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
“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
Filled to surfeit with material served whole and in need of mastication, Sandinista! offers three albums’ worth of songs by a band whose self-confidence darkened their quality control. Sprawl is the intention and the result. That’s the least of Sandinista!‘s problems, though. The vaporous, echo-laden mix declaws even good to great songs like “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Up in Heaven.” Hooks they’ve got, committed performances by Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and the impeccable rhythm section too; the songs don’t stick, alas. Committed to finalizing their infatuation with dub and reggae rhythms, The Clash produce the rock tunes as if they were dub and reggae. I wonder how Eddy Grant might’ve produced the excellent third side.
If Sandinista! has a principle, let’s call Monetism. Like the French Impressionist’s obsession with painting the same damn haystack as the light changes, The Clash re-record “Junco Partner,” “If Music Could Talk,” and others, dub-ifying them; they transform “Career Opportunities” into a terrifying playground chant sung by children, as if to stress how despair is universal. As statements these tracks “work” in the traditional sense — manifestos from a quartet audibly in love with playing together. Continue reading
I suppose I’v got a variant on this list someplace, but #newnormal, right? Several things raise my ire. The first three came to me without fuss, while the sixth item remains a long-standing bugaboo. Continue reading
I gotta hand it to Bernie Taupin, for writing the most fucked-up libretto in the history of pop music double albums. On Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John recorded a series of myths and reveries: about Marilyn Monroe, The Wizard of Oz, lesbians and prostitutes, cowboys named Danny Bailey, and girls named Alice. Like the faceless non-out queer he was in 1973-1974, Elton judged none of these myths, simply setting them to music and coming as close as anyone has to T.S. Eliot’s detachment. What I want from a fraught double album comes from understanding how Goodbye Yellow Brick Road functions; even good songs like “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” are a couple minutes too long, and songs about women come from the pen of a man who knew little about them except what he gleaned from movies. Harmony and Bernie are pretty good company. Continue reading
The culmination of a remarkable hit streak, Songs in the Key of Life coalesced Stevie Wonder’s vaporous one-world banalities and funk touchstones in a double-album-plus that became a world-conquering smash. It’s not his best album, nor the album to which you’d introduce a skeptic, but the space allows him occupancy of certain corners of black American life in the Carter era. A world-historic singer-instrumentalist had to offer tracks as loose-grooved as “Black Man” and “Joy Inside My Tears,” both of which acted as summa for twenty years of advances and as tombstones for thirty years of stasis. Pieces like “Sir Duke” don’t get beached on their nostalgia, nor do talks with God get obnoxious; only the instrumentals do.
If these rankings rankle, know that I recoil from insistent joy (“Isn’t She Lovely”).
Isn’t She Lovely
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
If It’s Magic
Love’s in Need of Love Today
All Day Sucker
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
Have a Talk with God
Good to Great
Joy Inside My Tears
Knocks Me Off My Feet
A double album released when he had no expectation of mass success, The River established Bruce Springsteen as a songwriter-bandleader capable of terse Seger-length material. The un-sprawl was the point. So fervently do Springsteen and the E Street-ers believe in the courtship rites of “The Price You Pay” and “I Wanna Marry You” and “Sherry Darling” that they transcend the material’s second-tier level; never before or since would he squeeze average materials through such tightly clenched fists. The title track aside, the second disc’s ballads boast a studied prettiness; he’s proud he wrote’em, despite the first-draft blankness of man of them (“Drive All Night” doesn’t justify its length, for example). “Wreck on the Highway” isn’t as parched as its Nebraska cousins, though.
In other words, Springsteen would do better, which might explain why The River‘s overlooked. He would pilfer his own riff in “Cadillac Ranch” for the sake of Born in the U.S.A‘s superior “Darlington County”; he would pilfer the breakthroughs. Compressing his melodramas for the sake of intensity, Springsteen discovered another way. Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A., and Tunnel of Love would show audiences how unyieldingly he’d learned to stare at corpses. Continue reading