26
Nov
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Forty Seven
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.

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band"”or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."-Kurt Cobain, on the writing of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

If it feels a little bit like the legacy of Kurt Cobain has lingered over the back half of this feature, that's only because his cultural legacy has dominated the last two decades of music. I have said before that Nirvana was probably the most important band of the last twenty years, and I stand by that. But Nirvana didn't create the sound that would become grunge; they just popularized it. No one was more open about their influences than Kurt Cobain, and he probably gave no one more credit for his success than Pixies.

Pixies draw a lot of comparisons to The Velvet Underground, which is about the highest compliment you can pay an American rock band. The group released five albums over a period of four years, and while they never became famous, they were probably about as influential a group as The Velvet Underground. Last time we discussed them in Week Nineteen (where, in hindsight, I was probably just a little too mean to Fleetwood Mac), we looked at their seminal album Doolittle and I discussed my great love for "Here Comes Your Man," which, by typing this sentence, I have now assured I will listen to multiple times while writing the rest of this column. This time around, we're going to look at the rest of Pixies career (excepting their debut mini-LP, Come On, Pilgrim), taking a broader view of a band that produced multiple masterpieces over their very short lifetime. Tab's list actually included Doolittle, but to avoid redundancies (as I have done a few other times over the course of this year) I will only be looking at the group's first album, Surfer Rosa, and their third and fourth albums, Bossanova and their final outing, Trompe le Monde.

The group's full-length debut, Surfer Rosa, was released in 1988 and is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Bold, dark, experimental, and widely influential to the grunge scene, Surfer Rosa has earned every bit of that reputation, standing out as a nearly flawless musical statement, a bold assertion of a brand new sound that is as assured as it is masterfully constructed. Produced by former Big Black front man (and future In Utero producer) Steve Albini, the album was recorded in 10 days using many of Albini's strange techniques to achieve a sound that was almost completely new. For example, the vocals on the album's only single, "Gigantic" were recorded in the studio's bathroom to give Kim Deal's vocals a more echo-y sound. The song is a voyeuristic slice of life about the singer watching an attractive African American man having sex with another woman. "Gigantic" has everything the best Pixies songs contain; it's catchy, clever, and has a dark edge lurking just beneath the surface.



"Where Is My Mind?" is probably the most well known song the band ever recorded. Used at the final moments of the film Fight Club, the song has a rousing central riff and an intriguing central question (Though, humorously, Black Francis has said the song is about him scuba diving in the Caribbean, when he was chased by a small fish, which confused him). Doubt me about the reach and influence of Surfer Rosa? Look no further than "Cactus," which has been covered by none other than David Bowie.



By the time the group released their third full length album, Bossanova, Black Francis was exercising near absolute control over the band, writing every song on the album. The group was experimenting with surf and space rock at the time, which comes through in both the sound and lyrical content of the album. Like most great rock bands, Pixies were always more appreciated in the UK than here at home, and they were invited to perform the song "Velouria" on Top of The Pops. Unfortunately, BBC had a rule that only songs with videos could be performed on the show, so the group filmed the cheapest video they could imagine. They filmed themselves running down into a quarry towards the camera. It took them 23 seconds to reach the camera, so they just slowed down the footage to last for the 3:42 runtime of the song. In spite of this incredibly clever (and fairly silly) scheme, the group never got to perform their song on the show.



"Allison" is probably the second best song with that female's name as it's title (the first, of course, being Elvis Costello's "Alison," which you know is #1 because its spelled with only one "˜l.' Logic, people). The song shared a video (in another clever scheme) with "Dig For Fire," which Black Francis wrote as a tribute to Talking Heads. On the whole, Bossanova is a strong sonic experiment, a slight difference from the band's earlier work that plays out famously.





After their dalliance with surf pop and space rock, the band went back to its sonic roots for what would prove to be their final album, Tromp le Monde. "Alec Eiffel," was written about the titular tower's architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, but also as a reference to the term "smart Alec," which Francis commented means the exact opposite thing in Australia as it means in America and Britain. "Head On" is a cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain song off their album Automatic, recorded as a tribute by Francis to one of his own influences.



"U-Mass" is a scathing putdown of the University of Massachusetts, where Black Francis and Joey Santiago first met (and where they both eventually dropped out), the main riff of which was composed while Francis was still matriculating.



Pixies broke up two years after the release of the album, after an uncomfortable tour opening for U2 and rising tensions among the group members. Each member went on to perform in other projects, with Kim Deal returning to The Breeders, Black Francis renaming himself Frank Black and releasing a string of solo albums. The group re-formed in 2004 to do a reunion tour, and has played together many times since, though Kim Deal has showed reluctance to record a new album. Pixies stand as one of the best, and most important, bands of the modern era. They can stand shoulder to shoulder with giants and not falter for the comparison. Rare is the band that can be mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana and The Velvet Underground in all seriousness. Pixies is one of the few, a band that is every bit as good as their reputation, and one that only gets better the more I listen to them.



I'm showing a lot of restraint this week. You guys should know that. The National is one of my favorite current bands, and Boxer one of my favorite albums. I could very easily be doing another one of my "track-by-track" analyses you all loved so much when I looked at The Velvet Underground & Nico, Arcade Fire's Funeral, and Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, but I promised long ago I would only do three of those over the course of this column, one for an album off of each contributor's list. So instead, I'll just say that if you haven't heard it, you should go listen to it right now. Then, you should listen to it several more times, to let it sink into your skin. Boxer is a grower, but trust me, it's worth it.

"Fake Empire," one of my favorite songs at the moment, is a study in near perfect simplicity, which manages to evolve with startling complexity and fluidity over its 3:25 runtime. The song, written in a "four over three" style fairly unique in rock music begins as a quiet, meditative, moving piano song and then gradually picks up in speed, power, and tempo, ending in a horn fanfare that manages to take the song to a more complex place without ever leaving behind its stark, gorgeous simplicity. In short, this is a great piece of music.



"Mistaken For Strangers" is a song that fits in nearly perfectly with the band's thematic aesthetic, telling a story about ironic detachment and its tendency to bleed gradually into actual detachment, leaving you alone even in a group of friends. If much of The National's work is about the perils of modernity (and I'm saying it is, so it must be, right?), "Mistaken For Strangers" must take a central role in that discussion. Another near-perfect song about a similar problem is "Slow Show" (which I seriously consider as a potential wedding song every time I hear it, even though I'd prefer not to have a line about "my dick" played at my wedding if at all possible). The song, which I obviously connect to on a very personal level, is, to my ears at least, about the experience of being at a party and feeling detached from your situation, wishing that instead of being forced to socialize with people you don't care about, you could just be at home with the person you love, having a good time and not worrying about all of the shit that can overwhelm even the best intentions in the real world. This is a song about letting the world melt away and just letting yourself be comfortable and honest, even though the idea of that is perhaps the scariest thing there is. Matt Berninger may lift the moving sonic coda "you know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you, I missed you for 29 years" from a much less developed song on the group's self-titled debut, but it feels right at home at the end of a song about finally finding yourself in exactly the place you want to be, even if that prospect terrifies you.





"Apartment Story" continues this idea, acting as a spiritual sequel to "Slow Show." It's a song about two people locking themselves away from the world. "We'll stay inside "˜til somebody finds us," Berninger croons, and if you're anything like me, the idea is a very appealing one.



I could easily write about every track on this album. I could discuss at length how the album's title, Boxer adds to the "one man against the world" narrative and gives the whole album a sense of hopeless nostalgia that lingers over every track. I could tell you why each of these tracks is meaningful, why I love them all, and why I listen to this album on a regular basis nearly all of the time because of how deeply it affects me. I'm not going to do that though (at least not any more than I already have). Instead, I'll let you all discover its intricacies, its subtle beauties and moving moments on your own. I'll just leave you with "Gospel," the album's final track. A song with the title "Gospel" must mean something, must define what The National has been trying to communicate over the course of the album, at least to my mind. And we return, yet again, to the idea of finding someone who you can just relax with and letting that person help you face the world, of finding someone to stand behind you when you get in that ring to fight another losing battle with the outside world. The gospel of The National is one of personal connection overcoming the isolating effects of modern life. If there's a more romantic sentiment than, "Let me come over, I can waste your time, I'm bored," it doesn't come to me too easy. And so an album about isolation, detachment, and the flaws of modernity closes with that last, parting message: that letting someone into your life will make all of the things you hate a little easier to take, will keep the demons of the outside world at bay and will let you find some peace at the end of the day.



Massive Attack are a trip hop duo from Bristol who have the unfortunate distinction of being included in a week with such heavy hitters as Pixies and The National. Yet the duo, Robert "3D" Del Naja and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall manage to hold their own incredibly well considering the competition. Progenitors of the trip hop genre, they released their third album, and Ashley's pick this week, Mezzanine in 1998.

Part of this might be Massive Attack's excellent taste in samples. "Risingson," for example, samples The Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason" (that group sure is getting a lot of play this week), in a way that is not grating like most sampling. As a rule, I find sampling supremely distracting. If a group samples a song I really like, I spend most of their song wishing I was listening to the other song I like. "Risingson," gets around that problem though, using the sample to accent a song that is fully developed and well realized even without the added touch. Like a great cover, the song distances itself from the sample by showing its ability to stand on its own two feet.



"Teardrop," which contains vocals by Elizabeth Frazer of Cocteau Twins, is likely most well known as the theme song of House. It was written by Massive Attack, with lyrics by Fraser (who wrote them after learning of the drowning of her friend, and Review to Be Named approved "Hallelujah" ccover artist Jeff Buckly). The song builds slowly and movingly, with Fraser's delicate, ethereal vocals matching perfectly with the song's melody.



"Man Next Door" is fascinating in that it is both a cover and a sample-heavy song, yet feels at its core like something entirely new. The song covers the John Holt penned song by The Paragons, also sampling "10:15 Saturday Night" by The Cure and "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin. The song is almost entirely unoriginal, if you consider the source material, yet that couldn't be a more inaccurate descriptive word. "Man Next Door" is imbued with new emotions, and a cool, dark electronic sound by Massive Attack that the original version lacked, and the samples again act as subtle accents more than grating distractions. It's no wonder that Massive Attack was at the center of the formation of trip hop. A band this unique, centered, and willing to experiment was bound to be the beginning of something.



This week gave us three great groups, each working at the top of their game and providing a thematic and sonic center to hang their excellent albums around. Pixies were instrumental to the creation of grunge as a genre, served as an inspiration to titans like Kurt Cobain and David Bowie, and managed to change the face of music without ever gaining mass success. The National created an album that asks deep questions, and offers up some answers along with its stellar musical constructions. And Massive Attack were there at the inception of trip hop, introducing a genre that was simultaneously influenced by the past and willing to let go of ties to move forward into the future. Each of these bands made their mark, and each of these albums has a well deserved legacy of excellence. As we enter the final five weeks of this, my year in lists, I'm doing my best not to take for granted all of the musical masterpieces I have come into contact with along the way. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer glut of music I have heard this year, but when albums as good as these come along, its hard not to take a moment, step back, and marvel at the music.

Read more My Year in Lists here


Next week on My Year in Lists:

We'll follow White Stains to The Somewhat Lost Horizon, let Elliott Smith show us affection with XO, and listen along with LCD Soundsystem to the Sound of Silver.
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