Februarymakeup turns 30: Another thing about Records, Part 2

The magazine that turned out to be the house organ for the style of music that No Depression basically codified took, toward the end of its life, to insisting that it had nothing to do with Uncle Tupelo and was, instead, named after the Carter Family song of the same name1. On the surface that seems, ultimately, like a cagey way to remaneuver your brand into a market segment. And probably it was. But one of the most frustrating truths about country music is, and basically always has been, how focused on image and propriety the whole thing is. From Nashville’s insistence on toeing the party line (and even occasionally letting people in who appear not to, provided they don’t upset the apple cart too much) all the way down to the “authenticity”-obsessed weirdoes that you can find at Gillian Welch shows this world over, it simply isn’t very often that a great country album is made by a band that just….likes and wants to make country music2. And that’s what Uncle Tupelo were, at least at the time. I suppose the fact that their two songwriters went on to be, respectively, an authenticity-obsessed weirdo and a dad-rocking party-line toer shows that the band itself wasn’t immune to the effect of playing and listening to country music, but Uncle Tupelo could have been any kind of band in the world. They were, instead, a punk-rock trio that did everything they could to sound like the kind of band that would fill the seats in a bar in rural Missouri, or in any other three-hour-away town. And in the process they made a record that is simultaneously – simply by being what it is – a celebration of omnivorous musical obsession and a veritable concept album about being young and stuck in a place where not only is nothing likely to happen, but if it did no one else would even care.

In a way, Spiderland is as well-known for the stories around its genesis – the possible hospitalization of its members, the too-late response of PJ Harvey to their open inquiry for singers – as it is for the music itself, especially since time has passed and one isn’t ever mentioned without the other. And that’s fine – a compelling story is a compelling story. But there were a lot of records in the late eighties and early nineties that were given credit for – and often actually did manage to – the invention of a new sound, especially within a rock-band context. What Slint deserve musical praise for, other than their virtuosity3, is managing to so thoroughly change the rock paradigm by, essentially, magnifying it. They were hardly the first band to be quite and then very loud, but the way they made the dynamic itself the through-line of the song, rather than a melody or a rhythm, as rock was built, was probably the single most important touchstone of post-rock, not to mention for a thousand soundtrack-friendly instrumental regular ol’ rock bands (without Spiderland, there would be no Explosions in the Sky, and therefore, to a lesser extent, no super-satisfying touchdowns on Friday Night Lights). Basically, by reshaping what a rock song could be while still using two guitars, a bass and a drum kit, they created a whole new volume in rock music’s vocabulary without having to invent a new alphabet, and that’s something to be respected.

REM, on the other hand, didn’t really invent anything. Sometimes a band is great because they find a new way to say something, or because they find a new thing to say entirely. Sometimes timing or context give what they’re saying in an old or less-new way added depth and meaning. And sometimes a really good band makes a really good record and, in so doing, touches the things that lots of other records touch in a new way. It would be inaccurate to call REM sonic innovators, but it would be unfair to say that that’s a requirement for greatness. Sometimes you just want someone to do a job really well.

You know I had to call, you know why right?
– Why?
Because, yo, I never – ever – call and ask you to play something, right?
– Yeah
You know what I wanna hear, right?
– What do you wanna hear?
I wanna hear that Wu-Tang joint
– Wu-Tang again?
Aw yeah! Again and Again!

There’s basically nothing that any writer or reviewer can add to what the group themselves already committed to record. The leadoff single for their first record, “Protect Ya Neck” added a bit at the beginning to make it clear to the album-buyers that they were already jumping on the train after it had left the station, and continues to live in the future – or at least ahead of the listener – for the rest of its run time. Over time, Wu Tang would become impossible to separate, untangle, or consider apart from its side projects, its personal business, and the members’ extracurricular activities, and so in a lot of ways 36 Chambers looms large because of its position as the only “unified” statement from camp Wu. In a lot of other ways, though, it looms large over basically anyone else’s records because a unified statement from Camp Wu is basically a better set of ideas than you, or I, will ever have.

Almost twenty years on, it’s almost impossible to overstate Nas’ first record’s impact on hip hop (albeit with a lot of people who’d be happy to take a swing at it), but it’s also hard to explain to people that aren’t aware of its place in history all of what makes it so incredible4. But that’s ok, because on its own merits, Illmatic isn’t much like any other record ever made. In its aftermath, Nas would turn out to be one of the early-twentieth-century’s best singles rappers, coming up with a song or two on each record that made you really miss the days when he could put together a whole album. But he could’ve gone the rest of his life without making another back-to-front great record, because Illmatic is good enough to make every argument that, when Nas had it together, he was one of the very greatest ever.

One of the words I’m not using to describe any of these records is “timeless.” For one thing, the word is almost always used to mean “good no matter what time you’re listening to it in,” which is kind of bullshit – all good records are good now. Otherwise they aren’t good. But even aside from that, it generally means “this sounds dated in a way I can understand” or, alternately “this doesn’t sound dated if you listen to it contextually.” All that said and complained about: Viva Last Blues is a record that really doesn’t give up any information about itself and is, in its way, timeless. Will Oldham’s voice sounds like a force of nature (albeit a creaky, smoky force of nature), the sparse, simple playing makes it sound like a record made by accident, like those microphones chanced upon these songs being sung and played for the amusement of the players themselves, without any real thought about who might want to listen to them outside the room. In its singularity, and insularity, and probably a couple of other arities as well, it manages to perfectly convey some of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Every snobby beardfaced hipster has probably explained to someone that they need to listen to a record on vinyl for whatever reason. Here’s why that’s true of Millions Now Living Will Never Die: because if you listen to it on CD, or as a string of mp3s, you don’t have to get up and flip it over after “Djed.” “Djed” is an expansive, incredible vista, a journey through all of the things that the players on the record can think to take you through, through doors, across oceans, over deserts, through the air, into houses, through your very own ears. “Djed” is a masterpiece of composition, of production, and of playing. It takes all the best things from Jazz, all the best things from pre-digital production musics (dance music, ambient music, dub, et al), builds on tension and dynamics like a rock song, and in so doing is actually none of those things. It’s better than all of those things5. And so it’s appropriate to have to cross the room and turn it over, where there’s five more songs that play with the themes introduced by “Djed,” acting as the supporting documentation for side one’s overarching thesis statement. I suppose if you don’t have the record itself, you should pause after “Djed,” then walk in circles for a minute before you resume. Hell, if you’ve never heard it before you may find yourself doing so anyway.

Either/Or is the point at which “my favorite record of that year” meets more-or-less up with “my favorite record at the time”. I don’t remember how long after it came out I heard Either/Or, I do remember that it was pretty close. I had acquainted myself with Kill Rock Stars, mainly because I liked the label’s name, and Elliott Smith seemed like the artist on their roster at the time that was most “for me” (albeit only slightly moreso than Sleater-Kinney). It didn’t hurt that this was all around when Good Will Hunting came out, and his records (of which this was the most current at the time) were pretty easy to find as a result, which was a benefit when you lived in the middle of nowhere. It’s the last of his indie records, and so is the last of the records that has the quality of sounding like something found. Elliott Smith’s songs were always about the struggle – for varying values of “the struggle” – and Either/Or is the last time the record itself bore that out. Not that his later, more-produced records aren’t also great, merely that they change the dynamic from one where Elliott Smith is fighting recording limitations to one where he’s fighting the actual production.

1 leaving aside the fact that the song is obviously the same one that’s covered on the record, there’s also the fact that their “last page” feature was always called “Screen Door,” which is the final track on No Depression, and which pretty perfectly described the aesthetic they were going for. But this is to praise an album, not to nitpick a magazine.

2 it’s a little easier now, but even so a bunch of the greatest country bands on Earth are operating from a place of “authenticity” worshipping retrograde dumbness. I’ll save that bit for when I talk about Ryan Adams and/or Lambchop. More Spoiler Alert.

3 which is generally beside the point in and of itself, but it’s worth pointing out that my favorite story related to a member of Slint is actually that when David Pajo (Slint’s guitar player) left the band Tortoise (see below, continuing spoiler alert), they were unable to play the songs that he had developed with the band because nobody could figure out his guitar parts.

4 in part the calm, laid-back, declamatory flow that was exactly the opposite of the pervading style in New York street rap at the time, and which would go on to affect the style of both the Notorious BIG and Jay-Z, each of whom would, in turn, repay Nas the favor by starting feuds with him.

5 I realize that that sentence, properly parsed, makes it seem like I’m saying that “Djed” is better than all examples of all those genres. I’m pretty ok with that assertion.

Februarymakeup turns 30: Another thing about Records, Part 1

Remember when everyone was doing this on facefriends or wherever? I know! Well, I’m doing it now! Now, I could go back and talk about what album I actually enjoyed at the time, but 1) my favorite album when I was 2 almost certainly wasn’t Bad Moon Rising, and 2) it would be basically impossible to verify anyway. So instead, here, in several installments (I love you people, and hate making you read all those words at once), is the best album of each of the years that I have been alive. Please to enjoy.

I shouldn’t have admitted that these weren’t my favorite records at the time, because the title track from “Over the Edge” would be a pretty righteous song to come out of the womb a-hollerin’. Anyway. Sometimes the best thing about a record is that, whatever else, it only sounds like that record. No one will ever know what impelled Greg Sage to scoop out all of the midrange frequencies and leave only the extreme highs and lows, but even that decision seems to serve the songs perfectly. Basically it’s a major coup that a record that sounds like it was recorded with cans and string is actually a high-fidelity masterpiece of reproduction with some really, really oddball mixing choices.

Sometimes, after I spend whole days listening to albums made out of the sound of people who have never spoken to another person having sex with speakers, or Japanese people throwing microphones into giant metal drums or whatever, I think of how far from late-adolescence I actually am. 1984 was also the year of Purple Rain, and Double Nickels on the Dime, and Zen Arcade, each of which is a front-to-back masterpiece (ok, well, Zen Arcade is a front-to-don’t-listen-to-the-last-track masterpiece), but the thing that actually makes Let it Be a better album is that part of it kind of sucks. I’ve always been invested with the power to skip songs on albums I didn’t like (something that someone listening to the album in, say, 1984 would not have been able to do), but I can’t imagine skipping “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” just to get to “Androgynous.” What the vinyl listener could do, however, was put on side 2 and have the first thing they heard be “Unsatisfied.” Somewhere in the world is a theoretical person. They were already a Replacements fan, so they bought Let it Be early, and in their haste and expectation for another pretty-good album (he may even have uttered the phrase “I hope this is as good as Stink!”) he put side 2 on before side 1 (or maybe he was just a Westerbergian contrarian, or maybe he just liked the title), and the first time he ever heard this album was “Unsatisfied.” I hope that person exists, because that is almost-certainly the finest moment someone who has just bought a record could ever hope to have. And that’s it, in a nutshell: they looked dumb, they bit their album titles from the Beatles, they had to share songwriting credit with Ted Nugent because they felt they had to use the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever” for a song that wasn’t even good, but absolutely none of that matters, because Let it Be is the album with “Unsatisfied” on it.

By the time I would become aware of Sonic Youth, they were basically well known for their role in codifying the idea of the “cool indie rock band”1, and for basically being elder-statesman types. And, like the good, dutiful budding-record-collector that I was, I bought their albums in order of consensus greatness – the Daydream Nation/Sister/Evol set, then Goo and Dirty. And then I think you’re just supposed to buy them in whatever order you find them. Anyway, at some point in this process I happened across Bad Moon Rising, and found it boring and silly. It didn’t have any of the good songs, like “Schizophrenia” or “In the Kingdom #19” or “Wish Fulfillment”. Well, it had one good song, “Death Valley ‘69,” but that was almost not really even part of the album2. And then, eventually, it clicked. Bad Moon Rising is the only Sonic Youth album with a strong sense of place – a quality that I like in all sorts of things, but especially in records. Although they never actually left New York City, Bad Moon Rising is, in a lot of ways, the sound of the city they came from leaving the city they would go on to live in. It’s also probably the last time, honestly, that Sonic Youth were more interested in creating their own set of sounds to work within instead of applying sounds they were drawing from outside their own framework and applying themselves to it. #justsaying.

The Fall are a band that’s always been easier to absorb in the form of individual songs, rather than their records. They did, however, spend most of the mid-eighties literally disincentivizing their own full-length records. In a lot of ways, Bend Sinister was the end of what could be called “classic Fall,” such as it was – The Frenz Experiment began their long, weird3 middle period – it’s also one of their most cohesive, more in line with Slates or This Nation’s Saving Grace. That said, the album originally did not include “Living Too Late”, an all time classic that much improves the record, or “Hey! Luciani,” which still isn’t on the record, but wouldn’t really help very much if it was. If you can’t dig on the downer, heavier (only Hex Enduction Hour matches it for physicality) Fall, you can at least smile at the resolute anticommercialism of releasing two hit singles, then leaving the only single actually on the album (“Mr. Pharmacist”) as a weird cover of an obscure sixties garage-rock track.

It is the very rarest of bands that can manage to create a relatively-unique, easily-identifiable sound and set of signifiers4, and then dismantle the surface parts of that self-same sound, leaving the framework it was built around, and using to build an entirely new palate to carry on another part of your career. Bands change their sound all the time, really – or, at least, good ones do – but the shift from the admittedly less-clangy Holy Money to Children of God seems less like even a shift, and more like a purification, a way for the band to clear out the detritus of their established channels and put forward a drastic reinterpretation of the way they chose to work. It’s something they would do again, later in their career, but here, when I was four, they managed to create a record that was pretty-much impossible to top in terms of sheer accomplishment.

An aside: when you go through to look at the greatest album of any given year, you sometimes find that a band’s best album was not the best album of the year it came out, but that their second-best album was. See also: The Fall, above4. Anyway: Isn’t Anything is the lead-up to the knockout punch that is Loveless, one of the finest moments in recorded music history (and an album that was released the same year as Spiderland. Spoiler alert.), but even as such it’s still a pretty amazing piece of work. While Loveless is a singular thing that sounds like it was shaped fully-formed out of whatever sound source Kevin Shields was tapping into, Isn’t Anything is pretty clearly still steeped in relatively-normal music. “You Made Me Realise” – famous in later days for its marathon, punishing one-chord breakdown – is actually built on a pretty fantastic riff, and rocks pretty effectively, and “Cupid Come” actually gets a lot of its propulsion from a forward-in-the-mix, clearly-heard vocal.

I’m just enough of a contrarian that it bothers me when my favorite album is also everyone else’s favorite album. 1989 was a transition year for a lot of genres and subgenres – sales were down, the music industry had yet to fully remobilize behind something, the rock-band-touring-music-Our Band Could Be Your Life-underground was generally tearing itself apart (a job that wouldn’t be finished for another couple of years), hip hop was doing something similar, entering, at least in the mainstream, a dark, violent spiral that it would take years to pull out of (and the reputation of which would affect the public discourse about and perception of rap music for at least another decade). And De La Soul stood in front of the wave of true-crime-reportage, street-life-cowboy-fantasies and the like, and said, simply, that they were going to have a good time. And that Trugoy wears a weave. And that it’s possible to forgive the album that gave the world the hip-hop sketch if (and only if) it also gave the world Prince Paul.
HONORABLE MENTION: Madchester was huge in a way that it’s hard for Americans to believe, what with its biggest American hit (EMF’s “Unbelievable”) being a pretty risible bit of nonsense, and its flagship band (The Stone Roses) being the poster children for “Big in England”, but it did yield some pretty fantastic stuff, and nothing moreso than the Happy Mondays’ phenomenal Hallelujah. It’s an EP that is basically a collection of pretty good singles until its last two songs – two remixes by Paul Oakenfold – send it over the top into probably the best dance record I’ve ever heard.

1 yes, I do realize that “cool indie rock band” wasn’t a thing so much as a set of words I just put in quotation marks. But you know what I mean. Try to imagine Pavement or whoever without the influence of Sonic Youth on their affect*.
* yes I did mean affect, read it again amateur grammar snob.
2 it really wasn’t – it was written separately and released initially as a single. It makes a pretty good album closer, but it also isn’t really in line with the mien of the record.

3 with “weird” in this case including the polished, straight-ahead songs of The Frenz Experiment and I Am Kurious Oranj
4 albeit with that sound and set of signifiers being “CLANG CLANG CLANG GRIND GRIND CLANG”. And I love early Swans records.

4 although technically their best album, Slates, came out two years before my birth