Cyr

cyr

Album: Cyr

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins

Released: November 27th, 2020

Highlights: The Colour of Love, Dulcet in E, Wrath, Ramona, Anno Satana

Ever since their heyday in the 90s, when the fantastic sequence of albums comprised of “Siamese Dream” and “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” put them on top of the alternative rock world, The Smashing Pumpkins have been a bit of a mess. Active through most of that interval, with the exception of a six-year break, all of those who do not follow the music universe too closely would be easily forgiven for thinking Billy Corgan’s group had disbanded long ago. After all, the records they have put out since that pair of releases, with the exception of the very good “Adore” from 1998, have failed to make any impact with the general public; worse yet, lost amid lineup changes, internal fights, and the ego of a front-man who is a bit hard to deal with, the band has seen many of its early fans move on to other pastures.

Such a scenario may lead one to think that The Smashing Pumpkins have been pretty bad for nearly twenty years; and some are certain to build an argument in that direction, especially former fans who passionately followed them in the 90s. But, truth be told, even if continued relevance has eluded them and personnel consistency has been non-existent, the group has not really produced any work that straight up stinks. Sure, most of their output since the days of glory has been marred by silly conceptual grandeur that has repeatedly failed to come to fruition and – as the critics will point out – an impressive amount of embarrassing lyrics. But Corgan is, ultimately, too good of a songwriter to produce a major disaster of an album, let alone a bunch of them; and, as such, The Smashing Pumpkins have, in a way, remained afloat to the few who are listening and have continued to publish works that, though not excellent by any means, have been mostly good.

It is in that position that the band gets to its eleventh release, the mysteriously titled “Cyr”. However, this time around there is a twist, as the album is a product of the reunion of three of the four members the band had during its classic run, an encounter that had not happened since the year 2000. Truly, some will point out that 2018’s “Shiny and Oh So Bright” was actually the moment in which that trio came together, and that would be correct. But, as Corgan said it himself, that release was a bit of a rushed and spontaneous work; so much that it contains only half an hour of music. “Cyr”, meanwhile, is a calculated effort: one that has been planned, conceptualized, and slowly built by the band.

As collaborative of an album as it may be, “Cyr” will never convince anybody it is anything other than a product of Corgan’s mind: as he is such a complete leader of The Smashing Pumpkins that he reportedly recorded most instruments of “Siamese Dream” himself. And although it is kind of silly to complain about Corgan having total control given that The Smashing Pumpkins have always been his band, for the good and for the bad, it is always a bit worrisome when Billy gets too caught up with conceptual matters, as those flights of grandeur have always tended to be the band’s downfall, since records that had the potential to be good collections of songs – such as the “Machina” pair and the scrapped “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” – have historically gotten lost in the middle of foggy ideas.

“Cyr” is by no means different. With seventy-two minutes of music, it shows all the problems of The Smashing Pumpkins’ conceptual works: it is too long, it could have been trimmed down to a far more consistent release, and it has a concept that will fly over pretty much everybody’s heads, a characteristic that makes many of Corgan’s words here sound silly or pretentious. On a brighter note, it has the traits that stop the band’s most gigantic ideas from falling into the garbage bin, because its tunes are good, its hooks are plentiful, its melodies are beautiful, and it has an uncountable assortment of catchy moments; little musical sparkly gems that stick to listeners’ brains like bubblegum. It is, in many ways, The Smashing Pumpkins at their best and at their worst.

“Cyr”, however, makes an extra effort to put additional weight on that worst side of the equation. As stated by Corgan, musically the album is guided by a desire of his to respond to critics that have called him out for making the same type of music over and over again. “Cyr” is, thereby, paraphrasing Billy’s own words, a fight to display he is a contemporary musical artist, not one that is stuck in the 90s. Sadly, it seems Corgan’s idea of contemporary sounds is quite limited to the world of synth-pop, as that is the style in which all of the album lands. Truly, considering the creative drive behind the record, it could have been much worse, as Corgan would not be a good fit for the kinds of sounds that dominate much of the contemporary landscape; so, in a sense, synth-pop was probably a good choice for The Smashing Pumpkins. At the same time, results could have been much better.

The main problem here is neither concept nor length, but the fact The Smashing Pumpkins fail to make synth-pop of their own. From the outset, they were a band with a unique skill of merging the heaviest of riffs – uncorking walls of guitars powerful enough to make metal bands envious – with the sweetest and most vulnerable pop melodies. And ever since those days, Corgan and company have taken good advantage of those skills. Here, though, they do not. Overall, there is both beauty and darkness to be found in “Cyr”, a mixture that recalls the “Adore” era, when the band used electronic sounds to explore a nigh Gothic vein of their pop inclinations. But where “Adore” was original in spirit while retaining The Smashing Pumpkins’ heart, the originality of “Cyr” comes off as generic because it carries very little of the band.

It is hard to the deny the greatness of a tune like “The Colour of Love”; the beauty of an electronic ballad such as “Dulcet in R”; and the incredibly tasteful production touches of the record, like the processed female vocals that permeate most of the tunes and the occasional appearances of jangly guitars, as the ones that add a touch of alternative rock to “Wrath”. But, in the end, “Cyr” is both excessively homogeneous for its length, running out of steam by the second half when the quality of the tunes clearly degrades; and slightly too safe of a synth-pop effort, even if The Smashing Pumpkins turning to that genre is quite a bold choice. And perhaps that is what is so disappointing about it: the fact it is simultaneously courageous and not sufficiently audacious. At least before it is all said and done, Corgan gives us a glimpse of how good and original his band can be in this setting, as the tune “Anno Satana” provides a look into what “Cyr” could have ideally been: powered by synthesizers, sure; dark, absolutely; but also packing a heaviness that leaves the unique mark of The Smashing Pumpkins on synth-pop.

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Hey Clockface

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Album: Hey Clockface

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: October 30th, 2020

Highlights: No Flag, They’re Not Laughing at Me Now, Newspaper Pane, Hetty O’Hara Confidential

Back when he burst into the scene during the tail-end of the 1970s, it was pretty hard to tell Elvis Costello was going to end up being one of rock’s most eclectic songwriters. Looking like a British, punk-rock-influenced reincarnation of Buddy Holly, with glasses and suit naturally included into the package, Costello made a name for himself by fusing literacy, anger, and heartbreak into three-minute catchy wordplay-ridden hand grenades that exploded with the maniacally skillful new wave sound of his legendary backing band, The Attractions. Despite the success of that early package, though, it would not take long for the singer to show there was more to his musical palette than a well-dressed and sleeker take on punk rock, because right on his fourth album, “Get Happy”, he jumped ship to land on a mind-twisting twenty-track exercise of making Blue-Eyed Soul sound as frantic and vicious as possible.

Many years and a lengthy career have unfolded since that day, and Costello took good advantage of that time to explore the full extent of his eclecticism, not only by penning tunes with multiple stylistic leanings, but – perhaps more significantly – collaborating extensively with an astoundingly large group of musicians that includes Paul McCartney, the London Symphony Orchestra, Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint, The Roots, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Nick Lowe, T-Bone Burnett, Anne Sofie von Otter, and others. It is a list that displays Costello’s initially geeky appearance was not just superficial, as the man’s desire to work together with various different names reveals the heart of a music nerd has always lied within him.

When talking about his 2020 release, “Hey Clockface”, such consideration is important because, through more than thirty records and countless flirts with distinct genres, Costello had – until this point – never produced a work with so much self-contained eclecticism. Sure, he had plenty of stylistically colorful albums before “Hey Clockface”, such as his divisive 1989 work, “Spike”, and his widely beloved “Imperial Bedroom”, from 1982. But listening to “Hey Clockface” is likely to give his longtime fans a feeling that a life’s worth of musical exploitation has led to the stunningly varied moment at hand.

It is not that “Hey Clockface” comes off as a lazy recapitulation of what has happened so far; Elvis Costello is too much of a restless mind for such dull sameness, but there is indeed some blatant retreading. A trio of piano-and-voice tunes (“The Whirlwind”, “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip”, and “Byline”) recalls, for instance, “North”, the album of love-related ballads he put out in 2003. The vaudevillian title track as well as “I Can’t Say Her Name” nod to detours in the genre that the singer has made in the past, with the former being more energetic and the latter carrying a quiet defeated tone. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” channels his soundtrack work: with words that speak of love but instrumentation that hints at something darker, the song could be one of the pieces of a noir musical. And the theater stage would also be a very fitting place for the presentation of a track like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”, an acoustic lament with the occasional appearance of jazzy brass.

Contrarily to that more traditional set, the album – be in its overall production or in writing – gives plenty of signs that it is still pushing ahead. In the case of those more refreshing tunes, an interesting pattern emerges. As it happens pretty much everywhere in “Hey Clockface”, these are cuts that can be safely traced back to a specific point in the singer’s career. However, their arrangements – which join old-school sounds, contemporary grooves and beats, as well as the signature Elvis Costello layer of boldly placed noises – do one good job at arguing this group of songs as a whole happens to be quite different from everything he has done.

It may seem like a complicated configuration, but take the example of “No Flag”. Here is a track that would fit right at home – both in spirit and quality – in the three fantastic albums that constitute his post-punk phase. It is vitriolic; it has Costello part shouting and part singing; it is guided by a guitar riff that alternates sheer grinding force with poppy hooks; and it has a chorus whose unexpected greatness is reserved to masterful songwriters. Yet, dressing the song up is a cleverly lo-fi treatment, one that could have come out of Tom Waits’ “Real Gone”: rather than drums, the song’s percussion is a pulsating beat and some scatting; Costello’s voice is distorted; and the tune has a brief psychedelic bridge when a mass of quirky sounds joins the central beat.

Other examples like that are plentiful in “Hey Clockface”. “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” feels like a reread of “Hurry Down Doomsday”, from 1991’s “Mighty Like a Rose”, since it has Costello sort of rapping and sort of ranting over a beat made up of more elements than one could count. “Newspaper Pane” starts by threatening to be post-punk, but slowly cooks into another monster: a stream-of-consciousness jam that has keyboards and brass combining into one great groove. “We Are All Cowards Now” is made of darker material lyrically, as its words read like a very accurate description of our contemporary social environment, but is supported by an equally creative backing of effects, pianos, and guitars. Finally, “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now” is yet another song that could be the theme of a character in a musical (in this case, someone that waits hopeful for the day it will all turn around), but its cacophonic drums and its thin keyboard hook (worthy of The Attractions) give it a more outside-the-box presentation.

It is undeniable that “Hey Clockface” suffers a bit from its eclecticism: the mixture of quiet piano tracks, vaudeville-inspired theatrical moments, and tunes holding a more contemporary and forward-looking perspective makes it feel like three unfinished albums glued together under the same package. Its greatest flaw, though, is that it has Costello’s pen alternating heavily between brilliancy and dullness. Out of its more traditional tunes, only “Hey Clockface” and the closer piano ballad “Byline” are noteworthy, with the others not just getting lost in the midst of dull melodies and basic arrangements, but also being painfully concentrated on the second half of the record. Joined by two forgettable spoken-word pieces, the lackluster tracks amount to half of the package. The remaining songs, each with its own intensity, lean towards the positive side of the quality spectrum, but are not shiny enough to make “Hey Clockface” better than decent. The fact that most of them are cut from the same cloth, however, indicates that perhaps the album would have benefited from a more prolonged gestation period; one that would allow it to overall sound more like “No Flag” and less like “The Whirlwind”, and for its eclecticism to be trimmed down to a more focused and refreshing release.

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Letter To You

Album: Letter to You

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: October 23rd, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Machine Season One

Album: Song Machine Season One

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: October 20th, 2020

Highlights: Chalk Tablet Towers, Aries, Dead Butterflies, Désolé

Ever since the incredibly successful and kaleidoscopic “Plastic Beach”, an album in which the usual sullenness of Gorillaz gained a whole lot of colors thanks to a horde of guests, the creative audio-visual project of musician Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett has seemingly alternated between releasing two types of albums: those in which most of the tracks are built via various collaborations as well as features; and those in which the core of the virtual band go through their creative process in a more hermetically sealed chamber. As proof that great art has no recipe other than good old inspiration and the urge to say something important, successes and failures can be found in those two types of efforts.

As far as albums where the band worked primarily alone, 2018’s “The Now Now” can be pointed out as a consistent breeze of minimalistic creativity while 2010’s “The Fall” ranks as a malformed and dull artistic statement. Meanwhile, in relation to works in which the door of the studio was blown open so that Damon Albarn could explore sounds emanating from different parts of the world, “Plastic Beach” itself emerges like a successful cohesive whole whilst 2017’s “Humanz” was judged to be a junction of pieces that, besides not fitting together, were so touched by outside influences that they ended up corroding the essence of the band.

Released in 2020, “Song Machine” falls into the category of a Gorillaz collaborative effort. In fact, it has such a large number of guests that all of its eleven tracks boast at least one outsider joining the band in both performance and writing. As such, inside the scope in which it exists, it feels less like “Plastic Beach” (an album that still left room for Gorillaz to operate on their own in spite of the abundance of features) and more like “Humanz”, in which guests were as omnipresent as they are here. And although such comparison is not likely to be too positive for fans of the group at first, “Song Machine” actually triumphs where “Humanz” had failed.

Many are the reasons for that difference in outcome. For starters, and to begin with the most meaningful one, there is the simple fact that “Song Machine” has good tunes. Sure, “Humanz” found a couple of those as it ventured into the band’s usual blend of electronica, experimental pop, and hip hop, but in many cases its cultural openness and artistic boldness led to cuts that had interesting flavors that did not mix into cohesive parts, as songs simply did not find the melodic hooks, clever grooves, and alluring chord changes that the band thrives on. “Song Machine”, on the other hand, not only carries musical and cultural diversity, but also unites those elements in songs that have contemporary pop flavor as well as quirky adventurous spices.

Moreover, “Song Machine” greatly benefits from the fact it is free from conceptual ambitions. “Humanz” had those in spades, and since their translation from theory to album was not nicely done, a disjointed product was born. Truth be told, “Song Machine” – like any Gorillaz record – has some fictional background: in its case, the opening of numerous portals in the group’s Kong Studios, which consequently let 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel travel to where their guests are and bring them in to collaborate. But here the storyline or theme is not the purpose of the venture, only an excuse for Albarn to work with those who he admires and for Hewlett to give animated life to the crew’s adventures, thereby lending the whole affair a loose and unpretentious spirit and allowing the songs to shine on their own.

“Song Machine” is, in fact, so free of constraints that it is more of a playlist than an actual album. Most of the songs that make it up were released as singles, usually accompanied by music videos, between January and October, only to finally be compiled into a standalone record once they were out, and the collection’s subtitle – “Season One: Strange Timez” – indicates Albarn intends to give the project at least one more spin. It is an approach that could have generated a work that ran the risk of falling victim to complaints regarding lack of thematic or sonic consistency, much like “Humanz” did, but as tracks change and guests come and go, “Song Machine” stays grounded on experimental electronic pop with plenty of the usual hip hop segments that are expected out of Gorillaz; and to further enhance the band’s signature in these tracks, Albarn himself (appearing as 2-D) gets plenty of vocal spotlight, usually sharing it generously with his guests.

What is more remarkable about “Song Machine” is how the guests, especially those coming from genres the band does not usually explore, heavily shape the nature of the tracks in which they appear. Robert Smith, from The Cure, shows up on opener “Strange Timez” and, thanks to his unique vocal inflections, turns a sparse background of playful sounds and beats into one of his band’s moments of colorful naive weirdness; Beck brings his urban funk to “The Valley of the Pagans”; with the help of Leee John, “The Lost Chord” flirts with disco; “Chalk Tablet Towers” has St. Vincent delivering her unique brand of dirty and catchy art pop; “The Pink Phantom” boosts a hip hop track by having the grand voice of Elton John take over on the chorus; the unmistakable bass of Peter Hook, from Joy Division and New Order fame, transforms “Aries” into electronic post-punk; and Fatoumata Diawara matches relaxing danceable pop with beautiful African vocals in “Désolé”.

It goes without saying that, to a point, such phenomenon of guests influencing the tracks they contribute to has happened ever since the inception of Gorillaz; in fact, Damon Albarn might as well claim that is one of the reasons he loves the project so dearly. In “Song Machine”, however, that interesting creative tug of war seems more prominent than ever, coming off as the defining trait of the album and its central fuel. “Song Machine” may not have an assortment of great tracks that compares to those of “Plastic Beach”, but as an extreme experiment in the abundance of collaborators, it lands as a package that is far more consistent, appealing, and fun than the one executed by “Humanz”. Without statements to make or messages to push, the music gets a great chance to shine, and it steps up to that challenge quite nicely. To top it all off, the freedom found in the format and creative conception of “Song Machine” paves the way for a group that is already very open to become even more interesting when the device is given another spin.

Real Gone

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Album: Real Gone

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: October 3rd, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Kiss In The Dreamhouse

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Album: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse

Artist: Siouxsie and the Banshees

Released: November 6th, 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rough And Rowdy Ways

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Album: Rough and Rowdy Ways

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: June 19th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homegrown

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Album: Homegrown

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born Again

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Album: Born Again

Artist: Black Sabbath

Released: August 7th, 1983

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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