Autobiographical Order No. 207: Bruce Springsteen – The River

I’ve been a Bruce Springsteen fan since I was about 18 or 19. Back when I began this series I wrote about my experience weathering an ex-friend’s homophobia on a record shopping trip to buy Born to Run. I covered “Atlantic City” with a one-time only band formed for the sake of a trivia night quiz. His cameo in High Fidelity is one of my favorite scenes. And he’s always been on my bucket list of live bands to see. When everyone was live tweeting Springsteen shows on his last tour, I was pretty much jealous AF.

The River, for some reason, is an album that took me a while to get into. Probably because it’s really long. By today’s standards, when just about every album is a double album (vinyl-wise anyway) it’s not that long. But once upon a time it seemed intimidating. Early on in my writing career I interviewed Walter Schreifels of Quicksand and we talked about Springsteen, and he spoke about how much he loved The River. “That shit was long!” he said.

Now, to be fair, it’s not The Boss’ best album. That’s either Born to Run or Nebraska. I say Nebraska, but it’s also an anomaly in the bunch. It’s also perfect, so come at me. But The River is essentially half Born to Run and half Nebraska. It has a lot of upbeat rock ‘n’ roll songs, all of which are perfectly enjoyable though some of them aren’t totally essential (the pitch-shifted “Hungry Heart” always struck me as kind of silly—everybody says it sounds like Billy Joel, which is pretty accurate). But the ballads are untouchable. “The River,” “Drive All Night,” “Wreck on the Highway” and “Independence Day” (which Jakob Dylan shamelessly borrowed from for The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight”) are all essential Springsteen tracks. A best-of without them is useless. Which is probably why a best-of collection for Springsteen is too unwieldy a prospect to ever work—he’s got too many bests!

I bought this at the San Diego Record Show, which hasn’t been happening lately and kind of bums me out. I’ve picked up quite a few great records there, and it was always fun to browse through everyone’s wares. It’s not that there’s any shortage of places to buy vinyl. It was just fun to go in blind and surprise myself at what I’d walk out with.

Anyway, buy The River next time you see it used. It’s great. (I fully recognize that this story is nowhere near as good as my entry for Born to Run, but look I’ve got hundreds of records to go through, so sometimes it’s just about good rock music.)

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 206: The Roots – Things Fall Apart

I’ve liked hip-hop as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until junior high or so that I really began to explore it. As a kid I remember my brother listening to Public Enemy and determining that I liked it. Yet it was probably the Beastie Boys, specifically Ill Communication, who were my biggest gateway to other artists. Later on I got into A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang, and as mentioned in my last post, Digable Planets. But the first hip-hop group to truly blow my mind was The Roots. I had heard a track or two but it wasn’t until I saw them open for Rage Against the Machine at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in 1996(?) that I understood just how amazing a group they were. (They upstaged the headliners in my opinion.)

The Roots are, without a doubt, a group that needs to be seen live. Their records are great, don’t get me wrong, but part of the appeal of being a hip-hop band is the looseness and ability to improvise when the mood strikes—which they do a lot. Not to mention just how damn funky they are. That’ll happen when your drummer is Questlove. Dude lives in the pocket.

The first CD of theirs I picked up was 1999’s Things Fall Apart. Don’t ask me why it took three years to buy one of their albums, but that was 20 years ago anyway so… yeah. I recall one day rolling up to practice with my hardcore band at the time, Demagog, with the album turned up. That happened often, as a matter of fact, with albums that were decidedly not hardcore. Something about getting a dose of outside influence helped to keep from writing stale, rote punk songs. Or so I thought. I was 17, this wasn’t really high-level complicated stuff.

Probably as a result of buying the Digable Planets album in my last post, I got into the space of wanting to expand my ’90s hip-hop collection, which is a little more robust now but not necessarily complete (I’ve heard nothing but bad things about pressings of Enter the Wu-Tang so I’ve been a little hesitant to pick that up, for instance). But Things Fall Apart both sounds great and was easy to find. It’s a long album, and one that takes a lot of different departures through R&B, transitional freestyles, interludes and whatnot. It could be a little shorter, but it’s fun to listen to all the way through, to hear where the band was going on their journey.

It’s an interesting record historically, in that The Roots were (essentially) a mainstream group but featured emcees like Mos Def who were part of the whole Rawkus indie-rap thing that was blowing up at the time. (Apparently this created some rifts in hip-hop; Diddy was upset about it.) The album is tied to that era, but still sounds fresh. How could it not? It’s The Roots.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 205: Digable Planets – Blowout Comb

Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick” was one of the first hip-hop songs I remember really loving. The song was big in 1993, and my brother put it on a mixtape for me with, as I recall, selections from Duran Duran’s self-titled album that year and Nine Inch Nails songs without swear words (I was 11).

A year or so later they released Blowout Comb, but I managed to avoid listening to it for another 15 years or so. Not intentionally, I just kind of forgot about it. It was poorly promoted and had no hit singles to speak of. So, labels being what they were in the ’90s, Capitol just sort of threw up their hands and moved on.

It’s a shame, really. Blowout Comb is a phenomenal record. It’s easily one of the best hip-hop records of the ’90s, rarely mentioned in the same breath as The Low End Theory or Illmatic but by all means in the same league. And though it had no hits, everything sounds incredible, in part because of its deep well of jazz and funk samples, and in part because of how impeccable Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca flow together. On vinyl it sounds amazing, as I learned when buying Light in the Attic’s reissue of the ’90s rap classic (side note: everything Light in the Attic does is amazing).

Blowout Comb is an interesting record in the context of the time it was released. It’s much more political than the group’s debut, and its liner notes feature frequent references to Black Panthers and political prisoners. The songs themselves feature more references to Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal than a Rage Against the Machine record. But it doesn’t sound as angry as a Rage Against the Machine album. It’s about Black pride, awareness, justice and power to (and of) the people. It’s mellow, but it has a powerful message.

Ishmael Butler released much weirder music in the years since with his group Shabazz Palaces (who are great, but definitely out there). But Blowout Comb showed that commercial appeal maybe wasn’t where the group’s strengths lie, even though they had a hit. All the same, it’s a phenomenal record, one that takes you on a journey—through Brooklyn specifically—when the needle hits the groove.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 204: Scott Walker – The Drift

Remember when I said I loved “creepy” music? I’ll do you one better. I love terrifying music. Music that keeps you up at night, that makes you see things, that’s blood-curdlingly menacing and chills you to your core. I’m not talking about pure noise or grindcore or whatever. Those are just loud. I’m talking really terrifying stuff here.

Scott Walker’s The Drift is maybe the most deeply unsettling album I’ve ever heard, and because of that it’s a damn masterpiece in my mind. Of course, that also means it’s not for everybody. I know a handful of people that love this album, and they’re either kindred spirits of mine or fucking weirdos, but either way that’s to be expected. The Drift is a dark album, with long, dissonant sounds and horror-movie orchestration. It’s basically The Shining: The Album. (And if you want to split hairs, sure, you can call me a fucking weirdo.)

I discovered this maybe a year after it was released (which was 2006), kind of out of morbid curiosity. I knew of Scott Walker’s music in the ’60s, which was far more accessible, orchestral art pop that made him briefly into a sensation in the UK. He’s a major influence on Britpop and artists like David Bowie, and he gradually went into some weird and experimental places, which I’m here for. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I didn’t know how to process it, really. But it hit me hard. I wasn’t sure what I thought of it, but I wanted to keep listening to it. I needed to get into it, to make sense of it, to understand it.

Now, the music is pretty intense. But the songs themselves are about pretty intense things too. For instance: “Jesse,” with its mangled “Jailhouse Rock” guitar riff, is one of only two songs I know of about Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin brother (the other is “Tupelo” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). “Clara” is about 9/11 (“…like what happened…in America”) and it’s maybe the only song to capture the horror of it. I put it on a fall/Halloween mix for friends and a good friend of mine asked, “Dude, are you alright?”

And of course I was. This album challenges me in ways few others do, which is why I had to own it on vinyl and listen closely to Walker’s deep croon and the booming bass drum. It’s quite something. I don’t expect many to share my opinion on this. And I’m OK with that. I don’t need all the music I love to be for everyone. Sometimes, even, it’s better if it isn’t.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 203: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F# A# Infinity

I like creepy music. I like music with dark and sinister atmosphere. I like music that unsettles and jars and sets you off balance. I’m not exactly sure how I got here; in fact, when I was younger I never really had much interest in art or movies that was “scary.” I liked intensity, and in high school I saw The Blair Witch Project when it was released, but otherwise I mostly didn’t care.

I’ve changed a lot since then. I now crave aesthetic darkness. A lot of my favorite records are supremely dark (just wait until you see tomorrow’s pick!), and many of them evoke apocalypse. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F# A# Infinity is one such album. I didn’t actually know about the record when it was released. Two years later, when they issued the double-album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, I started to gain interest in the band but never quite committed to all 100-plus minutes of it.

As it turns out, what got me interested in this record was a combination of odd films. One was the zombie flick 28 Days Later, which used “East Hastings” (named for a particularly dangerous area in Vancouver) to heighten the atmosphere of terror. The other was a weird video that someone made of an abandoned amusement park in Louisiana that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina. It also used “East Hastings,” and it was maybe creepier, because it was a real place, no zombies. (Though there is a sign that says welcome to Zombieland)

The album exists in a couple different forms. One is on vinyl, which basically presents two long compositions, one per side. The other is on CD, in which the two compositions are slightly different, and there’s a third track: “Providence.” While I do like elements on the CD that aren’t on the LP, vinyl is the preferred way to listen. One, because you just put it on and it creates a sort of narrative cycle, beginning with the spoken word and orchestral endtimes sounds of “The Dead Flag Blues,” and on the other side, that more subtly unsettling standout, “East Hastings.” (The LP also comes with a coin and very little information about the band—spooky and mysterious, no?)

Both tracks are amazing, but most significant of all is how the album ends: On a lockgroove drone that cycles over and over again through a harrowing buzztone. Now that’s creepy. And I love it.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

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