24
Mar
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Twelve
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"With Rain Dogs [Waits] dropped his bedraggled lounge-piano act and fused outside influences"”socialist decadence by way of Kurt Weill, pre-rock integrity from old dirty blues, the elegiac melancholy of New Orleans funeral brass"”into a singularly idiosyncratic American style."-Rolling Stone

"Play it like a midget's bar mitzvah."-Tom Waits, to guitarist Marc Ribbon

"What a long, strange trip it's been."-The Grateful Dead, "Truckin'"

The Warlocks formed in 1965 after the splintering of a Palo Alto, California based jug band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. They played their unheralded first show in Menlo Park on May 5, 1965. A few people were there, but no one, the band included, remembers what they played that day. As The Warlocks got their quiet start in northern California, 3,000 miles away, another band calling themselves The Warlocks was getting their start in a high school auditorium in New Jersey. Maybe it was the magic of the name, but more likely it was the magic of the music. Because the names didn't stick, you see. The east coast band would soon become The Velvet Underground . The west coast incarnation changed their name too, and debuted in San Jose, California on December 4, 1965 at one of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests with their new name: The Grateful Dead.

I've talked before in this column about our tendency to mythologize musicians and about how music can become a personal journey for the listener (that, in fact, is probably the none too subtle theme of pretty much every installment of My Year in Lists), but we haven't yet really explored the idea of music as a journey for the musician. Perhaps that's because it's so obvious a point to make, but if I've learned anything from higher education, it's that sometimes the obvious has to be said (and sometimes it has to be said for 20 pages, but I won't subject you, dear readers, to anything that tedious). Music is an intensely personal medium, and when we connect to a particular album or artist, it can feel like they are making music just for us. It can feel like they are singing the songs of our souls.

But they aren't. Sorry to burst your bubbles, kids, but unless you are the personal muse of some rock demigod (and if so, you should totally let me know about that), the music your favorite band is making is not about you, at least not explicitly. When I say music is a personal medium, I do mean that everyone takes their favorite music very personally, but more importantly, I mean that like all great art, music is a form of personal expression for the artist. If you happen to deeply connect with a band or a piece of music, that's great, and that means the artist has done their job of expressing themselves in a relatable way. Yet while from a commercial standpoint connecting with a large audience is the point of making music, from an artistic standpoint it's just one of the perks. The real purpose of music is to communicate feelings, ideas, worldviews, or experiences, to allow the artist to take what they're thinking, seeing, and feeling, and transform it into a piece of art. And if people understand and connect to that, all the better.

Over the course of most artist's careers, there will be an evolution (or in some cases a devolution)in the way that they express themselves, and probably in the way that they think about and experience the world. For any person or band who makes music for years or even decades, there are bound to be changes in style, substance, and sonic construction. In this way (and in many others) music is a journey for the people making it far more than it is for those listening to it. Band's put their lives into the creation of music, and the journey that takes them on can often become their life.

That was certainly the case for the first members of The Grateful Dead, banjo and guitar player (and later ice cream flavor inspirer) Jerry Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir, organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, classically trained bassist Phil Lesh, and drummer Bill Kreutzman. This core lineup (with the exception of McKernan) would stay with the band until the end, when Garcia died in 1995. For thousands of fans (called Dead Heads, for those not in the know), this band documented the journey of their lives (don't believe me? Just Wikipedia any song by The Grateful Dead and see that the page tells you how many times the band played that song in concert over the course of their career), but over its three decades together, The Grateful Dead went on a personal journey. The band's fans were welcome to come along, but they shouldn't forget whose journey they were on.

The band released their self-titled debut in 1967. Three years later they released their fifth album, and Collin's pick this week, American Beauty. The band began recording the album in August of 1970, just months after the completion of Workingman's Dead. Following in the footsteps of that album, American Beauty is an innovative mix of bluegrass, rock, folk, and country that comes across as wholly original.

The opening track "Box of Rain," was written by Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter and sung by Lesh, the first Grateful Dead song that featured him as lead vocalist. The music was written by Lesh because he wanted a song to sing to his dying father. Hunter claims the lyrics basically wrote themselves when he heard the song, which Lesh would practice singing as he drove to visit his father, who had terminal cancer. "Box of Rain" would be the last song the band ever performed live, the final encore at a concert in Chicago on July 9, 1995, shortly before Jerry Garcia's death.



"Friend of the Devil" is an insanely catchy folk song about a criminal on the run from the police who gets a little help from Satan in his escape, only to find himself trailed by both Satan and the law as he flees home. This remains the band's most covered song, and Hunter once commented, "that was the closest we've come to what may be a classic song."



"Ripple" has more of a country feel to it, and quotes multiple times from the 23rd Psalm of the Bible (which somehow didn't quell the anger of offended Christian groups who claimed for years after that the band was in league with Satan due in large part to "Friend of the Devil"). It was released as a B-side to the album's single "Truckin'" which was recognized by the Library of Congress in 1997 as a national treasure. Written by Garcia, Weir, Lesh and lyricist Hunter, "Truckin'" is an apex of the Dead's rhythms and instrumentations with lyrics referencing a raid in the French Quarter of New Orleans that resulted in the arrest of 19 people for drug possession, including the band. Their concert the next night was performed after the band posted bail. All charges were later dropped, except those against sound engineer Owsley Stanley, who was already charged with LSD production in California. The band uses their own troubles here as a metaphor for the constant changes and unpredictable nature of life.





While The Grateful Dead were forming bonds to last a lifetime in America, German band Kraftwerk were having some unity problems. Members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother split from the band in 1971, leaving to form their own band, NEU! in Düsselfdorf. NEU! was not commercially successful during its existence, but is retrospectively recognized as o ne of the founding fathers of krautrock (which would make a very interesting, if dissonant, Ken Burns special).

Their eponymous debut album was recorded in Hamburg, Germany in December of 1971. The opening track "Hallogallo" (a play on the German term for "wild partying" and the german word for "hello") debuts Dinger's motorik beat, a 4/4 drumbeat with only occasional interruptions. The album is filled with experimental electronic, with interludes that involve heavy tones of ambience.



"Sonderagebot" focuses more on ambience and brief interludes of noise, while "Weissensee" is more conventionally melodic. On first listen, NEU! didn't do much for me sonically, but over the course of the week I came to identify with a lot of the subtle beats and intonations throughout its run. The album mixes early ideas of electronic music with ambience in a fusion that creates a more tangible feeling than some of the ambient music we have encountered so far (I'm looking at you, La Monte Young).





Still, it's hard not to see their follow up, NEU! 2 (sadly not subtitled "The Squeakquel") as sonically superior. Recorded in January of 1973 in Hamburg, the album feels like an improvement over its predecessor in virtually every way. The opening track, "Für Immer" can be translated as "Forever," yet unlike some of the 11 minute tracks Tab has presented me with so far this year, it doesn't seem to last that long. Instead, it has a constant propulsive energy combining the Motorik sound of Dinger's drums and layered guitars by Rother into a droning (in the best sense) harmonic structure.



"Spitzenqualitat" also drifts away (slightly) from the electronic base of the band for a more traditional rock feel, bringing Dinger's drumming to the forefront and leaving the electronic experimentations as complementary background noise. "Lila Engel" is a track ahead of its time, and would have be listed among the band's most influential songs. Adding a vocal component to the music, it sounds very much like what we've already encountered from the late "˜70s, be it Joy Division or early Talking Heads. The track is more traditionally melodic than most of the rest of the band's work, and in taking that step, the band managed a prescient sound that wouldn't really be replicated for several years.





The band ran into financial trouble and had no money left to record the second side of their album, so they tried a risky venture that was critically decried at the time, yet would become one of the band's most influential contributions to the music industry. They simply took their previously released single "Neuschnee/Super," manipulated it at various playback speeds and created the now ubiquitous "remix" that today accompanies pretty much any pop single's release. I am not, as a rule, a huge fan of remixes (they tend to feel redundant to me) but much of the album's second side works and all of it certainly fits within the experimental aesthetic of the band. Of the bunch, "Neuschnee 78" and "Super 78" with their elevated speeds come off the best, though "Neuschnee" sounds almost as good as it's sped up counterpart. "Cassetto," which was the remix mangled in a cassette recorder works better as an idea than as a song, but even at its roughest, the halting repetitive track is almost hypnotic. NEU! went out on a limb due pretty much solely to financial straits and came away with a qualified success, a very strong album that has influenced numerous bands and the music industry as a whole.









I don't know if the last five weeks we've spent analyzing krautrock have brainwashed me a bit or if NEU! is a band I will return to often in the months to come, but both albums are inventive, interesting, and immensely listenable once you land on the band's sound wave. NEU! had a significant influence on David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, PiL, Joy Division, Gary Numan, Simpleminds, Radiohead, and much of the genre of electronic music, and in the process certainly changed my mind about (at least some) electronic and ambient music.

One aspect of mainstream music (and in fact, the aspect that makes it mainstream music) is its accessibility, yet this is not always the case with "alternative" music. In fact, the reason the label was created in the first place is because of the music's tendency to be a few steps outside the mainstream. Such is the case with Tom Waits, whose voice is often the first barrier to people who hear his music. Critic Daniel Durchholz describes it as sounding, "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in a smoke house for a few months, then taken outside and run over with a car." Waits is known for incorporating blues, jazz, and vaudeville styles into his music and occasionally lapses into experimental music verging on industrial.

Waits started singing and writing music at the age of 16 in 1965, but we will be examining him well into his career, after he had found his footing and turned out a string of phenomenal albums. In 1980, Waits married screenwriter Kathleen Brennan, who has often co-written with him subsequently and who he cites as the major influence on all his subsequent work. She introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart, who also became a huge influence on Waits' work after 1980.

By the mid-1980's, Waits was shifting away from the traditional piano-and-strings ballads of his "˜70s work and towards styles usually ignored in pop music, like primal blues, cabaret stylings, rumbas, theatrical flourishes, tango, early country, folk and Tin Pan Alley-era songs. By the time he reached 1985 and released Ashley's pick this week, Rain Dogs, he was experimenting widely without ever stretching too far and becoming unlistenable.

A loose concept album about "the urban dispossessed" or New York City, Rain Dogs is the middle installment of Waits' trilogy of masterpieces, between 1983's Swordfishtrombones and 1987's Franks Wild Years. The sonic narrative of Rain Dogs is equivalent to the perfect whiskey bender: beginning in a dark and seedy bar with black intent and shadows permeating your soul, and traveling down the spiral from shielded cynicism to wounded romanticism like all the best bender's do. The opening tracks have the feel of a back alley carnival from Hell on a dark night, but by the album's close, the sun has started to rise and hope has just barely begun to permeate the sorrow.

"Singapore," the album's opening track is a pitch-black sailor's journey that literally sounds like a weary man of the sea scouring the bar to put together a ragtag crew for a very dark and spooky journey he prepares to embark on. "Cemetary Polka" doesn't lighten up the sound a bit, and is a story about war profiteering by some very shady characters, with enough accordion to sound like a street bazaar from Hell.





"Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore" are songs you might hear in a dimly lit club of just the right sort at 2 am. Darkly melodic and passionately propulsive, the first is another of Waits' dark stories about death, murder, and the devil's work, while the second is a song about the redemptive power of the tango to a crowd of people who may not deserve the benediction they gain.





"Hang Down Your Head," the only song on the album not solely written by Waits (he co-wrote it with Kathleen Brennan) is the turning point of the album, a more upbeat, if still sorrowful request for another chance based off the old song "Tom Dooley" with lyrics altered but melody remaining consistent. "Time" feels like the type of song Waits was singing in the "˜70s, a quiet ballad that foretells the different direction the album will take on its second side.





As a rule, side two is (slightly) less dark in its subject matter, as if the night is slowly melting away and hope begins to poke through the darkness, though sorrow remains at the heart of the music. The title track opens side two with a lighter, more accessible look at Waits' nightmarish storyteller side, with the pitch-black sensibility intact but the melody allowing for a but more playfulness than the opening tracks of the album suggested.



Waits has remarked that "Blind Love" is one of his first country songs, a simple ballad positing that the "only kind of love is blind love." Waits is never better than when he sounds like a wounded romantic trying to work through his emotional scars and find a way back to happiness, as he does here. If this is what country is supposed to sound like, I may have to give the genre another try. "Walking Spanish" is pure fun, a catchy jazz beat that finds Waits talk-singing over a standard jazz improvisation.





"Downtown Train" has become one of his most well known songs, mostly due to the hit cover by Rod Stewart. It's a simple love song, a plea for the chance to take the titular train to see a beloved late at night. The album closes with "Anywhere I lay My Head," giving off the feeling that the protagonist has finally found peace. The song, and the album, end with a riff on New Orleans style funeral brass; things must end, but maybe there can be a joy even in that.





Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 14, 2011, accepting the award by saying, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with"¦like it's a bad thing." He has also announced that he has begun work on his next studio album. Waits may have made it to the Hall of Fame, but for him that's just one more stop on his journey.

Music can move us all, whether we serve as the guides or get taken along on the ride of our lives. Music is a form of expression and a form of understanding. Music is simultaneously the soundtrack to our lives and the journey itself that each of us is on, heading ever forward into uncertain territory with only our past as a guide.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Led Zeppelin can count to IV, I get to retire my umlaut as we return to the United States to Meet The Residents and let them ask us Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? and we hear some bad news when The Smiths tell us The Queen is Dead.

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