Autobiographical Order No. 348: New Order – Low-Life

Not everything can be determined by canon. In many cases, the critics’ consensus favorite album by an artist is correct. Take, for instance, The Cure’s Disintegration. It’s a masterpiece. And there are plenty of arguments for other albums of theirs as all-timers (I often go back and forth between that and Pornography and a handful of others) but their biggest, most ambitious and complex one is pretty much the greatest.

New Order is different. There is a critical favorite pick, and it’s one that I’d say is easily their best album, Power, Corruption & Lies. But of everyone I’ve ever had this discussion with, the answer seems to vary. A lot of people love Brotherhood. A lot of people love Technique. And if we’re talking in fantasy-world terms, their best album is a combination of their early singles and b-sides with about half of Movement.

But I do have a sentimental favorite of sorts. Back when I was in high school, I discovered a box of cassettes in my brother’s bedroom (vacated when he went to college) that had a bunch of old dubbed tapes. Most of them were full albums—there may or may not have been a couple of mixtapes—and I inadvertently discovered a lot of albums from the ’80s that have become favorites of some sort today, including The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic and Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie (a sleeper favorite, if you haven’t heard it).

One of them was Low-Life. It wasn’t totally foreign to me; I already knew “Perfect Kiss” and “Subculture” because they were featured on the Substance compilation (though the album versions don’t have the MIDI frogs). But there were other songs I’d (I think) never heard before that kind of blew me away, like the epic “Sunrise,” more of a driving post-punk track than their bigger synth-pop singles, and “Elegia,” the instrumental that was also featured in Pretty in Pink.

It’s hard to say any of New Order’s albums are underrated, because for a solid decade or so they were pretty well rated (other than Movement, which a lot of people claim sounded too much like Joy Division, but is actually a great album so just chill). It is kind of a sleeper, though, if only because it’s sandwiched between two other hit-making albums. I have another reason for calling this a sentimental favorite, that being “Perfect Kiss” was featured on the playlist my wife and I put together for our wedding. (Yes, it’s a song about suicide and masturbation and things that generally don’t fit the theme but we’re weirdos.)

So while I won’t say it’s the best New Order album, it’s one I have a lot of affection for. But hey, everyone’s got their favorite.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 347: Grant Green – Idle Moments

I’ll keep this brief, because it’s been an exhausting week and the music industry really needs to get its shit together. But however frustrated I get, I’ll never stop loving music. And one of my favorite things in the world is listening to jazz on vinyl. When it’s late at night, dark, maybe kinda cold. There’s something just plain comforting about putting a jazz record on and relaxing. There’s a reason Miles Davis released a record called Relaxin’ With.

Grant Green’s Idle Moments is one of my favorite chill-out jazz records. I don’t remember when I first heard it, to be honest, but I do remember first seeing the album cover back when I was a teenager and thinking it was cool af. I mean, that’s true of most ’60s Blue Note albums, but this one especially.

Idle Moments has its upbeat moments, but by and large it’s a pretty mellow record, a glass of wine on a quiet night record. It just feels good. Relaxing. It’s not chaotic like some of Pharoah Sanders or John Coltrane’s more intense records, or as complex and cerebral as Miles Davis’ electric period or as weird as Andrew Hill or Eric Dolphy. It just kind of hits the spot. Jazz comfort food? I suppose that’s one way to put it.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 346: Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

I have a strange superstition. In general, I’m not a big fan of plane travel. I love going places, but actually being on planes is pretty uncomfortable. It’s not a phobia, just an eventual “I need to be standing up and not in this sardine tin” feeling that happens about halfway through the trip. So I do my best to distract myself as often as possible with movies or books or whatever, and I rarely if ever travel without my wife, so we keep each other entertained as much as we can. But when I’m listening to music, I have a habit of skipping any song that has anything to do with flying or plane travel. It’s irrational. It doesn’t actually mean anything and goes into some fantasy logic where my brain connects disaster to some unrelated coincidence. But I just always do it.

This isn’t really like me in most situations. I’m not superstitious at all, really. But this one stuck. Which means I can’t listen to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” on planes. And that’s perhaps for the best because it’s a little cliche, but it does make me panic instead of feeling at ease or a sense of whimsy.

On land, though, I adore this album. So much of the music that I came to get into as an indie dork teenager or twentysomething has lost a lot of its appeal. This one, however, has not. I can go months without hearing any songs on this album and it still maintains that connection from when I first heard it back in high school. Not much does that. And when I saw them play their reunion set in San Diego in 2014, I was genuinely surprised at how choked up I got at one point. (Jerry Seinfeld voice: “What is this salty discharge? This is horrible.”)

When I originally bought the album on CD, I was in high school on an art history trip with several of my friends. It was an odd trip, one that involved a parent chaperone actually backing up his car on the freeway and a couple of us in the car thinking “oh god this isn’t going to go well.” We somehow made it up to Pasadena just fine, however, and went to see a number of museums, and in the evening a bunch of us went out to just walk around downtown Pasadena and goof around. One stop was Penny Lane, which I think probably isn’t there anymore, and picked up this gem, based on little more than a positive record review.

I didn’t get around to listening to it the next morning. It was bright and early, everyone else still asleep. I was wide awake, and bored, so I did the most logical thing I could think of: Put my headphones on and press play. What came out was remarkably simple three-chord psych-folk, but beautiful and kaleidoscopic. The kind of music that people wish they had thought of first. It was glorious. And weird. All of the songs were about sex and death and Anne Frank and abusive parents and it was somehow depressing and uplifting all at once. It had a song that said “I love you Jesus Christ” that wasn’t ironic. It made no sense to me. I couldn’t stop listening to it.

There are a lot of albums made since that no doubt have been influenced heavily by In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the mystique surrounding singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum got to be weird to the point where people were actually sort of stalking him, but it’s understandable when someone releases something that sounds like a kind of magic and then just…stops. Which he can do! That’s OK! Give the dude some space.

But he did eventually get back to performing, and though the show wasn’t without some imperfections, I was moved. And of course I had to pick up a copy of this on vinyl, finally. Where I’ll have to listen to it at home, safe in my surroundings, experiencing that strange ride again without leaving my living room.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

 

Autobiographical Order No. 345: Death Cab for Cutie – We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes

College is generally the time when we figure out who we are, or who we want to be. That’s certainly true of myself, though I kinda had it figured out before then. I wanted to write about music, or make music, or some combination of the two, and I’ve been doing both ever since, more or less. But in college you also find like-minded people who share the same interests—people who also survived living in a small town by discovering art made by weirdos. Through writing for my school paper (all four years!) and DJing at the radio station, I ended up making a lot of friends that I still keep in touch with and can pick up with them where we left off regardless of how long it’s been. And that’s pretty fantastic.

But I remember, in particular, having lots of conversations about music that probably only made sense if you had been drinking. Like, for instance: Were early Beatles songs the original punk rock? (I think the consensus at that moment was that it went back farther than that, even. But who even knows?) Come to think of it, Beatles arguments came up a lot: Like, does the second half of the White Album suck? (It doesn’t, but I can see where one would reach that conclusion.)

There were also lots of jokes about emo, and because I was the guy who listened to most of the indie stuff and wore sweaters…I at one point became known as “Emo Sweater Jeff.” (Which I’m sure comes as a surprise to anyone who still for some reason thinks the only music I listen to is metal.) It didn’t last, mostly because eventually everyone adopted the policy of calling me by my last name (including my own wife, LOL), but that was a thing that happened for a moment.

And that’s kind of fair, considering I was spending a lot of time listening to albums like We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. Now, just to be clear on this, it’s not really an emo album. There’s an argument for it to fit into the pantheon of classic emo albums, but stylistically it doesn’t really sound like The Promise Ring or The Get Up Kids. It sounds a little bit like American Football, so there’s that, I suppose. But it also contains some of the best songs Death Cab for Cutie ever wrote, songs of heartbreak and confusion that can be really affecting to someone who’s young and still kind of figuring shit out.

Singer Ben Gibbard says that he doesn’t think the band’s earlier records are their best, because they’re more ambitious now and know more about recording and pop songwriting and all that. But…he’s wrong. I haven’t actually liked a Death Cab for Cutie album in over a decade. Which is a bummer because I love their first five albums.

But you don’t always grow with your favorite bands, and vice versa. I’m glad that a band I once loved reached this level of success, even if I don’t necessarily care for how they’ve evolved artistically. It’s fine. I’ll just keep enjoying the Emo Sweater Death Cab that I found in the first place.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Good/Great

Autobiographical Order No. 344: The Birthday Party – Junkyard

Before I got into Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, I was obsessed with The Birthday Party. And it’s not because of age or anything. They broke up two years after I was born. But a high school impulse purchase of Hits led me to become fascinated with just how raw and weird and ugly it all was. I loved it.

In a matter of years, I picked up Junkyard—gotta have the deep cuts!—and I don’t think I’ve spent as much time soaking in the grime and the grit of any one album in recent years. I essentially know it front and back, and have listened to it countless times. It’s raw and vile and fucked up and manic and loud and weird. And the more I listen to it, the more I want to write music that sounds like this. If I could—there wasn’t much like this at the time, and everyone was doing lots of drugs, and frankly I’m just far more normal of a dude than any of these guys ever were. But when my wife and I play music, we have this ongoing rule: Make it sound more like Nick Cave. Or if possible, The Birthday Party.

The first song that caught my attention, of course, was “Release the Bats,” which was technically tacked on as a bonus track on a later issue of the album. But the longer, burlier tracks such as “Junkyard” and “Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow)” eventually kind of took over as the ones I can listen to endlessly.

What’s remarkable is that, with just about any of Cave’s albums, The Birthday Party included, is that people always complain about the production (including Cave). But that baffles me—the production is part of the appeal. This isn’t music that’s supposed to sound crisp and clean and easy on the ears. It’s amazing because it’s a brutal mess. I don’t want this album cleaned up. I want it to punch me in the face.

And maybe this kind of thing can’t be recreated. Last year I sang a Birthday Party song in a Nick Cave tribute night (barked more than sang, really), with a really messy rhythm/time signature, and everyone kind of joked that it probably wasn’t planned that way. That’s just how the band played it at the time. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but I know that this is the kind of music you embrace for its intensity, rawness and even ugliness. You feel it in your gut and in your chest. Not every album does that, which is all the more reason for me to keep coming back to this one.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 343: Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

I go through a lot of phases of gaining and losing interest in certain artists over time. I can look back at a lot of bands that I really liked at one point, or at least I thought I did—Xiu Xiu, Dirty Projectors, Fleet Foxes—and be somewhat confused as to how I found them appealing. (Honestly, I remember really liking Dirty Projectors, but now I can barely stand to listen to them.) However there are other bands that I just don’t listen to as much for one reason or another, but when I hear them again, I still feel the same way about them as when they were part of a staple listening diet. Like The Decemberists for one (although their last couple of albums didn’t really do all that much for me). And Belle & Sebastian.

I don’t really know anyone who has a middle-ground take on Belle & Sebastian. So many of my friends have been fans of theirs forever, and can probably recite the lyrics to most of their first three albums. But a few people I’ve met just absolutely can’t stand them, which I totally get—they’re super twee. If you can’t get over that, then they’re not the band for you.

Ordinarily, super twee stuff doesn’t appeal to me at all. But Belle & Sebastian are different. And I think it’s just because the songs are so damn good. I’ve probably heard “Seeing Other People” 100 times or more, and it never stops sounding great. And some of it could be just that I heard them at the right time. This is exactly the sort of music that appeals to a sensitive teenager: Smart but snarky lyrics, pretty melodies, Smiths homages, a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Trial on the cover art. Yeah, that was pretty much me at 17.

But you know, you grow up and start listening to a bunch of Mastodon and you forget about that version of yourself. And maybe you want to, because nobody wants to look at pictures of their teenage selves (although I’m far less interested in the past or nostalgia than the average person, so your mileage may vary). And when I listen to If You’re Feeling Sinister, that kid definitely comes back for 40 minutes. Maybe that’s OK—I don’t remember the awkward stuff or the annoying people or the weird, small(ish) town I lived in. I just remember hearing music that meant something to me at this weird interlude, and it still resonates, even if this isn’t the kind of music I reach for much these days.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 342: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity

 

I wanna tell you about a girl

Is there a more disarmingly ominous way to begin a song? The first listen to “From Her to Eternity,” nobody can really be sure of what they’re about to hear, and how could you, really? With no foreknowledge of Nick Cave or this song, it could very well seem like a straightforward love song is about to unfold, and not the nightmarish tale it becomes. For those who do know the song, it’s a signal that you’re about to experience one of the most harrowing rock dirges ever recorded, and even if you know every detail, every gruesome twist and turn, it’s still a thrill to get to walk through that corridor of horrors again.

Now me, I like music that’s dark and ominous, even for lack of a better word “scary.” I’m not sure how I got to this point, exactly, but I’m here, and it’s why I can casually put a Throbbing Gristle record on at home and it doesn’t seem at all strange to me. But Nick Cave is one of those rare artists that can ride the line between tortured, abrasive menace and absolutely gorgeous ballads. It’s a rare skill, and potentially speaks to how he ended up making a legendary performance of “From Her to Eternity” in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, a poetic and surreal love story that happens to feature this harrowing dirge in the middle of it, performed by the actual Bad Seeds.

For quite a few years I had been waiting for the Bad Seeds catalog to finally be reissued on vinyl, which eventually happened, and made my late 2014/early 2015. This was the first of the batch to come out, and I pre-ordered it like crazy. And it’s worth the real estate on your shelf even if you’re only keeping it there for the one song. (But the rest are all great too, particularly “Cabin Fever”). Interestingly enough Pitchfork included it on their revamped Best of the ’80s list last year, which I didn’t see coming. The canon mostly overlooks this one, but then again he has a lot of albums. (Still waiting for the PJ Harvey catalog to be reissued, while we’re on the subject.)

This isn’t my favorite Bad Seeds album, and that’s a harder question to answer. But it has one of my absolute favorite Nick Cave moments.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great