Author Archives: humanizingthevacuum

Ranking OutKast’s ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’

I got nuthin’ except Songs in the Key of Life, a double album as culmination after a half decade of commercial and critical coups whose ambitions obscured blah material. On first listen both albums equally drag: Andre 3000 wastes his below average acoustic guitar chops and poor singing on Paul Stanley-level ballads (“Stank you very much” indeed) while Big Boi smears horn charts on perfectly respectable hip-hop soul. As the rankings show, Big Boi wins without contest. I was around at the time, and Andre’s ambitions by many critics were treated as if they were realized, while ruminative Big Boi material like “Unhappy” and dense P-Funk worthy funk like “The Rooster” took a couple months to earn their acclaim. Yet they did. That’s what double albums are supposed to do. Continue reading

John Prine — RIP

“When I woke up this mornin’/Things were lookin’ bad,” he sang on the first song on his eponymous debut album in 1972 over basic chords. Many songwriters would’ve stopped right there. In the next line, however, comes the kicker: a bowl of oatmeal tries to stare him down — and wins! To be a successful absurdist is to observe a monotheistic faith in precision. On John Prine (1971), the late singer-songwriter got away with zingers less talented artists would’ve pulled their eyeballs out for, couched in melodies as homespun and casual as the prose Prine chiseled as accompaniment. Who else besides perhaps Loudon Wainwright III in the seventies would’ve summed up the depredations into which a heroin addict had sunk with the line, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” in “Sam Stone”? Perfection and inevitability are synonymous — among songwriters Prine made it so. Continue reading

Ranking Pavement’s ‘Wowee Zowee’

Wowee Zowee is pitched halfway between the indulgence of a superstar or cult hero, and the run-of-the-mill oddities that have passed for normal in the indie world for years now,” Eric Weisbard observed in his review for SPIN Magazine in May 1995, a 7 out of 10-star judgment that also deemed WZ “an underground game of musical chairs.” Which means it functions like a double album by people with some money to burn, and a persona to burn using money as kindling. Not much money — Pavement was on Matador.

Since buying it in the early summer of 1998, WZ has hovered near the top of my Pavement pile: their grandest, silliest, most inscrutable statement. Listening to it today, the songs quake under the scrutiny; what seemed like fetching casualness sounds sloppy now, unrealized. For every stop-start wonder like “Rattled by the Rush” — what a terse description of good Pavement! — and woozy, aqueous call-to-action like “Motion Suggests,” there’s half-ass moments of half-assery, an album that worships The Beatles “Wild Honey Pie” while looking askance at “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”; or, to take a post-punk example, a gnomic garble from Double Nickles on the Dime without the requisite instrumental concentration. I don’t care if Pavement intend “Fight This Generation” as parody of the here-we-are-now-entertain-us cohort or as a tentative contribution; it ain’t worth it.

Yet I love the indigo slipshod blueness of Wowee Zowee anyway. Here’s an album meant to be inhaled, not endured. Continue reading

What happens when a Lexus and a olive tree collide?

I’d hoped to save a mention of this drivel until tomorrow — a line at most — but I’m so infuriated and my mussels and spinach pasta lunch so unsatisfying that I must vent this diseased spleen. A readymade assembled with a caulking gun, Diet Sunkist, and remaindered copies of Richard Nixon’s In the Arena, “What America Needs Next: A Biden National Unity Cabinet” violates every canon of journalism and effective writing: from the headline to the commas, it contains not a single example of wit, perspicuity, or a pulse. Continue reading

Ranking George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’

Considered the apex of what the solo Beatles were capable of soon after their dissolution, All Things Must Pass has recovered from its huge initial sales and subsequent condescension, perhaps too enthusiastically. Phil Spector’s co-production puts strain on George Harrison’s weedy vocals that his sturdy material and excellent guitar work (doubled and tripled by Eric Clapton and Dave Mason and his own overdubs) often overcome. It’s on this basis that All Things Must Pass still comes off. The originality of Harrison’s solo statement remains underreported.

At a historical moment when establishment shibboleths were rightly questioned, Harrison wrote a suite of songs that appealed to a higher power for a personal transcendence to which he and his millions of fans were unsuited, philosophically and otherwise. “Run of the Mill,” “Beware of Darkness,” and the stolid dirge “Isn’t It a Pity” were not what audiences wanted from a Beatle. Thus, the missives were ignored, the album was embraced: they wanted A Grand Statement in 1970 from a Beatle, and the novelty of George Harrison instead of Paul and John delivering it nullified criticism. When things got grotty, he could pull throwaways like an “Apple Scruffs” or “I’d Have You Anytime” out of his pocket to show he could be a facile as Paul ‘n’ John. Inelegant, didactic by design, hortatory by force of its production and presentation, All Things Must Pass will stand as an uneasy triumph for generations. Gregorian chants? Well and good. Prayers with epic organ? Well.

NB: I omitted the “Apple Jams.”

Meh Continue reading

Brief histories of infamous men: Coronavirus update #11

In a sign of the extraordinary times, I used UberEats for the first time on Friday. A second time yesterday. Loath to order food I couldn’t pick up myself, I acquiesced when I saw the list of options. Yet I ordered from the same terrific Indian restaurant. Some people in recent weeks watch Sex and the City or snuggle into favorites; I order shrimp-coconut curry with charred corn and paneer. Continue reading

Ranking Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’

The album that captured Bob Dylan at the peak of the wild speed-fueled exploration of what language mated with folk, blues, and Beatles-derived verities could do, Blonde on Blonde was also a double album, hence uneven by design and nature. I owned the shitty-ass Columbia tape version in the early nineties, a car staple. I played “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “I Want You” often, skipped through many of the more generic pieces. I discovered BOB the same year Forrest Gump ruined “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” for a generation. But this budding Dylan fan who loved him for Oh Mercy and Bringing It All Back Home preferred those albums, and when he discovered John Wesley Harding he understood where his loyalties lay.

The Hague

Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

Meh

Temporary Like Achilles

Sound, Solid

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”
Pledging My Time
Absolutely Sweet Marie
Just Like a Woman
4th Time Around
Obviously 5 Believers”

Good to Great

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
I Want You
Visions of Johanna
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)