Thursday, December 22, 2011

Album Review: Wilco: The Whole Love

Wilco's newest LP, The Whole Love, is their most satisfying record to date.  Ever since the release of their their decade defining album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001, their fanbase has gradually continued to grow.  The history of Wilco is unique and indicative of the how the music industry has changed in the past twenty years.  The Whole Love is a really good album in the tradition of the Beatles.

One of the great ironies of the Chicago based band is that some critics like to scoff at them as the practioners of safe, 'middle of the road' music that pleases a late boomer/gen x demographic.  They began with no certain fan base in mind and continue to work that way.  As an outgrowth of the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, Wilco began with little fanfare.  Tweedy, considered second to Tupelo's lead songwriter Jay Farrar, has become a highly respected American songwriter.

A.M. (1995) Wilco's debut album continued in the alt-country mode of Uncle Tupelo.  A low key, promising debut.

Being There (1996) A highly ambitious double album that celebrates 1970s classic rock, precursor to the revivial of rock in the next decade. The track "I got you (at the end of the century)" is the best example of a classic rock pastiche.

Mermaid Avenue (1998) Their colloboration with Billy Bragg of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs is great folk-rock.

Summerteeth (1999) A pop extravaganza, height of Tweedy's colloboration with Jay Bennett. Filled with over the top production and haunting lyrics.  But still no hits.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)  A landmark record for Wilco that got them dropped by their label and almost broke up the band.  They were dubbed the 'American Radiohead.'

A Ghost is Born (2004) Tweedy's dark state of mind during this record comes through with songs about spiders filing tax returns, a stroll with the devil, coming to terms with addiction, and the loss of faith. Possibly their masterpiece.

Sky Blue Sky (2007) After two experiemental albums, a collection of mellow jam sessions - Nels Cline's guitar work adds a new dimension to Wilco.

Wilco: The Album (2009) Excellent set of songs, but some worried the album was too safe and lacked invention.

The Whole Love combines all the great elements of Wilco's past.  The opening song, 'Art of Almost,' recalls YHF and A Ghost is Born with its dark soundscapes and a mad guitar solo from Cline.  Another highlight is "I Might," a psychodelic organ driven song with Tweedy gleefully singing the chorus, "You won't set the kids on fire, oh but I might."  The Beatles have always been a major influence, especially the White Album.  Their influence is clear on 'Capitol City,' 'Sunloathe,' and 'Whole Love.' 

Wilco is an amazing example of a band surviving and making it an increasingly segmented culture where every musical act is marketed to a specific demographic.  They draw upon a number of different influences, no different than Beatles, Stones, or Dylan, and make it their own.  They do it the old fashioned way: make good albums and  play every concert like it's their last. But you still can't hear them on the radio. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961)

  After reading "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates, it is tempting to wonder if this is just another novel about suburban alienation in the 1960s.  On the surface Frank and April appear as a typically happy young couple with two kids and a nice house.  Frank works as a ad man for a machinery company and April stays at home.  Yates does not despise these characters and writes about them with compassion and understanding.  Frank, who once had ambitions for a career in the "humanities," feels hopeless about his future in a pointless job on Madison Avenue.  April is haunted by a painful childhood and longs for a life outside of the suburbs.

Divided into three parts, the second part follows their aborted plans to move to Paris.  To them, Paris is more of a symbol than a real place.  Frank associated the city with his time in the army, a time when he felt most alive. Both also see the city of light as a place with culture and not the blandness of their affluent suburb.  For a brief time it appears their marriage will survive, but the sheer boldness of their plan overtakes them.  Instead of a novel about breaking away from an unsatisfying existence, it becomes one of lost hopes.

Some of the sentiments in Revolutionary Road match those of David Riesman's 1950 classic study of American conformity, The Lonely Crowd.  Ironically, in the novel Frank and April are aware of their need of approval from their neighbors and the dangers of breaking away from social norms.  In one of Frank's most inspired moments he states, "The whole country's rotten with sentimentality . . . This steady, insistent vulgarizing of every idea and every emotion into some kind of pre-digested intellectual baby food; this optimistic, smiling-through, easy-way-out sentmentality in everybody's view of life."  These ideas foreshadowed cultural shifts in the 1960s, but remain quite relevant, in our even more anxiety ridden time.

Back to my original question, there is a compassion for the characters from Yates, but for the setting.  The novel's epigram from Keats, "Alas! when passion is both meek and mild!" is a great way of looking at all the characters.  Most are self-aware, but have something within that holds them back.  Above all this is a character study that is set in a particular time in American history, but not exclusive to that time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: Salem's Lot by Stephen King

Stephen King's second novel Salem's Lot reimagined Bram Stoker's Dracula by setting the story in 1970s America.  The novel set the formula King used for many of his other big novels, a small town is under threat from sinister forces, but as is often the case the people tend to be their own worst enemy.  The darkness underlying the reality in most small towns is fertile ground for great fiction and King is the master at tapping into that darkness.  Salem's Lot has its share of scares and social commentary, but suffers from an assortment of minor characters that slow down the story.

Ben Mears is the protagonist in Salem's Lot, a succesful young novelist that returns to his childhood home to research his new book.  Along the way, he begins a romance with a young artist Susan and eventually discovers that Jerusalem's Lot is infested with vampires.  King sketches out several of the locals from Salem's Lot, some join Ben in his fight against the vampires. Another key character is Tim Petrie, a perceptive child that sees the vampire threat.  Another fascinating character is the local priest Father Callahan, who is an Irish version of the Exorcist.

In his updated preface, King writes about his struggle in creating a vampire story in post-Vietnam America.  The villians are Nixonian: they rarely appear and tend to work in the shadows.  In many ways, the story owes more to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, rather than the classic Dracula story. The novel has bleak conclusion where the forces of evil prevail adds to the novel's power.  King takes awhile to develop the story so the middle is slow, but the final 200 pages are spellbinding.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray

Are rock albums worthy of a 500+ page book?  In this case, all I can say is there are worse ways to spend one's time.  I liked the book.  Marcus Gray's detailed study of London Calling is much more than a by the numbers "making of"  account, but a portrait of a time eerily similar to our own.  The year 1979 witnessed the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a near nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, massive unemployment in the West, the end of detente after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the rise of conservative leaders, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  All  the songs on London Calling were an indirect response to those events, but also a dialogue with the past that offered some glimmers of hope for the future.  Route 19 Revisited will immerse you into the world of The Clash and make you reexamine your own world- in a good way.

The Clash (1976-1985) Joe Strummer (guitar, vocals), Mick Jones (guitar, vocals), Paul Simonon (bass), and Topper Headon (drums) burst onto the scene in 1976 as part of the "punk" movement.  During the mid 1970s, disillusioned youth were angry at the direction of popular music with corporate rock bands that played safe middle of the road music (Boston, Wings), ego driven bands who made their millions and then ignored their fans (The Rolling Stones), and pretentious "art" rock (Pink Floyd) (Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten was noted for wearing "Pink Floyd Sucks!" t-shirts).  The release of Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols in 1977, dubbed "Year Zero" in the punk manifesto, sent a sledgehammer into the music industry. All the songs were under three minutes with sneering vocals spewing venom at anyone that pissed them off.  The punk manifesto divided the world up between the loves and the hates. The hates were establishment and "souless consumerists", while the loves were charismatic outlaws, amoral, unconventional. 

Their debut album, The Clash (1977) was received as a punk masterpiece, but also hinted at their ambition to go beyond the confines of punk.  While tracks like "Remote Control," "I'm So Bored with the USA," and "Career Opportunities" all fit into the anti-authoritarian punk ethos, others like "Police and Thieves" experimented with reggae.  After touring America with Bo Diddley, Strummer and Jones traveled to Jamaica to prepare for an album of all reggae music.  Their sophomore LP, Give Em' Enough Rope, which featured a cover with an army of Maoists marching over a dead American cowboy, flopped with critics and nearly forced the band out of their recording contract with CBS.

In 1979, the Clash regrouped and wrote one of rock's all-time great albums.  The iconic cover, with Simonson smashing his bass guitar, symbolized their rage at the bleak world of 1970s Great Britain. But as Gray points out, a recurring theme throughout the album is dealing with that anger and channeling it towards positive ends.  The styles of the songs move from 1950s rockabilly, disco, reggae, ska, rock - blending genres and styles in a way not seen since the Beatles.  Many of the songs originated from newspaper articles, books, and movies they were watching - with subjects running the gambit from the Spanish Civil War, Montgomery Clift, consumerism, coca-cola, and revolutionary politics.

Gray wrote an essay for every song that delves into the cinematic, literary, and musical influences behind them.  Like the Beatles, the Clash rarely created anything original, but took all their influences and shaped them into their own distinct style.  For instance, on "Death or Glory," Gray connects the ideas in the song to Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" and the 1942 film Casablanca.  Strummer wrote "Spanish Bombs" after reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.  The opener, "London Calling," drew upon news headlines that predicted another ice age, the end of the world's oil supply, and a Third World War.  The lyric "zombies of death" came directly from the first modern zombie novel, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, another book they were reading.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in rock and roll history. Gray wrote that London Calling continues to endure not because of its dark themes, but its "defiant spirit, its power to uplift, and determination to lead by example . . .  it looks fear in the eye, then pulls on its boots and goes out to face the day."  Like any great album its meaning will change after repeated listening - and of course, be sure not to get lost in the supermarket.   

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Album Review: The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

The Nylon Curtain (1982) is arguably Billy Joel's finest album.  It is a collection of songs directly inspired by the Beatles and the bittersweet realities of the Reagan era.

  The opener ,"Allentown," is a lament about the economic issues that plagued the Midwest in the 1980s.  Joel writes about the high unemployment and the declining expectations of the new generation, "every child had a pretty good shot of getting at least far as their old man got/but something happened on the way to that place and they threw an American flag in our face." 

In a similar vein is "Goodnight Saigon," his only direct song about the Vietnam War.  By the 1980s the passions of the had diminished and the narrative of the began to change. President Reagan, who called the conflict a "noble war," moved Americans to forget the painful politics of the era and placed emphasis on the sacrifice of the soldiers.  Popular films like The Deer Hunter and First Blood were examples of the shift in attitude on Vietnam by avoiding the politics of the era.  The song is written from the point of view of a soldier on the ground who did his duty in spite of the horrible conditions he faced.  Joel also avoided the politics and wrote about remembering those who continue to struggle after the war - very much in the tone of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Other highlights include "Laura", "Surprise, Surprise," and "Scandinavian Skies."  On "Laura" Joel channels the spirit of John Lennon (even sounds like him) in a song similar to "Sexy Sadie" and "I'm So Tired" from the White album.  Meanwhile, "Surprise, Surprise" is a nod to Wings era McCartney.  One of the hidden gems in Joel's catalogue, "Scandinavian Skies," is a cryptic song about a haunting tour through Europe.  Is it about the travails of touring?  On closer reading there are references to holocaust (Joel's father was a survivor), punctuated by the haunting strings, in lyrics like "The Sins of Amsterdam were still a recent surprise" and "the tour of Germany Was bleeding into our eyes."  The pristine sound of the song captures the majesty of European civilization, but also the darkness that lays beneath all the "culture" of Europe.

Whatever one's opinion of Joel's later career and the fact he has not made an album since 1993, it remains a soundtrack for the baby boom generation.  His later albums moved away from social commentary to banal pop songs, devoid of the adventurous production in The Nylon Curtain.  Perhaps MTV is to blame for destroying the singer-songwriter era and putting image above all else. Some flourished in this environment, but most did not.  But that's another story.