Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A Matter Of Silk Degrees

If you'd asked me two months ago to name any Boz Scaggs song, I probably would've come up with "Lido Shuffle," but I wouldn't have been able to hum it. Scaggs is one of those '70s semi-stars I know more by name than by reputation, and I've never been sure whether to mentally file him alongside laid-back west coast country-rockers like Linda Ronstadt, novelty party boys like Jimmy Buffet, or smart soft-rock jazzbos like Steely Dan.

But then I got a review copy of Columbia/Legacy's Silk Degrees reissue in the mail, and spent a happy afternoon spinning it. Not only can I easily hum "Lido Shuffle" now, I also realize that I knew two other Silk Degrees songs very well: "Lowdown" and "We're All Alone." (And with further research, I see that I know more non-Silk Degrees Scaggs songs too, like "Jojo" and "Miss Sun.")

I wouldn't make any claims for Silk Degrees as the pop-rock masterpiece of 1976. Musically, it's pleasant enough–even inspired at times–but it's more fascinating culturally. As rock 'n' roll became more mainstream and acceptable in the early '70s, major labels stealthily introduced what I like to call "the well-made album," a pop version of what dramatists refer to as "the well-made play" (or film critics sometimes call "the tradition of quality"). Artists with the right kind of label support were thrown together with in-demand producers, the top session men and the best songwriting collaborators, to put together records with a mix of genres and modes. Silk Degrees is a prime example. It's slick, catchy and eclectic, jumping from the Doobie Brothers-style neo-boogie to arid soul and disco balladry. This album is like a core sample of what radio sounded like in the mid-'70s.

By and large, I'm not beholden to "the album" as a unit of music anymore. I keep my favorite recent CDs in my car, and play them straight through, but most of those favorites I really only half-like, and I've got no qualms about taking their best six or seven tracks, ripping them to my hard drive, and then dumping the disc. The problem is that my friends often ask me to hook them up with some new music, and I feel like I either have to give a list of caveats when I hand them a disc–"This one starts with a really crummy song, but then gets better, until the last three songs, which are kind of lame"–or just urge them to let me burn them a best-of. Unfortunately, my friends are mostly old school, and they want albums, not samplers.

I'm not wholly unsympathetic. There are albums that I love so much that I get steamed when CD reissues dilute their purity by changing the original running order and/or adding a lot of bonus tracks. (The Who's Live At Leeds comes to mind.) But honestly, the number of filler-free classic albums is proportionately low compared to the history of recorded music–just like there's so many more bad old movies than good ones, and more trashy novels than real literature. As an historical exercise, I enjoy listening to "an album" as conceived by Boz Scaggs and his corporate overlords, or the dozens of reissues I either buy or get sent every year. But after listening to them a few times, their individual songs all get processed into digital files and stored in pieces, removed from the intended context. I've got too much new music piling up to treat the old stuff any other way.

There is one major exception, however.

About three years ago, I bought a reissue of Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmilsson, an album that has a certain linchpin status in early '70s pop and rock. It's one of the original "well-made albums," born of one eccentric L.A. genius's desire to be more than just a cult act and a "musician's musician." And yet, even with the slicked-up radio hits "Without You," "Coconut," and "Jump Into The Fire" anchoring the disc, Nilsson Schmilsson has a restless, reckless spirit that makes it more than just a mass-manufactured pop product. It's soft but strange, and I fell in love with it instantly.

(I realize that Scaggs and Nilsson traffic in sounds that a lot of our younger A.V. Club readership reject out of hand, but for people of my generation–mid-30s to mid-40s–quirky soft rock has always hovered just above our heads, pitched at the frequency of an adulthood we still hope to reach someday. Albums like Silk Degrees and Nilsson Schmilsson generate a feeling of warmth and security not unlike listening the theme song from some old TV show, and recalling days of happy idleness.)

Within two months of buying Nilsson Schmilsson, I read everything on-line that I could find about Nilsson, and I hit up Amazon here and abroad to put together a fairly complete Nilsson discography on CD. Then I set about distilling that discography to a good iPod playlist, compact enough that I could burn it for friends. Which I did. And I think I did a good job. But early last year, when I heard about The Walkmen recording a song-by-song cover of Nilsson's Pussy Cats, I pulled the original disc back out, and while it had been one of my top-to-bottom favorites when I first went on my Nilsson binge, I grew even more attached when I listened to it again. And again. Until eventually I'd replaced my carefully selected Nilsson iPod playlist with a new playlist called "Nilsson Discography," with all his albums on there, in their entirety. (Except the Skidoo soundtrack. There are limits.)

What I quickly discovered is that while Nilsson Schmilsson marks a key step in the evolution of the "well-made album," for Nilsson himself, the real journey started with the sequel Son Of Schmilsson, which uses the same surface slickness to hide even more perversity, both stylistic (like the straight-up country song "Joy") and thematic (like the ode-to-groupies "Take 54," with its classic chorus, "I sang my balls off for you baby"). In the mid-'70s, Nilsson went giddily off the deep end, starting with Pussy Cats, a drunken joke about the simultaneous majesty and vapidity of rock 'n' roll, shared with one rock's greatest icons, John Lennon. Nilsson's early albums are weird and wonderful in a free-spirited '60s way, but his post-Pussy Cats albums are real trips through the fun house, complete with rancid odors and sugar rushes.

Nilsson's best mid-'70s songs–"Don't Forget Me," "All My Life," "Salmon Falls," "Pretty Soon There'll Be Nothing Left For Everybody," "All I Think About Is You"–are as stunning as anything he ever recorded, but on their own, they're almost too good, with an immediacy that first-time listeners haven't earned, since they didn't sit through a calypso ode to TV detectives, a long monologue about flying saucers, and two versions of "Jesus Christ You're Tall" to get to them. A truly great album–an un-distill-able album–works just like this, building a mood one song at a time, even when some of those songs are tough to take. Albums as singularly cracked as Pussy Cats and Duit On Mon Dei don't come around that often any more, because the tradition they're exploiting pretty much died off with the advent of the CD, and the subsequent surge in filler material that made albums more than ever just "a collection of songs." Nilsson worked in a tighter medium. Give him 10 songs and 35 minutes, and he'd rip the "well-made album" apart right in front of your ears.


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