Aja (1977) by Steely Dan

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Yeah, they WOULD drink Scotch whiskey all night long and die behind the wheel.

A few years ago, it was my privilege to see Steely Dan live in Anaheim, and they were an extraordinary act on stage, playing with free-wheeling power and energy; this was all the more extraordinary because Steely Dan in the studio was a different proposition: they were polished to pop perfection, every instrument and voice meticulously arranged, mixed, and recorded.  This was all part of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s agenda of creating radio-ready material which sounded so great that people usually didn’t notice how clever, sarcastic, blackly comic, and sometimes downright mean the lyrics could be. 

Aja was the apex of Steely Dan.  It is not their best album, for that honor belongs to 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, but they never made a better-sounding album and more well-thought and well-played album.  Aja is an elaborate musical saga of masculine relationship to the feminine and the problem of self-definition…and it is, to borrow other critics’ favored adjective, menacing.  Mr. Fagen’s vocals hint at darker things even at their most optimsitic, and the sound of he and Mr. Becker’s material is minor-key and foreboding even when the tempo goes up.  And yet, of the seven songs in forty minutes or so, only “I Got the News” doesn’t have a memorable hook or melody…all the rest, from the rhythmic break-up song which begins it, “Black Cow,” to the closing, sexually-charged “Josie,” were goldmines ready for Top 40 AM and FM.  Except maybe the title track: an eight-minute creation of another world featuring a memorable Wayne Shorter sax solo.

There are three other songs on Aja, and I should mention them all because they’re terrific.  “Deacon Blues” is my second-favorite Steely Dan track ever, Mr. Fagen proudly asserting a glorious individuality in self-destruction with female back-up singers and more great saxophone, this time from Pete Christlieb.  “Peg” was the big hit single, a somewhat mocking ode with dynamic guitar/keyboard/horn interplay.  And the album’s hidden gem is “Home At Last,” on which Messrs. Becker and Fagen drop their cynicism for a few lovely minutes to hint at finding true, serene peace of mind in a gentle ballad…though if it’s with the starry-eyed Peg or the sex-hungry Josie or the otherworldly Aja or someone else is up for debate.

Why isn’t Aja their best album if it’s so superb?  Earlier Steely Dan had just as strong music, lyrics, and musicianship, but the production didn’t sound so ultra-tight…there was room for them to stretch, breathe, and unleash more fury.  The joy of Countdown to Ecstasy lies in raucous guitars, surging interplay, Mr. Fagen singing with more fire and less control.  Aja hinted that Steely Dan’s ambitions were now overtaking them, and its successor Gaucho was so heavily worked over in the studio that it sounded sterile, leading to a two-decade layoff from recording.  But Aja is still a pop-rock must-listen for its combination of technical wizardry, intelligence, and just great music.  It’s like a big-budget pocorn movie where the script turns out to be surprisingly smart, and if I had a nightclub in L.A. I’d play this album every night.

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Ram (1971) by Paul and Linda McCartney

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I have briefly touched on this and other blogs about the one album I love which my father and my Uncle Richard, who basically taught me what I needed to know about rock music, both seriously dislike with a passion: Sir Paul McCartney’s Ram.  It’s akin to our 2001 debate, because my respect for Ram comes from something very special about it which is hidden under the surface.

But first, let me make one thing clear: Ram is not a deep album in the way John Lennon and Bob Dylan and The Who made deep albums.  The melodies are childishly simple, even when Sir Paul crams three or four of them into five minutes.  And the lyrics…all I need to say is that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was on this album.  That song topped the Billboard charts even though it’s nothing but nonsense, Sir Paul squeaking and moaning at every bit of his register, and a French horn.   If you’re looking for profound statements about the human condition, you don’t go here.  If you’re looking for the kind of songs you make up when you’re sitting on the back porch drinking with your buddies or trying to calm down your kids in the bathtub or just fiddling around with your new guitar singing whatever nonsense comes into your head, you’ll find it on Ram.

But that’s the point.

I think about how my friends have sat around with their guitars and written songs that try to be poetic gems but instead come out all corny, but they don’t care because they’re songs for their girlfriends and their girlfriends love them.  Near the end of Ram, Sir Paul writes a song for Linda McCartney (who plays a few instruments and does back-up vocals…there’s a reason why she’s credited) called “Long-Haired Lady.”  It’s THAT kind of a song, but he arranges the band and the back-up singers with so many levels of harmony, so much care, that it sounds like a smash hit record.  And the rest of it…it doesn’t matter if he’s singing about looking for a home in the heart of the country or dogs with three legs or eating monkberry moon delight, whatever the heck that is, his voice is pitch-perfect, the instruments sound divine, the arrangements bring out everything the melodies can give.  This is an album of stuff you make up with your family and your friends, and it’s being recorded by a man who KNOWS that our spuses, kids, and buddies/girlfriends are the most important parts of our lives (after God, but that’s just me).  Ram is a beautiful shout-out to simple domesticity, to being ordinary, and Sir Paul doesn’t celebrate it by turning the ordinary into the mythological like in Bruce Springsteen’s epics, but by letting it be goofy and ordinary.  That’s why his wife got the credit.  And that’s why “The Back Seat of My Car,” which is as ridiculous as “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” ends the album on such a triumphant note.

And Ram has “Dear Boy,” a kiss-off to Mrs. McCartney’s ex-husband which is one of my special favorite Sir Paul McCartney tunes.  It’s two and a half minutes of piano, chorus, and dancing-shoes ready pop bliss.  It also just kinda sorta sounds like “Honey Pie,” so I don’t even have to ask my dad what he thinks about it.

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011) by Mogwai

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iTunes in their infinite Linnaean wisdom defines Mogwai as a “post-rock” band.  This will make today’s entry less a piece of criticism and more a pondering of what “post-rock” is supposed to mean.  “Post” for me has connotations of a clear, wide-reaching difference from what came before (postwar) or a similarity with redefined terms (post-modernism, which is much the same as modernism but with the trope of self-reference added).  But what would the negation of rock ‘n’ roll be?  It has far too many…rock is less formal and elaborate than classical, more energetic and subversive than traditional pop songwriting (Gershwins, Porter, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein), and while rooted in traditional styles and encouraging invention does not possess to the same degree the even farther-reaching tradition and special characteristics of improvisation and  departure from concept as jazz.  And of course, as much as I enjoy their music, Barry Manilow and Air Supply are the antitheses of rock.  But all of the above mentioned have been incorporated into rock ‘n’ roll already at various points by various people, up to this day, for rock is nothing if an amorphous and democratic style.  So what is “post-rock” supposed to sound like?

Well, apparently, like very easy to listen to, sometimes pulsing and thrilling pieces of Barry Burns piano and synth backgrounds (the gentle “San Pedro” and “Too Raging to Cheers” see him at the fore)  not out of place in a good epic movie (both for action and quiet, costumed dialogue) set to a technically solid guitar-bass-and-drums combo highlighted by the ringing, anthemic work of Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings (“George Square Thatcher Death Party,” “Death Rays,” and the opening “White Noise” show them to advantage.  There are occasional vocals, but nothing to distract from the lovely sounds.  It’s like Brian Eno or Philip Glass done with a bit more energy than usual.  That’s Mogwai.  And Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is a really nice album to have playing when you’re doing anything or nothing in particular.

The ’59 Sound (2008) by The Gaslight Anthem

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It takes serious balls to reference Charles Dickens and Bob Seger in the same song, and when The Gaslight Anthem pull it off, the action only sets the tone for forty-two minutes of astounding post-modern rock ‘n’ roll.

The ’59 Sound revels in being raw, shamelessly emotive on levels the band’s fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen only dreamed of…and an intellectual feast for the rock music lover.  Lyrics from classic tunes are lifted and integrated into a  roaring mixture of riffs, hooks, and melodies which span the first twenty-five years of the music…but unlike Social Distortion, for instance, The Gaslight Anthem never sink into mind-numbing repetition.  The band’s songs are full of lyrical twists and unique imagery, while Brian Fallon sings them with abandon, as if he was stumbling on these words this very minute and wants nothing more than to share his ecstasy with us.

The ’59 Sound thematically deals with old-school themes of cars, women, drinking, death, and getting away from it all, although the title track actually makes me think of Steampunk.  But the twelve tightly-packed cuts offer a knowing, durable take on these near-inexhaustible concepts.  “Old White Lincoln” (featuring sterling guitar from Mr. Fallon and Alex Rosamilia) and “The Backseat” are particularly memorable, the great cars-and-America-and-young love songs Mr. Springsteen didn’t write, but “Miles Davis and the Cool,” a mixture of allusion, sex, and Benny Horowitz’s drumming, is the most memorable cut on a great album for energizing yourself to.

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (2011) by Social Distortion

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The first seven and a half minutes of Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes not only kick serious sonic butt but also remind you why Social Distortion has lasted over three decades.  After the crunchy instrumental “Road Zombie,” the band segues into “California (Hustle and Flow)” with a gritty, enticing Mike Ness lead vocal, great interplay between Mr. Ness and Jonny Wickersham, and a solid rhythm section offering from Brent Harding and John Freese.  It’s old-school rock ‘n’ roll played by guys who are clearly having fun.  Who cares that the lyrics offer nothing beyond cliches? 

Well, I start to care when every other song on the album sounds exactly alike, with the same fingerings, the same arrangements, the same shouted, hackneyed vocalizing and themes.  Mr. Ness apparently thinks that every single statement he ever saw more than once in required high school lit and old CCR and Springsteen lyric sheets is worthy of lengthy musical exploration and declamation.  What a revelation it is that we can’t take it with us when we go!  And that people in rowdy and/or passionate moods can feel like machine guns!  And that we’re still alive and well after so much hard living!  And that all of these sentiments are expressed over the exact same tempo for almost fifty minutes, or at least it sure feels that way!

There is nothing on this album comparable to “Bad Luck” and other great SD tracks from their heyday…though considering this is the most successful album of their career so far (WHY?) this might technically qualify as their heyday, which is pretty sad.

The King Is Dead (2011) by The Decemberists

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I first heard the Decemberists in 2008 when my sporting old friend Jesse Clemens had me listen to The Crane Wife, an album which seemed to mix 1960s British folk-rock with doses of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.  The sound hooked me, but I didn’t listen to another of their albums until this year when many people in Mr. Whitmarsh’s precept urged him to listen to The King Is Dead, their first ever #1 record.  My curiosity piqued, I took the first chance I had to hear The King Is Dead…which sounds nothing like the other Decemberists music I have heard. 

The King Is Dead sees Colin Meloy take the traditions of the Weavers and other such troubadours and update them for the 21st century: the lyrics are poetic but not complicated, the tunes easy to learn and simply arranged, and only a few knowing winks and sophisticated bits of wordplay suggest something other than classic Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.  Indeed, the album’s leadoff track and best song, “Don’t Carry It All,” could have been a Depression-era anthem, but in these days of political and social splits, Mr. Meloy and his female harmonizers’ (Gillian Welch, Laura Viers, and Jenny Conlee) cry for a common human effort works just as well. 

“Don’t Carry It All” sets a great tone for the first and uniformly excellent thirty minutes of The King Is Dead, with folky gems such as “Down By the Water,” the lovely “January” and “June Hymns,” and the dark nursery rhyme “Rox in the Box.”  But the last ten minutes let down the album, as Mr. Meloy and company’s vocal prowess cannot save the tuneless and interminable “This is Why We Fight” and “Dear Avery.”  Turn it off after “June Hymn” and you still have a lovely record longer than Nashville Skyline.

Cruel Sister (1970) by Pentangle

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I first heard the title track from Pentangle’s Cruel Sister during my senior year at Boardman, when Mr. Jack Hay, English teacher without peer, played it for us on some whim as an example of traditional English balladry.  But you don’t have to be a high school student to gently mock a seven minute long number where the phrases “lay the bent to the bonnie broom” and “fa la la LA la LA la la la LA” are repeated ad infinitum.  However, with time and gaining of musical experience, the repetition feels quaint, a minor joy on a very good album. 

There’s nothing particularly unique about Pentangle’s folk-rock except for the mesmerizing, finger-picking guitars and dulcimers of Bert Jansch, the ultra-influential British folkie loved by everyone from my roommates in L.A. (who had his vinyl) to Neil Young (Mr. Jansch opened for him on his last tour).  Mr. Jansch’s fretwork is of the most pleasingly fluid, melodic, and just so aggressive variety, and the five cuts on Cruel Sister are lifted by his playing from a fairly ordinary rhythm section.  Jacqui McShee has a sweet, clear voice, but there is little to distinguish it from Sandy Denny. 

However, Fairport Convention with Ms. Denny never recorded an album as bizarre as Cruel Sister.  Side one is full of tales of the horrors of war, cross-dressing and homoeroticism, loss of virginity (performed a capella by Ms. McShee) and one sister killing another (guess which song that is).  Side two surprises because it actually works: Mr. Jansch and John Renbourn rearrange the traditional sex-murder-and-cool-fiddling ballad “Jack Orion” into an eighteen-minute folk-rock workout of ceaseless activity and delight which never wavers and should be heard by any true Anglophile at least once.  There may be little startlingly new on Cruel Sister but it offers pleasures.

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