Monday, January 23, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #99 - Neil Young - After the Gold Rush (1970)

I'm relatively new to the world of Neil Young. After hearing Cowgirl in the Sand on the radio a few years ago, I purchased the predecessor to After the Gold Rush, 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and I enjoy that record thoroughly. After the Gold Rush is my second Young acquisition, and the first thing I'm struck by is the change in mood as the decade rolled over from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is not without its dark moments, but there's a hopeful energy, and even playfulness to songs like Cinnamon Girl. On After the Gold Rush, Young seems to have matured, and in doing so, become considerably gloomier. The lyrics here deal with environmental catastrophe, loneliness, and racism. The instrumentation is sparse, and Young's voice is high and plaintive throughout. The whole thing is a little bit of a downer, which is not to say that it's not great.

One of things I appreciate in an album is the ability to hang together as a unified artistic statement, not just a collection of songs. The seventies were a particularly fertile time for this, the concept of "album rock" having been pioneered just a few years earlier by a combination of the Beatles, whose Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to write a record with no filler, and the Beach Boys, whose resulting Pet Sounds spurred Paul McCartney to create Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. After the Gold Rush succeeds mightily in this department, sounding completely unified, even as the major songs are divided by short fragments like Till the Morning Comes and Cripple Creek Ferry, this last being an oddly bright and carefree conclusion to an otherwise dark record.

Speaking of Brian Wilson, the waltz-time Only Love Can Break Your Heart is something that would not have been out of place on a late period Beach Boys album, with its simple charm and 3/4 time melody, a rarity for rock albums, even ones as folk-influenced as this one. It's not the only song on the record to employ waltz time, either. In the album's lone cover version, Oh, Lonesome Me is perhaps best known for Johnny Cash's performance, a typical mid-tempo lament backed by the ubiquitous chugga-chugga-chugga of Cash's guitar. Young transforms the song and makes it his own in a way that only the very best covers succeed in doing (think Jimi Hendrix's definitive recording of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower). Young slows the tempo way down and takes the rhythm from 4/4 to 3/4. He also sings it like he means it. He really sounds lonesome.  If you didn't know better, you'd never guess that he didn't write the thing.

Mention must be made of the title track, which feels like an epic even though it's less than four minutes long. It's classic Neil Young, composed of a haunting melody, cryptic lyrics, and a painfully tender vocal performance. The song is played entirely on piano, with the exception of a flugelhorn solo midway through. Why flugelhorn? Why not a more conventional choice, like saxophone, guitar, or even a string section? I don't know what inspired him to make this decision, but inspired it is. The horn sounds lonely and just foreign enough to perfectly capture the emotion of the song in a way that other choices wouldn't. It's little touches like that that make the album so interesting.

The other standout track I'd like to mention is Southern Man, the only track on the album that could be fairly described as "rocking". Lyrically, it's a diatribe about racism in the American South that inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to reply with an affectionate defense of their homeland, Sweet Home Alabama. Good for you, Lynyrd Skynyrd! Musically, I have to admit that I enjoy it more than anything else here. Young is an underrated guitarist who manages to extract a great amount of feeling from very simply solos, and this is really the only chance you get on the record to hear that aspect of his musicianship. I would have liked to hear more.

Neil Young may not be my favorite artist on this list, but I can certainly appreciate a well-crafted record when I hear one, and After the Gold Rush delivers, both in terms of songwriting, production, and performance. I will revisit Young later in this project when it's time to review On the Beach (which I have not heard yet). It will be interesting to see how it compares.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #100 - Brian Eno - Before and After Science (1977)

It's been a long time since I've made use of this excellent blog I started all those years ago, but recently I decided to undertake a project worthy of its resurrection. In my continuing quest for new and interesting music, I always fear that I am missing out on the classics, and so I have decided to listen to all of Pitchfork Magazine's Top 100 Albums of the 1970s (Pitchfork being more in line with my sensibilities than other similar compilers of lists and the 1970s being objectively the best decade of music) in order, at he rate of approximately one a week.

Many of these albums I already know and love. Others will be brand new to me. I intend to approach all of them with fresh ears (as fresh as I can manage anyway) and post the resulting experiences here. Are you ready? Okay, here we go.

I should start right off by confessing that I am a confirmed Brian Eno addict. Dozens of albums in my collection bear his fingerprints in one way or another, and most of the rest are only a stone's throw away from his influence. The Kevin Bacon of the music world, playing Six Degrees of Brian Eno would be fun if it weren't so easy.

Before and After Science is subtitled "Ten Pictures," which is understated, elegant, and totally accurate. It has always been my favorite of his classic vocal period since the first time I heard it. Not as energetic as Here Come the Warm Jets, not as revolutionary as Another Green World, but in my view the most perfectly constructed artistic statement of Eno's career.

As always, Eno has surrounded himself with supremely talented musicians, but never in obvious ways. Fred Frith and Robert Fripp guest on guitar, Phil Collins and Jaki Liebezeit play drums on a couple of tracks, and the members of Cluster show up for one, but they never hog the spotlight or steal the show. They lurk in the background, making magic with quiet competence. Eno doesn't use "soloists". These guys are just another sound in the mix.

The lyrics are classic absurdist Eno chosen more for their sound than their sense, although they start seeming increasingly meaningful the more you listen to them. "If you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics, you will find that their minds rarely move in a line" makes so much sense, while at the same time being almost impossibly euphonic that it makes me feel like my mind is going.

The album progresses steadily from a sort of nervous energy embodied in tracks like "No One Receiving" and "King's Lead Hat" towards increasingly tranquil waters. By side two, the listener is transported far away to the calm and sleepy lands of bucolic ambience. "By This River", "Julie With...", and "Through Hollow Lands" are gorgeous and serene, yet with a sense of melancholy never too deep under the surface.

Elsewhere, Eno brings his twisted pop sensibilities to the forefront. "Backwater" is infectiously catchy in its simplicity, and Eno's squelchy horn-like synths sound as fresh today as the did forty years ago. "Here He Comes" transforms a simple pop melody into a work of soaring beauty with layer upon layer of chiming guitars, cooing background vocals, and of course the trademark synthesizers.

In fact, one of the things that continues to amaze and impress me about Eno is how he is able to get such unique sounds out of equipment that has been used by countless others in more or less predictable fashion. Nothing on this record sounds like a preset (which sadly cannot be said for some of Eno's more recent work), and indeed, very little here sounds like anything I've heard on any other record.

Perhaps the best example of this is the album's closer "Spider and I", which is close to being my favorite song of all time. It's the simplest track on the record, consisting solo of Eno on vocals and synthesizers with a languid bass guitar contribution by Brian Turrington, but out of that simplicity comes a texture that manages simultaneously to be heartbreaking and triumphant. After a couple of minutes, the distant Arcadian chords are joined by a short lyric, sung by Eno without pretense or apparent effort. "Spider and I sit watching the sky in a world without sound. We knit a web to catch one tiny fly, in our world without sound. We sleep in the morning. We dream of a ship that sails away, a thousand miles away." The second half of this is reprised once, and then the album ends. A world without sound.

Needless to say, if this were my list, Before and After Science would place far higher than #100.