Morcheeba, “Who Can You Trust?”

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(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #53 – released April 8, 1996)

Track listing: Moog Island / Trigger Hippie / Post Houmous / Tape Loop / Never An Easy Way / Howling / Small Town / Enjoy The Wait / Col / Who Can You Trust? / Almost Done / End Theme

The silly band name (“cheeba” is slang for marijuana) and fuzzed-out pot plant album cover both insinuate that this British trio’s debut LP could just as easily be called Music for Stoners; as one of the most languorous, chilled-out trip-hop records of its era, that’s not inaccurate. However, as someone who rarely smokes (and has never listened to this record while baked), I can confirm that the drug references are really irrelevant to any aural contact high the music provides. Who Can You Trust? endures two decades on because it immediately forges a palpable, captivating, focused mood (with a groove to match) and fully sustains it over an entire album four minutes shy of an hour long.

“Moog Island” slowly fades in on a hazy surge of soupy electronic effluvia, much like “Summer Cauldron” on XTC’s Skylarking did ten years earlier. Courtesy of Morcheeba’s DJ, Paul Godfrey, he then lays on a gentle, bossa nova drum machine track over which you hear synths and some guitar from his multi-instrumentalist brother, Ross. Still, it’s all just build-up for the band’s not-so-secret weapon, black female vocalist Skye Edwards. Her serene tone suggests a slinkier, silkier Sade, while the bell-like clarity she lends to the song’s amiable melody could be Ella Fitzgerald on ‘ludes. Her singular presence stands in direct contrast to fellow British trip-hoppers Portishead, whom are defined by singer Beth Gibbons’ decidedly chillier, more insular persona.

Fading out as gradually as it did in, “Moog Island” firmly (it its own woozy way) sets the scene, establishing Morcheeba’s overall sound, spirit and vibe. Still, if you’re not already listening to it on headphones, you’ll want to don a pair for “Trigger Hippie”, which opens with a loud sitar sample, hypnotically undulating like a foghorn. The groove’s slightly more juiced up here, but only slightly. Ross’ slide guitar is as essential an element as Paul’s turntable scratching, but it’s Edwards who really sells the song: the lyrics are dippy enough for Oasis (“Tune in, drop out and love”) until they’re not, when she slyly sings, “Pull the trigger, I’m a hippie.” On one hand, it’s a dumb, catchy tune right down to the telegraphic beeping chorus hook, but it duly stimulates as all its musical layers provide additional hooks-for-thought; also, the idea of being a “Trigger Hippie” is as evocatively mysterious and seductive as the strange pull of Edwards’ voice.

From there, Who Can You Trust? seemingly, effortlessly maintains its groove, even as it sidesteps Edwards for the instrumental “Post Houmous” (resembling incidental film music with slightly too much personality to remain incidental for long) or sharpens it into funk/rock on “Tape Loop” (which ends on an extended wah-wah guitar solo/record-scratching vamp) or decreases the tempo just a tad for “Never An Easy Way” (whose final thirty seconds are a beat-less psychedelic freak-out—perhaps “wooze-out” is more apt). “Howling”, however, takes everything to the next level. It retains the hip-hop groove, but adds in more guitar and an underlying cello. The melody, each line of it consisting of four simple notes is enhanced with majestic chord changes. After the second chorus, strings materialize, dramatically opening up the song like they did in Portishead’s “Roads”. Although no one would ever mistake Edwards for Aretha Franklin, she sounds more impassioned, urgent, even. Never a single, “Howling” is a lost trip-hop classic, as representative of what beauty this much-maligned genre could achieve as Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”.

Although the album’s second half is superficially (and at least, tonally) more of the same, it occasionally tinkers with the first half’s formula. Initially, “Small Town” feels indistinguishable from a track like “Never An Easy Way” until you notice the pointed, almost angry (well, as angry as Morcheeba gets) lyrics: “The High Street’s sleeping / as Friday’s creeping / the shops are open / but their minds are closed.” The steady reggae beat and growling chorus sax also both give the song a bit of a prickly edge mostly absent from what came before.

The beat drops out altogether for the next two songs. “Enjoy the Wait”, a minute-long instrumental, sums up the Godfrey brothers’ individual interests: Ross’ bluesy guitar (complete with turntable fuzz to resemble a Robert Johnson recording) sits on the left channel, while Paul’s oscillating electronic noise whirrs on the right. Neither one appears on the following “Col”, a stark, strings-and-voice number occasionally punctuated by a French horn and a muted trumpet. It’s a completely unexpected arrangement for Morcheeba, but it proves a perfect combination, melodically similar to what surrounds it but powerful for the ambition it relays. It makes you wonder whether they could pull off a whole album of such exquisite stuff, or at least one spectacular James Bond theme.

After “Col” ends on a lone trumpet, the title track begins. Built upon a four-note Fender Rhodes riff, it’s a vamp that extends for nearly nine minutes, awash in dub reggae, guitar noodling, and a cavernous, plodding beat (that halfway through speeds up for a minute, but remains muffled in the mix, as if covered in fog). Edwards doesn’t make her entrance until the midpoint, and even then she mostly emits wordless sighs except for a brief interval after the seven-minute mark where she chants the song title a few times. The track is probably what most people would expect trip-hop to sound like without ever having heard it; more song-minded listeners drawn in by the clearly defined hooks of “Trigger Hippie” and “Howling” will likely feel unmoved by it. But it successfully, persistently pushes forward, achieving Zen-like bliss instead of aimlessly drifting off into the ether.

The next song, “Almost Done” feels like a continuation of the title track, but adds actual lyrics and has a three-note riff. Some may find it a gimlet-eyed, patience-testing narcotic, but if you give yourself over to it, you’ll pinpoint deep emotion within. Deceptively gently, Edwards sings, “Swallow all my pride / choke on all your lies,” and it almost makes up for the now-dated, spoken male voice sample (“That is something”) that the Godfreys get way too much mileage out of. After a record-scratching flurry confirms “Almost Done” is done, the album concludes on an “End Theme”, a cheeky instrumental reprise of “Moog Island” that could be played over hypothetical closing credits. It lightens the mood considerably, upping the original’s kitsch factor with an echoing beeping noise straight out of The Jetsons, a lead guitar that could’ve come from an Urge Overkill album, and a flute supplanting the vocal melody (while Edwards “doo-doo-doo’s” in unison with it).

In a genre more fondly remembered for its singles and one-offs, Who Can You Trust? deserves a mention in the same breath as Dummy and Blue Lines in the (admittedly tiny) canon of great trip-hop albums. Since its release, Morcheeba has recorded seven more—some of them not strictly trip-hop (the pop-leaning Fragments of Freedom), others without Edwards, who temporarily left the band in the mid-00s (The Antidote and Dive Deep—both featuring replacement vocalists, if you can believe it!) before returning for 2010’s solid Blood Like Lemonade. My favorite follow-up remains the second LP, 1998’s Big Calm, which rings true to its predecessor’s vibe but successfully expands it to include such stuff as the homey, fiddle-laced “Part of the Process” and “The Music That We Hear”, which transmogrifies “Moog Island” and “End Theme” into the pop gem it was always meant to be. For a purely consistent listen, though, Who Can You Trust? remains aces.

Next: Learning to live on your own.

“Trigger Hippie”:

“Howling”:

Aimee Mann, “I’m With Stupid”

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(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #52 – released January 30, 1996)

Track listing: Long Shot / Choice In The Matter / Sugarcoated / You Could Make a Killing / Superball / Amateur / All Over Now / Par For The Course / You’re With Stupid Now / That’s Just What You Are / Frankenstein / Ray / It’s Not Safe

The first lyrics on Aimee Mann’s second album are “You fucked it up”; given the fate of her critically acclaimed but sales-deprived solo debut Whatever, you can understand why she’s a little pissed off. From its title on down, I’m With Stupid oozes venom at both ex-lovers and ex-record labels but it’s deliciously knowing and cathartic rather than steeped in bitterness. It also finds the ex-‘Til Tuesday vocalist refining her sound a bit, retaining her Beatles-esque melodicism while stripping away some of the Whatever’s considerable gloss. As with Boys for Pele, in early ’96 it was a highly anticipated album for me (especially as its US release came six months after the rest of the world’s); however, unlike the challenging, oft-obtuse Pele, it hit directly upon contact.

And yet, I’m With Stupid is not exactly Whatever II—this is immediately apparent when you compare their openers. Whereas the previous album’s “I Should’ve Known” gradually winds up to life via mechanical sounds leading into loud guitars and a big beat, Stupid’s “Long Shot” follows a simple count-off with a basic, distorted riff, soon joined by bass and shuffling percussion and finally, Mann’s exquisitely bemused vocal (and that kicker of an opening line). As catchy as “I Should’ve Known” but far more contained, the song’s cool detachment notably serves as a counterpoint to Mann’s kiss-off lyrics—that is, until they unexpectedly take a vulnerable turn near the end when she sings, “And all that stuff / I knew before / just turned into / ‘Please love me more.’”

Although she doesn’t utter another “fuck” until the final track, the songs following “Long Shot” are just as acerbic, possibly even more. “Choice In The Matter” shrewdly whittles away its antagonist to nearly nothing while briefly throwing in a chorus of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (gleefully adding, “hope you drown and never come back”) for good measure. Titles like “You Could Make A Killing” and “That’s Just What You Are” project like-minded sentiments at the outset. “You’re With Stupid Now” belittles its subject for aligning him/herself with a clueless, unnamed other (and also for not knowing “how to manufacture… the crazy will of a Margaret Thatcher.”) Mann’s ever-rising vitriol nearly peaks on “Sugarcoated” (co-written with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who also plays on and contributes a sinewy solo to it) with this delectable dressing-down in the bridge: “And out of your mouth / comes a string of clichés / now I have given you so much rope / you should have been swinging for days / but you keep spinning it out.” Producer Jon Brion’s echoing backing vocal that follows conveys just the right amount of sarcasm.

Brion, who also produced Whatever, again lends his ultra-distinctive touch to Stupid, particularly in the odd, raindrop-like piano (or is that guitar?) sparkling all over the first few seconds of “You Could Make A Killing”, the old-timey tack piano in “Ray” and the fluttering, Mellotron-like keyboards throughout “Frankenstein” and “Amateur”. However, he’s generally more restrained this time. Stupid mostly adheres to guitar-bass-drums-voice arrangements whose relative simplicity help accentuate the other flavors occasionally popping up in the mix: fellow former Bostonian Juliana Hatfield’s simpatico backing vocals on “You Could Make A Killing” and “Amateur”; even more complimentary harmonies from Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford on three other tracks; Brion’s bass harmonica, further sweetening the irresistible bubblegum of “Superball”; the very of-its-time but crisply effective drum loop powering “That’s Just What You Are” which first appeared, improbably enough, on the Melrose Place soundtrack the year before and remains Mann’s only solo Billboard Hot 100 entry (straight in at #93!) to date.

Stupid’s first seven tracks arguably comprise the most solid run of tunes on any of Mann’s albums, culminating in “All Over Now”, a cunning, cutting, mid-tempo acoustic/electric rocker as frank and liberating as anything off of Alanis Morrissette’s then-contemporary/ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill (it has aged far better as well). With Big Star harmonies over late-Beatles guitars, she sings “And I’m free-eeee” in the chorus following the song’s title, and later, repeats the line, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” the final lyric of “Superball” two tracks before. In a slight, Abbey Road-like touch, “All Over Now” itself ends on a lyric from “Superball” (“And I warned you now / the velocity I’m gathering.”) It’s the sort of touch a casual listener may not even pick up on, craftily thrown in there for cleverness’ sake.

Still, Mann doesn’t rest on being clever. Smart lyrics, striking production and strong melodies can all add up to a good album (sometimes a great one); what pushes Mann and Stupid ahead of the pack is the wry, weary, complicated persona she began developing on Whatever that fully comes into its own here. She’s often dismissed as an “ice queen” for her cool, analytical put-downs; admittedly, a mass-market audience will likely never relate to a barbed sentiment such as, “When you’re building your own creation / nothing’s better than real / than a real imitation,” (from “Frankenstein”). At this point in her career, she’s not playing down to her intended listener, which is refreshing but also tricky—how does one achieve that perfect balance of being relatable and also distinct?

For this singer/songwriter, a sense of humor is key. After all, making “You fucked it up” as your first words on an album is more an act of playfulness than one drawn out of spite or malice, although such feelings are present (if masked) behind the way those words are presented. “That’s Just What You Are” similarly sounds like the giddiest kiss-off ever, thanks to its peppy, upbeat verve and the sprightly, staccato delivery of such lyrics as, “It’s not like you would lose some critical piece / if somehow you moved point A to point B.” “Superball”, which I once described as what Josie and The Pussycats would’ve sounded like if they really rocked (this was years before the 2001 movie adaptation with its off-the-charts irony), seems custom-made to make all who hear it commence automatically bouncing around like a carefree, grinning idiot.

Of course, too much “fun” can lead to unrelenting archness. Mann rectifies this by occasionally dropping the mask and embracing those often submerged but always present raw emotions. They first surface on “Amateur” and its gentle, disenchanted chorus of, “I was hoping that you’d know better than that / I was hoping, but you’re an amateur.” She then partially turns the blame on herself, singing, “But I’ve been wrong before.” “Par for the Course” shows even more vulnerability: over six minutes and a slow, four-chord progression, she sings ostensibly to an ex-lover who comes crawling back to her after another failed relationship. A series of short, pointed phrases (one whole verse: “Think how / it could have been / well you should / have said it all then”) obliterates any hope of her taking him back, but the somber guitar, bass, drums and keyboard arrangement (all of it performed by Mann) is played straight, and effectively so, gaining all the more power for not sounding like anything else on the album. It doesn’t so much build as simply resound, with Mann singing, “I don’t even know you anymore” again and again, not with disdain or pity but something approaching actual grief.

There’s no shortage of disdain and pity in Stupid’s cautionary closer, “It’s Not Safe”. Saving her most brutal critique for last, it would sound like already-charted territory if not for the sharpness she exhibits: “But you’re the idiot who keeps believing in luck / and you just can’t get it through your head that no one else gives a fuck,” that f-bomb rendered rather beautifully over four notes. As with the rest of Stupid’s barbed-wire kisses, half the fun is trying to figure out whether it’s directed to a former romantic or professional partner. Michael Penn, who plays this song’s guitar solo, married Mann the following year and they’ve been together ever since, so at least she made out well in the first category. As for the second, well, let’s just say she won’t easily run out of material, as we shall see.

Next: Prolonging the buzz.

“Long Shot”:

“All Over Now”:

Tori Amos, “Boys For Pele”

Boys For Pele

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #51 – released January 23, 1996)

Track listing: Beauty Queen / Horses / Blood Roses / Father Lucifer / Professional Widow / Mr. Zebra / Marianne / Caught a Lite Sneeze / Muhammad My Friend / Hey Jupiter / Way Down / Little Amsterdam / Talula / Not The Red Baron / Agent Orange / Doughnut Song / In The Springtime of His Voodoo / Putting The Damage On / Twinkle

When approaching new work by artists we love, we inevitably weigh it against expectations put in place by what came before. These comparisons allow for first impressions that can span a wide spectrum, from immense pleasure to utter disgust and every gradation in between. Over the years, brand new albums from my favorite musicians have alternately left me pleased, soothed, vindicated, disillusioned, delightfully surprised and downright baffled.

Boys for Pele mostly fell into that last category on my first listen days after its release. While not altogether foreign from Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Tori Amos’ third album was certainly different; I referred to it as “Tori Goes Off The Deep End” in my journal at the time. Consider the facts: eighteen tracks long instead of the usual twelve… fewer orchestral arrangements and more newfangled sounds like harpsichord, brass band, programmed drums and a gospel choir… knotty, oblique lyrics (“Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo”) that made Amos’ previously most obscure references, such as those on the Alice Walker-inspired “Cornflake Girl” seem positively lucid. And of course, the cover: instead of crouching in a box with a toy piano or demurely standing still, draped in white, she’s sprawled across a rocking chair on a porch in some rural backwater, legs strewn with dirt, a shotgun on her lap and a dead rooster hanging upside down next to her. This double album-length collection was clearly making some kind a statement, possibly Amos telling her fans (and all curious onlookers), “It’s time for me to take a bold leap forward, whether you’re ready to join me or not.”

The crucial thing to know about this record is that it’s the first one Amos produced herself. Much of her prior work was helmed by Eric Rosse, with whom she was romantically involved. They split up during the making of Under the Pink, so Pele is not only Amos taking control of the way her music sounds (she would self-produce all of her subsequent recordings), it’s also nominally a breakup album, occasionally seething with rage and a swagger that at times exceeds even the most incendiary passages of Little Earthquakes. I’m tempted to call it a textbook Difficult Third Album—less accessible and considerably denser than its predecessors for sure—but it’s so much more than that. Although parts of Pele still flummox me now, through time and many listens, it has become my most favorite Amos album after Little Earthquakes.

For such a call-to-attention, Pele opens rather quietly and tentatively with “Beauty Queen”, all lingering piano notes and minimalist, haiku-like lyrics. It’s a prelude, appearing in the track listing but actually sharing the first CD track with “Horses”, whose more concrete melody materializes about two minutes in. It’s still all just piano and voice, but noticeably fuller and hookier, gaining momentum through multiple, layered arpeggios. Partially amplified through a Leslie cabinet, Amos’ signature Bösendorfer piano carries a slightly otherworldly tint, but otherwise the song could’ve easily fit on her previous albums.

Not so for “Blood Roses”, Amos’ first-ever song to utilize a harpsichord (also amplified) in place of piano. Its lower, baroque tone is a new texture in the Tori-verse—an earthier energy that also comes through in her vocal as she works the pedals of this archaic instrument. She’s ever in tune and in control, but also freer, as if dangling on a precipice when she abruptly shifts to a higher register on the “You think I’m a queer / I think you’re a queer” part, nearly out of breath on each “queer”. She later breaks into a mighty wail on the “God knows I’ve thrown away those graces” bridge, and rattles off a series of seemingly improvised “C’mon’s” as if she were a possessed jazz singer. Sparingly employed church bells and a low organ hum complete the unorthodox arrangement.

She’s back to the Bösendorfer on “Father Lucifer”, where guitar and bass make their first appearances on Pele. Far less intimidating than “Blood Roses”, it has one of the album’s catchiest melodies (and hooks—the clipped “ha” preceding each verse), but that’s not to downplay its complexity, especially at the bridge, which expands on a bed of countermelodies and overlapping vocals, dotted by startling but graceful trumpet flourishes. Much of the album was recorded in a church in rural Ireland, and you can hear the uncommon effect this has all over Pele. In place of a traditional studio’s unavoidable sterility, the recordings feel more intimate and alive. It’s as if Amos has set out to recapture the precarious, uncomfortable vibe of her earlier a Capella track “Me and a Gun”, only with instruments.

Still, nothing you’ve heard so far anticipates what comes next. “Professional Widow” is where Amos really does go off the deep end and it’s an astonishing plunge. The harpsichord returns with a vengeance, this time buttressed by an onslaught of programmed beats rolling along with her enraged, profane vocal (opening line is “Slag pit / stag shit / honey, bring it close to my lips, yes,” soon followed by “Starfucker / just like my daddy”).  It’s a raucous, alarming, sometimes hilarious song (“gonna strike a deal / make him feel like a congressman”); it’s also exceedingly weird, particularly when everything drops out at 1:30 for a piano-and-voice interlude with a completely different melody and unnervingly light tone. “We’ve got every rerun / of Muhammad Ali,” Amos sweetly, nonsensically trills before the song swerves back to the beginning, angrier than ever, eventually reaching another tempo changing, sinus clearing coda. I know I dismissed Kate Bush comparisons in my essay on Little Earthquakes, but Amos placing “Professional Widow” on her third album is as if Bush had gone straight from her relatively accessible second album Lionheart to her “I’ve gone mad” fourth album The Dreaming, passing over the transitional Never For Ever.

Having established Pele’s adventurous scope in just four tracks, Amos continues pushing forward. The second of four brief interludes (if you count “Beauty Queen”), “Mr. Zebra”, a whimsical, cabaret-like number recorded with the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band, reminds one of Little Earthquakes’ “Leather” a bit; more interestingly, it anticipates something like Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine” by nearly a decade. Piano ballad “Marianne” features Pele’s only string arrangement (performed by The Sinfonia of London). As those strings rapidly cut in and out of the melody, Amos punctuates her vocals along the spaces in between, recalling not so much Kate Bush as prime Joni Mitchell. “Caught a Lite Sneeze” brings back the programmed drums, almost nodding towards trip-hop in how Amos’ piano and voice hypnotically wraps around them. It’s a more approachable breakup lament than “Professional Widow” and clever in how it occasionally imbues the personal with the political (“Make my own Pretty Hate Machine,” she sings in a nod to friend Trent Reznor.) “Muhammad My Friend” reprises Amos’ use of religious imagery (as heard in “Father Lucifer”, “God”, “Crucify”, etc.) but only after a lengthy, gorgeous piano intro that shifts into a different but equally beautiful melody. It’s soon illuminated by a sweet soprano sax and disarmingly absurd lyrics about finding “a place in the Pope’s rubber robe,” and inviting us to “do drop in at the Dew Drop Inn,” negating claims of Amos’ supposed humorlessness.

Though aurally and thematically diverse, you can sense Pele building towards something, and it arrives just before the halfway mark. “Hey Jupiter” is more straightforward than what precedes it, but that does not diminish any of its power. Constructed like a classic, mournful, piano-and-voice ballad (the intro recalling nothing so much as Bette Midler’s “The Rose”), it initially seems to follow the tried and true path of a thousand other ballads. However, there are no added-on strings and the delicate melody develops and strengthens without Amos exactly erupting into full-on, Celine Dion-esque over-emoting. Instead, when the chorus arrives, she simply, wordlessly sings over her piano and electric guitar chords in a clever but completely affecting “Purple Rain” rip. Her subtle use of loud-soft dynamics lends the song its plaintive but awesome magic, along with lyrics that alternate between her usual quirkiness (“Your apocalypse was fab”) and those that hit directly to the gut (“Guess I never thought I could feel / the things I feel.”)

If Pele’s second half lacks the first’s consistency, at least it never runs out of steam. The third interlude, “Way Down” is most notable for the gospel choir (recorded in New Orleans) at its very end, introducing a new kind of warmth to Amos’ oeuvre. It’s an evocative prelude to “Little Amsterdam”, a Flannery O’Connor-esque Southern gothic built on a swampy piano riff and touched with kudzu-like background electronic effects. The loping, undulating, dark groove is another new wrinkle for Amos, as is the jazzy, almost feral cadence she breaks into late in the song. “Talula” retains the past two tracks’ regionalism and is perhaps the only one on Pele to go for a relatively maximalist arrangement—the harpsichord returns along with the full band, plus drum programming and (barely discernible) horns. The song’s giddy brightness earmarked it for a single, and it’s surely the only one to ever feature such lyrics as “I’ve got Big Bird on the fishing line,” and “I’ve got my rape hat on.” Opening with another lengthy piano intro, “Not the Red Baron” is a much-needed palette cleanser, melancholy and march-like, with a few Peanuts references (“Not Charlie’s wonderful dog”) to boot.

Fourth and final interlude “Agent Orange” is even wispier a composition than the preceding three, but the following “Doughnut Song” makes up for it. A deceptively simple track whose title hook has a fortune cookie-like specificity (“You’ll never gain weight from a doughnut hole”), it gains in intensity as its repeated piano hook begins to shimmer and the counterpoint vocals on the second verse add heft. Just as effectively, Amos defuses this intensity near the end as the song circles back to its opening. “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” conjures more Joni Mitchell comparisons, only this time circa her challenging, late ‘70s jazz period. Pounding piano, nonsensical scat singing, sly observations like “Honey, we’re recovering Christians”, repeated requests to “Mr. Sulu” to go “Warp speed”, supposed bagpipes (they’re in the credits)—it’s a lot to unpack (admittedly, I used to often skip over it). And yet, whenever you arrive at that blissful chorus or upon a brief but heavenly key-changing bridge, it’s enough for all but the most aggravated listener to forgive having to sit through Amos’ pretensions and peculiarities to reach it.

Just as Pele is threatening an irreversible slide towards obscurity, the penultimate “Putting the Damage On” surfaces like a beacon through the fog. The brass band returns for an opening fanfare that rapidly builds in volume before going silent and letting just Amos and her piano take the first verse. Like “Hey Jupiter”, it’s another classic-sounding breakup ballad with such clever yet vulnerable lyrics as “Now I’ve got to put on my best impression / of my best Angie Dickinson.” The brass, however, transforms it into something more. When Amos sings, “Take it high, high, high,” and hits that third “high”, the horns rise up to life and would nearly drown her out if they weren’t so in sync with her (and Amos and the band likely recorded their parts separately). Because of their ultra-specific tone, the effect of them coming together with her is mesmerizing rather than chilling. They open up the song in all the right ways, but it’s Amos who provides the lone, effective closing note.  For many, this would be an ideal spot to close the album, but Amos ends Pele the way it began, with only her voice and piano. “Twinkle” just seems to hang there in an abstract space similar to “Beauty Queen”, although there’s a little more resolve, a sense of having lived through something—perhaps wisdom gleaned from experience. “She twinkles / and that means / I sure can,” she sings, but adds that it’s also “so hard”, repeats those last two words, and the album ends.

The demanding Pele had the somewhat ironic fortune to come out right at Amos’ commercial peak, debuting at number two on both the US and UK album charts*; since then, she’s gradually fallen back to cult/legacy artist status, although her albums still regularly make the top ten. On occasion, she even puts out a pretty decent one such as Pele’s follow-up, From the Choirgirl Hotel, or her epic post 9/11 travelogue/concept LP Scarlet’s Walk. Still, nothing else she’s done has had quite the same impact as Pele. It doesn’t offer much conclusiveness or catharsis; its flamboyance courts attention, yet it never showboats nor merely exists for Amos to show the world what she’s capable of. However, it’s more unfiltered than those first two albums and cuts nearer to the bone. It’s the type of record that requires close, headphones listening; you have to take the time to absorb and live with its eccentricities, detours and tonal/structural shifts. It’s Amos working (perhaps for the first time) without a net, fully trusting her instincts and in the process creating something that stands apart from her previous triumphs, but is equally built to last.

Next: Rebuking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.

*Speaking of unlikely chart successes, “Professional Widow” was a number one UK single, albeit in a near-unrecognizable techno version remixed by Armand Van Helden and subtitled “It’s Got to Be Big” (one of the two lyrics it samples from the original recording).

“Hey Jupiter”:

“Professional Widow”:

Halfway Through 2016: Movies

Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour

In direct contrast to a rather wishy-washy list of albums, at mid-year, there’s a clear candidate for my favorite movie of 2016 (so far). Like all other Apichatpong Weerasethakul* films, Cemetery of Splendour is a one-of-a-kind, meditative, polarizing fever dream that flew under the radars of all but the most stalwart art-film geeks (of which I am one). It centers on a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers. While a good chunk of it unfolds as dialogue-heavy traditional narrative, more often than not, the film practically glides from scene to scene, making time for lengthy passages full of such ephemera as the shifting light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldier’s beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s a film I can’t wait to watch a second and possibly third (or fourth) time.

As for the rest, four are festival titles, at least two of which (Little Men, Morris From America) will hit theaters before summer’s end. The Lobster may be the unlikeliest indieplex hit since Winter’s Bone (which it has already outgrossed at the cinema I work at), while Love and Friendship suggests Whit Stillman was born to adapt Austen.

My favorite 2016 films so far, in alphabetical order:

Being 17
Cemetery of Splendour
The Dying of the Light
Free In Deed
Little Men
The Lobster
Love and Friendship
Morris From America
Rams
Weiner

 

*I still can’t bring myself to refer to Weerasethakul by his preferred nickname of “Joe”.

Halfway Through 2016: Albums

At this point last year, in compiling my favorite 2015 albums to date, I had heard a few good enough to ostensibly place on a best-of-decade list. Sadly, that’s not the case this year: of the ten titles listed below, I can’t imagine any of them ending up the absolute best one I’ll hear in 2016. Of course, at last year’s midpoint I had heard Froot but did not anticipate what impact it would eventually have, so who knows—the year’s still young.

I will say Andrew Bird’s latest is his most immediate since Armchair Apocrypha, Field Music’s is their best-to-date, Blackstar would have made most critics lists even without Bowie’s death, and I’m shocked at how good The 1975’s second record is, ridiculous Fiona Apple-length title and all. Tegan and Sara and Pet Shop Boys both scrape by on goodwill left over from their previous, superior LPs; hopefully, new works from Roisin Murphy and (gasp) The Avalanches (both out July 8) will at least be up to that level.

My favorite 2016 albums so far, in alphabetical order:

Andrew Bird, Are You Serious
Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks In Whispers
David Bowie, Blackstar
DIIV, Is The Is Are
Field Music, Commontime
Junior Boys, Big Black Coat
Pet Shop Boys, Super
Tegan and Sara, Love You To Death
The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.

1989: We Do The Dive Every Time We Dance

100 Albums is still on hiatus (and probably will be for some time), but to tide you over, I’ve made a 1989 best-of mix to complement the other yearly mixes I’ve posted for 1990-95.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about how the year I turned 14 was a crucial one for me concerning music. This was when I started listening to American Top 40 on a weekly basis and looking for a posted copy of the Billboard Hot 100 whenever I visited Musicland or JR’s at Southridge mall—not coincidentally also where I bought my first post-“Weird Al” Yankovic albums (on cassette, naturally). In 1989, I began thinking of pop music (and all its genre-specific iterations) as a cultural force, something to obsess over and actively engage with rather than relegate to background noise from the radio or MTV.

As with most of these mixes, I heard very few of these songs in 1989 apart from the big fat hits (“Buffalo Stance” never fails to mentally transport me back to that summer) and a few other random titles—I latched on to R.E.M.’s flop follow-up single to “Stand” more than I ever did to “Stand” itself and became obsessed with wacko-Euro novelty “Bring Me Edelweiss” after taping it off the radio (a wise move, since I believe I never heard it on the radio ever again).

Elsewhere, I’ve included obvious choices (“See A Little Light”, “Pictures of You”), a few obscure album tracks (“One Of The Millions”, possibly the best XTC song Colin Moulding ever wrote; the languorous, Sally Timms-fronted “Learning To Live On Your Own”) and a couple of mostly forgotten hits (I’d rather hear “Deadbeat Club” instead of “Love Shack” again, or substitute “Don’t Look Back” for another round of “She Drives Me Crazy”).

I tend to go on about how idyllic and inclusive the ‘90s were for music, but man, did any year in that entire decade contain so eclectic a playlist as this one suggests? Even through my Anglophile-Alternative lens, you’ve got such disparate spirits next to each other as Madonna and the Mekons, or Neneh Cherry and Natalie Merchant. Perhaps I’ll post more ‘80s mixes before eventually getting back to 100 Albums, which will resume with my beloved, life-changing 1996.

Click here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1989 on Spotify:

1. The B-52’s, “Deadbeat Club”
2. Kate Bush, “The Sensual World”
3. Concrete Blonde, “Happy Birthday”
4. The Cure, “Pictures of You”
5. Hunters and Collectors, “When The River Runs Dry”
6. Indigo Girls, “Kid Fears”
7. Chris Isaak, “Blue Spanish Sky”
8. The Blue Nile, “Headlights On the Parade”
9. XTC, “One of the Millions”
10. Kirsty MacColl, “Innocence”
11. The Beautiful South, “You Keep It All In”
12. Madonna, “Like A Prayer”
13. Mekons, “Learning To Live On Your Own”
14. Bob Mould, “See A Little Light”
15. New Order, “Vanishing Point”
16. Bonnie Raitt, “Nick of Time”
17. Fine Young Cannibals, “Don’t Look Back”
18. Elvis Costello, “Veronica”
19. Ramones, “Pet Sematary”
20. Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance”
21. 10,000 Maniacs, “Trouble Me”
22. Edelweiss, “Bring Me Edelweiss”
23. Black Box, “Ride On Time”
24. Erasure, “Blue Savannah”
25. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”

50 Down, 50 To Go

Almost exactly two years ago, I began 100 Albums simply to give myself both a reason to write and a goal to accomplish. Summing up an album in 1,000 words each week initially seemed doable; however, I soon discovered I could easily write closer to twice that length (sometimes more) about particular records, but needed more time to do so. Two years on, and I’ve reached not my original goal, but rather serendipitously the halfway mark.

I chose to write about my favorite albums chronologically, hoping it would allow me to develop an ongoing narrative about how both music and my personal taste has evolved. While there’s not much linking such disparate records as Future Listening! and It’s Heavy In Here together apart from coming out in the same year, if you go to any random entry (particularly past the first ten), you’ll see plenty of links referring to earlier entries. When I write criticism, I usually fall back on that (admittedly useful) trope of comparing and contrasting. Here, it’s especially useful in tracking how one piece of music informs another; I can only see it continuing throughout the remaining 50 entries.

Speaking of which, I suspect it will take longer than two more years to get through them. For starters, I’m off on a brief hiatus to focus on other endeavors, but in general, I find myself increasingly challenged to make each new entry fresh and not a rehash of ideas already explored. As I look over the list (that I’m continuously revising, by the way), I see great opportunities to expand and deepen this partial narrative, so I’m going to take time to put in the effort and keep the bar for myself set high. 100 Albums will continue, but don’t be surprised if the pace slackens intermittently.

When this project (eventually) returns, it will enter 1996 with one of the great Difficult Third Albums. Until then, click here for a playlist of songs from the last 50 albums (with a few substitutions for those records not on Spotify). Also embedded above: a brief history of how we got from there to here as summed up by XTC’s Andy Partridge.

1995: Feeling Good (For Now)

By 1995, Alternative was the mainstream. I spent that Memorial Day at a music festival sponsored by Milwaukee’s corporate modern rock radio station. Violent Femmes were the hometown headliners, but their most recent (and likely last good) album, Rock! would never get an official domestic release; in fact, none of the bands I saw are on this mix. Next to the Femmes, the highlight was seeing the Ramones on the second stage on one of their last tours. They ran through 30 songs in 40 minutes, and more than made up for having to sit through the Flaming Lips (whom I’ve never liked) and Thank You-era Duran Duran (yes, they played their versions of “911 Is A Joke” and “White Lines” from that misbegotten covers album).

I don’t mean to reduce an entire year to a singe event, but this particular one points to how alt-rock, after having built up considerable goodwill in the decade’s first half instantly began to curdle. Fortunately, a superb left field hit would occasionally emerge amongst all the Live and Alanis: “Connection”, “Down By the Water”, “Better Than Nothing” “Sick of Myself”, “Champagne Supernova” and “1979” are all tracks I first heard via heavy rotation on New Rock 102.1, and all of them sound good today. Other songs, like “Downtown Venus” and “Somebody’s Crying” might not have fit that radio format, but they were in the air somewhere: on other stations, in people’s cars or perhaps (gasp) even on MTV! Plus, Britpop was at its peak (see tracks 22-24), trip-hop was close to getting there (#15 and 18) and even a band as wacky as Southern Culture on the Skids was on a major label.

Like 1991 and 1993, this was a slightly better year for singles and tracks than full-lengths although the albums the Bjork, Tricky, Luna, Ben Folds Five and Pulp songs are from aren’t too shabby, and I even considered writing at further length about Grant McLennan’s Horsebreaker Star and Jill Sobule’s self-titled release (the one with “I Kissed A Girl” on it) for some time. And yet, I’ve made room for a few great one-offs, like Moloko’s terrific debut single and Autour de Lucie’s en français jangle-pop-for-the-ages. Actually, I wanted to include more outliers, from Pretty and Twisted, Eddi Reader and Eve’s Plum to anything from Echobelly’s On, but none of it is on Spotify (nor is Pizzicato Five, whose “Happy Sad” deserves a spot on this mix.)

Click here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1995 on Spotify:

  1. Elastica, “Connection”
  2. P.M. Dawn, “Downtown Venus”
  3. Luna, “Sideshow By The Seashore”
  4. Jill Sobule, “Good Person Inside”
  5. Jen Trynin, “Better Than Nothing”
  6. PJ Harvey, “Down By The Water”
  7. Ben Folds Five, “Best Imitation of Myself”
  8. Matthew Sweet, “Sick of Myself”
  9. Teenage Fanclub, “Sparky’s Dream”
  10. Chris Isaak, “Somebody’s Crying”
  11. Autour de Lucie, “L’Accord Parfait”
  12. The Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”
  13. Kirsty MacColl, “Caroline”
  14. Southern Culture on the Skids, “Camel Walk”
  15. Moloko, “Fun For Me”
  16. Garbage, “Queer”
  17. kd lang, “Acquiesce”
  18. Tricky, “Aftermath”
  19. Morphine, “All Your Way”
  20. Bjork, “I Miss You”
  21. Eric Matthews, “Fanfare”
  22. Pulp, “Something Changed”
  23. Blur, “The Universal”
  24. Oasis, “Champagne Supernova”
  25. Grant McLennan, “Horsebreaker Star”

Pizzicato Five, “The Sound of Music By Pizzicato Five”

pizzicato

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #50 – released October 31, 1995)

Track listing: We Love Pizzicato Five / Rock N’ Roll / The Night Is Still Young / Happy Sad / Groovy Is My Name / Sophisticated Catchy / Strawberry Sleighride / If I Were A Groupie / Sweet Thursday / CDJ / Fortune Cookie / Good / Number 5 / Peace Music (St. Etienne Remix) / Airplane / Rock N’ Roll 2

Before the Internet, the sheer amount of music available for one to discover seemed much smaller. For instance, you probably would have never heard of a band like Pizzicato Five outside of Japan had not hip American indie label Matador surreptitiously signed them in 1994. Then-home to the scruffier, low-fi likes of Liz Phair and Pavement, it was an unlikely fit until you consider the eclecticism of the age—a brief boom period following Nirvana’s massive Nevermind where labels both major and minor looked past previously established parameters as to whom they could sign and presumably make a commercial or at the very least critical success.

P5 was not exactly a new band in 1994—formed nearly a decade before by university friends Yasuhara Konishi and Keitaro Takanami, they went through multiple lineups (early on as a quintet, hence the band name) and musical styles before finding considerable success in their homeland as a Shubiya-kei trio with vocalist Maki Nomiya in the early ‘90s. Named for the Tokyo district from where it emerged, Shibuya-kei was, as Wikipedia notes, “a mixture of jazz, pop and synth-pop” but with an unambiguously retro tint. Think bossa nova, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson-like chamber pop and the groovier side of ‘60s Serge Gainsbourg, but also a cornucopia of kitsch ranging from vintage TV game show themes to hyperkinetic modern dance pop. Additionally, one can spot everything from Motown, funk and soul to disco, new wave and glam coursing throughout the band’s vast catalogue.

Come to think of it, there’s nothing overwhelmingly Japanese about P5 apart from nearly all of their lyrics being of that tongue. Given their love of American music and occasional predilection for pastiche (early hit “Sweet Soul Revue” liberally borrows from certain Staples Singers and Sly and the Family Stone hits), it’s no wonder Matador saw potential in introducing them to an American audience, especially as the band was willing to re-record a handful of tracks in English. Still, P5 were never going to break through to a Western audience in the way their closest American counterparts Deee-Lite did because the level of ironic detachment in their music was through the roof. That’s not to accuse P5 of being insincere, exactly, but this was first and foremost a band fixated on sound over content (it’s right there in the album title); what makes them great is how, despite their poker-faced intensity they can wring considerable emotion out of melody, mood, and all the nonsense words (“do, do do’s”, “la, la, la’s”, etc.) that often provide their most immediate and resonant hooks.

One scan through P5’s discography will leave any newcomer a little overwhelmed. In addition to a dozen or so studio albums and nearly twice as many EPs, you have multiple compilations, a majority of them with alternate, often radically different versions of previously released songs. Luckily, Matador made things easy for Americans by limiting the band’s output here to five albums (going so far as to title the final one as The Fifth Release From Matador), a remixed version of the third album, and a manageable scattering of EPs (although as of this writing, all of it is out of print!). Following Made In USA (1994), an introductory collection of Nomiya-era songs that actually got P5 on MTV with the campy “Twiggy Twiggy” (via a memorable Beavis and Butthead segment where the boys liken a band member to bespectacled Ernie from My Three Sons), Matador put out a second, similar compilation, The Sound of Music By Pizzicato Five the following year (Takanami had left in the interim, reducing P5 to their most iconic lineup as a duo). Made In USA has a half-dozen good singles surrounded by filler, but The Sound of Music By is a fuller representation of what P5 is about, playing like a thoughtfully compiled mixtape, swerving through a variety of content but mostly cohering in spite of itself

After a brief kiddie chorus intro appropriating the Bye Bye Birdie staple “We Love You, Conrad”, “Rock N’ Roll” kicks off the album proper by not sounding anything at all like the song title. Featuring acoustic percussion and a skittering organ, it more resembles ‘60s cocktail music. Nomiya’s perky vocals are flanked by the occasional “ding!” of a correct-answer quiz show buzzer and she concludes the samba with a delightful “ti, ti, tikka-tikka, ti, ti, tikka-tikka, tiiiii.” The exclaimed title of “The Night Is Still Young” (sung in Japanese) immediately follows, swiftly bringing us back to the ‘90s. Easily the closest to Deee-Lite they ever sounded, it whooshes by on a bed of house piano chords, dinky synth hooks, a carefree mechanical beat and exultations of “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Ooh!”

It all builds up to perhaps P5’s single greatest song: “Happy Sad” opens with an American woman teaching Konishi to say, “A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular”, a phrase that reappears throughout The Sound of Music By. He stumbles on the word “Stereophonic” and the woman breaks out in infectious laughter. They try a second time and succeed with flying colors; then comes a wallop of a breakbeat and the song’s endless, transcendent two-chord funk guitar riff. Originally entirely in Japanese apart from the title and backing vocals, Nomiya switches back and forth between English and her native language for this version and surprisingly sounds just as natural on the former. As both crisp and lush as ‘70s Philly soul and as tightly constructed as the best ABBA, “Happy Sad” is on my shortlist for Most Ebullient Pop Song Ever Recorded; true to its title, its winsome melody carries an ever-so-slight melancholy afterglow, even alongside all the huskier, diva-tastic backing vocals that fortify its back half.

Having established their pop group prowess in three tracks, The Sound of Music By proceeds to paint a widescreen view of what musical polymaths P5 actually are. After “Happy Sad”, there’s barely a second to catch one’s breath before “Groovy Is My Name” crescendos in with its relentless rhythm guitar, lounge piano filigrees, muted trumpets and Motown chord changes. The word “groovy” figures so heavily into the lyrics that it doesn’t even matter to non-Japanese listeners what else Nomiya is singing (apart from all the “ba, ba, ba’s”, of course). Holding the tempo but altering the melody, “Sophisticated Catchy” forms a medley with it, similarly getting a lot of mileage out of Nomiya simply repeating the word “catchy” (the track’s sole lyric, in fact).

“Strawberry Sleighride” promises a sugar overdose from its title and of course it delivers, gliding on by with an even creamier array of “ba, ba, ba’s”; “If I Were A Groupie” then suddenly shifts gears, creating a playful, loping collage of samples and beats, occasionally making room for an actual chorus but clearly having more fun with Nomiya delivering a groupie’s soliloquy on the left channel (replicated in English by a Parker Posey-sound-alike on the right). “Sweet Thursday” is a Michel Legrand-esque waltz, elegant, tender and suffused with harmonica, while gospel/house banger “CDJ” abruptly jumps back onto the dance floor—it’s convincingly the most ultra-contemporary track here, even if Nomiya can’t quite hold her own with the big-voiced belters providing additional English vocals.

Fortunately, just as The Sound of Music By begins to drift, you get an unexpected gem like “Fortune Cookie”: a former B-side that also happens to be a classy, sublime Dionne Warwick pastiche, it emits enough feeling and warmth to come off as far more than mere imitation. And only an outfit as cheeky and confident as P5 would follow it with a cover of “Good” by the Japanese new wavers The Plastics. Very much like a lost track off The B-52s’ 1983 LP Whammy!, P5’s version is arch, spazzy fun, pivoting between a sparkly, circular synth hook, perky, English-as-a-second language spoken-word vocals and guitar rumbling disrupted by the occasional sonic “Pow!”

You’ll remember I said the album mostly coheres, because it does get a little random towards the end. “Number 5” brings back the cocktail lounge vibe only this time in an entirely live setting (complete with acoustic piano, bongos and vibes). The track’s more notable for its hummable melody and “do-do-do” wordless chorus than anything else, although at the very least it shows P5 had some validity as a live act and was not solely a studio creation. However, placing “Peace Music (Saint Etienne remix)” next to it induces whiplash. The British trio samples one line from the song’s original version (included on Made In USA) and extends it into an impressionist dub for over eight minutes. A baffling inclusion, for sure (Saint Etienne weren’t that well known to American audiences), it certainly displays a different side of P5, although I admit I usually skip over it.

Happily, if you must listen to an album in sequence, then it’s worth sitting through the track for the exquisite “Airplane”. Hyperactive and naggingly catchy, the song is warp-speed bubblegum encapsulating just about everything people either love or hate about P5. Its tinkling harpsichord is undercut by swooping horns and guitar scuz; the melody is a merry-go-round forever threatening to go off the rails, veering back and forth between the same two chords. It builds, and builds, and then practically explodes on a sample of Donovan’s “Epistle to Dippy”, and it just keeps going, only fading out as an actual airplane sound smothers everything else at the end. Then The Sound of Music By circles back through itself, concluding by pilfering a spoken line from “CDJ” (“So, that’s all, DJ—the time has come”) and briefly reprising an instrumental version of “Rock N’ Roll”. It doesn’t exactly tie all the loose ends together, but it satisfies, giving off an illusion of completeness.

P5’s next three Matador releases were all mostly intact equivalents of original Japanese studio albums. When they broke up in 2001, I was saddened but also a little relieved—just how long could they have kept up this pace, anyway? Predictably, after a few years I ate those words, now aching for new P5 music in my life. Only recently have I begun exploring beyond the Matador albums, and really, The Sound of Music By is only a tiny fingernail on a vast body of notable work. For instance, take the Japan-only comp Big Hits and Jet Lags: 1994-1997, which is every bit as worthy, containing alternate versions of “Happy Sad” and “The Night is Still Young” but also a handful of superlative singles never released in the US (such as “Triste”, an inspired cross between Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me” and Chicago’s “Saturday In The Park”). Today, any listener has enough resources to slip down an online rabbit hole and compile their favorite bits and pieces of a band’s oeuvre. Once upon a time, only the artist or their record label could do this. Fortunately for P5, The Sound of Music By did this sort of thing exceptionally well.

Next: Assessing this project’s Halfway Point.

“Happy Sad”*:

(*sadly, there’s no version of this song YouTube with both the intro and the English language first verse, so I picked a charming one that at least has the former.)

“Airplane”:

Eric Matthews, “It’s Heavy In Here”

it's heavy in here

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #49 – released September 26, 1995)

Track listing: Fanfare / Forging Plastic Pain / Soul Nation Select Them / Faith To Clay / Angels For Crime / Fried Out Broken Girl / Lust Takes Time / Hop and Tickle / Three-Cornered Moon / Distant Mother Reality / Flight and Lion / Poisons Will Pass Me / Sincere Sensation / Fanfare (reprise)

Some albums you fall for so immediately that you feel forever transformed, as if you could divide your life into two neat periods of before and after first hearing it. Other albums (in fact, most albums) do not have such a direct impact—they may require multiple spins to resonate or even make sense. In general, if nothing’s sticking after two or three plays, I’ll move on because there’s no shortage of new music out there for anyone to sift through and discover.

Still, once in a great while, an album I’ve listened to sporadically over time will suddenly, surreptitiously click into place for me. It’s happened with such disparate releases such as Nilsson Sings Newman, Erotica and Tiger Bay—all albums I enjoyed but didn’t truly love until something in them shifted for me and they no longer felt merely agreeable but absolutely essential (in Tiger Bay’s case, it was when hearing its original UK version). That this sort of thing rarely occurs is why it can seem so profound, especially when you consider the utter simplicity of just hearing something differently.

I first heard Eric Matthews via the video for “Fanfare”, his debut album’s lead track and single on MTV’s 120 Minutes, a Sunday night indie music roundup I watched religiously in the mid-90s. Jubilant, faintly retro guitar pop tinged with a McCartney-esque bassline and a trumpet solo (played by Matthews himself) providing the hook (and clearly influencing the title), “Fanfare” was a heck of an introduction. Matthews’ multi-tracked, breathy choirboy vocals, reminiscent of Colin Blunstone (of The Zombies) were novel at a time dominated by rawer, louder, grittier singers. The Beatles and XTC fan in me responded positively to “Fanfare”; although it never crossed over from college to commercial alternative radio, I still remember it as a definitive single from its time, even if it sounds completely out of step from it.

Within days of seeing the video, I picked up a copy of It’s Heavy In Here and was… well, not disappointed, exactly, but there clearly wasn’t another “Fanfare” on it (apart from its brief, acoustic guitar-and-voice reprise at the end). In between, you had a dozen pretty songs—mostly stripped-down guitar pop, occasionally augmented with strings, woodwinds, an organ here, a horn there, and of course, Matthews’ distinct voice, as if he were trying to channel not just Blunstone but such winsome, psychedelia-era groups as The Association and The Left Banke. It all sounded pleasant enough, but where “Fanfare” was a striking, welcoming call to arms, the other songs tended to turn inward, obscuring potential hooks with trickier chord changes and thorny if not altogether clunky lyrics (have you ever spoken the words “Forget the gold of growing old” aloud?).

And yet, I appreciated Matthews’ attempt at a classier, classical music-enhanced modern rock. Isolated moments, such as the gliding, wordless trumpet and piano sections of “Fried Out Broken Girl” or the continually building strings on “Poisons Will Pass Me” were just too gorgeous to ignore (as if slyly gleaned from one’s subconscious). As previously stated, the entire record also sounded like none of its peers (coming out on edgy, grunge-centric Seattle label Sub Pop, no less). With alt-rock radio wearily grinding into formulaic malaise, dominated by a handful of overplayed artists (Alanis, Live, No Doubt, etc.) just like any top 40 station, It’s Heavy In Here served as a balm, a real alternative—obviously influenced by the past, but also curiously out of time. In fact, it could’ve been recorded anytime in the preceding 25-30 years.

From then on, I returned to the album occasionally, even liking Matthews’ slightly more lyrically (and also musically) straightforward follow-up, The Lateness of The Hour (1997). Still, it didn’t occur to me to reserve a place for It’s Heavy In Here on my first list of 100 favorite albums in 2004. Matthews himself disappeared for a while, re-emerging in the mid-00s with a trio of records (I’ve heard just one, 2006’s Foundation Sounds, which I dismissed as overly long and hook-deficient), then promptly vanishing again. In the meantime, I cultivated interest in the sort of chamber pop that inspired Matthews, absorbing records both old (The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle) and new (a few artists still to come in this project).

Sometime in the past decade, It’s Heavy In Here turned a corner for me. I don’t remember when, exactly, but with each spin (usually while at my office job), I felt a little more drawn to its sonic puzzle pieces. Qualities that once seemed obscure and tough to get a handle on, such as the unexpected way “Angels For Crime” just slows down and stops, unresolved or the uncharacteristically alien, high-pitched noise that weaves in and out of “Distant Mother Reality” (actually a “tenor recorder”) now felt like subjects for further research, rather than deterrents to be brushed away. I also began noticing nice little transitions in the album’s sequence, like the dramatic, effective pause between the Simon and Garfunkel-like, guitar-and-harpsichord etude “Faith to Clay” and crisp-sounding-but-also-softly-glowing “Angels For Crime”.

However, I only really “got” this album when I paid less attention to its lyrics. I don’t want to disavow what lyrics lend to a song, but if you have no trouble enjoying and finding meaning in music whose lyrics are in a language you don’t understand, then words decidedly aren’t always essential. That’s not to say Matthews isn’t capable of the occasional good couplet (like “this heaven it needs fixing / looks so much like hell”) but his overall sound is compelling yet grounded enough that he almost doesn’t even need lyrics for these songs to register; this wouldn’t work if his melodies weren’t so nimble and complex or the arrangements so intricate and luxuriant.

Naturally, the orchestral parts of It’s Heavy In Here command the most attention. Some tracks, like “Soul Nation Select Them” and “Angels For Crime” start off in the usual guitar-bass-drums mode (often played by Matthews and ex-Jellyfish member Jason Falkner) but are eventually seasoned with flute and clarinet interjections or the sudden appearance of a string quintet for a few bars. Other songs, like “Fried Out Broken Girl” and “Poisons Will Pass Me” do away with the rock trio instrumentation entirely; in the context of a rock album, they would normally seem like outliers, but tonally they fit almost seamlessly into the entire melancholy fabric. Even “Three-Cornered Moon”, a mostly instrumental waltz heavy with harpsichord, muted trumpet and strings feels like it belongs, in part because it’s so exquisitely beautiful but also in how it just seems to linger there in the air, repeating the same delicate melody to the point where it almost achieves a Zen-like bliss.

For all his arty pretensions, Matthews can be just as appealing when he leaves the orchestral stuff out. “Forging Plastic Pain” slowly fades in on a knotty, repeated guitar figure that’s not worlds away from one off a Pavement song; it also has a multi-tracked electric solo that could’ve come from a much mellower Brian May. “Lust Takes Time” gains momentum from a two-chord angular riff that’s equal parts Talking Heads and The Smiths. “Flight and Lion” contains jazz chords and a sparkling piano solo, yet it’s not really jazz but subdued, ever-so-slightly sinister balladry. “Hop and Tickle” almost makes me want to recant my earlier claim that the album doesn’t have another “Fanfare”, for its bright, catchy jangle pop now feels awfully close to it.

In considering what makes it so special, I keep returning to the idea that It’s Heavy In Here doesn’t belong to any singular moment in time. Sure, arguably only in the mid-90s could Matthews have put out a record like this on such a major indie label and get MTV play. It endures precisely because it doesn’t sound anything at all like 1995, or 1975, or 2015, for that matter. What Matthews did, and it’s something I believe not many artists are capable of, was to make a debut album that was a genuine expression of his aesthetic and considerable talent, forgoing trends while remaining true to his influences. You sense this is exactly the album he wanted to make and I can’t help but admire him for that, plus the likeliness that it will sound just as fresh and untethered in another ten or twenty years.

Next: A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular.

“Fanfare”:

“Three-Cornered Moon”: