Thursday, April 16, 2020

Albums of Influence: The Shadow featuring Orson Welles on Murray Hill Records

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!"

In 1976, Murray Hill records released a series of three-album boxed sets documenting classic radio programs. My Dad brought two home for me. "The Green Hornet" and "The Shadow", which was voiced by Orson Welles.

It was my first record.

I was quite young, and this was before VCRs, cable TV, video games, and the internet. I loved records. The technology itself was magical. And "The Shadow" let me experience movies for my mind, and I could play them any time I wanted.

The original recordings were relatively low fidelity, but fine for playback on a kid's record player. I must have played those 3 discs -- 1 episode per side -- a hundred times.

The original shows were broadcast in 1938. Back then, The Shadow was the equivalent of today's Marvel superheroes, and had been adapted from pulp books to several radio reboots. Orson Welles was 22 when he voiced Lamont Cranston, before moving on to bigger and better things. These recordings include the original in-broadcast commercials, which are historical artifacts in and of themselves. As are the voices, accents, and dialogue, capturing an America that now only lives in black-and-white movies and scratchy recordings.

It didn't seem too corny to me. Even back then, I could appreciate the patina of history on these short, simple radio dramas. 

If nothing else, "The Shadow" taught me how entertaining and fascinating records and recording technology can be. It also taught me that records can tell a story, and should be worthy of being replayed. If my records have concepts, themes, and sound effects, well, perhaps this is why.

I still have these records, which are the only things that remain from my childhood.


[This concludes the 2020 "Albums of Influence" series. Thanks to Adam Tober and Paul Zyla for asking me, and thank you all for reading.]

Albums of Influence: Security (a.k.a. "Peter Gabriel 4") by Peter Gabriel

Released on September 6, 1982, Peter Gabriel's 4th solo album was the peak of his creative career. He, somewhat perversely, wanted to call the album "Peter Gabriel" -- just like his last 3 records. Geffen Records, his American label, insisted the album have a proper and unique title, at least for the USA, for obvious reasons. Gabriel reluctantly agreed, and chose the title "Security". It was placed, via sticker, on top of the shrinkwrap of the LPs and cassettes (Dear reader, the compact disc had not yet been invented).

I was aware of Peter Gabriel primarly through his previous hit single, "Games Without Frontiers", from "Peter Gabriel 3" (a.k.a. "Melting Face"). I heard it on FM radio and found it oddly compelling. The oily, fluid bass guitar, the clanky drum machine against the tribal drums, the whistling hook, and the surrealistc lyrics all made an impression. 

When I heard his new single, "Shock The Monkey", and saw the video, I resolved to get the album. I was only able to find it on cassette (the worst audio format ever), but bought it all the same. 

"Security" was a continuation and refinement of what Gabriel had been working on since he left Genesis to be a solo artist.

The cover art, for example, is just like his previous 3 records: a dramatically distorted photo of his face, both mocking and hewing to the conventions of pop music stardom.

And that really is his face. It is a still grabbed from a video shot and directed by Malcolm Poynter, who says “ memory of this project, which was crucially pre-Photoshop, was us dragging around flexi mirrors and Fresnel lenses, and...having a very creative (if chaotic) time."

One can only imagine how Geffen records must have felt: That cover image, the title being the same as his last *3* records, and a "hit single" about animal experimentation.

The album starts with "The Rhythm of the Heat", which fades in what sounds like bamboo pipes, before Gabriel's alien wailing drops into dramatic and dynamic drums. The piece is, in some ways, very "Genesis-y" -- it's got a bit of music theater vibe about it, but is also creepy and unsettling. It's like a song version of the Wicker Man, all strange rituals on the edge of violence. 

Listening to his voice whisper "Smash the outside voices here! Smash the cannot steal away the spirits! Smash the cannot tear the day to shreds!" before he starts screaming about how "The rhythm has my soul!" and drums and chanting bring the song to a crescendo and climax was...potent. Like musical theater, it might be a little cheesy, but that doesn't mean it's not affecting, if you are in the right mood and open to the experience.

The second song on the album is "San Jacinto", a similarly elaborate composition that details a coming-of-age ritual and measures it against modern life ("each house a pool, kids wearing water-wings, drinking cool...past Geronimo's disco...").

Gabriel is interested in studying culture as an abstract. Everything is ritual, power structures, lore. He's long explored the idea that "modern" culture and "primitive" culture are basically the same. That nothing really changes, that one is not better than the other, and that perhaps we shouldn't be so proud of ourselves. That there are forces beyond our comprehension, or at least more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy."

"I Have the Touch" and "The Family and the Fishing Net", for example, are basically an alien or outsider observing business and a wedding and documenting what they see. The commonplace becomes exotic through distance and perspective.

"Shock The Monkey" kicks off side two. This was the album's single, and was about scientific experimentation on a monkey...from the monkey's point of view. Gabriel shot a pretty great video for it, where he manages to obliquely address the song's lyrics and get at his obsessions and album themes. It's a pretty solid pop song, and one of the more conventional productions on the record -- there's a steady beat throughout the song, you could probably dance to it, and it has hooks.

Similarly, "Wallflower" is a beautiful ballad, with Gabriel's lovely voice and chiming Yamaha concert piano (the same kind U2 used in the early days -- it's a very distinctive sound). If you can look past it being about tortured political prisoners, it almost sounds romantic.

The album was one of the first completely digital recordings, and also extensively featured the then state-of-the-art Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument), which allowed for sampling. Back in those days, people used it to make instruments, rather than rip loops off of records, and songs like "Lay Your Hands On Me" (about Jesus as a suburbanite) have all kinds of clanking cans, eerie blown bottles and pipes, and other "found sounds" that are melded into the track. 

Gabriel famously told the drummers not to "use any metal" on the album -- no crash cymbals, no hi hat. Just drums. This helps give the album a tribal vibe, and forces the drummers to play different kinds of beats. Some of the songs have artificial hi-hats and crashes, but Gabriel's rules and aesthetic help give the album a distinctive sound.

Gabriel has a deserved reputation for spending excessive time in the studio tweaking the minutia of his recorded work. Whereas this makes records like "Us" sound overcooked and flat, his attention (perhaps tempered by finite budget and cruder tools) made "Security" exciting, at least for its time.

After "Security", Gabriel decided to play it straight. His next album, "So", was a kind of commercial sell-out capstone to his previous four arty-but-unsuccessful records. "So" had a simple and memorable title, displayed prominently. The cover featured a beautiful black and white photograph of Gabriel's handsome, unobscured face by Trevor Key, and was designed by Peter Saville (see also: New Order). 

"So" featured songs that were shiny, simplified pop takes on his multi-cultural world music sound, with nearly all of the weird and dark stuff stripped away, or confined to one song: the album-closing "Milgram's 37", the chorus of which features people sing-chanting "We do what we're told to do". Perhaps it is Gabriel's sly commentary on capitulating to pop machinery.

Yes, "In Your Eyes" is nice, but it's pretty much "Wallflower" part 2, with the strange blood subtracted and replaced with treacle. "Don't Give Up" has a beautiful vocal from Kate Bush...but that's about it. The singles are lame, and are basically Gabriel singing about his dick, supported by gimmicky videos. This, from the guy that had done "Biko" just a few years prior.

Naturally, "So" was a smash hit -- the biggest of his career -- and marked the end of his truly interesting and challenging work. It sold 5 million copies in the USA alone. Finally, Geffen Records was happy.

Gabriel's soundtrack to Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" is also fantastic, but has no songs or vocals, and is largely about timbre and vibe. His subsequent solo albums were attempts at recapturing either the success and sounds of "So", or "Security", or trying to fuse them together. 

"Us", "Up", and the rest are totally fine. Gabriel has a great voice, writes good or great melodies, hires top-notch players, and meticulously crafts his records. But a certain fire, or perhaps perversity, seems lacking post-Security.

For me, all of that has only emphasized how great "Security" is.

Aside from lessons observed from Gabriel's career, "Security" showed me how you can make strange things into pop songs, and how the fire of personal obsessions can drive you to interesting places. 

And perhaps, how selling out can make you rich at the expense of your weird little soul.


"Shock The Monkey"

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Albums of Influence: Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk

Some records define their own genres. So it is with Talk Talk's apex, "Spirit of Eden".

Mark Hollis, already a veteran musician by his late teens, formed Talk Talk in the UK in 1981. The band was quickly picked up for various deals before ending up with a recording contract with EMI. EMI had just broken through with Duran Duran, and with Talk Talk, saw similar prospects for new wave gold.

Talk Talk's first album was straight-up new romantic / new wave pop. It was produced by Colin Thurston, notable not only for engineering Bowie's "Heroes", but for having just produced the fantastic debut album of Duran Duran. 

One can hear a sonic connection between that first Duran Duran record and Talk Talk's first album, "The Party's Over" (1982). Both records are full of Simmons electronic drums, chorused bass guitar (fretless on Talk Talk's record!), and plenty of keyboards, the albums give plenty of room for their distinctive vocalists to shine, and the production highlights the strengths of the songwriting. Talk Talk would even support Duran Duran on tour in 1982.

And Talk Talk's pop songs were quite good. While the band didn't particularly like that first record, I love it. I saw the video for the song "Talk Talk" on Rock N America, a small, late-night syndicated video show, and was immediately interested. I ended up buying a vinyl copy of the album and devoured the songs. I taught myself fretless bass by learning to play all the bass parts on that record.

Talk Talk's next two albums ("It's My Life", 1984 and "The Colour of Spring", 1986) were increasingly elaborate productions. Still very much pop / new wave, the sonic palette broadened on each record. They continued to write great songs, albeit with less consistency and less pop rigor. At the time, I found the lack of wall-to-wall pop songs disappointing.

But "The Colour of Spring" held my attention in other ways. In particular, there was "April 5th", a moody, piano-driven track that drifts off into strange clouds of sound. I played it over and over.

And then, in 1988, as I worked at WDCR, we got a pile of promotional copies of the new Talk Talk album, titled "Spirit of Eden". The mostly white album cover focused the band's typical surreal artwork (every single one of the band's album covers and singles contained artwork by James Marsh) and suggested something naturalistic.

I put the record on, and was blown away.

I can still remember the smell of the air, the sounds of the leaves blowing outside, how I felt, as the first notes of the album started. This wasn't a new wave pop album. It wasn't even "rock". I didn't know what it was. It Woodwinds and trumpet. Wailing harmonica. Yes, some electric and acoustic guitars and drums, but fitting with this larger band.

There were 6 songs, which had some kind of structure, but it wasn't chunks of 16 bars. It almost felt improvised. It was dynamic, ranging from barely audible to crashing volume (increasingly rare in pop music). And it was largely rubato, freed from a click, pulse, drum machine, or steady beat.

While it was unusual, it wasn't difficult to listen to, or abrasive, or noisy for noise's sake. It was composed, in every sense. Emotional, contemplative, and alive.

6 pieces. Just under 41 minutes. It finished. I wasn't even sure how to respond. Did I like it? I played it again. By the time it ended, I knew it was a masterpiece.

Nearly every musician I have met (and I know a lot!) agree with me. You will find this album on countless musician's lists of most influential, important, desert island, etc.

There's plenty to be read these days about the unique way the album was made, or what a commercial failure it was (supposedly the record executive cried when he heard the record, because he knew it was brilliant but he also knew it wouldn't sell), or how difficult Mark Hollis had become by this time.

But for a long time, the record just existed as a statement of what was possible. Here's this great art for you, world.  

I just listened to the album again as I wrote this. There's still nothing like it, except the next, final record Talk Talk would do -- "Laughing Stock", which is every bit as good as "Spirit of Eden", and the single brilliant Mark Hollis solo album (which was originally intended as a Talk Talk record).

Hollis retired from the music business after his solo album was released in 1998, and he died in 2019 at the age of 64.

Another band and artist that moved from pop towards something unique, making undefinable music for a machine that largely had no idea what to do with it. Talk Talk showed me your best work comes from doing what you want. It probably won't make you a ton of money, but it will make you great art.


If you have never heard "Spirit of Eden, do yourself a favor. Find 45 minutes where you can give it your attention. Put some headphones on or sit in front of your stereo and listen to it, all the way through. Don't use YouTube, try to find a source with decent fidelity.

Talk Talk was also a great band prior to "Spirit of Eden". With hindsight, one can clearly hear them heading towards that record:

"April 5th", from "The Colour of Spring", 1986:

"Life's What You Make It", from "The Colour of Spring", 1986:

"It's My Life", from the album of the same name, in 1984:

"The Party's Over", 1982:

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Albums of Influence: Gone To Earth by David Sylvian

"Gone To Earth" original album cover

I heard this album when I was a senior in high school. One of my friends put "Taking The Veil" on a mixtape. I was entranced by its sophisticated chords, its fretless bass, meticulous production, and lyrics referencing Max Ernst (a favorite artist).

I bought the double vinyl LP used at a local record store. The gatefold's front cover suggested something vaguely mystical. An amulet? Some kind of religious symbols?

The album is two discs. The first is seven long-ish songs. They are quite a step away from Japan's New Romantic pop songs. While they still have verses and choruses, the harmonic choices are more interesting, the melodies go in unusual directions, and Sylvian sings in his deeper "mature" voice. There's nothing you'll dance to, and the melodies aren't exactly built for singing along.

The record is practically adult contemporary. It's got great players (Robert Fripp! Bill Nelson! Mel Collins! B.J. Cole! Kenny WheelerSteve Nye!), piano, soprano sax(!), flugelhorn, and drums that are both quiet and booming. It has a jazzy, almost easy-listening vibe. The title track is the one exception, which weds a more angular melody to little more than Fripp's skronking bent-metal guitar.

It reminds me a bit of Sting's "The Dream of The Blue Turtles", which was recorded around the same time (1985) and was another example of a pop singer trying to establish a solo career by "going jazz", growing up, and moving in a slightly smoother direction. (Though I think Sylvian's record is by far more interesting and timeless).

"Gone To Earth" is overwhelmingly tasteful, which is perhaps the only bad thing you can say about this album, if not David Sylvian himself. It's not crazy or dangerous or ROCK! at all. It's beautiful and relaxed.

Sylvian's voice is gorgeous, and given plenty of space by the dynamic, wide-open sound of the record. The mix is fantastic -- I occasionally use it as a reference when testing systems or doing my own audio work. The 2003 remastered CD is one of the best-sounding examples of the compact disc I have heard.

The second disc of the album is ambient music. No singing. Just minimal, looping tracks, built up from synthesizers and guitars. A few tracks have some vocal samples, all but obscured by reverb and EQ. I found them compelling, even if the titles edge from mystical to borderline new age corn.

This album has influenced me in different ways at different times. Initially, I was inspired by the music's harmonic language, vibe, and production. I hoped I could eventually move beyond my simplistic song construction and chord vocabulary to something more like this.

I became interested in how Sylvian's lyric choices also affected the record. The lyrics are cryptic (and not reproduced on the album) and, per Sylvian, "intermingles the personal with the themes of gnosticism and alchemy".

I also was surprised (and inspired) by someone who was such a famous singer choosing to make instrumental ambient music.

Later, I began to appreciate what this record had represented for Sylvian -- a bold step away from his pop career towards something unknown, new, and strange. A choice to do the difficult thing, and to keep challenging himself.  

Sylvian would go on to make a few more adult contemporary-ish records as the 20th century ended ("Secrets of the Beehive", "Dead Bees on a Cake") before getting weirder, darker, and artier as befits the 21st century (notably, "Blemish" and "Manafon").

Sylvian is still occasionally making records, and they are beguiling works of art, and continue to inspire and influence me. Here's an interview where he reflects on some of his work.

David Sylvian - "Taking The Veil"

David Sylvian - "The Healing Place"


[Second of three "adult contemporary" albums in this series. "Diamond Life" was the first.]

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Albums of Influence: Power, Corruption and Lies by New Order

Of all the records I could write about, this is perhaps the most obvious choice. Given that half of New Order had a listening party today to discuss this album, I thought it was appropriate to write about it.

The albums that have influenced me the most tend to have a few elements in common. Maybe I heard it when I was a teenager, and discovering and falling in love with music. Maybe it has catchy, memorable, hooky songs. Maybe it is a little strange for its time. Maybe it has great artwork. Maybe it is something that inspired me, or is something I have ripped off.

In the case of "Power, Corruption and Lies", all of these things are true.

I was introduced to New Order by Tim Reynolds, who made me a cassette containing their epic "Blue Monday". It changed my life. That one song set me on the path to being a rock musician.

That track was so compelling I sought out anything else I could find by the band. I was eventually able to track down a copy of the 12" single of "Blue Monday", and later, the album from that same era: "Power, Corruption and Lies".

This is New Order's best album. It has strong songs, covering a range of sounds, moods, and tempos. Guitars, synthesizers, live drums, and drum machines all co-exist. Bernard Sumner warbles his half-brilliant lyrics in his not-too-great voice. The album thrives on contradictions and dichotomies. It's polished and amateurish. Punk and disco. Detached and emotional. The surprisingly dark title belies the generally up-tempo and light music.

It's accessible, and easy to listen to, but it's not really pop. The songs have clear sections, verses and choruses, but they're a little off. Some are nearly instrumental, some are mostly guitar, some are mostly keyboards. There's no "Bizarre Love Triangle", ready for radio. There are slow songs and fast songs. You can sort of dance to some of them. One song talks about the "red hell tide inside" of the singer. The album closes with a wistful song called "Leave Me Alone".

The artwork is surprising: "A Basket of Roses" by Henri Fantin-Latour, which seems about as uncool and unhip as possible. Legendary cover designer Peter Saville overlaid some digital-looking colored blocks in the upper right-hand corner. It turns out these are a code, spelling out the catalog number of the record (FACT75). 

The album is balanced -- 8 songs, with 4 songs on each side. It is impeccably sequenced, and the perfect length.

I have quoted or referenced the floaty string keyboard line from "Age of Consent" in so many of my songs, I should probably send New Order royalties. 

I love this album, and have listened to it countless times. I studied its sounds, beats, melodies, chord progressions, and songwriting. It had significant influence on me, for better or worse. 

I originally bought it on vinyl (because CDs didn't exist yet), then on CD twice. Plus downloads of the "Deluxe Edition" when that became available.

Not long ago, I was facing the very real possibility of hearing damage, up to and including deafness. I thought about what I would choose as the last albums I would ever hear, and "Power, Corruption and Lies" was on that very short list. I bought a reissue of the vinyl. 

It sounds wonderful.


"Age of Consent"

"Your Silent Face"

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Albums of Influence: Diamond Life by Sade

"Diamond life, lover boy..."

Released on July 16, 1984 in the UK, Sade's debut album "Diamond Life" is a perfect record.

While very much of its time, the album also sounds like a classic. While some choices (chorused guitars, some gratuitous sax) and technology (a hint of DX7 "epiano") slightly date the sound, it has remarkably restrained and neutral production for an album of that era.

I first heard it like everybody else did -- on the radio. I taped the album from a friend (on the reel-to-reel recorded I had salvaged from the basement!).

I was surprised how much I liked "Diamond Life", given how little it had in common with the other music I was into at the time. It wasn't filled with synthesizers and drum machines. It wasn't edgy, weird, arty, or new wave. 

It was, relatively speaking, conventional. Its comparative subtlety and aspirations of refinement did separate it from the other garish strivers on the charts, and its very quiet and understated elegance were their own strong statement. 

But I kept coming back to it, because it was "cool", in every sense. The songs were great. Memorable, without resorting to gimmickry or cheap hooks. Strong melodies, solid playing. It had some heart and soul beneath its lustrous surface. 

I still like listening to this record. It is easy to enjoy when paying attention, good background for dinner or parties, and everybody likes Sade.

"Diamond Life" was a smash success, selling over 6 million copies, and held the record for best-selling debut by a female vocalist for 24 years. It immediately gave the band the freedom to do what they wanted.

It turned out that what they wanted to do was more of the same -- carefully crafted jazz-influenced pop records, with a gradually increasing amount of time between them.

Sade doesn't really have any bad albums (though I listen to "Lovers Rock" the least). They're all pretty great, with a few being transcendent in places. But I don't think any of them have the same consistent high quality of "Diamond Life".

This record made me re-consider fashion (transient, flashy, disposable) and style (slow, understated, timeless). The older I get, the more I appreciate what Sade and her band did on "Diamond Life" and the rest of their records.

I have cribbed beats, bass lines, ideas, vibes, tempos, and riffs from their work over the years. This is most obvious and conscious on several tracks from my 2010 record "Reflection".

Friday, April 10, 2020

Albums of Influence: Call of the West by Wall of Voodoo

Wall of Voodoo and Stan Ridgway taught me how the limitations and tropes of genre and pulp can provide palettes, fuel, and launching pads for art.

I first heard Wall of Voodoo on the "Urgh! A Music War" compilation, but it was either Steve Huybrechts or Rich Wagner who played me a rare 12" single that including a remix of their cover of "Ring of Fire" and had a live medley of themes from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and "Hang 'Em High".

Wall of Voodoo had an immediately identifiable sonic palette. The beats were provided by a rickety, ancient drum machine (a Kalamzoo Rhythm Ace) supplemented by a live drummer playing temple blocks and other odd percussion. The guitar player used a Flying V, but instead of busting out metal riffs, he plucked out clean twang that would have made Duane Eddy envious. Old organs and primitive synthesizers played 5th intervals. And all topped by the distinctive voice (my wife can't stand it!) and lyrics of Stan Ridgway.

The music was pop, but informed by Ennio Morricone as much as The Beatles or other bands. Their first EP had some weird instrumentals reminiscent of film soundtracks -- the band itself had started when Ridgway was trying to compose film music. Their songs had some of the sharp angles of  Californian late punk and early new wave, but also suggested sweeping desert vistas. It swapped punk's aggression for cowboy swagger.

They also had a distinctive and focused visual identity, with great, evocative album art. All the pieces fit together -- the sound, the lyrics, the images. Total and complete art.

I was sold.

By the time on board, they had 2 albums out on I.R.S., the coolest of the cool labels. The first one I picked up was their second album, "Call of the West".

The album kicks off with "Tomorrow", which lays out the band's accessible and quirky sound. The lyrics are about a guy who keeps putting things off until tomorrow, and then there's a nuclear war. Other songs on the album document heartbreak and the emptiness of modern society, all seen through the strange prism of Ridgway's pulp-influenced writing.

The entire album is great, with hooky, memorable songs front to back. Perhaps the best song is the title track, which spins Wall of Voodoo's sound into a towering epic.

The big hit single was "Mexican Radio", which has all of the band's signature elements but swaps subtlety and emotion for a poppy sugar rush. It got radio airplay, and courtesy of a video weird enough to accompany the song and band, MTV play, too. It's a great combination, but unfortunately cemented the band's public image as a goofy one-hit wonder, and overlooked their darker and more interesting work. 

Of course that success ruined the band. After playing the legendary US Festival, Ridgway left the band for a solo career. The band continued on with new singer Andy Prieboy, but the magic was gone, and the band faded away after one strong song ("Far Side of Crazy", which doesn't sound like Wall of Voodoo at all), and three more largely unremarkable albums.

Perhaps it is for the best. While the band's early sound was distinctive, it was quite limiting. Ridgway took his unique voice and vision and continued to refine and expand it.

Ridgway's solo career kicked off with a brilliant collaboration with Stewart Copeland -- "Don't Box Me In" for the movie "Rumble Fish". Ridgway made a pile of solid solo records with great (if more conventional) self-production, and lyrics that were miniature movies or short stories.

He had minor college radio hits with "Camouflage" and "Drive She Said" from his first solo album "The Big Heat". His second album, "Mosquitos", had "Goin' Southbound" and "Lonely Town". He went on to write some records for kids and do film scoring. 

Wall of Voodoo's first album, "Dark Continent", is just as good, but slightly darker and rawer.

Wall of Voodoo also made me start a band. In college, on a break from my "real" band, some friends and I wanted to do something fun. So we fused Chris Isaak with Wall of Voodoo. Drum machines, twangy guitars, western tropes. 

It was something both goofy and beautiful, funny and sad. Wall of Voodoo illustrated how a band could embrace all of that. Their music was ridiculous, but also transcendent. 

Thank you, "Call of the West".

[This post was partially motivated by Alex Patsavas' piece on NPR]


Stewart Copeland and Stan Ridgway - "Don't Box Me In"

Stan Ridgway - "Drive, She Said"

Stan Ridgway - "Lonely Town"

Stan Ridgway - "The Big Heat"

Wall of Voodoo - "Tse Tse Fly [live]"

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Albums of Influence: Joshua Judges Ruth by Lyle Lovett

I am not entirely sure how I got this record. I think I picked it up while I was working at The Record Plant -- I recall a pile of them being around. My CD has a hole drilled through the case and booklet, which indicates it was a promotional copy.

Back in the 1990s, when I was a music professional, I was constantly receiving free CDs. Because I was young and poor, always interested in hearing something new,  and music used to be valuable, I took it home to listen.

I didn't know anything about Lyle Lovett, other than he was a "country singer", with a reputation for being quirky. I suppose I was expecting something goofy and/or lame, a jokey, hokey borefest.

Instead, I heard a beautiful and surprising record. The production and recording are pristine, clear, and minimal (probably why it was lying around the recording studio). For a guy who used to advertise his "Large Band", Lovett's recordings on this record are sparse, and filled with top-shelf session players.

The songs are understated and full of feeling. I was particularly struck by the slower tunes on the record. "North Dakota", "She's Already Made Up Her Mind", "Baltimore", and "Family Reserve" blew me away.

"North Dakota" is perhaps the best on the record. The shards of piano, Rickie Lee Jones singing. The wide open space. The heartbreaking lyrics.

I suppose it is country -- that's the genre you'll find Lovett filed under. He sings with a mild drawl, his writing has some "country" tropes, and his instrumentation (acoustic and electric guitar, piano, bass, drums) and note choice move him into that territory. But a few tweaks and he could be a folk artist. It's certainly not Toby Keith or whatever your avatar of Stetson-hatted, boot-wearin', ass-kickin', y'all-hollerin' "country" is.

This album reminded me that great art comes in all genres, and that we often benefit from approaching art with no expectations and an open mind and heart.

I haven't really liked any of his other records that I heard, but I still love this one.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Albums of Influence: Kiko by Los Lobos

Every once in a while, I hear a record that immediately grabs me and demands my attention. This happened recently with Low's "Double Negative". It also happened with Los Lobos' "Kiko".

Los Lobos had been around for a while. They'd attracted some attention with their breakthrough 1984 album "How Will the Wolf Survive?", and sold a pile of records with their cover of "La Bamba" for the soundtrack of the movie with the same name.

Los Lobos are a great, solid band, but they never made much of an impression on me. Then, in 1992, I heard "Kiko And The Lavender Moon" and saw the video on MTV (back then, MTV was still relevant, and a purveyor of next big things).

The song was well-written, but what really sold it for me was the dramatic, stylized production. This wasn't what one expected from a roots-rock band like Los Lobos, who seemed to pride themselves on a certain kind of authenticity. 

I read a few more glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and Spin, and picked up a copy from Tower Records on Sunset. 

Almost from the first note, the album held my attention. The songs ranged from solid to good to great, and the production was just wild enough to spice things up without overwhelming them.

"Kiko" showed me that bands I don't love can make albums I do love, and that creative production can lift songwriting and performance to another level, particularly when the material or artist is otherwise solidly in a particular genre.

MItchell Froom (producer) and Tchad Blake (engineer on the weird tracks) are largely responsible for the compelling and fresh sound of the record. Froom and Blake had something of a moment in the 90s, working as a team for most of that decade. They worked on a pile of records by great artists, including Suzanne Vega's stellar "99.9" album, which nearly made this year's round of albums, and which David Hidalgo of Los Lobos contributed electric guitar to. 

Like Los Lobos, Vega was an otherwise fairly traditional artist with good songs but whose traditional approach kept her work from really standing out. Froom was Vega's husband from 1995 - 1998. 

Froom and Blake got something of a reputation for being the guys with the weird, fucked-up sounds, which of course they resented, fought, and ultimately embraced. Froom, Blake, and a couple of the Lobos started an "experimental roots collective" called "Latin Playboys" that made a few records.

When I hear this record, I think of holidays in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It remains fresh-sounding, with its effortless roots grooves shading into acoustic balladry. For something occasionally strange and distressed-sounding, it is surprisingly easy to listen to. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Albums of Influence: My Brother Thinks He's a Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children by Barry Louis Polisar

Before YouTube, Pixar movies, and other oceans of content designed to engage kids, parents resorted to records.

My parents brought Barry Louis Polisar's record "My Brother Thinks He's A Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children" home for me in 1977, not long after it was released. A precocious child of single-digit age, I was both allergic and resistant to "entertainment for kids", because it was pandering, stupid garbage. And like many kids, I was also immediately suspicious of anything my parents suggested I might like.

But I always wanted a new record, and there was something about the album cover that intrigued me. The design was simple, but had a vibe I would later know as "underground" or "indie". The title was already more complex and literate than you might expect from a "kid's record". A stark black and white photo of a friendly, hippy-ish looking guy, holding a fruit bowl with a banana in it. His somewhat sardonic grin made me want to hear these "provocative songs".
The original album cover

I was not disappointed. Barry's songs were catchy. I haven't listened to them in decades, but I can still sing the hooks of many of them. Barry's songs were also smart and clever. The title track name-checks the Bhagavad Gita, for example (which naturally prompted me to track down a copy from the local public library and read it). There's a song on the record called "For my Sister, Wherever I May Find Her", which brought a knowing smile to my Simon and Garfunkel-loving Dad's face. 

Another of his songs about "child solidarity" ("Marching Shoulder To Shoulder", from "Naughty Songs for Boys And Girls") asserts the movement "won't trust anybody who is over thirteen", a hilarious take on Jack Weinberg's statement "don't trust anybody over thirty". 

Some of his work shades a little dark, but that works for kids (see also:  John Mulaney's "Sack Lunch Bunch"). 

I managed to get my parents to buy me Barry's other records ("Naughty Songs For Boys and Girls" and "I Eat Kids and Other Songs for Rebellious Children"). I wrote Barry fan mail. I asked him to come and play my grade school. 

And he did! Somehow my school got in touch with him, or vice versa, and there was an assembly where he came and played songs for the whole school, just him and his guitar, playing for a legion of kids sitting cross-legged on the floor. My first concert, I suppose. Seeing someone hold an entire school of fidgety kids rapt was transformative. 

Most of Barry's albums also had one really sweet song. For "...Banana", it was a song called "All I Want Is You". This would turn up years later as the stunning opener for the movie "Juno", and allowed me the ultimate hipster cred of claiming that I was into him before anyone, and that I had original vinyl, AND that I had seen him live. When my cousin Claire asked me to play a song at her wedding, I chose "All I Want Is You".

With the hindsight of many decades, I can see how this album and Barry's other work affected my life. He wrote and sang his own material, and performed. 

Barry's songs are also playfully subversive. In a recent Facebook post, he noted:

...Sesame Street asked me to write three songs for an album they wanted to release of songs from a kids perspective.  I remember reviewing my early drafts with them and they had words like “molotov cocktails” and “kids liberation front” circled in red marker with exclamation points and question marks. They quickly realized my ideas were a little too weird and they dropped the project. 

(Eventually Sesame Street did use some of his other material)

He was too radical for Sesame Street (and, perhaps, for the mainstream). Smart, literate, clever. Hooky. And totally independent, making and releasing these records himself. Getting his message out, one school at a time. D.I.Y. personified. And kinda punk rock, in his own way. Pete Seeger for kids.

The world eventually caught up, and Barry has won Grammys and Emmys. He's played some big venues, including The White House, The Smithsonian, and The Kennedy Center. A few years back, he was the subject of a double-album tribute CD -- all those musical seeds he planted over the decades have sprouted.

Barry still lives in Maryland. He is still performing for kids (and adults), still writing songs, and still making records. He is one of the nicest people I have ever written to. He remains an inspiration. I hope to write songs as pure and beautiful as his some day. 

I hope to be like him when I grow up.

Thank you for the music, Barry. 


Barry Louis Polisar's music is available on all the big streaming services and download stores. You can also stream them all at his website, read his lyrics, watch episodes of his TV show, and read his books.

If you have kids old enough to listen to music but young enough that they'll still listen to YOU, they should be exposed to the music of Barry Louis Polisar as soon as possible.

"My Brother Thinks He's A Banana"

"All I Want Is You"


[Author's Note: About 2 years ago, I was tagged in one of those Facebook posts to share some albums that had affected me. This week, I was tagged again by 2 different people. Given the oceans of time the CoVID-19 pandemic has given us, I thought i would write about some more records that mattered to me.

I am trying to choose interesting and non-obvious records. I hope these are surprising and enlightening for you to read.]