Autobiographical Order No. 290: Constantines – Shine A Light

One of my unique traits is being enthusiastic about things that a lot of other people aren’t. It’s not that I’m a contrarian, it’s more a matter of being excited about finding new things that feel like closely-held secrets. When it comes to music, I’m always in search of something new. And it’s not that I get bored with stuff I already know about—far from it. But that’s one of the things that drew me to writing about music in the first place: Finding out about new music and hearing something that I didn’t know about before, and by extension continuously expanding my vocabulary, finding new ways to listen to music.

Then again, sometimes I’m enthusiastic about an album because it’s Extremely My Shit. Constantines are one of those bands, a mix of post-hardcore and heartland rock that basically checks off several boxes that guarantee Jeff Will Like This. Shine A Light, Constantines’ second album, came out when I was 21, the summer before my senior year of college, and I was pretty much listening to a steady diet of Springsteen’s Nebraska and the usual Jawbox/Shiner/Fugazi/Dismemberment Plan that pretty much still makes regular rotation for me. Then this album comes along and smashes those two sounds together. It was one of my favorites of that year, and still is really. Even if it’s rare that I find another person who shares the same enthusiasm for Constantines that I do.

To prove what I’m talking about here, I’ve gone to see the band four times, and only one of those instances were they headlining. Once I drove up to LA to see them open for the Weakerthans (and left before the Weakerthans played). Once I saw them open for The Hold Steady, who were great. And once I saw them play a set during a hot afternoon at SXSW. My wife was there for a few of these but barely remembers it. They happened though. I assure you. And this illustrates my point: I’m the guy who goes to shows to see the opening band. (Not enough people do that imo—show the openers some love!)

This album is fantastic though, heavy but nuanced, abrasive but soulful, melodic but intense. The title track is a favorite of mine, but the horn section during the final chorus of “Insectivora,” the riffs in “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright)”, the slow, sinister groove of “Goodbye Baby and Amen.” God damn. What an album.

So yeah, it still feels like a closely held secret, but you should definitely explore Constantines when you get a chance. They were (are?) amazing.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great (one side a little off center but I did a little spindle surgery)


Autobiographical Order No. 289: Disclosure – Settle

An unfortunate but nonetheless true fact about music is that some artists have trouble following up their first album. Sometimes they manage to make their best albums after a brief dip in quality (XTC, The Damned). Sometimes they never surpass that first, excellent statement (The Stone Roses, Bloc Party). And there’s a psychological element to it that I certainly understand, the fact of having to live up to that one towering moment of glory. Who needs that kind of pressure? But there’s also plenty of people who’d probably disagree with me about bands that I think never bested their first album (Interpol, for instance). So, it’s subjective, I admit.

It’s still relatively early in Disclosure’s career, so I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on them. But so far, they’ve released one really good album. And that’s Settle. Their debut is easily one of the best dance records of the decade, super fun, with lots of great vocal guests including Jessie Ware and AlunaGeorge. Not to mention the remix of “F for You” with Mary J. Blige. That’s a big get. It’s a pretty spectacular bass/house record, and was the first one in a while that I loved that didn’t require some overbearing gloom. (I mean, I like overbearing gloom, can you blame me?)

But then Caracal came out and, well, it just didn’t really build much on to what they were doing. It felt a little familiar, a little flat. And so far those are the only two albums they’ve released.

So yeah, with some time away and new inspiration these UK brothers could very well come back with a dynamite third album. And I hope they do. But if not? I can live with it. They released one excellent album and sometimes all it takes is that one album to cement an artist’s legacy. Not that this is my primary concern. It’s an album I enjoy listening to and still groove like a motherfucker to “When A Fire Starts to Burn.” That’s enough.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 288: Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure

I don’t think I’m a snob. Pretty sure I’m not. Actually, I don’t know. Maybe the jury’s out on that one. But I certainly don’t listen to music because I think it’ll win me points. I guarantee that all of that went out the window a long time ago. But from time to time I’ll get a little shade because I spend most of my time writing about music that’s “cool.” And that bothers me, because it suggests that I’m writing about music that’s not reachable for most people. I don’t think that’s true. Now, sometimes it is, in the case of experimental or noise music, which is definitely difficult to listen to if you’re not already prepared for what you’re getting into. But I don’t cover it because coolness is a factor, it’s because of how the music challenges me.

Most of the time, though, if I cover underground music that nobody’s heard of, it’s because I want more people to hear it! That’s it. I like to advocate for great bands to be heard by more people, and if people feel alienated by that, well, that’s too bad, but I’m not intentionally keeping them out of the loop. But I also understand the idea of having “cool” attitudes about music being sort of annoying. Like saying the only Beach Boys you like is Pet Sounds. Or that Revolver is the best Beatles album (which it probably is, but I’m not married to that opinion) or that the saxophone ruins “Young Americans” or something stupid like that. And look, I like Hall & Oates and Prefab Sprout and have a soft spot for the Doobie Brothers and whatnot. And AC/DC. And ZZ Top’s Eliminator. (Actually I don’t know, that album’s pretty cool.)

But I also like stuff that’s undeniably cool. Like For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music’s amazing second album and last with Brian Eno. I remember back in the early ’00s, SPIN published a list of the coolest albums of all time, which included this, Isaac Hayes and some other stuff. Probably some Krautrock. Anyway, it felt a little silly to rate albums by their coolness factor, seeing as how that’s totally subjective. But this album is really damn cool. It’s also weird and dark—”In Every Dream Home a Heartache” is one of the most fucked up songs ever to show up on a so-called glam-rock album. It also just goes wild in unexpected ways, like the 9-minute funk jam of “The Bogus Man.” And I probably played “Editions of You” about 100 times the month I first got the album on CD.

It’s a little funny that I got around to picking this up kind of late in the game. Some of my earliest vinyl purchases were Roxy Music albums, and they set me back only a couple dollars each. This one has seemingly always been a little more elusive, however. Mine is a 1976 reissue, not actually all that expensive, but I can totally understand why nobody would want to sell their copy. I wouldn’t.

Anyway, I don’t know if I’m really all that cool. It doesn’t matter, to be honest. But I certainly feel cool as hell when I listen to this album.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 287: The Knife – Silent Shout

Readers of this blog will probably notice that the last few entries, including this one, have been electronic or dance music. And that’s not coincidental. About five years ago I got my first taste of DJing—that’s right, I didn’t start DJing until I was in my thirties, but I also didn’t really try very hard or anything, it just sorta fell into my lap—and I kind of started casually asking about doing gigs in off nights here and there at bars around town. But then once that started, I had to compile a whole arsenal of material for playing.

The Knife seemed like a logical choice, seeing as how Silent Shout is one of the albums that got me deeper into house and techno and other electro subgenres. When it was first released, I didn’t really get it, though. It sounded like evil Bjork, and while that was cool, it didn’t blow me away. It wasn’t my Album of the Year, for instance. It took about a year to fully click, and then once it did, I was sort of obsessed with it. In fact, “We Share Our Mother’s Health” is one of those songs that’s permanently on the list of tracks I’d like to cover at some point. I have a mental list of those. And a playlist on my desktop somewhere that needs to be updated.

Part of the reason why the album is such a favorite is because of how dark and eerie it is, yet it remains accessible. The brother-sister duo behind the album and their cultivated image have a lot to do with that, what with their plague-mask press photos and pitch-shifted vocals. They went out of their way to create an unsettling image, and I’ll just go ahead and admit that it 100 percent works on me. But the music itself is a lot more than just the image. It’s melodic and structured to remain interesting throughout, yet it’s made to dance to. Their next album, well, not so much, but that album is also pretty spectacular because of just how fucked up it is.

I haven’t DJed in a few months, and I’m sure I’ll get the bug again before too long, and when I do, I’m sure I’ll find another excuse to play this. But listening to it at home is always a good idea, as well.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 287: Darkside – Psychic

There are a few things that people tend to assume about me, and it has nothing to do with me, necessarily, but of societal biases. For one, people assume I don’t like electronic music. I do. It tends not to be the Calvin Harris style of EDM, which often follows pretty specific patterns and is designed not to be challenging. But I like a lot of electronic music as a matter of fact.

Another assumption is that I like Pink Floyd. Why wouldn’t I like Pink Floyd? They’re rock gods! I like some Pink Floyd albums, I suppose: Piper At the Gates of Dawn, Meddle, A Saucerful of Secrets. The weird shit, basically. But when they were at the peak of their rock icon period in the mid- to late-’70s, that stuff just doesn’t do anything for me. It’s a little boring. (Sorry!)

However, I also like Darkside, who combine electronic music with a heavy Pink Floyd influence. (Look at their name, for instance…) Their one and only album Psychic was one of my favorite albums of 2013, combining a sprawling psychedelic atmosphere with electronic beats and a bluesy groove at the center. They only released the one album and then decided to split up afterwards, though Nicolas Jaar has continued to make some of my favorite electronic records of the past few years.

At the time, this album seemed like a big deal. I’m not sure how many people remember it, but it’s an experience to listen to, a BIG album in the way their namesake was. (Though I would rather listen to this because I hold nothing sacred.) I saw them live at FYF Fest 2014 and they ended up being one of the highlights of an otherwise kind of underwhelming fest. Unfortunately I missed the big ending where they smashed a giant mirror. Hell of a way to go out.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 286: Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

My favorite albums—the ones I form the strongest connection to, that I hold so closely on a personal level—are rarely the kinds of records that everyone likes. And I don’t mean EVERYONE everyone—aside from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Prince’s Purple Rain, I’m not sure I have any such records in my collection. I don’t really do monoculture. But sometimes I find that there are records in my circle of friends and acquaintances that seemingly everyone likes. Even the people who are the snobbiest. Or the people whose taste I really don’t trust.

Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours and Zonoscope are two of those records. People love them, and they absolutely should. They’re fantastic records! But I do find it interesting how this, of all bands, ends up being the one that seems to be the great unifier among people in my circle of friends. In 2011, during the band’s tour behind Zonoscope, the group played at 4th & B (R.I.P.) in San Diego, and it seemed like everyone I knew was at the show, from different professional or personal circles, and it was a fun show despite opener Washed Out’s iPad shenanigans.

Perhaps the reason that Cut Copy is the center of so many venn diagrams is because they’re not too much of anything. They’re not so pop that they turn off listeners who might be averse to commercial sounds, and they’re not so avant garde that they wouldn’t appeal to people who don’t regularly dip into the underground. But the best answer really is in In Ghost Colours. It’s their best album by a long shot, and while there’s a certain amount of “genius steals” quality to it (Fleetwood Mac samples, borrowing vocal melodies from disco records), it all comes together quite spectacularly.

This actually was one of the last CDs I ever bought, because at the time I couldn’t find it on vinyl. In 2008, labels were still pressing more limited quantities of everything. Despite a rise in interest, it was a format that was hard to justify the costs of—making a profit from vinyl isn’t easy unless you know it’s going to sell a lot of copies. It’s a gamble. But six years later I finally got a 2xLP copy, which apparently is now one of the most valuable albums I have. (I still don’t know why that is—still hard to find, perhaps? Strike while the iron is hot, I guess.)

But value is an intangible thing. I don’t intend to sell it, so the value for me is in how much I enjoy listening to it, which is a lot. The Depeche Mode-isms of “Out There On the Ice,” the over-the-top dancefloor drama of “Hearts on Fire,” the disco-funk hedonism of “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found.” These are all phenomenal tracks, and the ballads aren’t bad for that matter, though that’s not why people love this record. At least I don’t think so. It’s because it’s catchy, fun, and easy to dance to. So perhaps it’s not so mysterious why Cut Copy has such wide appeal. If you put this record on, who wouldn’t love it?

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 285: Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life

This is the third of the three albums I obtained from the eBay steal of the century as mentioned in my last post. $5 (At least I think it was that much) for two LPs of Stevie Wonder’s classic songwriting? Well, there was a hitch of sorts, in that it didn’t come with the third LP with the other four songs that aren’t “officially” part of the album, even though they pretty much are. So that’s a bummer. But I can live with it.

The songs my copy did come with are all absolute classics. I first got this on CD when I was around 18 or so, and was making my way through the classics. First I got Talking Book, then Innervisions, and then eventually this, and those three albums are the trifecta of Wonder’s greatest songwriting and performances. Hands down. He’s got other good ones, but these are the best. But part of me wishes I can go back to that time and experiencing hearing these albums again for the first time, because they’re such rich listening experiences. Not that new listens aren’t still fresh now to some degree—you’re always hearing something new with a great artist, and Stevie more than lives up to that.

So, bargain buy for an epic soul/R&B record (three records…in my case two), but regardless of whether it comes with “A Something’s Extra,” it’s a lot of music to take in. But this album also contains a whole world of musical influence unto itself. Arguably, yes, there were other artists making music like this in 1976. But nobody was doing it quite like Stevie, an artist who played by his own rules, and could play any instrument you could put in front of him. He was a bit like Prince in that regard, only he’s not nearly as prolific and something of a perfectionist to a degree. And it’s really some kind of miracle that Songs in the Key of Life was turned around in just two years, especially considering he was in a car accident that nearly ended his career.

There’s a lot of joy on this album, but there’s also a lot of questioning. To hear songs like “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” are to hear celebration through music, the kinds of melodies and passionate performances that make the listener lose all restraint and feel like part of the song itself. Then again, Wonder was always one to address bigger concerns, whether it be addressing poverty in “Village Ghetto Land” or how progress is achieved via people of all backgrounds on “Black Man.” As an album, it’s nowhere near as angry as Innervisions, but it retains that kernel of socio-political consciousness.

Still, if there’s one song that never fails to utterly floor me, it’s “As.” It’s ostensibly a love song, and a damn good one (that one went on the wedding playlist, I can assure you), but it’s also just a musical marvel. It features some guest keyboards by none other than Herbie Hancock, which is a miraculous move in itself, and once it hits that groove that the final three and a half minutes or so ride out on, look out. Good god, what a song. I still get chills.

This is a double-LP, so naturally it takes some time to really absorb. But it’s also just a complex and elaborate album, and albums like this require the time to sink in, to make their presence known. I’ve been listening to this album on CD for 15 years or so, and hearing it on vinyl just leads to hearing even more that I might not have picked up the first time. I look forward to discovering new things the next time I drop the needle.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Good/Great