Sadinista!

sandinista

Album: Sadinista!

Artist: The Clash

Released: December 12th, 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

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

painful

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.

White Light/White Heat

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Album: White Light/White Heat

Artist: The Velvet Underground

Released: January 30th, 1968

Highlights: White Light/White Heat, Here She Comes Now, I Heard Her Call My Name, Sister Ray

Given its indisputable status as one of the greatest albums of all time, it is hard to say there is one particular variable that made “The Velvet Underground & Nico” be so remarkable. Yet, much of its irresistible, dangerous, dark, and subversive aura stemmed from the balance of forces that existed within the group; more specifically, the one that consisted of the dirty street-smart rock and roll power of Lou Reed, and the avant-garde spirit of John Cale. Although much of the writing was done by the former, which kept the songs firmly grounded on the format and hooks expected out of pop music, the latter’s desire to experiment with sounds, arrangements, and multiple sorts of atmospheric elements was passed onto the band members themselves, including Reed, and – consequently – leaked into the fabric of the tracks that were cut.

It was a harmony so perfectly adjusted that in the spectrum that denotes the gap between pure rock and roll energy and inscrutable artistic delusion, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” stood precisely in the middle of that range; achieving a hard-to-match stability that allowed its most significant tunes, like the plodding menace of “Venus in Furs”, to be fierce but mysterious; violent but elegant. As the second, and final, album recorded while Cale was in the band, “White Light/White Heat” exhibits that very same battle between opposing forces; however, in its case, the result of the struggle is clearly askew, because the musical chaos it contains could not possibly be the product of a finely tuned and perfectly stabilized balance.

It is, though, not the case where one side has obviously come out on top. As such, claiming “White Light/White Heat” was birthed by the submission of rock to avant-garde aspirations is somewhat off. The album exists as it is because the chemical reaction between guitar music and weird noise, which was quite well-managed in “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, has suddenly gone out of control. And in the wake of the explosion caused by the accident, the creature that was once capable of restraint has been transformed into a berserk entity that lives in loudness, thrives in destruction, and indulges in disturbing forms of sentimental expression.

“White Light/White Heat” is not rock brutally murdered by rabid art: it is music corrupted by insanity; it is sound affected by odd creative whims. Because, when it is all said and done, amidst the overwhelming noise, the unstoppable desire to wreck, and the relentless attempts at reaching for all that is ugly, the album rarely loses its ability to please, be it by unearthing the occasional beautiful melody, landing on the always desired musical hooks, and bringing forth those grand moments of release. There is method to the madness of “White Light/White Heat”, and that gives a purpose to the sonic assault it presents through most of its duration other than producing shock and confronting audiences, as it is also able to entertain almost thoroughly.

Its opening track, which lends its name to the album, is surf rock on amphetamines not just because its lyrics deal with the effects of the drug, but also thanks to how its music might as well have been made while the band was high on them. Propelled by a pounding piano, it has a call-and-response structure that includes harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys, only the neat California lads were hallucinating so much they mistook a dirty bathroom for a clean studio and failed to keep it all together for too long, as the whole performance deteriorates into mindless banging as it reaches the two-minute mark.

The pair of “Here She Comes Now” and “I Heard Her Call My Name”, meanwhile, stand on opposite sides of the aesthetic scale. Although the band sounds absolutely aloof through it, the first is a beautiful and melodic interlude whose ambiguous lyrics, which leave the door open for one to question whether Lou is talking about his guitar or a woman, are at the same time underlined by gentle instrumental work by both Reed and Morrison as well as, in true avant-garde fashion, partially demolished by a repetitive pattern that goes nowhere. Contrarily, the second, which also bets on a circular format, is ugly, visceral, energetic, and delightfully grating. In it, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker stay locked into a demented pulse; simultaneously, Reed’s guitar – mixed as loudly as possible – spirals away madly, spitting venom into the ears of listeners, who are greeted by one of rock’s most wicked solos while the singer rants as if possessed and the rest of the group occasionally repeats the song’s title.

And then there is “Sister Ray”. Relating a story that involves transvestites, an orgy, as well as a heroin deal that goes wrong and ends up in murder, it is a seventeen-minute jam put to tape in one take that begins with a simple guitar riff and slowly mutates into a monstrous cacophony. As legend tells it, the session’s recording engineer refused to sit around and listen to what the band was about to perform, choosing instead to simply press the button and walk out. Exaggerated tale or not, “Sister Ray” puts together quite a case for it being true, for it speeds up and slows down wildly and features all four members of the band competing to be the one playing the loudest instrument in the room, as Reed vies for that spot with blistering guitar solos but is ultimately outdone by Cale, who causes an absolutely glorious racket with an organ whose volume would probably get him arrested for attempted manslaughter in any civilized country.

Even though often thrilling to the greatest degree, the wildness of “White Light/White Heat” does not always click, as it generates a couple of lesser moments. “The Gift” is an eight-minute spoken-word track with vocals and instruments mixed to separate channels that, despite featuring a fantastic jam, gets boring after one has listened to its disturbing tale once; and “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is just interesting, with a lot of that value emerging thanks to how its music and sound effects work together to bring to life the messed up lobotomy of a transsexual woman. But given how much of an effort the record puts towards pushing the lines of what is musically and thematically acceptable, missteps are nothing but utterly natural. After all, the process of challenging norms and breaking rules is bound to give one a few bruises; these, however, turn out to be more than worthy if the subversiveness yields a few good results. And in the case of “White Light/White Heat”, The Velvet Underground sure uncover some precious music that would not have been found out if nobody was willing to take the mad leap.

Extraordinary Machine

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Album: Extraordinary Machine

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: October 3rd, 2005

Highlights: Extraordinary Machine, Get Him Back, O’ Sailor, Oh Well, Please Please Please

The third entry in the small, yet remarkable, discography of Fiona Apple is especially notable for two reasons. The first is, of course, related to the confusion that surrounded its release. Going through a grueling breakup, producer and friend Jon Brion met an idle Fiona for lunch and begged her to save him by going into a studio, writing some songs, and giving him some work. The singer-songwriter complied, and the two, during a long period of time, labored over what would be the first version of “Extraordinary Machine”. The material produced in those sessions, however, would never officially see the light of day, as the record company judged it to lack any sort of commercial quality.

What followed was chaos, as tracks produced by Brion began to leak to the press, fans organized protests outside of the label’s headquarters asking for the album to be released, and Fiona rushed back to the studio with a new team of producers to rebuild the record from scratch, later attributing that decision to how the lack of an incubation period for the tunes before they were taken into the Brion-led sessions made her unsure of the direction in which she would lead the songs. After all that glorious mess, and an extra bunch of months in the studio, “Extraordinary Machine” would finally make it to the public more than three years after the lunch that originated it, but in clothes quite different from the ones it was going to wear at first.

Much like Fiona herself, the Brion album was charming and quirky, with its strong piano-based tracks being backed by tasteful, yet wacky and overpowering, string arrangements. Contrarily, the output of the sessions guided by Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew is more pasteurized, fitting in more nicely not just alongside contemporary music as a whole, but also with the two albums Fiona had put out before it. Despite its more straightforward approach, though, the officially released version of “Extraordinary Machine” is bursting with personality, not only because – as a Fiona Apple record ought to be – it carries the emotional hurricane that lies within the body of a clumsy transgressor, but also due to how it captures that outcast soul at a very transformed state.

And that is where one will find the second defining trait of “Extraordinary Machine”: the fact that Fiona is still an introspective, confused, somewhat miserable, and lovely weirdo, but that she has learned how to get a major kick out of the situation. The album still has plenty of room for mad and intense Fiona, as she breaks windows that might metaphorically represent love, threatens to kill an ex-lover, and pens a couple of tunes that are unmistakably sad. Most of the time, however, what she is doing is actually having a quiet ironic laugh at the crap life throws at her while letting her friends know that she is doing just fine, it is just that her mind operates on a unique wavelength that makes her a bit hard to grasp.

The title track and opening number, one of the two songs that appear just as they were recorded by Jon Brion, is already a universal declaration of sorts. The “Extraordinary Machine” is none other than Fiona herself, as over plucked strings and occasional horns that bring about a vaudeville vibe, she announces both her oddness and her resiliency. Still, it is no wonder her friends are terribly preoccupied, as over the course of the album she seems to – in lyrics that are too personal to be fictional – completely clear the checklist of possible relationship troubles. There is the ex-boyfriend that is hard to forget and the men that she goes through in her failed attempts to find someone that moves her the way he did (“Get Him Back”); there is unrequited love (“Parting Gift”); there is cheating (“Oh Well”); there are abusive (“Not About Love”) and non-functional (“O’ Sailor”) relationships whose true natures are only revealed in hindsight; and there is a myriad of insecurities regarding the truth behind expressed feelings.

Emotionally, “Extraordinary Machine” is nothing but devastating. It is unlikely, for instance, that the fantastic love-related metaphors Fiona pulls off during “Red Red Red” or the frustration expressed in “Oh Well” will fail to make a brokenhearted individual cry. Likewise, the piano-and-voice rawness of the performance captured in “Parting Gift” shows a human being at a rather broken state. It is, therefore, quite a miracle that, overall, the tone carried by the record is one of brave defiance and humorous self-awareness. When Fiona is not standing proud and tall amidst her tears, she is poking fun at her misery with marvelous insight, and – in the two cases – what supports her seems to be the understanding, acceptance, and pride she has of her uniqueness, for, as she states in the lines that close the album, “Everyone else’s goal’s to get big-headed / Why should I follow that beat being that / I’m better than fine”.

As much as the Brion version of the record is undeniably more interesting and creative from an artistic standpoint, the Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew production suits the material perfectly. With her piano and voice always firmly holding the spotlight, Fiona’s gifts are well-supported by clever instrumentation and varied arrangements. In the moments she is focused on sadness, the drums, keyboards, guitars, strings, and horns that accompany her powerfully rise to let her stand afloat; meanwhile, in the moments she aims to laugh while looking at the mirror, the music gets quirky and wild, as it does in the vibraphones used in “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)”, in the noisy undercurrent of “A Better Version of Me”, in the colorful energetic groove of “Please Please Please”, or in the frantic break of “Not About Love”, when Fiona spits words out like a machine gun and the band goes bonkers.

These alternations between the Fiona who is sullen as well as angry and the Fiona who is basking under the light of her weirdness are certainly an important part of the high degree of quality found in “Extraordinary Machine”. However, those features would not hold much weight if the album lacked in songwriting, and it is in that department in which it shines the most, as – once again – the singer displays, besides notable consistency, an impressive ability for being creative in lyrics and melody without losing the firm grip she has on the traits that make a track be simultaneously likable, accessible, and odd. It is an intersection inside which Fiona has existed from the get go, and in “Extraordinary Machine” it is thoroughly explored once more; as bonus, though, it comes – this time around – with a better, renewed, and more confident understanding of herself as a person, and both her lyrics and the tone of her songwriting gain quite a bit from that development.

Captain Fantastic And the Brown Dirt Cowboy

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Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Artist: Elton John

Released: May 19th, 1975

Highlights: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tower of Babel, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, We All Fall in Love Sometimes

Extravagance has, for the longest time, been an adjective that is closely related to Elton John. From the glasses to the outfits; from the life of luxury to the massive vices; from the wild on-stage persona to the charming yet difficult off-stage personality; from the exuberant pop craft to the abundant musical inconsistencies; the journey of the singer-songwriter has been one of intense extremes, with little room being left in his lore for moments of calculation or control. And along that road of excess, the first of the two albums he would release in 1975, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”, represents perhaps the peak of all the absurdity.

Surely, with its eleven tracks and forty-six minutes of length, the album looks rather humble when put beside the sprawling magnificence of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, which – released two years before – featured seventeen tracks and almost reached for the eighty-minute mark. However, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not outrageous in sheer size; its utter lack of restraint actually comes to the forefront in the nature of its content. In it, both Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, choose to build an autobiographical record that, rather than telling their story in straightforward terms, dresses them up – respectively – as the titular pair of heroic characters, making the work qualify as a huge exercise in constructing one’s own personal mythology.

If that sounds like exaggerated self-importance, that’s because it certainly is, especially when one considers that, by 1975, Elton John was merely six years into his career. And if there ever is a point when it is acceptable for artists to pay homages to themselves, it absolutely does not come so soon in their trajectory. Yet, for John and Taupin, the ego trip just works. Partially, it clicks because, given his track record, it seems to be just the kind of ridiculous attitude the singer would have, and his ability to pull the preposterous off with a tongue in his cheek just makes the acrobatics endearing instead of objectionable. But, more flagrantly, it succeeds because, following a quick succession of seven great albums packed with gems and only one dud of a record, the quickly put together “Caribou”, it is simply impossible to say the pair were not entitled to toot their own horn in public, for they were in the midst of one of the greatest creative runs in rock and roll history.

With that being said, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not the best Elton John album. It does not have the cohesiveness and rich musical heritage of “Tumbleweed Connection”; it lacks the immediacy of “Honky Château”; and it fails to match the variety and quality peaks that lie within “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Furthermore, its excessively sleek production not only reveals shades of the middle-of-the-road pop rut John would be locked in for many of the years that would follow the record’s release, but it also somewhat erodes that hectic, unpredictable, wild, loud, and rough nature that can be found in the best cuts of the classic era of his career. Nevertheless, when it comes to sheer consistency, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” stands firmly next to the finest works the singer has produced.

The title track, which opens the album, starts with a gorgeous country segment worthy of the greatest moments of “Tumbleweed Connection” before turning, during its second part, into a very good rocker. And it is in the first half of that tune that the key to the album lies, because in it the junction of the delicate acoustic guitar strings and John’s moving singing makes the narration of the meeting between the city-slick Captain Fantastic and the country-raised Brown Dirt Cowboy be both humbling and touching, as it depicts – with absurd honesty – the uphill battles the pair faced before they found each other as well as in the beginning of their shared career. The empathy created by those brief, but magnificent, two minutes is essential, not just for how it dispels any potential aversions to a self-homage, but also because struggle is, in fact, the subject around which the entirety of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” seems to be built, as – one way or another – nearly all of its songs touch on that matter.

With listeners firmly attached to the two central characters and, therefore, interested in the fights they have to win, the album departs on an engaging musical and thematic journey that does not embellish fame, choosing – on the contrary – to mostly tackle the brutal elements that come with it, especially as it centers on the years when Elton and Bernie were still trying to make it big. There are nods to substance abuse; references to the schemes and politics of the entertainment industry; notes on the grueling challenges young artists need to face, as they are explored by publishers and forced to relentlessly tour small venues to earn enough money to buy a meal; takes on the personal and emotional troubles that come with such high demands; and, on a brighter side, sweet homages to the beauty of shared artistic creation, which, in the end, is what keeps the ship afloat.

Musically, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is mostly formed by tunes that lean towards slow tempos and bittersweet tones, as both John and producer Gus Dudgeon go for an accessible brand of soft piano rock with plenty of keyboards, extremely clean guitars, and a nose for moving songwriting. There are, obviously, tinges of other stylistic influences that had – before that point – been part of the singer’s repertoire, like the country-flavored spectrum of American roots music and a flashy glam approach that merges the rock and roll silliness of Marc Bolan with the flamboyant well-produced characterizations of David Bowie. But, despite those forces and a handful of moments when the record either threatens to take off, as in the frantic chorus of “Bitter Fingers”, or rocks out shamelessly, as it does in “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket”, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” feels like a large collection of tracks that flirt with balladry.

To some, that may lead the record to be an excessively sterilized version of Elton John, but the most likely outcome is that it will actually be perceived as one of his greatest moments. The melodies are invariably excellent, even if they are not, for the most part, as immediate as those carried by John’s most famous hits; and allied with the candidness of Taupin’s lyrics, the general sweetness that permeates them, and the fragility that is displayed throughout its running time, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is successful in being not only a wonderful listen, but also in transforming what could otherwise be a concept that reeks of indulgence and self-importance into a likable look at the wildness of the pursuit and attainment of fame.