After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
Every so often, some British-born children's entertainment—be it a book, TV show or movie—gets imported to the states and has its terminology or voices changed so that it'll be more accessible to American kids. Whenever that happens, I shudder. I grew up reading A.A. Milne's Pooh books, Helen Criswell's tales of the Bagthorpe clan, and other quintessentially English kidlit; and much of those books' appeal had to do with the little differences that made them seem all the more exotic and magical. (And it's not like it took much adjusting to get used to the "u" in "colour," or to learn that "biscuit" didn't refer to flaky bread served with white gravy.) As I got older, I enjoyed listened to The Who sing about "girl guides" or The Beatles about "macs," and I found that as I parsed the local references in a Monty Python skit or a Mike Leigh film, it made me feel clued-in, aware—an honorary citizen of the United Kingdom.
I've never been across the Atlantic (or the Pacific). I've also never been to New York City or Los Angeles, or Mexico. I'm just not a very well-traveled dude—unless you count the trips I've made via books, movies, and music. As a result, I probably tend to over-romanticize (or overreact to) other cultures. There's always been a strong element of voyeurism to my pop consumption, as I live vicariously through fictional characters or musicians. With The American Way™ in its current disheveled state, it's hard to watch movies set in England or Europe and not fantasize about living in a place with efficient public transportation and abundant social services, even though I know that if I were an actual citizen of one of those places, I'd be complaining about high taxes and long lines (or some other nuisance). As a provincial type, I make no pretense of being anything but a naïf.
That said, here's what I imagine life would be like living in the UK: I wake up in one of those neat little suburban homes, eat a full English breakfast (complete with bacon and beans), and then take the train into London, where I work some low-impact, high-paying job in a creative field. (I'm thinking either magazine proofreader or landscape architect.) I skip lunch but take a long tea (complete with cakes and lots of milk), while I read the current issues of Uncut and Q. After work I buy limited edition singles at a nearby independent record shop, then meet up with my circle of erudite young professional friends at a pub (complete with darts and snooker) before going to see some amazing unsigned band at a club. On my way home, I stop at the chip shop or the curry shop (or both) for take-away and then stay up late and catch the latest episodes of some subversive sketch comedy show or tough-minded policier. My cholesterol would be high, but my stress level low. (Am I in fantasyland, my British friends, or do I have it about right?)
Of course it's not all strawberries and cream. I have some bones to pick with the British too. When I first discovered that the library at the University Of Georgia carried NME and Melody Maker, I was initially excited by the lively prose and strong opinions in both publications' review sections. (And just looking at the ads for upcoming shows had me flabbergasted.) Then I noticed as the weeks rolled on how fickle the British rock press can be, turning maliciously on bands they'd lauded not six months before. I also noticed how the bands themselves picked up on that vibe, and talked in interviews about how they didn't listen to any other music but their own, and were essentially beyond influence. I'd always been astounded by the high volume of good-to-great UK acts that made it onto college radio in the '80s, but by the time 120 Minutes debuted on MTV—in the pre-grunge era—I was getting frustrated by the flood of music from London and Manchester and the lack of attention paid to the American indie movement. I also started to get annoyed at the phenomenon of British bands releasing near-classic debut albums and then stumbling through the second before calling I quits. I love the fact that British radio and TV seems to nurture the offbeat, but there's an awful lot of here-and-gone to British popular culture.
By and large though, I'm unapologetically pro-limey. I don't just love England. I love the idea of being in love with England. From a distance, the cultural environment in Great Britain seems far more conducive to art-for-art's-sake, and adventurousness in pop. The reality, I'm sure, is far more pedestrian. But hang reality. Give me the myth of the glorious empire in repose, with its well-meaning gentlemen having gracefully stepped aside to serve as wizened mentors to the upstart nations now taking center stage. Give me Christmas crackers and trifles and Sunday lunch. Give me children's fiction, extraneous "u"s and all.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1997-present (solo)
Fits Between Kelly Hogan and Ron Sexsmith
Personal Correspondence My deeply ingrained suspicion of alt-country artists keep me separated from Neko Case for the first part of her career. I liked her in The New Pornographers, where she proved her big voice was good for more than belting rootsy throwbacks to Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, but her solo albums initially struck me as too self-aware and respectful of tradition. Not enough muss to go with the fuss. Even when Case sang about tramps, killers and other no-accounts, the stories seemed liked something she'd read from a book. The "deep-throated torch singer in tattered clothes" routine wasn't winning me. My mind started to change with Blacklisted, and especially with the song "Deep Red Bells," a fully developed composition graced with imagery like "It looks a lot like engine oil / and tastes like being poor and small / and popsicles / in summer," and spiked with a tempo-and-mood-changing break in the middle that gives a short story the depth of a novel. "Deep Red Bells" bewitches then switches, leaving listeners feeling like they've been somewhere they hadn't counting on going. Following Blacklisted, Case made what to my mind is her first great record, The Tigers Have Spoken, a live album consisting of almost entirely new material. With The Sadies backing her, Case found a place between slow twang and electric jolt, and swayed back and forth there, emitting transcendent pop, with a self-generating momentum. My doubting days were done.
Enduring presence? The Tigers Have Spoken may have been Case's first great record, but it's not been her last. For me, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a classic on the order of Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark: one of those rare perfect albums that's also a step forward in terms of musical and lyrical complexity. The "like something she'd read from a book" criticism I leveled at Case's earlier work above still pertains, but on Fox Confessor she's reading poetry, not pulp. It seems that Case is taking a long time to follow up Fox, and that may be for the best. Still, the historian in me can't help but note that in the two years following Court And Spark, Mitchell released The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira, two more all-timers. Better not take too long to get back to work quick, Neko.
Neutral Milk Hotel
Years Of Operation 1991-2001
Fits Between The Decemberists and Sebadoh
Personal Correspondence As I've mentioned before, I lived in Athens during the lull between the advent of R.E.M. and the rise of The Elephant 6 Recording Company. I believe it was literally a year after I left that the likes of Of Montreal and The Olivia Tremor Control (both of whom will be covered in this week's "Stray Tracks") started gigging around town and releasing their first records. So I got the story of the E6 ascension second-hand, and when I finally got to hear the music, I had a similar experience to what I felt in the early grunge era. The Elephant 6 concoction of garage rock, psychedelia, DIY indie and fantasy-prog initially played better on paper than on CD. Even Neutral Milk Hotel's debut album On Avery Island sounded too sloppy by half, with good ideas and catchy songs bleeding into noise and silliness. It's fair to say that I didn't have the highest expectations for Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 opus In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, though in retrospect, all the slogging I'd done through the nascent E6 records prepared me well for riding the Aeroplane. It only took one spin to realize that this album was something special: a dark-hued set of songs performed ecstatically, with every fuzzed-out passage or loss of key serving a necessary purpose. I saw NMH live on the brief tour that followed the release of Aeroplane, and bandleader Jeff Mangum was clearly living each one of those songs as he sang them, to such an intense extent that I wasn't all that surprised by his subsequent disappearing act. Wielding that kind of power night after night would scare anyone; and trying to summon it again for another album must be absolutely terrifying.
Enduring presence? Much like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is one of those great albums that's hard to recommend to people without a whole lot of caveats. The record is loud, unruly, bizarre, nasal, and it demands a listener's full attention. But if you're up for all that, it's an album that can enrich your life on a daily basis, like a book of psalms.
Years Of Operation 1980-93, 1998-2007
Fits Between Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Unrest
Personal Correspondence When my brother went off to college in upstate New York, we were both still listening to classic rock and radio-friendly New Wavers (or what the press dubbed the "New British Invasion"). When he came back on breaks, my brother brought tapes filled with the British bands that weren't on pop radio yet: The Cure, The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen and New Order. Perhaps because of the collegiate connotation, I immediately heard those bands as a cut above what I'd been listening to. They seemed smarter, deeper, braver. The first time I got a look at one of New Order's actual records, with their oblique graphics and minimal information, I felt like I was holding a piece of modern art in my hands. Listening to Power, Corruption And Lies all the way through was even more of a revelation. The integration of slashing guitar, bubbling bass and live drums into tightly synchronized and partly synthesized dance music—accompanied by the incongruous voice of Bernard Sumner, sounding like some twerp who'd wandered into the studio after the band had left for the day—felt fresh then, and still snaps me to alertness nearly every time one of New Order's songs comes up on my iPod. By the time I got into New Order, Low Life was already out, with its moodier electronic sound and god-awful vocals. But I was able to buy Brotherhood and Technique—two far brighter records—right as they were released. Technique in particular was on heavy rotation in my first apartment, since it was one of the few albums that me and my three roommates and I could agree on. We all drove to Atlanta to see New Order at Six Flags Over Georgia on the Technique tour, but it wasn't such a great show. Blocked off from the audience behind banks of synthesizers, the band mistook our disconnection from them as indifference, and after playing an hour-long set during which no one on stage moved, they left for 10 minutes, then came back and told us that they had originally decided not to do an encore for we ungrateful Atlantans, but, "Then we did a few lines of coke and changed their minds." After that incident, my love affair with New Order waned, and I haven't really liked any of the three albums or one-off singles since. (Exception: Republic's "Regret," which may be New Order's finest pop song.) But as with me and Joy Division, I get a craving for New Order nearly every year, and go on weeklong binges, listening to nothing else. It was all I could do to move on to other music this week and not spend seven days spinning all New Order's '80s records from front to back, over and over. (Yes, even Movement.)
Enduring presence? Those who continue to revere Joy Division as the quintessential purveyors of angst-ridden post-punk storm-and-drone often think of New Order as their sellout bastard child. And yes, New Order started out mournful and lightened up quick, giving smart '80s teens and coke-sniffing New York yuppies a common point of reference. But the club-ready beats and hooks of New Order always supported a strong expression of emotional unsteadiness. New Order's songs are as frustrated, confused and despairing as Ian Curtis at his most suicidal, yet also more mature, more complex, and in many ways more rewarding—if only because there's more of it.
The New Pornographers
Years Of Operation 1997-present
Fits Between The Shins and Wolf Parade
Personal Correspondence Last year's Challengers seemed to some to be the first real slip-up from Canada's favorite semi-supergroup, but I submit that the only real problem with The New Pornographers is that they've been so consistently good. The band's busy, boisterous positivism is undercut only by the sad reminder that their collectivized, hook-heavy racket is far too rare in our panicky, suspicious times. And it doesn't help that they speak in evocative fragments, wrapped in odd song titles, or that they only record an album when Neko Case happens to be in town, Dan Bejar has written enough songs too catchy for Destroyer, and Carl Newman has badgered everyone in the band so much that they show up in the studio just to get him to stop calling. Then they knock out a dozen or so new gems, do a tour, and disappear again, leaving fans with little in the way of an ongoing dialogue. So we nitpick, failing to fully appreciate that The New Pornographers keep pumping out songs that improbably get grabbier on the 10th listen than they are on the first. When The New Pornographers project finally ends, oh how we will mourn. And we'll retroactively treasure every record—including Challengers.†
Enduring presence? Two things I wonder about The New Pornographers: 1) Is everyone in the band still as gung-ho as they were 10 years ago, or does each new record now seem more like a matter of fiscal responsibility than creative fire? 2) Which is the better album, Electric Version or Twin Cinema? The former has more exciting songs, but the latter has a stronger overall arc. Decisions, decisions….
Years Of Operation 1984-present (solo)
Fits Between Leonard Cohen and PJ Harvey
Personal Correspondence My first exposure to Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds came early in my freshman year of college, when I saw Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire at UGA's student union theater and was captivated by Cave's performances of "The Carny" and "From Her To Eternity." Thank God I discovered Cave in time; less than two years later, reeling from my first hard break-up, I kept Your Funeral My Trial and The Good Son on repeat as I lay in a suddenly too-big bed and contemplated whether I'd ever want to eat again. I don't know whether it's because Cave's post-Good Son output has been erratic or because I associate my Cave fandom too closely with such a painful time in my life, but I haven't been as into him since 1990. I've been buying the albums, and I saw Cave in concert on the Henry's Dream tour. (That was a hell of a show, and my first exposure to the song "Tupelo," which was on the one Cave album I didn't own at the time.) But Cave has frequently been involved with popular works that I just plain don't like—including the acclaimed album Murder Ballads and the screenplay for the Australian western The Proposition. That said, I was excited anew by Cave in 2004 with the records Abattoir Blues and The Lyre Of Orpheus, either because Cave was back in fine form or because I was finally ready to receive him into my life again.
Enduring presence? One of the reasons why I've been cool on Cave for the past 10 years or so is because my wife, for whatever reason, has never really liked him. There aren't many acts that mean a lot to me but that my wife can't really abide: Pulp is one, and Nick Cave is another. I don't think she even likes Cave's pretty songs—and Cave has a lot of pretty songs. Listening to his music again this week, I started to feel some of the old affection flooding back, and I think next year I'm going to make it a project of mine to change my wife's mind on the subject—though I suppose I need to get my own adoration back first. But no break-ups this time.
Years Of Operation 1969-72
Fits Between Syd Barrett and Jose Gonzalez
Personal Correspondence I'm sure I would've gotten around to Nick Drake eventually even if Scott Tobias hadn't brought the Drake box set with him to one of our annual March Madness weekends back in the late '90s, but I'm still appreciative to Scott for getting me into Drake shortly before he became such a common reference point in indie-rock. We listened to the entire box set that weekend, with Scott emphasizing his favorite songs on Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon. But the album that got under my skin immediately was Bryter Layter, which largely eschews the stark ballads and minimalist laments for a warm, soulful sound in the vein of Van Morrison, only lonelier. I haven't been keeping a running tally throughout Popless of my all-time favorite albums, but I'm pretty sure that if I were to crunch the numbers, Bryter Layter would be in the Top 20. I like Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon too—the latter more than the former—but it probably says something about the general drift of my taste that I can't get enough of an album full of horns, strings, intricate guitar-picking and beautifully melancholy whispers.
Enduring presence? This may be heresy to admit, but that Volkswagen commercial a while back? The one that used "Pink Moon"? I liked it. Without getting into a whole philosophical debate about how Madison Avenuue corrupts our memories, I'll say that just as a piece of filmmaking, that commercial was really stunning. And it sold a bunch of Nick Drake records, which is never a bad thing.
Years Of Operation 1976-present (solo)
Fits Between Marshall Crenshaw and Elvis Costello
Personal Correspondence About 15 years ago, genre-hopper extraordinaire Nick Lowe settled on a single sound, and embarked on a string of intermittently released records that showcase him as a tranquil, soulful eminence-gris, presiding over spare romantic ballads. That's about the time I started to get interested in Lowe, an artist I'd previously shrugged off as something of a hanger-on: a producer who took the occasional turn in the spotlight, generating a tuneful novelty or two but mostly just standing in the way of audiences who'd paid to see Elvis Costello. Shortly after becoming intrigued by 1994's The Impossible Bird, my wife-to-be started sending me mix tapes that frequently featured at least one Lowe song. For some reason, I'd never bothered to buy any of Lowe's early solo albums, so songs like "Big Kick, Plain Scrap" and "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass" were a happy surprise. If I have one complaint about the late '70s/early '80s Lowe (well-collected on the anthology Basher), it's that he's arguably too eclectic, and that kind of dilettantism sometimes makes him seem less than on-the-level. Lowe's easier to take seriously now that he's making righteous records of reflective tunesmithery, featuring songs that hang in the air with a gentle nip. The new Lowe sets earnest promises to tasteful countrypolitan arrangements, drifting easily from dreamy love songs to restrained R&B;, in which not a note or line feels out of place.
Enduring presence? Whippersnappers galore have tried to create the feeling of classic nightclub-shaded pop, but Lowe has the songs to back it up. Some veteran British rock personalities lose something essential when they soften up—it's been the persistent curse of Van Morrison's career—but Lowe retains a genteel wit that's makes his latter-day albums thoroughly engaging. There's a real person writing and singing these songs, with a lifetime's worth of joys and disappointments, as well as the wisdom to keep it all in proper balance. He's become something of a hero of mine.
Years Of Operation 1988-1994
Fits Between Pixies and The Melvins
Personal Correspondence Here's one of my most painful "one that got away" stories: Nirvana played at a club in Athens about a month before Nevermind came out, and I didn't go. I hadn't heard Bleach, and I'd been burned by Seattle bands before, so even though a buzz was already building, I assumed Nirvana wouldn't be for me, and I stayed home. A few nights later, my roommates and I were watching MTV when the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video aired, and I cursed my younger, pre-Nirvana-exposure self. Let me be clear: I'm not one of those who consider Nirvana to be the greatest band of the '90s. The only one of their albums that I think is wholly successful is the MTV Unplugged set, and I'm still more than a little put off by Kurt Cobain's public persona, which I described once as "by turns shrewd and naïve—sweet, yet kind of jerky." But I still feel that I should've been quicker onto the Nirvana train, and that I should've ridden it longer. By the time In Utero came out, I'd become that prototypical hipster snob: I was in my early 20s, having my opinions on music regularly published, and I was overly indignant about what I felt my generation should be listening to. For the most part, the Nirvana phenomenon ran parallel to my music-loving life, intersecting mainly when the bands I liked reacted against what was going on in the new mainstream. I respected Nirvana too much to dislike them the way I disliked Soundgarden, but I never loved them. Well, almost never. Those first few months after Nevermind came out were undeniably exciting. My roommates, who barely tolerated my insistence on watching 120 Minutes every Sunday, were suddenly blasting "Drain You" in their cars. Between the success of Nevermind and the election of Clinton a year later, it felt like some cosmic coach had looked down the bench, pointed at my whole subculture, and said, "You! You're in." I may never have embraced Nirvana as much as my peers, but I reaped a lot of rewards because of them, and I should've been more appreciative at the time.
Enduring presence? Some would say that by missing Nirvana in concert—and subsequently keeping them at arm's length—I missed the most important thing to happen in popular music in the '90s. They'd say the story of '90s rock is the story of Nirvana: the way they re-popularized the loud and fast, and the way Kurt Cobain's suicide seemed to slam the door on a movement before it even really got started. And they may be right. I don't want to give the impression that I wasn't right there with everyone else, buying In Utero on opening day, and appreciating Cobain's efforts to make the outré acceptable. But I'd be lying if I said that I was devastated when I heard he'd shot himself. It was sad, yes, and I'd have been interested to hear what Nirvana would've come up with after In Utero. But Cobain's contradictions and preoccupations had already started to wear thin with me. My favorite Nirvana song is also one of Cobain's simplest: "Sliver," an explosive memory of boyhood angst that succeeds at capturing the petulance of an immature generation precisely by not trying so hard.
Years Of Operation 1989-present
Fits Between Nobody and New Order
Personal Correspondence For all the new problems generated by modern technology, I wouldn't want to go back to a pre-wired life, because I'd miss the way the internet has brought me friends I've never met in person, and music I would've otherwise missed. Through one of my online discussion groups, I started reading a blog that featured a couple of tracks from The Notwist's at-the-time-unavailable-in-the-U.S. Neon Golden. Then I used the power of the Internet to track down an import and order it, for not too much money. (The dollar was stronger then.) Also thanks to the Internet, I was able to research The Notwist, and learn about how they're early days of grinding out metallic punk rock, before they discovered computers and European art-pop. By the time The Notwist released their third LP in 1995—the sprawling 12—the band had begun replacing pounding drums with lively polyrhythmic weaves of electronic blips and light jazz percussion, and dropping guitar heroics in favor of the subtler drama of strings, horns and modulated white noise buzz. The more refined style matured fully on the band's fifth album, Neon Golden. The Notwist's previous stabs at fusing pop, techno, punk and jazz were dominated by post-adolescent melancholy and petulance; and though Neon Golden finds them still obsessing about locked rooms and missed chances, the album also acknowledges the pleasures of stasis, the distant possibility of change, and an overall affinity with the "freaks" who stay in one place and watch the world go by. Throughout the record, singer/guitarist Markus Acher half-whispers his confessions, while also supplying tuneless guitar drone and arranging the atmospheric orchestrations, as his bassist brother Micha provides bounce, drummer Martin Messerschmidt cuts danceable beats into disjointed abstractions, and programmer Martin Gretschmann puts all of the random sounds into an ornate frame, channeling chaos into a subtly stunning reflection of the human condition. It's music for neo-modernists.
Enduring presence? What I like best about The Notwist is that weird disjunction in their songs—the sense that at one point each track had a dozen different arrangements, and the band is trying to find ways to offer examples of each. I obviously haven't heard their latest, but I'm hoping it stays in much the same vein, trapping possibilities.
Years Of Operation 1993-present
Fits Between The Bottle Rockets and Rank & File
Personal Correspondence I tuned into Austin City Limits one night in the late '90s because I wanted to see Whiskeytown, a band I'd been hearing a lot about but hadn't yet experienced firsthand. The Whiskeytown segment was good, but I was even more excited by the other half of the episode, which featured Old 97s. It had been a long time since I'd heard an alt-country act goose up the tempos, brighten up the melodies, and shoot for something more about fun than second-hand misery. The band's early albums didn't live up to what I'd seen on ACL, but they had a breakthrough with Fight Songs, which links surging power-pop to muddy-booted roots-rock, expanding Americana to include the British Invasion. Sadly, I seem to have misplaced my copy of Fight Songs, so I've had to settle for an inferior live version of "Lonely Holiday" for my sample track—one that, unlike the Old 97s I saw on TV, is now living in a somewhat draggier place—but the song's sublime structure is still in place, with its multiple changes and a tune as sweet and chewy as taffy. "Lonely Holiday" is Old 97s at their peak, celebrating the tension between twang and coo.
Enduring presence? The post-Fight Songs Old 97s albums have been disappointing, though Satellite Rides has some great material too amidst the filler. Frankly, I prefer Rhett Miller's solo work to anything he's done with his old band in the '00s. But I'll save that discussion for the "R"s.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
NEU!, "Fuer Immer"
True confession time: My first awareness of NEU! came via a track on Ciccone Youth's The Whitey Album: "Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To NEU!" Because I'd never heard of the band before, I assumed the Youths were referring to Einstürzende Neubauten, and since I never liked Einstürzende Neubauten, even after I learned that NEU! was an entirely different band, I avoided them. I don't recall what convinced me to succumb and pick up NEU!'s first three albums—maybe it was seeing song titles like "Negativland" and wondering what similarities might exist between the two bands—but when I finally heard NEU!, I was drawn in by the way they played with minimalism, utilizing studio trickery and elaborate instrumentation to create soundscapes with rolls and curves.
The New Lost City Ramblers, "The Battleship Of Maine"
Old Crow Medicine Show, "Big Time In The Jungle"
It's pretty easy to make fun of the earnest, focused folkies from the hootenanny era—as Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind proved—but while I've got a very limited appetite for graduate-level musicologists and their dogged adherence to the old-timey, it's hard to deny the enduring influence. The songs revived (and written) by The New Lost City Ramblers have been covered by the likes of Neko Case and Michelle Shocked, and the way they took the ballads of old wars (as they do on "The Battleship Of Maine") and reapplied them to current ones is still a useful trick. The raucous folk quintet Old Crow Medicine Show borrows the tactic for "Big Time In The Jungle," a Vietnam narrative that connects OCMS to hippie-era jugband revivalists like Country Joe & The Fish and Mungo Jerry. Throwback musicians steer clear of redundancy when they see their tradition as a living and growing, not preserved under glass.
New Radicals, "Someday We'll Know"
It looks like this is the week for famous disappearing acts. New Radicals aren't as sorely missed as Neutral Milk Hotel, though the band's one and only album, Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too, certainly held a lot of promise, and I for one expected singer/songwriter/producer Gregg Alexander to join fellow lush pop-rockers Rufus Wainwright and Eric Matthews in leading a mini-revolution. Alas, Alexander went the refusenik route, which especially bummed out my Todd Rundgren-loving bride, who enjoyed hearing a young musician aspiring to Rundgren-level effusions of orchestration and soaring melody. The most famous New Radicals song is "You Get What You Give," but while I still like that one—overplayed as it is—the first New Radicals song that caught my ear was this simpler, less overbearing romantic anthem.
New York Dolls, "Trash"
I've been listening to my Jonathan Richman CDs in the car a lot over the past few weeks, and thinking about the whole pre-punk era, wondering how audiences reacted to primitives like Modern Lovers and New York Dolls in the era of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. If you watch footage of the Dolls, they don't seem too far removed from The Rolling Stones, aside from the dresses and make-up, but they're decidedly rawer and messier. Did people who went to a New York Dolls show in 1972 think they were seeing something awesome, or amateurish? Did they think the Dolls might be good someday if they learned how to play cleaner, or did they think there could be no better expression of the rock ideal than the three-minute bash of "Trash?"
Nic Armstrong & The Thieves, "On A Promise"
I don't change my mind very often when it comes to reviews I write, but while I still like this song from Armstrong's debut The Greatest White Liar, I wish I could take back my gushing review of the album, which included praise like "the kind of old-fashioned Merseybeat record that could've come out in early 1965, in the first post-Beatlemania wave…and would've been a classic" and "the songs are short and catchy, with a fuzzy abandon that's never abrasive" Within a week or two of writing that, I suddenly realized that the album was kind of abrasive, and nowhere near as vibrant or likable as the music that influenced it. The faint aroma of rat I picked up turned out to be prescient. Armstrong subsequently changed the name of his band to IV Thieves, and released a follow-up album that was an ungainly mash of peppy Britpop and thudding hard rock, sounding like Nick Lowe crossed with Oasis. It was too heavy, too sparkly, too slow, and too much. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.
The Nice Boys, "Teenage Nights"
I wrote glowingly about The Exploding Hearts a while back, and now here's a song featuring the band's sole surviving member, guitarist Terry Six. The Nice Boys are another rough-hewn power-pop band, more beholden to Cheap Trick and The Boomtown Rats than The Buzzcocks. It isn't fair to compare The Nice Boys to The Exploding Hearts, because Six's doesn't appear to be on pace to become the next big thing. Still, a song like "Teenage Nights" is the kind of primitive stomper that any rock band would be proud to claim. Whatever the circumstances, it's great that people still feel the urge to crank up their guitars and describe what it's like to be young and in love.
Night Ranger, "Sister Christian"
I'm not sure why a song like the above-mentioned "Teenage Nights" has more critical credibility than a hunk of cheese like this '80s power ballad, since both share the same intention, to translate adolescent horniness into rocking rhythms and triumphant power chords. Maybe it's that "Sister Christian" sounds too much like it's straining. Me, I've always thought the song was a classic of its kind, even before P.T. Anderson used it to underscore a tense, surreal drug deal in Boogie Nights. The lyrics are mostly nonsense, but there's really only one word that matters in the song: "Motorin'." That one word explains why "Sister Christian" was a hit in its day, and is still a retro-radio standard.
Nina Simone, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"
It's somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I'd had zero exposure to Nina Simone prior to watching Life On Mars and seeing the episode in which Simone's "Sinnerman" drives the climactic action. I bought the two-disc Simone Anthology the next day, and dove right in. Given Simone's powerful voice, she could've easily spent her career bellowing traditionalist blues and jazz numbers and done quite well, but it's impressive how much she strived to stay relatively contemporary in the '60s and '70s, while still pursuing her own interests in African music, gospel and early jazz. This song is a Civil Rights era classic, cued toward keeping the movement alive at a time when complacency was starting to set in, and the core values of the movement—liberty and dignity—were being consumed by squabbles over the proper degree of militancy.
Nine Inch Nails, "Head Like A Hole (Live)"
I've never been an NIN cultist—not even a little—though I respected what Trent Reznor was up to much in the same way I respected what Nirvana was doing. I saw the band live twice: Once on the first Lollapalooza tour, where "Head Like A Hole" was their big showstopper, and once on the Downward Spiral tour, where they played a small, sit-down Nashville venue with opening acts Marilyn Manson and The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. (Ah, the '90s.) That second show was one of the best concerts I've ever seen. The stage was strewn with junk, giving Rezor's nihilism a post-apocalyptic context, and the synthesizers were all on flexible stands that allowed Reznor and his mates to fling them around while they played, liberating them from standing in place. It was far closer to punk than I'd ever seen any electronics-bound act get on stage, and singularly thrilling.
Nino Moschella, "Didn't You See Her"
Bay Area retro-funk-soul wizard Nino Moschella occasionally veers into facile Jamiroquai/Matisyahu/G. Love territory, but mostly he spins loose, likeable fragments of blue-eyed Afrobeat, layered with psychedelic guitar and his own sweet, raspy voice. The brief, bright "Didn't You See Her" should've been a hit in my opinion, with its walking bass, trap drums, steel-string guitar, and spun-sugar melody.
Nirvana, "Pentecost Hotel"
No not that one; the other one. I got this from an Uncut magazine CD called "The Roots Of Tommy," and while I'm doubtful that The Who patterned their rock opera even a little bit on Nirvana's concept album The Story Of Simon Simopath (though it did predate Tommy by over a year), songs like "Pentecost Hotel" are clearly steps along the path to the full-fledged art-rock movement that would emerge at the end of the '60s, blending theater, pop history and literary technique into music that demanded more of listeners.
No Age, "My Life's Alright Without You"
I haven't heard No Age's latest album, but I thought the duo's debut LP Weirdo Rippers made excellent use of negative space, sporting the primitive acidity of lo-fi brats like Pavement, Clinic, Wire and early Ramones, while simultaneously cutting pieces out, to see if the structure would hold. No Age's approach to punk abstraction pays off best on songs like "My Life's Alright Without You," where the band creates pools of hypnotic guitar murk, and then abruptly clears it away to reveal snappy beats and scraps of melody.
Nobody & Mystic Chords Of Memory, "Decisions, Decisions"
Nobody & Mystic Chords Of Memory's album-length collaboration Tree Colored See combines the talents of one of the West Coast's most in-demand producer/remixers and a collective of indie-rock psychedelicists. The results showcase both halves of the equation well: Nobody's crackly, jazzy trip-hop sounds appealingly focused when applied to actual songs, while Mystic Chords Of Memory's airy, country-inflected drones sound fuller and more transporting with the addition of a few well-chosen samples.
NOMO, "Nu Tones"
I've been pleased to see the renewed interest in Afrobeat among young bands, especially as groups like the Michigan-based music majors NOMO try to push the genre into the 21st century, moving away from the sound of the dusty villages the bandmembers have never experienced firsthand and toward something more relevant to the computer age.
North Mississippi Allstars, "Drop Down Mama"
Electric blues revivalists and southern rockers clog our nation's nightclubs, aimlessly jamming and giving lead-footed beer drinkers a chance to dance. At their least inspired, North Mississipi Allstars can sound like just another lumbering beast in the pack, but at their best, guitarist Luther Dickinson, his drumming younger brother Cody and bassist Chris Chew use earthy, traditional blues arrangements as a context from which to spring into focused, energized instrumental improvisation. Luther is an astonishingly fluid musician who bounces around in the flexible net provided by his rhythm section, hopping from thick roots-rock grooves to lighting-fast, punk-inspired displays of guitar frenzy. In the great blues ensemble tradition, the Allstars wait for the chance to play serve-and-volley with their instruments, stringing the audience along with the promise of fireworks around every chorus.
Now It's Overhead, "Walls"
Multi-instrumentalist Andy LeMaster proved his songwriting mettle on his first two albums under the name Now It's Overhead. On the third, 2006's Dark Light Daybreak, LeMaster showed off his skills as a recording engineer and music theorist, constructing tracks as exciting and mercurial as "Walls," a blend of early-'80s prog and post-punk, topped with an amazingly punchy drum sound.
Number One Cup, "Malcolm's X-Ray Picnic"
Inspired equally by Pavement, Polvo, Archers Of Loaf and other early '90s indie-rockers that I've probably already forgotten, Number One Cup were one of dozens of go-nowhere '90s bands that I invested far more time in appreciating than I ever got back. Today, I hardly think about them at all, though I do think this song from their second album Wrecked By Lions still has value, if only as a period piece.
Oakley Hall, "I'll Follow You"
I was going to launch into a long rant about my colleague Kyle Ryan's blanket dismissal of the mellow-fication of alternative rock in his recent coverage of the Pitchfork festival, but I ultimately decided to let it go. If people don't dig sweet harmonies, dreamy melodies and guitar solos, that's their loss. It certainly won't diminish my enjoyment of bands like this New York sextet, who are positioned somewhere in the nexus of X, My Morning Jacket and The New Pornographers, with multiple voices and an arsenal of sounds getting ample space to make themselves heard. Oakley Hall's almost indescribably transcendent quality burns through in songs like "I'll Follow You," which evokes the reassuring fellowship of a campfire.
Let us now praise famous Noels. I hate to disappoint my fellow Noels—or Oasis fans, for that matter—but I'm just not a huge fan of this band. Too much bombast and glitz for me, and not enough melody. (In the Blur/Oasis war, I tend to side with Pulp. And Supergrass.) I don't have a carefully thought out critique of Oasis, because honestly, I've given them very little thought over the years. They have songs I like—this grandiose stomper, for example—but for the most part I've been turned off by what's struck me as a level of arrogance in the Gallaghers disproportionate to the quality of their music. But I also willingly acknowledge that they mean a lot to a large group of people, and by no means do I intend to disparage that devotion. If anything, this is just another example of how much personal history affects matters of taste. If Oasis had come around five years earlier, when I was listening to a lot of booming Britpop, or five years later, when I was more forgiving of bands aspiring to be the greatest of all time, I probably wouldn't have rejected them so easily, and I'd have many happy Oasis memories to carry me past their shortcomings. Sadly, either they were born at the wrong time, or I was.
The Oblivians, "I'm No Sicko There's A Plate In My Head"
We're still a month away from getting to my beloved The Reigning Sound, but on the way to Greg Cartwright's most significant contribution to modern music, let's detour through his first major band, The Oblivians, who released a messy spurt of singles, EPs and LPs in the mid-'90s, relying more on attitude than skill.
The Obscure, "Dearborn"
This defunct Nashville band released two entertaining, energized records full of urban grime and Technicolor scope, enlivened by fluid arrangements, mighty, multilayered riffs, a seamless integration of soul, retro-rock and sophisticated pop, and just the right touch of scruffy disreputability. If I'm being honest though, The Obscure only had one song that was truly great in and of itself, and not due to its smart sound. This paean to bandleader Mike Gogola's hometown—how he hated it, then learned to love it—is a thing of wonder, heartfelt and true.
Of Montreal, "Neat Little Domestic Life"
The Olivia Tremor Control, "Jumping Fences"
I don't mean to diminish the accomplishments of Of Montreal and The Olivia Tremor Control by making them footnotes to the Neutral Milk Hotel entry, because both those bands were (and still are, to some extent) as formidable as NMH were. The problem with both is that their frontmen—Kevin Barnes for Of Montreal and Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart for OTC—tried to make such a big splash from the start that they released albums packed with pointless experiments and untenable concepts. Cut the crap from the early Of Montreal and The Olivia Tremor Control albums and you've got some astonishingly good EPs, anchored by the kind of catchy songs that any compiler of a '90s version of Nuggets would do well to preserve.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Nelly Furtado, New Buffalo, New Grass Revival, New Model Army, Nickel Creek, Nico, Nils Lofgren, Nino Rota, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, NOFX, Norah Jones, The Normal, Norman Blake, The O'Jays, The Ocean Blue, Ofra Haza, Ohio Players, Okkervil River, and Olivia Newton-John
Neilson Hubbard, The Nein, Nena, Neon Horse, New Amsterdams, The New Being
Human, New Birth Brass Band, New Cassettes, New Colony Six,
Fire, New Mexican Disaster, New
Relics, New Violators, Newcomer, Next Evidence,
The Nextmen, Nick Castro & The Young Elders, Nico Vega, Nicole Kea, Nicole
Willis & The Soul Investigators, Nightmares On Wax,
Nightnoise, Nikki Flores, Nil
Lara, Nina Gordon, Nina Nastasia,
Nine Black Alps, No Knife, No River City, No Second
Troy, No-Neck Blues Band, No. 1 De No. 1, Noel
Ellis, Noel Gallagher, Nona Hendryx, Norfolk & Western,
The Norm Wooster Singers, Norma Waterson, Norman Brown,
Norman Greenbaum, The North Atlantic, Northern State, Nostalgia 77, The
Notations, Nothing Painted Blue, Nous Non Plus, Nouvelle
Vague, Novaspace, The Noveltones, The Now People, Numbers,
Nurses, NuSpirit Helsinki, Nyles Lannon, The
Nylons, O.V. Wright, Obie Trice, Ocean Colour Scene, The Octopus
Project, Ofo The Black Company, OGM, Oh! Penelope, Ohio
Express, Ohmega Watts, The Ohsees, OK Go, Okay, Ola Belle Reed, Ola Podrida,
Old And In The Way, The Old Haunts, Old Time Relijun, Oliver
Cheatham, Oliver Smith and Olivia Maxwell
Next week: From Operation Ivy to The Pernice Brothers, plus a few words on sloppiness