Autobiographical Order No. 202: Elliott Smith – either/or

It’s hard not to get kind of personal when talking about Elliott Smith. On many different occasions, I’ve said his album either/or is my favorite album of all time, and that’s more or less still true. I don’t listen to it as often as I used to, and since I’ve come to regard it so highly, I’ve also discovered many other albums that elicit similar emotional responses or levels of enjoyment. After all, Baroness is the only band that inspired me to get a tattoo.

I obtained Elliott Smith’s either/or with the same gift certificate I used to pick up the Japandroids album in my last blog, though I first bought a CD copy in 1998. Fun fact: It was shortly after I got a driver’s license and wanted to do independent teenager things like go record shopping with my friends. The friend that I went with, in this case, I later started dating in college and then married. Almost everyone else in high school I’ve more or less lost touch with, probably for the better. I might have more to say about that later, but in any case, this wasn’t necessarily anything out of the ordinary. Just a sunday record shopping trip. The clerks were a little disappointed when I brought the empty jewel case to the counter, though: They were listening to that album.

The funny thing about albums that mean so much to you and are so ingrained in your memory? You don’t think about buying new copies of them. At least I often don’t go there immediately. I mean, I still don’t have a copy of OK Computer on vinyl, though with the big fancy reissue coming out in July that’ll certainly change soon. But there I was at M-Theory, a copy of either/or in front of me and it was settled.

I firmly believe from front to back this is a perfect album. I may not necessarily treat every song like a highlight; I probably listen to “Punch and Judy” the least, though that doesn’t make it an inferior song. But then again I love “Cupid’s Trick,” the noisy rock song, and that one always fits in strangely with Smith’s oeuvre. Still, there are so many amazing tracks. “Pictures of Me” was an early favorite of mine, as was “Speed Trials,” the opening track. “Between the Bars” is a beautiful heartbreaker, and “Alameda” is one of the songs that kind of proves Elliott Smith’s whole attempt at sounding more like a band than a singer/songwriter coffeehouse guy successful. And I’ve always thought it’d be fun to cover “2:45 A.M.” and make it a seven-inch with a cover of Sleater-Kinney’s “A Quarter to Three” on the flipside.

A couple of songs on either/or have even deeper connections. Back in 2001 I saw Smith perform at the Sunset Junction Street Fair in L.A., one of four times I saw him live. It was at a particularly bad time for him personally, during what seemed like a period when his addiction was getting the better of him. He was forgetting a lot of songs and was struggling overall. People were shouting requests, and he was kind of suggesting he just play covers. Several songs were aborted, and later on in the set he seemed like he was getting a little more confident and decided to try some of them again. “Did I play Angeles earlier and then stop?” he asked. When the crowd confirmed it, he gave it another shot, and right before the second chorus, there was a very brief pause that seemed almost like an eternity. And then he picked it up and finished the song. It was one of the most dramatic moments I ever remember seeing at a concert, and while it’s the kind of show that most people would probably prefer not to remember, it was powerful and it stuck with me.

The other song that tugs at the heartstrings most is “Say Yes,” which my wife requested be on our wedding playlist. I was a little confused by it because I didn’t think it was necessarily a story with a happy ending, but she said she didn’t hear it that way, and while it might be a story that’s open-ended, it’s a hopeful one, and perhaps the simplest love song on the album, even though it’s not that simple. That’s stuck with me, and I hear it differently now.

I’ve written a lot about this album recently, so I’ll stop here. But I’ll leave you with this: Every time I think maybe something else has usurped this album as my favorite of all time, I listen to it again and am reminded of why it’s not going anywhere.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 201: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Some bands just know how to pull off a great rock record. In fact, Japandroids has it more or less down to a science. Each of their albums is eight songs—enough to fit on a single LP, not too many to hurt the fidelity of the record. And each one is loaded with anthems. Surely many have argued that their new album doesn’t have as many anthems, but it’s still pretty rockin’.

Celebration Rock, though, is pretty unstoppable. Their single “The House That Heaven Built” ended up being the official anthem of the Vancouver Canucks, which is kind of crazy (but totally warranted! Imagine not feeling like you could conquer the world after hearing this…) And just about all of its songs are perfect or close to it. The one exception, which is a little ironic because I love the Gun Club, is their cover of “For the Love of Ivy.” It’s fine, just nothing special.

The rest though, damn. Not long after I picked up this record, on white vinyl no less (lookin’ good!), I spun it during one of our traditional sunday cleaning sessions. (Every sunday morning, we do a thorough cleaning of the house—it’s routine, it’s stability, it’s solid. Don’t rock the boat. It’s also necessary because we have two cats and they make a mess. Don’t let anyone tell you cats are “clean”.) By the end of the first side, my wife says, “Damn! Every song on this is a hit!” She’s not wrong!

I ended up picking this up with a gift certificate I got from winning a contest to guess the most frequently recurring 91X year-end list artists via my friend Adam’s Yer Doin’ Great blog. I don’t remember what I guessed. Red Hot Chili Peppers maybe? U2? Maybe it was The Cure, for the goth cred? Can’t remember. I do remember I got sixth place. Still enough to get me some new records. Not bad for winging it.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Okkervil River Black Sheep Boy

Autobiographical Order: 101-200

I’ve made it through a second batch of 100 records, and this felt like a pretty good one. In case you missed my vinyl-based raconteurism at any point, here they all are.

101. Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy and catharsis

102. Husker Du’s New Day Rising, and a list of must-haves

103. John Cale’s Fear and underrated classics

104. Jay Reatard’s Matador Singles and artists that are gone way too soon

105. Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life and the simultaneous feeling of joy and aggression

106. M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts and getting engaged

107. The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love and enjoying silly records

108. St. Vincent’s Actor and life after CDs

109. The Stooges’ s/t and great albums with weird sequencing

110. Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and weird radio-station concerts

111. Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest and discovering how your tastes have changed

112. Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson and tributes worth seeing

113. Future of the Left’s Travels With Myself and Another and why a good record is enough sometimes.

114. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and making your peace with problematic artists

115. OMD’s Architecture and Morality and lunchtime vinyl shopping

116. Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity and cheap vinyl whims

117. Scott Walker’s Scott 4 and the infuriating reissue market

118. Antlers’ Hospice and albums that are hard to listen to

119. Tears for Fears’ The Hurting, and just, y’know, great songs

120. Baroness’ Blue Record and an ongoing obsession with metal

121. The xx’s XX and a Spanish honeymoon

122. Bat for Lashes’ Two Suns and my affection for moon maidens

123. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! and albums that age surprisingly well

124. Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart and albums you love beyond all objectivity

125. Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and starting a new year with new (old) music

126. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s s/t and the worst band names ever

127. Owen Pallett’s Heartland and the calm before a personal shitstorm

128. Hall & Oates’ Private Eyes and starting over after a bad month

129. Swervedriver’s Mezcal Head and albums you miss the first time

130. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor and gaps in your memory

131. LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening and going to great lengths to pick up some vinyl

132. The National’s High Violet and holding on to indie rock

133. Here We Go Magic’s Pigeons and albums that are just nifty

134. The Cure’s Disintegration and a summer trip to New York City

135. Refused’s Shape of Punk to Come and the unanswerable question of what IS punk?

136. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and owning only your least favorite album by a band

137. The National’s Alligator and when sophisticated bands have rowdy fans

138. Glasser’s Ring and records that are good but sometimes slip through the cracks

139. Grinderman’s Grinderman 2 and why any Nick Cave is worth your time

140. Women’s Public Strain and braving a rainstorm to see a good show

141. Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest and Portland’s Jackpot

142. Kylesa’s Spiral Shadow and sludge’s hits.

143. Owen Hart’s Earth Control and getting surprises in the mail

144. The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency and I and being incapable of expressing an album’s personal importance

145. Aztec Camera’s High Land Hard Rain and how taste changes with age.

146. Cut Copy’s Zonoscope and getting hot and sweaty with a room full of strangers

147. Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo and rethinking underwhelming years for music

148. Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps and a quest to rediscover the classics

149. St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy and indie rock shreddin’

150. Liturgy’s Aesthethica and shrugging at trolls.

151. Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact and 10 reasons it jams

152. Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life and committing to four sides

153. Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime and jerk-ass mailmen

154. Converge’s Jane Doe and listening to music in an entirely different way

155. Archers of Loaf’s Icky Mettle and explaining America’s credit downgrade at happy hour.

157. The War on Drugs’ Slave Ambient and entering your thirties

158. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and goth blessings for the home.

159. Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and doing absolutely nothing while you listen

160. Tom Waits’ Bad As Me and live music bucket lists.

161. Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and starting off the year right.

162. Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory and feeling old for the first time

163. Frankie Rose’s Interstellar and how damn flattering it is when an artist you like has heard of your website

164. Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and vinyl tourism.

165. Cocteau Twins’ Treasure and getting ethereal in Edinburgh

166. Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out and music that follows you through your life

167. Iron Maiden’s Powerslave and being metal af

168. Baroness’ Yellow and Green, being on the same plane as John Baizley and getting a tattoo in his handwriting

169. Black Sabbath’s s/t and records that sound AMAZING

170. Prince’s Purple Rain and learning a lot about a record’s past owner

171. Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain and some sexy post-punk

172. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and one hell of a musical journey

173. Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and missing Thirsty Moon Records

174. Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues and building your own canon

175. Quicksand’s Slip and feeling like a teenager again

176. Cat Power’s Sun and the hit-or-miss live act

177. Tame Impala’s Lonerism and oversaturation

178. Chromatics’ Kill for Love and the mixed blessing of fandom

179. Converge’s All We Love We Leave Behind, birthdays and patience

180. Ghost’s Opus Eponymous and why I generally don’t like picture discs

181. Mission of Burma’s Vs. and New York record digging

182. Os Mutantes’ s/t and loving psychedelic obscurities

183. D’Angelo’s Voodoo and a thing of groove wonder

184. Goat’s World Music and albums that blow your mind on one listen

185. Iceage’s You’re Nothing and nihilism in Hawaiian shirts

186. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away and maybe the best show I’ve ever seen

187. KEN Mode’s Entrench and loving the underdogs

188. Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze and artists that are just too easy to like

189. The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual and loving when bands get weird

190. Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and why James Murphy owes them royalties

191. ABC’s Lexicon of Love and the best albums of the ’80s that don’t get all the credit

192. Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream and thrift-store gems

193. Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing and spending 99 cents on Record Store Day

194. Savages’ Silence Yourself and one of the best bands in the world right now

195. The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Record Store Day secondhand finds

196. Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight and indie records that don’t get old

197. Wire’s 154 and not being a “collector”

198. Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, and the best medium through which to feel the funk

199. Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and how my dad introduced me to jazz

200. Deafheaven’s Sunbather and death to false complaints.

Autobiographical Order No. 200: Deafheaven – Sunbather

Deafheaven is a divisive band. I understand why—they aren’t following the rules of black metal, they’re not catering to a specific metal audience, and they appeal to hipsters. I get it. I also reject it.

Metal has this weird problem with getting caught up in this-is-our-clubhouse minutiae that never made much sense to me. I mean, I’ve been to plenty of indie rock shows where people were being insufferable dicks, so I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND when metalheads don’t want those people showing up to their shows. I sympathize. I really do. But I also feel like, the more the merrier, right? Especially for the bands, who probably wouldn’t mind, I dunno, making a couple bucks?

But Deafheaven also did something that a lot of metal bands haven’t: They bridged the gap between metal and non-metal audiences, showing people that HEY, this is good music and maybe you should explore more? That, to me, is more important than any perceived slight. Metal is a genre that’s historically been given short shrift, and if a band can make people rethink certain styles or sounds, then that’s significant. I’m 100 percent in favor of that.

Now, me? I love Deafheaven. I’ve seen them live about, oh, five times? And when Sunbather came out it almost immediately became my favorite album of 2013. It’s an intense album, but more than that it’s a beautiful album. It’s a black metal album, for the most part, but it’s also post-rock and shoegaze and dream pop and screamo and various other things. It’s a lot of different things at once, and it comes together in an awesome way.

And maybe it’s not for everyone, but I know more people who had a significant moment with this record than not. And that’s generally a sign that a band is doing something right. A few months later I saw the band play the album front to back at The Void (later The Hideout and now SPACE) and it ruled. Helluva night. Helluva record.

Rating: 9.6

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 199: Miles Davis – In a Silent Way

Whenever I hear about a record changing someone’s life, I curse Zach Braff for making me always think about Garden State. The truth of the matter is it rarely involves a shaky romance with a manic pixie dream girl in some idealized Hollywood fashion. It usually takes a little bit longer before you can fully grasp what you’re listening to or how you process it. But on first listen you know for sure that there’s something special about it. Something different.

For a lot of people, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is that album. As it should be. It’s certainly one of the first jazz albums I have much of a memory of hearing, but it’s not the one that changed my perspective. I liked it, and like it much more now, but I can’t say it changed me. In fact, I don’t even have a copy on vinyl. I know I should; Q-Tip once said it was like the Bible, in that you just have a copy in your home. It belongs there. It’s true, but it’s not a rare record and I’ll get to it eventually.

The record of Davis’ that changed how I listen to music, however, is In a Silent Way. I already discussed how much hearing Bitches Brew was a similar moment, in that I didn’t quite understand everything that was going on, but I liked it. It was cool. It spoke to me. In a Silent Way was different though. Both albums were introduced to me by my dad, who is the person who introduced me to jazz and is definitely 100 percent to thank for the level of appreciation I have for it. When I heard Bitches Brew on his CD player and asked about it, he then mentioned that there’s another Davis record from the same era that he liked more: In a Silent Way.

Holy crap. What an album. It’s essentially two long tracks—one for each side of the LP. And it’s atmospheric and weird and psychedelic and beautiful. I can maybe also thank this album for making me appreciate a lot of other things, like more experimental and ambient music. It’s a record that I always lose myself in when I listen to it, and kinda get that tingly ASMR feeling when I hear the introduction of the Rhodes piano.

It’s an amazing album, and one that I eventually decided needed to be in my collection on vinyl. I think it’s been reissued on some insane audiophile deluxe package or whatever, but I just wanted the original record. (Technically not an original, it’s a ’70s-era repress but close enough.) It’s an album that’s always an experience to listen to in its entirety, and I have my dad to thank for introducing me to this gem.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 198: Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

I’ve gone through several periods of musical discovery in my life. There was the initial exposure to what my brothers and sister were listening to when I was a kid, mixtapes of new wave and post-punk music that’s basically stuck with me through adulthood (if I were forced to name a favorite genre of music, it’d inevitably be post-punk—which explains why I married a goth girl). There was the figuring-out-what-I-like period of my teenage years, which had a few stumbles (Tool, Primus, a number of different nu-metal bands that shall not be named) but mostly eye-opening first-listens (Pavement, Jawbox, The Dismemberment Plan, Jeff Buckley etc etc etc). There was my college years, which found me looking beyond the immediate pleasures of indie music and challenging my own perceptions, exploring jazz, psychedelia, tropicalia and other genres from years past.  And there’s also the period I’m in now, which is the professional music critic mode: Always listening to something new all the time. It’s admittedly a little exhausting, but it’s my life and I chose it. I won’t look back.

There is a fifth period of discovery, however, situated between my college years and today. It was spurred in part by an unfortunate incident in which my wife and I were “constructively evicted,” as the term goes, and not having access to my music for a couple of weeks left me feeling somehow incomplete—cut off from something in my life that seems trivial but matters to me a great deal. It’s like therapy to me. Or, to rephrase slightly, it is therapy. I’m not sure there’s a situation that can’t be improved by music. The November election really tested that theory, but ultimately I feel better about things through music. Especially angry protest music. That’s a story for another time.

During this period, I spent a lot of time being reacquainted with old favorites. But I also started to focus on the glaring gaps in my own collection. I went back and listened to old classic rock records I hadn’t heard. Listened more closely to albums I mostly knew in passing. And spent a lot of time with records I had heard one track at a time, but perhaps not as a whole.

Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain is one of those records. It’s an album I’d been somewhat familiar with throughout the years, mostly on account of hearing a track here or there. When Henry Rollins’ radio show debuted on KCRW, I ended up hearing basically the whole thing, since he plays tracks from it all the time. Which is partially why I love the show.

Thanks to Henry and my own time digging into the Funkadelic catalog, I’ve come to love the living hell out of Maggot Brain. It’s genius. It’s maybe the best psychedelic rock record ever. You can challenge me on that. I’m not married to the sentiment but it certainly feels right when you’re listening to it.

My copy is a 1989 reissue of the original Westbound pressing, sourced from the original tapes. It’s not that hard to find online, and considering how bad 4 Men With Beards’ pressings are, worth tracking down. Because when you’re listening to Funkadelic, you want to hear the whole damn thing.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great-adelic

Autobiographical Order No. 197: Wire – 154

I never think of myself as a “record collector.” To others that might be an arbitrary distinction. Maybe it is; I do, after all, have shelves filled with hundreds of records. Doesn’t that count as a collection? It does. And does that not, by default, mean I am a collector? I suppose it also does. But I bring up this objection because “Collector” has a certain connotation—that I amass these fetishized objects out of a kind of compulsion or need to be envied or something trivial. I’m not Comic Book Guy. I buy every record that I do with the intention of listening to it. These aren’t idols or objects of desire with no purpose. I like listening to records. It brings me joy.

Comic_Book_Guy_-_Star_Wars.jpg

I also DJ, which sometimes necessitates expanding your collection so as not to play the same songs over and over again, but that’s a topic for another time. And I have bought a few records more than once in different versions. This isn’t a Henry Rollins “I have 18 copies of The Damned’s first record” kind of thing. It’s a “shit, this is a sketchy unofficial reissue that sounds like garbage” kind of thing. Only happened a couple times. I’ve wised up since then.

I do, however, realize that I do sometimes go through some trouble of tracking down rare records, which is definite collector behavior. By the late-’00s, a lot of classic records were being reissued by labels such as Plain or 4 Men With Beards in versions that were taken basically from CDs and were mastered poorly and not worth retail price. But because original copies of records are almost always much more expensive, it presents a dilemma: Pay a bit more for an old copy? Or wait for a better reissue to come along?

I’ve certainly done the former a few times, but I usually set a limit of about $25 before I think it’s worth waiting. The Wire catalog, however, is one worth spending a bit more for. Particularly their ’70s-era records, which are some of the best records in any genre of any era. Masterpieces, all three of them.

The first I bought was 154, which I tracked down via eBay. Didn’t pay more than $25 either. It’s a wonderful record, weird and arty and dark and difficult. I first heard it and fell in love with it in high school, though it didn’t all completely make sense to me. But there were particular, accessible post-punk songs that stood out, like “The 15th” and “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW,” which are easily among the best songs in Wire’s catalog. There’s also some strange and abstract spoken word/darkwave things that grew on me over time, but are definitely weird.

Now, by the standards of Wire’s early records, 154 is the easiest to find, despite being distributed somewhat poorly when it was released, so by rare records standards, it’s not impossible to find. But it’s something you rarely see in record stores, probably because anyone who has a copy doesn’t want to part with it. I know I wouldn’t! (I actually interviewed the band’s vocalist Colin Newman who said the band was surprised that any Americans new their songs in the ’80s because their records rarely made it into shops over here.)

So I suppose that, in a sense, is why I might be more of a collector than I realize: I do sometimes go out of my way to get the “right” copy of something, rather than the most convenient. But it has little to do with monetary value. After all, this record isn’t that expensive, but the value I place on it personally goes much farther.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great