Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps (1979)


For anyone still passionately in love with rock & roll, Neil Young has made a record that defines the territory. Defines it, expands it, explodes it. Burns it to the ground.

Rust Never Sleeps tells me more about my life, my country and rock & roll than any music I’ve heard in years. Like a newfound friend or lover pledging honesty and eager to share whatever might be important, it’s both a sampler and a synopsis — of everything: the rocks and the trees, and the shadows between the rocks and the trees. If Young’s lyrics provide strength and hope, they issue warnings and offer condolences, too. “Rust never sleeps” is probably the perfect epitaph for most of us, but it can also serve as a call to action.

On 1974’s On the Beach, the singer summed up a song (“Ambulance Blues”) and a mood with the deceptively matter-of-fact phrase, “I guess I’ll call it sickness gone.” On that same LP, he felt such a renewal of power that he delivered, in “Motion Pictures,” what may be the most boastful and egotistic line in all of rock & roll: “I hear the mountains are doing fine.” Rust Never Sleeps makes good on every one of Young’s early promises.

As you can see, we’re dealing with omniscience, not irony, here. Too often, irony is the last cheap refuge for those clever assholes who confuse hooks with heart, who can’t find the center of anything because their edges are so fashionably fucked up, who are just too cool to care or commiserate. Neil Young doesn’t have these problems. Because he actually knows who he is and what he stands for, because he seems to have earned his insights, because his idiosyncratic and skillful music is marked by wisdom as well as a wide-ranging intelligence, Young comes right out and says something — without rant, rhetoric, easy moral lessons or any of the newest production dildos. He doesn’t need that crap.

This man never reduces a song to the mere meaning of its words: he gives you the whole thing, emotions — and sometimes contradictions — controlled but unlimited. For my money, Neil Young can outwrite, outsing, outplay, outthink, outfeel and outlast anybody in rock & roll today. Of all the major rock artists who started in the Sixties (Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, et al.), he’s the only one who’s consistently better now than he was then.

Though not really a concept album, Rust Never Sleeps is about the occupation of rock & roll, burning out, contemporary and historical American violence, and the desire or need to escape sometimes. It’s an exhortation about coming back for those of us who still have that chance — and an elegiac tribute to those who don’t. That much is pretty clear. But unlike most of Young’s records, this one’s a deliberate grab bag of styles, from sensitive singer/songwriter seriousness (“Thrasher”) to charming science fiction (“Ride My Llama”) to country rock (“Sail Away,” a gorgeous Comes a Time outtake sung with Nicolette Larson) to an open embrace of the raw potency of punk (the hilarious and corrosive social commentary of “Welfare Mothers”).

Side one is awesomely acoustic: ostensibly a folkie showcase, it’s actually a virtuoso demonstration of how a rock & roller can switch off the electricity and, through sheer personal authority and force of will, somehow manage to increase the voltage. Side two is thunderous Crazy Horse rock & roll, but its opening song, “Powderfinger,” is, oddly enough, the LP’s purest folk narrative. And, to prove that he’s more than just a contender, Young punches out one tune, “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)” or “Hey Hey, My My (into the Black),” both ways.

Rust Never Sleeps leads off with “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue),” and you can tell in an instant — by those haunted, ominous low notes played on the bass strings of the guitar, by the singer’s respectful and understated vocal, by the lyrics’ repetition — that this song lies not far from the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter here is death and desperation. And commerce. While “out of the blue and into the black” is a phrase that’s filled with mortal doom, “into the black” can also mean money, success and fame, all of which carry a particularly high price tag. “My my, hey hey,” Young sings, the line both fatalistic and mocking, “Rock and roll is here to stay.” Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols are introduced:

The king is gone but be’s not forgotten
This is the story of a Johnny Rotten
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust
The king is gone but he’s not forgotten.

Though Young believes “Rock and roll can never die,” he knows that a lot of people in it can — and do. Fast. Hence, the final admonishment: “There’s more to the picture/Than meets the eye.”

The autobiographical “Thrasher” (the threshing machine as death symbol) follows, and it’s about rock & roll destructiveness, too — this time in the guise of the easy living that can lead to artistic stagnation. But even as the singer chronicles the downfall of many of his friends and fellow musicians

They had the best selection, they were poisoned with protection
There was nothing that they needed, they had nothing left to find
They were lost in rock formations or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations, they were waiting, waiting

he makes the decision that it won’t happen to him: “So I got bored and left them there, they were just deadweight to me/Better down the road without that load.”

Written partly in the florid and flowery style of mid-Sixties rock “poetry” and beautifully played on the twelve-string guitar and harmonica, “Thrasher” is a very complex composition that dwells deeply on the ties and boundaries of loyalty, childhood memories, fear, drugs, the music business, taking a hardheaded stand and art itself. When the latter is threatened, Young sings:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough, burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one-way ticket to the land of truth and my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

If those lines remind you of the “On the Beach”/”Motion Pictures”/”Ambulance Blues” side of On the Beach, they’re supposed to. That song cycle was also about survival with honor.

Taken as a unit, “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)” and “Thrasher” almost suggest a paraphrase of the frontier father’s warning to his son in side two’s “Powderfinger”: rock means run, son, and numbers add up to nothin’. But Young isn’t that preachy. If he’s strong enough to leave, he’s strong enough to stay and work, too. He’s able to adapt (“I could live inside a tepee/I could die in Penthouse thirty-five”). He’ll bury his dead and maybe even drop a ghastly joke about it: “Remember the Alamo when help was on the way/It’s better here and now, I feel that good today.” Though his profession may be dangerous, it can also be glorious, and in the end, he’s proud of it (“Sedan delivery is a job I know I’ll keep/It sure was hard to find”).

With Crazy Horse in Rust Never Sleeps’ ferocious finale, “Hey Hey, My My (into the Black),” Neil Young makes rock & roll sound both marvelously murderous and terrifyingly triumphant as the drums crack like whips, the guitars crash like cannons and the vocal soars above the blood-red din like the flag that was still there. “Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?” the singer asks. Yes and no. If we can’t beat it, we can sure as hell beat it to death trying, he seems to be saying.

I’d be the last person in the world to claim that “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)”/”Hey Hey, My My (into the Black)” and “Thrasher,” two of the album’s best tunes about rock & roll, have any direct connection with “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger,” Rust Never Sleeps’ pairing about America. Of course, I’d be the last person in the world to deny it, too.

“Pocahontas” is simply amazing, and nobody but Neil Young could have written it. A saga about Indians, it starts quietly with these lovely lines

Aurora borealis
The icy sky at night
Paddles cut the water
In a long and hurried flight

and then jumps quickly from colonial Jamestown to cavalry slaughters to urban slums to the tragicomic absurdities of the present day:

And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.

With “Pocahontas,” Young sails through time and space like he owns them. In just one line, he moves forward an entire century: “They massacred the buffalo/Kitty corner from the bank.” He even fits in a flashback — complete with bawdy pun — so loony and moving that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry:

I wish I was a trapper
I would give a thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin’on the fields of green
In the homeland we’ve never seen.

Try reducing that to a single emotion.

Like the helicopter attack in Francis Coppola’s hugely ambitious Apocalypse Now, the violence in “Powderfinger” is both appalling and appealing — to us and to its narrator — until it’s too late. In this tale of the Old West, a young man, left to guard a tiny settlement, finds himself under siege and can’t help standing there staring at the bullets heading his way. “I just turned twenty-two/I was wonderin’ what to do,” he says. Between each verse, Neil Young tightens the screw on his youthful hero with some galvanizing guitar play.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Live Rust (1979)


There’s something about October, with the cool, crisp air, that always makes me reach for Neil Young. Perhaps it’s my propensity for flannel shirts during the cooler weather.

Or perhaps it’s the warm glow of acoustic guitars mixed and Neil’s yearning vocals. Whatever the reason, you’d be wise to get yourself some Neil Young for the coming cold…

Live Rust, released in 1979, documents songs from Young’s Rust Never Sleeps tour in the fall of ’78. Hey, what do you know, fall time! Anyways, the album is split into two distinct parts, acoustic during the first half and raw electric during the second half. Actually, it’s not quite that cut and dry as out of 16 songs, only 6 of them are acoustic. Still, those first five acoustic songs are wonderfully played by just Neil, his guitar and harmonica. He even finds time to play piano during “After the Gold Rush” to emotional effect.

Songs like “Sugar Mountain,” “Comes A Time,” and “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” are all played with such heartfelt emotion they quickly became my favorite versions. There is just something about that sparse guitar mixing with Neil’s trebly, shakey voice that stops time. There is a realness to the material that is quite remarkable and I often find myself staring out the window with a sense of yearning, watching the leaves fall from their trees, Neil softly strumming in the background. It’s real, true, and almost noble music. There are no tricks, no screwing around, just a simple man with a handful of simple songs.

“When You Dance I Can Really Love” kicks off the first of the electric songs with a surge of electricity. Suddenly the amps are turned to 11 and that warm guitar distortion is running rampant. The band, the aptly named Crazy Horse, is playing with a controlled chaos that is almost comforting. The vocal harmonies are all spot on, the bass and drums hold down the groove, and Neil sets off into one of his trademark melodic solos. “The Loner” follows with similar results, Neil singing with a unique rock & roll swagger that is just plain cool.

“The Needle and the Damage Done,” a harrowing song about a fallen friend who succumbed to the dangers of drug use, follows and Neil’s performance is spellbinding. For such a short, simple song the message rings clear with some of Neil’s finest lyrics delivered in excellent voice.

As things move along the album grows darker and heavier, the dense electric guitars threatening everything in their path. “Cortez the Killer” moves with a thick sound and molasses like beat while Neil delivers stunning solos that sound like his guitar is about to explode. One thing that is always unique about Neil’s electric work is that it’s never too loud, never hurting or piercing, and instead goes towards the warmer side of things; whereas other guitarist like to set their guitars to stun, Neil likes to wash over you with thick waves of electricity.

A quickly paced and heavily rocking “Cinnamon Girl,” complete with a stunning electrified coda, sets the stage for the live favorite “Like a Hurricane.” Neil comes in like a storm, almost quiet but with an unnerving sense of foreboding. When the main riffs sets in the band gels with ragged magnificence, setting the groundwork for Neil to come in with his heaviest solo of the night. Amidst his highly melodic solo Neil throws in a ton of heavy effects and at one point hits notes so low they must have rippled the roots of the amber autumn trees.

The night’s heaviness continues with a seriously rocking version of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that settles into a deep head shaking groove. Neil’s thin voice sounds almost scary when paired with the heavily distorted riffs that are being thrown around without a care. “Tonight’s the Night,” another song about a fallen friend, rounds out the set with heavy grooves, excellently ragged harmonies, and raging, emotional solos. The band throws down for the final time in a wash of feedback, leaving the heaving crowd to voice their full approval.

Live Rust is one of those albums that every music fan should have. The acoustic numbers are excellent and the electric songs just plain rock. Neil’s penchant for being real is on full display and there is plenty to enjoy throughout the entirety of the album. I can recommend a lot of albums that are fall time essentials and this certainly makes it high into my list. Just awesome.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Neil Young Live Rust | | Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen Songs From A Room (1969)


From a general point of view, Cohen isn’t making any big steps forward here, although nobody probably expected him to. However, a deeper peek reveals some curious differences.

Normally, those singer-songwriters that didn’t arrive on the stage with a pre-conditioned musical agenda tended to move from simpler to more complex arrangements, from songs that were all lyrics and almost no music to songs that paid more respect to current musical trends (not always successfully, though). With Cohen’s first three albums, the process was reversed. If you thought the debut was sparse and “economical”, to put it mildly, then Songs From A Room will look like the pinnacle of minimalism (and it would still be topped later on).

Among other things, this probably has to do with the change of producer: Bob Johnston takes away much of the orchestration and most of the singing ladies – the only time he employs female backup is to sing the French parts of ‘The Partisan’.

I can’t say I’m overtly pleased with the decision. It might have taken away any earlier whiffs of cheese, and it certainly forever cut short the possibility of Cohen going in a Bee Gees-like direction (not that there ever was a serious chance – he’d have to learn to sing for that, at least!). But it also cleared the music of all these neat little “touches” that I’ve been rambling about in the previous review, along the way.

There’s an interesting “psychedelic” electric guitar tone on ‘A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’, maybe a couple very very buried organ phrases on a couple other tracks… mostly, that’s all there is. The album does run more smoothly as a result, but the number of “sub-moods” and “mini-atmospheres” has decreased, making the record seriously lag in many spots.

For some reason, though, the Jew’s harp has not only been retained, but actually transformed into the second most prominent instrument on the album, right behind the guitar. This decision I refuse to understand. The instrument is great when used sparingly, preferably on songs that have “menace” branded all over their bodies, but what is it doing on ‘Bird On A Wire’, for instance? Imitating the “wire”? Well, then again I suppose it’s better to have guitar and Jew’s harp rather than just plain guitar, after all.

In terms of substance, I’d say that the lyrics tend to get even more complicated and provocative than last time around, with very few love songs this time and far more social commentary (much of it of a decidedly anti-war character), as well as pure poetic visionarism, subject to as many interpretations as there are wrinkles on Keith Richards’ face.

Another difference is that on average, the melodies are shining through a wee wee bit more clearly. I certainly don’t want to say that the songs on here are actual “songs” as opposed to the ones on the debut album (that would be way too far-going), but gee, if Cohen even tries to bend notes on such numbers as ‘Bird On The Wire’, ‘The Old Revolution’, and ‘A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’, and does it with moderate success, it definitely means that something is on the move – or, at least, that he obviously has no intention to retire back to the spoken-poetry world for good.

And honestly, ‘Bird On The Wire’ wouldn’t have been half as effective if it weren’t for the marvelous transition between the lazy, “careless” verse and the pleading, majestic middle-eight, here perfectly attenuated by one of the few, and one of the best, orchestral outbursts. In terms of recognizability, this is Leonard’s claim to fame number two after ‘Suzanne’, even if it’s far more enigmatic lyrically. But you know how sometimes it takes just one line to cut to the heart, even if the rest of the words may be garbage, and Cohen’s ‘I have tried, in my way, to be free’ is one of these lines.

Besides, it’s hard to really underestimate its influence; just how much was this style of “confessional” singer-songwriting from the first person developed in 1969? Neil Young immediately comes to mind, but when it comes to choosing between the two in this respect, Cohen’s still my bet. No wonder so many people have covered this song, chief among them Joe Cocker, whose version, released only months after the original, probably played a crucial role in popularizing it.
Not much on the album is like ‘Bird On The Wire’, though. After this introductory anthem is over, it is replaced by the usual bleakness, one morose number after another, only really letting it a little loose towards the end; particularly startling is the final number, almost defiantly gleefully called ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’, carried by an almost “boppy” guitar line and carrying more optimism and positive energy than fifty copies of Songs From A Room (with the final track taken out) put together. A striking parallelism to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, by the way, isn’t it? There’s a big chance Cohen actually took some lessons from Dylan’s big comeback – which might also explain the stripped-down character of Room.

So then in between the Big Freedom-Loving Anthem and the Humble Optimistic Finale, you get songs that are glum, sullen, somber, surly, overcast, satournine, and farouche (this last word I have fished out of the thesaurus and dedicate this here usage of it to Cohen’s French ancestors). Of these, ‘Story Of Isaac’ is the easiest to decipher, and even that took some time; but apparently, it carries an anti-war message, with an analogy drawn between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of all the young men in Vietnam – or, rather, the sacrilegiousness of such an analogy.

I certainly won’t be spending much time on the philological analysis of the rest of these tunes, though, since it wouldn’t be as much true philological analysis as it would be a frustratingly futile search of the one right interpretation – but it does seem to me that the general tendency is “bitter social commentary”. Songs like ‘A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’, ‘The Old Revolution’ and especially the mysterious ‘The Butcher’ all have connotations of war/peace and order/confusion in society.

Actually, the lyrics of ‘The Butcher’, with its deep allegory of the complex interaction between God and man (the ‘butcher’ is the Lord, right?) might be among Cohen’s very best – grammatically and compositionally simple, yet brilliant and highly philosophical in their simplicity. They are all pretty nifty musical numbers, too, and prove that Cohen did have a sense of melody – call it ‘poetic melody’, if you wish, but these songs certainly would have been far ‘less’ in stature as poems in a book.

The overall “anti-war” message is further reinforced by the album’s only cover tune, ‘The Partisan’, sung partly in English and partly in French, which directly deals with said matter. On the other hand, with Cohen you never really know what kinds of things he uses as metaphors for what other kinds of things. In this here context, I’m not sure that when he sings ‘…I’m the only one… but I must go on: the frontiers are my prison’, we’re supposed to take this literally. He can use his micro-world and talk of war or confusion in terms of that, or he can take war and confusion and talk of his micro-world in terms of that. Like a band from Tottenham once sung, “any way you want it, that’s the way it will be”. (They weren’t singing about Leonard Cohen, of course, but thirty years on, who can prove?…).

In between the gloom and the glum are meshed only like maybe a couple or so of the “trustier” love standards – ‘Lady Midnight’, ‘Seems So Long Ago Nancy’; in contrast with the more elaborate love messages on the debut album, these seem a bit underwritten to me, but these are really minor complaints and I wouldn’t really know how to back ’em up (unexplainable personal impression – the worst enemy of the objective reviewer). In any case, they do not constitute the meat of this album.

Commercially, the album was relatively short lived; the “young and fresh” feeling is no longer there, and from then on, it was rather obvious that Cohen was consciously limiting himself to a restricted cult following because the novelty factor had worn off and his music would from now on appeal only to hardcore audiences who were finding it easy to identify with the man and his artistic pretentions. So, in retrospect, I have a hard time determining which of the two first albums I prefer; the ratings are very approximate for both.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Leonard Cohen Songs From A Room | | Leave a comment

Radiohead Hail To The Thief (2003)


When I head out to purchase Hail to the Thief during my designated lunch break today– an allowance Thom Yorke would surely turn into a fatalistic, Orwellian meditation on routine and alienation– I’ll mingle with teenagers and CEOs frantic to walk out with their own copy. Because today, Radiohead are U2, Pink Floyd, and Queen– and they could have been bigger than The Beatles if the success of “Creep” hadn’t agitated an Oxford-bred guilt complex. As Yorke put it in Meeting People Is Easy: “English people aren’t impressed. There’s this automatic assumption that any degree of success means that you’ve cheated. Or you’re full of shit.”

That’s a cross Thom no longer has to bear, since whatever shit he was full of was beaten out of him– in his hometown, no less– one night in 2000. Like Johnny, the more thoroughly bloodied protagonist from Mike Leigh’s Naked, the assault lent Thom an appreciation of reality’s ominous urgency, quite possibly for the first time. Protected from street-level human misery– first by privilege, then by wit, later by celebrity– Yorke labored for years under the misguided belief that the world is tangible, that it can be changed, that any dignified person would be miserable to live here.

A mild pummelling at the hands of embittered local punters refocused this unparalleled modern songwriter on more immediate and emotionally resonant issues, stuffing him back in boots he was most certainly growing too big for.

Which is not to advocate violence, or suggest that any end could justify its employ, but there are tertiary benefits when an artist’s perspective is forcibly altered. Listen to Kid A, the most remarkably finessed redesign of an established band’s sound since U2 recorded Achtung Baby: A reaction to overexposure, the undermining effects of commodification, and the alienation of celebrity, the record hasn’t aged a day, though Amnesiac– a less inspired collection of underdeveloped tunes from the same sessions– has somewhat dulled its glimmer.

The two albums were written and recorded before Thom was attacked, before he became a father, before the world became a lot smaller, when nothing really mattered. Hail to the Thief is almost four years removed from the reality he last wrote about, and for its suspicious title and Yorke’s recent political exploits, it’s thankfully less concerned about third world debt and globalist conspiracy theories than I’d expected. Still, the record is not without its simplistic admonitions.

Hail to the Thief doesn’t dig up Britpop skeletons from The Bends, and it’s not OK Computer II, as Yorke christened it in the press. Rather, it’s a holding pattern; Yorke has confessed as much, and his excusatory remarks only underscore his chief failing: He believes radical change is the best option in all cases, and only feels pride in doing something “new” (quotes here, since Eno had ample reason to bristle at Kid A). Yorke can’t see that Hail to the Thief is nothing to apologize for, that Radiohead are a band, and that, after a fashion, bands are defined by their music. Much as U2’s Zooropa still sounded like U2, anything Radiohead does from here on out will sound like Radiohead.

The triumphant “2 + 2 = 5” could only work as the set’s opener: It’s an encompassing declaration of intent, defining the exploratory boundaries of Hail to the Thief as well as the professedly temporary return to “rocking out,” something Ed O’Brien’s been wanting to do ever since Kid A was born.

As a preface to headier analysis later in the record, Thom deals with his recent political distractions, pointing out the medieval ignorance of inaction in the face of overwhelming odds: “Are you such a dreamer/ To put the world to rights?/ I’ll stay home forever/ Where two and two always makes up five.” It’s a bit grandiose, but he rightly concedes the possible arrogance of his bravado during the tune’s neurotically charged finale, “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in/ When it’s not/ Maybe not.”

Not as topical– perhaps even reassuringly vague– “Sit Down. Stand Up.” returns us to those old fears of impotence in the face of global forces at work, but as a new father, Thom has every right to revisit one of the great societal laments in rock history, OK Computer. Juxtaposing a dread spawned by media oversaturation with hands-over-ears denial of the rain falling outside, the track is devastating in its defeated isolation, the thoughts of a medicated droogie drooling in his cell on a Sunday afternoon, bubbling under the skin.

Though it’s compositionally identical to “2 + 2 = 5”, the darker subject matter and more sinister execution– in the form of far-off piano melodies, icy xylophone hits and throttling vocal doubling– reveal a demonic twin caught sideways in a cracked mirror.

Leading with such an excellent couplet, it’s something of a disappointment to find that those reactionary barbs about stagnation Yorke is trying to defuse are critically valid, if irrelevant to fans. “Sail to the Moon” has the serenity to survive its lamentably tired title and refrain, but for its beauty, it’s both lyrically and melodically reconstituted from better ballads past, like “Pyramid Song”, “How to Disappear Completely”, and “The Tourist”.

For fans, it’s another wondrous lullaby from Radiohead; for critics, it’s not only nothing new, it’s topically ridiculous, as Thom cautions his newborn son: “Maybe you’ll be president/ But know right from wrong/ Or in the flood/ You’ll build an Ark/ And sail us to the moon.” It’s an apocalyptic vision with all the emotional impact of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.

“Backdrifts” is the first beacon signaling that Radiohead haven’t lost touch with the experimental nature of Kid A and Amnesiac. This carefully attended piece– a boxed-in, minimal collection of sine waves, gurgling vocal delay and distorted drum machine loops– is easily overlooked on first listen; in a moment of levity, the band cuts loose with reverse-echoed piano and guitar swipes done up as scratching vinyl. “Go to Sleep”, a tightened retread of Amnesiac’s Smiths tribute “Knives Out”, drapes Morricone reverb and Perkins twang over hugely panned acoustic guitars. The tune carries through a surprisingly traditional half-time Britpop chorus as Yorke rambles through placeholder lyrics, alternating tossed-off lines like, “We don’t want the loonies taking over,” with the constant response, “Over my dead body.”

This worrisome middling leads into “Where I End and You Begin”, which is the only real low point on the album, as aside from Yorke’s vocals, it’s simply a U2 song. Shuffling snare rolls usher along an admittedly succulent liquid bassline, but these are only drawn out from their terrestrial locus by a hard-panned pair of keyboard tracks, which, for their simplicity, rescue an otherwise unsalvageable track. The finale is more intriguing, with its raspy whispers and excellent melodic interplay, but for the most part, this is chaos stacked high to mask creative nudity underneath.

“We Suck Young Blood” returns to the piano mode the band has explored increasingly since Kid A, a sort of drunken New Orleans death dirge that embodies its vampiric title, creeping along at a measured, sickly pace punctuated only by languid, distanced handclaps. The approach pays off hugely, as Yorke’s gorgeous, metallic whinny embraces the stumbling progression with harmony after harmony, and moments of depressed, gentle wistfulness.

Along with “Backdrifts”, “The Gloaming” exposes the band’s potential future. Simple, looping glitches and obstinate digital blurts dash all expectations, remaining resolutely compact, borrowing huge synthetic reverb plates such that Yorke can sing over his own voice. It’s arguably academic in its basic composition– a theoretical dare– but “The Gloaming” is one of few risks on this relatively sociable record, a wink to the more studious members of their audience.

Which is where the advance single “There There” picks up, embodying the unification of Radiohead’s recently mixed aims. Jonny wants to play with analog synths, Ed and Colin want to bash guitars, Thom wants to change music forever, and they finally meet up in this terrifically strange, yet structurally straightforward anthem. “There There” builds on more universal lyrics, soaring harmonies and a thundering crescendo the band wisely trimmed from its concert length (it originally began after Yorke’s midpoint scream). Yorke said he wept uncontrollably when he heard the first mix of it, and the unmastered MP3s of Hail to the Thief which leaked in March support his professed reaction: Unlike the rest of the album, “There There” is essentially unchanged.

Possibly even more inspiring (and enduring) are “Myxomatosis” and “A Wolf at the Door”, two of the last tracks on the album. The former is a buzzing prog redux of OK Computer’s “Airbag” that shows how the simplicity Radiohead strive for can work wonders with tempo; drums fall all over the track until Thom winds up a layered, head-spinning (intoxicated?) verse that spills the rhythm onto the floor. It’s a dizzying stereo-panned stomp, and one of Hail to the Thief’s finest moments.

As usual, Radiohead save a masterstroke for the closing slot: “A Wolf at the Door” continues in the peculiarly Slavic jazz-blues mode first explored in Amnesiac’s Russo-Bayou parlor waltz “Life in a Glasshouse”. But “A Wolf at the Door” is more thorough, refined and consequently potent– almost slick– in comparison with its drunken, ephemeral predecessor. It’s here, at the end of things, that Yorke most openly deals with the impact of his physical assault three years ago and his still-maddening fears of role-playing traps in society and relationships (nicely summarized in a quick nod to Bryan Forbes’ terrifying The Stepford Wives). Evil is out there– he’s suffered its wrath– and like a terrified Chechnyan matriarch, he relies on tangible protection from the fuckers and future come to ransom his child.

For its moments of gravity and excellence, Hail to the Thief is an arrow, pointing toward the clearly darker, more frenetic territory the band have up to now only poked at curiously. Experimentation fueled the creativity that gave us Kid A and Amnesiac, but that’s old hat to Radiohead, who are trying– and largely succeeding– in their efforts to shape pop music into as boundless and possible a medium as it should be. Without succumbing to dilettantism, they continue to absorb and refract simpler posits from the underground, ideas that are usually satisfied to wallow in their mere novelty.

The syncretic mania of Radiohead continues unabated, and though Hail to the Thief will likely fade into their catalog as a slight placeholder once their promissory transformation is complete, most of us will long cherish the view from this bridge.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Radiohead Hail To The Thief | | Leave a comment

Pink Floyd Meddle (1971)


Self-producing for the first time, Meddle is the album on which the band first truly found the sound for which they are primarily remembered today.

This is also the album on which it really became apparent that the band got very lucky when Gilmour replaced Barrett, as he proves to be a great singer and guitarist whose fluid, melodic, and emotional guitar tone is firmly established here (though in fairness his playing was great on Atom Heart Mother as well).

His confidence as an emerging songwriter was also growing, and Meddle is the album where the Gilmour/Waters songwriting partnership first fully flowered, though the album is also a true group effort, and a sparkling one at that, even if it has one of their weaker album covers and it sold poorly in the U.S.; as usual up until this point, it did better in the U.K., peaking at #3.

Anyway, the album begins with the mostly all instrumental, surprisingly hard rocking “One Of These Days,” a firm fan favorite and live staple whose best characteristic is its driving bass riffs (played by Waters and Gilmour). Wright’s keyboards add color, there are impressive stop and start dynamics, Gilmour adds a classic high-pitched screaming guitar solo, and its various effects (wind noises, the electronically manipulated lone lyric of “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces”) show the band’s increasing mastery of using the studio as another instrument.

The next four songs were never played in concert, but three of them are underrated gems that any fan of classic period Floyd (which began in earnest with Meddle) should enjoy. The dreamy, melancholic “A Pillow Of Winds” is notable for Gilmour’s lovely acoustic/electric slide guitars and typically strong vocals, “Fearless” has a great little groove and more smooth as silk Gilmour vocals and fine guitar work (the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” coda with the choir is a cute touch too), and Waters’ sing songy “San Tropez” is a tuneful, lightly jazzy pop number that’s highlighted by Wright’s classy piano solo.

These pastoral, summery songs see Pink Floyd at their most relaxed and accessible, but let’s face it “Seamus,” which is primarily remembered for Steve Marriott’s dog barking, is the type of novelty joke number that you can listen to once and skip thereafter. Fortunately, it’s quite short, and the next song, the 23-minute, multi-sectioned masterpiece “Echoes,” is something else entirely. This song, another full band composition like “One Of These Days,” has all the elements that make Floyd great, simple as that, and no description I can give will do it justice.

From its echoed piano intro onward, the band proceeds to deliver spacey headphone music along with more grounded folksier sonic explorations, both jam-based and song-centric sections, and lots more besides in one of the definitive Pink Floyd songs, period (it’s especially beloved by the prog-heads).

Among the song’s notable characteristics are Gilmour and Wright’s gorgeous, haunting harmony vocals, Gilmour’s alternately mournfully lovely and soaringly intense guitar leads as he solos extensively, Wright’s keyboards which lead some of the jazzy, jammier sections while Waters’ driving bass propels the more rocking parts along with Mason’s drums, and of course the band’s requisite special effects which are just as important as the band’s actual musicianship.

Granted, for all its brilliance it must be said that the song drags a bit at times; their later greatest hits album Echoes actually trims the song to about 16 minutes and it works just fine. (P.S. The best version of this song is arguably on the Live At Pompeii film but that’s never been formally released on cd and it probably never will be.)

Still, if you cut out the boring parts then “Echoes” is arguably the best thing that the band ever did, as it offers a fascinatingly original and utterly intoxicating world of laid-back cool. On the whole, with two all-time classic tracks, three underrated, endlessly playable album tracks, and only one short stinker, Meddle was the first Pink Floyd album that I could wholeheartedly love.

It was the album where they first found their identity, where Gilmour became the dominant instrumentalist, and it began their creative prime. With the foundation for greatness already in place, a tightening of ideas, even stronger songwriting, and superior production yielded an even greater masterpiece.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Pink Floyd Meddle | | Leave a comment

Radiohead OK Computer (1997)


One day, my friend Michael and I were playing Rock Band, and he decided he wanted to play Creep. I asked him if I should listen to Radiohead, as I was slowly expanding my music taste. He said that I definitely should, that Radiohead was probably the best band out there right now. My interest was piqued, so I did some research on the band (which consisted of me reading their Wikipedia page and the Wiki page for some of their albums), I decided to purchase OK Computer, since it was acclaimed as one of the greatest albums of the 90s. My expectations were quite high.

I was not disappointed at all. In fact, I was a bit surprised that I liked the album as much as I did. Every single musical change, every vocal, every odd-end instrument that’s thrown into the music, worked for me. Out of all the music I’ve listened to, nothing has connected with me more, has made more sense to me than this album. This album is the definition of musical perfection; listening to it is bliss. I search for flaws, only to find more nuances in the music that make me appreciate and love it even more. Since listening to this album, I have purchased every single Radiohead album, and only been disappointed once (care to guess?). They have morphed into my favorite band. My music taste has rapidly expanded into something that I can truly be proud of. I can definitively say that music is one of the three most important things in my life (girls and soccer are the other two). All thanks to this album.

1. Airbag- This song gets the album started off with a bang. The opening guitar riff is incredibly powerful, even if it isn’t the catchiest, with bass dropping in out of the song seemingly randomly. Colin said that he had recorded some of the bass parts and had planned to do the rest of it to complete the bass part for the song, but never got around to it. It actually works quite well, keeping the listener on his/her toes and adding an intricate layer to the music. The lyrics revolve around getting out of a car crash safely. Thom Yorke has said that he is terrified of the dangers of getting in a car and is shocked that more people don’t feel the same way. You know a song is good when its two influences are a magazine article and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 4.5/5

2. Paranoid Android- I cannot put into words how much I love this song. “Airbag” segues perfectly into this song (the transition is actually is one of the best moments on the album). The song is a reference to Marvin the Android from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The four sections of the song fit together seamlessly, going from a drum loop-based opening into a jam-out section which features a nasty guitar solo. One of the darker sections of the song follows, and then we get to jam out some more before what is my favorite Radiohead song of all time ends. 5/5

3. Subterranean Homesick Alien- One of the weaker tracks on the album. That being said, it’s still a very good track. It’s a necessary track, as this helps along the flow of the album while being a very good song in its own right. The guitar section is very beautiful and continues the lyrical theme of fear, this time with aliens. Thom sings, “Take me on board their beautiful ship, show me the world as I’d love to see it,” over keyboards and laid back drumming. 4/5

4. Exit Music (For a Film)- One of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching tracks ever recorded. Simple chords on a guitar, Thom’s voice, and a masterfully added Gothic choir are all that is needed to drive the majority of the song along. The lyrics are a summary of the story of Romeo and Juliet, with lines like, “Pack and get dressed, before your father hears us, before all hell breaks loose,” clearly being about the play. One of the best nuances of the album comes in the buildup to the crashing in of the instruments. If you listen carefully, you can hear Selway tapping ever so softly on his hi-hat before his inventive fill comes in to start the song’s take-off. Something the casual listener would never catch, but it’s these details which makes this album a classic. 5/5

5. Let Down- A beautifully composed track. While none of the instruments stand out, together they work brilliantly. Jonny plays his guitar in a different time signature than the rest of the instruments, which is quite brilliant. The outro heightens the song, with a wonderful synth line taking us into the next song. 4.5/5

6. Karma Police- The most accessibly song on the album, Karma Police is built around a seemingly simple yet truly incredible piano part and standard rock beat from Selway, one of the few on the album. This features one of my favorite lines on the album, which would be, “Karma police, arrest this girl, her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill.” The lyrics were inspired by an inside joke within the band; whenever someone would do something bad, the others would joke that the “karma police” would come and get him. The song is structured oddly, as it doesn’t seem to have a true chorus. 5/5

7. Fitter Happier- The feedback at the end of Karma Police leads right into this track. Thom describes the lyrics as list of slogans from the 90s, and considers it to be, “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written.” Even though there isn’t that much to the song, it holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first truly odd song that ever struck my fancy. 4/5

8. Electioneering- The intro is perfect after the atmospheric “Fitter Happier”. It sounds like the start of a race, with a horse scraping its hoof on the ground. Then, one of Greenwood’s best riffs comes in, and the song takes off and doesn’t slow down for it’s entire duration. A welcome change of pace. 4.5/5

9. Climbing Up the Walls- It also sets up this track perfectly. Simply put, this is one of the darkest, most depressing songs ever written, containing the ability to make you feel truly awful. This is the first indicator of Thom singing with effects, which would be revisited often on future albums. The guitar part almost doesn’t fit in, as it seems a bit more uplifting than everything else. Selway’s tom-tom beat is absolutely perfect for this track, which also has some ambient noises and Jonny Greenwood’s first strings composition to add to the mood. The lyrics greatly enhance the mood. 5/5

10. No Surprises- Once again, a perfect transition. Described by one critic as, “a Sunday wake-up song”, it is very relaxing. The bass in the intro is faint, but is very well-written to not take away the spotlight from the melodic guitar, but to add something for those listening carefully. The lyrics are juxtaposed to the music, as they are arguably more depressing than the lyrics in the previous track, with lines like, “I’ll take a quite life, a handshake of carbon monoxide, and no alarms and no surprises”. The goal for this song was to replicate the atmosphere of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,”, which the band successfully does, and in the process, creates a brilliant track. 5/5

11. Lucky- This is the song that started it all. The band wrote this for the Help! EP in 1995 and were incredibly happy with it. They decided that they would pursue this new style of writing, and out came this album. The song builds up, but not in a typical way, into the chorus, where everything crashes in. It took a long time for this song to grow on me, which is odd, considering it’s one of the more immediate tracks on the album. The lyrics deal with a man surviving an airplane crash and feeling like a superhero. Considering their positivity, the lyrics are an anomaly. The quality of the song is not. 5/5

12. The Tourist- This song is very unique in the context of the album. A Jonny Greenwood composition, the song is very spaced out and mellow, unlike the rest of the album, which is very dense. Selway lazily keeps time on his kit along with some very atmospheric guitar parts. The lyrics match the mood of the song, with Thom singing, “Hey man, slow down, slow down,”. My friend Michael vehemently believes that this song should switch places with No Surprises. I always vehemently disagree, mainly because the ending to this song (a single note on the triangle) is so perfect, is such a brilliant way to end the album, that there is no possible way that this shouldn’t be the closing track. Oddly enough, out of all of Radiohead’s albums (excluding Pablo Honey), this is my least favorite album closer, yet this is still easily my favorite album by Radiohead. Oh well. It works much better at the end of the album than it does as a song on its own, but still a wonderful track. 4/5

The album has an overall theme of social disconnection and depression, which is perfectly reflected by the music. This album serves as a bit of a bridge between Radiohead’s earlier and later work. While it definitely shows some signs of the experimental path the band would take with “Kid A”, it also still has some of the conventional rock track from “The Bends”. The mix between the two styles is one of the reasons that this album is their best effort ever, and one of the greatest albums of all time.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Radiohead OK Computer | | Leave a comment