Bug

bug

Album: Bug

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: October 31st, 1988

Highlights: Freak Scene, Yeah We Know, Pond Song, The Post

As a more extreme and less popular version of the punk rock movement which inspired it, the American hardcore scene of the 1980s also naturally featured a far lower degree of professionalism. That is not to say the people involved in it did their job poorly or amateurishly; in many cases tasks were actually performed with much more passion than in its seminal counterpart. But given the corporate world of big labels and magazines showed little to no interest in taking over the reins of the music that was being made in the underground, the influence of money was minimal and positions – whether they were on the stage as a band or behind the scenes as part of the network that supported hardcore musicians – were far more accessible to anyone who was willing to give it a shot.

Ultimately, what this wide entry point meant was that nearly anyone with a guitar or the wish to say something could find a way in; a reality that for punk rockers in the 1970s quickly dissipated when the huge companies stepped in to attract its most famous offspring. As a consequence of that fact, American underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers, which were mostly made up of individuals whose visible artistic talents did not match up with the expectations of the mainstream, could plug in to the amplifiers and rock.

In their midst, however, roamed one guy who was a bit out of the curve. J Mascis, the leader of Dinosaur Jr., was certainly a member of this independent environment. His talents, though, were more akin to those of folks who transited in the pop music charts. He could play guitar with a high degree of technique and he would showcase that ability clearly by frequently stepping into blistering solos. He could write songs based on classic chord changes that exhibited a smoothness that recalled power pop. And, on what was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ethos of a deliberately noncommercial scene, Mascis could write melodies with the potential to reach thousands. As such, it is no accident that to many of his musical peers, the vocalist and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. was always seen as the man with a gift.

In spite of these greatly marketable skills, Mascis and his band never made it big, which means that something stood in the way. Anyone listening to “Bug”, the third release by the group, ought to recognize at least one of the elements that ended up keeping Dinosaur Jr. out of the big leagues; and that would be noise. Mascis enjoys playing as stridently as possible, making it sound like whatever amplifier he is using is about to implode due to the volume. Because of that, his simple, approachable, and lovable pop writing is drenched in a vicious guitar attack that veers into the limit between what is tuneful and what is feedback. If that is not enough of a tall barrier to widespread recognition, then Dinosaur Jr. builds it higher thanks to the vocal drawl and slacker attitude of Mascis.

Those two characteristics need to be mentioned together because they are nearly inseparable. Like a moody teenager or a stoned uncle, Mascis sings as if he is totally detached from both the feelings he is talking about and the noise he is making; his attitude tells listeners that he either does not care or is simply too cool to make an effort. Locked inside this unique lazy demeanor that would go on to construct the careers of a few bands, such as Pavement, Mascis does not even try to sing within the parameters of what most would judge as merely adequate; likewise, although his inborn creative greatness hands him a bunch of pop rock gems, his choice is to leave them unpolished and augment their original roughness by giving them a bath in underground noise alongside his bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph.

This battle of accessibility versus laziness and abrasiveness not only defines the entire career of Dinosaur Jr., but also firmly puts them in the underground scene they would otherwise not be a part of. “Bug” is particularly notable for being the point in which that combat reaches its most interesting level. It is not a stalemate, because laziness and abrasiveness certainly win the round, but the balance feels just about ideal. Whether they are pushing forward furiously (“Let It Ride”) or floating in a lazy haze (“The Post”), the members of Dinosaur Jr. here are always pairing up the right amount of melodic goodness to keep one attentive with the correct dosage of ear-splitting madness to stop the whole project from diverging into the mellow terrain its sweet hooks could lead it into. The sole exception to the norm is “Don’t”, which – sung by bassist Lou Barlow – is a cacophony of screaming vocals and guitars, hence shifting the equilibrium too much to one side.

Like it happens with nearly all other works by the band, it is nigh impossible to say the murkiness of “Bug” is polished, but the album holds a few touches of care that greatly benefit its excellent material. “Freak Scene”, the best cut of the record, is a delightful constant barrage of fuzzy strum, but its melodic beauty is enhanced by an accompanying acoustic guitar on its second verse; and that element reappears with even more constancy in “No Bones”. At one point, “They Always Come” brings down the noise to let the melody shine, but Mascis humorously turns the tables by singing in an unusually muffled tone. “Yeah We Know” has a rhythmic driving force that when combined with the cold vocals recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Pond Song” seemingly nods to R.E.M. by featuring jangling verses and a chorus that tames the feedback slightly. “Budge” has a hook played on a relatively clean and slim guitar that nods to Sonic Youth’s more conventional moments. And before getting to its glorious chorus, “The Post” has a large, sparse, and dark soundscape on its verses, which indicates some post-punk influences coming from The Cure, Talking Heads, and even Joy Division.

“Bug”, therefore, is not just an album in which the struggle between pop rock sensibilities and freewheeling hardcore noise-making that defines Dinosaur Jr. gets to its most ideal level. It is also a work that knows how to nudge its sound, even if ever so slightly, towards interesting places that add an unexpected variety to the band’s usually steady music. Given his slacker spirit, it is unlikely J Mascis will ever admit putting effort into bringing out the best of the tunes he wrote for the project or even working on any of the songs until they were truly complete. And anyone listening to the album is sure to feel parts are missing or that “Bug” was not finished. But the fact is there is nothing really missing, and the record is as complete as pretty much any mainstream release. The noisy, chaotic, and lazy mess is just how Dinosaur Jr. operates; and although that has certainly kept them out of the top of the charts, it has also made their greatness even more interesting. And that quality has never found a better display than “Bug”.

five

Punisher

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Album: Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers

Released: June 17th, 2020

Highlights: Garden Song, Kyoto, Chinese Satellite, I Know the End

“Punisher”, the second album by indie rock singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, derives its title from a quirky concept coined by the girl herself. In her mind, the term refers to a person who – as sweet as they may be – is completely unable to tell that those who are listening are not that interested in what is being said; and, as a consequence of that unawareness, the speaker simply keeps on talking without noticing they are the source of some social discomfort. As Phoebe puts it, a punisher can either be somebody one meets at a party and cannot stop rambling about bothersome topics or even a fan who, delighted at crossing paths with their idol, is too excited by the experience to even consider the source of their admiration might be busy, tired, or momentarily closed to interactions.

As an artist, it seems obvious Phoebe created the term out of personal experiences, since she is – after all – a human of some fame, which has undoubtedly caused her to be approached in less than ideal occasions. However, the album’s title song smartly shifts roles, putting the singer herself in the position of the one that is dishing out the punishment. And as a homage to her greatest inspiration, the person that is targeted by her uncontrolled mouth in the scenario imagined during the tune is none other than Elliott Smith, the legendary indie folk singer who died in 2003. Having lived close to Phoebe’s Los Angeles neighborhood before his passing, she imagines cornering him by his house and shudders at the mess she would make out of the situation.

Comparisons between Bridgers and Smith are nothing new, as they have been around since the girl’s 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps”; and Phoebe, even before writing “Punisher”, was never shy about who her biggest source of inspiration is. It is possible to say, though, that whatever parallels exist between the two artists – and they are certainly there – similarities have been somewhat over-amplified. In “Punisher”, Bridgers calls herself “A copycat killer with a chemical cut”, but the truth is her music is distant from Elliott’s. Smith was a folk singer at heart, one whose tunes of sorrow could be perfectly replicated when he sat on a stool with his acoustic guitar and almost whispered through a torrent of miserable words. Phoebe, on the other hand, is part of a far more developed indie scene, one with shiny production, full-band arrangements, and effects that add atmosphere to an intimate setting.

Rightfully, one could say that the passing of more than twenty years is responsible for that shift, as during that time the indie movement went on from being on the fringes of rock to the center stage; and such change in position transformed its aesthetic from garage lo-fi to delicate pop craft. Yet, the fact remains that the point in which the work of Phoebe truly meets that of Elliott is in the emotional realm. These are two artists that hold, in their writing, the ability to summarize devastating feelings in concise statements. They do not construct images carefully; they pile emotions on top of each other, remembering scenes in a fragmented dream-like manner in which every frame of the disconnected plot they retell was engraved in their heart thanks to the burning intensity of a feeling.

It is with that skill at full display that Phoebe returns in “Punisher”, and once more – as it was the case with Elliott – one has to wonder if the singer will be able to support the weight she carries on her shoulders. There is certainly a great deal of strength within her as well as an admirable courage in the fact she is able to be so open about it all, but the tunes are so delicate and her voice so frail that the breaking point always seems to be around the corner. As “Punisher” goes on, Phoebe checks all the boxes one would expect out of a sad album, including failed relationships, death, and depression. However, she adds to the pile some more unique and rather personal stories, including the lack of faith alluded to in “Chinese Satellite”; caring and trying to rescue a destructive person from their own demons in “Graceland Too”; feeling drowned by a mountain of terrible current affairs to the point one is sure the apocalypse is nigh in “I Know the End”; and, of course, the anxious awkward encounter of the title cut.

It is a lot of turmoil, but the weight of “Punisher” does not come solely from the fact it talks about sad matters; it also originates from how genuine Phoebe is as an interpreter and writer. There is little doubt she has gone through all feelings described here; this is no flowery storytelling. And the frailty of most tunes augments that perception. Guitars are always picked or plucked, rarely being strummed at all; the rhythmic low-end of the songs is created by a conjunction of occasional pulses as well as atmospheric effects by numerous tasteful synthesizers; and keyboards add a relaxing backing luster to the tunes, making them float in the air as if the instruments were being played on the surface of the Moon. In the middle of that aural magic, numbed by hurt, Phoebe painfully whispers like somebody who is watching a sad slow-motion film of her life passing through her mind.

Although consistent in mood and pace, “Punisher” finds ways to occasionally break out of the pattern that dominates it, a progress that makes it slightly better than its good but overly monotonic predecessor. “Kyoto” is a pleasant surprise, a tune in which Phoebe makes use of her band to rock out a little and go for a slightly faster tempo, which nicely suits the theme of disorientation seen in the track; in addition, the song is made brighter by the use of a brass section and both an infectious rhythm and a soaring chorus that make it perfect for radio play. “Chinese Satellite” adds more intensity to its chorus each time around, eventually throwing violins, frantic drums, and a noisy guitar into the mixture. “ICU” has a chaotic start-and-stop steady beat that owes a bit to The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”. “Graceland Too” is catchy misery with a country tinge. And “I Know the End” has almost half of its running time dedicated to an epic cathartic sing-along outro that borrows from the indie rock playbook.

Overall, it is awfully difficult to find fault with “Punisher”. It is a concise work of great thematic and musical cohesion. Furthermore, it has no obviously weak cuts, even if some of its slower parts at times flirt with merging with one another in their lethargic beauty. As great as it may be, though, it is possible to say the defining work of Phoebe’s career is still – hopefully – ahead of her, because the one element that “Punisher” lacks is a unique creative spark to further separate it from the scene that originated it. Although not quite the copycat of Elliott Smith she shames herself for being, in wading through the terrain of well-produced indie sadness, Phoebe navigates too close to what a listener expects out of a genre that has been very omnipresent during the past years. And even if melodically and lyrically she is a point out of the curve, the music has yet to find a truly remarkable breakthrough. Consequently, “Punisher” is just about flawless, but its perfection is excessively grounded on what has been done before.

four

Never For Ever

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Album: Never for Ever

Artist: Kate Bush

Released: September 8th, 1980

Highlights: Babooshka, Delius, Army Dreamers, Breathing

Although not yet twenty when she sat down to put together her debut, Kate Bush was confident enough in her artistic vision to make sure that those around her – be them record engineers or executives in suits – became aware that she would fight to take ownership of her career. It is not that she did not appreciate the helping hands of the people who, amazed by her talent, played a key role in getting her a contract as well as in shaping her initial recordings, a cast of major rock figures that included Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. It is just that Kate knew that her ideas were so personal and unique that she would have to not only overcome a high degree of resistance, but also take control of the whole creative process in order to make her idealized musical concepts materialize as accurately as possible.

Case in point, when the initial single of her first album was being prepared, the record company pushed for the good yet standard-sounding “James and the Cold Gun” to be picked; Bush, however, famously stood her ground and made a case for the selection of the more ambitious “Wuthering Heights” instead, a daring choice that paid off when the song climbed to the top of the charts, stayed there for four weeks, and went on to become a pop classic. Despite the evident proof of her artistic tact, complete control over her work would take a bit longer to come. Kate’s debut, “The Kick Inside” was naturally not produced by her. Meanwhile, due to pressure from the label, which wanted to ride on the existing wave of success, the follow-up (“Lionheart) would be made too quickly. As such, the singer was not given enough time to develop fresh ideas, having to use older tunes and recycle the sound of “The Kick Inside”.

But then came “Never for Ever”. Released two years after “Lionheart”, it marks the moment when Kate Bush takes over, therefore emerging like the turning point that would down the line enable the creation of historical out-of-the-box classics like “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Besides writing the tunes and performing them, Bush also produces the album alongside Jon Kelly; creates most of the arrangements; and plays, in addition to her usual piano, a horde of different synthesizers. These are all considerable shifts, but more important than what is written on the record’s credits is how it sounds like, and the change is absolutely notable.

“The Kick Inside” and “Lionheart” were tastefully produced. Yet, despite Kate’s eccentricity, which channels her pop songwriting into artistic performances, these records ultimately sounded like pop albums from the 1970s. It is a characteristic that makes them be true to when they were made; at the same time, though, such trait threatens to turn Kate Bush into just another run-of-the-mill pop act. “Never for Ever”, on the other hand, runs no such risk. Sure, to a contemporary listener there are a few synthesizer textures and vocal arrangements that will seem dated, but “Never for Ever” sounds thoroughly unique as it hops from genre to genre or pulls them together to form weird little babies. Here, Kate drinks from classical music, progressive pop, and rock to land on a fabric that is much truer to her essence, consequently highlighting the theatrical aspects of her music, which manages to be simultaneously appropriate for a stage, a cabaret, and a chamber.

Naturally, the production cannot be solely credited for the artistic leap of “Never for Ever”, as in many instances it is the nature of the compositions themselves that ends up calling for a different treatment. Nowhere in her first two albums had Kate written anything as sparse as “Delius”, as operatic as “The Infant Kiss”, and as filled with movements as “Breathing”. Because of that, the first is so ethereal that it seems to anticipate the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins, with nearly indecipherable vocal inflections included, by at least one year, and that description is also quite suitable for “Blow Away”, the next track in the album’s sequence; meanwhile, the second starts like a piano ballad before quickly revealing it is actually a dramatic orchestrated piece that might as well have been extracted from the key emotional scene of a musical; and the third is a series of beautifully disjointed passages which slowly rise to catharsis connected by the same overall melody, hence coming off as mini-suite.

Interestingly, in many instances the unusual constructions presented by the songs are a reflection of the equally unique themes Kate brings to the table, meaning that they work like musical representations of the lyrics. “Egypt” boasts a dream-like aura and is backed by a guitar soloing notes that immediately recall the country; yet, it features a haunting chaotic coda that nods to the conflicts and poverty present in a nation that is idealized as a touristic destination by many. “The Wedding List”, inspired by the movie “The Bride Wore Black”, has a woman going on a killing rampage as she searches for the five men who killed the groom on the day they were to be married, and as the driving verses depict her vengeful intents, the foggy choruses show how the press and public perceive her quest. “Army Dreamers” is brilliantly arranged and sung like a lullaby, but its marching waltz progression underscores the suffering of a mother who lost her young son when he was called upon to fight a war. And the junction of beauty and horror that the alternating passages of “Breathing” have serves to speak of a baby that will be born into a world poisoned with nuclear fallout.

Most of the eleven songs that make up the album follow this pattern of structural flexibility, which is greatly responsible for giving “Never for Ever” the progressive soul that best defines, but in the midst of this complexity, Kate also opens up a bit of space for more direct tunes. Despite the pronounced fretless bass that gives its piano-led verses a jazz undertone, “Babooshka” is pure pop glory straight from the 1980s, with an energetic performance by Kate’s band and well-placed synthesizers adorning it nicely. “All We Ever Look For” may have kooky instrumentation (including whistling) and a weird break with sound effects, but it is a controlled slice of psychedelia. Finally, “Violin”, which is best described as a fast-paced rock tune accompanied by the titular instrument, shows that the singer – who was admired by none other than John Lydon himself – was perhaps not totally immune to the punk phenomenon.

Truthfully, not everything in “Never for Ever” works. “Egypt” is clever conceptually, but it lacks a melodic hook to make it worth it. “The Wedding List” is one of those moments when Kate’s eccentric spirit gets the best of her, as the tune feels convoluted. And such oddity also affects “Violin”, in which her unique tongue-in-cheek vocal approach to the song flirts with annoyance or parody. Rough spots such as these cause “Never for Ever” to fall below the upper echelon of Kate Bush’s work, meaning that although it is an essential part of her discography, it is no match for what would follow, especially “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Yet, it will forever remain as the moment when the little girl from Devon started to stretch her arms widely enough to control all aspects of her work, kicking off the transformation from singer to musical legend that would soon come.

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.

Real Gone

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Album: Real Gone

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: October 3rd, 2004

Highlights: Hoist That Rag, Don’t Go into That Barn, Dead and Lovely, Make It Rain, Day After Tomorrow

As Tom Waits transitioned from the inebriated, gloomy, and raspy-voiced man who sang late at night in a bar full of desperate souls looking for consolation in a drink to the mad junkyard prowler who seemed to make music with recycled spare parts, one element of his art stood as a solid rock unaffected by the massive changes going on around it: his trusty piano. Whether as the leading heart of gut-wrenching ballads or as the backbone of an orchestra of circus musicians and back-alley beggars, it was by using the instrument that Waits channeled the soul, jazz, and – especially – blues traditions into the alcohol-soaked misery of his early years as well as into the cursed cabaret music found in the later half of his career.

In “Real Gone”, though, probably looking for a brand new approach to composition and arrangements, Waits drops his piano by the same dump in which he likely picked up the tools his band had been working with since “Swordfishtrombones”, from 1983. And for the first time ever, in his fifteenth studio album, the singer-songwriter spends a whole record without sitting on a stool to either pour his sadness onto the keys or bang them wildly. As a consequence, in a career that carries a great deal of musical variety in spite of its aesthetic constancy, the 2004 release threatens to rank as Waits’ most uniquely sounding effort. Such major break, however, cannot be solely attributed to the absence of the piano.

Spiritually, “Real Gone” features a strong connection with both 1993’s “Bone Machine” and 1999’s “Mule Variations”. From the latter, it boasts the quite distinctive feeling that, with the exception of a few techniques that give it a more modern coating, the music it contains is coming from almost a century ago: its instruments creak, its production is dry, and as if transmitted by an old radio that has trouble grasping its signal, it sounds distant and corroded by static. Meanwhile, from the former, it borrows a demeanor that is simultaneously ferocious, loud, and dark; “Real Gone”, like “Bone Machine”, feels like it was recorded in one of the waiting rooms leading to hell, and it is so proud of its rowdy ways that, not satisfied with producing one vicious racket, it also opts to spit it all right in the face of its listeners.

The method “Real Gone” uses to reach those qualities is, however, distinct from the ones employed by those other classics of the singer’s catalog. Its grainy and aged aura emerges from the fact its pair of producers, Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits himself, have opted to take a visibly lo-fi route here: none of the pieces that make up the music of “Real Gone” sound as they should in normal conditions, with the voice of Waits and the guitar work of the always masterful Marc Ribot coming off incredibly distorted and the percussion clanging like big metal trash cans. Even more unique, though, is how the record achieves its moments of aggressive racket: in these, “Real Gone” gains a nigh industrial core that is neatly summarized by the title of the brief interlude “Clang Boom Steam”, as these tunes move forward as if musically propelled by a noisy machine that is leaking gas and oil all over the place.

Amusingly, much of the sonic lunacy in these wilder songs is reached in outrageous ways: more specifically, through the usage of turntables and beatboxing. The first tool is not that ubiquitous, only showing up in opener “Top of the Hill” as well as in “Metropolitan Glide”, but it leaves a considerable mark thanks to how unexpected it is, adding an urban, funky, and modernized luster that rather than diminishing the value of Waits’ usually idiosyncratic performances only ends up augmenting it thanks to the dissonance between his organic traditional musical sources and the delightfully out of place disc scratching that accompanies these two tracks. The beatboxing, on the other hand, is more pervasive, as Waits explores the application of his mouth (and the wonderfully disturbing sounds it can make) as a percussive instrument; he spits, scats, growls, blows, gargles, and clears his throat through almost half of the album, and the result is a symphony of human horror that suits the menacing soul of his blues and folk-based compositions quite well, especially in the tale of slave-trade told in “Don’t Go into That Barn”.

Like any Tom Waits album, “Real Gone” has plenty of quieter tunes to build a more comfortable – yet not so welcoming either – counterpart to the cuts in which it flat out bangs. In the tracks of the sort that are found here, Waits appears like the old and weary bandleader of a rural outfit that travels around in a rickety chariot spreading some darkness through already gloomy pieces of the land. Songs such as “Sins of My Father”, “How’s It Going to End”, “Dead and Lovely”, “Trampled Rose”, and “Green Grass” are tales of death, despair, and crime told through incredibly well-formed and scrambled imagery. And without exception, they are backed up with basic, steady, and sparse acoustic instrumentation. Surely, every once in a while, the electric guitar of Marc Ribot pops up to deliver a fantastic lick, but mostly they are led by banjos and acoustic guitars that sound so old it feels like they could fall apart at any moment, while Waits sings like he could meet the same fate.

As a statement to the good taste and talent of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, there is little to nitpick about the seventy minutes of music held by “Real Gone”. One could attack the unnecessary nature of the instrumental-only beatboxing of “Clang Boom Steam” and “Chick a Boom”, but they are so brief it hardly matters. Furthermore, it is possible to point at the length of “Sins of the Father”, which goes on for ten minutes, as excessive; but although the song does not have enough instrumental muscle to go such distance, it certainly makes up for it in the story it tells. And in a way, the same applies to “Circus”, which can be accused of being the dullest shot Waits has ever taken at spoken-word, but that exudes one alluring vibe nonetheless.

“Real Gone” is, when it is all said and done, one string of successes, and they come in many flavors. Whether he is emulating a death-metal-singing pirate to the sway of Caribbean rhythms in “Hoist that Rag”; scaring everyone in the neighborhood with the dancing lo-fi word-association of “Shake It”; screaming at the top of his lungs from heartbreak over the nasty blues groove of “Make It Rain”; or tackling, with surprising candidness, sweetness, and straightforwardness the horrors of the Iraq War through the acoustic-folk take on the sad journey of a soldier in “Day After Tomorrow”, the Tom Waits of “Real Gone” is not just a master of his craft, but also a man that shows an uncanny ability to innovate within the tight confines of the mad musical universe he built for himself to exist in.

A Kiss In The Dreamhouse

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Album: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse

Artist: Siouxsie and the Banshees

Released: November 6th, 1982

Highlights: Cascade, She’s a Carnival, Melt, Painted Bird

Despite often – and rightly so – being labeled as one of the forging forces of the gothic rock movement, Siouxsie and the Banshees were rarely strangers to the concept of light. It is undeniable that when the band started their career with the sequence of “The Scream” and “Join Hands”, there was little space in the ominous darkness of their work for some luminosity to break through. But by the time their third effort, “Kaleidoscope”, came out, the idea that there was not enough room for artistic creation in the tight corner in which they had originated seemed to be quite clear in the minds of the band members, and so Siouxsie and the Banshees began to expand their sound in order to allow light to leak into the music.

To a point, such evaluation could be made about any gothic rock outfit that lived long enough to question themselves about the direction in which they should go next; eventually, in most cases, the music got brighter. But following “Kaleidoscope”, Siouxsie and the Banshees developed a very unique relationship with light. The Cure, their most popular followers, for instance, would go on to constantly operate inside the extreme dichotomy of utter gloom and joyous bubblegum pop, producing songs that were entirely in only one of those two camps. For Siouxsie and the Banshees, though, light and darkness never achieved total domination over one another, transforming most of their discography – especially their classic run – into a display of how those two elements could coexist.

During that period, there is little doubt that “Juju”, their fourth album, stands as the strongest proof of that formula’s greatness, as the popularity of singles “Spellbound” and “Arabian Nights” ought to confirm. But it is its successor, “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, that qualifies as the most interesting piece, because in it what is bright and what is sinister converge in rather intense states. The result of that radical mixture is a record that although firmly anchored in the post-punk tradition is also able to drive straight into psychedelia; merging the grayness of the British industrial towns that generated angry and dark acts such as The Fall, with the daring artistic extravagance of someone like Kate Bush.

The despondent post-punk undercurrent comes from the mechanical clank of the drums and bass; as it happens in the songs of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ contemporaries, Joy Division, these instruments loom tall, serving as the body of the tracks and broadcasting an uncomfortable aura thanks to their inhumanly steady plod. Meanwhile, the colors come from what is built on top of that framework, which – in the case of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” – turns out to be quite a lot. Specifically, the album is not notable because it brings keyboards and strings into the equation; the former had already been used to great effect in “Kaleidoscope” and the latter only appear in two songs. “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is actually remarkable due to how audacious it is sonically, as its tunes – straightforward in construction – are decorated by layers of noises, overdubs, and effects that lend the pop contours of the band’s music one lush body.

The oddity of the parts greatly benefits from the versatility of Siouxsie Sioux herself, a woman that could sing – without ever feeling out of place – in a graveyard, at an avant-garde music festival, at a pop show, or in an opera house. And throughout “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, the singer and the Banshees make good use of that wide palette. Over a hypnotic and robotic duel of bass and guitar, “Cascade” dramatically builds to its chorus three times; and in every instance, it does so differently, with new instrumental lines and noises appearing in each run. “Green Fingers” takes a similar approach, but rather than feeling like a build-up, it is more of a constant rush adorned by occasional distorted hums and one quirky psychedelic hook played by a recorder. “Obsession”, meanwhile, follows the opening pair with industrial minimalism; part sinister march and part haunted nursery rhyme, the song is a repetitive melodic line sung over what appears to be a rainy landscape which is punctuated by a beat constituted of a guitar and a bell, as well as by the occasional appearances of menacing strings.

“She’s a Carnival” brings a radical shift of pace and mood to the album, throwing listeners into a hyperactive celebration of love that perfectly captures the vibe of the song’s festive title. In “Circle”, on the other hand, the once happy carnival seems to have taken a disturbing turn; led by a keyboard that plays what is best described as the sound a carousel makes when it is either broken or stuck in a bizarre time loop, the tune is a dissonant mass of elements that clash as Siouxsie sings about how children are negatively affected by the bad behaviors of their parents. “Melt” takes “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” back to the denser atmosphere of its first few tunes with a wide and majestic dream pop song that is, in both lyrics and music, drenched in sexual pleasure.

“Painted Bird” is, in the vein of “She’s a Carnival”, another slice of energetic pop rock, but in it the omnipresent darkness is more palpable, not only because of the grand cutting guitar line played by John McGeoch and the discomforting vocal overdubs by Siouxsie, but also due to how the song deals with the shocking story present in the book of the same title, where a man paints birds in a different color and returns them to their flock only to see them killed by their peers. “Cocoon” is bepop jazz but with a twist worthy of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, as the band appears to improvise a simple shuffle over a thick layer of odd sound effects and an echo-laden atmosphere. And “Slowdive”, which merges crude post-punk instrumentation and strings, describes a dance that – thanks to the moves it includes and the song it should be performed to – is ideal for a decrepit club whose attendees are mentally deranged or greatly affected by drugs.

There are times when the off-the-wall experimentation of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” dents it to different degrees: “Circle”, though conceptually excellent, verges on annoying because of the cycle in which its keyboards are stuck and of its length; “Cocoon” is a unique take on jazz, but could have benefited from firmer hooks; “Obsession” has a captivating melody, but its instrumentation could have been more developed; and “Slowdive” works as a post-punk dance number, but does not really leave any considerable marks. However, when “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is firing on all cylinders, it displays one of the finest and most inventive bands of the era doing what they did best; that is, packaging both light and darkness into accessible songs that push the envelope in artistic terms but retain an irresistible appeal. Siouxsie and the Banshees may have produced a few records that are better than “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”; they have, though, never been as fascinating, jarring, psychedelic, and extreme as they were in their fifth release.

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.

Homegrown

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Album: Homegrown

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 2020

Highlights: Separate Ways, Try, Homegrown, White Line, Vacancy

As a result of the ever-shifting tireless mind of Neil Young, many have been the projects that – during his long career – have either failed to gain enough traction to get out of the ground or simply been left lying complete on the cutting floor of the editing room of his prolificness. And though a quick survey among his fans is bound to elicit a number of endeavors whose non-fulfillment have left them frustrated, when asked to choose one between those they would want to have access to the most, the biggest slice would be likely to point to “Homegrown”, an album Young put together in the middle of the 70s and that was so prepared for release that it even had received an album cover. However, right when it was about to be green-lighted into the market, Neil – as he is wont to do – changed his mind and left it behind.

The reasons why “Homegrown” has always had such a legendary status are numerous and understandable. For starters, it was produced by Young during the 70s, a decade when he chained a sequence of incredible albums that has hardly been matched. Furthermore, as the artist’s lore says, the record was scrapped in favor of the masterful “Tonight’s the Night” following a listening session when the two were played back-to-back and Neil opted for the latter because he perceived “Homegrown” as an unbearable downer; and considering “Tonight’s the Night” is itself utterly dark, such comment generated curiosity. Finally, general descriptions of the work have been published throughout the years, with Jimmy McDonough in Young’s biography, “Shakey”, talking about each track and Neil himself saying “Homegrown” was the missing link between his three country albums (“Harvest”, “Old Ways”, and “Harvest Moon”), two of which rank among his greatest successes.

As of this year, Neil Young fans can stop wondering and start listening, because nearly half a century after “Homegrown” was tackled yards away from reaching the audience, it has finally been released to the general public. And although the assessment made by Neil regarding the album’s style pointed to good old country, just like the record’s iconic cover, what comes out of “Homegrown” is a weird blend between “Harvest” and “Tonight’s the Night”. From the first, it gets the crispy acoustic value of the genre, its harmonies, and its instrumentation: case in point, besides Neil himself, the most prominent musician in the album is the always magical Ben Keith, who brings a dobro, slide guitars, and backing vocals to the table. From the second, meanwhile, it borrows the feeling of drugged despondency, as its acoustic numbers are so frail they frequently threaten to break and its electric tracks reek of the emotional abandon of “Tonight’s the Night”.

In fact, “Homegrown” at times feels disjointed. Over the years, the record’s tracklist surfaced in many forms, with songs coming in and dropping out of what was supposed to be the finalized album with such a speed that it revealed the work’s nature was foggy to all parts. The now officially released version is one that is very rough around the edges; such quality, it is worthy pointing out, has always been present in Young’s best works. But in “Homegrown” it seems to be more glaring than ever: the twelve tunes are mostly very brief; a few, like the piano-and-voice “Mexico”, feel underdeveloped; and “Florida”, a lo-fi spoken-word retelling of a hallucinatory dream or drug trip that is accompanied by the playing of wine glasses, feels like a quirky B-side.

It may sound like criticism, and at some points that spirit does detract from the album, but Neil and his crew sure know how to make the rambunctiousness work in their favor. Take, for example, the ironically titled “We Don’t Smoke It No More”: built on a traditional blues pattern that is held for five minutes, it is mostly a loose instrumental that eventually reaches a couple of verses when Neil and the group basically state they have quit drugs. The decadent smoky vibe, however, very much the same one that was prevalent in “Tonight’s the Night”, says otherwise, and with all of those involved being clearly quite stoned, a listener cannot help but both applaud the jubilant vibe the band keeps and feel some of that joy as well. Other great, though creatively superior, moments of rowdy drug-fueled rock emerge in the excellent “Vacancy”, a galloping electric tune that is reminiscent of “World on a String” from “Tonight’s the Night”; and the title song, which had already seen the light of day in 1977’s “American Stars ‘n Bars”, but that here gains a looser and more interesting version.

On its acoustic tracks, the record also features a few songs that Neil ended up putting out in albums that followed the shelving of “Homegrown”. “Love Is a Rose” is a short folk tune with a sweet simple melody and some harmonica, and it was released – in the same version that appears here – in the compilation “Decade”. Similarly, the haunting beautiful dirge of “Little Wing” had shown up in 1980’s “Hawks & Doves” and “Star of Bethlehem”, which features gorgeous harmonies by country legend Emmylou Harris, was also present in “American Stars ‘n Bars”. More notable is the case of “White Line”, published in 1990 as a vicious rocker and one of the highlights in the excellent “Ragged Glory”, it emerges in “Homegrown” in its original form: a stripped down unplugged take with Robbie Robertson accompanying Young on guitar that serves to make it even more clear that the track has one of the best melodies ever coined by a songwriter who is a master of the craft.

Speaking of impressive melodies, “Homegrown” holds three marvelous gems that only an artists of the caliber of Young would have dared not to release for over forty years. Opener “Separate Ways” recalls “Out on the Weekend” from “Harvest”: anchored on a steady basic beat, barely driven forward by crispy guitars, and haunted by the touching pedal steel of Ben Keith, it is one of those sad part folk part country tunes that took Young to stardom. “Try” has a similar construction, but although the singer still sounds absolutely defeated, the more positive lyrics, an eventual rising piano, and the backing vocals of Emmylou Harris sprinkle some color into the misery. Finally, “Kansas”, which has nothing but one guitar and voice, is utter dark misery, the one fans would expect from Young during the “On the Beach” and “Tonight’s the Night” era.

It goes without saying, but “Homegrown” ends up not living up to the expectations that surrounded it. After all, there are not many records out there that could have delivered material to match a legendary status that was built for almost half a century. And, in fact, if put side by side with much of Neil Young’s output during the 70s, it would be closer to the bottom of the list than to the top. Some of its impact is certainly lost due to how a slice of its tracks had already been heard either as they appear here or in a slightly different format. Moreover, its little flaws are hard to deny. Yet, likewise, the same can be said for its greatness: it is simply inescapable. The decision to release “Tonight’s the Night” in its place might have indeed been the correct one, as that album is clearly much better. But denying the world of the beauty, misery, wildness, and excellence of “Homegrown” for so long was a mistake: one that Neil, as the artist and originator of these tracks, had the all the right to make, but one that has thankfully been corrected.

On Avery Island

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Album: On Avery Island

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Released: March 26th, 1996

Highlights: Song Against Sex, Where You’ll Find Me Now, Naomi, April 8th

There is nothing incredibly romantic about the Avery Island that lends its name to the first album by Neutral Milk Hotel. In the real world, it is nothing but a salt dome covered by swampy land and surrounded by the bayous of Louisiana. However, the combination of the record’s cover, depicting a distorted yet colorful carnival, and the music contained within it, constructed by Jeff Mangum and given flight by the arrangements and production of Robert Schneider, materializes the image of a whimsical but odd location. In it, as if unable to grow up when confronted with the sheer brutality of the world, the playful innocence of childhood has – instead – been corrupted and driven wild, retreating to a somewhat safe realm that it has created for its own sake.

It goes without saying that many are the elements of “On Avery Island” that contribute towards forming that image; a work of art that is this consistently themed cannot, after all, be built on a single trick. But most of the credit for that achievement has got to be attributed to the talent of Jeff Magnum. The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and – by the time the album was recorded – only official member of Neutral Milk Hotel approaches serious topics, such as suicide and the heartbreaks generated via what he perceives as meaningless sex, by using words and sentences that exhibit a degree of naivete, as if he were unable to comprehend those subjects thoroughly or express himself without being clumsy. And to boost that frail nature, he proceeds to sing his lyrics with a visible vulnerability that is somehow coated in the layers of self-defense which are only exhibited by those who have dealt with these troubled matters way too often.

In spite of the awkward surface, though, there is not – almost miraculously – anything uncomfortable about the way Jeff Magnum approaches those points; he comes off, instead, as likable and sensitive. Consequently, the blows land fiercely. When writing about the death of his grandmother and the regret he felt for not being there beside her when it happened, for instance, he uses the simple imagery of one who has just recently learned the concept of spirituality, singing “As her spirit is climbing / Through the hospital wall and away / And I wanted to hold you / As you made your escape”. Delivered with so much sweetness and with a voice whose lack of formal qualities adds a high degree of sincerity to the feeling described, one cannot help but be moved by it.

Given the fragile quality that underlines the album, it would be easy to picture Magnum quietly going through the tunes of “On Avery Island” while sitting on a bench and shyly strumming an acoustic guitar. The work, however, carries a noisy lo-fi aesthetic that gives a totally unique edge to the material. It is not, of course, that the recording style was a stranger to the indie rock genre. Earlier in the same decade when Neutral Milk Hotel put out their only two efforts, the boys from Pavement had already built a successful career on such sounds, and “On Avery Island” does have a bit of a lazy lethargic aura that could draw comparisons to Stephen Malkmus’ group. The originality of the album actually stems from the unlikely pairing of the folk heart of the tunes with the noisier side of the lo-fi ethos.

With three exceptions, Magnum’s voice barely gets a rest from having to climb over thick walls of feedback to be heard. On some occasions, they come in temporary bursts, which is what happens in “You’ve Passed”, where the wave of noise rises and falls back as the electric guitar is punctually strummed. Mostly, though, the barrage is a relentless attack, giving these songs, which are very much pop and melodic at their core, a heavy distorted underbelly. It is a move that creates a constant mixture of irresistible hooks and nigh-hardcore buzz, one whose closest widely known comparison is perhaps the first trio of albums released by Weezer; with the difference being, naturally, that where Rivers Cuomo is a power pop fanatic who is unavoidably awkward, Jeff Magnum is merely a reserved guy who drinks from folk.

His brand of folk, though, is not just noisy. It is also filtered through a very well-constructed psychedelic lens. It is through it, in fact, that “On Avery Island” gains the carnival contours that appropriately fit in with its cover, complementing the innocent wonder of Jeff Magnum’s lyrics. Adorning the record’s sonic assault are keyboards and horns that bring an extra wacky component to the already frantic music; and while the electronic sounds of the former instrument make it seem like the theme park’s carousel is spinning uncontrollably in slow-motion, the brass gives off the impression that the place’s marching band has collectively spiraled out of its mind due to an unfortunate blend of drugs. In addition, this psychedelic value carried by “On Avery Island” is also responsible for firmly tying all of the tracks together, as thanks to the way the tunes smoothly transition between one another the record feels like an atomic whole, further establishing a powerful aesthetic coherence.

In this wild imaginary space built during “On Avery Island”, the introspective and the noisy stand side by side comfortably. The album’s three quietest cuts – the mostly acoustic trio of “A Baby for Pree”, “Three Peaches”, and “April 8th” – are sad delicate beauty, but even if they are more soothing than the rest of the songs on the record, they are not without their share of weird sounds as the last two have low drone-like hums that add a haunting aura to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the work’s more cacophonous side, although quite uniform, smartly draws from different sources: “Song Against Sex” is a torrent of words and images delivered in ways that challenge the concept of metric, vaguely recalling what Bob Dylan tends to do; “You’ve Passed” sounds plodding, threatening, and exotic, with its dissonant instrumentation recalling “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground; “Gardenhead” is so reckless and heavy it almost qualifies as hardcore; and the sweet melody of “Naomi”, when paired up with its slower pace, nods to the more emotional branches of punk.

At times, the conceptual psychedelic side of “On Avery Island” happens to get the best of it. Clocking in at a ridiculous thirteen minutes, closer “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” is motionless instrumental noise and reeks of unnecessary indulgence. “A Baby for Pree” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” are essentially the same song, with the latter being the much better and more developed version of the former. And “Someone Is Waiting” is more of a coda to “You’ve Passed” than a standalone track. One might say instances such as these, besides contributing to the album’s thematic cohesion, also go along with its ramshackle lo-fi vibe, and that argument is certainly not invalid. Nonetheless, they indicate that, as fully formed as it may sound, “On Avery Island” is not the full realization of a musical idea. Such peak would only truly come with its sequel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”; regardless of that shortcoming, though, Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut is one incredible musical trip down a rabbit hole of corrupted innocence.

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”.