Setting Sons

setting_sons

Album: Setting Sons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 16th, 1979

Highlights: Thick as Thieves, Wasteland, Burning Sky, The Eton Riffles

Like many other great bands, The Jam nailed the process of making a record right out of the gate, as their debut, “In the City”, is deservingly held in very high regard. However, it can be argued that the trio’s work in that first effort falls onto a bit of an odd middle-ground: it is by all means a fantastic and classic start, but one would not be criticized for saying the group had yet to find a voice at that point. The reason for that, of course, has to do with the timing of its release and the nature of its content: coming out in 1977, at the height of the punk fever and one month following The Clash’s debut, the album’s focus on punchy power-chord riffs and its touches of political thought meant that Paul Weller’s gang was too close to their peers for comfort. And because of that, although “In the City” certainly speaks volumes about the singer and guitarist’s knack for songwriting through its hooks, the record still runs the risk of being seen as a product that emulated the music of its time to a larger-than-desirable degree.

By the release of “Setting Sons”, however, the notion that The Jam could not break away from the crowd had been blown to pieces: not thanks their second album, “This Is the Modern World”, which had actually worked towards giving even more voice to their critics; but due to their third effort, “All Mod Cons”. In it, Weller emerged like a punk version of The Kinks’ Ray Davies; that is, someone who is able to make resounding points – in his case, political – via a nigh literary look at British characters and situations. To boot, he and his band had risen to the occasion and delivered a more nuanced musical package, because, sure, there was still plenty of punk rock in there: a better term does not exist to describe the iconic riff of “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. But, at the end of the day, the album opened itself to the influence of new wave and power pop, hinting at the future adventurous spirit that The Jam would display.

As the follow-up to that album, “Setting Sons” expands on that growth: if “All Mod Cons” was flexible, this forth chapter threatens to be eclectic. It is not a radical departure from the past: it does not flirt with post-punk and experimentation in the same way that its successor, “Sound Affects”, would do; and it certainly does not jump into funk and soul like The Jam’s farewell, “The Gift”. As such, when it is all said and done, punk prevails, guitars get the spotlight, and Weller is still rather angry at a number of different targets. But “Setting Sons” showcases a firmer grasp on the ideas that began being explored in “All Mod Cons”, to the point it is possible to say that if the band did indeed find their voice in their third record, in this one they polished it into its finest version.

Simply put, everything in “Setting Sons” shows a greater degree of maturity and inspiration. Paul Weller comes off as a man on a major songwriting streak: there is not a tune in the bunch that goes by without a hook that emits an iconic vibe; therefore, to unaware listeners, this is one of those albums where it is hard to tell what was a hit and what was not. Moreover, in lyrical matters, new topics have emerged while old ones have been enhanced. In the group of fresh subjects, “Thick as Thieves” and “Burning Sky” are tales about lost childhood friendships, but where the former paints the situation in a sad romantic light, the latter goes for a colder approach. Meanwhile, in the set of recurring ideas, there is “Smithers-Jones”, penned by bassist Bruce Foxton, which is an achievement in recreating the dullness of corporate life with beautiful music; and “The Eton Riffles”, which is likely The Jam’s most famous political statement: a brutal criticism of the British class system that looks at the privilege and nasty behavior of those who can afford to go to the country’s best schools.

That is not all, though, because the musical aspect of “Setting Sons” is also incredibly noteworthy. The instrumentation, arrangements, and production are much richer than before, and it is precisely through them that the album manages to surpass “All Mod Cons” in sheer flexibility. At times, the lushness is so considerable that listeners would be excused for thinking they are going through a British guitar pop album from the 1960s, written by forgotten contemporaries of The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles. This is the type of sound The Jam was aiming for here, and although trying to stand beside those giants is no easy task, the band pulls it off – after all, they were in the process of becoming legends themselves. And the benefit of that strategy is astounding because no other punk band was going down that particular road, as those dinosaurs of the past were usually seen by the movement – at least publically – as figures to be avoided. As such, what The Jam cooks here is mostly original.

Yes, there are songs in “Setting Sons” that could have been present in “All Mod Cons” or even “In the City” without feeling like abrupt deviations: opener “Girl on the Phone” is an incredibly catchy slice of punk that flirts with light romantic pop; and “Saturday’s Kids” has pounding riffs, dirty guitars, and an ironic sing-along chorus. But everywhere else, the music is more dynamic. “Thick as Thieves” and “Wasteland” are the definition of anthemic: songs without choruses that keep building in sadness and melodic beauty to a cathartic release. “Private Hell” may concern personal matters, but it sounds like punk apocalypse. “Little Boy Soldiers” manages to be operatic in how it packs different movements in a little more than three minutes. “Burning Sky” is more straightforward, but it uses the looseness of the letter format of its lyrics to equally include numerous melodic shifts that form a punk epic. “Smithers-Jones” is an orchestrated piece of baroque pop that inevitably recalls “Eleanor Rigby”. And “The Eton Riffles” has The Jam employing the album’s instrumental fullness to assemble their heaviest song ever: an angry all-out guitar assault that also happens to be incredibly catchy.

“Setting Sons” is not perfect. Originally conceived as a concept album about a group of three friends who meet again as adults after a non-specified war, the record was not able to deliver on that promise due to a rushed recording schedule. As a consequence, only fragments of that idea survive, in tunes like “Thick as Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, and “Little Boy Soldiers”. But truth be told, that problem does not actually hurt the album, as it will go by unnoticed to those who are not aware of that background. What harms it are little irregularities that, in some cases, are a result of how it had to be put together more quickly than anticipated: “Girl on the Phone” is fantastic and “Saturday’s Kids” is decent, but they do not gel well with the other tracks; “Little Boy Soldiers” is a clever idea that does not quite stick the landing; and the inclusion of the fun cover of the soul classic “Heatwave” to close the record is, like the appearance of “Girl on the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids”, a clear attempt to fill up space.

Yet, “Setting Sons” remains a wonderful achievement that marks a unique encounter between punk rock, new wave, and British guitar pop. And although the race for the title of The Jam’s best album is a hard one due to the consistency of the band’s short discography, their fourth release emerges as a worthy candidate: Paul Weller never wrote such an incredible batch of songs and the group never sounded as sure of their voice as they did here, especially because the trio would go on to disband without having enough time to fully polish the musical direction in which they would go after this album. Because of those qualities, “Setting Sons” should be an essential part of any punk rock, new wave, and guitar pop discography: it exists at the edge of those three sub-genres, and it masters them with class. There are not many other records that can make that claim.

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Icky Thump

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Album: Icky Thump

Artist: The White Stripes

Released: June 19th, 2007

Highlights: Icky Thump, You Don’t Know What Love Is, 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, Rag and Bone

Although creativity is often associated with absolute freedom of expression and the power to explore a boundless artistic expanse, there are times when establishing apparently suffocating constraints on the whole creative process can lead artists to impressive breakthroughs, as they are forced to work with a limited set of tools. For example, take the case of Jack and Meg, of The White Stripes. Setting out from Detroit in 1997, the pair wanted to play blues rock as a way to pay homage to the black musicians deeply admired by guitarist and vocalist Jack White. Although the style was far from being in vogue during that decade, the proposition by itself was not exactly original as by that point rock history had registered plenty of instances when white suburban kids from the United States or from across the Atlantic modernized blues so effectively that they made a fortune out of the venture. Jack and Meg, however, had a slightly different plan, as they opted to tackle that style with nothing but a guitar and drums.

To say that the approach worked would be an understatement: that limited setup made the duo birth a type of blues rock that was punk in its raw delivery, visceral in its no-frills presentation, and accessible thanks to Jack’s ability to write snappy pop melodies to go along with the raucous noise. Moreover, with the recording of four excellent albums in which the band progressively matured that sound whilst sticking to the same radical constraints, they were able to become critical darlings and a considerable commercial force. And it was not until their fifth record, “Get Behind Me Satan”, when Jack and Meg gave themselves the chance to move out of their guitar-and-drums configuration to go for a type of music that while still rooted in traditional American sounds and exhibiting garage ethos, allowed itself to get a bit weirder and stylistically varied.

“Icky Thump”, which closes The White Stripes’ discography and follows the unexpected sounds of “Get Behind Me Satan”, can – especially in the wake of its predecessor – be considered a return to the group’s roots after a short one-album detour. Where “Get Behind Me Satan” had a bunch of piano-centered tracks, not to mention the somewhat sinister marimba-led trip of “The Nurse” as well as the mandolin-based ditty of “Little Ghost”, “Icky Thump” mostly rids itself of stylistic oddities and posits that Jack and Meg still had something of value to extract out of a guitar and a drum-kit. Given the strictness of the setup and the fact that by that point they had already created nearly four hours of good music using it, one would not be considered crazy for betting against the band’s success in that endeavor. “Icky Thump”, though, beats the odds and shows The White Stripes could still break into new ground with their rudimentary approach.

Although labeling “Icky Thump” as a back-to-basics work is not incorrect, the version of The White Stripes seen here is not the same one that had appeared on the 2003 masterpiece “Elephant”. If that were the case, the “Get Behind Me Satan” journey would not have taught Jack and Meg anything worthy; worse yet, because of that, “Icky Thump” would have merely come off as a step back, something that is not very interesting from an artistic standpoint. Thankfully, none of those statements are true, and the reason “Icky Thump” is a meaningful trip to a not-so-distant past, rather than a dull retread, is exactly due to how, here, The White Stripes emerge once more like a garage blues rock duo, but – this time around – they are a band that is not afraid to add some layers and complexity to their primeval racket.

Examples that reveal such characteristic abound throughout “Icky Thump”, but three of its first four songs send that message with a particular clarity. The opening title track is based on a threatening pounding and culminates on an iconic riff that works as a wordless chorus; it is a formula that is not too distant from the one used on the classic “Seven Nation Army”, but the tune has various unpredictable instrumental breaks, including one where Jack improvises on a keyboard, that lend the song a quirky epic structure that suits the strange tale it tells. Clocking in at an unprecedented, for the group, five minutes and a half, “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” is equally filled with brief instrumental breaks, but most of its uniqueness comes from the fact it pulls a new trick in The White Stripes’ catalog, featuring bluesy acoustic verses that are interrupted by guitar freak-outs that make it seem the band is in the middle of the titular storm. Finally, the much briefer “Conquest”, which cleverly compares romantic pursuit to bullfighting, materializes its theme in music by bringing in a Spanish-flavored horn section.

If stripped to their essence, none of these compositions would have felt out of place in a record like “White Blood Cells”, as they display dirty straightforward playing laced with quirky jabs. As such, what fans get out of “Icky Thump” still has a blatant The White Stripes signature all over it. However, the elements that ornate these tracks and their wilder structures could have only been made by the group that went through “Get Behind Me Satan”, as here the duo often disrespects their unwritten guitar-and-drums rule and threatens to sound like an actual full band. And this attitude is nearly omnipresent in “Icky Thump”. It appears in the keyboards that soften “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to the point it becomes the track in the entirety of the band’s discography that comes the closest to being a bona fide – and excellently written – pop rock song. It can be seen in the mandolins and pipes that deliver a Scottish folk flavor to “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn”. And it is vivid in the pair of “I’m Slowly Turning into You” and “A Martyr for My Love for You”, respectively a bitter attack and a ballad, which have their drama accentuated via keyboards.

Of course, being a The White Stripes’ work, “Icky Thump” inevitably embraces the band’s traditions and boasts a light-hearted (and absolutely brilliant) acoustic closer, “Effect and Cause”, as well as a handful of tunes where Jack and Meg – in full attack mode – are left alone with their signature instruments; and out of that bunch, a couple of career highlights emerge in the utterly menacing “Little Cream Soda” and in the theatrical “Rag and Bone”, where the duo exchanges words in the role of junk dealers who try to convince listeners to give them their stuff while rocking proud and loudly. However, even in those more orthodox instances, the band still sounds fuller – albeit thankfully not overproduced to dullness – and the tunes come off as more full-fledged than usual.

“Icky Thump” may not be a peak for The White Stripes, as differently from the band’s trio of best records, the album has a few minor issues: “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn” and “I’m Slowly Turning into You”, which are instrumentally solid, can verge on annoying due to how Jack sings them on an uncomfortable high pitch; “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)” is an experiment that could have been cut; at last, the rocking “Bone Broke” and “Catch Hell Blues” are good but lack a defining trait. Yet, it is truly hard to find a band that waved goodbye to the world as stylishly as The White Stripes did in “Icky Thump”; and more impressive than that is how the record goes back to basics while proving the pair still had plenty to say within that limited style, showing that the guitar-and-drums constraint the pair imposed on themselves early on worked greatly to their benefit until the very end.

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Hallowed Ground

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Album: Hallowed Ground

Artist: Violent Femmes

Released: May 14th, 1984

Highlights: Country Death Song, Never Tell, Jesus Walking on the Water, Hallowed Ground

It is always particularly tricky to firmly single out the point when any musical genre came to existence; after all, like it happens in any art form, rather than occurring in a very defined moment, artistic revolutions unfold little by little, with a myriad of previous rhythms and influences slowly being aggregated and transformed into something that is entirely new. Yet, when the Violent Femmes burst into the scene in 1983, carried by a self-titled debut record that would go on to become a cult classic, they did so on a musical mixture that was pretty unique; to the point it would not be wrong to claim they invented it. Led by Gordon Gano, the trio from Milwaukee landed on a genre that was labeled as folk punk, and although that is a name that might bring images of an acoustic troubadour suddenly electrifying their compositions to tackle some balls-to-the-wall rock and roll (much like Bob Dylan did in 1965, only wilder and with some Iggy Pop thrown into the mix), the whole shtick pulled off by the Violent Femmes was quite different.

Gano and his crew did not use electricity, meaning that the folk portion of the genre attributed to them came from the prominent use of a good old acoustic guitar, the instrument around which absolutely all of their tunes were built. The punk half of the equation, then, was left to be mustered by the two other main variables found in the formula of a rock band: composition and performance. Therefore, it was with the use of that pair that the Violent Femmes birthed a thirty-six-minute showcase of how a good deal of reckless abandon, youthful hormones, angry energy, and sharp concise writing could make an acoustic setup be as punk as a The Clash concert or a trip to CBGB in the mid-70s.

If every true punk rocker needs some sort of fire to be burning inside them, then anyone listening to the Violent Femmes’ debut would quickly conclude that, in Gano’s case, the origin of that flame was none other than adolescent sexual desire. While numerous are the bands that have been started and instruments that have been picked up with the goal of hitting it off with a bunch of girls, the Violent Femmes – in that very first album – seemed to be a megaphone for Gano to vent about his frustrations with the opposite sex, be it his heartbreaks, his unstoppable lust for pretty much any female he came into contact with in high school, or his failed attempts to fulfill his desires. It is material that can be horrifyingly embarrassing, sure, but it is music so simple, so irresistibly catchy, so stupidly fun, and so honest that not singing along to it is almost impossible, even if it is with some tongue-in-cheek thrown into the mix.

Imagine the shock, then, when the horny and somewhat light-hearted group from 1983 decided to, in the next year, start singing about Jesus and follow up their successful first effort with a weird and dark work that owes far more to gospel, country, and Gothic music than to folk or punk. That is what “Hallowed Ground” represents, and although the turn is rather abrupt, Gano has downplayed such transformation, claiming that the songs present here were written and ready to go at about the same time as those of the debut and that, in the end, the band had to choose whether they would begin their discography with the catchy acoustic tracks or the disturbing religion-soaked tunes. Given the difference between the two parts, it is a statement that might be hard to believe, but the truth is that the jovial Violent Femmes of the past can still be perceived in “Hallowed Ground”.

No, listeners will not catch Gano crying over a girl who ignores him here; they are far more likely to hear him refer to a bunch of biblical passages. Yet, these are songs certainly written by the same guy who penned “Violent Femmes”. The jittery melodies and quirky vocal hooks, out of which the Pixies would go on to build a career later on, are still present and they tower over the proceedings, turning these mostly gospel tunes into a strange sort of bubblegum rock. Moreover, especially when the album gets to songs that gravitate around acoustic instrumentation, the unique punk demeanor of its predecessor comes to the surface, because although here the unplugged guitar is usually accompanied by extra elements (like a marimba in “I Hear the Rain” and a whole country outfit in “Jesus Walking on the Water”), there is a recklessness to the performances that subconsciously ties “Hallowed Ground” to the debut.

In fact, stemming from that nature is another piece of the puzzle that allows the Violent Femmes to be far from unrecognizable in this second effort, and that would be how it is incredibly hard to tell if Gano is serious or not about his chosen subject. It is not just the inherent abandon of the band that leads to that question; the silly melodies, the exaggerated feelings exposed in the lyrics, and the wacky singing all contribute to that doubt. As such, if in the self-titled album all of those elements caused the Violent Femmes to come off with a veneer of parody and humor as they exposed their sexual woes, in “Hallowed Ground” it can be hard to tell if the religious undertones of the record are meant to be taken with a straight face, which creates an ambiguity that makes the weirdness all the more appealing. Truth be told, Gano himself has said he had a Christian upbringing and that the biblical nods as well as allusions to Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost are serious. Yet, even armed with that information, a listener can be doubtful because “Hallowed Ground” is simply – and charmingly – very ambivalent.

Nonetheless, as much as it may still hold ties to the band’s past, “Hallowed Ground” undeniably breaks into new ground in multiple ways. The country-flavored acoustic epic tale of “Country Death Song” could, instrumentally, be in the debut, but both its length and its dark five-minute story – which is grounded on the tragedies often tackled by traditional folk music – would make it out of place in that record. Meanwhile, the electric quartet of “Never Tell”, “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say”, “Hallowed Ground”, and “Black Girls” is even wilder. The first is a Gothic seven-minute multi-phased tune, with a cathartic guitar solo included, that encompasses within it an overwhelming amount of darkness. The second is a gentle gospel ballad that could be sung in a church without many lyrical alterations. The third goes back to sinister Gothic terrain, albeit with a leaner structure. And the fourth, which has some questionable lyrics, is a wild guitar-and-brass jam filled with improvisational goodness.

Due to what came before it, it is awfully hard to judge who exactly “Hallowed Ground” was meant to appeal to. The hormone-filled teenagers that sang along to the Violent Femmes’ first record and probably related to the feelings exposed within it were possibly shocked that their favorite horny songwriter had suddenly decided to write about religion. Simultaneously, the crowd who enjoys gospel music is likely to seek artists that do not make it so dark and that are able to write it in a way that makes their devotion blatant rather than questionable. Yet, strange niche audiences do exist, and for those whose ears are open to the odd overlap between punk performance, folk instrumentation, country tinge, Gothic darkness, and religious imagery, “Hallowed Ground” should be a weird delight, because young Gordon Gano sure knew how to write a great hook, and in the Violent Femmes’ second effort they are as abundant as they were in the band’s debut, even if – here – they are dressed in much stranger colors.

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Sadinista!

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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.

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Court And Spark

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Album: Court and Spark

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: January 17th, 1974

Highlights: Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Raised on Robbery

To a point, Joni Mitchell was a clear representative of the hippie dream of the 1960s. Starting her career towards the tail end of that decade, the Canadian singer-songwriter crafted her music in the folk tradition that was such an integral part of that movement. It is true that Joni was rarely a political creature, therefore shying away from writing the kind of material that would lead her genre contemporary Bob Dylan to, much to his horror, be seen as the voice of that generation. Yet, through her demeanor, through her fashion sense, through the imagery evoked by her gentle compositions, and through the randomness of timing, Mitchell’s early folk work is certainly a staple of those pivotal and culturally active years.

At the same time, though, it was easy to see her talent was way too big to be contained solely within that scope. She may have written “Woodstock”, the timeless anthem that will forever stand as an immaculate depiction of the legendary festival and its attendees, but besides famously not singing at the event, the tune is narrated by an outsider that is looking in, as if Joni herself were aware she was not entirely a part of the hippie scene. And anyone who listened carefully to her folk ballads was bound to agree, because her usage of unconventional tunings, the free-flowing nature of her melodies, the vivid scenes she painted with her lyrics, the conversational tones adopted by her characters, and the subject matter of her songs did not belong to the counterculture of the 1960s; they were very much her own.

All of that is to say that Joni Mitchell was never one to adhere to conventions. One may try to label her young self as a hippie folk singer, but doing so is overlooking the depth of what she was pulling off. Not surprisingly, then, given the nature of her artistry, a similar reasoning applies to her 1974 release, “Court and Spark”. Word on the street has it that Joni’s sixth studio work is also her most mainstream one, and there is surely data to back that up: the record received a double platinum certification and is her best-selling work; furthermore, its second single, “Help Me”, was the highest-charting song of a career that spanned four decades. Any observer, consequently, would be tempted to view the album as a direct shot at the commercial tendencies of the time.

Such an evaluation would not be completely wrong. Before “Court and Spark”, Mitchell had already occasionally abandoned the quirky inflections she threw into her folk to pen memorable tracks of blatant accessibility, like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “The Circle Game”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Woodstock”. But “Court and Spark” tips the scale into that direction more heavily than ever, because rather than making a concession to a wide audience in one or two scattershot tunes, it opts to open the floodgates: out of its eleven tracks, four are so immediately catchy that they ought to be featured in any list ranking Joni’s ten most popular songs. Yet, there is much more to “Court and Spark” than the inescapable hooks of “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “Car on a Hill”, and “Raised on Robbery”.

After five albums of elegant and sophisticated folk, “Court and Spark” sees Mitchell starting to open herself up to the genre that would define the later half of her career: jazz. As it happens with early flirts, though, what emerges out of “Court and Spark” is a shy touch. The wild experimentation of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, the epic scale of “Hejira”, and the total dive into jazz seen in “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” are still on the horizon. “Court and Spark”, instead, is a pop album whose acoustic heart is gently decorated with jazz instrumentation, which is a description that should suffice to explain its success.

However, as it is usually the case with Joni Mitchell, there is a catch. At its most accessible, “Court and Spark” is rich, layered, warm, and catchy. Its meticulously crafted pop sits on a soothing web that recalls the California sound pioneered by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, making it nothing but appropriate that Mitchell’s life in Los Angeles clearly influences many of the record’s lyrics. But an attentive listener will realize the catchiness of “Court and Spark” is not a given; in fact, it is sort of miraculous. Its tunes, especially those on the album’s first half, are so brief that the whole work threatens to come off as a uniform suite rather than a record of straightforward pop; and the unconventional structures of the tracks themselves further enhances that notion, subtly implying that it is not only the instrumentation of jazz that Joni is bringing to the table: she is also taking advantage of the genre’s spontaneous soul.

Examples of that wild aura abound. “Help Me” may have been a major hit, but it lacks a chorus completely, leaving its main hook to come out of the titular exclamation that opens its three of its four verses. The title track, contrarily, does have a chorus of exquisite quality, but it only shows up once, splitting the four verses that constitute it right in the middle. “People’s Parties” and “Same Situation”, the former acoustic and the latter piano-centered, feel like two parts of a mini-opera, serving as prime examples of Joni’s ability to slowly build free-flowing and almost conversational melodies to peaks of emotional grandeur. “Down to You” is equally operatic, embracing – in its five minutes – multiple passages, including an orchestrated break. “Just Like This Train” may have a more traditional structure, but there is nothing orthodox about its melody, and its jazzy sound proves to be a perfect company to the more playful side of Joni’s songwriting. And like “Help Me”, “Trouble Child” is rather sneaky in hiding its hook, saving it to the end of its two final verses.

As such, it is a mistake to look at “Court and Spark” like the usual moment when a major idiosyncratic artist makes concessions in their work in order to get a taste of commercial glory. The truth is that despite its chart performance, there is little about it that is typical: from Joni’s decision to stick a riveting rock and roll song (“Raised on Robbery”) and a wacky tongue-in-cheek jazz cover (“Twisted”) in the record’s track list to the fact the album documents the early stages of her experimentation with jazz. “Court and Spark” is not one of those works that is naturally successful because of what it contains; it is actually miraculously successful in spite of what it contains. And what it has is the work of a musical genius, one that while concocting her own version of the California sound finds the time to write four hits without ever abandoning her sophisticated and unique songwriting gift. “Court and Spark” proves that playing around with jazz was perfect for Joni Mitchell, and although the road ahead had one higher peak to offer, if “Court and Spark” had been all that had come out of the journey, it would have already made it worth it.

five

Painful

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Album: Painful

Artist: Yo La Tengo

Released: October 5th, 1993

Highlights: Big Day Coming, Double Dare, Nowhere Near, A Worrying Thing

Saying that, by 1993, Yo La Tengo had yet to release anything of significance would be a rather misguided statement. Up to that point, the New Jersey indie rockers had put out a wide assortment of marvelous tunes that embraced quite a few styles: there was the unsung jangle pop anthem “The Cone of Silence”; the surprisingly introspective union of gentle electric strums and relentless noise heard in “Barnaby, Hardly Working”; the immaculate folk harmonies of the gorgeous “Alyda”; the half country-like instrumental and half loud shoegaze lethargy that made up “Detouring America With Horns”; the pop rock bliss of “Upside-Down”; the blistering guitar fury of the nine-minute “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss”; and countless others. Nevertheless, despite all that excellence, Yo La Tengo certainly did not feel like a fully-formed group.

The reason for that was simple: almost a decade and five albums into their career, the band did not have a defining full-length release. There were cases when still budding songwriting abilities produced records that were part greatness and part filler, with the debut “Ride the Tiger” being the most blatant example of that problem; there were moments when musical concepts were not thoroughly developed to the point of yielding works that felt complete; there was an album of decent country covers; and there was plenty of stylistic soul-searching, since Yo La Tengo was such a weird confluence of varied musical inspirations that sometimes one could tell the band had trouble either sticking to one road or finding a middle ground between their influences that the trio could claim as its own.

Then came 1993 and, with it, the release of “Painful”. In a way, it was a continuation of the evolution that had been displayed by its predecessor, “May I Sing With Me”, which had showcased Yo La Tengo was at last ready to bring their music to full maturity in a work that felt complete. However, “Painful” had not only a greater degree of musical cohesiveness, but also a firmer grasp on songwriting goodness and a mightier dose of the key element that had been eluding the band for so long: focus. And with those tools in hand, Yo La Tengo succeeded in delivering their first truly essential album; the one in which they proved the genre-hopping of their past had given way to a very defined identity.

The fact “Painful” has focus and stylistic consistency does not mean, however, Yo La Tengo abandoned their adventurous eclecticism before heading into the studio; if they had done so, they would have also lost a major part of their personality. Consequently, this is an album that has crispy guitar jangle, touching folk picking, country harmonization, furious noise that flirts with the wilder moments of The Velvet Underground, hazy introspection that borders on dream pop, and guitar walls that nod to shoegaze. These are ingredients so disjointed that it is hard to conceive how a band could pull them into a unified whole; it would be much easier, in fact, to see them coming together to form a sprawling delightful mess that could rate as the “Exile on Main St.” of the 1990s. But, quite contrarily, Yo La Tengo fuses these pieces into forty-eight minutes that feel more like an alternative rock suite than a collection of disconnected ideas.

What “Painful” ultimately proves is that Yo La Tengo is a band that follows no rules. They can write and execute small tracks that feel like interludes, regularly sized songs, or more sprawling tunes whose length would be daunting to average listeners. Although somebody who is used to the more adventurous corners of rock music would expect the big cuts to be the ones where the band goes wild in their noisy trips while the shorter tunes remain the most accessible, that is simply not the case, because Yo La Tengo is a band that is constantly pushing against one or more predefined standards, and settling into any of those patterns would be giving up that attitude almost completely. And so, through the entirety of “Painful”, the band is seen succeeding in subverting concepts and forging their unmistakable brand of indie rock.

On the shorter side and qualifying as the two tracks of the album that most clearly display the shoegaze influences of Yo La Tengo, “From a Motel 6” and “Double Dare” turn tall screaming guitar riffs into their choruses and main hooks, making those loud moments nicely contrast with the soothing vocals of their verses. Almost equally concise, clocking in at slightly less than five minutes, “Sudden Organ” is another excellent racket, but one built on a distinctive and nigh tribal drum pattern, a nasty guitar that delivers a notable low hum, and – as the title implies – an organ so wild that comparisons to The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” are not absurd. At the same time, though, the band also uses brevity to put out a trio of calmer tunes: the mesmerizing interlude of “Superstar-Watcher”; the whispered and only suggested beautiful melody that hides in “A Worrying Thing”; and the breathtaking “The Whole of the Law”, which transforms the original by power pop band The Only Ones from a drunk country tune into a song where a gently strummed guitar and punctual percussive touches are all that accompany Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley as they stunningly harmonize.

When it comes to the lengthier numbers, “Painful” confirms an ability that had already been insinuated by the band’s previous releases: their knack for excellently extending tunes that would normally have no business being so long. Opener “Big Day Coming” boils down to an organ and background guitar feedback that stay steady whilst Kaplan slowly delivers a trio of stanzas; it is simple, but the beauty it generates is so grand its seven minutes breeze by. “Nowhere Near” is similarly stripped down, with the key difference that it eventually disintegrates into noise during its second half; yet, its six minutes could loop forever that nobody would wish for the end of the dream-like state produced by the instrumentation and Georgia’s gentle vocals. “I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long” has Kaplan repeating the title for nearly a whole five minutes, but behind him such a mass of noise that could escape at any moment builds so intensely one cannot help being anything but gripped. And closer “I Heard You Looking” is a seven-minute instrumental centering on a riff any guitar amateur could pull off, but the way the band dynamically sustains it for so long is sheer talent and magic.

What is most impressive about “Painful” is that even though it is invariably pushing boundaries to form its own take on alternative rock, the record never puts a wrong foot forward. Although some of its song lengths might indicate that is the case, the wild adventurous spirit of Yo La Tengo never goes too far here. “Painful” is far from being an accessible album that can please anyone with a love for alternative rock of the early 1990s because be it melodically or instrumentally, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew are always throwing curveballs that can be slightly hard to swallow for some even if they happen to appreciate some of the band’s folk and country influences, which can still be heard to a point. Yet, the truth is there is not a single tune in its tracklist that fails to deliver some sort of musical gem, be it an irresistible strum, a gripping instrumental passage, a moving melody, or all of those items combined. And with so much to offer, it is no wonder this first instance of greatness by these indie legends rightfully stands among their best works.

five

Da Lama Ao Caos

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Album: Da Lama ao Caos

Artist: Chico Science & Nação Zumbi

Released: April 1st, 1994

Highlights: Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe, Rios Pontes & Overdrives, Samba Makossa, Da Lama ao Caos, Computadores Fazem Arte

Located in the northeast region of Brazil, one of the country’s poorest corners, Recife is similar to many of the other metropolises found in the South American giant. While it has an elite that is able to flirt with Western European living standards, its most destitute inhabitants – which make a huge portion of its 1.5 million population – struggle in conditions that are much closer to those of many African countries. Recife, however, has its particularities, and the most important one might be its swampy river shores, known locally as mangues. As the city grew, these wetlands were often regarded as undesirable sites, with – in a turn of ignorance – some even going so far as not caring for their preservation. And this derision heavily contrasted with the nearby beachfront, which was coveted by those who could afford it.

With time, in a rather unsurprising sequence of events for a place with so much inequality, Recife split into two: its coastal neighborhoods, facing the Atlantic Ocean, became pristine marvels of tropical wealth. Meanwhile, in many cases just a couple of miles from these glistening streets, the poor were relegated to the chaos of uncontrolled urbanization, having to find a way to build precarious homes by the swampy undesirable inlets. Since life always finds a way, one man’s trash soon became another’s treasure, and Recife’s lower class quickly learned not just to survive in the wetlands, but make a living out of them, as the exchange between salty and fresh water caused the submerged vegetation of the rivers to be brimming with fish and, especially, crabs.

In normal circumstances, absolutely none of those matters would have anything to do with music. “Da Lama ao Caos” (which translates to English as “From Mud to Chaos”), the debut album of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, completely changes that, though; and fully understanding what it contains necessarily goes through grasping the nature of Recife itself. The band comes from the muddy side of town; and looking around him, Chico Science, their leader, sees a city with clogged arteries. These blocked veins are not just streets ridden by traffic jams that resulted from unbridled urban expansion: they are the poor stuck in the inhuman conditions of the riverside slums; they are the growing inequalities; they are the violence generated by lack of opportunities; they are the old desire to destroy the mangues suddenly becoming the wish to wipe out the environment where the poor have built their precarious homes; and they are the lack of contemporary cultural activity in a place where one half spends life climbing the corporate ladders of capitalism while the other only has enough energy to try to survive.

Chico Science & Nação Zumbi attempt to cure Recife of its illnesses through the only way they can; that is, via music. And taking one step ahead, they opt to do it by igniting the spark of a totally new movement, dubbed manguebeat. Although plenty of bands around the city at the time were part of that cultural wave, “Da Lama ao Caos” is its most mainstream example, succeeding in breaking o bit ut of local frontiers to reach a nationwide stage. The record, however, ranks as a little more than that, because its elaborated ideas, when paired with the band’s social consciousness, turn it into a manifesto that is broadcast in the shape of fourteen songs, making it no surprise it starts with a speech.

To a global audience, the best way to summarize the sound Chico Science & Nação Zumbi bring to the table in “Da Lama ao Caos” would be comparing it to internationally known rock figures; and in this case, the closest one would probably be Rage Against the Machine. Chico Science, frequently using images of crabs and mud, raps much more often than he sings and even when he steps out of social matters, all one needs to do is dig a little deeper to discover there are always political undertones to what he is saying. Meanwhile, Nação Zumbi could neatly fit into the alternative metal box: when the guitars come in full force, they land with volume and weight that nod to Black Sabbath (in terms of sludgy tempos) and early Metallica (in terms of nasty tones); but when not flooring audiences with volume, their guitar and bass duo know how to drink from funk to build scratchy syncopated rhythms over which Chico Science can spill his characteristic poetry.

Comparisons to Rage Against the Machine, however, cannot account for how, rather than relying on explosive and somewhat predictable choruses, the hooks of “Da Lama ao Caos” actually emerge from Chico Science’s creative flow as well as his smart usage of similar word sounds that bounce off of each other, sometimes forming wild tongue twisters. Furthermore, tying the band to international standards would be even more criminal because Nação Zumbi ultimately sports a sound that could only have come from Recife itself. The main trick is that this early formation does not feature a standard drum set, which is replaced by a section of four percussionists, with two of them using a specific type of local drum called alfaia. Taking inspiration from the regional genre maracatu, an Afro-Brazilian rhythm of notably distinct percussion work, Nação Zumbi dumps a heavy dose of entirely genuine African heritage into the heart of rock music, and there is not a song in “Da Lama ao Caos” that does not feature absolutely stunning rhythms that are pivotal to the essence of the tracks.

As the album goes on, Chico Science, sometimes via brief memorable sentences exploding with power, summarizes a multitude of feelings that should be recognized by the children of Recife’s swamps. He understands the extreme necessities of poverty breed crime (“Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe”); he depicts the chaotic rush of daily life and shows how the death of a poor man is treated with indifference by a town too busy to care (“Rios, Pontes & Overdrives”); he points out the quick growth of the city only amplifies inequalities (“A Cidade”); he sees culture and music as tools that can help one escape reality, celebrate their identity, and even maybe get a better life (“Samba Makossa”); he urges his peers to open their eyes and ears to their surroundings in order to become culturally and socially aware (“Antene-se”); he longs for a love to add colors to his life (“Risoflora”); and, on the album’s most acid moment, he perceives hunger as an obstacle that stops people from thinking critically, implying its existence may be the intentional consequence of political projects (“Da Lama ao Caos”).

Through its run, “Da Lama ao Caos” finds good variety in the realm it creates: the title song is a guitar-based sludgy metal crunch that drags listeners into the swamp; “Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe” is a fiery and funky rap-rock; “Rios, Pontes & Overdrives” has a surprisingly modern danceable beat; “Samba Makossa”, as its title implies, speeds up the slower maracatu percussion to nod to the famous samba of Rio de Janeiro; and “Computadores Fazem Arte” is a cyclical, hypnotic, and highly melodic moment. Yet, with most of its highlights centered on the first half, “Da Lama ao Caos” drags a bit towards the end thanks to two merely decent instrumentals, a long closer that is a somewhat failed experiment, and a trio of tunes (“Maracatu de Tiro Certeiro”, “Antene-se”, and “Risoflora”) that though good do not live up to the rest. Still, it is hard to think the cultural revolution idealized by Chico Science and others could have had a better initial display. Twenty-seven years after it, Recife remains divided between a rich coast and riverside slums; the album’s message, however, resonates in its alleys. Hopefully, the fruits it has produced and will certainly still generate should eventually bring forth the major change both the city and the country as a whole so desperately need.

five

Zen Arcade

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Album: Zen Arcade

Artist: Hüsker Dü

Released: July 1st, 1984

Highlights: Something I Learned Today, Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue, Turn On the News

For a scene that was as much about music as it was about attitude and having freedom to express one’s ideas, the punk rock movement sure had a lot of unwritten rules that needed to be followed. This weird dichotomy between liberty and restrictions was present at the heart of the genre from day one, and anybody who dared to step out of pre-established expectations, be it by signing to a major label or by not playing songs that were loud and fast, was bound to be shunned by many. It is possible to argue such extremist thoughts were the natural result of a musical ideology that rose to combat, among many other ghosts, the artistic excess and elitist lifestyle of musicians of the 70s; therefore, keeping it all as pure as possible was important. Yet, there is something ironic about the fact that people who often sang against oppression and narrow-minded attitudes were so quick to establish a few guidelines themselves.

Whatever rules punk had, the hardcore movement – its American offspring – seemed to take them to a whole new level. If the Ramones played fast, Black Flag played faster. If the Sex Pistols had simple tunes, Minor Threat made them simpler. If Wire did not care about song structures, the Minutemen created a whole career out of the concept. And if The Clash, even after going into a major label, still did not bow down completely to capitalist practices, as evidenced by the fight the band put up to release the double “London Calling” and the triple “Sandinista” at normal prices, Fugazi simply never gave in to large corporations, going on to sell quite a whole lot of records solely via independent labels and distributors.

Still, in the midst of a scene with so much admirable ideological statements, there lies a monolith of ambition by the name of “Zen Arcade”. If both punk and hardcore pushed against excesses, then “Zen Arcade” is an offender in two senses. Firstly, it clocks in at seventy minutes, a length that takes it closer to the flashy psychedelic extravaganzas of the 70s than to standard hardcore albums, which tended to barely make it to half an hour. Secondly, as if such indulgence were not enough, the record commits the sin of being a concept work centered on the life of a young man who runs away from a toxic home; a nature which ties it to opera-making dinosaurs of the previous decades like The Who, with their “Tommy” as well as “Quadrophenia”, and Pink Floyd, of “Animals” and “The Wall”.

However, rather than attracting pitchforks and torches, “Zen Arcade” ended up being widely celebrated, and for good reason. Theoretically, this is an album that could be disastrous. Besides being a statement, the briefness of hardcore works was also a wise choice born out of the understanding that, for a genre so stylistically tight, putting too much into one package was a recipe for dullness. Yet, Hüsker Dü was far from being a run-of-the-mill hardcore group. Sure, they played fast; they sang furiously; they had little technique; their recordings were of famous low quality, even after they went big; and Bob Mould wielded a guitar tone of blistering deafening nature, playing a buzzsaw guitar that had seemingly been drowned in acid. But, as they had lightly shown in the material they put out before “Zen Arcade”, Hüsker Dü did not mind throwing some pop sugar into the wild racket.

Much to the benefit of the album, and as the main reason why its seventy minutes are not excessive, this is where the band’s signature melodic work becomes established. Bringing twelve solo compositions to the table, Mould is responsible for the more muscular anthemic tracks, those that rock furiously and invite the audience to shout along as the choruses get to their hooks. Drummer Grant Hart, meanwhile, is the sensitive core of the band; penning six tunes on his own, his tracks are ballads often disguised in hardcore presentation, and if his highly emotional lyrics are not enough to drive his explosive feelings home, his screaming without a care for formality is sure to do so. It is much due to the distinct personalities of its creative leaders and thanks to their consistency in finding good melodies that “Zen Arcade” escapes whatever stones someone was looking to throw towards it; and the alliance of these qualities with its bold artistic ambitions propels it to a classic status.

The strong melodic work is not the only reason why “Zen Arcade” manages to find stylistic variety, since Hüsker Dü also happens to take some unexpected detours throughout the album. “Never Talking to You Again” is an acoustic number whose frantic strumming does not let listeners forget the band’s hardcore origins. “Dreams Recurring” is a vicious instrumental piece played backwards. “Hare Krsna” is noisy and certainly punk, but its repetitive chants nod to psychedelia whilst replicating some bad acid trip. “Standing by the Sea” has some loud-and-quite dynamics, with Hart seemingly screaming in the middle of a cacophonous storm when the track explodes. Both “One Step at a Time” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same” are short piano interludes. “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is another cut that is played backwards, with the distinction being that it carries a dreamy atmosphere due to whispered vocals and jangly guitars. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a fourteen-minute instrumental jam that, like an opera, keeps returning to the same catchy central theme repeatedly when the band takes a break from making a beautiful racket.

Surprisingly, most of these weird turns work, with the annoying “Hare Krsna” possibly being the sole exception. The backwards instrumentals are thematically appropriate to replicate the character’s dreams. The short piano pieces offer nice breathing room between the guitar attacks. “Never Talking to You Again” is among the album’s best tracks. “Standing by the Sea” is an unlikely successful theatrical and dramatic moment. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a musical achievement: a long instrumental piece that never feels tired or indulgent. That does not mean, however, “Zen Arcade” is not dented in the slightest by its length. Although it begins flawlessly with four strong opening tunes in a row and closes mightily in the seven-song sequence between “Pink Turns to Blue” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, its mid section can drag a bit, because the weakest melodic moments of the album are all joined in this segment, giving birth to the most common downfall of hardcore groups: making sequences of songs that are too hard to distinguish from one another.

Despite that irregular portion, “Zen Arcade” has highs that more than make up for such stumble. “Something I Learned Today”, “Broken Heart, Broken Home”, and “Chartered Trips” would go on to serve as fantastic blueprints for future Bob Mould classic compositions that are equal part muscle and melody. “What’s Going On” has enough energy to outdo an atomic bomb. “Turn on the News” has an irresistible call-and-response chorus that urges the protagonist to return in order to face real life. And “Pink Turns to Blue”, which depicts the moving sad desperation in the witnessing of an overdose may as well be the best song produced by any band of the hardcore movement; a scene that took the punk spirit to sometimes shocking extremes, and that happened to find its finest hour in an album that went against many of the rules that first brought it to existence. Ironically or appropriately, “Zen Arcade” is the ultimate hardcore classic.

five

The Woods

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Album: The Woods

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: May 24th, 2005

Highlights: Jumpers, Modern Girl, Entertain, Rollercoaster

As they grew out of the underground punk rock scene where the band had gotten their start, a few notable elements began to emerge as defining characteristics of Sleater-Kinney’s sound. For starters, slowly but surely, Carrie Browstein and Corin Tucker developed an intertwining pattern of guitar-playing which on its apex, reached in “The Hot Rock” from 1999, recalled that of Television during the “Marquee Moon” era; with the caveat that though equally clean and clashing, the girl’s method was not as technically flashy and – making use of that trait – they used the style to build tracks with a greater pop rock inclination than the ones produced by the New York quartet. Furthermore, as they played their instruments almost like two independent leads, Browstein and Tucker also sang in dissonance, rarely harmonizing and often going for melodic lines that could have easily been used as the base of two different tracks.

It sure was a lot of content to unpack, especially when it came in short yet potent packages of three minutes, but by 2002 that recipe had yielded four albums of great music. And these records, besides being excellent, had allowed Sleater-Kinney to bring their work to an audience that was not there to hear the punk rock gems which were their self-titled debut and its sequel, “Call the Doctor”. However, following such run and maybe realizing that the recipe had gotten slightly tired, the band took a three-year break between new material (their longest one up to that point) and came back into view with a rather retooled musical outlook, producing – in the process – their most widely acclaimed album: “The Woods”.

The seventh studio release by the trio is so jarring that it takes a good while for one to notice that, deep down, there are remains of the old Sleater-Kinney sound under it. To a lesser degree, the band’s two guitarists still play disjointed parts that somehow gel; likewise, they frequently switch lead vocals and occasionally go their separate ways melodically. However, in “The Woods”, the lean punk rock the girls used to do is replaced with a towering powerful pounding of suffocating stature. Strength and ferocity were never absent elements in the Sleater-Kinney formula; they were always there, even if wrapped in the quirky catchy charm of records such as “Dig Me Out”. But here, it seems that the anger that had always driven the trio rose to the surface and gained a visible physical shape of mighty proportions.

Released during an era plagued by excessively loud recordings that caused much of the music to lose its audio fidelity, “The Woods” could be listed as yet another victim of that tendency. Not only does the album bang, but it does so at a volume so extreme that it creates a thick layer of distortion which permeates all pieces that compose it: Browstein and Tucker, drowned in what seems to be a symphony of static, have to either scream to be heard or resign themselves to the fact it is all too much; Janet Weiss, always a masterful tasteful drummer, is forced to hit her kit as if she were part of a heavy metal band that constantly plays in overdrive; and the guitars seem to come out of cheap amplifiers that cannot handle them, with much of their constitution being sheer feedback.

It could be disastrous, but “The Woods”, differently from its contemporaries that stumbled on poor mastering, actually uses loudness as a stylistic choice. While many albums of the era were clean-sounding records whose crispness was lost somewhere in translation, in the case of Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 release that characteristic is actually there by design. Sure, at some point when listening to it one has to wonder how the music would have sounded if “The Woods” took a more controlled approach in relation to volume. However, although it could be argued a few of the tracks would have been improved by a cleaner presentation, the album would likely not be as interesting and strong if that path had been chosen. Corin and her signature vibrato screams would not have to be so fierce; Carrie, always one quite talented in the art of sounding mad, would not take her craft to new heights; and Janet would lose out on a great opportunity to sound trashy and thunderous.

More serious, perhaps, would be how Sleater-Kinney would not be able to explore new perspectives on their songwriting. A track like “The Wolf”, for instance, which opens up the album, has a large plodding riff of a magnitude that is nowhere else to be found in their discography. “Steep Air” is so lo-fi and drowned in feedback that even its vocals are distorted beyond recognition, giving birth to a moment of such untamed noise that groups like The Velvet Underground and Pavement – which are quite familiar with soundscapes of the sort – would blush. And nearly all of the album’s tracks are eventually broken by moments of instrumental freak-out so dizzying that they could be compared to the live assaults of loudness famously carried out by “My Bloody Valentine”; an experiment that reaches its peak in audacity when the girls violently jam to extend “Let’s Call It Love” to the eleven-minute mark.

Contrarily to what its rough presentation may indicate, though, “The Woods” also carries moments when Sleater-Kinney strongly flirts with the mainstream, as if the knowledge they were going to work towards imploding these tunes via an aggressive aesthetic made them free to write for a wider audience. “Jumpers”, which came to life when Browstein read an article about the suicides that take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, has her and Corin harmonizing on the verses over slinky guitars until the tune bursts into a chorus that feels like a cry for help. “Entertain” is a catchy percussive march in which Browstein (sounding more furious than ever) rants against artistic staleness and cheap entertainment. Lastly, “Modern Girl” is a ballad – a rare sight in the Sleater-Kinney catalog – that might as well be the most beautiful and heartfelt song the trio has penned; with a mildly sarcastic tone, the cut wistfully narrates the mundane life of the titular character, and as it becomes increasingly evident that the beauty seen there is both fake and deceiving, the tune is slowly overrun by feedback.

Although in disguise, “The Woods” still presents a handful of tracks that have a more notable Sleater-Kinney signature, like “Wilderness”, “What’s Mine Is Yours”, “Rollercoaster”, and “Night Light”. In tunes such as these, the guitar interplay is more pronounced and instead of pounding mindlessly or flirting with accessibility, they carry speed and energetic bounciness that can easily be related to the previous era of the band; one where they escaped from the confines of underground punk to break past the riot grrrl movement in which they started. Regardless of the songwriting style it is approaching, however, “The Woods” is an album that simply erupts, turning the loudness that was so prevalent in the music around the time of its release into a weapon and giving a physical listenable manifestation to the sheer strength that had always been present in the work of Sleater-Kinney.

EVOL

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Album: EVOL

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: May 1st, 1986

Highlights: Tom Violence, Shadow of a Doubt, Starpower, Expressway to Yr. Skull

There are, quite naturally, plenty of elements to be found in “EVOL” – Sonic Youth’s third album – that can be easily linked to pieces of the two full-length releases that preceded it: “Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising”. The guitars, whose sounds expand and hang in the air for a while like a thin mist, present a delicacy in their physical manifestation that heavily contrasts with the uncomfortable feelings their atonal essence gives life to. As a consequence, the instrumental backing of the album’s tracks becomes shapeless, mysterious, and looming; the kind of material that could be employed as the musical basis of a psychological thriller that takes place in an urban, dirty, and industrial dystopia. And on top of those pieces lie vocal performances that are bold in their cold sloppiness, using partial indifference as a pathway to artistic value.

Yet, despite those glaring similarities, if there is one turning point to be found in the career of a group that – through thirty years, fifteen studio albums, and numerous labels (both big and small) – remained true to their alternative roots, “EVOL” is certainly it. The work marks the departure of drummer Bob Bert and the arrival of his replacement, Steve Shelley, which would stay with the band until the end of their run. And although it is hard to say how much that new addition contributes to the leap that is taken, as “EVOL” seems to be the natural conclusion of an evolutionary arch that was already relatively visible in its two predecessors, the fact of the matter is that a lot of that transition goes through Shelley.

“Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising” were morbid, mean, and menacing like a film depicting horrifying madness that threatens to break through the screen and drag listeners into its downward spiral towards insanity. “EVOL” is not too different; but, in it, the noise of Sonic Youth gains notable muscle. Where in their first two albums the band was prone to getting lost amidst their unique craft, with the quartet going on to produce many songs that degenerated into aimless attempts at creating dark atmospheres through racket; in “EVOL” the group emerges as a more focused entity. Instead of drifting out dully into the ether, their more experimental hours are anchored to the ground; meanwhile, their ability to construct tracks whose structures have a more traditional lean – which do so without ever abandoning their noisy edge – is more explored.

“EVOL” is, as such, the moment when Sonic Youth realized that their relentless desire to challenge the limitations of guitar music should not bar them from looking at the possibilities that reside in the more straightforward pop approach. It is a record that proves to the band as well as to their followers that pushing for abrasive tones, aesthetically unpleasant tunings, and weird distortions are not mutually exclusive with embracing the power of good hooks; and, in that process, “EVOL” shows that the extremist and confrontational rejection of conventional rock and roll values captained by the no wave movement – in which Sonic Youth was born – could be tamed into an excellent middle ground.

The record opens with a triple punch that immediately announces Sonic Youth has changed for the better. “Tom Violence”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, and “Starpower” are not just the finest tunes the band had coined up to that point; they are also testaments to how Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley could embrace sheer catchiness without losing their personality. By far the poppiest points of the album, they are fully developed pieces that merge immediacy and experimentation. In “Tom Violence”, sandwiched between segments with beautiful ringing guitars and a fantastic melody, there is a gripping instrumental break that disintegrates before slowly springing back to life. The delicate whispers and picking of the dreamy “Shadow of a Doubt”, Kim Gordon’s signature song, are interrupted by a nightmarish slice of noise that has the singer screaming in the background as if trying to escape from perturbed sleep. Finally, “Starpower” catches a hold of its racket to alternate between occasions when it drives forward in punk rock fashion and instances when it becomes abstract.

At the same time, though, “EVOL” holds enough room for Sonic Youth to go purely experimental, and in those cases the band also displays notable growth; particularly in how they are – almost always – able to steer clear from pointless indulgence. Boasting spoken vocals that seem recklessly thrown over its fantastic backing track, “In the Kingdom #19” recreates a car crash. “Green Light” flirts with pop when it opens with Moore singing a hypnotizing melody, but quickly ventures into noise. “Death to Our Friends” is an angry and fast-paced instrumental. “Secret Girl” is half a weird intro filled with dull sounds and half a fantastic recitation of poetry by Kim Gordon, who does so over a simple but touching piano loop. And “Marilyn Moore”, the album’s sole misstep, has bored and irregular vocals by Moore, which match an equally uncertain instrumentation.

Appropriately, the catchy and the experimental sides of “EVOL” meet in perfect harmony to give birth to the record’s culmination: its closing track, “Expressway to Yr. Skull”. Clocking in at seven minutes, the song starkly opposes the rest of the album, which delivers its contents in relatively brief spans. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” uses a format, of which “The Diamond Sea” is likely the best and most extreme example, that Sonic Youth would go on to tackle multiple times during their career, as the tune grabs a melody many pop songwriters would have killed for, uses it for a small amount of time, and makes a sudden turn towards the land of lengthy musical freak-outs, essentially pushing the formula of “EVOL” to its utmost limits before the record slowly decomposes and comes to a close.

Although a surprisingly strong effort by a band that, slightly more than one year earlier, was clearly looking for solid footing, “EVOL” ranks among Sonic Youth’s best efforts without quite making a serious run for the top spot. Almost entirely free of instrumental frivolity, it still falters in lyrics and vocals, two areas which – for many – the band would never exactly nail, but that would nevertheless see clear evolution in the following years. Yet, as the muscular backbone of their tracks would start gaining notable strength with the follow-up, “Sister”, and as the substance in the band’s songwriting would also increase, “EVOL” is a unique middle ground between Sonic Youth’s purely atmospheric beginnings and the rest of their career, which would be more firmly grounded on the alternative scene. And, in that sense, it is a key – and thoroughly enjoyable – moment in the history of all kinds of rock that see noise as an integral part of their constitution.