Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #85 - Wire - 154 (1979)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but if that's the case then I would argue that boredom is its father. The genre of post-punk is proof of this. Punk emerged in the mid-1970s as a reaction against the pretense and excessive of progressive rock, but it only took a few years for the best punk bands to get restless with the aggressive simplicity of the genre, and began to experiment. Thus, post-punk was born, and few bands made the transition more rapidly and completely than Wire.

154 is the third and last Wire album before the band broke up. It represents the end of a three year journey that no one would have been able to predict the end of. Stripped down guitar rock has been replaced by cold and icy textures, with once reviled keyboards appearing prominently, wrapped around surprisingly tuneful melodies.

What's most remarkable here is the atmosphere. The dark and gloomy nature of this record sounds like a more intelligent version of Echo and the Bunnymen, as well as a precursor to goth rock (Bauhaus' debut single, Bela Lugosi's Dead, was released the same year, marking the official launch of the genre in many people's minds.)

The songs on 154 are unabashedly experimental. Rather than being build up around basic chord progressions or melodies, many start with little more than an angular chunk of sound, created on guitars or synthesizers, and the rest of the structure emerges around that one piece. For example, The Other Window rests on a bed of trembling guitar flange, with the lyrics delivered spoken word style on top of it. Indirect Enquiries is built on a two-note riff backed by a crunchy, percussive guitar effect.

At times, the band is even willing to abandon conventional song titles, with the first single from the album bafflingly called "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W".  I looked it up; apparently its in Iowa, although you'd never guess it from the cryptic lyrics. The tune is pretty good, though, and one thing I admire about Wire is that they don't sacrifice melody, as so many other bands do, even when they are stretching the genre to its breaking point.

Sometimes these experiments play out in a couple of minutes, and sometimes they are given more space to breathe. A great example of the latter, and the highlight of the album, is the nearly seven minute A Touching Display. Beginning with a clean, Morricone-esque riff, the song soon descends into somber waves of droning guitar distortion, almost abandoning form altogether in favor of raw sound. I don't doubt that this track must have been influential to later drone-metal and post-metal bands like Earth, Sunn O))), or Melvins. It's a thrilling willingness to throw musical convention completely out the window.

It's a shame Wire broke up when they did; given their trajectory over their three albums, there's no telling what would have come next. Just like post-punk contemporaries Joy Division, the band was perhaps cut short before achieving their full potential. Still, 154 remains a remarkable document of an emerging genre, and still somehow sounds fresh today.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #86 - Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)

When I embarked upon this project, I knew that there would be albums on the list I wouldn’t like all that much, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue loomed large as the most likely contender. I’ve never been a fan of soft, female-vocaled adult contemporary music. I prefer something with a little more edge. Still, this whole experience is about broadening my musical horizons, so I tried to approach the record with as open a mind as possible.

On the first listen, it didn’t really do much for me. I found the songs meandering, the lyrics difficult to relate to. “Maybe you have to be a woman to get it,” I thought. Undeterred, I kept listening. You can’t evaluate an album in one hearing. Time would surely reveal hidden depths. But as I repeated the experience again and again, I came to realize something. I don’t just dislike this album; I hate it.

It seems odd to describe an album of stripped down folk-pop as “pretentious”, but that’s exactly what Blue is. In the Pitchfork review, Mitchell is compared to Bob Dylan, but Dylan was always honest (at least after the protest years) even when he was singing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He didn’t put on airs or pretend to be anything that he was not. He just did what he wanted to do. He wasn’t worried about impressing anybody.

The college I went to was attached to a music conservatory, and there were a lot of opera singers around. Everyone hated the opera singers. These were kids who had always been praised for their voices, and remained acutely and constantly aware of the fact that they could sing better than almost everyone else. This led to an intolerable personality of smug superiority. At first I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about Joni Mitchell’s singing, but this is it. She’s like that person who feels the need to insert harmony parts into Happy Birthday when sung at an office birthday party, just to show how clever and talented she is. There’s not a note on Blue that isn’t torturously subjected to vibrato and arbitrary leaps into the high soprano range. Mitchell knows she has a good voice, and by God she’s not going to let you forget it.

A couple of years after Blue, Bruce Springsteen would find fame singing anthems for the working class, kids stuck in dead end jobs in dying, midwestern towns with no futures and no options. When Joni Mitchell runs into trouble, she unhesitatingly jets off to Paris or Spain (I count at least six European countries mentioned in the lyrics), where she can rent a spacious loft apartment decorated with a grand piano and plenty of natural light. There she can pout about being misunderstood while basking in a Bohemian community brimming with praise for her talent and joie de vivre. Must be nice.

There’s no trace of real vulnerability on the album. Every attempt at self-deprecation is undercut by an unsubtle humblebrag (which I think would be a good alternate title for the album). In “River,” ostensibly a song about needing to escape, she doesn’t even make it out of the first verse before gloating “I’m gonna make a lot of money”. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone claiming they feel trapped when a plane trip to Europe or California is within such easy reach.

The only thing I found myself really able to appreciate on the album was Stephen Stills providing a rhythmic anchor to Carey in the form of a lively bass line, preventing that song from drifting off into the aimless navel gazing that dominates the rest of the record. Unfortunately, he disappears after that one track and is not seen again.

I hate to be uncharitable, but I find Blue to be nothing more than the self-satisfied musings of a flakey, “free spirited”, white girl with no real problems except how boring it all is.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #87 - Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure (1973)

The album cover of Roxy Music's second album, apart from being extremely visually striking, gives you a pretty good idea of what the music is going to be like before you even put on the record. On the right, the trashy glamour of a skin-tight vinyl dress, elbow-length gloves, and impractical heels. On the left, the menacing snarl of a barely-restrained panther, shrouded in shadow and backlit by the big city at night. Those competing, yet oddly complimentary, images are both very much present on this remarkable disc.

For Your Pleasure is a sinister and unsettling record, abandoning the brighter elements of the band's debut (which were not that many to begin with) to concentrate on instrumental textures and more contemplative lyrics. Although the album starts out innocuously enough, with a parody of 60s dance crazes, it quickly becomes clear that there's something darker going on here.

Before I get into the songs any further, it's important to acknowledge the band's composition and musicianship, which is a big part of what makes this album so unique. Lead vocalist, frontman, and principal songwriter Brian Ferry has a voice that's like a bizarre cross between Bing Crosby's crooning and David Byrne's yelp. He has the air of a wannabe Romeo who is just too strange and awkward to realize that he will never be believable in the role.

In addition to the usual backing instruments (all played expertly), the band utilizes the talents of Andy McKay on various reed instruments, most notably saxophone and oboe. I don't know too many rock bands that feature oboe, and this combined with his saxophone work adds a weird blend of 50s rock and roll and some sort of foreign otherness that keeps any of the songs from sounding at all normal. Finally, we have Brian Eno   on keyboards and, more importantly, sound manipulations. His brief career with Roxy Music predates any of his more familiar ambient work, but the signature style is already there, and very noticeable.

Eno's influence causes all the sounds on the record to be tweaked, filtered, and processed, making the whole thing sound weird and alien. Even when the basic structure of a song is simple and ordinary, it is this attention to detail that makes it remarkable, and even today there are few producers creating anything that sounds like For Your Pleasure. It's a terribly unique record even 40 years later.

Then there are the songs themselves. I think it's safe to say that Brian Ferry is a deeply strange person, and we are the beneficiaries of his strangeness. Strictly Confidential rides along a haunting oboe melody with vague lyrics about guilt, regret, darkness, and death. The Bogus Man is nearly ten minutes of plodding, paranoid instrumental jamming with occasional lyrics about a stalker.  The album's tour de force is In Every Dream Home A Heartache, which rocks back and forth between a two-phrase melody as it slowly builds to its climax. You're unlikely to ever hear a better love song directed towards a blow-up doll. The lyrics explore perversion driven by boredom, and paint a chilling picture of a wealthy bachelor slowly going mad all alone in a luxurious mansion. The way the song slowly builds tension through repetition is masterly, and it will stay with you for long after the last notes have faded away. The album's closer, the title track, transforms a relatively normal beginning into an end that is almost Musique Concret, which layer upon layer of tape manipulation that becomes so abstract as to be unrecognizable by the end. An entirely fitting conclusion.

For Your Pleasure was to be Eno's last record with Roxy Music, which is a real shame, because the tension between his and Ferry's style really works. It's almost like a surreal Lennon-McCartney in which each brings out the best in the other, despite their wildly different styles. The story I heard is that Ferry became jealous of the attention Eno's eccentric lifestyle was getting from the press and booted him out of the band, but who knows for sure? Both artists would go on to pursue productive careers long after, but For Your Pleasure remains a remarkable document of a moment when competing artistic visions fused together in a way that surpassed either individually.