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Saturday, February 28, 2009

29 in 2009 - Nick Drake: "Pink Moon"

Nick Drake: Pink Moon
Originally Released: February 25, 1972
Genre: Folk
Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

I have a friend who's really into folk music as of late, so when I told him about this whole "29 in 2009" thing, he immediately insisted that I add this record to my list. I'm glad that I did. Prior to me sitting down and making an honest attempt at listening to Nick Drake, my only experience with the artist had been from whatever soundtracks or car commercials he happened to have been on. Embarrassing, yes, but the truth nonetheless. My ill-conceived judgement to these brief encounters was "yay, big deal!"

Silly me. One listen to Pink Moon and I immediately realized just how influential this album is. One listen to your modern folk artists - your Iron & Wines, Rocky Votolatos, and Jose Gonzalezes - immediately point out the painfully obvious truth that much of what they do is a blatant attempt at trying to reach the same musical heights. They're all great, but after listening to a lot of Nick Drake in the last few weeks, I've slowly become less and less impressed by their antics.

On an album in which the only instrument used (save for one part) is a guitar, the most strikingly beautiful feature is Drake's feather-light voice which is so iconic that even people who are passively aware of his music will be able to pick it out in the aforementioned commercials and movies and be able to correctly identify its source. For that alone, this album can be considered a classic. Add in the fact that there's not a single song on the album that even comes close to being less than great and you have an album that becomes one of the few that can define genres or styles of music.

Pink Moon is certainly one of those albums, though the debate as to whether it is his best still rages on to this day in the midst of shitty college jam sessions. You know an artist is amazing when an album this good is even debatable as his best! Personally, most of my time spent with Pink Moon has been with it playing as I go about my regular day-to-day business. It goes by so quick (less than 30 minutes in length) that by the time I start paying attention to it, I realize that it's already played through 2 or 3 times!

And that's just what folk music is to me: background music. Great background music, sure, but nothing that I try to imitate or mold my own musical failures after. I'm not the biggest fan of the genre, but even I can spot beauty when it shows itself. And Pink Moon is - in a word -beautiful. No more. No less. Somehow, I can imagine that that's exactly how Nick Drake would have wanted it.

Verdict: Classic

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

29 in 2009 - The Who: "Tommy"

The Who:  Tommy
Originally Released:  May 23, 1969
Genres:  Rock, Rock Opera
Rating:  6 out of 10 Stars

The thing about storytelling is that it has to connect with the audience in some manner.  Otherwise, you're just telling it to yourself.  One of the most difficult aspects of writing stories or making films is getting an audience to relate to the characters in your story.  For me, there is nothing about Tommy Walker, the central character to The Who's seminal storytelling album, that causes me to care about him.  This is the central weakness of Tommy, and the reason why after listening to it for well over a month I am still unable to connect with it or have the desire to listen to it more than I have to.

The story is summed up (in short) as follows:  

Tommy is deaf, dumb, and blind.  
He has a shitty childhood.  
His family tries to fix his deafdumbblindness several different ways.  
They all fail. 
 Tommy is really good at pinball.  
He wins a tournament.  
Tommy's parents discover that his illness is all in his head.  
He snaps out of it. 
 Tommy becomes a cult leader.  
He is harsh on his followers.  
They leave the cult.  
The end.

If it sounds like a half-assed story, that's because it is.  Is it a metaphor for something that only Pete Townshend understands?  Probably.  The point I'm making is that if you're going to tell a story, you better have a damn good reason to tell it.  Unfortunately, nothing about Tommy seems to be of incredible importance.  Nothing seems to be capable of touching the average listener.  Do we feel sorry for Tommy's tough life?  Kind of.  But so little is known about Tommy's inner-workings that it's difficult to connect with the character on anything other than a superficial level.  

In many ways, concept albums are always quite superficial simply because it's tough to tell a deep, meaningful story that connect with the audience within the confines of a record.  Few records have been able to pull it off, and in my opinion, Tommy isn't one of them.  So why the accolades?  Why the praise?  It was the first "rock opera."  That's all I can think of.  Granted, the music on Tommy isn't half bad.  "Pinball Wizard" is a classic for a reason, "Christmas" is all sorts of awesome, and "Sally Simpson" is nothing to scoff at.  But again, there's nothing here to connect with as a listener.  Tommy is essentially pop music disguised as intelligent rock.

Honestly, this was one of the albums I was most looking forward to listening to.  Remember that scene in Almost Famous where Zooey Deschanel's character says to her younger brother, "Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you'll see your entire future."  Well, I tried that.  The only thing I saw was a future devoid of me ever listening to this album again.

Fair enough.

Verdict:  Overrated

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Loney, Dear: Dear John

Emil Svanängen's worldwide debut as Loney, Dear (2007's Loney, Noir) was one of the most delightful things to come out of Sweden in some time.  On that remarkable album, Emil introduced himself as a sort of insecure, soft-spoken artist who just couldn't help but write some of the most endearing love songs of the past decade.  To sum up the album with one word, it was "hopeful."  Loney, Dear's newest release, Dear John, retains all of the artist's lovable characteristics, but turns to a darker side of music and love.  Emil has taken his mild feelings of inadequacies and fleshed them out into a bleak, complex album that finds the artist shelving much of his genius pop songwriting in favor of a more minimalist, sullen atmosphere.

One would probably not guess this from the first track on the album.  "Airport Surroundings" introduces a lot of synths and electronic drums, which were apparent on Loney, Noir, but not nearly as prominent as they are on John.  Beyond the upbeat track, however, are some incredibly gloomy lyrics.  Emil sounds as if he's on the precipice of a deep depression, battling with himself as to whether he will give into that hopelessness.  He sings, "I took the fastest way down when I surrendered this time.  I wasn't feeling no good.  I took the easy way out," while adding that "You were all that I wanted."  Hearing Svanängen pine for love is nothing new, but to see it wrapped up in such despair is quite the departure.

Much of Dear John seems to paint Emil as a person who is aware that he is in or near a state of depression, and oftentimes he speaks of "change;" the desire to change into a better version of himself.  On "Everything Turns to You," one of the album's most striking songs, he sings of trying to change only to confess that, "all the times I make it worse with all the devils in my head."  "Change" is a reappearing theme on the album, like on "Harsh Words" where he pleads, "Tell me I'm good enough, that I could change" or later on the fantastic "Distant Lights."  It's clear that Emil is a man at war with himself, and at the very least it makes for a more complex listen.  

Where Loney, Noir saw the artist compiling layers and layers of synths, vocals, and guitars to make large, beautiful sounds, Dear John finds Svanängen taking a more minimalist approach on occasion.  "I Got Lost" is the first time that we get to hear Emil in this way.  With only faint guitars and distant strings to accompany his vocals, the audience is allowed to hear the frailty in his voice when he asks, "Where's my lord to look for me now?"  Later, on "Harm/Slow," one of Dear John's most impressive tracks, Emil sings against a backdrop of looming danger.  The track, as the title suggests is actually two songs in one.  "Harm" seems to be about the artist overcoming his fear of danger, of death, while "Slow" seems to show the artist's depression taking over him, to the point where he ends his life.  He sings, "That's how I fell from top of twelve stories to the ground.  For the reasons I had.  The ones I know, the ones I don't.  For all I forgot, that is all I could do, that is how I want you."  Is this a suicide reference?  It's definitely up for discussion, but the song's abrupt conclusion would seem to allude to an equally abrupt death.

Fortunately for fans of Loney, Dear's past work, there is plenty on this album that is more in line with what you would expect.  "I Was Only Going Out" is classic Loney, Dear, sounding somewhat reminiscent of "The Meter Marks OK," and "Summers" is appropriately titled, as it's a very summery track.  Emil does a great job of spacing these songs out on the album so as not to make it feel so lop-sided.  "Under a Silent Sea" is easily the album's standout track in that it combines the minimalist tendencies of Dear John with the multi-layered ways of Loney, Dear's past albums.  The difference is that the layers on the song are comprised of thick synths, and electronic drums.  By the end of the song you're more likely to think you're listening to a dance album than Loney, Dear.  At over 5 1/2 minutes, it's also the longest track on Dear John, but every second of the song is enchanting and I've listened to it at least a dozen times in the past few weeks.

Musically, emotionally, and lyrically, Dear John is all over the place.  Through it all, however, it is Emil Svanängen's endearing personality that ties everything together and makes the album feel like a coherent piece of art.  He is so honest in his work that you feel as if you know him personally, that you experience all the ups and downs of his life right beside him.  Few artists are as open as Svanängen, and as a result, it's not often that an album of this caliber comes around.  There have been rumblings in recent months of putting Loney, Dear to rest, and if that turns out to be the case, there can be no denying that Dear John is the artist's magnum opus.  It is an album, so beautiful, so heartbreaking, touching, and real that it begs to be listened to over and over again.  

Key Tracks:
1. "Airport Surroundings"
2. "Everything Turns to You"
3. "Under a Silent Sea"
4. "Distant Lights"
5. "Harm/Slow"

10 out of 10 Stars
(Yes, really)

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Friday, February 06, 2009

29 in 2009: A February Update

As much as I love the idea of this whole 29 in 2009 thing, I must admit that it's becoming much more time consuming than I originally thought.  I'm definitely taking my sweet time with this one, though to be fair, you're definitely getting way more posts than that whole September - November phase of the blog.  My reasoning is simple on this.  I've never been one to just make passing listens to music and then discard it, unless of course it's something absolutely dreadful (think Gogol Bordello).  Therefore, I try to give each album the time it deserves.

This problem is only intensified by my absolute adoration of the new Loney, Dear album (review up next week), which I simply can't stop listening to, and the fact that The Who's Tommy - the album I'm currently working on - is a very difficult thing to process.  I've definitely spent a lot of my time researching the album, and a lot of time listening to it.  The problem is that you simply can't listen to Tommy a few songs at a time.  It has to be consumed as a whole, and finding 1.2 hours (thanks iTunes!!) here and there to listen intently to complex music can be tough.  It's coming along though, and if there isn't a write-up on it in the next 2 weeks I'd be surprised.

Next, let me talk about how I go about picking the albums that make it to the Top 29.  It's basically a mathematical equation that involves my prior knowledge of the band (Rush and Pink Floyd probably won't make it on the final list because I feel like I've already heard enough of them to "get it" and appreciate what they're all about), how influential the album is (I don't necessarily think I'll enjoy Bob Dylan or Robert Johnson, but it's like "required reading" if you want to know anything about music, right?), and critical consensus (I personally think that The Grass Roots have made some of the most classic pop music of all time, but the critics and popular opinion don't usually back that up).

Below, you'll find an updated version of the 29 albums that I'll attempt to listen to this year.  New additions to the list have been added in bold.  You'll notice that there are 11 spots still available on the list.  I will be doing something special with these slots, and yes, YOU will be the person who decides what makes it in those spots.  More on that when the time arrives (we're still a ways off).  Until then, be sure to catch up on my first two reviews in the series and post your comments in their respective posts.
  1. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 
  2. King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King 
  3. The Who: Tommy 
  4. Nick Drake: Pink Moon
  5. Bob Dylan: Highway 61
  6. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues
  7. Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland
  8. Buddy Holly: Buddy Holly
  9. Jethro Tull: Aqualung
  10. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico
  11. The Doors: The Doors
  12. The Clash: London Calling
  13. The Allman Brothers: Eat a Peach
  14. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
  15. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
  16. The Smiths: The Queen is Dead
  17. R.E.M.: Murmur 
  18. Joni Mitchell: Blue

Thanks for reading!

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