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Saturday, May 28, 2011

17. Jeff Buckley: Grace

I have a local record store owner, Tim Cretsinger, to thank for introducing me to Jeff Buckley in 1994. Tim owned Groovacious Platters in Keizer, Oregon (he and his wife have since moved the store to Cedar City, Utah). He pushed and pushed, day after day, until I finally left his store with Jeff Buckley's Grace. He knew I'd like it...but, the truth is, I didn't...not at first.

Why Grace and I didn't connect right away, I don't know, but I know when it did. I remember my one and only Jeff Buckley show at a long-since-gone club called LaLuna, in November, 1994. I was excited, but not to see him...I was excited to catch his opening act. I had come to know the music of Brenda Kahn, and couldn't wait to finally see her perform and meet her (I was 25 and she was cute).

Skip to Buckley approaching the stage: After Brenda Kahn's performance, it was Jeff Buckley's turn. Out walked this little man in a floor length fur coat...sunglasses (I think)...and a fuzzy white hat with a full brim (I swear it could've looked something like this). The venue was considered medium-sized, but this show was in the balcony section only...very intimate. He had to walk through the crowd to reach the stage. What a spectacle it was to see the thick crowd part to let this wee pimp look-alike stroll in nonchalantly with his backing band respectfully two steps behind. I remember thinking the ego was bigger than the man himself.

Once on stage, Buckley was personable, engaging, and genuinely happy to be there performing for us. The show was incredible. I chose to go by myself (try it if you haven't). He began to perform and it was as if I heard the Grace songs again, for the first time. Buckley's voice and the entrancing guitars of Michael Tighe and Buckley himself, and the bass of Mick Grondahl coalesced into a enormous wave of sound and emotion...and I gave in to it. What I originally thought was slow-moving, background music grabbed my attention that night with claws that dug deep. Unbeknownst at the time, I was hooked only to be heartbroken two and a half years later. On this day, May 29, 1997, Jeff Buckley went for a fully-clothed swim in the Wolf River in Tennessee...and slipped away forever.

When he died, Jeff Buckley left behind his only full-length album, incredible legacy. Songs like "Last Goodbye", "Lover, You Should've Come Over", "Grace",  and "Mojo Pin" are potent enough to bring tears. His version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was tabbed, in 2003, as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone. The album, itself, frequently appears on "Greatest" lists compiled by magazines such as Rolling Stone, NME, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, and many others...and it'll be on your list as well if you invest the time to really hear it. Go visit your local record store (Thanks Tim!).

Here's Jeff Buckley performing the title track to Grace on the BBC Late Show in 1995 and his interpretation of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (neither of which are the album versions). Finally, my favorite, "Last Goodbye" the only official video from the album. Thank you, and rest in peace, Jeff.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

16. Billy Bragg: Workers Playtime

Left-wing political activist and romantic troubadour Billy Bragg has been at it for over thirty years. From his punk-pub rock days in the seventies to his English folk sounds of today, Bragg has delivered a melange of political songs and songs of unrequited love...often with stark accompaniment. His third full-length album, 1988's Workers Playtime, explored a more expansive sound than fans had previously known. It was also his first collection of songs that relied more heavily upon his romantic storytelling skills than his polemics.

Bragg is fine being labeled a political songwriter...he is troubled by being dismissed as one. On Workers Playtime political songs are few and far between. Instead, he opts for a backing band and orchestral arrangements to strengthen beautifully spun tales of unanswered affection. This theme is present in the rollicking opener "She's Got A New Spell", and is spread evenly throughout the album until the fantastic finale, "The Great Leap Forwards".  Along the way, Billy Bragg demonstrates his amazing lyrical talent:

in the beautiful ballad "Must I Paint You A Picture" he writes, "Most important decisions in life are made between two people in bed. I found that out at my expense"
from "Little Time Bomb"--"He holds your letters but he can't read them as he fights this loneliness that you call freedom..."
from the poignant "Valentine's Day Is Over"--"Someday boy you'll reap what you've sown...and you will see that what's wrong with me is wrong everyone that you want to play your little games on..."
and again, from "Valentine's Day..."--"Thank you for the things you bought me. Thank you for the card. Thank you for the things you taught me when you hit me hard; that love between two people must be based on understanding. Until that's true you'll find your things all stacked out on the landing..."
finally, from the lively "Life With The Lions"--"I hate the arsehole I become everytime I'm with you...I know when I leave the room they say what's up with him, but love is not a game you play to win, is not a game you play to win."

Workers Playtime is a great call for a road-trip. It's a great sing-along as well (you really get to practice your thick English accent). I've included a video from back in the day. It's a live performance of "She's Got A New Spell"...a fun "tropical" version, if you will, that shows a bit of Bragg's lighter side. The second video is a 2006 appearance on the now defunct Henry Rollins Show from IFC (promoting the 2-disc remastered release of Workers Playtime). He performs an updated version of "The Great Leap Forwards". Many of the political references from 1988 are changed here, and he introduces himself rather egotistically stating, "Some people sing about love...some people sing about war...some people sing about a better world to come. Well I sing about all three and this is my theme song..." Bragg is an incredible activist. He works hard to make the world a better place...consistently, effectively standing up to those in power and providing a voice for those who must be heard. So I say you've earned that intro, Billy. Let 'em have it!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

15. Kings Of Leon: Aha Shake Heartbreak

Bear with me...

I recently watched the movie "Black Swan" (starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel) and loved that it had something for everybody. Here's how I see it...even if you didn't like the movie, you had to admit that it had it all. There was murder, sex, psychotic characters, human-to-animal transformation, club music, girl-girl "Bring It On"-type competition, and dancing...ballet en pointe. It was a psychological thriller centered around an 1877 Russian ballet! Wow! Girl or guy...if you couldn't find something in there that you liked, then there is no pleasing you.

Trace the evolution of Kings Of Leon and we find they too have something for everyone (not sure about the human-to-animal transformation though). There's the upbeat Southern rock and blues influenced albums from the early years (2003's Youth and Young Manhood and 2004's Aha Shake Heartbreak) when they were recently freed from the restrictions of their religious upbringings. There's the polished arena-rock sound of 2008's Only by the Night and 2010's Come Around Sundown. And right in the middle we have Because of the Times from 2007, which has a little bit of both. I'll take the risk and stereotype the early years as targeting and achieving more of a male audience ("Black Swan"). The later albums were apparently designed to attract the ladies ("White Swan").

KOL's second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, is a strong record. It's raw...raunchy blues, seeming countrified at times. Caleb Followill's unique vocals beg the question "Is he drunk, or did he just wake up?" It doesn't're probably one or the other when the desire to hear this album hits you. This album builds upon the southern-rock sounds of their debut. The band had no idea how to play their instruments in 2003...literally. Aha Shake Heartbreak is simple, musically, but it's still amazing how far they came in such a short time for this release. Prepare for most every song to rock your socks off in a seventies style...especially "Slow Night, So Long", "King Of The Rodeo", "Pistol Of Fire", "The Bucket", "Razz", and "Four Kicks". Much of their lyrics center around partying, fighting, sex, and insecurity...unleashing all of their pent up frustration and angst. This album comes from their hearts and loins, and the listener can feel this record as's not an effect.

Naturally, KOL was much more of a hit across the pond than here at home. It wasn't until KOL released their softer, more polished sound that they achieved commercial success here in America. I'm hoping, as many early fans of KOL probably are, that someday we'll experience a return to the early days of fire and debauchery. Until then, we have Aha Shake Heartbreak making the case that rock and roll is the voice of youth and desire...not classical training and effects. For Aha Shake Heartbreak, KOL's rock and roll is all "Black Swan" and no "White Swan". Here's the video to "Four Kicks" to emphasize that point.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

14. Joy Division: Substance: 1977-1980

On May 18, 1980, Joy Division singer-lyricist Ian Curtis took his own life in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. This ended the short career of a superb band. Fortunately for us, artists from contemporaries like U2 and The Cure to post-punk revivalists like Bloc Party and Interpol took up the reigns, citing Joy Division as a major influence.

Choosing a Joy Division album to highlight was a chore. The purist...the invested fan in me wanted to choose their 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures. Then I thought I might choose both Unknown Pleasures and 1980's posthumous release Closer. Those were, after all, the only two studio albums produced by the band. Instead, I chose the compilation record Substance: 1977-1980. Substance is Joy Division's singles compilation and is the companion record to New Order's Substance (New Order, of course, was formed by Joy Division members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris after the death of their singer). Joy Division's Substance contains the four songs from their first release in 1978, An Ideal For Living, allowing you to hear their original punk sound. It also includes four singles not appearing on the two studio albums, and their B-sides, as well as several other previously released tracks.

Once producer Martin Hannett grabbed hold of them in 1979, Joy Division's sound adopted its more well-known sparse, eerie, and spacious qualities which captured the mood and expression that followed punk rock. They became pioneers of the post-punk movement. Most of Ian Curtis's lyrics center on darkness, loss of control, crisis, failure, and sorrow...not the band to listen to if you're in the mood for margaritas with the girls, but it's important stuff! I saw a recent shot of bassist Peter Hook wearing a shirt stating "We Made HISTORY, Not Money". Missing out on Joy Division's body of work truly is skipping an important piece of music history.

As for the album itself, "Transmission", "Digital", "Atmosphere", "She's Lost Control", "Dead Souls" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" are incredible, incredible songs (emphasis on "Transmission", "LWTUA", and "Digital"). These may be the stand out tracks, but Substance is packed with thought-provoking, poignant music steeped in mystery and regret. 

I was fortunate enough to see Peter Hook's controversial performance of Unknown Pleasures in its entirety last year at the Doug Fir Lounge in of only eleven U.S. shows. You can click on the link above to read about the controversy. In short, some felt he was capitalizing on Ian Curtis's death to make money. I, however, was overjoyed at the chance to hear a Joy Division set performed right in front of me. The night was everything I hoped it would be (except for the 45 minute video of the life of Ian Curtis and Joy Division in lieu of an opening band...all information Joy Division fans had seen or already knew). Being part of the crowd screaming to the chorus of "Transmission"...closing my eyes and experiencing one of my favorite songs of all time, "Love Will Tear Us Apart"...granted, about halfway through the night Hooky started to sound more like Tom Waits than Ian Curtis, but the mood and the expression was present for me!

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't advise you to watch the movie Control by Anton Corbijn. Newcomer Sam Riley gives a remarkable performance of Ian Curtis in this biopic based on Ian's widow Deborah Curtis's book Touching From A Distance.  The movie is centered around Curtis's pain and depression...his battle with epilepsy, and the rigors and pressures of his being famous.

Here are two videos for you. The first is a recording of "Transmission" from their only TV performance in which we get a glimpse of Curtis as a performer. Of his "dancing", he once hinted that it's a type of sign language for the lyrics (unfortunately, the best clip I could find is tainted with an intro and closing from English performance poet John Cooper Clarke's "Evidently Chickentown"...bloody monotonous!). The second video is the official BBC video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart". This version is a bit "faster" than the original. It's more fun to play and sing, but it's not the original...take that into account. As evidence of their influence, I'll share this...while searching for the video for "LWTUA", I found versions from U2, Bjork, The Cure, Nouvelle Vague, David Gahan (Depeche Mode), Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Arcade Fire, Paul Young (just what Ian would've wanted), Fall Out Boy, Broken Social Scene, Gavin Rossdale (Bush), and, the very best cover of this brilliant song, by Jose Gonzalez. Thanks so much for reading. Please let me know if you enjoyed it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

13. Menomena: Friend And Foe

Click to enlarge and see
Craig Thompson's intricate details
Sometimes, you know what you're getting into, but, usually, you happen upon music by chance...a CD playing in the background, or a song on the radio from a band you've never heard. And then sometimes, you have tickets for a show and decide to actually make it there in time for the opening act. Catching a band live on stage is a much more potent lure for me, and for this next post, I've decided to share an album from a band that most will not know...a band that I happened upon by chance.

My wife and I had tickets to see Bloc Party at Portland's Roseland Theater in 2009. Seeing the opening band is part of the whole night's experience and we made it there in time to see local band, Menomena, perform most of their set. We had no idea who they were and didn't even know their name upon arriving. However, we were quickly smitten as the trio constantly swapped vocal duties and played a variety of instruments throughout the show...from saxophones and a foot synthesizer to a laptop and glockenspiel (as well as your basics...guitar, drums, and keyboards). By the end of the night, we agreed that Bloc Party was great, but the opening act had upstaged the headliner. We had found a new toy for our ears.

2007's Friend And Foe is officially listed as Menomena's third studio album. However, their second, called Under An Hour, is a three track instrumental (at about 17 minutes per track) that comes across as more of a concoction of a side project rather than a connection between 2003's debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster! (an anagram for "The First Menomena Album"...and being rereleased next week with nine bonus tracks) and Friend And Foe. So this is, for all intents and purposes, their second release in the normal-length-songs category.

You'll notice beautiful tempo changes right away on the roller coaster ride of "Muscle'n Flo". It begins with crashing drums that leave you as quick as they come, only to hit you soon again with a vengeance. "The Pelican" follows with a relentless pounding that might sound harsh but somehow turns into a sing-along just a few plays later. Other great songs include "Wet And Rusting", "Weird", and "Rotten Hell". The second half of the album is anchored by "Boyscout'n" which sounds like it could've come from Elvis Costello's strange masterpiece, The Juliet Letters, and "Evil Bee" which provides the album with its most memorable lyrics..."Oh to be a machine...Ohhh to be be useful..." repeated over several different musical arrangements throughout. It all works wonderfully!

Also worth mentioning is the packaging for Friend And's amazing. Created and illustrated by Craig Thompson, it contains die-cuts, decoder rings, and hidden messages (most of which I've not found). In 2007, it was rightfully nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Recording Package.

Again, Menomena are from Portland, but have developed a great following across the country, and they are extremely accessible. Here's a fun video of them performing "Weird" in a Brooklyn home for the Plum TV show Juan's Basement. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

12. Squeeze: Singles-45's and Under

Squeeze's Singles--45's and Under is the first compilation album I've posted on Marc, Turn That Down! I first enjoyed Squeeze thanks to my cousin Kevin back in the early eighties. I remember hearing them on his cassette player while we were competing to see who could stuff the most popcorn into our mouths (the contest proved to be endless since the popcorn melts...the last number I remember was 114 pieces). 45's and Under was released in 1982 and contains hits from the band's first five albums. This includes five songs from the seventies, so it's also the first album spanning two decades.

Squeeze was a U.K. pop band breaking into the music scene during the beginnings of the new wave era. Over the years, the band has gone through numerous lineup changes, but Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford remain the constants. Throughout their lengthy career (which continues even today), they have enjoyed moderate success in the United States, but 45's and Under is packed with tracks that have charted all over the world. Eleven of the twelve songs broke into the top 100 somewhere (with the U.K. Singles Chart leading the way). The only song never to crack the charts is "If I Didn't Love You", which, to me, is one of the better songs on the album.

The album is organized chronologically, beginning with 1978's "Take Me I'm Yours", which showcases the trademark dual vocals of Difford singing an octave lower than Tilbrook. The bubble-gum pop sounding "Goodbye Girl" follows, then two very hip songs "Cool For Cats" (during which, my Sebastian says, "Why does this English guy talk so fast? I can't understand him...too fast for me!") and "Up The Junction". Soon after, we hear a group of their best, "Another Nail For My Heart", "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)", "If I Didn't Love You", "Is That Love", and the track reaching the highest chart position in the U.S. (from this album), "Tempted". "Tempted" is, I believe, the only song sung by a band member other than Tilbrook or Difford. One time keyboardist Paul Carrack provides lead vocals here (you can also hear producer Elvis Costello in the second verse singing "...The people keep on crowding...").

Squeeze is a band that can be enjoyed in any company, at any time, and this compilation album exemplifies that point. If you've been interested enough to have read this far, you should definitely grab the 2004 DVD Glenn Tilbrook: One For The Road. This inspirational, uplifting documentary follows Tilbrook on his first solo tour around the U.S. in a crumbling motor home. It's wonderful, and it'll draw you closer to the band as you witness Tilbrook's passion for his music and his fans (he even accepts an impromptu invite to play in someone's home). Here, my friends, is the video for 1979's "Cool For Cats". Kudos to the band for making it through the whole song whilst the high-energy Squeeze Girls bounced around in their Squeeze jackets. See you in a couple of days!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

11. Violent Femmes: Violent Femmes

The self-titled debut album from the Violent Femmes in 1983 was one of the most memorable albums created. Ten pop songs (in the original release...12 later) about yearning for love, sex, and affection...performed in such a way that makes them impossible to forget, or mistake for anything else. The simple sounds of the three musicians (guitar, bass, and snare drum...with brushes) delivered in their signature aggressive, driving manner, and the magically quotable lyrics by Gordon Gano (most of which were written while he was still in high school) made the band 80s gods on college campuses throughout the U.S.

The Violent Femmes released eight studio albums during their time, but the most well-known songs were hatched here...Who do you know that couldn't recognize the opening intro to "Blister In The Sun"?...or the count-up in "Kiss Off" ("I take one, one, one cause you left me...")? Other distinctly memorable moments include Gordon's whiny begging (but in a good way) in "Please Do Not Go" and the slow, child-like, a cappella introduction to "Add It Up" ("Daaaaay after daaaaay, I will waaaaalk and I will plaaaay..." This was the song that had college kids wondering why they can't "get just one kiss" (among other forms of affection) at the top of their lungs. How about the xylophone from "Gone Daddy Gone"...the darkly menacing length of "Confessions"..."Prove My Love" ("...third verse, same as the first!"), "Promise", "To The Kill", and the sadly-sweet "Good Feeling" to close the door on this gem. There's your ten...every one of them perfect songs in their simplest forms combining to produce an outcome greater than the sum of its parts.

This album is grossly accolades! No mention of the Violent Femmes on any music magazine's lists of the greatest whatever (probably "Best Bands from Milwaukee, Wisconsin" but I didn't really look). Well, I can say with confidence (and perhaps a bit of stubbornness) that they all missed the boat here. I can't understand how it was overlooked. The album has sold over 1,000,000 copies. It was another album that was near impossible to find in used record stores, meaning, if you bought it, you loved it, and you kept it. It was, in short, one of the great albums of the 80s.

The Violent Femmes were also tons of fun to see live. I saw them on six separate occasions (The last of which was in Portland. I went with my friend Ana, who eventually became Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters.). Every performance was excellent. But, alas, a huge rift regarding rights and royalties between Gano and bassist, Brian Ritchie has sealed the fate of the band, and the Violent Femmes are no more. Here, you have, not one, but three videos to enjoy! I could not choose between "Blister...", "Kiss Off", "and "Add It Up"...then remembered...Hey!  I'm the boss here. Who says it has to be only one? Happy Mothers' Day! Treat her right.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

10. Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream

When your drummer is severely addicted to heroin, your guitarist and bassist are in the midst of a bitter feud (having just broke off their relationship), and your frontman is a suicidally depressed can anything other than a magnificently powerful album be the result?

Citing the success of their first album, Gish, in 1991, and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten later that year, critics labeled the Smashing Pumpkins as "can't miss"..."the next Nirvana". This incredible pressure to succeed intensified their already problematic situations. Yet, somehow, they managed to not kill themselves (or each other) throughout the writing and recording process, and created their brilliant second album, Siamese Dream in 1993. 

Siamese Dream spawned four great singles. Three of them, "Cherub Rock", "Today", and "Rocket", were thick with fuzz, and hit hard...continuing the style of Gish.  The effect-laden sounds of layer upon layer of guitar fused with Billy Corgan's vocals produced a highly creative noise designed to repeatedly smack you in the ears. They were not, however, limited to screams and fuzzy guitars. Similar to Nirvana's "Polly" and Pearl Jam's "Black", the Smashing Pumpkins had "Disarm", the album's fourth single...a softer, personal song. The four singles stand out as obvious radio-play choices, but every song on Siamese Dream is strong. Other great tracks include "Quiet", "Mayonaise" and the near nine minute "Silverf**k".

I saw the Smashing Pumpkins at a club in Portland in 1993. It was a fast paced show...high energy all the way through. However, only two distinct memories from the concert come to mind. I remember Billy Corgan thanking Shudder To Think and The Frogs for opening the show and then threatening to end the night right then and there if the crowd continued to boo The Frogs. I think he said, "Do not boo The Frogs. DO NOT boo The Frogs. We will walk off this stage right now if you boo The Frogs." The Frogs were awful (Though, mysteriously, they have a decent cult following). I also remember Corgan on stage, by himself, under a spotlight, closing the show with the beautiful "Sweet Sweet" from Siamese Dream. Here, however, is the video to "Cherub Rock", the song Rolling Stone readers picked as the 25th greatest guitar track of all time. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

9. U2: War

Many of you felt I was a bit hard on U2 when referencing them in my post of R.E.M.'s Accelerate. I said 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was not the "rock album" that U2 hyped it to be. That's still true...I still say I was disappointed (and Bono and I still aren't talking). However, I'll make it up to them in this post by floating back 28 years to their wonderful album, War...and a time when everything about U2 was different...musically and lyrically.

On War, the third studio album by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. were at their most politically charged...and they took a lacerating, energetic approach to getting their messages across.

Released in early 1983, after the adolescent innocence of Boy (1980) and the abstract spirituality of October (1981), U2 stormed the international charts with War. Three singles hit the airwaves starting with "New Year's Day" then followed by the club-worthy "Two Hearts Beat As One" along with one of the greatest protest songs of all time, "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Everything about this album stands apart from anything they had done before or have done since.

Musically, it was fierce. It was a response to those who felt they were too sincere and not "punk" enough. It is much harsher than any other U2 album. The Edge's guitar feels different...much more raw. Listening to it now, I can hear the same riffs that we hear on more recent works, but, on War, it sounds unpolished, more visceral. The closest album, musically speaking, seems to be 1991's Achtung Baby, but  Achtung Baby is missing the lyrical muscle that Bono provides throughout War. Without War's underlying messages and overall theme, the music would lose a valuable partner.

Larry Mullen, Jr. claims the drums were "real basic" and hoped to "make it more complicated on the next LP". But the drums drive so much of this album. Every U2 fan has struck some surface to the cadence of the military-like intro to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (some of you may be doing it right now!). The hard-edged "Like A Song..." and "Two Hearts Beat As One" showcase his powerful drumming as well.

I was just learning to enjoy adolescence when I first heard War. My older brother had the vinyl and I played it and played it. The black and white cover concept...the stark contrast between the letters stamped in red, "U2/WAR", the missing lyrics (words to only six of the ten songs were provided), and the black and white photo of "the boy"...that boy...hands clasped behind his head, cut lip, piercing stare. We wondered who he was and wondered about his story (turns out he's Dublin photographer Peter Rowen). There was, in 1983, a sense of mystery about this band that exited for good four years later with the release of The Joshua Tree. I didn't know them during this time of War. I didn't have internet, I didn't have much information about them. I only knew...they were political, they seemed like they were on my side, and they were coming. They were going to be like them now before everybody jumps on board.

Well, everyone jumped on board. Over the years, War has sold about 5,000,000 copies, and U2 continued to make great music...up until...well, there I go again...No! I'm staying positive! One of my favorite albums of all time, War is still magnificent. Listening to it today is a great reminder of when U2 first achieved greatness. Here is a video of U2 performing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" from the War tour DVD U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky.