Monday, October 29, 2007
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream, 1993 - Virgin US
There's been plenty of ink spilled about "Siamese Dream" the second album from Champagne/Urbana, IL's Smashing Pumpkins, but here at Desert Island Records, you can't deny the awesome power and stunning creativity on display here.
Coming out of Illinois in the 90s with the album "Gish", Smashing Pumpkins were a My Bloody Valentine meets Husker Du slosh of distortion and weird lyrics. Granted, Billy Corgan is no Kevin Shields, but even Kevin Shields isn't Kevin Shields. (That made sense in my head). Also included here : the kick-your-mama-in-the-face drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain, James Iha's precision geetar noise and Darcy Wretzsky's frenetic bass strumming.
We're gonna take you through it, track by track, as I listen to it for the umpteenth time.
The album takes no prisoners, starting with the rumbling drum roll of "Cherub Rock", instantly recognizable as the jangly intro begins building to the inevitable climax of blistering guitars. First track on the album and it's hooky, riffy and dark with Billy's gruff voice begging the listener to "let me out!" Is it a mockery of their own success ("hipsters, unite!")? Who the hell knows? (As a funny side note, who does want that honey?)
Slow, reverb-ed and reversed guitars slip us into "Quiet", a crushing blow of a song that chugs along on a bass-heavy riff. If there's a song that's under-appreciated on this album, this would have to be it. Billy's lyrics at least make some semblance of sense, and the song builds to such a satisfying scream of "YEAH!!" that I find myself hitting repeat on this one all the time.
Ah, "Today", the riff that will forever haunt this band. A solid song with a positive message, but with dark lyrics : "I'll tear my heart out" "I'll burn my eyes out" "Pink ribbon scars that never forgive"... dang, Billy. Still, it's a heartbreaker of a tune, one that has been analyzed to death by music journalists, but one that still manages to move me. "I tried so hard to cleanse these regrets"... who hasn't felt like this?
James Iha manages to make his guitar sound like sitar in reverse for the intro to "Hummer" then Jimmy sets off another rolling drum beat... Darcy drops the bass and then a lead line high on the fuzz and well in the upper ranges glides over the whole affair. The whole thing calms down for the verses, but the choruses are pure rock action. (Another side note : "Life's a bummer, when you're a hummer, life's a drag ...." is the missing lyric "when you're a fag"? Just askin'.)
Another solid guitar intro drops us into the push-and-pull kinetic energy of "Rocket." It seems like the song teeters on the verge of something only to pull back constantly... Maybe it's the stereo mix in my headphones, but there seems to be a physical tension between the left and right channels, something to give you the off-kilter feeling the lyrics convey. Lyrically, it's about getting out of a bad situation, rejoicing in that freedom. And it explodes like the titular rocket into a swell of guitar noise.
I never liked "Disarm" when the album first came out, something about it just didn't fit the pure rock sound of the rest of the record. It was only later when Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out that I realized that this style of sweeping songwriting was Billy's real forte and that rock was just one way of expressing it. So, I've grown to like "Disarm" again, for all its acoustic guitar, violin stabs and ringing church bells. And you can really feel it down to the lyrics "The killer in me is the killer in you" - we're all human capable of terrible things. It's a cheesy moment that doesn't quite fit correctly ... I sincerely believe that the track order should have been changed around so that "Rocket" drops into "Soma"
"Soma", as you may have guessed, is a drowsy slow-building song, with all manner of pretty guitar lines upfront. It really lets us focus on Corgan's lyrics, which are odd, combining these dark death images with a love song. The chorus of "I'm all by myself, as I've always felt" really hits when the song lets go with the rock. And when it does, the first half seems like a languid dream, while the second half burns with typical Pumpkins fury.
When I first owned this record, it was on cassette tape, so the end of "Soma" was the end of Side 1. Side 2 opens with "Geek USA", which features another rolling drum intro, similar to "Cherub Rock" ... I would get confused and turn the tape over, only to realize that I was right the first time and that the tape needed to be flipped again... Very frustrating.
"Geek USA" is a punishing SP track, burning with the guitar goodness and the brutal lyrical jab of "The disappointment disappears!"... But shortly after, we lose the plot and are set adrift in space with only Billy, his guitar and some dream lyrics. "In a dream we were connected/Siamese twins/At the wrist" - the titular Siamese Dream. Then the song blows up again, crazier than before, all pounding drums and explosive guitar noise. Then the song quiets down again, just for a second, then it's back to noisy goodness.Man, these guys do the pogo act rather well.
Ah, there's the noise-rock roots. "Mayonnaise" captures what My Bloody Valentine wanted to do, with a little bit of nerdy noise-nicks Hum for good measure. Hell, it even breaks down to an acoustic bit in the middle. The lyrics pound down the album's themes of getting yourself free, anyway anyhow... "I just want to be me!" Amen to that.
Do the first lines of "Spaceboy" reference The Pixies? ("Break my bones/ Mr. Jones" - "Bone Machine" and "Crackety Jones" are Pixies songs...) Aside from that, another stripped down acoustic track with a cracking-voiced Corgan pleading that all he wants to do is "go home". Then the violins start in again. Man, "Disarm" and "Spaceboy" should be side-by-side. (Another side note : who the heck is Spaceboy?)
A clip from a call-in sex show starts off "Silverfuck", followed by furious riffage, thumping drumming and a ton of feedback. Yar. After the mellow bliss-out of "Spaceboy", it's a welcome change. This song bounces between solemn contemplation, with drums and bass the only instruments and Billy singing whisper-y "I feel no pain", and the brutal stomp of the full band, killing all the while. Then, everything drops out and we're in space again, with only Billy's voice and Darcy's bass holding us aloft. Weird guitar noise, courtesy of James Iha comes snaking in from the corners, Billy's now talking about some jilted lover, "when you lie in your bed and you lie to yourself" then lamenting her suicide singing "bang bang you're dead/hole in your head" with a flange effect blurring his voice... Another explosion of rock! Solos galore and high-pitched guitar squeals abound as the song pounds down to a satisfying conclusion.
"Sweet Sweet" is so cute and poppy that it's almost like it doesn't belong here, right after a dark, killer rock tune. But it works, much like a lot of things on this album, because of the juxtaposition. Again, lyrically, it's about keeping yourself true despite what people say, "and they all want you to change" - but it could also be about the band, as he also says, "where are we going?". Perhaps a mediation on fame, since after this they did release a bloated 2-disc double album, an electro-rock album and a fair-to-middling "final" record.
The final song, "Luna" confirms this idea, in part because of lines like "It's a chance I'll have to take", but really it's a love song. Pretty, filled with twisty guitar lines that sound like sitars and violins, it's an unexpected ending to an album mostly bristling with rock.
And so there we have it. An album that manages to meditate on the fame its members will have to face, explore the idea that people need to be themselves and to escape normality and rock our collective faces off. Smashing Pumpkins will never top this album, nor will they even attempt to, and for good reason. It's because of all this, and the fact that the album served as a soundtrack to my teenage years, that Siamese Dream is a Desert Island Record.
Friday, October 5, 2007
Nellie McKay - Get Away From Me!, 2004 - Sony
Somebody's cat dying is about the saddest thing I can think of, yet on the song "Ding Dong", Nellie McKay manages to find the humor.
Screeching out from the middle of nowhere, England in 2004, songstress Nellie McKay left all in her wake confused as fuck. Between the gorgeous George Martin production, the goofy songs about dogs, porn and waiters, people didn't exactly know what to think. How do you sell a record based on a young woman whose musical tastes run the gamut from Tin Pan Alley pop songs to Rap?
The album art says it all, the Doris Day meets Laverne and Shirley pose juxtaposed with the album's title creates the first pun, before you even hear it.
Ms. McKay is a quick wit, a great lyricist and one heck of a piano player. She imbues songs like "David" and "I Wanna Get Married" with a tenderness that the subjects of the songs don't deserve.
Her lyrical wit is often biting and satirical, as exemplified in "Sari", her rap track, where she throws complicated verbal fits over a beautiful bed of music. Sample lyric :
Nellie McKay is a firebrand : a true musical revolutionary that takes the piss out of weaker souls like Nora Jones (who she lampoons quite well on several tracks, including the laconic "I Wanna Get Married", where she proclaims that getting hitched is "...why I was born.")
I may listen to Enya's greatest hits
And try to control my hissy fits with pride
Won't get my hair dyed
But oh the onus of lyin' all the time
I don't wanna say, "diiiie motherfucker!"
But I wouldn't mind if you did
Sometimes even the nice girl's ego has to override the id
And so before I flip my lid my crib
And get myself out of this bind
You can hear what's on my lips but you don't know
What's in my mind (pizza!)
She managed to get her record label to put out a 2-disc set for her first album (and to piss off the PMRC enough to get an EXPLICIT LYRICS sticker). At 21, she was the first Sony artist to get signed and then request absurd things, like getting Beatles producer George Martin for her first album, just to see if they would give them to her. They did, but the follow-up, "Pretty Little Head" was a critical darling, but a sales bomb. Sony dumped her after that and she found herself a nice new label, Vanguard to release her latest album "Obligatory Villagers."
But this first peek at an emerging artist is truly amazing : not only for what the label did for her or how George Martin fleshed out the sound, but for the fact that the songs are fantastic, beautiful, hilarious and sad all at the same time. It's for this reason and many others, that "Get Away From Me!" gets listed as a Desert Island Record.
Slug & Murs - Felt 2 : Tribute To Lisa Bonet, 2005 - Rhymesayers
Slug and Murs are back with this awesomely XXX rated album produced by the other half of the brain child underground phenom Atmosphere, Ant. In this latest collaboration from the Rhymesayers artists, they take on another young Hollywood B list actress that they both long to penetrate. You may remember Lisa Bonet as the younger of the Cosby children. She was smart, sweet, and oh so adorable on that timeless sitcom. Then she grew up and wound up with Prince and found her way into the movie High Fidelity opposite the top 5 king John Cusack while singing..."Peter fucking Frampton". Here are my five all time top 5 reasons why you need this album when stuck on a desert island....
5. It is all about indie hip-hop artists trying to score poon from this B-list celebrity.
4. It has nothing to do with John Cusack.
3. Uses lines like "...and when I'm on the mic, the women cum..." in the rhymes.
2. It's romantic, in that kinky back room sort of way.
1. "...Your girlfriend's got her panties off, once again, want in all that nasty shit that I done to her friend..." Classy and classic.
The highly erotic follow up to A Tribute to Christina Ricci is filled with some of the slickest rhymes about the short term, friends-with-benefits world of sex and relationships. Not at all meant to be degrading towards women, this album is about the pursuit of the woman and how these two artists look to fulfill not only their deepest desires but make sure she enjoys every second of it as well. From courtship to courthouse this album will explore the inner most workings of life on tour and the many flavors of women these two friends seem to find themselves knee deep in. I have to say I'm both jealous and rooting for them at the same time.
Just think, you, that girl you've always dreamed of from the mail room, on that island and this album, put on "Woman tonight" after a couple of drinks and her coconuts will be liberated and bikini bottoms lost at sea guaranteed. Nothing says sexy more than what this album has to say. Move over Justin Timberlake, there are two more pimps in town bringing sexy back in a whole new way.
So grab this album, grab that hot girl in the record store with the slightly pouting lips and make her smile back at your pad.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
At The Drive In - Relationship of Command, 2000 - Grand Royal
Delivered as a sucker punch at the tail end of their career, "Relationship of Command" demands respect through force and delivers delicious proggy post-hardcore rock in heavy doses.
At The Drive-In's final album proves what Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" did decades earlier : that artistic creativity flourishes under stressful personal situations. At this point in ATDI's career, they had enjoyed moderate success due to their previous album "In/Casino/Out", which had scored them major points with indie kids who love ATDI's Fugazi-meets-metal-meets-Grade style. So, "Relationship of Command" had put the band in a lot of pressure : They were working with Ross Robinson, legendary producer and even featured Iggy Pop on background vocals, but their label, Beastie Boys' Grand Royal, which had bankrolled these expensive measures, was expecting miracles.
Everyone was straining to go different directions and it shows. Lead singer Cedric and lead guitar weilder Omar were preparing to destroy our minds with their deadly prog-rock assault of The Mars Volta, while Tony Hajjar (drums) and Paul Himojos (bass) were ready to take over the world with AOR-ready arena rock of Sparta. These two conflicting forces enable songs like "Sleepwalk Capsules" to bristle with untamed tension.
The album begins with "Arcarsenal" a song full of menace, built on a pulsing drumbeat which swells and sweeps and gathers momentum until Omar lets a guitar line coalesce out of the ether to punch holes in your head. The album fluctuates between the stop-start-stop-again dynamics of "One Armed Scissor" (which enjoyed modest radio play) and the bizarre fragmented rock of songs like "Enfilade".
The power of the music of At The Drive In is hard to explain to the uninitiated : guitars swell and squeal like roaring thunder punctuated by lightning bolts, drums seem pounded into oblivion in odd time signatures, somehow matching up, bass lines fuzz up so hard they almost are indistinguishable, the vocal lines are always in flux between whispered confessions ("Non Zero Possibility") and hoarse-throated screams ("Mannequin Republic."), the lyrics are poetic, dense and almost impenetrable, save for the choruses. For example, I may not know what he means when he says "Hypodermic people poking fun at the loving" in "Pattern Against User", but when he screams "Cut away! Cut away!" during the chorus of "One Armed Scissor", there's no mistaking what he really means.
For fans of music that satisfies the need to rock as well as the need to think, At The Drive-In are the go-to group. Though their previous albums had all been good, there's a certain quality about "Relationship of Command" that stands high above the others. Even though it is their most heavily-produced album yet, it still remains raw, like a wound that festers but won't ever heal. The rift between the band members and the pressures of recording show through in a testament to the statement that anger is a gift.
It is for this cathartic quality, and for the document of the final days of one of the better rock bands at the time, that "Relationship of Command" is a Desert Island Record.
Prince and The Revolution - Purple Rain, 1984 - Warner Brothers
There are some albums which are obvious shoe-ins for inclusion in this blog. "Purple Rain" is one of them. It is a legend, a box office smash, a hit factory, a cultural touchstone, a lyrical bombshell and a visceral portrait of a genius-in-the-making.
People assume that Prince was operating at his usual one-man-band status and writing everything himself. In fact, "Purple Rain" is one of the few times that Mr. Nelson's backing band, The Revolution as they were called then, gets their name on the record cover. There's good reason for this : the album is full of live-band performances that seem as tight as Prince's pants.
As the soundtrack to the film of the same name, "Purple Rain" does a marvelous job of capturing the excitement of the film, even injecting some longer takes of songs that are left hanging in the movie (see the sorrowful ending to "When Doves Cry", with its creepy backmasking).
The album is a blast from start to finish, flagging only in 2 very appropriate places. The killer jam to end all killer jams, "Let's Go Crazy" bursts forth (after the often-imitated Gospel opening) with no restraint, Prince's raw guitar grinding out the deadly riff and The Revolution rocking their Minnesota brains out. The only difference between the version here and in the film, oddly enough, is that the album version cuts the vamping done onstage by Prince and the gang, which extended it to a rock workout of James Brown-ian proportions.
Fluttering synths and crashing drums beguile the beginning of "Take Me With U" before it transforms into a wonderful pop duet with Apollonia. This song holds a special place in my heart because it is the textbook definition of love : "I don't care where we go, I don't care what we do. I don't care pretty baby, just take me with you"
"The Beautiful Ones" is a shuddering piano-driven slow groove, which rides along on its own weird energy, right up until the scream-therapy ending with Prince in full hysteria delivering "I want you!" more effectively than even Elvis Costello could. Having been reduced to an angsty, blustery mess, Prince then opens up his Weird Box and finds a new toy...
What can be said about "Computer Blue"? The song is a trainwreck. It makes no sense whatsoever, including Wendy & Lisa's only vocal moment on the record ("Is the water warm enough?" "Yes, Lisa"). The lyrics read like dream poetry and the music doesn't seem to match the mood. And yet, it is one of the best songs on the whole damned album. The musical interlude here is one of the better arrangements on this half of the record.
Listening now to "Darling Nikki" doesn't quite do it justice. You have to see it in the context of the film : Apollonia just starting singing for Morris Day's girl-band (singing the god-awful "Sex Shooter"). Prince feels betrayed, so he writes a song about a whore that he fucked just to mess with her head, because he knows when she sees him perform she'll feel the same thing. She comes to see him perform, he performs "Darling Nikki", complete with air-humping, she storms out. The backlash that Prince got over the lyrics to this song was unfortunate, because it's offensive for a reason. The sexy grind of the music really hit home the sexy vibe of the lyrics and because of that, this song screams sex sex sex. Delicious.
Then, the movie meanders and we're left without a song for awhile. Thankfully, the album is just heating up. We're hit with monster hit after monster hit, each song better than the last : "When Doves Cry", whose intro proves Prince a better guitar player than 99% of the world, and "I Would Die 4 U", quite possibly the sweetest song about dying for someone this side of The Smiths.
Then they switch it up on us. The order of the songs in the film goes "Purple Rain" then "Baby I'm A Star", which makes sense, because everyone sees what talent he has and everyone's a fan of his by the end of the film. But the album gets the thematic sweet spot even more correct. By following "Baby I'm A Star" with "Purple Rain", you get two things for the price of one : You get to end the album on a monster mega-hit and you get to extend the song to the full 11 minutes. No one, and I mean no one, will sit through an 11-minute song to hear "Baby I'm A Star." In an album full of hits, "Baby I'm A Star" is a rare misfire. But when we're talking Prince, even the misfires sound pretty damned good.
"Purple Rain" (the song) is one of the best pop songs ever written. Here's why : the song is dischordant. The guitar is not playing what the piano plays and vice versa. This is usually not good. Usually what happens when people do this is sonic chaos. And yet, the song is both so well written and so damned good that it defies this musical "law". Few, if any, songs have done that.
Overall, "Purple Rain" stands tall in the larger list of classic Prince albums. Not only is it cohesive, thoughtful and creative, but it's fun, crazy and loud. This album is, by far, my number one Desert Island Record.
Cornershop - When I Was Born For the 7th Time, 1997 - Warner Brothers
How do you define an album that so succinctly defies any such consolidation? Do you call it Bollywood? Pop? Funk? World Music? Hip-Hop, even? No matter how you define it, "When I Was Born For The 7th Time" brings all those things together in a richly satisfying musical stew.
But what's in the mix? Strings from Ravi Shankar, beats from Big Beat, the theme from "Leave It To Beaver", a guest spot rapper, a Beatles cover (in Hindi, no less), a soulful country ballad (featuring another awesome guest spot), a tribute to the "funkee" days, a spoken word song about growing up and two straightforward pop songs, plus many many other ingredients stirred together by the magical Mr. Talvin Singh
The album's big single, and Cornershop's only big hit "Brimful of Asha" came from this record and is part of a two-song pair that starts things off. One could be mislead into thinking that this tune, with its catchy chorus of "Everybody needs a busom for a pillow" and the somber song that precedes it, "Sleep On The Left Side" are an indication of how the rest of the record will be. They would be wrong.
The pop period lasts only so long before the unbelievably funk-filled "Butter The Soul" drops into your earholes, featuring the theme song to "Leave It To Beaver" being demolished on a turntable right before the sitar comes in.
"Chocolat" could be the soundtrack to some secret Bollywood porno, while "We're In Your Corner" starts like a straight Indian pop tune, until Talvin starts name-dropping American products like IBM and "motherfucking Coca Cola."
Funk tribute "Funky Days Are Back Again" with its casiotone production and repetitive lyrical scheme seems like a throw away track, but in this heady mixture of genres and themes it's a welcome reprieve.
"What is Happening?" recalls Public Enemy's Bomb Squad with its cut up samples and righteous indignation, only with a touch more Indian flair.
Spoken word gem "When The Light Appears Boy" has a build-up/come-down that can't really be expressed.
The turntables get another workout in "Coming Up" which precedes another jangly pop song called, appropriately enough, "Good Shit."
A country-tinged love song ("Good To Be On The Road Back Home Again") is followed by a slow morphine drip of an instrumental ("It's Indian Tobacco, My Friend").
The remaining tracks showcase a funky beat with a funky rhyme ("Candyman") and a Beatles cover ("Norwegian Wood") where, even though they're singing in Punjab, you still get the message.
Overall, a genre-bending pop album that is all about the joy of music - wherever it's from and whatever form it takes. That is why Cornershop's "When I Was Born For the 7th Time" is a Desert Island Record.