Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #67 – released March 21, 2001 (U.S. edition))

Track listing: The Art of Driving / Weekend / The English Motorway System / May Queen / Sex Life / French Rock ‘N’ Roll / The Facts of Life / Straight Life /  Gift Horse / The Deverell Twins / Goodnight Kiss / Start As You Mean To Go On / Brutality

A British trio consisting of a breathy, slightly posh-sounding female vocalist backed by two nondescript male musicians, you can’t help but liken Black Box Recorder to Saint Etienne. Ah, but it’s only a superficial resemblance: in nearly every other way, the former were emphatically the latter’s negative mirror image, their evil twins. If Saint Etienne were (and still are) the cuddliest band in postmodern electro-pop, BBR were decidedly more sardonic and cutting—“Child Psychology”, the catchiest track from their 1998 debut England Made Me has a chorus that goes, “Life is unfair; kill yourself or get over it.”

BBR was the brainchild of Luke Haines, who had led mid-90s band The Auteurs and John Moore, a former drummer with The Jesus and Mary Chain. Their idea, in a nutshell, was to, a la Steely Dan and The Beautiful South wed smooth, polished, nearly antiseptic pop with cynical, pointed and often mordantly funny lyrics. Haines had the latter element down pat in his songs for The Auteurs, but his vocals and the band’s guitar-heavy palette smacked of a less sneering, intellectually-inclined Oasis (a combo that made for a more consistent oeuvre than post-“Wonderwall” Oasis, anyway.) However, in finding chanteuse Sarah Nixey, Haines and Moore hit pay dirt. Although pretty, proper and pitch-perfect, her utter disaffectedness served as an ideal vessel for BBR’s caustic, vaguely sinister pop. Like Saint Etienne’s own Sarah (Cracknell), her voice never manipulated or overpowered—it simply, impeccably emitted the words written for it to sing (or in many cases, speak) with sparkling, if artless precision.

Although England Made Me lays out all the cards in this musical approach, follow-up The Facts of Life most fully realizes it, adding layers of icy synths and gently haunting strings and placing Nixey front and center. It sounds a lot like French electro-lounge male duo Air (the stately, loping “French Rock ‘N’ Roll” pays explicit tribute to them) crossed with the socio-conscious commentary of Britpop stalwarts like Pulp. Occasionally, Haines will nod to The Auteurs by bringing in a loud guitar riff (like the perfectly mocking one on the bridge of “Straight Life”); otherwise, the album basks in an ultra-pristine glow, Nixey trilling exactly like Olivia Newton-John circa “Have You Never Been Mellow”, dutifully singing curt la la la’s and trading spoken word sections with Haines, imbuing her words with sort of a dispassionate directness that manages to both cut to the bone and just evocatively hang there in the air.

The Facts of Life opens with a triptych that seems to concern travel in modern England, but of course, that’s not all it’s about. In “The Art of Driving”, Haines says, “We can get a hood down / Throw away those learner plates,” while Nixey coolly responds, “You got the hang of steering / Now try stepping on the brakes.” Using such innuendo has consequences, however, as she detachedly sings on the chorus, “You’ve been driving way too fast / You’ve been pushing way too hard / You’ve been taking things too far / Who do you think you are?” This “journey” of sorts continues with “Weekend” as Nixey and her “best friend” escape boredom with a “drive out of the city.” The ultra-catchy chorus of “Friday night / Saturday morning,” seems innocent enough, yet her isolated asides (“Take your bank account / was it worth it?” and “Keep you guessing where we’re going”) have an ever-so-slight ominous undercurrent to them. Not as much, however, as “The English Motorway System” has: While the titular network of roads is “beautiful and strange,” it also “eliminates all diversions… and emotions,” and later, “it’s an accident waiting to happen.” And as easy as it is to zone out while zooming along it, something else is needling Nixey. Eventually, she comes out with it, revealing the road as synonymous with a relationship, at one point speaking plainly but incisively, “Do you really want to break up?”

“Sex Life” leaves metaphor behind for a laundry list of sexual configurations. In a singsong-y cadence, Nixey recites, “Boy on boy / boys on top / boys together / boys don’t stop / being boys / in your dreams” (and she also devotes a stanza to “Girl on girl.”) Her titillating suggestions, however, are a mere prelude to a chorus where she turns the inquiry back on herself, revealing, “Can’t stop thinking about you, in your dreams,” languidly extending that last word across multiple syllables. A few tracks later, “Straight Life” presents a similar bait-and-switch. With lush opening harmonies (“It’s a beautiful morning / in our dream home”) giving way to mechanical intonation of the song’s title, it all feels deliciously ironic. Still, as guitars howl over the synth-pop beats and Nixey goes on about such things as “home improvements”, she also notes, “We’re never moving” with just a hint of defiance, perhaps even advocating for this lifestyle instead of lazily mocking it.

The title track even makes the case that BBR mean it, man. The tightest and most inviting (wouldn’t necessarily call it warm) song in their catalog (and not coincidentally their only UK Top 40 hit), it opens with a simple, gradually, very nearly chill but refreshingly crisp hip-hop beat that could almost be Soul II Soul. It’s tempting to say Nixey “raps” the verses, but her deliberate monotone is neither quite that nor spoken-word poetry. “When boys are just eleven / they begin to grow in height / at a faster rate / than they have done before,” she starts off, going on to offer advice on how to call a girl on the telephone or where to socialize (and have sex) in a small town. Her professorial tone brings to mind someone who’s been there, done that and is not prone to romanticism (locales suggested for S-E-X include a disused coal mine and a bicycle shed), yet she also offers deeper asides like, “No one gets through life without being hurt,” and “Experimentation, familiarization—it’s all a nature walk.” Then, there’s the sincere, almost cuddly sung chorus: “You’re getting ideas / when you sleep at night / they develop into sweet dreams / it’s just the facts of life.” No irony, no snark, just good, heartfelt guidance and observation.

Such is the fine balancing act this band expertly walks that they can get away with it all: indulging in the Wicker Man-like freak folk fantasies of “The Deverell Twins” and the delectably wispy “May Queen”, injecting uncommon pathos into the la, la, la chorus of “French Rock ‘N’ Roll”, even Nixey concluding “Gift Horse” by repeating the lyric, “I just want to be loved,” sixteen times and holding your attention through to the very last one. On “Goodnight Kiss”, she expertly vacillates between being caring (“I’ll cradle your head in my hands”) and creepy (“check that you’re still alive”) while also managing to eke out a credibly moving love song. “Goodbye, good-niiiight,” she sweetly sings, “It’s just a goodnight kiss,” and yet her composure and near-blankness keeps it all from becoming too sweet or overtly sentimental. It’s the perfect end to a lovely night and an exceptional album.

Or at least, it was on the original UK release in May 2000. When The Facts of Life finally arrived stateside ten months later, it did so with two former B-sides added as bonus tracks. “Brutality” is a brief, laundry list of “What ever happened to…” inquiries (among them, “the fear of God” and “the South of France”) before practically praising “Good old fashioned brutality / everything in its place” with something resembling a yearning for it. “Start As You Mean To Go On”, however, is the real prize: A glam-tastic trot that kicks off with a pert, “Be My Baby” drumroll, it positions Nixey as a young woman who “learnt to be a secretary” and desires to get married with kids and then “split up when we’re twenty-two.” Of course, it’s all buildup to the glorious chorus: “If I can’t have it, NOBODY CAN! / You follow the instructions, it’s all part of the plan / when you start / as you mean / to go on.” Nixey declares these daggers over charging guitars and icy synths, supplemented by unerringly sung doo-doo-doo’s. An irresistible anti-anthem for the young go-getter who really can’t be bothered, it’s the absolute essence of BBR’s serious flippancy (or, if you will, flippant seriousness); for me, The Facts of Life is unimaginable without it.

If there’s a drawback to this band’s tightrope trick, it’s that it’s awfully hard to sustain over time. After this album, Nixey and Moore married and BBR put out two more records—2001’s odds-and-sods comp The Worst of Black Box Recorder and 2003’s Passionoia—the latter’s not bad, but it altogether plays like a lesser, if lusher retread of the first two LPs (at the very least it has amusing track titles like “Andrew Ridgeley” and “The New Diana”.) Then, Nixey and Moore divorced not long after. Despite playing some shows with sarcastic punk pop outfit Art Brut following a multi-year hiatus, BBR was officially kaput by 2010. By then, their moment had long since passed, but The Facts of Life remains one of those half-forgotten about, perfectly-formed gems awaiting rediscovery.

Up next: Return of the (career-defining) Double Album.

“The Facts of Life”:

“Start As You Mean To Go On”:

2000: Let’s Make This Moment Last

I kicked off the year 2000 by falling madly in love for the first time, so titles like “I’m Outta Love” and “Leavin’” seem somewhat ironic now (or perhaps just a then-dormant harbinger of what was to come in 2001-2002). I’ve left out most of the top 40 hits I strongly associate with this time because I no longer go out of my way to listen to many of them (although hearing BBMak’s “Back Here” on supermarket radio never fails to make me smile.) Apart from the flop Madonna single, very little of this got any radio airplay, at least in the US—“The Time is Now” hit number two in the UK, “Bohemian Like You” was also huge there thanks to its inclusion in a mobile phone ad, while “Tell Me Why” is still Saint Etienne’s only top ten hit in their homeland.

As usual, in a perfect world so many of these songs would’ve been hits—The New Pornographers’ clarion call (greatly assisted by the incomparable Neko Case), Sleater-Kinney’s peppy, hipster-bashing anthem, PJ Harvey’s irresistibly primal stomp, even weirdo duo Ween’s straightest pop song ever. Speaking of weirdos, they’re well represented here too: Bjork’s Dancer in the Dark duet with the lead singer of Radiohead (who themselves that year released possibly the weirdest album to debut at number one), The Avalanches’ sui generis cut-and-paste extravaganza, Goldfrapp’s overtly eerie music for an imaginary film (at least not yet for a few years).

It’s worth noting that in 2000, I spent a lot more time clubbing than I have before or since, hence the inclusion of the epic Toni Braxton remix with its unusual but masterful extended flamenco breakdown. This exact version instantly brings back many a Saturday night spent dancing at the now torn down Man Ray in Cambridge’s Central Square, sipping sugary cocktails and shamelessly making out with my new love on the dancefloor. Oh, I was so young and innocent back then…

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2000 on Spotify:

  1. The Dandy Warhols, “Bohemian Like You”
  2. Anastacia, “I’m Outta Love”
  3. Shelby Lynne, “Leavin’”
  4. Aimee Mann, “Satellite”
  5. Moloko, “The Time is Now”
  6. Sleater-Kinney, “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun”
  7. Paul van Dyk with Saint Etienne, “Tell Me Why (The Riddle)”
  8. Bjork and Thom Yorke, “I’ve Seen It All”
  9. Ween, “Even If You Don’t”
  10. Madonna, “What It Feels Like For a Girl”
  11. Toni Braxton, “Spanish Guitar (HQ2 Club Mix)”
  12. Blur, “Music is My Radar”
  13. Yo La Tengo, “You Can Have It All”
  14. Belle and Sebastian, “Don’t Leave the Light On Baby”
  15. Bebel Gilberto, “August Day Song”
  16. Nelly Furtado, “Party”
  17. PJ Harvey, “This is Love”
  18. Badly Drawn Boy, “Bewilderbeast 2”
  19. Goldfrapp, “Lovely Head”
  20. The Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist”
  21. The Weakerthans, “My Favourite Chords”
  22. k.d. lang, “When We Collide”
  23. The 6ths feat. Katharine Whalen, “You You You You You”
  24. The New Pornographers, “Letter From an Occupant”
  25. Jill Sobule, “Rock Me to Sleep”

The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #66 – released November 27, 2000)

Track listing: Since I Left You / Stay Another Season / Radio / Two Hearts In 3/4 Time / Avalanche Rock / Flight Tonight / Close To You / Diners Only / A Different Feeling / Electricity / Tonight / Pablo’s Cruise / Frontier Psychiatrist / Etoh / Summer Crane /  Little Journey / Live at Dominoes / Extra Kings

It begins with the words, “Since I left you / I never felt so blue,” on a loop; an hour later, it all ends on another repeated couplet: “Girl, I just can’t get you / since the day I left you.” Both vocals are actually sampled from other records—respectively, The Main Attraction’s “Everyday” and The Osmonds’ “Let Me In”. Between those bookends lies a universe of sound, including but not limited to a horse whinnying, thick grooves pilfered off ‘70s and ‘80s soul and R&B deep tracks, various string-section fanfares, the all-encompassing blare of a big boat’s horn, flamenco guitar riffs, the Cabaret soundtrack, dialogue from John Waters’ Polyester (!), fluttering female la-de-da’s and ba-bap-ba’s and more.

A whole lot more, in fact: Since I Left You is almost entirely crafted from literally hundreds of samples off existing records; it would not surprise me if there were actually thousands imbedded within, given the album’s vast density and near complete lack of silence or open space. An Australian DJ collective whom at the time boasted six members, The Avalanches were hardly the first artists to make a record this way. Plunderphonics, or any music constructed from altering existing audio recordings into new compositions, was a term coined by experimental composer John Oswald in the mid-80s, but its practice goes further back than that, from Saint Etienne chopping up and reassembling ‘60s pop in the early ‘90s to the hip-hop sample collages of Grandmaster Flash and Steinski (not to mention hip-hop as an entire sampling culture, really) to even Dickie Goodman’s novelty “break-in” records of the ‘50s.

However, to go beyond novelty and collage and merely using samples for backing tracks, you’d have to consider DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… (1996), the first widely recognized attempt to create an entire, unified pop album chiefly made up of found sounds. It’s a rightly acknowledged classic of tone and mood and humor and grace, but SILY is something else: although it has eighteen discernible tracks, it’s far better played, understood and absorbed as a shimmering, complete whole from beginning to end. To start listening to it in the middle or (gasp) play it on shuffle would diminish its impact and power. Only one track arguably stands on its own, although it’s less an outlier than a fully realized song (of sorts) that manages to somehow fit into the album’s entire framework (more on it later). Still, the beauty and brilliance of SILY is that it’s less an entertaining collection of deftly deployed samples and more an orchestrated, sustained work, taking the listener on an aural journey through decades of recorded sounds and cultural signifiers, expertly building momentum by altering tempos, conjuring emotions and forever emitting a sense of exploration and adventure.

And I do mean adventure—on first listen, you have absolutely no idea where SILY will go next. The sheer amount of sounds—vocals, hooks, motifs, basslines, riffs—can easily overwhelm. It doesn’t work at all as background noise unless you’re willing to let it subliminally sink it over ten or twenty spins; the best way to approach it is to immerse yourself completely in its world by listening to it on headphones, bestowing it your full attention. Even better, listen to it at least two or three times this way—it not only begins taking on recognizable shapes, but on each spin, you can hear new things in it; I’ve heard it over one hundred times and details still occasionally surface that I hadn’t detected before. More so than any other album I’ve written about here, SILY requires ample time and patience, but as it gains familiarity and resonates, it emits the unadorned thrill of continual, satisfying discovery. I can’t remember exactly how many spins it took, but within a year of first hearing it, SILY firmly entrenched itself in my ongoing mental list of Favorite Albums of All Time.

It’s a work that easily lends itself to a myriad of interpretations, but I want to avoid taking an overtly technical, music composition-heavy approach, in part because my acumen in that area is limited, but primarily because it would not be much fun for me to reduce this record to an academic exercise. While SILY is exceptional from a purely technical angle, as with the very best pop music, it’s more remarkable for how it makes you feel: the mere breadth of the samples utilized not only creates an aural sensory overload, but the manner in which they’re employed and sequenced turns the whole listening experience into an emotional journey as well. Often, it resembles a series of symphonic movements more than a collection of pop songs through its use of recurring motifs (both vocal and instrumental), cross-fading between adjacent tracks and the sense that an ongoing story is unfolding: it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of samples that more often glides gracefully than it lumbers about due to how seamlessly its disparate parts are expertly, inventively sewn together.

The title track/opener practically invites you into this narrative, as nimble guitar filigrees, sweet flutes, onomatopoeic backing vocals and a friendly guide announcing “Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise!” all coalesce into a blissful Philly soul groove that buttresses the looped sample mentioned at the top of this essay. It continues this way for a few minutes, until the beat (but not the tempo) shifts into a slightly funkier bassline that appears to be submerged in shallow water. As it surfaces and guitar chords and percussion become audible, it reveals itself as one of SILY’s most recognizable and iconic samples, Madonna’s “Holiday”, only pitched down a few beats per minute. The “Holiday” sample officially kicks off track two, “Stay Another Season”, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice that unless you were watching the track’s running time on your CD or mp3 player. Also, the main vocal melody of “Since I Left You” soon reappears and repeats itself, only over a minor key. Additional samples keep popping up, most prominently a looped horse whinny, but so far it feels more like a medley than two individual songs.

This changes as “Stay Another Season” diminishes and “Radio” fades in, suitably like a transmission from distant airwaves. It sports a similar tempo to what proceeded it but also a much tougher groove, which provides the foundation for a series of looped vocal samples all over the tonal spectrum, from the fluttering “Sometimes you don’t / understand” to the slinkier, telegraphic “Sending Out Signals” to the abrupt interjections of people shouting ‘WAH!” The samples are interwoven together to create hooks, but at a level of proficiency and activity that elevates it all far beyond the remedial nature of, say, Sugar Hill Gang building a rap around the rhythm track from Chic’s “Good Times”.

Near the end of “Radio”, the groove comes to an abrupt stop, replaced by a bleary-eyed voice repeatedly asking, “Can’t you hear it? Oh, can’t you hear it?” Other vocal samples immediately enter the mix, most notably two from Cabaret (Joel Grey’s iconic Master of Ceremonies purring “Money” and what can best be described as a coarse trombone fart) before “Two Hearts in ¾ Time” materializes via a series of clipped, sinus-clearing sampled exclamations (OOH! / YEAH! / OH! / YEAH!”). It careens on and on like a faltering merry-go-round, ending with a “WHEE!,” then mutates into a placid, soulful waltz that spools out almost effortlessly, a woman blissfully trilling la-de-da’s over electric piano comp (as if slipping off an early ‘70s Stevie Wonder record.) The track languorously twirls on and on until the beat is subsumed by a purely electronic rhythm, setting up the transition into “Avalanche Rock”.

In just those first four tracks, that’s a lot to unpack and absorb. This relentless pace continues throughout the rest of SILY’s first half; in fact, with “Avalanche Rock” serving as a brief link utterly transforming the mood from light to dark, “Flight Tonight” then pushes it to extreme, in-the-red levels. The electro-rap backing is positively fierce compared to what came before, the vocal samples (“Wicked, she wicked, she wicked” and “I booked a flight tonight”) repetitively ping all over the song like ricochet gun shots and it all climaxes in a frenzied, unintelligible rap (which could be in English, French or just nonsense words). It manages to be intimidating, exhilarating and just plain weird all at once, but importantly, it doesn’t stop the album in its tracks. The momentum, greatly aided by the beat forever surges ahead.

Such force perhaps reaches its most sublime expression and release over the next three tracks. “Close To You” deftly shifts from electro to disco, while a looped flute sample builds like a Steve Reich or Philip Glass piece. After it drops out, samples ranging from the familiar (Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ early 80s hit “Stool Pigeon”) to the painfully obscure (‘70s whistle-heavy electronic British TV show theme “Quiller”) get layered on top of one another—the sensation of hearing them blend into a wall of sound provides a heady rush. However, before it begins to overwhelm, “Diners Only” uses the well-worn DJ tactic of inserting a breakdown in its opening seconds: the beat retreats to the background, and a snippet of women laughing (one of them saying, “Susie, he’s looking at you!”) sits in the foreground. A male lothario briefly raps about champagne and then the beat starts building itself back up. That flute arpeggio from “Close To You” returns with a vengeance, incessantly repeating itself, forcibly growing louder and louder and deeper and stronger until your brain feels like it could just EXPLODE.

And it very nearly seems like it does with the stop-on-a-dime shift into “A Different Feeling” via a massive, four-on-the-floor beat, big rhythm guitar funk chords and siren noises. The volume rapidly lowers, only to BLAM! hit you at full force again. If this wasn’t already delirious enough, as the song grows quiet again, The Avalanches play their trump card with the unlikeliest of famous vocal samples: Debbie Reynolds’ anodyne ’50s hit “Tammy”. It’s damn near unrecognizable in this setting, but sure enough, that’s her dreamily warbling, “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love” over the disco beat. It works in and of itself as catchy, hook-laden, danceable music, but the real pleasure comes out of identifying that it is, in fact, “Tammy” you’re hearing. The joy emanating from that kind of discovery is where plunderphonics approaches the sublime.

“Electricity” opens SILY’s second half with an exquisite, almost baroque female chorale and soon settles into a wickedly comfortable mid-tempo strut, utilizing as its chief hook the shouted exclamation “Rap Dirty!” (sampled from an X-rated comedy album, of all things). After maintaining such a relentless energy level throughout, the album only really calms down at the next track, “Tonight”. Its slower tempo and relatively sparse use of samples (a wonky, treated piano riff and Nancy Wilson silkily singing, “Tonight / may have to last me / all my life”) provides much needed space to catch one’s breath, as does “Pablo’s Cruise”, the brief, nautical themed interlude that follows (fans of late ’70s soft rock will recognize the titular pun.)

It clears the air for “Frontier Psychiatrist”, one of the album’s three singles (along with the title track and “Electricity”) and arguably the only track on SILY that can easily stand alone. An ideal gateway into the band, it also fits comfortably into the album’s framework, for it does best what SILY as a whole sets out to do: cleverly, expertly stringing together a disparate, symphonic array of vocal and instrumental samples, shrewdly manipulating them to sound like they all belong in the same room. It opens with a callback (the return of the horse whinny from “Stay Another Season”) and a conversation lifted directly from Polyester, where straight-laced high school principal Mr. Kirk breaks the news to flustered Mrs. Fishpaw (drag diva Divine, of course) that her teenaged son Dexter is “Criminally Insane!”, setting the scene for a madcap narrative underscored by an overtly dramatic Enoch Light orchestral sample.

Like much of SILY, the track re-appropriates unironic sounds as camp, and vice-versa. Some of the vocal samples are looped until they become big, fat hooks (“That boy needs therapy”) while others are strung together to push the story forward (a woman exclaims, “He was as white as a sheet!” followed by a man who matter-of-factly notes, “And, he also made false teeth.”) At one point, they pilfer a child’s educational record about animal sounds and convert both a hacking crow and a verbose parrot into freestyle rappers via a flurry of turntable scratching. Still, even though it’s the most accessible track here (in part because it’s also the funniest), “Frontier Psychiatrist” draws to an abrupt end on an extended snippet of the Italian pop standard “El Negro Zumbon (Anna)” in order to once again reset the decks for the album’s fourth quarter.

Speeding up and modulating the dit-dit-dit’s from The Five Americans’ 1967 hit “Western Union” is the first but hardly the last sample “Etoh” loops unto oblivion; there’s also an underlying flute melody, vocal gibberish that lends the track its title (“eet-oh-eet-eet-eet”), falsetto do-do-do’s, a funky robotic scat and what resembles a ringing phone. It builds momentum like the incongruent layers of “Close To You” did, and some of its samples stick around for “Summer Crane”, which sustains the tempo but adds even more samples: a cooing Francoise Hardy, the positively glowing backing of a War song (not “Low Rider”), da-da-da’s from the Fifth Dimension, the instantly recognizable, swirling orchestral fanfare from “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra, an ascending Theremin, etc.

The nautical theme implied by SILY’s lifeboat-infested album cover (and in tracks like “Pablo’s Cruise”) reaches its fullest expression in this sequence. Both “Etoh” and “Summer Crane” seem to practically float or undulate, echoing like dub reggae as opposed to swaying like a sea shanty. Although “Little Journey” is another brief interlude, it’s a crucial one, beginning with a literal SPLASH! (signaled by a Gabor-like starlet announcing, “Well, I would say, “Bon Voyage!”). Its title comes from a Mamas and The Papas sample which soon gives way to another callback—Madonna’s “Holiday” from “Stay Another Season”, only this time thrillingly sped up. It leads into another orchestral fanfare, only this one’s accented by a stirring, rumbling beat straight out of South Pacific (or perhaps a mid-century documentary on Hawaii.)

A swift crescendo of horns then leads into a looped, decades-old recording of peppy voices announcing, “FLIGHT 22 IS OFF TO HONOLULU!” and “Live At Dominoes” takes SILY into its home stretch. More so than even “A Different Feeling”, it’s the album’s climactic banger, swiping its floor-filling groove from Boney M’s 1977 Eurodisco hit “Ma Baker”, with a Daft-Punk style vocoder spouting nonsense syllables on top along with strings launching the song towards the stratosphere. It releases some of the tension that has been stored up since “Etoh” while also continuing to build momentum, gradually attaining a euphoric high as the beat turns all techno, totally drops out and the strings gracefully sigh into the ether.

“Live at Dominoes” conceivably sounds like a natural ending to SILY, but “Extra Kings” is a more effective one.  It presumably wraps a neat bow on the album with its numerous callbacks—the Francoise Hardy and War samples return (at the opening and closing, respectively), plus there’s a lyrical callback I noted at the top of this essay. But this only tells part of the story, for it also collects all that forward-surging momentum and tension and pushes it to the absolute breaking point. The track’s midsection loops a flute-led melody while first piling on orchestral filigrees, then a growing, sinus-clearing electronic noise—the harshest sound on the entire album. That noise eventually subsumes nearly everything, resembling the aural equivalent of an atomic meltdown. It dissipates all that tension on contact, carrying the sensation that your brain is dissolving, rather than about to explode. And yet, although barely audible, that melodic flute-loop is still there—it’s buried under a tonnage of ugly noise, but it persists, “do-de-do-do, do, do-de-do-do” ad infinitum, just as that final lyrical callback repeats, gradually fading to black.

Arriving in Australia in November 2000 and approximately a year later in the US (the delay mostly due to required sample clearances), SILY was born out of what increasingly seems like a crucial time in pop music’s development. A new century, millennium, even, encouraged many to take stock of what had come before, while also looking ahead to new configurations and technologies. After all, digital formats and file sharing had just begun significantly altering the ways we were obtaining and consuming music. Even at the time, SILY felt like it bridged both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. By cherry-picking through the past and reshaping it for the present, The Avalanches couldn’t help but point towards the future, reminding us that art does not exist in a vacuum or always appear out of thin air; instead, it bespeaks multitudes of references and influences—in this case, modifying and re-contextualizing the sources, rather than merely emulating or entirely re-creating them.

Although SILY would go on to influence a large swath of DJ culture and mash-up artists like Girl Talk (or whoever’s trending on YouTube this week), it didn’t exactly breed longevity for the men who created it. The Avalanches all but disappeared in the following years, apart from a few commissioned remixes and occasional updates that they were working on new material. As time passed and the album’s cult following swelled to the point of becoming legend, it seemed less likely a follow-up would ever surface, for how could anything possibly top, let alone live up to the first one? In an age increasingly beholden to remakes and reboots, The Avalanches finally did return in 2016 with Wildflower. Reduced to a core duo, they opted for a far less unified structure and employed guest rappers (Biz Markie, Danny Brown) and vocalists (Mercury Rev’s David Baker, Father John Misty) alike. It doesn’t even try to equal its predecessor, which ends up working in its favor. Although it falls apart somewhat in its last stretch, it does feature a great eight or ten track sequence of perfectly pleasant psychedelic pop.

But it’s not SILY, and that’s fine. More than 15 years on, The Avalanches’ first album remains a singular endeavor, a high water mark in re-appropriation, its encyclopedic summation of late 20th Century Pop a cultural crossroads forever etched in vinyl. SILY stands as a reminder of where we came from and how we arrived at that pivotal moment in time, but also what it felt like to look ahead towards an undefined, potentially limitless future.

Up next: “Experimentation, familiarization—it’s all a nature walk.”

“Frontier Psychiatrist”:

“Diners Only / A Different Feeling”:

Stew, “Guest Host”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #65 – released September 12, 2000)

Track listing: Cavity / She’s Really Daddy Feelgood / Essence / Re-Hab / Into Me / Ordinary Love / Man In a Dress / The Stepford Lives / Bijou / Sister/Mother / C’mon Everybody

Best known for his 2008 Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange, Stew doesn’t neatly fit into one particular genre or category. Born Mark Stewart in Los Angeles in 1961, he spent his 20s in Amsterdam and Berlin (as the autobiographical Passing Strange documents). By the mid-90s, he had returned to his hometown and formed a band called The Negro Problem—the mere name tips you off to his irreverence and quirkiness and also forever requires one to immediately mention to others that it’s inoffensive because Stew is black. He doesn’t especially sound black, in part because his music gravitates more towards rock and roll and musical theatre than R&B. His gruff baritone can be suitably soulful when needed, but it usually falls somewhere between Van Morrison and Burl Ives. Psych-pop, folk rock, new wave, krautrock, chanson, lounge, bubblegum, prog—all of these (and various permutations of such) are fair game for a Stew song.

Before work on Passing Strange altered his career course, he put out six albums between 1997 and 2003: three under The Negro Problem, the other three as “solo” Stew records (although the distinction between the two monikers is ephemeral at best). TNP’s debut, Post Minstrel Syndrome (another pun!) was rather messy but totally by design, in its more rambunctious moments resembling XTC if they had actually taken Ecstasy. Its follow-up, Joys and Concerns made a far better case for his talent, reeling off a dozen hummable, near-perfect pop miniatures about everything from Monday mornings to a sexually-confused Ken doll. Its sharpened musical focus was the result of him reigning in the band from a sprawling collective to a core trio including bassist Heidi Rodewald, who became his chief songwriting collaborator (and for a time, romantic partner) through Passing Strange and beyond.

Like all but the most obsessive record buyers, I never heard of Stew or TNP until his first solo album, Guest Host (perhaps simply named for how pleasing the words sound out loud?) ended up at number one on Entertainment Weekly music critic Tom Sinclair’s year-end list of favorite albums. At the exact moment the likes of U2, Eminem and Outkast all dominated such lists (okay, PJ Harvey too), it was intriguing to see one headlined by someone so relatively obscure, recording on tiny indie label Smile Records, no less. The following year, I found a cheap used copy of it; as second-hand record store finds go, it’s nearly up there with Apartment Life, which came into my life at roughly the same time.

Given Rodewald’s extensive involvement on Guest Host, the real difference between it and a TNP record obviously has less to do with personnel and more with approach. Whereas those two TNP albums (particularly the debut) often feel like the work of a full band, Guest Host comfortably slips into singer/songwriter territory, favoring stripped-down acoustic arrangements over Big Pop Spectacle set-pieces. Although quieter TNP songs like “Bleed”, “Ken” and “Doubting Uncle Tom” could’ve easily fit on it, none of its tracks would’ve fully worked on those preceding records. Even the most traditionally soulful (“She’s Really Daddy Feelgood”) or poppiest (“C’mon Everybody”) selections exhibit a newfound maturity and intimacy.

Cavity” opens Guest Host on a bed of lovely Bacharach-esque piano and languorous, breezy major-7th chords. “Sister, there’s a cavity in me / Your sugar causes me such endless pain,” Stew announces in his inimitable bellow; he develops the song’s central metaphor through multiple verses, switching from the song’s title to, in the second verse, “Brother, there’s a comedy in thee.” He introduces various wordplay (“Sugar goes to Cain” instead of “cane”), then finally arrives at a chorus where he repeats the lyric, “I was blind till I ate your sweet thing.” At that moment, we first hear Rodewald’s sweet, wordless backing vocals—the secret weapon in this album’s arsenal. As subsequent verses make use of imagery both religious (name-dropping John the Baptist and Lazarus) and psychedelic (“Nobody even noticed when I floated down Main”), the song builds in complexity while remaining gently, agreeably hazy, its unfussy pop hooks wrapped in understated mystique.

Guest Host retains this vibe throughout its more acoustic, pastoral tunes. “Essence” is nimble folk-pop, ringing with an acoustic 12-string guitar and Stew’s hypnotic reading of the repeated phrase, “And I found her / everywhere,” elongating the “where” until it becomes completely embedded in all the prettiness surrounding it. “Sister/Mother” similarly ekes out considerable beauty in its gentility, with Rodewald adding lush, multi-tracked harmonies all over the song, most effectively in the final thirty seconds when a jumble of repeated phrases take on a mantra-like presence. Coming at the album’s exact mid-point, the swooning “Ordinary Love” reprises all of these qualities, enhancing them with gorgeous strings, but also with such unorthodox touches as Stew’s soulful melodic vamp on the second verse, or that effective pause when the piano drops out and the strings remain lurking in the background.

As lovely and accomplished as these songs are, if the album contained nothing else, then I might not be writing about it here. If Stew’s only ambition was to be the next Bill Withers (or Gordon Lightfoot, perhaps), he could’ve made a perfectly fine career doing so, but he’s far too original to limit himself to that. Thus, when he writes a folk-pop tune, it occasionally comes out like “Re-Hab”. After a Joan Baez-ish classical guitar slowly fades in, he begins relaying a tale of a woman who was “very, very, very optimistic” after she left re-hab for the first, then second, then “third or fourth” time. The verses teem with a bounty of lyrical puns and witty observations (“She traded mainline for online / and she took up web design”) but each one ends on the “very optimistic” lyric, with Stew repeating the word “very” up to eleven times, followed by a chorus of slightly off-key children immediately echoing that lyric—both a gesture of inspired lunacy and something of a sick joke. Still, it dissects the potential futility of rehabilitation with cutting precision, as does Stew’s revelation in the final verse (“When she got out of re-hab for the 22nd time”), wryly noting, “Funny how the maniacs who took the time to sob / seem to not mind a junkie with a well-paying job.”

This slightly warped, or if you’re so inclined, unconventional but utterly sane worldview is a vital part of Stew’s persona. At his most inspired, he takes a recognizable song form and makes it his own. He’s not a parodist or satirist, but much of his work conveys a rather wicked sense of humor filtered through an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. “Man in a Dress” (as in, “Baby what you need is a…”) plays like a 1930s pop song complete with 4/4 swing rhythm but it’s also put through a scratchy filter that makes it actually sound like a song recorded in the 1930s (and does so not for just the first verse and chorus, but for the whole damn thing.) “Into Me” is musically such anodyne bubblegum pop (dig that fake perky flute!), you’d never expect it to be about consensual, heterosexual sodomy with a manly, unapologetic Stew on the receiving end (the chorus hook: “She got into me!”), but that’s exactly what it is. “The Stepford Lives” aims for full-on baroque psych-pop on the order of The Zombies or The Association, piling on oboes, harmonica and chime-like keyboards while remaining melodic and approachable. Still, it’s not above getting a little weird in the middle-eight, where Rodewald’s heavily filtered, echo-y, unintelligible spoken word interjections vie for space with a few unexpected sci-fi synths.

Still, just as Stew could’ve easily forged an alternate path devoted to Syd Barrett and Frank Zappa-esque freakouts, it’s his obvious love of pop that renders the bulk of his output accessible and inviting. Even when he’s playing the smartypants (dropping lyrical puns like “LaGuardian Angel”) or being deliberately ornate (the quietly beguiling “Bijou”, which could be a Fairport Convention folk hymn narrated by Shel Silverstein), he still stacks his songs with ample hooks. He saves a few of the juiciest ones for Guest Host’s final track, “C’mon Everybody”: exuberant doo-doo-doo’s, a bright-eyed, call-and-response chorus between himself and Rodewald and Technicolor strings that gloriously flare up at just the right moment—they all make for cheery, sunshine-y power pop of the highest order.

We will return to Stew in another few entries—not with Passing Strange, but another record he made prior to it that did nothing less than redefine what an album can all contain.

Up next: Goodbye, 20th Century.

“Cavity”:

“Rehab”:

Aimee Mann, “Bachelor No. 2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #64 – released March 7, 2000)

Track listing: How Am I Different / Nothing Is Good Enough / Red Vines / The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist / Satellite / Deathly / Ghost World / Calling it Quits / Driving Sideways / Just Like Anyone / Susan / It Takes All Kinds / You Do

How many artists or bands (beyond The Beatles) can you name whose first three albums are all great? One could reasonably make a case for anyone from Talking Heads to Tori Amos (not counting Y Kant Tori Read, of course), but in this canon of 100 favorite albums, only Aimee Mann makes the grade. And yes, she did record three earlier albums as leader of the band ‘Til Tuesday, but the break between them and her solo debut, Whatever is definite—you would never confuse the latter as the product of the former. That 1993 album wholly re-established Mann’s career, knocking everyone who heard it sideways with its mature sound and scope; its follow-up, I’m With Stupid (1996) further expanded and fine-tuned her persona as a literate, occasionally acerbic singer/songwriter rightfully staking her claim as the alt-rock queen of the kiss-off, not to mention an endearing underdog when it came to navigating her way through major record label politics.

Speaking of which, after Interscope rejected her third album in 1999 for not having sufficient “commercial appeal”, Mann bought back the rights and released it herself the following year on her own label, SuperEgo. In hindsight, Bachelor No. 2 (or, The Last Remains of the Dodo) feels no less commercial than either of the two preceding albums, but the very late ’90s wasn’t a stellar time to be a female artist unless your first name was Britney or Christina. Just a few years before, alt-rock-friendly women from Sheryl Crow to Paula Cole regularly crossed over to the pop charts, but closer to decade’s end, they couldn’t even get widespread radio airplay on alt-rock radio, which had devolved into a more male-dominated format heavy with rap-rock and nu metal. Then pushing 40, Mann was less likely than ever to get a radio or MTV hit even as fleeting as “That’s Just What You Are”.

Bachelor No. 2’s opening salvo addresses this conundrum straight away. As “How Am I Different” proceeds at a slow, deliberate swagger, Mann repeats the song’s titular question at its chorus, stretching out the word “How” to nine+ syllables, the guitars swelling like a steady pressure cooker almost ready to blow—and it does, at the subsequent bridge when she sings, with controlled but deeply felt vitriol, “Just one question before I pack / When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?” As many a Mann song before it, one could interpret it as relating to either a personal or professional relationship; however, her recent history and the mere mention of a monetary transaction firmly nudges the song into the latter category. Although it reprises sentiments voiced on earlier tunes such as “Long Shot”, “I Should’ve Known” and “Sugarcoated”, it feels as if something really vital here’s at stake, perhaps because after all this time, it keeps on happening.

Such subject matter resurfaces throughout Bachelor No. 2—she’s simultaneously sharpening her attack and refining her late-Beatles derived sound. “Red Vines” picks up right where “That’s Just What You Are” left off, laying a shuffling drum loop under a warm bed of guitars (including slide played by her husband, Michael “No Myth” Penn) and a gorgeous melody; it also has some of her most enigmatic lyrics to date, alluding to catching lightning bugs, “punching some pinholes / in the lid of a jar / while we wait in the car,” all the while “sitting on the sidelines / with my hands tied / watching the show.” Similar accusations of being held back or deemed inferior return in the catchy “Ghost World”. Inspired by, but never directly referencing Daniel Clowes’ comic except for its shared title (about a year before Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation), it’s self-deprecating (“I’m bailing this town / or tearing it down / or probably more like hanging around,”) yet also proudly defiant, concluding with her asking, “So tell me what I want, anyhow.”

Jon Brion, who produced Mann’s last two albums, only helms two tracks here. “The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist” heavily bears his stamp with layers of guitars, antique keyboards and Lennon-esque backing vocals (Mann also co-wrote it with Elvis Costello, whom one can easily imagine mastering its chewy lyrics and melody); the other, “Deathly”,  is a big, bold-strokes, nearly anthem-like ballad that harkens back to other Brion productions (most notably “Stupid Thing” via its guitar solo and “Amateur”, which also had backing vocals from Juliana Hatfield). It’s also one of four songs that, months prior to this album’s release, appeared on the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—a film almost entirely made up of Mann’s songs and very much inspired by them as well. One character onscreen even quotes the first line of “Deathly” verbatim: “Now that I’ve met you / would you object to / never seeing each other again?”

Another Magnolia cut is one of Bachelor No. 2’s highlights: “Driving Sideways” follows a four-chord progression that’s comfortably familiar but not derivative. Mann’s vocal carries nearly the entire piano-heavy song, never pausing for a significant instrumental break until the brief, guitar solo-besotted coda. Although the lyrics are as barbed as ever (“At least you know / you were taken by a pro”), Brendan O’Brien’s clear-eyed production casts a warm glow over it that suits Mann’s somewhat retro, power-pop aesthetic while also feeling not entirely like anything else she’s previously done, emitting a ’70s (rather than a late ’60s) Los Angeles rock vibe.

On the two remaining Magnolia holdovers, Mann dips into other uncharted territories. Uncommonly gentle and quiet, “You Do” musically nearly resembles ’70s MOR a la The Carpenters (!), complete with creamy guitars and such outdated instrumental touches as a chiming celeste and, as the liner notes describe it, “cheesy keyboards”; fortunately, her knowingly delicate vocal and cut-to-the-bone lyrics (“and I’m the one who tells you / he’s another jerk,”) are just a tad acerbic to be mistaken for Karen and Richard. “Nothing is Good Enough” (which appeared on Magnolia as an instrumental), on the other hand, is much closer to Bacharach/David, especially in its tap-tap-tapping piano lines and agile melodic cadences; it also fully retains Mann’s proficiency for let’s-get-to-the-point dressing-down, as witnessed in lyrics such as, “No, there’s no one else, I find / to undermine or dash a hope / quite like you.”

The wistful, laid-back “It Takes All Kinds” travels further down this path, even making an explicit reference to its primary inspiration with the couplet, “I would like to keep this vision of you intact / When we sat around and listened to Bacharach,” not to mention the very Dionne Warwick-esque “do-do-do-do-do-wee-ooo” that immediately follows. Fortunately, it’s a lovingly crafted pastiche; “Satellite” is an even better one. From an exquisite piano intro to graceful melodic vocal swoops on the chorus, it has an intricate arrangement where each part individually shines (timpani, bell-like keyboards, shimmering cymbals) but together makes a splendidly orchestrated whole. It exudes class and, more crucially, awe and wonderment, especially at the silent pause after she finishes each chorus of, “Baby, it’s clear, from here / you’re losing your atmosphere / from here, you’re losing it.”

As her third great album in a row, it’s tempting to view Bachelor No. 2 as the final part of a trilogy, but it feels more transitional than anything. Brion’s limited role here is telling, along with the way it vacillates from track to track between Beatles and Bacharach-derived ends of the ’60s musical spectrum. Throughout, it takes other detours as well, such as “Calling It Quits”, a gauzy, spacious attempt at trip-hop with plenty of drum programming, compressed trumpet blasts on the chorus and loads of reverb. It sounds more of-its-time than anything else here but it retains Mann’s cleverness and bite (“With Monopoly money / we’ll be buying the funny farm”) and anticipates her later experiments with (even) moodier tempos and electronic textures. In direct contrast, “Just Like Anyone”, her requiem for recently departed singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley is a simple acoustic guitar, accordion and violin ballad that clocks in at a concise 83 seconds. Yet, to her credit, like the Bacharach pastiches, neither song feels at all out of place.

While one can now view Bachelor No. 2 as an album Mann wrote and recorded when her career was in flux (the Magnolia soundtrack, which resulted in an Academy Award nomination for “Save Me” for Best Original Song, exposed her to a wider audience), it worked for the exact same reason its two predecessors did—as a songwriter, Mann was at the top of her game, and as an album, it’s remarkably consistent. It plays like any great collection of songs should; one can sense the craft that went into and easily hum along with each one. Heck, even the pleasant, radio-friendly “Susan” (the most comparably rote song here) would be an absolute highlight on a Crow or Cole LP.

Neither Magnolia nor this album exactly made Mann a household name, but she’s forged a more venerable career than many of her ‘80s new wave or ‘90s alt-rock peers. Her subsequent discography contains plenty of gems, from “Video” to “Labrador” to “Milwaukee” (that last one from The Both, a collaborative LP with Ted Leo); none of her later albums, however, are in quite the same league as those first three. Lost In Space lacks their sonic lucidity and tonal sharpness, The Forgotten Arm treads over well-worn musical tropes with diminishing results, @#%&! Smilers has too many distracting squelchy keyboards, etc. But those are all quibbles—when she’s on, she’s in the running for one of the best songwriters of her generation. Although it’s still too soon to tell (having come out a week ago at this writing), her latest album, the somber, acoustic, impeccably titled Mental Illness is mighty promising—maybe even her best since Bachelor No. 2.

Up next: maybe the best obscure singer/songwriter of his generation.

“How Am I Different”:

“Satellite”:

1999: We Were Young and Innocent Back Then

Even though I kicked off 1999 by falling in love with If You’re Feeling Sinister, this was one of the more disjointed and new music-deficient years of my life. During the four months between stumbling across the finish line of grad school and finding steady employment, I spent no money on music, instead raiding a plethora of suburban libraries to acquire previously unheard (i.e.—old) stuff to listen to (Nina Simone, Serge Gainsbourg, Os Mutantes, etc.) Still, even if I had had the cash, it’s not like I would be rushing out to buy many of the year’s best-sellers—I didn’t even hear the three LPs I wrote about here until 2000-01.

What follows is a by now expected late-‘90s grab bag. It includes tracks from both long-beloved artists (a sweet sigh from Everything But The Girl’s last album, Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack triumph, another indelibly-titled Pet Shop Boys single) and good stuff I didn’t hear until much later (Le Tigre’s punk anthem (not fully appreciated by me until its inclusion in the 2006 film Reprise), Super Furry Animals’ Tropicalia-by-way-of-Wales). And yet, I recognize selections I loved at the time, like the lead-off track to Beth Orton’s mostly forgotten second album, Ben Folds Five’s flop follow-up to “Brick”, Blondie’s underrated (in the US, anyway) reunion single and an Indigo Girls tune that didn’t trouble the charts but seemed to receive heavy rotation on WBOS (then a decent Triple-A station).

Of course, I was never going to hear The Magnetic Fields or Sleater-Kinney without actively seeking them out. Same goes for Jason Falkner, whose second LP Can You Still Feel was a lucky library find not long after its release. Listening to it now, I wonder why it didn’t make the list—I’ve heard fewer finer power pop albums from that era, and “The Plan” is a concise gem of a song everyone should know.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1999 on Spotify:

  1. Le Tigre, “Deceptacon”
  2. Beth Orton, “Stolen Car”
  3. Jason Falkner, “The Plan”
  4. Everything But The Girl, “No Difference”
  5. Supergrass, “Moving”
  6. Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag”
  7. Pet Shop Boys, “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”
  8. Tom Waits, “Hold On”
  9. Tori Amos, “Bliss”
  10. Aimee Mann, “Save Me”
  11. Steve Wynn, “Cats and Dogs”
  12. Ben Folds Five, “Army”
  13. The Magnetic Fields, “All My Little Words”
  14. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Wicked Little Town”
  15. Blur, “Coffee and TV”
  16. Indigo Girls, “Peace Tonight”
  17. Fountains of Wayne, “Red Dragon Tattoo”
  18. Meshell Ndegeocello, “Bitter”
  19. Moby, “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”
  20. Sleater-Kinney, “Don’t Talk Like”
  21. Blondie, “Maria”
  22. Super Furry Animals, “Northern Lites”

bonus tracks not on Spotify:

23. XTC, “Easter Theatre”
24. The Negro Problem, “Repulsion (Showed Up Late For Work On Monday)”
25. Pizzicato Five, “La Regle Du Jeu”

Fiona Apple, “When The Pawn…”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #63 – released November 9, 1999)

Track listing: On The Bound / To Your Love / Limp / Love Ridden / Paper Bag / A Mistake / Fast As You Can / The Way Things Are / Get Gone / I Know

The full album title: “When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right.”

***

Readers may recall how I nearly pulled my car over in astonishment the first time I heard Portishead’s “Sour Times”; Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer” incited a similar reaction on first listen, only in this case I was not driving (perhaps thankfully so for other motorists), but at home when the video came on MTV. In late ’96, the channel wasn’t playing anything remotely like it: a bluesy, spacious piano ballad (although to reduce it to just that would significantly lessen its toughness, its grit), sung by a frickin’ teenager in a low, agile, commanding growl/wail far, far beyond her 18 years. Despite this disparity between her age and presence, nothing about her screamed novelty or even precocious—it’s one of the few times I’ve ever immediately thought, “My god, what an original, genuine talent.”

Her debut album Tidal proved that “Shadowboxer” was no fluke: many other songs on it nearly matched that single in hooks, lyrics and beguiling atmosphere, and a few, like “Sleep To Dream” and “Criminal” arguably exceeded it. Months later, the latter became a top 40 hit, aided by a suitably creepy and controversial video that led to a Best New Artist win at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Apple, then just shy of 20, delivered a shockingly candid acceptance speech for the ages (at one point infamously saying, “This world is bullshit!”) Some claimed it destroyed her career, limiting her commercial prospects (indeed, she never graced the pop singles charts again); others, however, recognized in her both a ballsy iconoclast and a weird genius at an exact moment when there were no likely candidates to fill those voids (you were expecting Alanis? Third-Eye Blind?)

Tidal was nearly strong enough to make the cut for this project, but Apple’s second album was such a big leap forward that it almost dwarfed its predecessor. First and foremost, consider the 90-word album title (commonly shortened to When The Pawn… for sanity’s sake), an attention-grabbing ploy of a sort not even a musician as utterly stubborn as Joni Mitchell or Stephin Merritt has ever attempted. Next, cue the first single, “Fast As You Can”: note how it sounds absolutely nothing like “Criminal” or “Shadowboxer”, skittering by at a rapid, disjointed pace, the piano more indebted to then-trendy UK-based Drum and Bass electronica than singer/songwriter stuff. Then, it radically changes to a more classic, rock ballad tempo midway through, only to return to the previous clatter a minute later. As with “Shadowboxer”, I first heard the song through its video, although this one baffled rather than seduced.

Still, when I finally heard WTP… in full three months later, it resonated beautifully, despite on the whole feeling nearly as intricate and ambitious as that lead single. “On The Bound” opens with the mechanical whirr of a drum machine and other unusual, antiquated, Mellotron-like electronics falling into place, a signature of its producer, Jon Brion (who also helmed Tidal and Aimee Mann’s first two albums.)  It soon resolves these disparate parts into a two-chord, piano-pounding vamp, with Apple’s jazzy phrasing on the verses solidifying into a manifesto on the chorus: the words “You’re all I need,” repeated over and over, followed by the punchline, “and maybe some faith would do me good.” It then concludes with an instrumental outro nearly two minutes long, as if Apple and Brion have absolutely no interest in getting this damn thing on the radio, instead opting to explore expansive, shifting tones and song structures.

The remainder of WTP…’s first half, however, is far more concise. After the minor-key “To Your Love” (which resembles PJ Harvey attempting to write a Beatles tune but having it turn out like a femme-fatale cabaret number instead), the album’s first great song arrives. So much happens so quickly in “Limp” that you can barely believe it’s only three-and-a-half minutes long. Beginning with an ascending, five-note piano-and-vibes hook and a weird, squishy percussive noise burbling quietly underneath, Apple softly launches into the first verse (“You wanna make me sick / you wanna lick my wounds / Don’t you, baby?”) Then, Matt Chamberlin’s propulsive drums kick in at 0:35 and a mere twelve seconds later, the chorus arrives at full volume, Apple rapidly spitting out a lyrical kiss-off with such fierce, head-spinning precision (and brevity) you barely have a second to catch your breath. After the second verse and chorus, there’s a nearly minute-long drum solo, entirely eschewing the song’s melody but not any of its intensity or momentum. When it’s over, the quiet intro of the song returns, only to directly surge into one last, brief, sinus-clearing chorus before abruptly ending, not wasting a single note.

“Love Ridden”, which follows, is all the more shocking for sporting a far more traditional arrangement of just piano, voice and strings, a throwback to Tidal’s more austere moments. Still, Apple does so much with those simple elements—the piano and strings complement each other but also expertly weave in and out of the song’s frame, while her elastic vocals give the oft-dreaded term “melisma” (think Whitney or Mariah) a good name. “Paper Bag”, which follows, could have almost come from Paul McCartney’s pen (the one he used for “Martha, My Dear”, in particular) but sports a decidedly wickeder edge. “I thought / he was / a man / but he / was just / a lit- / tle boy,” Apple jauntily vamps right before the second chorus, and the whole song swings and sighs like the most perfect pop; it also comes off as a little too eccentric and miniaturist to ever imagine anyone covering it on American Idol or The Voice.

That last observation also applies to “A Mistake”, which is just as defiant (“Why can’t I make a mistake, / I wanna make a mistake,”) but also venomous with a hint of self-deprecation (“Cuz I’m FULL as a TICK / and I’m scratching at the surface.”) It’s also more contemporary-sounding than anything preceding it, squirming with fuzztone guitars and backed by a slinky beat that’s almost P-Funk. Nearly five minutes in length, the song has plenty of room for Apple and Brion to stretch out and breathe again, her wordlessly sighing along with the guitars and him deploying his usual wall-of-sound production without feeling overstuffed.

At this point, “Fast As You Can” appears, playing just a little more smoothly in this context. After it dribbles to a chaotic, tambourine-shaken close, “The Way Things Are” then gradually fades in, restoring equilibrium via a deep, bluesy yet ridiculously catchy melody (almost Todd Rundgren-like!) and a glorious, key-changing chorus (“So keep on calling me names, / keep on, keep on.”) As usual, Apple’s vocal acrobatics serve the song and melody (and not the other way around); I can’t help but think had it come out a few years earlier or perhaps five years later (and not at the height of teen pop and nu-metal), it could have been a radio hit.

Same thing goes for “Get Gone”, whose elegance in the piano-led, triangle-tinged intro could be Bacharach/David before it shifts into something closer to musical theater. However, as Apple glides towards the incensed, wordy but fully registerable chorus, rhyming “benefiting” with “sitting” and furiously concluding, “It’s time the truth was out / that he don’t give a / shit about me,” delivering each word gutturally but intelligibly, she doesn’t resemble anyone else but herself: a woman containing multitudes that’s just as often the protagonist of her songs as she is her own worst enemy (as she noted so directly back in “Paper Bag”, “Oh, he knows I’m a mess that he don’t wanna clean up.”)

WTP… concludes with “I Know”, another piano-and-strings ballad of the sort that Nina Simone could’ve performed in an earlier era (just picture her singing the quirky first line, “So be it, I’m your crowbar.”) As with most Apple songs, it alternately heaves and sighs, transforming a raw bundle of neuroses into a lament brimming with metaphor (“And you can use my skin / to bury your secrets in,”) and frank vulnerability, singing the song’s title as both a matter-of-fact and as a hard truth that’s a struggle to get out.

Since then, Apple has only put out two more albums. Extraordinary Machine (2005) exists in both a Brion-produced demo version that was first leaked online and a revised, completed version with Dr. Dre/Eminem-producer Mike Elizondo that favors a more modern-sounding approach. Neither take is entirely satisfying, although the title track (preserved in its Brion version for the final album) is a delightfully demented score for an alternate-world vintage Disney cartoon short. Fortunately, The Idler Wheel… (2012) (another long title, but only 23 words this time!) was a real advance—as idiosyncratic and cathartic as WTP… but radically stripped-down (at the time, I deemed it “confessional swing music for people desperately trying to escape their dance partners.”)  Even if Apple only releases two more records in the next fifteen years, you can bet at the very least, they’ll be worth hearing and dissecting.

Up next: And behind this door…

“Limp”:

“Paper Bag”: