Posts Tagged ‘Tom Waits’

The house where nobody lives (but you’ll cry)

December 4, 2019

In the fantasy list of dream-duets, a pairing of Tom Waits with Iris Dement must rank pretty near the top. It’s never happened, to my knowledge, but Iris Dement has recently recorded a cover of Waits’ “The House Where Nobody Lives”, and it’s an oh-so-sweet heartbreaker. Pass the whiskey and the tissue box.

**

We can get a taste of what that Waits/Dement duet might sound like by playing the video above and the video below at the same time!

Pop music odyssey: the finale

April 20, 2016

At long last, about two years and 235 albums after it began, my pop music odyssey has come to an end. Rejoice!

This leg of the journey was the longest, covering the years from 2000-2016, and it consisted of 13 albums by Neil Young, 10 by Van Morrison, 6 each by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and 4 by Leonard Cohen.

During the 2000s (the actual 2000s, not this rehearsal of them) my interests had migrated away from popular music toward classical, and in consequence many of the records I’ve been listening to over these past few months have been new to me. There have been some really nice discoveries, Tom Waits’ Real Gone especially.

Having said that, it is also fair to say that the level of inspiration among my chosen few has been ebbing away during these years. There were few outright bad records, but there were quite an armful of mediocre ones, and it has been rather difficult to come up with a list of ten favourite albums.

Nonetheless, a tradition is a tradition, so let me propose the following list, arranged more or less in descending order:

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012)
Tom Waits – Orphans (2006)
Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (2008)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (2006)

Ten New Songs I consider to be one of Leonard Cohen’s best records, and maybe the only downright masterpiece on this list. Sonically it is quite spectacular, especially by his rather lacklustre standards, and the songwriting is consistently excellent. Van Morrison’s Down the Road is uneven, but it has a few real corkers on it and I love to put it on. Orphans was a 3-disc set of unreleased songs, fragments, and experiments, and it too is uneven, but gloriously so. Waits had all these songs lying around, and he went back into the studio to record them all afresh in his late, Cerberusian style, so there is a sonic consistency throughout even though the songs were written over the course of decades. It’s fun to try to guess which period each dates from. Dylan’s records in this period have been critically lauded, but for me they lean too much on the blues, and I’ve put them onto the list more or less in order to fill it up. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

**

It’s easier to come up with a list of ten favourite songs, and even to put them in rough descending order:

Dylan — “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times)
Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs)
Morrison — “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” (Down the Road)
Cohen — “Come Healing” (Old Ideas)
Waits — “Down There By The Train” (Orphans)
Cohen — “You Got Me Singing” (Popular Problems)
Morrison — “Once a Day” (Pay the Devil)
Waits — “Alice” (Alice)
Cohen — “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs)
Dylan — “Cross the Green Mountain” (Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan’s lawyers prevent me linking to his songs, which is a pity.

**

Odyssey MVP

At the outset I assumed that the MVP would be Bob Dylan. He’s my pop music pole star, and I built the odyssey around his music. But, here at the finish line, I’m inclined to give the palm to Van Morrison. He never reached the colossal heights that Dylan reached in the mid-1960s, but, then again, neither did anybody else, including Dylan over the subsequent decades. And Van Morrison never really had a bad patch; he’s been consistently good-to-great for decades.

And, by the phonebook test (“Who would you most want to hear sing the phonebook?”), it’s Van Morrison by a country mile.

I hereby name him the Odyssey MVP.

**

As a way of wrapping things up, let me point out a few examples of cross-referencing: instances in which one subject of the odyssey makes reference to another. There weren’t many that I noticed, but there were a few.

  • On A Letter Home, Neil Young covers Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.
  • In the song “Twisted Road” (from Psychedelic Pill) Neil Young sings about hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
  • On “Highlands” (from Time Out of Mind) Bob Dylan sings about “listening to Neil Young” (and everybody shouts at him to “turn it down”).
  • Bob Dylan and Van Morrison recorded a session of duets together.

So it would seem that it’s been mostly Young and Dylan trading cards.

**

This has a been a really rewarding project, and in a sense I’m sad to see it end. In another sense I’m glad, because I’m ready to move on to something else.

I’ve been mulling over a few other possible projects that I might start: Mahler symphonies (again), Schubert lieder (actually, I’m already doing this one), fifteenth-century music, Mozart’s operas, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Any suggestions?

Pop music odyssey: the 1990s

October 27, 2015

It’s time for another checkpoint on my pop music odyssey. It has taken quite a few months for me to navigate this stretch, but here I am, safe and sound. This portion of the odyssey has included 12 records from Van Morrison, 8 from Neil Young, 6 from Bob Dylan, 5 from Tom Waits, 3 from Mark Heard, and just 1 (but a good one!) from Leonard Cohen. I also threw in a sampling of 3 records by Nick Cave (Let Love In, Murder Ballads, and The Boatman’s Call).

By the end of the 1990s, my companions on this pop music odyssey were getting on in years: Dylan was in his late 50s, Van Morrison and Neil Young were both 55, Tom Waits had reached 50, and Leonard Cohen was in his mid-60s. One might think that their creativity and ambition would be in decline, rock and roll being a young man’s game, and in some cases that expectation is born out. But all of them released at least one pretty great album in the 1990s, and a few of them were doing work at least as good as what had come before.

In fact, the music these men made in the 1990s is particularly close to my heart. I myself was 15 years old in 1990, and it was during this decade that I discovered each of these singers for the first time. The years 1991-92, in particular, are a kind of golden dream in my personal history of music appreciation: it was in those years that Van Morrison made Hymns to the Silence, Mark Heard made Second Hand, Tom Waits made Bone Machine and Leonard Cohen made The Future, and beyond the borders of this odyssey they were the years of great records from U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Lyle Lovett, Sting, Crowded House, and Pearl Jam. For me all of these records have an aura of wonder around them. I know their nooks and crannies. I honestly can’t say if they are as good as I think they are; I can only hear them with my 17-year old ears, and they sound pretty darn terrific.

*

Not that there wasn’t some dross in the mix. Dylan launched his first LP of the decade with a contender for his very worst song (viz. “Wiggle Wiggle”), and his subsequent two records, on which he sang folk standards, were critically well-received but have never done anything for me. It seemed possible that Oh Mercy, in 1989, was to be his last hurrah. But then in 1997 he released Time Out of Mind, which is to my mind his best record since Blood on the Tracks, and, as it turned out, a record which inaugurated a bona fide late-career renaissance that continues, arguably, to this very day. In any case, I’ve loved Time Out of Mind since I first heard Dylan croak out the first line of “Love Sick”: I’m walking through streets that are dead. We understand implicitly that it was his voice that killed everything. Daniel Lanois, for all that he has been criticized for making all the records he produced sound the same, at least managed to get Dylan to record songs with arrangements and texture, something that was too often missing from the blunt-force approach to production that he used through much of the 1970s and 1980s. And “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” rank with the very best of the Dylan songbook.

*

Neil Young had ended the 1980s on a high note, with Freedom, and he opened the new decade with the same raucous noise (only more so). Later in the decade he would team up with Pearl Jam on some blistering rock and roll records. But my favourite records of the decade are the quiet ones: Harvest Moon in 1992 and Sleeps with Angels in 1994, the later being the mildest mannered Crazy Horse album on record, and one of the high points in Young’s discography, a record of rough-hewn beauty, even if it lacks any particularly great individual songs. As is often the case with Young, the sound is more entrancing than the substance.

*

The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
And then lay down, stone cold,
In forgotten fields.

Well, I doubt that one of the best poets would write about mouths laying down, but, still, these lines of his come to mind when I think about Mark Heard, who passed away suddenly in 1992, and who was, I’ll wager, the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. As I said last time, he made three truly outstanding records in the early 1990s, of which the second, called Second Hand, is his masterpiece, and one of my all-time favourite albums. It’s a sort of miracle and a sort of tragedy that an album this intimate and desperate and honest found its way into the world through the “contemporary Christian music” portal; a miracle because the piety of the record, though very real, is not expressed in comfortable or comforting ways, and a tragedy because it didn’t find the audience it deserved. The music is stripped down to a few acoustic instruments, and Heard’s ragged tenor was never captured in better form. Indispensable.

*

Leonard Cohen released only one record in the 1990s: The Future. Despite its hokey instrumentation — it sounds as though it was made with one of those $50 electronic keyboards from Radio Shack — it contains some of his most ambitious songwriting, and he is in glorious sepultural voice. It is fair to say, I think, that it is the most political record he has made, for it contains two epic songs on broadly political and cultural themes (“The Future” and “Democracy”), and though I am normally averse to politics in song I don’t tire of these ones. “Closing Time”, his bouncy apocalyptic number, was a pretty big hit, and I have a very distinct memory of hearing these lines on the radio: “So we struggle and we stagger / Down the snakes and up the ladders / To the tower where the blessed hours chime”. Not much to look at when set down on paper, I suppose, but to my inexperienced teenaged ears, those lines convinced me that popular song could, in the right hands, aspire to be something like art. I don’t remember if I was already listening to Dylan and Waits at that point, but my encounter with Leonard Cohen’s The Future certainly catalyzed my interest in the craft of songwriting.

*

If I’m not mistaken, Hymns to the Silence was the first Van Morrison record that I really got to know. I can still remember reading the review, by Brian Quincy Newcomb, and thinking that I needed to find a way to hear it. It was not at all a bad entry point into Van’s music. The gauzy veil that had hung over much of his music in the 1980s was blown away on this record; everything was crisp and clear, and he was firing on most cylinders. Of course, being a sprawling double album it does have its share of sub-standard material, but they are the exception not the rule, and there are a handful of outstanding numbers. There is even a flute on a few tracks. (It is strange but true that Van Morrison only puts a flute on his very best songs; this is a fool-proof crutch for critics.) And the record contains my favourite rendition of a hymn by a pop music singer: he sings “Be Thou My Vision”.

*

It has been said that Tom Waits writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. The two have never worked together to better effect than on Bone Machine, the record that I consider to be his masterpiece. The grand weepers, in “Who Are You?” and “Whistle Down the Wind”, are luxurious, and the grim reapers, in “Black Wings” and “Earth Died Screaming” and “Murder in the Red Barn” (and others! There are a lot of grim reapers on this record.), have never been more deliciously grim. And in “A Little Rain” he managed to combine the two kinds of song into one. It’s a terrific, terrific record — but too scary for the kids. (Still not as scary as Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.)

*

Favourite cover songs: Van Morrison singing Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Hymns to the Silence); Dylan covering Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (Good As I Been To You).

*

Scariest song I’ve ever heard: Nick Cave’s “Song of Joy” (Murder Ballads)

*

It is easy to come up with a list of ten favourite records for this decade. In rough descending order, I choose as follows:

Mark Heard — Second Hand (1991)
Tom Waits — Bone Machine (1992)
Bob Dylan — Time Out of Mind (1997)
Van Morrison — Hymns to the Silence (1991)
Leonard Cohen — The Future (1992)
Mark Heard — Dry Bones Dance (1990)
Neil Young — Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Mark Heard — Satellite Sky (1992)
Van Morrison — Enlightenment (1990)
Neil Young — Harvest Moon (1992)

The bottom five on that list are good, solid records, but the first five are knock-outs.

*

As for a list of ten favourite songs, it’s not at all easy to settle, and that because of an abundance of riches. My initial short list had 35 songs, so whittling it down to 10 has been no laughing matter. Nonetheless, here we are:

Van Morrison — “Avalon of the Heart” (Enlightenment)
Bob Dylan — “Not Dark Yet” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Satellite Sky)
Mark Heard — “Look Over Your Shoulder” (Second Hand)
Tom Waits — “A Little Rain” (Bone Machine)
Bob Dylan — “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Lonely Moon” (Second Hand)
Van Morrison — “Take Me Back” (Hymns to the Silence)
Leonard Cohen — “The Future” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Worry Too Much” (Second Hand)

Oh, this is too cruel. Here are another ten:

Van Morrison — “Real Real Gone” (Enlightenment)
Tom Waits — “Whistle Down the Wind” (Bone Machine)
Van Morrison — “I Need Your Kind of Loving” (Hymns to the Silence)
Mark Heard — “Orphans of God” (Satellite Sky)
Bob Dylan — “Highlands” (Time Out of Mind)
Van Morrison — “High Summer” (Back on Top)
Van Morrison — “Hymns to the Silence” (Hymns to the Silence)
Tom Waits — “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine)
Mark Heard — “Nod Over Coffee” (Second Hand)
Leonard Cohen — “Closing Time” (The Future)

There; that’s better. But then there are these songs too:

Van Morrison — “Rough God Goes Riding” (The Healing Game)
Tom Waits — “Black Wings” (Bone Machine)
Leonard Cohen — “Waiting for the Miracle” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “House of Broken Dreams” (Dry Bones Dance)
Tom Waits — “House Where Nobody Lives” (Mule Variations)
Van Morrison — “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (The Healing Game)
Neil Young — “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon)
Leonard Cohen — “Democracy” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Dry Bones Dance” (Dry Bones Dance)
Van Morrison — “Carrying a Torch” (Hymns to the Silence)

Yes. Here is a YouTube playlist of all these songs.

*

What was the worst of this portion of the odyssey? I can’t say for sure just how bad it is because I’ve never been able to listen to it through, but I’m going to go with Van Morrison’s “In the Days before Rock ‘n Roll” (Enlightenment). I think I’m going to be sick. The worst album has got to be Dylan’s Under the Red Sky (or, under the red sky, if you care about typographical niceties).

*

I’ve not decided yet if I’ll take the remaining 15 years of the odyssey in one bite or two. Until next time…

Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

***

Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

**

In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

**

Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

**

Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

**

The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

**

Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

**

Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

**

Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

**

The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

**

I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

**

As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

**

I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

**

Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

**

What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

**

Next time: the 1990s.

Pop music odyssey: the 1970s

December 11, 2014

***

Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.

**

When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.

If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.

But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.

And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.

It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.

**

Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.

**

In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.

Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.

I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.

**

Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:

Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)

**

Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)

Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.

Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.

**

There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!

**

And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.

But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.

Evening and morning, the first day

January 1, 2014

We have a happy conjunction of festivals today: in the secular calendar it is New Year’s Day, and in the sacred we have the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. To mark the former, here is Tom Waits singing his inimitable “Auld Lang Syne”:

And to mark the second, here is Schola Antiqua of Chicago singing Josquin’s superb Ave Maria…Virgo serena, which ends (at 4:45 in this video) with an invocation of Our Lady under the title we celebrate today:

Favourites of 2011: Popular Music

December 28, 2011

At the start of 2011 there were two albums I was particularly anticipating: U2’s long-awaited Songs of Ascent, reportedly consisting of songs inspired by the Psalms, and the sophomore record from Mumford & Sons. As it happened, neither saw the light of day this year. There were some other nice surprises though — and a few mild disappointments.

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

My ‘album of the year’ for 2011 is this gorgeous country-folk record from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It had been about seven years since their previous record, the lack-lustre Soul Journey, and a full decade since the dazzling Time (The Revelator). The ‘harrow’ of the record’s title is a reference to what was happening in the interim: a general dissatisfaction with the material they were writing, and uncertainty about how to proceed. The waiting paid off: The Harrow and the Harvest is full of wonderful songs, heard at first as beguiling simplicity but slowly unfolding into something multi-faceted and absorbing. It might be the most languid folk album I’ve ever heard; the majority of the songs are in adagio or andante territory. This is just fine. It gives us space to relish the lovely harmonies and Rawlings’ amazing guitar work. Lyrically, too, this record is excellent. On previous outings (especially their debut, Revival) they sunk themselves so deeply into the tradition that it wasn’t clear whether the songs had been written in 1995 or a hundred years earlier, while on the aforementioned Time they tipped too far (in my opinion) toward the modern world, which sometimes made the old-timey music sound contrived. On this record, however, it seems to me that they have managed to strike a good balance between the two poles. The result is a fresh, intriguing, and very lovely set of songs. Highly recommended. [Listen to excerpts]

A few weeks ago Maclin Horton wrote a lengthy appreciation of this record. He also linked to a few good articles about the duo.

Ensemble Phoenix Munich: The Rose of Sharon

Several years ago I chose a record of traditional English folk song, by this ensemble, as one of my records of the year. This year they were back with The Rose of Sharon, a collection of traditional American music from the period between the War of Independence and the Civil War (inclusive). There is a wide variety of material here, ranging from marching songs to spirituals, Shaker hymns, and narrative ballads. Some of the songs I had heard before (such as William Billings’ fuging tunes), but others were new to me, including some real gems (like “The Death of General Wolfe”, a long ballad about the career of the great English General who conquered Quebec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham). Even a song as hackneyed as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” is here given a sensitive and fresh interpretation — quite a feat. The musicians on the record are excellent. They play period instruments and have been recorded in what sounds like a natural acoustic (as opposed to close-micing each instrument and mixing them in the studio). The singing is superb: modest, clear, humorous (when appropriate), with precise tuning and minimal vibrato. My only disappointment about the record is that Joel Frederiksen, the ensemble’s director, who is blessed with a rich and warm bass voice, sings on so few of the songs. I’d have liked to hear more of him. [Listen to excerpts]

Tom Waits: Bad As Me

Its name notwithstanding, Waits’ new record is very far from being bad. In fact, it’s pretty terrific, even if it falls short of his very best material. It feels like we’ve heard him doing this sort of thing before: the junkyard stomper, the sliced-jugular balladeer, and the chain-smoking bebopper are all here. A difference is that everything on this record is tight and concise: the songs deliver their punch and take their leave. Not that Waits has been particularly given to sprawl, but after a three-disc set of flotsam and jetsam, and the double-whammy of Alice and Blood Money it was arguably time for something a little more disciplined. On Bad As Me nothing, or almost nothing, outwears its welcome. To my ears the title track is one of the weaker in the batch, and the penultimate track, “Hell Broke Luce”, is too vicious and angry — it doesn’t fit with the rest of the record. But Waits makes amends with the final track, “New Year’s Eve”, which is easily among the best things I’ve heard from him in a long while; his drunken rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” is something of a dream come true. I keep hoping that Waits will someday train his enigmatic muse on the mythic and supernatural realms once again, as he did on the brilliant Bone Machine, but in the meantime Bad As Me is something not to be lightly passed over. [Listen to excerpts]

Undecided

Joe Henry: Reverie

Every time a new Joe Henry record comes out, most of the music reviewers whom I most respect heap their choicest superlatives upon it. Each time, I dutifully buy it, and listen, and listen, and scratch my head, and listen, and shift my weight to the other foot, and furrow my brow, and — well, I just generally don’t get it. There is no doubt that Henry is a consummate artist, a superb musician, a thoughtful lyricist, and all the rest of it. He surrounds himself with top-notch players. He’s one of the best producers around, and his records sound fantastic. It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly what the problem is, but there is unquestionably a problem somewhere, for in the end his records tend to leave me cold. (An exception is 1993’s Kindness of the World, parts of which I really love.) It could be the music itself, which, though drawing on blues, country, and rock, is also tinged with jazz, which almost invariably curdles my blood. But I think the biggest problem is that, even after listening to his songs repeatedly, I cannot figure out what they are about. I just can’t. There is nothing in his writing that draws attention to its impressive impenetrability — he does not write like Dylan in the mid-1960s — but evidently he has mastered the art of writing in an idiom so subtle and elliptical that it evades intelligibility on a more or less permanent basis. All of which is to say that I am still listening to Reverie, still ruminating on it, and still withholding judgement. [Listen to excerpts]

Mild Disappointments

Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings

On paper, this seems like a great idea: put Buddy Miller together with a group of his guitar-god friends and have them play a set of country music standards. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, exactly. The songs are good; the playing is good. Perhaps I was hoping for something with a little more razzle-dazzle. Duelling banjos maybe. In the end it’s a decent record, but not one that particularly captured my heart. I’d have liked to hear Buddy singing on more of the songs. The final track, a Julie Miller original called “God’s Wing’ed Horse”, is excellent. [Listen to excerpts]

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

This one might be better filed in the “Undecided” category above, but I’m putting it here because this is how I feel about it recently. I praised Fleet Foxes’ debut record a couple of years ago for its refreshing blend of the Beach Boys, The Band, and Fairport Convention, and for the impressive maturity of the music. I was really looking forward to this, their sophomore record. I dunno. There is much that is impressive: lovely voices, long-breathed, serpentine melodies, poise, complexity. The sound is rich and layered. But somehow the music fails to involve me. I don’t really know what else to say about it. I wish I liked it more than I do. [Listen to excerpts]

Miranda Lambert: Four the Record

Five years ago Miranda Lambert put out a record called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She came across as a fire-spittin’, shotgun-totin’, sassy hot potato, ready to kick over some trash cans, knock some heads, and waltz off into the sunset. It was great. Then, a few years ago, came Revolution, which was sort of the same, but which leaned toward a commercial country radio sound — beefed up and glossy — and the extra amperage threatened to push her persona over the edge into caricature. Happily, Four the Record backs off of that tendency a little, even if it doesn’t quite all the way back to C Ex-G territory. She is riding the line between alt-country and Top 40 country, and doing a pretty good job of it. There are some weak songs in this batch, and while it is perhaps disingenuous of me to praise her for being bellicose and disorderly and then complain that her songs are unwholesome, I complain nonetheless: some of the material on Four the Record I cannot get through. But there are good songs as well, and when she’s good, she’s pretty dang good. [Listen to excerpts]

Guilty pleasure

Taylor Swift: Speak Now

Having said all of that, let me say this: I owe Ms. Swift a debt of thanks. Her record is so much fun — although it is a little frightening that someone with such unimpeachable teeny-bopper credentials goes around writing melodic hooks like she’s hunting Moby-Dick. (Get one stuck in your mind and you’re done for. You might as well just give up, grab that hair brush, and sing into it for all you’re worth until nightfall.) I don’t say this music isn’t bubble-gum, but may I please have another piece? [Listen to excerpts]

(One thing you’ll notice about Ms. Swift, if you spend any time poking around for live video, is that she often sings flat. The unusual acoustic perspective of this video maybe gives some clue as to why; I’d be out of tune too if I had to listen to all that. It’s nice that in this video, from the Letterman show, she sounds terrific.)

Best of the Decade: Popular Songs

December 11, 2009

In a previous post I wrote about my picks for the best popular music albums of the decade.  Today is devoted to my favourite songs of the decade.  In some cases they are drawn from those favourite records, in some cases not.  I have no idea if these songs received radio airplay and were bona fide commercial hits.  I can only be sure that they were well beloved in my house.

I have tried to put them into some sort of ranking, with the best ones first.  Where possible I link to the music itself so that you, should you be so inclined, can listen.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” (from Sufjan StevensIllinoise [2005]): I cannot get enough of this terrific song.  It’s a miniature pop symphony, moving from a gentle innocence to a joyful alleluia to a poignant lament.  It is a song about childhood and friendship.  If you do decide to click below and listen, don’t give up too soon.  This song cannot be judged without hearing it through to its finish.

“The Modern Leper” (from Frightened RabbitThe Midnight Organ Fight [2008]): I wrote about this record in my album picks.  “The Modern Leper” is the lead track, and it captures most of the good qualities that I find in the record as a whole, most notably a disarming honesty and plenty of urgent rock ‘n’ roll.  There’s nothing pretentious here, just straightforward music from the heart.  (Be forewarned that there is vulgar language in the first stanza of the song.)

“Intervention” (from Arcade FireNeon Bible [2007]): Arcade Fire were critical darlings during this decade, but I must admit that for the most part I just didn’t get it.  There were a few exceptions to that rule, and “Intervention” is one of them.  (Another is their terrific song “Rebellion (Lies)” (listen)).  From the massive opening chord on the organ, “Intervention” goes from strength to strength, building like a tidal wave.

Here is a live performance from the Rock en Seine festival.  It is amazing for me to see them playing before this huge audience; it wasn’t so long ago that I saw them give a concert in somebody’s living room in Montreal.  Anyway, the song begins about 1 minute in. (The studio version is here.)

“Cattle and the Creeping Things” (from The Hold SteadySeparation Sunday [2005]): The record from which this song is taken is an ambitious concept album that only just missed making my “Best Of” list.  It weaves together the stories of a group of down-and-out drug addicts and prostitutes as they try to live another day of their troubled lives.  The band’s singer, Craig Finn, is a talented and sensitive songwriter, and his songs, while honest in their portrayal of the damage these characters do to themselves and one another, is also compassionate and humane.  You get the feeling that these people are loved anyway, and that they are not without hope.  It’s a feeling that seems justified by the album’s closing track in which Holly, a prostitute, “crashed into the Easter Mass / with her hair done up in broken glass” and asked, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”  But the song I love most from the record comes earlier on.  “Cattle and the Creeping Things” is threaded with Biblical allusions, as two of the characters are reading the Bible and finding echoes of the events of sacred history in their own lives on the street.  It’s a great song.  Craig Finn has developed a kind of New York City sprechstimme, the better to get all the words of his rather wordy songs in.

“Down There by the Train” (from Tom WaitsOrphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards [2006]: I have loved this song since Johnny Cash included it on his 1994 album American Recordings.  We had to wait until 2006 to hear Waits’ own take on it, and it remains a wonderful song — one of his best, I think, and that is saying a lot.  The song moves against the backdrop of the American folk, blues, and gospel traditions, conjuring up memories and shadows, with a few of those inimitable touches that set Waits’ songs apart.  Over the years he has written a few “gospel” songs that were spoiled by a bit of sarcasm or irony thrown in, but I believe that this one can be taken straight.

“Wise Up” (Aimee Mann, from the soundtrack to Magnolia [1999]): I am cheating a bit here, but only a bit.  In the last week of 1999 the film Magnolia premiered at the box office.  It was a film that made unusually effective use of music, and one of the crucial sequences was set to Aimee Mann’s song “Wise Up”.  The song is unavoidably tied up in my mind with that moment in the film, and its context in the film makes it a better song, but I think (I think) it is still a good song without those associations.  Anyway, it has been one of my favourites these past ten years.  The song’s final line is open to various interpretations.  One might consider it a counsel of despair; I believe it conveys real moral wisdom.  Here is the sequence from the film in which the song plays.  I cannot take the time here to explain the situations of all the characters, but suffice it to say that the use of this song at this point in the film is really brilliant:

“Set Out Running” (from Neko CaseFurnace Room Lullaby [2000]): Neko Case wrote a lot of great songs during this decade, but this is the first song I ever heard her sing and it has remained a favourite.   My goodness, what a voice this woman has!  It makes my skin tingle and my hair stand up.  She’s pretty too.

“Bridal Train” (from The WaifsBridal Train EP [2004]): I love a good story song, and this is the best one I have heard in a while.  “Bridal Train” tells about a group of Australian women who, having married American soldiers, are embarking by ship to the United States to join their husbands.  It is a tear-jerker, so have a hankie handy if you decide to listen to it.

“Sweetest Waste of Time” (from Kasey Chambers and Shane NicholsonRattlin’ Bones [2008]): Ever since Tammy Wynette and George Jones recorded their classic albums together, the country music duet has been a high-stakes genre.  There have been some great duos over the years: Emmylou Harris with Gram Parsons, and Iris Dement with John Prine come immediately to mind.  In the 2000s I give the palm to Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, whose album of original duets is really excellent.  They sound great together, and they have an ear for the classic country sound.  This is sweet, sweet music to my ears.

“Roots” (from Show of HandsWitness [2006]): The Chestertonian song of the decade must be this one, from a relatively obscure British group.  It’s a song about loving one’s own land and country, and a lament for the erosion of British culture because of political correctness and mass entertainment.  It’s a simple song, but sincere and effective.

That rounds out my Top 10.  Here are a few runners-up:

  • “Keep Your Distance” (From Buddy and Julie Miller [2001]) [listen]
  • “The Beauty of the Rain” (From Dar Williams — The Beauty of the Rain [2003]) [listen]
  • “Aint’ Talkin'” (From Bob Dylan — Modern Times [2006])
  • “American Girls” (From Counting Crows — Hard Candy [2002]) [listen]
  • “The Man Comes Around” (From Johnny Cash — The Man Comes Around [2002]) [listen]

Best of the Decade: Popular Music

December 4, 2009

The year is swiftly drawing to a close, and it is time once again to write about the best music, films, and books that I have had the pleasure to hear, see, or read.  Normally I look back over the previous 12 months, but this year, as we are nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it seems an opportune time to cast a wider net.

I am planning a series of five posts, on popular music records, popular music songs (“hit singles”), classical music, films, and books.  In previous years I have admitted for consideration anything I heard, saw, or read during the year, regardless of when it was originally released or published, but this year, to make things manageable, I will confine myself to things which were actually released or published between 2000 and 2009.

In this first post the topic is popular music.  My initial short list consisted of about 40 albums.  After long hours of re-listening I whittled the list down to 10 stellar records, along with a few runners-up.  I tried ranking the final 10, but the rank order was unstable from one day to the next, so I have settled on a simple chronological list.

Without further ado:

16 HorsepowerSecret South [2000]: It would not be true to say that the music of 16 Horsepower had no antecedents.  Country singers had been shouting about God and the Devil for a long time, but not often with the fervent intensity that the band’s singer, David Eugene Edwards, brought to his songs.  He came from Denver, but he sounded like he’d come out of the woods, down from the hills, and he bore an unwelcome message for our troubled times: repent, every one of you, for the Almighty is near, and He is not tame.  The sonic backdrop for Eugene’s wild-eyed evangel was a swirl of twangy banjos, wheezing accordions, and reeling fiddles, often in minor keys and dark tones.  This unique sound has since been given a label — “Gothic Americana” — and a long parade of bands have lately begun to ape it, but, as is so often the case, the originators do it best.  Of 16 Horsepower’s 5 full-length albums, Secret South is the strongest — indeed, it is terrific from start to finish. In some ways it is mellower than their other work, but the songs have great atmosphere. It includes, in “Praying Arm Lane”, one of my favourite gospel songs of recent memory, as well as two very good cover songs (the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and Bob Dylan’s “Nobody ‘Cept You”, another gem from his warehouse of unreleased songs).  This record is not to be missed.

Songs: “Clogger” (listen); “Poor Mouth” (listen); “Praying Arm Lane” (listen)

Leonard CohenTen New Songs [2001]: Everybody knows that Cohen is a great songwriter. The quality of his specifically musical inspiration, not to mention his taste in arrangements, might sometimes justly be in doubt, but when the words are as carefully wrought as his there is something to be said for not letting the music distract too much.  On Ten New Songs the music and the delivery are relaxed, even cool, but this doesn’t prevent the songs from being intense and probing.  There is nothing here to rival the political and cultural critique that we heard on The Future, but somehow this record goes even deeper into the longing and brokenness of the human spirit.  Ultimately it is a beautiful and hopeful collection of songs, his strongest since 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.  It would be difficult to think of higher praise (unless it be that my wife votes this record “Album of the Decade”).

Songs: “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (listen); “Alexandra Leaving” (listen); “The Land of Plenty” (listen)

Gillian WelchTime (The Revelator) [2001]: Country music from the borderland of sleep.  It’s mellow and ruminative, perhaps sometimes in danger of becoming somnolent, but if you’re in the right mood this is a really terrific record.  The songwriting, which takes a few hallucinogenic tips from Dylan’s playbook, is uniformly strong and evocative.  Though Welch gets top billing this is really a partnership, with her austere voice tastefully but very imaginatively supported by David Rawlings’ intricate guitar playing. I won’t say this record surpasses 1996’s Revival, but it is a near thing.

Songs: “Revelator” (listen); “Everything is Free” (listen); “I Want to Sing that Rock ‘N’ Roll” (listen)

Tom WaitsAlice [2002]: Tom Waits released two records simultaneously in 2002: Alice and Blood Money.  The latter was the noisier and more violent of the two, and I have not returned to it often.  Alice, on the other hand, I have found to be a winsome record, very much worth getting to know.  Apart from the eruption of phlegm that is “Kommienezuspadt” (a song which properly belonged on Blood Money), Waits filled this album with quiet and moody melodies, gently sanded by his graveled voice, and music that sounds like an old, creaky house.  As he is wont to do, he populated the songs with oddball characters whom, it seems, would be more at home in a circus funhouse than in the real world.  In some cases this leads to genuinely disquieting results (“Poor Edward”), but more often, on Alice at least, it is sweetly endearing.  I think this is one of Waits’ best records.

Songs: “Flower’s Grave” (listen); “Poor Edward” (listen); “Fish & Bird” (listen)

Johnny CashUnearthed [2003]: Johnny Cash died in the fall of 2003, and we lost one of the truly great figures in American music.  In the decade before his death he had experienced a bona fide late-career renaissance, having made, beginning with American Recordings in 1994, five outstanding records in collaboration with producer Rick Rubin.  Several months after his death Unearthed was released.  It is a 5-disc set of outtakes, alternate versions, new songs, and duets which were recorded during the sessions for his Rubin records.  It is a marvellous collection of songs.  The first disc mainly consists of outtakes from the American Recordings sessions.  Like the rest of that record, it is just Cash and his guitar, singing some great old songs (“Flesh and Blood” and “Dark as a Dungeon” being favourites).  The second disc finds Cash backed up by a full band, singing covers of songs by the likes of Neil Young (“Pocahontas”, “Heart of Gold”), Jimmie Rodgers (“T for Texas”), and Steve Earle (“Devil’s Right Hand”).  The third disc is similar and includes an excellent cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and a duet — a duet, if you can believe it — with Nick Cave.  The fourth disc is the best of the bunch: titled My Mother’s Hymn Book, it has Cash singing a set of old gospel standards like “When the Roll is Called up Yonder”, “Softly and Tenderly”, and “In the Sweet By and By”.  The combination of that tremendous voice with those wonderful songs is something to treasure.  The final disc is a “Best Of” collection of songs culled from the first four Rubin recordings.  (The fifth Rubin record, A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously in 2006.)  By any reasonable measure, this is a major contribution to Cash’s discography, and that makes it a major contribution to popular music.

Songs: “Long Black Veil” (listen); “Redemption Song” (with Joe Strummer) (listen); “I Shall Not Be Moved” (listen)

Sufjan StevensCome on, Feel the Illinoise! [2005]: Were I forced to choose an “Album of the Decade” I would probably choose this one.  It’s not perfect, but it is so rich in wonders that I have returned to it again and again with joy.  Sufjan Stevens had released a few indie records before this one, but none of them really indicated what he was capable of.  Illinoise is a pop-orchestral masterpiece, with bleating horns, shimmering flutes, jaunty drums, witty chorus, and Sufjan’s idiosyncratic songs — all of them about the great state of Illinois — holding it all together.   The record’s main flaw is its lack of discipline: it sprawls all over the place, with delicate and finely crafted little songs rubbing up against exuberant circus music and soundscape experiments, and the song titles spilling out uncontrollably, but in the end it is this very surplus of energy that makes it such an enchanting, life-affirming, and joyful record.  It’s a real treat.

Songs: “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois” (listen); “Casimir Pulaski Day” (listen); “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” (listen)

Neko CaseFox Confessor Brings the Flood [2006]: This decade was a great one for Neko Case.  In addition to an EP and two live albums, she made a string of four excellent records (Furnace Room Lullaby, Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone).  I have had some difficulty deciding which of them to include on this list, but in the end I settled on Fox Confessor.  Case has a lot of things going for her: enigmatic but engaging songwriting, a terrific voice, and good looks.  Her songs have no padding: she gets right to the point, delivers the goods, and then moves on.  At times this can give them a fragmentary feel, their full potential left untapped, but it hardly matters when her inspiration is evidently so fresh and prolific.  I came late in the decade to her music, only in the past year going back and listening to her previous records, and I am very glad that I did.  (Thank you, Nick.)

Songs: “Hold On, Hold On” (listen); “Maybe Sparrow” (listen); “The Needle has Landed” (listen)

Joel Frederiksen – The Elfin Knight: Ballads and Dances [2007]: This is the only record on this list that qualifies as popular music in the strict sense — that is, music of the people.  It is a collection of folk songs and dances from Britain and America, mostly dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Joel Frederiksen has a resonant and warm bass voice, and he is joined by the singers and instrumentalists of the period group Ensemble Phoenix Munich.  The performances are tasteful and idiomatic, and far better than is typical in this repertoire.  The selection of songs includes some well-known classics (“Barbara Ellen”, “Scarborough Faire”), but also a nice variety of less famous but nonetheless wonderful folk songs (“The Lover’s Tasks”, “Fortune, my foe”), and even a humorous bawdy song (“Watkin’s Ale”).  I don’t know how many times I have played this record during the past three years, but I have probably listened to it more than any other.  It is excellent. (Read more.)

Songs: “Farewell, Lovely Nancy” (listen); “Watkin’s Ale” (listen); “Scarborough Faire” (listen)

Frightened RabbitThe Midnight Organ Fight [2008]: This was an indie album that became a surprise hit (a critical hit, anyway) for Frightened Rabbit, who hail from Glasgow.  It is an extraordinary record on a few counts.  First is the spontaneity and immediacy of the music making.  These guys had no idea they were making a record that would be heard by a large audience, and they probably didn’t have much money to put into it, but they had some songs and they needed to play them with all their hearts.  They did themselves proud.  They are brash, earnest, and vulnerable, with singer Scott Hutchison’s voice sometimes breaking under the strain, but the result has a rough beauty.  The song lyrics, mostly on (post-)romantic themes, are occasionally flat-footed, and they are laced throughout with obscenities — Frightened Rabbit are Glaswegians, after all — but the songs are unfailingly tuneful and memorable.  On acquaintance, however, the greatest merit of the record becomes evident: it is a portrait of the spiritual desolation visited upon so many of my generation.   Musings about death and nothingness, sex and loneliness, meaninglessness and desperation appear again and again through these songs.  In this respect it resembles Counting Crows’ fine recent album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, but whereas those songs were written to theme intentionally and artfully, here everything is unselfconscious, and all the better for it.  Listen, and enjoy, but not too much.

Songs: “The Modern Leper” (listen; obscenity warning); “My Backwards Walk” (listen; obscenity warning); “Poke” (listen; obscenity warning)

Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes [2008]: Fleet Foxes is another young band to have a hit (a critical hit, anyway) in 2008 with their debut record.  In some respects they are the antidote to Frightened Rabbit.  Their music is simply gorgeous.  The arrangements are spare but not spartan, the songs are plaintive and cryptic, if perhaps a little too homogeneous, and the long and beautiful melodies are juiced up with ravishing vocal harmonies that dazzled me on my first listen, and kept dazzling me each time I returned to them.  Fleet Foxes’ musical touchstone is The Band, as near as I can tell, and their music has that mature, knowing assurance that normally comes only with long experience.  It astonishes me that they are all young men, just starting out.  Fleet Foxes is a great record, and a very promising beginning.

Songs: “He Doesn’t Know Why” (listen); “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (listen); “Oliver James” (listen)

***

Runners-up:

Sam PhillipsFan Dance [2001]: A smoky record of tightly written songs that suit Phillips’ dry voice and terse lyrics perfectly.  This is the best of the three very good records she made this decade.  Songs: “Five Colors” (listen); “Taking Pictures” (listen)  [This song includes a wonderful line that always makes me smile: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be“.]

Radiohead Hail to the Thief [2003]: I am well aware that Radiohead is one of the “important” bands of the decade.  The trouble is that I don’t actually enjoy listening to their music all that much.  I find that on Hail to the Thief their inhuman tendencies are least pronounced. Songs: “2+2=5” (listen); “I Will” (listen)

The Innocence MissionBefriended [2003]: This is as far from Radiohead as one can get.  Befriended sounds like it was made in a living room, and the songs are lovely and delicate.  Karen Peris is a distinctive songwriter, and her light-as-a-feather voice is well-suited to this collection of quiet, reflective songs.  Songs: “I Never Knew You From the Sun” (listen); “Tomorrow on the Runway” (listen)

Buddy MillerUniversal United House of Prayer [2004]: A very strong record that mixes country, blues, and gospel.  It includes two of the best cover songs that I heard this decade: Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much” and Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side”.   Buddy Miller’s voice is a chief attraction, and his gutsy guitar playing is another.  This might be his best record overall.  Songs: “Shelter Me” (listen); “With God on our Side” (listen)

***

That’s the way “the noughties” sounded to me.  If you have a record that you think deserves to be included among the “Best of the Decade”, I’m all ears.

***

UPDATE:

  • Rolling Stone has published their Top 100 Albums of the decade.  If I counted correctly, 5 of my Top 10 were included on their list.  They didn’t do too badly.