notion, as the 1970s were coming to a close, the English quartet would put out the sprawling “London Calling”, which saw the acclaimed punks correctly assessing that the genre was a sinking a ship and masterfully exploring, through a whopping nineteen tracks, a multitude of musical styles without losing any of their visceral energy, political edge, and sharp songwriting skills that made every corner of that album’s rhythmic trip land on at least one inescapable hook.

Yet, even if by 1980 The Clash had already developed notable credentials as punk rockers who loved to step outside their initial niche, nothing could have prepared the world for what was coming next. Rather than letting the classic that was “London Calling” stand on its own as a massive carnival of styles, the band opted to take a shot at topping it not just in terms of quality but also in relation to size, and so its follow-up, published less than one year later, would end up amounting to a gargantuan beast of a scope rarely seen in popular music, featuring thirty-six tracks that went on for nearly two hours and a half. And showing that despite wild stylistic detours the group was still punk at heart, the band would convince a shocked label to put out the humongous behemoth at an accessible price by accepting to take a considerable cut in royalties.

Although, quite understandably, it is the size and variety of “Sandinista!” that often get the most attention, one of the most significant aspects of the record is usually overlooked: its sound. With a cover showing the band standing in what seems like a large abandoned warehouse, the album hits the ears in a way that somehow resembles that location, with a spacious soundscape that leaves plenty of room for echoes, reverberation, and large drums. It is true that, to a point, that approach makes “Sandinista!” the most dated of all The Clash records except for the disowned “Cut the Crap”. Yet, in spite of that description, the album almost completely avoids the tasteless production choices that would haunt the 1980s to emerge as a work that carries a very specific time stamp whilst not being damaged by it in the slightest.

Given its size, it is easy to fall into the trap of merely labeling “Sandinista!” as some sort of expanded “London Calling”; that is, an album where The Clash merely double the amount of genres they choose to tackle. Alone, that would already be quite an achievement, but “Sandinista!” feels more meaningful than that for a simple reason. In London Calling, when the band was going for rockabilly, ska, or any other style, rock was generally still there lying in the background; moreover, the record had at least a handful of bona fide punk tracks. In “Sandinista!”, meanwhile, the journey goes further away from The Clash’s origins, coming off as a more daring affair. Here, when the band opts to explore a genre, which happens in nearly every tune, they go into that direction with full commitment, abandoning the safety of rock completely. Additionally, only two songs in the whole package qualify as pure punk: the moody and introspective “Somebody Got Murdered”, which looks at the banality of violence in big cities, as well as the furious and anthemic “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”, which primarily criticizes the conditions of the housing built for London’s lower classes.

Everywhere else, The Clash jump between styles nonstop. Built around an unforgettable bass riff, opener “The Magnificent Seven” is a wordy rap track depicting the mechanical routine of an English worker. “Hitsville UK”, a sweet musical homage to 1960s pop, is a duet between Mick Jones and his then girlfriend Ellen Foley that talks about the struggle of punk bands. “Junco Partner” covers a blues song by turning it into a groovy and loose reggae. “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, penned by drummer Topper Headon, flirts with disco while nodding to the Cold War. “The Leader” emulates the speedy folk-rock of Bob Dylan’s electric phase to touch on the numbness caused by mass media. “Something About England” opens with music hall theatrics before becoming epic historical punk. “Rebel Waltz” has a gentle picked guitar, a psychedelic aura, and a floaty melody that takes listeners to a camp where rebel soldiers dance around the fire at night. “Look Here”, written by jazz great Moose Allison, is transformed into a furious and decadent swing. “The Crooked Beat” goes back to reggae by building a song that stands mostly on the bass of Paul Simonon. “Somebody Got Murdered” finally brings punk to the table. Both “One More Time” and “One More Dub” follow by delivering an extra taste of Jamaica with the participation of Mikey Dread. And that is just the first third of the album.

Through the rest of its run, “Sandinista!” goes on to touch on funk with “Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice)”; on calypso with the irresistible percussive work of “Let’s Go Crazy”; on gospel with “The Sound of Sinners”, in which Joe Strummer proves he would be a very effective preacher; on new wave with the energetic and catchy “Police on My Back”; on post-punk with the marching of “The Call Up”; on late-night jazz with the smoky vision of nocturnal New York created by “Broadway”; on British folk with “Lose This Skin”, which has Tymon Dogg taking the lead with wild vocals and violin; and on whole lot of experimental instrumentation that gives birth to everything from marvelous tunes such as “The Equalizer” and “The Street Parade” to less notable creations like the nigh electronic “Silicone on Sapphire” and the meandering closer “Shepherds Delight”.

Unsurprisingly, as a work made up of thirty-six tracks, “Sandinista!” is a bit uneven. Its first half is nearly flawless, but eventually the album loses steam and its irregularity comes to the forefront quite strongly on its final two sides, where it seems like the band – to achieve the number of songs they set out to put together – opted to fill up that closing stretch with some highly experimental remixes and dub versions of previous songs, like “Mensforth Hill”, which is nothing but “Something About England” backwards with a few overdubs. Out of the last twelve tracks, six fall into that category, and making the drop in quality more blatant is how these tunes are accompanied in that last leg of “Sandinista!” by some of the least inspired compositions of the record. Yet, any album that is this adventurous, varied, and bountiful can overcome some duds, even when they are tightly packed together; and “Sadinista!” not only gets away with its missteps, but reaches the status of classic thanks to the simple fact it has more than twenty songs that qualify as excellent.

In any context, that would be a pretty good threshold, but in “Sandinista!” it is even better because those tunes have the specially talented touch of The Clash. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were a nearly infallible songwriting duo, and here they were still rolling at full speed, both operating with style throughout multiple genres and coming up with many powerful hooks that underline grand sociopolitical statements, like the anthem against interventions by foreign powers of “Washington Bullets” or the catchy comment on the Vietnam War brought by “Charlie Don’t Surf”. As such, although the size of “Sandinista!” makes it one of the most daunting and hard-to-digest albums in the history of popular music, the rewards for those who give it a shot are plentiful, because quality songwriting that is backed by engaging performances and vital messages has always been a rare commodity; and when unforeseen eclecticism is thrown into the equation, “Sadinista!” surpasses rarity to become a one-of-a-kind gem.

five

Neon Bible

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Album: Neon Bible

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: March 5th, 2007

Highlights: Black Mirror, Intervention, Antichrist Television Blues, No Cars Go

“Neon Bible” is the second album released by Arcade Fire. And if there is a word that unites it with its predecessor, “Funeral”, it has got to be the adjective apocalyptic. As perhaps the most influential and recognized members of a movement that brought, to indie rock, many of the feel-good hippie vibes that had seemingly died with the sixties, it may surprise outsiders to notice there is so much doom and gloom in the material of the band. But perhaps taking a good look around and dreading the possibility the world is going down the drain soon is very much something to be expected out of a group of people who try to view reality through lenses that might be a bit too loaded with positivity for their own good. And perhaps as proof of that, “Neon Bible” packs more than enough despondency to intrigue skeptics and pessimists who are naturally repelled by the colorful peace, love, and hope ethos of a band like Arcade Fire.

The apocalypse of “Neon Bible”, however, is quite different from the one portrayed in “Funeral”. In their debut, affected by the loss of numerous relatives, Win Butler and his crew envisioned a dark world in which the adults were dead while the kids were left to fend off for themselves in the midst of a cold dystopia. And when not busy with fiction that hit quite close to home, the band approached the tales and hardships that inspired the disturbing images of its core suite, ultimately fearing that with nobody else left to protect them, the weight of responsibilities and of a reality full of lies would perhaps be more than what they could carry.

In spite of its look at a few worldly matters, “Funeral” was mostly a domestic affair: an album concerning the battles and pain that occur within the walls of a house or a neighborhood. “Neon Bible” climbs over those to get a more general glimpse at the horizon, and – to nobody’s surprise – what it finds is not exactly comforting. In fact, it actually makes it all seem even more miserable, since the world outside is not going to help any wounds heal; if anything, it will make the state of affairs even worse given that when domestic life is in disarray, the struggles away from home can become even bigger than they already are. Not accidentally, then, the monument to sorrow that “Neon Bible” builds feels bigger than the one constructed by “Funeral”: in the debut, it was a broken house; here, it is a Gothic cathedral of massive stature.

The fact “Neon Bible” brings forth images of grand religious architecture is not accidental. As the record’s name implies, religion is the central theme here. Yet, the subject is not approached in a very broad sense. Win Butler seems to have his eyes set on the power of televangelists; people he perceives as hypocritical and whose popularity may be a symptom of an illness that afflicts society. In a way, some might look at “Neon Bible” as a sequel of sorts to “Funeral”, one in which the abandoned and hopeless kids of the first album look for solace in the word of God as preached by television personalities. But, naturally, the work is a bit more global than that, since it seems to understand that absolutely everyone has the type mental weaknesses that those figureheads explore for their own gain.

The title “Neon Bible” is in itself a source of mockery and fear for the narrator. Alluding to the fiery and often exaggerated religious claims made by televangelists, who turn a scared book into entertainment business, he ridicules the constant threats that viewers are going to hell for relatively inconsequential sins; at the same time, at the back of his mind, there is this little concern that if what is being said is true, he and pretty much everybody else are doomed. As the album goes on, he analyzes the hypnotic mind-controlling power of television (“Black Mirror”); looks at people whose only solace in life comes from religion and desperately attempts to wake them up (“Intervention”); tries not to be manipulated by a world of propaganda (“Ocean of Noise”); goes biblical and uses a parable to talk about the inevitability of sin (“The Well and the Lighthouse”); dives into the power-hungry psyche of a televangelist and his exploration of his daughter for financial gain (“Antichrist Television Blues”); fights to defend the little parts of his life that are still free of control and consumerism (“Windowsill”); and searches for a way to escape (“Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go”).

“Neon Bible” is clearly an album at war with mass media, and it depicts that struggle with a huge sound. Truth be told, despite of its domestic nature, “Funeral” already felt pretty large, especially in its communal and anthemic choruses. But “Neon Bible” takes that grandeur to a new level. When the songs are intimate, they are drenched in thick and dark layers of synthesizers that threaten to drown listeners into the overwhelming despair and anxiety the characters feel when trying to remain in control whilst living in a world that wants to engulf everyone in its zombie-like rat race. Meanwhile, when they are explosive, “Neon Bible” shows it is the Arcade Fire album that best knows how to create bombast, betting on organs and on an almost omnipresent orchestra to generate soaring movements with enough power to make the walls of a concert house tremble. The result is an album that is sonically consistent in its Gothic darkness while also being pretty varied.

“Black Mirror” has steady instrumental patterns, soaked in a sinister hum, that perfectly replicate the hypnotic nature of television. “Keep the Car Running” uses a mandolin and a bouncy bass to propel an otherwise typical slice of catchy Arcade Fire alternative rock. Washed in a pipe organ and strings, “Intervention” is the best cut of the album; an epic of historical proportions that has the band going through the tune with the passion of people who are trying to save a loved one from being brain-washed by televangelists. “Ocean of Noise” musically replicates tides, swelling and deflating as it goes along, with the instruments dancing around as if aboard a ship that is being hit by tall waves. “The Well and the Lighthouse” recalls The Cure’s colorful pieces of pop rock: moved by a pronounced bass in the verses, the song eventually peaks when it is decorated with jangly guitars. “Antichrist Television Blues” is a rockabilly freight train, coming at listeners at a rising pace while it bounces on a notable bass line. Decorated by an accordion and strings, “No Cars Go” is essentially made to serve as a marvelous moment of catharsis in concerts. And “My Body Is a Cage” is a keyboard, percussion, and voice track that seems inspired by the darkest moments of Nine Inch Nails.

“Neon Bible” is the type of sophomore effort that had a lot to live up to. Loved by some and hated by others, “Funeral” is one of those rare works in rock history that truly deserves being labeled as seminal, since its spirit was the spark that ignited a whole movement. “Neon Bible” cannot claim the same credentials, but it is just as good: save for the dull “Back Wave / Bad Vibrations”, it has no weak tunes; in fact, the writing is so inspired that nearly all of its tracks are at least excellent. And in addition to showing one of the era’s best bands working at the peak of their powers, this is an album that does not tread water. Yes, it is still quite apocalyptic; it still has plenty of anthemic choruses; and it still holds thematic ambitions that materialize extremely well. But this is a totally different creature, and sitting beside the neighborhood of “Funeral”, the cathedral of “Neon Bible” is sure to forever stand as one of the grand monuments of rock music.

five

Letter To You

Album: Letter to You

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: October 23rd, 2020

Highlights: Janey Needs a Shooter, If I Was the Priest, Ghosts, Song for Orphans

There is an old cliche in the world of music reviews that goes as follows: an artist that has been around for a relative while releases a new batch of tracks, a tide of hype swells to surround the record, and both critics as well as fans go on to proclaim that the album is the best one the public figure in question has put out since an item in their catalog that is generally perceived as a classic. It is a sequence of events so likely to play out that one can bet money without fear of losing any of it that, for instance, all albums published by The Rolling Stones since the 1980s have been dubbed by someone somewhere as their finest hour since “Some Girls” and every fresh work by The Strokes following their debut, “Is This It”, has eventually been proclaimed to be their best since that 2001 classic.

Given the ridiculousness that is often attached to such claims, it would be wise to avoid them; however, not making some comments of the sort about Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You” is nigh impossible because, quite simply, the material deserves it. Through his lengthy and productive career, Springsteen, even during the many years that have passed since his peak, never really fell asleep at the wheel. Save from 1992’s “Human Touch” and 2009’s “Working on a Dream”, there are no blatant duds in his catalog. But following 2019’s already highly inspired “Western Stars”, “Letter to You” comes off as a significant step-up in terms of quality when compared to the average Bruce record of the past thirty years.

As such, “Letter to You” is his most consistent record since “Magic”, from 2007; and, more significantly, it puts forth quite a claim for the title of being the best album Springsteen has created since the work that is often defined as the tail-end of his classic run: 1987’s “Tunnel of Love”. It is a crown for which there is good competition, but “Letter to You” seems to outmaneuver them with style: it does not feel as bloated as the excellent “The Rising”; its highs are more pronounced than those of “Magic”; and although not as stylistically bold as “Western Stars”, it edges that one out on the strength of better pacing.

The first big piece of news coming from “Letter to You” is the return of the mythical E Street Band. It is worth noting, though, that the group was not away for such a long time, as “Western Stars” is the sole Bruce Springsteen album released after the turn of the century not to have his usual gang aboard. The presence of the E Street Band emerges like being deserving of fanfare, though, due to how alive they sound here. To put it in simple (and heavily cliched) terms, it has been a whopping forty years – dating back, therefore, to “The River” – since the group was captured in such a pure and true state. Deep into success and fame, they retain the aura of playing like a fine-tuned bar band that tackles small venues; an ensemble that does not play for the paycheck, but for free drinks, for the communal experience that is inherent to tightly packed shows, and for the pleasure of being in a band beside a large cast of friends. And in “Letter to You”, be it through arrangements or production, the feeling of the music they produce is heavily akin to what they did in the 1970s.

The fact the E Street Band is, better than in recent recorded history, cooking that hard-to-replicate sound that defines heartland rock is probably greatly helped by the quality of the tunes Springsteen has brought to the table. Opening with the quiet folk acoustic picking of “One Minute You’re Here”, in which the singer ponders about the frail brevity of life whilst seeing death like a train coming from the horizon, “Letter to You” has been labeled as an album concerned with the passage of time and mortality; and Bruce himself has stated much of the material here was inspired by those who were close to him, but are now gone, including E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, as well as George Theiss, the leader of his first group.

And indeed, many are the songs here closely tied to those matters. “Last Man Standing”, guided by a signature riff that combines guitars and keyboards, can be interpreted as Springsteen looking at himself like one of the final members of his generation that is still present either in this world itself or up on stages around the globe. The anthemic “Ghosts” has the singer confronting memories of those who have passed. And closer “I’ll See You in my Dreams”, one sweet rocking ballad, captures him clinging to the hope of seeing his deceased friends while sleeping. But in a touch of thematic beauty, even tracks that are not directly centered around these topics fit right in, whether it is in lyrical passages that nod to nostalgia as well as the passage of time, or in songs that gain a unique lean in meaning thanks to the record’s context, such as the title track, which could be seen as being about writing a letter to a friend, but that surrounded by so many thoughts on death reads like a testament that encompasses accumulated wisdom and tries to pass it to newer generations.

That effect is most powerfully noted in the trio of “Janey Needs a Shooter”, “If I Was the Priest”, and “Song for Orphans”. Written around the time Springsteen was working on his first album, the fact their quality stands out within such a strong set of tracks as the one present in “Letter to You” speaks volumes about the sharpness of his pen back in those days. In addition, they are extra appealing for two reasons. Firstly, because even though their lyrics have no references to death, they end up seamlessly merging into the work as a whole thanks to how their date of composition brings nostalgic feelings. Secondly, they are alluring due to how they boast one unique match: in words, they exhibit the long-winded, psychedelic, and Dylanesque parade of characters that defined the tunes Springsteen wrote for his first two albums; in music, though, they carry the E Street Band classic sound, a recipe that Bruce had yet to develop back in the era when he was writing like a beat poet. As such, their fabric, other than carrying excellent melodic work, also contains an interesting match of past and present.

There are accusations that can be directed towards “Letter to You”. The fact it has a sound so characteristic of Bruce Springsteen at his peak causes the moments when his sharp writing slips a little bit to threaten to crash into parody, an accident that arguably materializes in the fast-paced “Burnin’ Train” and that almost comes to be in “House of a Thousand Guitars”. In that sense, it would have been better for the record if it featured a couple of refreshing stylistic turns, something that is only seen here in “Rainmaker”, an excellent tune that reads like a metaphoric attack on the Donald Trump administration (taking a very insightful look into the factors that led to his election) and a song that trades quiet verses for choruses that explode into orchestral thunder. Nevertheless, limitations in tone and style do not dent “Letter to You” too much, for – at the end of the day – Springsteen has, at age 71, turned in a late-career gem: an album that despite showcasing maturity and old age, still features the jovial, energetic, optimistic, and anthemic traits of his work with the E Street Band. It sounds true, it hits hard, and to many it will rank as the best Bruce Springsteen record since the most recent classic of their choice. It is cliched, but it is quite appropriate.

Rough And Rowdy Ways

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Album: Rough and Rowdy Ways

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: June 19th, 2020

Highlights: I Contain Multitudes, False Prophet, Crossing the Rubicon, Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

From his early days under the spotlight, Bob Dylan has always been a master at the craft of creating an image under the guise of which one Robert Allen Zimmerman would present himself in front of his audience. That is not say, of course, that the singer-songwriter who best defines the profession is fake and that the work he has put out is not genuine; both of those claims are obviously false. It is just that Bob Dylan, from the get go, knew how to use his power over music and words to expand his expression beyond the physical album format so he could tap into the construction of a full-fledged person. As such, Dylan as the world knows him, the figure who has been a traveling folk musician, the unintended voice of a generation, a revolutionary rocker, a beat poet, a born-again Christian, and much more, has invariably been the ultimate creation of a brilliant man born in Duluth, Minnesota.

As he approaches the end of his eighth decade on Earth and releases his thirty-ninth album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, the Bob Dylan that the world sees has some general traits in common with his past iterations: he is still enigmatically witty, making listeners vaguely aware that he is up to some shenanigans without letting them know exactly what the nature of the prank is; he retains a wordy nature that wildly alternates between staggering surrealism, apparent nonsense, uncommon keenness, and well-forged intelligence; and he keeps on, perhaps now more than ever, challenging the notion that there is a threshold of greatness a voice must surpass in order to be recorded singing its own tunes, a silly stipulation that many have thankfully been shrugging off ever since Dylan burst into the scene.

But, as it could not be any different, the Bob Dylan of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is notably similar to the one fans have come to know as his late-career persona; the one that has been kicking around since the artistic rebirth of 1997’s “Time Out of Mind”. After seven years without publishing original material, a time which was spent – to the dismay of many – releasing five albums covering songs once interpreted by Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan comes out of that period sounding a whole lot like he did on 2013’s “Tempest”; that is, quite old, very much traditional (albeit in his own quirky way), undeniably smart, and with the artistic fire that is inside him still burning rather strongly.

“Rough and Rowdy Ways” is, in a way, an album of extremes. On one hand, there are the moody, slow, atmospheric, sparse, and thoughtful ballads; reminiscent of much of the material found in “Time Out of Mind”, thanks to their introspection, ambiance, and the near absence of percussion, these mellower tunes lead listeners to contemplate a frail and human Bob Dylan, one that sings beautiful words of love (“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”) and pens character studies on himself, approaching matters such as artistic inspiration (“Mother of Muses”) as well as the complex gorgeous contradictions that exist inside every human being (“I Contain Multitudes”). On the other side, there is the grizzly old bluesman; a figure that has been present since the masterful “Love & Theft” from 2001, it is the one that makes the title of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” ring true and that brings the signature Bob Dylan slyness to the table.

Dylan has often stated that he is not a particularly gifted melodist, claiming much of his musical material has been either straightaway taken or adapted from traditional sources like folk, blues, or spirituals. And to some ears, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” may prove that point. The rocking numbers, entirely built in blues rhythms and licks, do not bring much that is new to the the formula. Meanwhile, the ballads have melodies that are quite shy, with some of them getting closer to recitation than to actual singing. But supported by his taste (which has rarely shown failure since 1997), accompanied by one excellent band, and ushered forward by words that prove he can still write from a plateau above most of the rest (one that is Nobel-prize worthy, to be exact), Bob Dylan and his crew skillfully push most of the ten tracks to the finish line, with “My Own Version of You” and “Black Rider” being the sole stretches on the record when its minimalism in balladry gets the best of it.

“Murder Most Foul”, for instance, could – in its absurd length of seventeen minutes – verge into long-winded madness. However, the combination of Dylan’s rough voice, an errant piano, weeping strings, and hypnotizing lyrics (which somehow encompass the death of John F. Kennedy and multiple old cultural references) turns it into a spiritual journey. The same applies to the very best cut and melodic moment on the record: “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”. Carrying the only chorus in the entire album, albeit one whose lyrics always change, it looks at the titular Floridian island as a nigh utopic paradise for the weary, with a gentle accordion bringing in a tropical wind throughout its nine minutes. “I Contain Multitudes”, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”, and “Mother of Muses” are more straightforward ballads in both scope and format, but they touch deep nonetheless, with the second being particularly notable for how it sees Dylan adopting the crooner persona from his recent Frank Sinatra work.

The borrowing executed by Dylan, which will be acknowledged by the accused immediately, is done in lyrics as well as in music, and it ought to be revealed in all facets of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” to anyone who is willing to look deeper into the matter. Never is it as obvious, though, as it is in the times when Bob decides to rock the house. “False Prophet”, which sees the singer emerging like one shady boastful figure, copies “If Lovin’ Is Believing” by Billy “The Kid” Emerson, but improves on it via words, licks, solos, and one mean mid-tempo groove. Meanwhile, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” has Dylan stealing from himself, as the track’s rowdy rackety vibe recalls “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” from “Blonde on Blonde”. Finally, “Crossing the Rubicon”, bursting with yet more tasty licks and rhythms, has verses that build into quietness as Bob Dylan does it like Julius Caesar and dares to go past the point of no return, only he does it so many times during the tune that he either is quite uncertain regarding what he is about to do or is taking the mantle of various characters that have each done it individually.

“Rough and Rowdy Ways” may not measure up to some late-career statements pulled off by Bob Dylan. All parts of the trilogy consisting of “Time Out of Mind”, “Love & Theft”, and “Modern Times” are stronger. Moreover, although it is more solid than “Tempest”, the fact it is locked in a limiting musical dichotomy turns it into a less interesting and vital work. However, among the many shapes taken by the always chameleonic artist, the one that appears in “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is between those capable of producing high-quality material. Old man Dylan – the one that drinks heavily from tradition, confronts death, lets listeners look into some personal thoughts, and still squeezes in dozens of jokes – remains a mystery that is hard to unwrap. Most importantly, he continues to produce good music.

Born Again

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Album: Born Again

Artist: Black Sabbath

Released: August 7th, 1983

Highlights: Disturbing the Priest, Zero the Hero, Born Again

For a band whose nineteen albums are uniformly grounded on the same tight niche – the one of menacing and plodding doom-laden heavy metal riffs – Black Sabbath sure has an unexpected number of phases; and that nature, consequently, causes the band’s discography to feature a whole lot of works that could qualify as landmarks. A good portion of the credit for that characteristic can obviously be attributed to the fact that, after the departure of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, the group went through a large amount of vocalists, but the separation points go beyond who was holding the microphone. “Sabotage”, for instance, is the last chapter of Black Sabbath’s classic period; “Never Say Die!” is the final breath of the original lineup; “Heaven and Hell” is their first encounter with Ronnie James Dio as well as their reconnection with the art of making good music; “Headless Cross”, in a similar vein, would later show the veterans still had fuel to burn; “13” marked a return to their pioneering sound; and the list goes on.

In that sense, “Born Again”, their 1983 release, could be seen as the first chapter of a relatively obscure run of albums that would extend all the way to “Forbidden” in 1995. With Osbourne having success in his solo career and Dio, whose two-record stint alongside the band revitalized their music, also out of the building, Black Sabbath would go on to struggle to maintain relevance, not only because they would embark on a frequent switching of vocalists that would all fail to give the group a distinctive personality, but also because – for a myriad of reasons not exclusive to the writing itself – guitarist Tony Iommi would be unable to put out enjoyable songs with the same consistency he did during the group’s heyday.

On paper, the lineup of “Born Again” is a heavy metal dream. The instrumentalists of the classic Black Sabbath period – Iommi, Butler, and Ward – are joined by another demigod of the genre: Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan. Unfortunately, a group that seems just about perfect in theory does not necessarily translate into good results; there is, after all, a very important variable to that equation called chemistry. And “Born Again” shows how critical and mysterious that little detail is, because regardless of the camaraderie that existed between the parts out of the studio (as Gillan famously agreed to join the band after drinking too much in a pub with both Iommi and Butler), in front of the recording equipment the always elusive artistic magic escaped them.

It is ridiculously limiting for one to dictate what a band should be about; therefore, saying that Iommi, Butler, and Ward plus everything that Ian Gillan brings to the table does not qualify as Black Sabbath would be to unfairly shove the group into a corner of shackling expectations. There is, however, a sense of incongruity emerging from many parts of “Born Again”. Gillan’s writing is light and somewhat more earthly than that of Dio and Butler – who was responsible for the lyrics during the band’s classic era. As such, the supernatural and slightly philosophical style of the two men, which had dominated Black Sabbath’s discography up to that point, ends up – in “Born Again” – being largely replaced by fun lyrics about cars, women, love, fame, and drinking.

Approaching matters such as those is certainly not a crime, but it creates a problem for Black Sabbath – and, more specifically, for the album – in two points. By “Heaven and Hell”, Iommi had already abandoned a little of his signature slow guttural riffing for a more traditional and crunchy heavy metal approach to the guitar; in “Born Again”, that tendency is still present in some tunes, and when it meets the mundane – though well-penned – subjects of Gillan, the members of Black Sabbath stop being the lords of the most sinister brand of hard rock and start sounding like a common metal band, as it happens in “Trashed” and “Digital Bitch”. On the other front, that is, when Iommi is summoning guitar lines that appear to have come out of the darkest furnaces of hell, the songs seem to be made up of parts that do not gel entirely, with the instrumentation pointing to utter doom while the lyrics nod to easily relatable topics and the high screams of Gillan recall a much looser and faster brand of metal, a mismatch that is very visible in “Zero the Hero”.

Issues like those mean that “Born Again” is one odd creature, lending it a stylistic confusion that – in Black Sabbath’s canon – can only be equaled by the mess seen in both “Technical Ecstasy” and “Never Say Die!”. As a consequence, many are the tunes it has that sink due to that characteristic: “Digital Bitch” boasts blistering Iommi solos all over it, but its lyrics and chorus are ridiculous; “Hot Line” packs an irresistible – albeit slightly commonplace – riff that could have done without Gillan’s high-pitched vocal inflections, which drive the tune to campiness; and “Keep It Warm” threatens to go the same way thanks to its overly melodic chorus, which turns one otherwise heavy track into a power ballad. Despite those faults, “Born Again” is not exactly one monolith of uninspired moments. For instance, although sounding like middle-of-the-road heavy metal, opener “Trashed” – which describes how a drunk Gillan destroyed the car of drummer Bill Ward – is a very good specimen of the breed, as it is fun, fast, energetic, and catchy.

Ultimately, however, three are the tunes in the album that could stand beside the band’s best work, if not in terms of sheer quality, at least as far as atmosphere is concerned. “Disturbing the Priest” is horror-movie material: ridden with sinister effects, a dark gothic-like keyboard that emulates a Gregorian choir, and – of course – a riff that seems to come with a knife on its hand at the listener, the song sees the band transforming the humorous real event of a priest complaining about their loud music into a ominous religious experience. A similar darkness emanates from the seven-minute “Zero the Hero”: one of the heaviest tracks of the Black Sabbath discography, it carries a hypnotic doom that takes it rather close to the group’s debut album. Finally, and perhaps more significantly, there is the title track: the band’s best shot ever at creating a ballad, it merges beauty, haunting terror, and melancholy into one powerful number whose challenging and dramatic vocal lines could not have been more ideal to Gillan’s incredible reach.

Truth be told, “Born Again” might have been improved if the record was not riddled with such lousy mixing, which gives birth to a terribly muffled sound. Without that issue, its nearly flawless good moments would have gained extra power; meanwhile, its bad tunes, which are usually carried by solid riffs and instrumentation in spite of the bitter result brought by the junction of their different ingredients, would have been more pleasant to the ear. Yet, even if that enhancement would have made it clearer that under the suffocating wrapping lies one of the heaviest albums of the band’s catalog, the fact would remain that the one shot Gillan and the Black Sabbath instrumentalists took at putting together a record was far from successful. What seemed like a glorious match made in hell on paper came off as a confused and mostly heterogeneous substance. As it turns out, chemistry of the artistic kind is very far from being an exact science.

Victorialand

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Album: Victorialand

Artist: Cocteau Twins

Released: April 14th, 1986

Highlights: Lazy Calm, Fluffy Tufts, Oomingmak, Little Spacey, The Thinner the Air

Ethereal. That is likely the adjective most frequently associated with the sound of the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish trio formed in 1979. Such link is, in fact, so strong that the band is often cited as one of the points of origin for all kinds of musical styles that lack an anchor that firmly ties them to the ground, be it dream pop or shoegazing. From the very start of the group’s career, their music, first introduced to the general public via their 1982 release, “Garlands”, took flight on how the guitar playing of Robin Guthrie – a misty cloud of screeching, ringing, and grinding – was accompanied by elements that were hardly solid. The percussive work that backed it up, either handled by a human or a drum machine, was sparse and punctual; meanwhile, the vocals, delivered by the gifted Elizabeth Fraser, were an indecipherable chant.

As unique as the Cocteau Twins might have been, though, their discography had – up to the days preceding the coming of “Victorialand” – held somewhat blatant ties to the scene that surrounded them. The dark and gothic aura produced by the music in “Garlands” and “Treasure” made it easy for one to draw comparisons between the trio and Siouxsie and the Banshees, especially when the sonic audacity that permeates the two bands’ work is taken into consideration. Meanwhile, the meatier moments of their second effort, “Head Over Heels”, such as “Sugar Hiccup” and “In Our Angelhood”, pointed to the more forward-driving and accessible instances of the post-punk scene.

Named after a region of Antarctica, “Victorialand” bucks the trend of easy comparisons and throws the Cocteau Twins towards the unknown. Guthrie, the instrumental heart of the band, chooses to strip the trio’s music bare, removing pieces from a constitution that was already quite basic in the first place. In the process of doing so, he bumps into a sound so light that it floats; so lacking in physically solid particles that it simply cannot be touched. As such, “Victorialand” is an absolute landmark in the band’s career. Within a trajectory that was all about making ethereal tunes, their fourth album is the point in which the Cocteau Twins show the world how heavenly and spiritual they can get. And they drive so intensely in that direction that they blast through the stylistic limitations of post-punk and land directly in ambient music.

There are no drums whatsoever throughout the entirety of “Victorialand”. Likewise, there is no bass. The album’s credits, actually, reveal that aside from Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and Robin Guthrie’s guitars, the only two other instruments present in “Victorialand” are a saxophone – audible in the lengthy introduction of the first track, “Lazy Calm” – and a tabla, the record’s sole percussive element, which makes a brief appearance towards the ending of the very same song. Looking at the album as merely a radical exercise in ethereal music, however, is misguided, because the Cocteau Twins presented here produce far more than a lighter and less anchored version of the band’s previous sound.

There is a visible change in mood brought by “Victorialand”. Borrowing a page from its Antarctic title, there is a palpable distance and coldness to the music. Fraser and Guthrie can be heard through waves whose origins are far away, and the inherent reverb they carry indicate the duo is somewhere which is vast and wide open. Furthermore, a wintry chill seems to envelop them, one that indicates that walking into the breeze in which they are can be deadly. Differently from the band’s previous material, though, which tended to care threatening undertones, in “Victorialand” the danger is subdued by beauty. It is a definition that may sound incongruent given the perils of low temperatures, but it makes sense when the alluring wonders of white snowy landscapes are considered: the danger is certainly there, but it is easy to forget about it when confronted with so much visual splendor.

Fraser’s signature soprano voice, in all its technical wonder, mostly utters words rather than the seemingly random sounds that made up most of “Treasure”. Yet, Elizabeth remains an enigma. She bets on cryptic poetry constructed by disassociated words, and names the tracks by quoting the book “The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth”, especially its passages that deal with both the Arctic and Antarctic. More importantly from a stylistic standpoint is the fact that her vocals, following the tradition of the Cocteau Twins, act like yet another musical component; instead of being highlighted at the forefront, they are as much a part of the songs’ instrumental body as Guthrie’s guitars. And together, they form a cold breath that takes the shape of beautiful music.

Abandoning the cacophony and the grind that dominated the guitars of their previous albums, Guthrie takes a much more delicate approach to playing, focusing – instead – on light arpeggios, picking, and clear tones, going so far as using acoustic sounds to form the core of two tunes: “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “Feet-Like Fins”. Fraser, at the same time, avoids melodies that verge on pop – which do show up punctually in songs like “Lazy Calm”, “Fluffy Tufts”, and “Oomingmak” – for material of more classical inspiration, a quality that is undoubtedly made stronger thanks to the soprano nature of her voice. “Little Spacey”, for example, is part waltz part airborne ballet; and numerous are the tracks whose vocal lines boast a dramatic and operatic value that would sit comfortably in a music hall, even if the singers – in that case – appear to be floating in the mist miles away from the audience.

“Victorialand” is an album of remarkable musical and thematic consistency, as its packaging, title, and music uniformly pull in the same direction. Moreover, its tunes hold a hypnotic draw that drags listeners into its icy claws, keeping them immersed through the brief thirty-two minutes for which it lasts. Some of its cuts are certainly better than others, as at least a couple of tracks go by without building towards something significant or truly hooking audiences to notable instrumental and melodic baits. But the overall experience it presents is excellent, not only because it is the most ethereal work of a band that is tightly associated with the word, but also thanks to how it boldly drives post-punk to the realm of ambient music. Sonically, the Cocteau Twins were always daring; they, however, never showed as much audacity as they did in “Victorialand”.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope

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Album: Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Artist: The Clash

Released: November 10th, 1978

Highlights: Safe European Home, English Civil War, Tommy Gun, Stay Free

Although strong and significant, the punk rock movement did not last for too long, with most of its representatives either burning out spectacularly or abandoning the boat quickly. In hindsight, it was not a surprising turn of events. After all, while the fast, furious, and reckless ethos of the genre created an environment that fueled the self-destructive behavior of many of its artist, its stylistic limitations – and the public outcry coming from the faithful who saw any new sounds as betrayal – chained musicians to a very tight scope that must have felt like a large ball and chain to those who wanted to explore their musicality more thoroughly. From the very start, however, even if qualifying as a punk band, The Clash seemed neither bound for a wreckage nor willing to pay too much attention to the constraints of that prison.

Even though their third record, “London Calling”, is generally considered to be the moment when the group turned their backs on the punk phenomenon, there had been – prior to that point – plenty of signs that The Clash did not care about the style’s rules. Their 1977 debut, for instance, which was absolutely filled with the roughness of the English genre, carried “Police and Thieves”, a reggae cover that rather than transforming the Caribbean rhythm, respected its characteristics and relaxed tempo. Meanwhile, midway through 1978, the band would release a single – the fantastic “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that took the flirtation one step further by actually mixing punk and reggae not only in sound, but also in theme, as the tune recounts a day when Joe Strummer went to the titular club to catch popular Jamaican artists.

Compared to the eclecticism of “London Calling”, which would come one year later, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is rather tame when it comes to musical evolution. In fact, many are bound to label it as a punk record, which is not entirely out of the mark. Nevertheless, even if it does so far more lightly than “Police and Thieves” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, the album reconfirms the reality hinted at by both of those tracks, which is that Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon – whether because they understood punk was limiting or because they refused to stand still – were not the kind of guys to dwell in the same place for far too long.

In a way, the change presented by “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” can be easy to miss, for – as a whole – the record is even louder and more aggressive than its rebellious predecessor, “The Clash”. Vocally, Joe Strummer, likely the most genuinely angry and politically engaged man in punk rock, takes the reins in nine of the album’s ten songs, and although frequently drowned by the sound and fury of the instruments, he alternates moments when he sounds bitter with sequences when he comes off as utterly wrathful. As a consequence, Mick Jones, the guy with a pocket full of melodies that lean towards the pop and a softer voice, only gets one chance – which is unquestionably taken advantage of – to shine at the mic. More significantly, however, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is simply an album that was produced to slay, as where in “The Clash” the instrumentation came off as if it were being played in a tacky garage; in their sophomore work, the boys seem to be on a stage with mighty amplifiers.

Filled with fierce riffs that attack as directly as possible, whilst not forgetting that energetic punk spirit, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” could qualify as a hard rock work. Jones, displaying a better sense of the unique ringing guitar leads that he unleashed in “The Clash”, comes up with another strong set of lines that hold a sweeping quality. Headon’s drums sound gigantic and cutting. Simonon’s bass is thick, clear, and creative. The rhythm guitars deliver heavy pounding punches. And, in the middle of it all, Strummer shouts so his message can be heard, as he approaches both critical worldwide matters, such as misguided foreign policies and terrorism, to local themes, like the state of the punk rock scene. It is a mixture that turns tunes like the fast and explosive “Safe European Home”; the marching “English Civil War”; and Tommy Gun, with drum fills that emulate the sound of shooting, into some of the heaviest and most vicious tracks the band ever produced. And, though not up to the same quality standard, “Last Gang in Town”, in which the whole band cooks a massive groove, and “Guns on the Roof”, which borrows the riff from “Clash City Rockers”, are a thrill as well.

As consistently loud as it may be, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is not devoid of moments that, much like “Police and Thieves” on the debut, stick out rhythmically from the pack to blatantly reveal The Clash were not purely about punk. And further proving the band’s flexibility, they all land incredibly. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, featuring a playful loose piano, is a shuffle that provides a sarcastic look at a major drug bust that took place in Wales. Even if electric, “All the Young Punks” is nearly a ballad; boasting a yearning melody and sweet backing vocals by Jones, it is a homage to the band itself, analyzing their role as trailblazers and even defending their signing of a contract with a major label. At last, “Stay Free” is the record’s climax: written by Jones to a friend who had been arrested, it reads like an honest heartfelt letter and sounds like a pop rock anthem, with four verses that build to a cathartic chorus in which – hoping his buddy is free and part of the crowd – he urges the guy to have a drink on him.

Crushed, in the band’s discography, between one classic debut and a third effort that is repeatedly ranked among the ten best records of all time, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is often seen as a second-rate The Clash album, and two of its tunes – “Drug-Stabbing Time” and “Cheapskates” – give support to these arguments, as they do lack inspiration and feel like lesser tracks that got left out of “The Clash” for not being as good as the rest of the compositions. The status the band’s second effort carries, though, is more revealing of the group’s value than of its quality, because many are the artists that would kill for a work like “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”: one that does not rest on the laurels of its greatly praised predecessor and fearlessly challenges expectations, preparing the crowd for the wild musical trip that was imminent.

Ass

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Album: Ass

Artist: Badfinger

Released: November 26th, 1973

Highlights: Apple of My Eye, When I Say, I Can Love You, Timeless

It is impossible to write about Badfinger without at least making a passing mention at the dark cloud that hangs over the course of the group’s career. Active since the early 60s under a different name, the band’s talent did not go unnoticed by famous British rockers of the time, with The Who as well as The Yardbirds securing the quartet as an opening act, and The Kinks’ Ray Davies auditioning to produce them. Badfinger’s greatest claim to fame before they ever put out a full-length album, though, was the fact they were the first band to sign a contract with The Beatles’ own label, Apple, and such a magnificent nod of approval from the biggest name in the rock and roll game certainly generated a lot of expectations regarding what they would achieve.

It does not take long for one to listen to some of the best cuts by Badfinger and realize why The Fab Four saw so much promise in them. The boys could play tastefully; they could harmonize beautifully; they possessed an innocent hard-working demeanor; and in both Tom Evans and Pete Ham they had two great songwriters who, each with his personal signature, displayed a knack for crafting accessible pop rock gems with universally likable melodies. In constitution and in style, parallels between them and The Beatles were inevitable; however, while the boys from Liverpool were able to achieve constant success and deliver a string of groundbreaking records, Badfinger remained an eternal promise.

Certainly, there were a few hits here and there; moreover, the two albums that directly precede “Ass” got their fair share of critical acclaim. Sadly, though, amidst bad breaks and poor managerial decisions, the second of which would directly lead to the heartbreaking suicides of both Evans and Ham, Badfinger never had enough time and peace to acquire the traction their talent indicated they would inevitably attain. In a way, following the consistent and very good duo of “No Dice” and “Straight Up”, “Ass” offers the early signs of the fall, marking the start of a generally descending curve the group would never recover from.

“Ass” begins to materialize a change, and such a move was arguably necessary for Badfinger. As good as they were, “No Dice” and “Straight Up” struggled to surpass a certain quality threshold because they often had problems getting away from the middle of the road. The greatness seen in tunes like “Without You”, “Name of the Game”, and “Day After Day” was undeniable; their charm is so natural, their melodies are so impeccable, and their capacity to move is so timeless that it is surprising to think they did not exist before 1970. In their hooks, harmonies, and smoothness, though, Badfinger was still lacking the spark that opens the doors towards the kind of utter excellence only achieved by a select few; the one that stylishly breaks into new irresistible grounds that audiences did not even know they wanted to be introduced to. To make a The Beatles’ parallel: Badfinger was looking for its “Rubber Soul”.

“Ass”, unfortunately, is certainly not comparable to The Fab Four’s sixth studio work. In theory, at least, Badfinger had the tools to make a leap of a similar magnitude. With “Ass”, though, they seem to jump the wrong way. Produced amidst a good deal of confusion, the album’s ten cuts bring quite a surprise to anyone looking at their credits. Half of the songs featured in the record are written neither by Evans nor Ham, but by guitarist Joey Molland, who – up to that point – had already penned a handful of tracks but remained a tertiary creative force within the band. And given drummer Mike Gibbins is responsible for one tune of his own, that means just four of the songs in “Ass” come from Badfinger’s greatest writers. That configuration would, of course, not be a problem if the contributions of Molland and Gibbins were excellent. Unfortunately, they simply do not live up to the group’s usual standards.

“Cowboy”, by Gibbins, is an amateurish slab at country rock. Meanwhile, sequenced one after the other, “The Winner”, “Blind Owl”, and “Constitution” are loud, electric, and utterly generic. With the first and the last being by Molland and the middle one by an uninspired Evans, they flounder in their attempt to rock out. “Constitution” is particularly embarrassing for awkwardly verging on testosterone-infused hard rock, driving home – very clearly – the point that Badfinger was indeed made for the softest spectrum of pop rock. Molland, however, does deliver three tunes that are – in different levels – praiseworthy: the exciting “Get Away”, which is bouncy rock and roll accompanied by a wild guitar and a brass section; “Icicles”, a simple and decent ballad that stumbles in its verses but succeeds in its chorus; and the spectacular “I Can Love You”, which carries the classic Badfinger sound but that instead of operating in the usual intimate atmosphere, feels absolutely grand thanks to its arrangement and melody.

In fact, as proof that “Ass” is a bit of a misguided shot at change, most of its best moments are found when the band is doing what they did in “No Dice” and “Straight Up”; that is, executing some good old power pop balladry. Other than “I Can Love You”, such instances come to the surface in both Pete Ham’s “Apple of My Eye”, the opener and a surprisingly sweet farewell letter to The Beatles’ label, as Badfinger was getting ready to move to Warner Bros.; and Tom Evan’s “When I Say”, which uses great harmonies, touching melodies, and a nice brief solo to check all of the boxes to get the Badfinger stamp. The exception to that rule is closer “Timeless”, a Pete Ham composition that breaks the rules and is resoundingly successful. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it is a dark, slow, and dramatic piece that drinks from progressive music in its usage of the flute and in the three-minute solo that ends it, and from hard rock in the vicious guitar riffs of its chorus.

Had it been more like “Timeless” and less like “Constitution”, the change that begins to be executed in “Ass” could have produced good results. As it was put out, though, the album feels like an unfortunate turn towards music that is louder and more electric. It is a decision that rather than finding Badfinger an extra layer of personality winds up corroding a good part of the band’s charm; and it is a mistake that, due to the prevalence of Joey Molland’s compositions, feels like it could have been avoided if Tom Evans and Pete Ham had either been given more room to operate or been a more active part of the album’s construction. And much to the loss of the rock genre, the first and brutally talented formation of Badfinger would not have much time left to correct the course.

The Cars

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Album: The Cars

Artist: The Cars

Released: June 6th, 1978

Highlights: Just What I Needed, Bye Bye Love, Moving in Stereo, All Mixed Up

Although by no means the strongest track to be found in The Cars’ 1978 self-titled debut, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is probably the record’s most well-known song. And it also happens to be the tune that best summarizes the band’s overall sound. Sung by a young man stuck in the painful situation of watching the girl he once dated – and who very much still has a strong pull over his heart – become his best friend’s one and only, the cut strikes a balance that only a group like The Cars could pull off. Quietly, in the left channel, a standard rock and roll riff plays along, anchoring the whole composition in the tradition of Chuck Berry and Little Richard while also lending it a forward energetic motion that contrasts with the rest of its controlled instrumentation. Despite that notable pillar, though, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is certainly not a rock and roll song, just like The Cars are not a rock and roll band.

Sure, you could dance to “My Best Friend’s Girl”, and the hand-claps and playful solo that appear at one point could cause one to mistake it for a Buddy Holly cover. But The Cars decorate the rough heart of Ric Ocasek’s straightforward compositions with so much sleekness that the nine tunes their first work contains mutate in their journey from the paper to the tape; originally intended as rock songs, they sneak up on listeners as delightfully catchy pop gems. It is, of course, not an original concept: as part of the new wave movement, by 1978, both Blondie and Elvis Costello – to name two popular examples – had already put that formula to use at least a handful of times, and the results had been mostly stellar. The Cars, though, operate on a slightly different level.

Likely as a result of the presence of producer Roy Thomas Baker, who was behind the board for many of the records that constituted Queen’s run of greatness, “The Cars” is characterized by multi-tracked harmonies so blatantly operatic that they could lead the British quartet to sue for plagiarism. Regardless of feeling out-of-place for the most part, as their scope is just too bombastic for the punk spirit of a huge slice of the material, they do work towards augmenting a handful of songs that are somewhat more complex, like the closer “All Mixed Up”, which slowly builds to a grand catharsis. However, given that element is the product of external influence rather than internal concoction, the tools in which one can find the truly inherent portion of The Cars’ personality – and certainly the pieces that contribute the most to their excellence – are elsewhere.

The guitars, courtesy of Elliot Easton and Ric Ocasek, are wonderfully eclectic, being able to freely move between punk rock crunch, power pop jangle, heavy metal riffing, and sweeping power chords, sometimes within the same short song; Easton’s leads, in particular, are stellar, as he constantly breaks into solos that – in spite of their clear technical proficiency – are subdued enough to serve the tracks whilst succeeding in thrilling with a rate that is utterly rare. The fact The Cars possess two vocalists, Ocasek himself and Benjamin Orr, only serves to augment that elasticity, as the former takes on the role of the do-it-yourself punk who would never be allowed close to a microphone outside of the genre while the latter is the smoothly confident womanizer who seems to have been born to front a rock band.

The Cars’ secret weapon, though, is keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who pours synthesized gloss into the music. It is his playing that forms the pop veil that distracts audiences from directly concluding the band drinks as much from the rock and roll bible as The Ramones did. It is his equipment that turns The Cars into a new wave outfit that took the wrong turn on some Boston alley, ended up crash landing many decades into the future, and stumbled upon a time-controlling deity that allowed them to return to their original era as long as they gave the world a taste of what was to come. If some of the tracks that appear in their debut were used as the fake repertoire for the forged band of a science-fiction flick, an audience that is unaware of who The Cars are would never question the authenticity of the material or label it as a relic from the end of the seventies.

Truth be told, there are a few moments that could give the disguise away. “I’m in Touch with Your World”, which is – by a good margin – the weakest song in the album, is a tense, paranoid, and rhythmic track that takes a jab at what the Talking Heads did in their first record; “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, meanwhile, bumps into the cheesiness found in the worst rock products of the turn of that decade thanks to how it is partially sunk under the weight of its exaggerated harmonies, which are simply too large for the kind of tune it is. Mostly, though, The Cars fly down a lit-up futuristic highway with the style of a Corvette.

“Good Times Roll” moves forward steadily, slowly, and hypnotically. “Just What I Needed”, initially carried by a firm beat that soon afterwards gains extra propulsion due to the emergence of Hawkes’ synthesizers, speeds up to a glorious chorus. “Don’t Cha Stop” is frantic and finds cleverness in how it swaps the guitar licks between its verses, which would usually be formed by a pounding riff in the hands of a less inventive band, with a catchy jangle. “Bye Bye Love” also goes for arpeggios, but in its case that style of guitar-playing is used as a delicate element that contrasts with a crunchy and immediate chorus. And “Moving in Stereo” relies so heavily on keyboards that it comes off as a piece of psychedelic synthpop, describing one weird trip that has the protagonist of the song stuck in a nightmarish landscape where his consciousness and body have become separated.

Through all those twists and turns, The Cars never lose sight of the importance of a good hook, whether it is instrumental or vocal. And, for that reason, their self-titled album has often been seen as one of those first works that are so consistent that they feel like a collection of greatest hits. To a point, it is a good evaluation, because even “I’m in Touch with Your World” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” hold value and immediacy; on the other hand, debuts of the sort tend to stand tall in the discographies of the groups that produced them, and The Cars would actually go on to put together a few albums that would, on the heels of sharper writing and cleaner execution, be at least as good as their first act. Independently from sticking completely or not, that label is certainly appropriate. What is most important, however, is that The Cars’ sound comes from an era humanity has yet to reach; and in it, rock and roll – a genre that continually seems to be on the verge of extinction – has continued to exist, even if under the guise of synthesizer-drenched pop.

Trout Mask Replica

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Album: Trout Mask Replica

Artist: Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band

Released: June 16th, 1969

Highlights: Frownland, Moonlight on Vermont, Pachuco Cadaver, When Big Joan Sets Up, Steal Softly Thru Snow, Veteran’s Day Poppy

Over the years that have passed since its release, much has been said and written about “Trout Mask Replica”. The truest of all assessments, however, came from the immortal John Peel. In general terms, the radio presenter claimed that within the pantheon of pop music – a realm which he knew better than pretty much everyone else – the third record by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was the closet the medium had ever gotten to producing a work that could qualify as art in the sense that people involved in other artistic fields would see it and perceive it as such. And it is quite easy to visualize the accuracy that lies behind that claim, because unlike any other album save for, perhaps, Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”, “Trout Mask Replica” is devoted to pushing the traditional musical format to its limit, with the difference between both works lying in how the former does it by breaking into sheer noise, while the latter – more interestingly – gets there by staying grounded in actual tunes.

Like the provocative piece of art that it is, “Trout Mask Replica” sits idly, stares into the eyes of its audience, and dares to be analyzed. Is it being serious? Is it mocking those that have stopped to look at it? Does it hide some sort of hidden message that can only be unlocked by one who goes through it multiple times? The answer is impossible to know. What is unavoidable, however, is that “Trout Mask Replica” holds the amusing ability of making anyone who decides to talk about it look absolutely silly. If hailed as a masterpiece, the evaluator will come off as a pretentious fool that is trying to look smart. If labeled as an utter disaster, the reviewer will be accused of being a contrarian seeking to stir some controversy. And if graded somewhere in the middle, that means “Trout Mask Replica” was treated just like any other album, which is a downright wrong way to approach it. It effectively unmasks the beholder, making any opinion concerning it reveal more about the individual that formulated the analysis than about the record itself.

In contemporary terms, therefore, “Trout Mask Replica” is the equivalent of an extremely skilled troll; engaging it is a no-win scenario. To create this monster, as it has often been related, Captain Beefheart went to absurd lengths, reportedly locking himself up alongside his band-mates inside a rented house for eight months in order to rehearse the compositions. By itself, that interval already seems sufficiently gruesome; it gains even darker contours, though, when one learns that period included financial trouble, with the group living on a subsistence diet; fourteen-hour workdays; a cult-like environment; as well as both physical and mental abuse, given Captain Beefheart was not shy to berate or assault his peers when they made mistakes or failed to perform up to his standards.

The attacks were, needless to say, totally unnecessary and deplorable. Yet, listening to “Trout Mask Replica” leads one to see some sense behind the insane intensity of the rehearsals, because it certainly takes a while for the mind of a musician – very much accustomed to a series of rules and structures related to the discipline – to be able to break away from those vices and access the musical madness achieved in the album. There is logic to “Trout Mask Replica”. similarly to its predecessors, it is firmly grounded in blues, filtering the genre through a considerably demented lens; likewise, the loose nature of its playing and singing nods to the improvisational characteristics of free jazz. It is right there, though, that any traces of reason cease to exist, for after using those two pillars as a form of propulsion, the album is left to glide through the unknown according to its own twisted whims.

“Trout Mask Replica” is dissonant, loud, and obnoxious. It does not attempt to harmonize. It rarely tries to create a piece that gets close to the widespread definition of what a song is. And it is generally unpleasant to listen to. As if to augment the potency of the instigation it blatantly aims for, it presents all of those characteristics through a running time (seventy-eight minutes) that is extreme and a number of tracks (twenty-eight) that is usually reserved for records that possess notable stylistic variety, like The Clash’s “Sandinista” or The Beatles’ “White Album”. Very differently from those, though, “Trout Mask Replica” could not care less about any sort of flexibility, because its concern is to blindly pound away with deformed blues licks, often built on top of each other, and simultaneous beats whose lack of uniformity create a cacophonous polyrhythmic mess.

It is so primal and chaotic that listeners unaware of the history behind the record’s production are likely to think of “Trout Mask Replica” as the output of sessions in which the musicians improvised irrationally and furiously. After all, no sane mind could possibly write these tunes intentionally and no rock band could practice enough to reproduce these songs like a well-oiled machine. But Captain Beefheart, in the numerous forms of art he used to express himself, never operated within normal standards; and his Magic Band were very proficient individuals that not only shared the wild artistic openness of their leader, but that were also molded into the unlikely creature that gives life to “Trout Mask Replica” through despicable tyrannical brutality.

As the group bangs and organically adds shifts to the grooves of the album, Captain Beefheart, like a shaman urging spirits of the other world to appear with more intensity, throws fuel into the fire with his howling voice and manic woodwind playing. In both cases, the dissonance arising from what the band is playing and what Don Van Vliet is doing is blatant; it is as if the singing and multiple saxophone solos that appear through “Trout Mask Replica” were edited from other songs and carelessly pasted over the base of the tracks. That effect is especially notable in relation to the vocals, which are mixed way louder than the instruments, a calculated move that strongly highlights the incompatibility of the elements, partially clouds the absurd complexity of what the band is playing, and sheds a strong light on the bizarre nature of Captain Beefheart’s lyrics, which tread a unique line of complex imagery, psychedelia, and – of course – tongue-in-cheek humor.

There is a lot going on in “Trout Mask Replica”, and almost none of it can be traced to what came before Captain Beefheart’s most notable album. Simultaneously, and as the greatest statement regarding its uniqueness, it is equally nigh impossible to link the record to any music that has followed it, in spite of how many artists point to it as a source of either inspiration or admiration. The greatest gift “Trout Mask Replica” gave the world was radically questioning the formats and thresholds that are applied to popular music; it pushed those boundaries so considerably that the wildest  instances of experimentation can be safely conducted with a lot of room to spare. And amidst its sheer weirdness – one filled with spoken-passages, sound collages, random screams, absurd wordplay, and a lot of calculated blues-based banging – the album walks through the amusing and the annoying; the thrilling and the dull; and the satisfying and the puzzling. It is, concomitantly, a steaming pile of trash and a transcendental experience: there is a lot of space in-between, but it is awfully hard to fit “Trout Mask Replica” in it. Unless, of course, you have no idea what to do with it.