Autobiographical Order No. 276: Psychedelic Furs – Forever Now

Most of us tend to think of music in a kind of binary context: Good and bad. Or maybe put in a different way: Overrated and underrated. Everything that we don’t like? Overrated. Everything we do like? Underrated. Of course, that’s not really how it works. Someone like Beyonce might be spectacular as an artist and performer, but she’s also one of the biggest celebrities in the world, so it’s hard to say something like Beyonce’s underrated.

So, sometimes an artist is, simply, adequately rated. When I started thinking about this post on the Psychedelic Furs, I was going to say something about how they’re sort of an underrated post-punk band. But that’s not true. That’s not even close to true. They’re actually one of the more successful bands of the early ’80s post-punk era, had their share of hits, and had critical success at that. So I revise my position: The Psychedelic Furs are adequately rated.

It sounds backhanded, but it isn’t. Any acclaim they’ve received has been well deserved, and if they’re not the biggest band in the world, well, they don’t need to be. To paraphrase Wayne Campbell, The Psychedelic Furs didn’t make music that everybody loved, they left that to the Bee Gees. They did however make music I love, and while Forever Now is best known for its big single “Love My Way,” the album as a whole is loaded with gems. “President Gas” is an outstanding post-punk gem, abrasive and eerie yet melodic and catchy—the band has a knack for making anthems. “Danger” is one of those moments of indulgence that works better than it should, with squealing saxophone and some over-the-top ’80s production. And “Only You and I” is a darkly subtle highlight that used to make its way onto mixtapes I made in high school.

I picked up this copy used at M Theory, with the initials “JTV” written in ballpoint pen on the front cover, and it wasn’t very expensive, which is part of why I picked it up. Maybe it’s not in near-mint condition or anything like that, but I still was happy to put it back on the turntable and dive back into its many highlights—underrated, adequately rated or otherwise.

Of course “Love My Way” is still the song people remember, because it’s great of course, and people used to request it when I DJed a goth night in San Diego. And I’d be happy to play it, of course. People know the hits, and those hits were good. Should anyone dig a little deeper though, there’s some great deep cuts to be found.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 275: Prefab Sprout – Two Wheels Good

It’s a frustrating thing to love an album and to run into nothing but brick walls when nobody else understands what’s to love about it. We’ve all had that experience: You press play on a song for a friend and they just kind of look at you like “What is this garbage?” I don’t really do that anymore, because sometimes people need to figure stuff out on their own time. And also because being put on the spot is super awkward, and even if the music is cool, nobody likes having that other person there staring at you, waiting in anticipation for your response. It’s just uncomfortable all around.

These days I just share my articles and give people casual recommendations, or if I DJ or make a playlist of something, then someone will ask “who’s this? It’s cool!” and that settles it. But that being said, there are certain bands I like that I don’t really expect a lot of other people to love, unless they share that particular gene or tendency or what have you. And as much as I love Prefab Sprout, I would totally understand why someone would just not get it. And that’s fine.

Several years ago, I heard the UK band’s debut album Steve McQueen for the first time, and I was struck by simultaneous reactions: 1. That it had an unapologetic ’80s smooth-pop sheen to it. And 2. That I was into it anyway. And that’s because Paddy McAloon is a hell of a songwriter. In the ’80s, though, this album would have made perfect sense. Or at least I would assume so: Leadoff track “Faron Young” has a weird balance of post-punk guitars and banjo, and seems to be two different tracks smashed together. But it works.

Truth be told, it’s actually a lot of the glossier tracks that I love most. “Appetite,” “Bonny,” “When Love Breaks Down” and “Goodbye Lucille No. 1” (which, if I’m not mistaken, was renamed “Johnny” when it was released as a single). And there’s no getting around the fact that there’s some cheese happening here. But McAloon was a little bit like Brian Wilson in a way, in that he made pop songs out of ambitious arrangements and sophisticated chord sequences. He’s clearly listened to his share of Bacharach.

When I put this record on, I look forward to hearing each track and its subtle climaxes, but I also wouldn’t dare put this on for someone and wait for their response. It’s not going to happen the way you want it to, and that’s possibly by design. This isn’t an instant gratification record. It’s not Cheap Trick.

I’ve long said that I’d love for my career to eventually transition into music supervision (which might eventually mean moving to L.A., shrug), and should that happen, I’d love to soundtrack an ’80s-set coming-of-age movie with sophisti-pop stuff like this, Style Council, Roxy Music’s Avalon, Scritti Politti, etc. It might have been done before, but it’s still a good idea. Though someone would actually have to hire me to do that. That’s the tricky part. Or unlikely part, I suppose.

I’m not sure how common this LP is, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used in any record stores. I had to order it, which shows how motivated I was in adding it to the collection. Also, it’s titled Two Wheels Good, since Steve McQueen’s estate took legal action against use of his name. Also: The album’s produced by Thomas Dolby, the artist behind “She Blinded Me With Science,” and father of the modern ringtone.

I’m getting off topic. This album is great. But you need to let it reveal that to you on your own. I won’t force it.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great (several rounds of cleanings removed the crackles)

Autobiographical Order No. 274: Bryan Ferry – Boys and Girls

I’d never say something like “Bryan Ferry has had a better career than David Bowie.” It isn’t true. Not even close to true, really. No doubt, they each have their share of classics, most of Ferry’s with Roxy Music (really, their first six albums or so are pretty much all essentials). And they each have a few rough spots. But there is one area where Ferry fared better than Bowie, and that’s the mid- to late-’80s. After Let’s Dance, which is a great album and Bowie’s big pop moment, Ziggy kind of lost his way, releasing the messy and sometimes cringeworthy Tonight, and the big-concept-with-no-songs Never Let Me Down. (Some people think the latter is worse than the former, but at least it had a purpose; Tonight does not.)

Ferry, however, well he pretty much just stuck to what he did best: Romantic, stylish pop songs. It wasn’t that far from what he was doing in Roxy Music, but there was a difference. Since most of the New Romantic bands of the ’80s were inspired by Roxy Music, Ferry essentially paid back the favor by taking on elements of their sounds. Although, you could more or less argue that every solo album Ferry released in the ’80s was a variation on Let’s Dance. But sexier. In fact, “Slave to Love” was featured in 9 1/2 Weeks, which makes perfect sense because it sounds a lot like softcore Skinemax soundtrack fare.

Boys and Girls, however, is essentially an extension of what Roxy Music was doing on Avalon, and with a good amount of momentum and danceability to it. You can’t tell me you don’t feel the urge to move when you hear “Don’t Stop the Dance.” Oh sure, it certainly sounds like the ’80s, but in the best way.

This was a $6 find at Record City—an odd one in that the back cover and front cover are flipped, meaning if you turn the record around it looks upside down. That’s apparently by design? That’s what Discogs says anyway. But it’s a cool record that might be indicative of a certain era of music, but still sounds great.

Rating: 8.9

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 273: Sleater-Kinney – The Hot Rock

I’ve written a lot about Sleater-Kinney here, because I have a lot of Sleater-Kinney records, and a lot to say about them. I’ve written about having to get out of the way of Janet Weiss’ van. I’ve written about the anticipation of seeing them for the first time in a decade. And I’ve written about a 33 1/3 pitch that ultimately wasn’t successful, but reminded me of why I love this band.

The Hot Rock, however, is the album that made me love Sleater-Kinney. Every band has those one or two essential albums that are part of the canon, and for Sleater-Kinney it’s Dig Me Out and The Woods. Both perfect tens, both albums that everyone should own and listen to and celebrate. The Hot Rock is pretty close, actually, but it’s not as often regarded as THE Sleater-Kinney album. But I wouldn’t have gotten to those if it wasn’t for this one. Before the album was released, I heard “Get Up” on a CD sampler that came packaged with an issue of CMJ (R.I.P.), and it was one of those songs that kind of sets off a chemical reaction: Endorphin rush, pupils dilated, goosebumps on the neck. It was like a scene out of Requiem for a Dream but without the heroin.

The week it was released, I bought a copy, and to my surprise it was even better than I was expecting. I knew Sleater-Kinney was a punk band of sorts, but they had a surprising amount of depth for a trio with no bass player. Their arrangements made me think differently about how rock music worked. They had the weird angularity of a lot of the post-hardcore bands I loved, but they embraced pop more directly. “God Is A Number” had a tension that broke with an explosive chorus. “A Quarter to Three” had a nuanced beauty that showed they could translate their punk sound into something dreamier and melancholy. And “Start Together,” the ass kicking album opener, is one of my favorite songs they ever wrote. The second chorus, when Corin Tucker extends her words and they act as a sort of fourth instrument, gives me chills.

In high school I made a mixtape for a good friend of mine with “God Is A Number” on it. We ended up getting married, and now she intends to get a Sleater-Kinney tattoo at some point (if she ever encounters one of the members in the wild, which almost happened at a PJ Harvey show last year). So the lesson, I suppose, is Sleater-Kinney changes lives. And I hope they do more shows soon, because 2015 seems like a long time ago, and I need to hear “Start Together” again. Which, incidentally, they didn’t play the night we saw them, but they did the night before. The unpredictability of setlists. With Sleater-Kinney, though, they could spin a wheel of all their songs and land on something great.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 272: Blur – Parklife

If there’s one decade that I feel could use a little more filling out in my record collection, it’s the ’90s. Well, the ’60s could too, but the ’90s feels like it has a lot of weird gaps, considering it was the decade in which I experienced the most dramatic period of accelerated discovery in my life. (Some people don’t like to use the word “discovery” because they think it means the listener is taking credit for something that’s owed to somebody else, but c’mon people let’s pick something slightly less trivial and unimportant to pick fights over.) I remember snatching up CDs like crazy in the ’90s, filling out the canon with stuff on Spin and Alternative Press lists (before AP went all pop-punk all the time) and generally realizing just how much music out there is worth hearing. Which is a lot.

If I go by my Discogs stats (which are incomplete—this is a work in progress), the ’10s are my most prolific decade, and that makes sense if you look at it technically speaking. Since those are all albums that were pressed in the ’10s (even if they were originally issued in the ’70s or ’80s), then sure. And the ’90s was kind of when vinyl hit its lowest point, with bands like Pearl Jam releasing albums on vinyl as an exception to the overarching lack of interest throughout the industry. Regardless, the ’90s portion of my collection pales compared to the ’70s and ’80s, and yeah, the ’10s.

I’m getting there, though. A few years back I started making a concerted effort to have some of the alt-rock classics on vinyl, which includes the Britpop essentials. I’d argue no Britpop album is more essential than Blur’s Parklife, the band’s big U.S. breakthrough and the one that has “Girls & Boys,” a hedonistic disco jam about the ups and downs of promiscuous summer holidays. It also features the title track, which became a meme, thanks to Russell Brand (unintentionally). I know some people choose Pulp in the Blur vs. Oasis war, but while Pulp has their share of undeniable albums, I’d argue Blur’s catalog outshines any Britpop band. With the exception of Leisure, which is OK, it’s pretty unstoppable.

When I first heard Blur, they didn’t really do much for me, but then again I was heavily in grunge mode at the time. So it only took a couple years for me to realize how clever their music was, how strong their melodies, and how often they changed things up. They never stayed in one place for long, and even the three albums in the “Life Trilogy” are fairly different from one another. Parklife is the strongest of the three, though The Great Escape might very well have the best song of the bunch, “The Universal”.

So while Blur didn’t make much of an impression on first listen, over time they’ve become a favorite of mine. I don’t know how often the opportunity to see them live will come up in the future, though they’re one of those bands who’d be great to see before they decide they’re done with it. (which they did at one point) No doubt, Blur is one of the best bands of the ’90s, and I’m doing my best to give them some good company on the shelf.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 271: Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

I’m one of those annoying people who says “I like all kinds of music!” And I don’t add the obligatory “Except country and rap” or whatever short-sighted nonsense people tend to add to that statement. And I mean it! I do like all kinds of music. I just think people tend not to believe me. Because I listen to a lot of metal or play up the goth thing, that’s where some people think my tastes begin and end. Which would be silly. If that’s all I liked, maybe being a full-time music writer/critic might be a stretch.

But hey, I love a lot of different types of music. Including electronic/house/techno etc., which sometimes comes as a surprise. You think I don’t like to dance? Oh, I like to dance. And maybe even more than that, I like provoking others to dance. By DJing that is—not going up to people and saying “Hey you! Dance!” which is kind of a funny image. But while I’m not a full-time selector, I like to take the opportunity to play some jams when it arises. And back in 2014 I was doing several odd nights here and there when it was quiet, spinning some fun stuff just to pick up a couple bucks and have some fun. And free drinks. Gotta love the free drinks.

Part of what made it more fun was diving deeper into contemporary electronic stuff like Norwegian producer Todd Terje. In fact, hearing It’s Album Time kind of blew my mind, as it was clearly influenced and informed by many decades of disco and house music, but still sounded fresh and innovative. And it’s just so damn fun. “Delorean Dynamite” and “Strandbar” are worth picking this up alone, as those tracks will make you move. You can’t stop yourself. Just try. You can’t.

There’s also a Robert Palmer cover with vocals by Bryan Ferry, which is pretty bonkers. After I began listening to this record, I went on more of a deep dive into classic disco, so some of that will crop up on this blog before too long. But long story short, despite my grim, bearded exterior, I like all kinds of music. Even space disco.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 270: Miles Davis – Quiet Nights

The way we define an artistic failure is interesting. Take for instance the new Jack White album, Boarding House Reach, which has been seen by many press outlets as a failure because it’s a bit cluttered and unfocused, primarily composed of experiments that don’t add up to a group of songs that don’t play nice together. Or, more succinctly, they don’t add up to songs, period. One could also say that the album is a failure because it abandons the thing that White arguably does well, which is play loud rock ‘n’ roll. (I say it’s a failure because it’s a vanity project from someone with the luxury of never having to hear the word “no.”)

But there are other examples that are perhaps even more head-scratching. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborated on a series of albums, most notably Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess, which found Evans building Davis’ performances into orchestrated pieces. It was a notable moment in “third stream” jazz, which is a hybrid of jazz and classical music. All told, the two musicians worked on five albums together, including Filles de Kilimanjaro, on which Evans played more of a minor role. But in the early ’60s, they had a strong run of four albums that bridged their talents. Or so that was the idea. Quiet Nights didn’t turn out as they had hoped.

With each of the collaborations between Evans and Davis, they took on a new angle, whether tackling hard bop, interpretations of showtunes or Spanish-inspired orchestrations. Quiet Nights, as the title indicates, is intended to be an album that took influence from samba and bossa nova, as that was highly popular at the time, and possibly was the result of label nudging. And the album features some originals mixed with standards and compositions from the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Unfortunately, the sessions didn’t yield much that Davis was happy with, and most of it ended up being scrapped.

And yet, I enjoy this album. Arguably, they probably shouldn’t have made the attempt if they knew they weren’t going to be happy with the result (especially if it was Columbia Records giving them a push to record it instead of them actually being inspired to explore this terrain). But what’s here, however brief it is at under a half-hour, is good. But then again I’m kind of a sucker for samba and bossa nova, even if it’s an unusual take.

So by any measure, this album was an artistic failure. But it’s an artistic failure that’s still a delight to listen to.

Rating: 8.4

Sound Quality: Good/Great