Thursday, December 14, 2006

Eleven Criminally Overlooked Albums

the days of our nights - Luna
This was the first album I bought by Luna, although it turned out to be one of their last. I had heard the song 4,000 Days on the radio, I think on the Vin Scelsa show, and then a couple weeks later he had them live in studio where they played a bunch of songs from Days, and I was just blown away by how great they sounded. They were having record label troubles at the time and the album's release was held up for a while, sort of like what happened a few years later with Wilco's Hotel Yankee Foxtrot but not as hyped or celebrated. Ended up buying 3 or 4 more of their albums later, including Penthouse and Bewitched, and seeing them live 3 times, but this album I could listen all the way through and did like 4,000 times. Also includes a solemn cover version of Guns-n-Roses' Sweet Child of Mine.

streets of this town
- Steve Forbert
Forbert's first album, 1978's Alive on Arrival, put him on the map as the new Dylan and is perhaps his best, most consistent overall record to this day, full of great acoustic folk-rock in the Neil Young, early Springsteen mold, but I assume you're already all over that one. In 1988, 10 years after his remarkable debut, he released Streets, a terrific collection of heartfelt songs like I Blinked Once, Mexico and Running on Love. Also check out Rocking Horse Head, another underrated Forbert album released in '96 and featuring most of Wilco as the backing band.

sleepy eyed - Buffalo Tom
Buffalo Tom were once belittled as Dinosaur Jr. Junior because of their early affinity for that noise band, also from Boston, and their first few late 1980s/early '90s albums were loud, raucous affairs combining the same combination of dissonance/melody that worked so well for bands like Nirvana and the Pixies. But Buffalo Tom kept evolving long after J. Mascis's band splintered apart, to the point where by 1994's Big Red Letter Day and especially 1995's Sleepy Eyed, they had something unique and special going. Part power-pop trio and part melancholy balladeers, often in the same song, Buffalo Tom often flew under the radar and to this day the mere mention of this underrated band will draw quizzical or even blank stares in response. All I can do is draw attention to this great collection of songs that grows more intimate with each listen. Grouped under the 1990s "alternative" umbrella, and therefore easily dismissed, but their lyrics and, yes, emotional pull set them apart in songs like Summer and When You Discover. As allmusic so rightly says in the opening line of their review, "Put Sleepy Eyed in your CD player, hit play, and prepare to be amazed." Nuff said.

brutal youth - Elvis Costello
It may be hard to think of an Elvis Costello record as overlooked, but this 1994 one came and went with nary a trace among the general public. I remember I got an advance copy in late 1993 from Mario, an Elvis Costello fanatic who I worked with at the Transcript, and couldn't believe what a return to form this was. Giving up the artsy/jazzy/classical pretensions exemplified by the pompous Juliet Letters, as well as most of his dreadfully derivative Little Jimmy Scott vocalizing, Costello comes up with a great bunch of unabashed rock songs, anchored by old backing band the Attractions and contributions from old soulmate Nick Lowe. Songs like Kinder Murder and Clown Strike will take over that spot in your cerebral cortex for weeks, just as the ones from My Aim Is True and This Year's Model did all those years before. And Just About Glad is one of the all-time great misogynistic spite-filled, hate-your-guts-now songs, just in case you're inclined to go in that direction. Sample lyric:

I'm just about glad I can look you in the eye
But I can't say the same for you
And though the passion still flutters and flickers
It never got into our knickers

For some inexplicable reason allmusic only gives this record 2 1/2 stars out of 5, saying the music lacks guts and calls the production "junkyard," whatever that means. That's just crazy talk. But again, it holds up well, which I can't say for most of Costello's work in the last 15 years.

burning questions - Graham Parker
Similar to Elvis, Parker has made so many different sounding records for so many different labels that it can be easy to miss overlooked gems like Burning Questions. Given a ridiculous 2 stars by the usually reliable Stephen Thomas Erlewine, this collection of 13 songs, Parker's 12th studio album, always had an indefinable something I found compelling. Parker has always been a bit of a cult artist, an acquired taste, but on albums like Squeezing Out Sparks and Mona Lisa's Sister, his undeniable force as a songwriter and singer came together perfectly. I would add Burning to that list. From an old-fashioned antiwar protest song (Short Memories) to clever Dylanesque-like feats of wordplay (Too Many Knots, Just Like Joe Meek's Blues) and beautifully tender ballads of old-fashioned unapologetic romance (Oasis, Long-Stemmed Rose), as well as several bristling doses of Parker the Angry Young Man, as he was once stereotyped (Release Me, Here It Comes Again), the album is all over the place, but in a good way.

sell sell sell - David Gray
I kind of stumbled upon this 1996 record by accident. It was still three years before White Ladder would break Gray in the States. I think I just liked the cover and figured the music had to have something going for it. Allmusic rightly calls it "raw and piercing" yet wrongly only gives it 3 stars to White Ladder's 4 1/2. I always preferred this record with its almost Marxist condemnation of economic Darwinism and existential isolation. Allmusic calls it "smart, melodic folk-rock done up with emotion and talent." That sums it up. Songs like Late Night Radio and Faster Sooner Now are showcases of Gray's immense songwriting ability -- haunting, brilliant stuff in the rarefied class of Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. That's the highest praise I can give and I can't give no more.

heaven & the sea - Pete Shelley
Shelley of course was one of the driving forces behind the punk legends Buzzcocks along with Steve Diggle, both of whom had underrated solo careers following that band's demise in the early '80s. Shelley's first solo album Homosapien contained the dance club hit of the title track, as well as other melodic early electronica, but this overlooked third solo album from 1986 is actually the superior collection of songs; Shelley's second solo effort XL1 was released in 1983 and is in many respects a continuation of the dance-oriented pop on the first record. But although I concur with that Heaven & the Sea is a "layered/textured" recording, I disagree strongly that it contains a "lack of notable songs." Obviously this is all subjective, and writing about music is indeed like dancing about architecture, as someone probably much smarter than me pointed out one fine day. But again, I keep going back to the way good, subtle music can grow on you over the course of time, over the course of a lifetime, and these songs, once you relax and let them enter your subconscious, will infiltrate their way into your bloodstream. On Your Own has that pulsating electronic beat that Shelley could write in his sleep. If there are better love songs than I Surrender, I want to hear them. Shelley's lyrics here are as usual simple but somehow deeply evocative:

I feel you when I'm dreaming
So soft against my skin
There's no need to feel so guilty
There's no element of sin
As you reach your own conclusion
I began to lose control
Is the method in my madness
Like the sadness in my soul

Is it a great, landmark record? Probably not. Allmusic gives it 3 stars and that's about right, but for some intangible reason I always found it stirringly effective. What can I say...

modern - Buzzcocks
It's easy to overlook and fashionable to dismiss the punk reunions of bands like Stiff Little Fingers, Gang of 4, Mission of Burma and Buzzcocks. After all, if punk stood for anything in its prime, it was a lack of sentimentality and nostalgia. So when these bands decided to get back together, it was often derided as a cynical concession to the almighty buck at best and as proof that these artists' solo careers were floundering to nonexistent. That's a shame, because with that dismissive attitude you would have missed a record like the re-formed Buzzcocks' 1999 Modern, an energetic set of strong songs. Actually, three years earlier I caught the Buzzcocks live on the heels of the album All Set, which was released in 1996. That show was so fucking incendiary and brilliant that I think it shocked the audience with its intensity. People were probably just expecting all the hits, but some of the new songs from All Set and their first "reunion" record, Trade Test Transmissions, were just as amazing as anything off Singles Going Steady. Plus All Set and TTT had a remarkably clean, sharp sound that suited the new songs particularly well. Well, I thought tunes on Modern like Turn of the Screw and Soul on a Rock even surpassed the ones found on those first two comeback albums. Listen and see where nervous/twitchy bands like Green Day, the Strokes and Walkmen copped their sound. I first bought the vinyl version of Modern and found it to be a great album to work out to. The sound just bleeds off the record.

get a life - Stiff Little Fingers
Same story as Modern, only different band. After four remarkable albums and a glowing reputation as the "Irish Clash," the inevitable breakup occurred in 1982. But Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers reformed in the late 1980s for a series of live shows in Ireland and England and the resulting tours were so brilliant that Jake Burns decided to reform the band. See You Up There is a terrific document that nicely captures the excitement and enthusiasm of both band and audience -- a symbiotic relationship that very few bands can lay claim to. The first reunion record, 1991's Flags & Emblems, found the boys a little hesitant in spots, although songs like Beirut Moon and Stand Up & Shout recapture some of the old magic. But by the time SLF released Get a Life in '94, as allmusic rightly puts it, "singer-guitarist Jake Burns figured out how to make those shopworn pop-punk chords ring true again, yielding one of the band's finest outings." These songs cover topics like the fall of communism (The Night That The Wall Came Down), political apathy (Get A Life), the plight of the immigrant (Harp) in an intelligent yet non-dogmatic manner. Jake Burns' guitar-playing here is a revelation, reminiscent somehow of Bruce Springsteen's on another often-overlooked album, Darkness on the Edge of Town -- nuanced, focused and stirring. The Jam's Bruce Foxton joined the band on bass for this record and all the subsequent ones. SLF released a few more records after this, but none match this one's power and intensity. It's bewildering to me how bands like U2 get an avalanche of praise for every mediocre record they release, while SLF has to play in the shadows.

white heat white light white trash
- Social Distortion
Ironically, allmusic dismisses this album as overly "glossy" and gives this record a mere 2 1/2 stars, by far the lowest rated record in their catalog. That's just bullshit. But this is one of my all-time favorite records about redemption, rebirth and reawakening. Religious imagery competes with profane testaments of despair and self-abuse in some of the most powerful lyrical content. Basically a junkie's plea for a second chance in life, at least that's how I read it. Songs like I Was Wrong, Through These Eyes and Crown of Thorns reflect the narrator's harrowing plight, plus there's a great cover of the Stones' Under My Thumb. I cannot put this record on without being prepared for an emotional jolt that fires me up like very few records. As I said, it's about overcoming demons and it's not always pretty, but rock and roll needs more of its confessional power, despite what allmusic calls sentiments that are "too cliched and ham-fisted." Well, it works for me, and I'm the one talking here. But seriously, instead of listening to critics or even to me, go on and read some of the heartfelt testimonials from the fans as they tell you what this record meant to them. In one post titled, Absolutely Gorgeous Agony, a reviewer sums up what the record means to his life, and I couldn't agree more: "Some may say that this CD is a bit depressing. Those people would be right but Ness's pain, loneliness, and frustration is beautiful to listen to unfold. In point of fact, this CD reminded me of why I love music so much. It allows you to explore the darker side of yourself and not to be afraid of it. Kind of scary, huh? When you're finished listening to the entire CD from start to finish, and I advise you to do so, you will feel spent, exhilarated and humming some of the songs all day. Magnificent, heartfelt writing coupled with virtuoso musicianship and recording standards of the highest caliber should result in this CD becoming a pillar in everyone's music library." Right on target!

what i deserve - Kelly Willis
Traversing the same confessional new country terrain as the more critically acclaimed Lucinda Williams and Dixie Chicks, Willis released a series of solo records in the early 1990s that were uneven and overproduced affairs. It wasn't until this 1999 record that it all came together for the beautiful songstress. The two songs that kick off the record, Take Me Down and the title track, were co-written by Willis with Gary Louris of Jayhawks fame, a very good start to this gorgeous, aching record. Like Lucinda, her voice just soars among the angels and it brings tears to my eyes just thinking how sweet it sounds. The album also has the feel of an artist awakening to her own potential, and there's an undeniable purity and sincerity here that seems almost otherworldly. That said, Side One is far superior to the second side -- I own it on cassette -- but that's only because of how shockingly memorable these simple declarations of love and identity prove to be. The highest praise I can give is that the best work here stands up to Lucinda's best work, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and like that album it gives you a lump in the throat that you should never have to apologize for.

See also:

Hey Ho! It's Gone

Take a Bow, Bo

All Things Ziggy

Lux Interior

Beth Orton

Not For Sale

MP3 Madness


A Bush Bash

Bottle Rockets

No comments: