Lately I’ve been reading more music blogging, both from my perennial favourite Popular and the now defunct but fully archived The War Against Silence. Popular is of course Tom Ewing’s rundown of every UK number 1 since the charts started. The War Against Silence was a deeply engaged, deeply subjective run-down of all the albums and singles glenn mcdonald bought and found worth writing about – and boy did he buy a lot! TWAS comes very close to my ideal of how to write about music, and indeed has already helped form that idea within weeks of me plunging into the archives: glenn’s writing is passionate, informed, based on a catholic taste with few genre-related biases, and most of all explicitly rejects the Robert Christgau model of music reviewing as consumer advice, a model of which the limitations become painfully obvious from diving into Christgau’s own online archives or checking his reviews of older albums that have since become foundational records for entire genres of music.
Reading TWAS has made me more interested in writing more music reviews myself, and writing them in a manner that is more similar to his approach, hopefully without copying it wholesale. So I’ve decided to go back to where I mostly stopped writing about music and review the records I’ve bought since, in more or less chronological order based on when I bought them. I rarely actually buy music the year it comes out and am often happy to get to know an artist more than a decade after I’ve become aware of them. This is why I don’t do End-Of-Year-Lists: they’d all be full of albums released ten years before the year under review.
Richard Thompson: Daring Adventures
1986, purchased in Nashville, Tennessee, November 2009
Of course, the first problem I run into is that I might as well copy wholesale what glenn mcdonald wrote about Thompson’s Amnesia, swap out the album title and call it my review of Daring Adventures:
I love [Daring Adventures]. I rarely see anybody else cite it as one of Richard Thompson’s finest moments, and if I had to weigh in on that subject in front of a critical audience I suppose even I’d probably chicken out and side predictably with I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out the Lights. Those are important albums. [Daring Adventures] is not important. But it is, I’ve discovered, [a] Richard Thompson album I [enjoy a lot], even more than Watching the Dark for all its stunning live recordings. I pull out a whole row of them, and look over their track listings, and even though there are dozens of great Richard Thompson songs that [Daring Adventures] doesn’t have, I remember what listening to those ten songs in that order feels like.
And so on. See? That works quite well. The individual songs don’t have exact analogues like that, but they do have “Jerry Scheff’s gruff bass and Thompson’s berserk solos”. I don’t quite see eye to eye with mcdonald about the other albums, mainly because I don’t think the rest of Thompson’s Mitchell Froom-produced work was on quite as bad a downward trajectory as he thinks it was (though as someone who got on the Thompson train with Mock Tudor – in the year it came out, no less – I was glad that he changed producers and approaches). But there is a freshness to both Daring Adventures and Amnesia that the albums from Rumor and Sigh on did not have. Some of the songwriting sounds like a repeat of earlier work: “Baby Talk” for instance has a clear ancestor in “Tear-Stained Letter” from Hands of Kindness, but is still enjoyable on its own terms. Daring Adventures is not a great album, but it is a very good one that fulfilled my need for Richard Thompson music between November 2009 and the day I bought Dream Attic.
Alice Cooper: Trash
Alice Cooper: Hey Stoopid
Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation of Alice
1989, 1990, 1994. 3-pack of CDs, bought in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in December, 2009
But by December of that same year, after months of buying no music because I was stashing all my disposable income into my savings account, I needed a larger music fix. At that point, it would not even have to be music I loved – I was quite happy to get some music I knew I would kinda sorta like, knowing it is cheese. So when I saw a rack full of cheaper-than-iTunes, 3-in-one CD packages and noticed that one of the items on sale was an Alice Cooper three-pack, I told Aggie: “I know this is cheese, but I’m buying it anyway.”
At the time, that might not have been entirely fair on Alice Cooper. I knew the singles that came from these albums, “Poison”, “Trash”, “Bed of Nails” and “Hey Stoopid”, but not much else. I knew that Trash was the third album after Alice had come out of rehab, and that the post-rehab albums tended to alternate between commercial (Constrictor, Poison) and heavy rock-oriented (Raise Your Fist And Yell, Hey Stoopid, but I had more or less lost interest by the time The Last Temptation came out, even though it was cross-marketed with a comic written by Neil Gaiman.
But even with that in mind, I realised that the only way I’d be able to handle three Alice Cooper albums at once was by sticking them in the random iTunes rotation. So I did, and a year later, each of the tracks on the albums has only been played six or seven times. And they’re wearing out their welcome. There are a few standouts, mostly “Hey Stoopid” the single, but the songs from Trash in particular have started getting on my nerves. Back in 1988, I thought the combination of Alice Cooper’s gruff voice and the writing/production of Bon Jovi producer Desmond Child was a brilliant idea, a good contrast artistically as well as a way to bring Cooper’s ideas to market. Now, it sounds like Child has tamed Alice Cooper more than Cooper managed to adrenalize Child. The backing vocals grate, the drums reverberate to simulate power rather than projecting it, and the songs just plod along. Listening to the album on headphones is even more uncomfortable – Steven Thompson and Michael Barbiero’s mix sounds anemic and unassured when listened to that closely. I am sure the album was exactly what Cooper needed and intended, and the formula worked as it was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. But to say it has aged poorly is putting it mildly. It’s not so much cheese as sludge. I do like the guitar playing on this record, when it’s audible, so it’s not a complete loss. Those arpeggios in “Poison” never get old.
Hey Stoopid is a big improvement. The sound is leaner, with the backing vocals in particular taking a step back, and the guest appearances on the opening title track by Slash and Ozzy Osbourne manage to catch my attention every time, and while nothing else on the album is quite as good, the songwriting, including the songs co-written by Child, is more varied and interesting. There are nice details in the intros and at the ends of the songs that reward listening on headphones, and I loved that moment when my oldest stepson walked by just as “Wind-Up-Toy” ended. “That is WRONG!” he said, clearly spooked. And it is. On the downside, there’s a little too much reliance on epic ballads, particularly “Might As Well Be On Mars”, which seems to go on forever, but I do like this one a whole lot better. Still, it’s not much to get passionate about, which is unfortunate for the type of review I want to learn to write. Maybe it’s simply not a good idea to buy records you expect will be cheesy, because you may end up being right?
The Last Temptation also has the nice productional touches, decent songs, a guest appearance by Chris Cornell and slightly more time for ballads than it should have. It’s a little closer to the sort of album Bob Ezrin would produce than to a real hard rock record, but that’s not a bad thing. It lacks stand-out tracks but hangs together well and is easily the least cheesy one of the three albums. It’s nice. Just right now, I don’t want to hear any more Alice Cooper. Three albums in a row really is more than I can handle.
Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant
2008, purchased in Murfreesboro, Tennessee
So let’s talk about Fleet Foxes instead! I first heard them in 2008 when my then driving instructor, of all people, played them in his car. He thought they sounded like the Byrds, I thought they sounded like Fairport Convention. I loved them right away. I bought their debut album on iTunes, loved it some more, but did not investigate them any further. The five-song EP Sun Giant was more or less contemporaneous with the debut album; Wikipedia says it was even recorded before the debut album. I like it every bit as much, but both records do have the same problem: the songs are very nice and pleasant to listen to, but don’t really stick in my head afterwards. In this case, I don’t think this is such a bad thing; I get enough of a kick out of the shimmering, stately, post-folk-rock sound they make not to mind that these songs are for living in for as long as they last, rather than for recalling afterwards. Both Fleet Foxes records remind me of the air vibrating off a hot pavement on a warm summer’s day. Even without memorable songwriting, they have quite enough to offer.