Friday, August 28, 2009

The Beatles Playlist

this is a fantastic feature. Go to and read the whole thing. Go.

"I Saw Her Standing There" from Please Please Me (1963)

In retrospect, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate opening song for the Beatles' debut album. Beginning with a boisterous count-in from McCartney, "I Saw Her Standing There" in many ways established the musical and thematic template that the Beatles would repeat throughout their first several records. Unapologetically upbeat and youthful, it's a short burst of 1960s pop perfection, just catchy enough to work and exuberantly naïve enough without being laughable.

Its musical blueprint has since become the stuff of Beatles legend: McCartney's energetic, urgent, gotta-have-her-now singing; Lennon's backing vocals and steady rhythm guitar; Harrison's confident lead guitar. Callous Beatles fans can even cut Ringo a break: regardless of his shortcomings as a drummer, the song wouldn't have been complete with anyone else manning the skins. Handclaps added an element of fun to the mix, and still today the song is infectiously punchy and sounds like four young dudes having a blast in a recording studio. In many ways the song defined the band's early style ; though there would of course be variations along the way, in retrospect it contains all the key aspects of what makes the band's "pop" period still sound fresh and relevant today.

The song's characters - the unabashedly romantic male and the flawless object of his affection -- would likewise be oft-repeated throughout the Beatles' early catalog. The narrator is indeed hopelessly smitten: in classic true love fashion, the attraction here is physical, as he doesn't know a single thing about the girl other than "the way she looked was way beyond compare" and that "before too long I fell in love with her." Allegedly written when Lennon and McCartney were still in high school, it's hard not to attribute this open-wondered naïveté to the two musicians' young age.

Lennon reportedly scoffed at some of McCartney's early lyrics - perhaps an early sign of tensions that would later contribute to the band's undoing - but the result was nevertheless a rousing and appropriate introduction to the Beatles and the studio sound they'd perfect throughout the early 1960s. As music fans we tend to mythologize a band's "firsts," and while this is sometimes problematic - if the Beatles had crapped out early as just another also-ran beat band, the song probably wouldn't have the standing it does now - one would be hard-pressed to find a better opening studio statement for the band. Though "I Saw Her Standing There" was relegated as the b-side to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," it's about as perfect an opening track as you'll find, and one that perfectly encapsulates the Beatles' early style.

"Eleanor Rigby" from Revolver (1966)
One of the Beatles' best songs is one on which none of the members played any instruments. "Eleanor Rigby" featured a double string quartet, with McCartney singing lead, Lennon and Harrison providing harmony vocals and Ringo doing Christ knows what (to be fair, the drummer is credited with coming up with at least one key lyric for the song). By now all the clichés about the song's place in the Beatles' legacy have been repeated enough and only need quick mention here: the song continued the band's transition from straightforward pop songs to a more experimental style that began with Rubber Soul and explored themes that were absent from their previous records. It's also notable for being one of the songs whose authorship is in dispute: Lennon claimed that he wrote most of the lyrics, while McCartney and friend Pete Shotton (who is said to be present when the song was written) were willing to credit Lennon with little more than half a line or so.

Those are the types of dry details that have become part of the Beatles' story with the benefit of hindsight; still, they don't do much for conveying how affecting and bleak the song remains. An unflinching tale about the parallels between a lonely church worker whose death goes unnoticed and the priest who conducts her funeral and writes "words of a sermon that no one will hear," the song sounds both as relevant and as out of step with today's mainstream music as it did when it was originally released. Certainly part of the song's emotional impact is due to its mournful string arrangement - unlike anything the band had recorded up to this point, it can still tug at the emotions of even the most callous cynic. While McCartney's vocals drip with a sense of resignation and defeat, what's most stirring is the song's universal sentiments: we can all relate to the isolation that defines these characters' lives and the battles against futility they wage. While most of the Beatles' pre-Rubber Soul songs have aged well and are still enjoyable today, for many fans it's the band's evolution into more complex songs like "Eleanor Rigby" that better defines the Beatles' impact and legacy, even if it did contribute to the group being labeled a "studio band."

Though "Eleanor Rigby" wasn't the first "serious" Beatles song, it was the most explicitly nihilistic. The romantic optimism that defined some of the band's previous songs is a world away here: Eleanor is buried "along with her name," while Father McKenzie does little more than wipe the dirt off his hands as he leaves the woman's funeral. It's a telling gesture in a song that offers no easy answers or even the faintest hints of consolation.

Jurassic Park

your crazy uncle said to go to for the full list.

A frequent complaint about Jurassic Park upon its release in 1993 was that it lacked - snobby critic's complaint here - character development and that it was purely a special effects bonanza. Certainly nearly every single character came ready-made as a sort of assembly line product: the wealthy proprietor whose grandiose vision is matched only by his cluelessness, the eternally optimistic graduate student and her grizzled, cynical teacher and a pair of adorable, ever-irascible and eternally annoying kids who too often manage muck things up. To some extent the Spielberg-directed movie has never quite shaken that stigma. This is understandable as Jurassic Park is in many ways your typical big-budget Hollywood blockbuster: there are countless near-catastrophes and epic moments, individual acts of both selfishness and sacrifice, a soundtrack as epic as John Hammond's park, several awe-inspiring computer-generated effects that dazzle the eyes while the mind takes a siesta and, um, one poor guy facing death by dinosaur while on the crapper.

But dig a little deeper (get it?) and what becomes as striking as any visual is the film's foreboding tone. The characters' follies and flaws are instantly familiar to modern audiences: at least one character's hubris leads to the destruction of what he holds most dear, while Ian Malcom's protests against the "rape of the natural world" are predictably ignored. Far more than just a mesmerizing special effects how-to manual, Jurassic Park contains universal environmental themes that extend beyond the limits of a mainstream film: the devastating results when naive intentions and corporate greed collide, humanity's desire to connect with and understand the past and man's pursuit of technology and how best to use it

Friday, August 21, 2009

1977: Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Blank Generation

go to for the full fantastic Year One list.

Richard Hell's timing was always just a little bit off. Throughout punk's 1970s heyday he found himself on the cusp of something monumental; several times he was long gone by the time these key moments actually occurred. Most famously, his days with Television ended in 1975 after he was either sacked from or quit the band over disagreements with Tom Verlaine. A short while later the band released the landmark Marquee Moon while Hell was attempting a new project after leaving the Heartbreakers in 1976, a doomed collaboration with former New York Dolls Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders from which Hell eventually jumped ship.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that project, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, never managed to emerge from the long shadow cast by Marquee Moon or other key 1977 albums. The band's Blank Generation is still in some ways overlooked when albums from that mythical year are discussed, though it's aged far better than either Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols or the laughably naïve proselytizing and macho posturing of The Clash's self-titled debut. It's far more layered and complex than much of its punk brethren (and if you wanted to argue that it's not even a punk album, I wouldn't disagree), with Robert Quine and Ivan Julian's guitars sounding both abrasive and textured on songs like "New Pleasure" and "Down at the Rock and Roll Club." Of course the musical dexterity of Marquee Moon has by now put to rest the incorrect stereotype that punk bands couldn't play their instruments, but Blank Generation doesn't trail too far behind. The music is often matched by Hell's wit and lyricism, whether it's the double entendre and Hell's sneering vocals of "Love Comes In Spurts," the suspicion and paranoia of "Betrayal Takes Two," or the ambiguous sentiment of the album's title track.

Though Hell's later musical efforts failed to match Blank Generation's brilliance, one near-flawless album is one more than most artists achieve. For me it's always been of the purest examples of an overlooked masterpiece that, unlike many other 1977 albums, doesn't sound hopelessly stuck in a particular genre or period. Though that long-ago tension between Verlaine and Hell will likely still cause some people to view Blank Generation as the bastard stepchild of what might have been, such an approach does a disservice to the album. Today it still sounds wonderfully out of step with most punk albums from either side of the Atlantic, an album that still continues to surprise decades after all of that Year Zero nonsense has been largely forgotten. - Eric Dennis

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Revisit: Bob Dylan - Oh Mercy (1989)

go to for more good stuff.

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Bob Dylan continues to ride a critical and commercial wave of adulation that shows no signs of receding. After a lean early 1990s with the underwhelming and inessential Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong and the earlier catastrophe that was Under the Red Sky, Dylan has since run off a string of albums that in many cases measure up nicely against his most revered older records. Starting with 1997's Time Out Of Mind and continuing through 2009's Together Through Life, all of Dylan's recent work has mostly met with widespread praise, breathless fawning and severe bouts of reviewer hyperbole. Though there were a few scattered voices of dissent that rightly pointed out some flaws with that 2009 effort, a new Dylan release is almost guaranteed to be accompanied by the well-worn clichés and plaudits of those in awe of his music. The man could probably belch on tape for 45 minutes and Uncut would hail it an instant classic.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because it's been repeated throughout Dylan's career: a string of either forgettable or downright awful albums is followed by a noticeably better release or two that leads to the predictable talk of a Dylan resurgence/comeback/reinvention. Yet often lost in this glut of critics tripping over themselves and each other to proclaim Dylan "back" is any consideration of how well or poorly these albums will age. Music criticism by necessity largely deals in the present, though this approach has its obvious shortcomings: critics who won't admit that time has soured their love and altered their opinions of certain albums are unadulterated liars.

Contemporary reviews of Oh Mercy were positive. Clinton Heylin considered some songs on par with Dylan's best work, the wonderfully acerbic Robert Christgau was mostly impressed, Anthony DeCurtis offered a lengthy and flattering review and other reviewers characterized it as Dylan's strongest release since Desire. The album landed on several of those myopic year-end best-of lists; in the type of knee-jerk reaction and lack of perspective Rolling Stone has become known for, the magazine ranked Oh Mercy as #44 on its list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s. Yes, you read that correctly; for more laughs, it's worth checking out the complete, dreary and wildly amusing list.

Though it's usually described as Dylan's best 1980s album, that's akin to saying the Big Mac is the best burger at McDonalds: there's simply not much good material with which to compare it. To state that the 1980s was a rough decade for Dylan is being diplomatic. Aside perhaps from Infidels and pieces of Oh Mercy, Dylan's output from the Reagan/Bush years reads like a laundry list of studio disasters characterized by dated production techniques and instantly forgettable tunes; we don't need to exhume the bodies here. This isn't to imply that Oh Mercy is a bad album; it's not. With the type of lyrical craftsmanship Dylan is still best known for, "Ring Them Bells," "Shooting Star" and "Man in the Long Black Coat" are stellar and sound as relevant today as they did when the record was first released. It's still a satisfying and worthwhile listen: Dylan's lyrics offer plenty of fodder for those insisting to over-analyze, misinterpret and dissect his words and thus rob them of their mystery and beauty, while Daniel Lanois' production in some ways foreshadowed the approach later used on Time Out of Mind.

Yet time has a way of taking the luster off a release, and Oh Mercy is no exception. Now 20 years since its release in 1989, the album hasn't aged particularly well. Lanois' swamp-murk production shoulders a large part of the blame; it fails nearly as often as it succeeds, with "Political World" and "Most of the Time" suffering from the producer's quirks and idiosyncrasies and sounding too manufactured for their own good. In addition, a metallic sheen detracts from a few other tracks, with Dylan's vocals sounding thin and tinny on "Everything Is Broken" and" "Disease of Conceit." There are simply too many production flaws to look past; though Oh Mercy never comes close to repeating the train wreck of 1980s production values called Empire Burlesque, the songs might have been better served if a layer or two of these studio embellishments had been stripped away. It's worth mentioning that sparse versions of these songs have circulated on bootleg for years - and, finally, on Sony's latest official Bootleg Series volume - and show a warmth and immediacy to these songs that the album largely lacks. Stripped of the clutter that hinders much of Oh Mercy, these largely acoustic versions offer a tantalizing glimpse into what Oh Mercy could have been.

It's difficult not to think that Bob Dylan's abysmal 1980s work lowered both fans' and critics' expectations to the point where anything that was even marginally decent would be hailed as a "return to form." It's a phenomenon that's been repeated throughout the years, most recently with R.E.M. and the massively overrated Accelerate. Of course, criticizing Dylan is a fool's task - like a hack writer taking pot shots at a Hemingway or Fitzgerald - and any career as lengthy as Dylan's will have its share of failed albums. Still, as the years pass and offer more opportunity to re-assess Dylan's catalog, it's impossible to shake the feeling that Oh Mercy, while the strongest thing the musician did in the 1980s, hasn't exactly withstood the test of time and instead sounds like an album whose sporadic successes and more-prevalent failures cannot be separated from its over-saturated production style.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Antlers: Hospice

please frequent

The indie world loves a good backstory to an album's genesis. Jeff Mangum reads Anne Frank's diary and it becomes one of the key influences on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; the deaths of several of the band's family members is felt throughout The Arcade Fire's Funeral, interpreted by many as a meditation on remembrance; Justin Vernon retreats to a Wisconsin cabin and creates For Emma, Forever Ago, one of the starkest and most moving records in recent years. Besides giving both fans and critics a convenient starting point in approaching such efforts, this framework lends these albums credibility and a sense of purpose.

Hospice, the remarkable debut full-length from Brooklyn-based trio The Antlers, similarly comes with its own history. Originally self-released and now re-issued by Frenchkiss Records, the album was written by vocalist Peter Silberman after two years of self-imposed isolation and tells the story of a doomed relationship between a hospital worker and a woman/child who eventually dies of cancer. Epic in scope and nearly flawless in execution, Hospice is a deeply emotional work that will likely be remembered as one of this decade's most fully realized albums and an intense set of songs that encompasses life's fleeting joys and giant tragedies in equal measure.

Though it's become a cliché to describe a singer's voice as an instrument, it's appropriate here. Falling somewhere between Win Butler and Jeff Buckley but sounding different on every track, Silberman's vocals change with each song's shifting dynamics as he bends his words and phrasing to fit the songs' spaces and squeeze emotions out of every line. "Sylvia" alternates between buried and inaudible vocals and the singer's desperate shouts, while the delivery of "Kettering" is cracked and clipped. In other places Silberman is perfectly audible: the up-front and vulnerable vocals of "Bear" and the acoustic closer "Epilogue" are stripped bare and sound disarming in their clarity.

The arrangements are likewise varied; though a thick wash of shoegaze, ambiance and fuzz is applied often, the album's stylistic foundation is difficult to pin down and impossible to stereotype. Though trace amounts of Arcade Fire arena-ready indie rock can be heard, the instrumentation is far more textured and complex. "Atrophy" lulls the listener in with a repeated keyboard melody and airy instrumentation eventually swallowed up by sounds resembling a whirling machine and breaking glass, before these fade into an acoustic guitar and Silberman's plaintive lament that the patient is "screaming, expiring, and I'm her only witness." No song is ever predictable or rests comfortably for long: "Bear" begins with a snippet of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and ends with a swirl of horns; the banjo that carries most of "Two" is eventually smothered by keyboards and a solid wall of sound; the gentle haze of "Wake" gives way to more swelling horns and white noise. Though Silberman will likely garner the bulk of the attention here, instrumentalists Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci deserve mention. Lerner's percussion propels the songs forward, most notably on "Sylvia," while Cicci's horns give the songs additional depth.

Silberman sings that there are "two ways to tell the story," and ultimately the listener is left to piece this tale together. At its core are two central characters whose fates are irreversibly linked: the woman/child dying of cancer and her self-described "eulogy singer." Beyond that, Hospice's specifics are open to interpretation. Certain events are mentioned, such as a quickie marriage ("Two silver rings on our fingers in a hurry"), either a birth or abortion ("There's a bear inside your stomach/ A cub's been kicking you for weeks/ And if this isn't all a dream/ Well then we'll cut him from beneath"), the unraveling of a frequently dysfunctional relationship and a childhood punctuated by nightmares and wrecked by an abusive father. Perspectives and timelines shift from song to song, a narrative of two lives that plays out in the couple's imaginations, memories, or both, with the sweep and power of a great novel. Silberman has a poet's eye and ear for evocative images and phrases: there are empty cancer ward beds, hospital machines that beep for the last time, "singing morphine alarms out of tune," someone waking up and finding "no breathing body" beside him.

Hospice shouldn't work as well as it does. Its recurring motif of mortality, set against the backdrop of an institutional cancer ward, is decidedly severe. What offsets the album's somber tone is an underlying sense of commitment, dedication and acceptance; "I'd happily take all those bullets inside you/ And put them inside of myself," the narrator vows at one point. These songs exist in a gray space between hopelessness and determination, where life is bleak but perhaps not permanently so. Though the man in Hospice struggles to come to terms with death and loneliness, hope is never entirely abandoned and his memories can be as comforting as they are disturbing. It's a staggering, nuanced and near-perfect record whose triumphs and tragedies are never trivial or melodramatic; an album of mourning that nevertheless allows flickers of promise to shine through.