Super Furry Animals, “Phantom Power”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #75 – released July 21, 2003)

Track listing: Hello Sunshine / Liberty Belle / Golden Retriever / Sex, War & Robots / The Piccolo Snare / Venus & Serena / Father Father #1 / Bleed Forever / Out of Control / Cityscape Skybaby / Father Father #2 / Valet Parking / The Undefeated / Slow Life 

Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals were automatically lumped in with Britpop on their 1996 debut Fuzzy Logic and it’s not difficult to see why given the era; one could almost too easily imagine Blur’s Damon Albarn singing over a few of album’s backing tracks. Still, even then, SFA was clearly its own kind of beast thanks to leader Gruff Rhys’ laid back (some would almost say lackadaisical) vocals and an eclecticism that far outpaced most of their contemporaries.

On subsequent records Radiator (1997) and Guerrilla (1999), SFA reveal themselves to be musical magpies as well-versed as Japan’s Pizzicato Five: the two bands sound absolutely nothing alike, but rarely in this project have we come across another outfit with an idea of pop music as far-reaching and inclusive, borrowing from and re-appropriating past touchstones so that they scan as both familiar and newfangled. Had SFA been a DJ collective rather than a guitar band, they might’ve turned out like The Avalanches. Instead, they expanded the notion of what Britpop could contain and then soon transcended it.

The five years following Fuzzy Logic encompass everything from an estimable stab at Tropicalia (“Northern Lites”) to the multi-part “Receptacle For The Respectable”, transforming itself from Beatles-esque sing-along to ear-shattering freakout in less than five minutes. This period also features catchy tunes with titles like “The International Language of Screaming” and “Shoot Doris Day”, epic one-off singles such as the awesome, anthemic “Ice Hockey Hair” and “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (the latter built on Steely Dan (!) sample), and an entire album recorded in the band’s regional tongue (2000’s Mwng.)

SFA put out nine studio albums in a 13-year period; although the ninth was my favorite album of 2009 at the time, the one I return to most is their sixth, Phantom Power. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for it since it was my introduction to the band, but it holds up beautifully thanks to its rare cohesiveness. Whereas previous SFA long-players carry something like an electrical charge from their extreme sonic and thematic diversity, here the band simply sequences a collection of songs that sound like they belong together. What elevates Phantom Power from good to great is that rather than limit themselves for consistency’s sake, SFA still manage to pack in a relatively wide array of sounds and ideas in a deliberately tighter frame.

Opener “Hello Sunshine” wastes no time showing how the band gracefully achieves such balance. Its gently psychedelic intro of acoustic guitar with a female voice singing, “So hard to say goodbye…” could’ve come off the original Wicker Man soundtrack, conjuring atmosphere to spare. Then, suddenly, at 0:47, it shimmers into what turns out to be the song proper, an easy going, Beatles-simple hippie ballad full of rich, overdubbed harmonies with subtle electronic filigrees bubbling at its outer edges. From there, Phantom Power gradually revs itself up. “Liberty Belle” slightly quickens the tempo, conjoining an affable melody (complete with “Sympathy for The Devil” worthy “Who-hoo’s!”) with unexpectedly damning lyrics. “You know you’re diggin’ to hell!,” goes the deceptively cheerful chorus, introducing one of the album’s most prevalent running themes, a skepticism of post-9/11, War on Terror-era America that feels far more potent than Blur’s from a decade before.

After concise bluesy gallop/obvious single “Golden Retriever” is out of the way, the album’s first major stylistic swerve comes with “Sex, War & Robots” (with that title, how could it not?) Its abundance of pedal steel and sumptuous strings sounds almost exactly like k.d. lang circa Ingenue, but Rhys’ vocals, recorded through a trippy filter are another thing entirely; also, eclectic as she could be, it’s hard to picture lang ever singing a lyric like “I programmed robots to make them lie.” The shift in tone is build-up for the album’s first epic/highlight, “The Piccolo Snare”. Resembling the psych-pop opening of “Hello Sunshine” but with a far lusher palette, it piles on irresistible, explicitly retro harmonies in mold of The Mamas and The Papas and The Association (in a way, anticipating Fleet Foxes by roughly five years); chiming, echoing synths, backwards guitars and a most effective key change at the bridge all contribute to the throbbing wall of melody and sound, nimbly sustaining this specific momentum for over six minutes.

Venus & Serena” brings it all back down to Earth via a glam-pop ode to the titular tennis pro twins, winning points on both a hummable ascendant chorus and by inserting a girl-group breakdown (“Father, father, father, father, can’t you see / I’m a walking tragedy”) smack dab in the middle. Immediately following, “Father Father #1” is a two-minute orchestral interlude, a quietly majestic palette cleanser bringing Phantom Power’s first half to a comforting close.

As “Hello Sunshine” began the album with a hint of the Beatles, “Bleed Forever” does pretty much the same for the second half. Its drum intro could’ve been lifted off of Abbey Road or Let It Be, but SFA include enough crafty details to avoid pastiche, as heard in the maracas and Moog synthesizer lurking in the background (and also in the Barry Gibb-like slant Rhys lends the word “Fa-ev-ahhhh”.) Referencing “holy wars” and “ninja jihads,” “Out of Control” instantly snaps into “Liberty Belle” mode but with more intensity—a tightly wound maelstrom of one-note banging piano, “Jumping Jack Flash” guitar riffs, wailing backing vocals and Motown/Tamla beats.

Cityscape Skybaby” initially provides a much-needed breather from all that action, its first minute weightless and fluttering like prime Pink Floyd. Then, the vocals come in, the melody gradually surges into focus and the full band arrives at the two-minute mark achieving post-apocalyptic trance-rock bliss; the overlapping vocal parts near the end are as heavenly as anything in “The Piccolo Snare”. “Father Father #2” provides another brief orchestral interlude similar to what we heard four tracks previously, although now the strings seem slightly off-kilter, only turning reassuring at the end.

A car’s ignition signals the start of “Valet Parking”; it’s another attempt at Tropicalia, only this time with Latin guitars, slinky beats and incessant “ba, ba, ba’s” instead of any horns (although as it proceeds, snippets of car horns subtly dart into and out of the mix.) The whole thing seems to glide along with breezy joie de vivre as Rhys sings, “Fly away / in my silver Bluebird”—that is, until he almost casually mentions how “It’s Solvent Abuse Awareness Week / at the clinic in a Berlin backyard.” “The Undefeated” further juxtaposes a sunny disposition with decidedly darker content. A driving beat and snatches of steel drums seem pleasant enough, but if you really listen to the lyrics—the main hooks are, “Yes, so shallow, the Undefeated” and cries of “Lies! Pollution! Solution!”—it should come as little of a shock when the song ends in an abrupt hail of gunfire.

Just as the gunshots peter out, however, Phantom Power’s finale begins. Many fans regard “Slow Life” as SFA’s magnum opus (as epic pop songs go, it’s up there with Saint Etienne’s “Avenue” and XTC’s “Jason and the Argonauts”.) The first forty seconds play out in a swirl of carefully, strikingly placed synth and orchestral samples, instantly drawing the listener in. A peppy drum machine lays the foundation for everything to spin towards a blistering crescendo; then, electrobeats introduce a melody that the song’s remainder sustains. Strings come in, as does an electric-guitar-and-harmonica breakdown so that when Rhys’ vocals finally appear at 2:19, one can easily sing along with the lyric sheet. Momentum keeps building until, with the familiar four-note signal of a clock chime, we arrive at the chorus which is simply the phrase “Rocks are slow life” repeated over and over into a “Hey Jude”-like coda. Who knows/cares if there’s any meaning beneath the surface, for “Slow Life” endures for seven minutes without a hint of strain, finally signing off with suspended strings that suddenly, almost breathlessly fade into the ether.

After three more albums, SFA went on an indefinite hiatus. Rhys and other members recorded solo records (his 2014 release American Interior is solid) and left dangling the possibility of a tenth album; as of late 2017, it still hasn’t arrived, although the band has toured extensively over the past three years and even included a new song on 2016’s career-spanning anthology Zoom! I doubt they’ll ever go beyond their long-running cult status (particularly outside the UK); still, like Pizzicato Five, they remain ripe for discovery, and their songs are in English (except when they’re occasionally in Welsh)—more significantly, unlike P5, their back catalog is still in print.

Up next: Their Winnipeg.

(Also of note: this project, now 3/4 completed (!) will return in early 2018.)

“Slow Life”:

“The Piccolo Snare”:


Calexico, “Feast Of Wire”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #74 – released February 18, 2003)

Track listing: Sunken Waltz / Quattro (World Drifts In) / Stucco / Black Heart / Pepita / Not Even Stevie Nicks… / Close Behind / Woven Birds / The Book and The Canal / Attack El Robot! Attack! / Across The Wire / Dub Latina / Guero Canelo / Whipping The Horse’s Eyes / Crumble / No Doze

One can’t help but forever link some musicians with where they come from: Kate Bush is the quintessential British eccentric, early R.E.M. exemplifies the Athens, Georgia college town scene (as do The B-52’s), Soul Coughing’s alt-rock/jazz hybrid is 1990s downtown NYC incarnate, etc. And while some prove so trailblazing and iconic that they eventually define their region’s sound—think what mid-70s Fleetwood Mac did for California, or New Order and The Smiths for ’80s Manchester—others glean influences from existing regionalisms and make them their own.

Named after a town straddling the border between California and Mexico, Calexico is an ideal moniker for a band actually based in another close-to-the-border city: Tucson, Arizona. Its primary two members, Joey Burns and John Convertino met while performing as the rhythm section in Howe Gelb’s long-running collective Giant Sand in the early ’90s. After Gelb moved the band from Los Angeles to Tucson, Burns and Convertino split off and began recording together, first under the name Spoke (releasing a self-titled album in 1995) before becoming Calexico, reissuing the album (originally limited to 2,000 copies) two years later under the new name.

While Spoke already has many elements of the band’s core sound in place, it’s not particularly songful, rather resembling a series of fragments without much in the way connective tissue or memorable hooks. Fortunately, this changes on their second album The Black Light (1998) as Burns and Convertino prevent their atmospheric, Latin noir from floating into the ether with a surfeit of hummable melodies and rich, evocative soundscapes. It sets a template they’ve more or less followed for nearly twenty years—their next album, Hot Rail (2000), is simply more-of-the-same, spiked with the occasional diversion like the seven-minute-long “Fade” (which holds its own with any Neil Young epic you’d care to name.)

Still, I’m willing to guess that most people outside Tucson (including myself) hadn’t heard of Calexico until their fourth album, Feast of Wire. On first listen, it plays like a logical follow-up to The Black Light and Hot Rail; over time, however, it reveals itself as the grand apotheosis of what those records attempted. While the overall feel remains within the same conceivable world of its predecessors, the songs themselves are noticeably sharper and riskier. Feast of Wire unravels like a sonic crazy quilt bringing together a far-reaching but simpatico scope of musical touchstones. It will shift on a dime from a brief piano-and-cello sonata (“The Book and The Canal”) to a kitschy sci-fi instrumental (“Attack El Robot! Attack!”) to a Tex-Mex story-song that could’ve easily been recorded by Marty Robbins in 1961 (“Across The Wire”) to an unexpectedly sensual, seductive bossa-nova (“Dub Latina”). Even more impressive, absolutely none of it jars or sounds out of place.

Feast of Wire makes liberal use of regional touches such as mariachi horns, Morricone-inspired strings, occasional accordion and some good old pedal steel. But at its heart, Calexico is really an indie-pop group, with songwriters Burns and Convertino making like sort of a Southwestern Steely Dan (albeit far less snarky and cynical), the two of them continually driving and shaping the band’s overall sound and ethos. Burns plays everything from guitar to pump organ, but his yearning, slippery tenor vocals render him a de-facto leader (even though, like most Calexico records up to this point, this one’s split straight down the middle between vocal tracks and instrumentals.) Convertino’s musical contributions are far more centered—he may be one of his era’s greatest drummer-percussionists in part because he favors finesse over flash, from his hip-shaking polyrhythms that introduce and sustain “Quattro (World Drifts In)” to his delicate tapestry of shuffling beats and strategically placed booming tom-toms in “Dub Latina”.

Sunken Waltz” opens the album with an acoustic guitar riff then accompanied by accordion, percussion and Burns’ vocals—it’s simple and palatable, an entryway into the band’s world. “Quattro (World Drifts In) builds on this established familiarity, but spreads it over a far wider canvas—a vast enclosure of space, carefully layered with a plethora of instrumental hooks. Between them and Burns’ breathy vocals, the end result resembles Lindsey Buckingham far more than Buck Owens, but the real kicker is how it all leads to a chorus where everything seems to solidify on a call-and-response between a repeated four-note horn riff and Burns signing the line, “Hit the ground… running.” This was the first Calexico tune I ever heard (off a Mojo magazine Best of 2003 compilation); its immediacy naturally led me directly to this album.

As if to instantly upend expectations, the next song, “Stucco”, is merely twenty seconds of a distorted, noodling guitar riff processed through some kind of filter. Just as it makes an impression (or dares to wear out its welcome), “Black Heart” takes over. Burns quietly counts it off until he’s consumed by loud, clanging percussion and descendant, stretched out minor-key strings. The latter come to dominate the arrangement, nearly smothering everything in their path (including Burns’ most mournful, emotional vocal.) And yet, this is not only the longest, heaviest track on the album but also one of the more traditionally songful ones, crossing a Lee Hazelwood lament with R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback”, spicing its catchy chorus with stately, almost Liberace(!)-like piano filigrees.

Another instrumental, “Pepita” follows—nearly eight times as long as “Stucco”, it builds from a lone electronic signal noise to a two-note Morse code guitar riff which shifts into a full band arrangement after the one-minute mark. It’s haunting while remaining mostly inscrutable, but unlike, say, many of Spoke’s instrumentals, it holds your attention, engaging as it runs the gamut from the minuscule to the expansive. After it simmers to a close, the next song provides great contrast by opening with just acoustic guitar. “Not Even Stevie Nicks…” (notice the sustained Fleetwood Mac references) plays almost like the Eagles at their folkiest, at least in the verses. When Burns arrives at the chorus with the lyric, “Drives off the cliff… into the blue,” Convertino’s drums enter and utterly transform the song, lending the minimal arrangement some much-needed heft; in turn, when Burns responds, “Not even she… can save him,” hitting a gentle but sustained high note on the word “she”, he’s seemingly responding to and reinforcing this newfound tension.

The rest of Feast of Wire spools out in a similar fashion. However, any disparity of genre or song structure between tracks doesn’t result in a disjointed listen due to the band’s masterful command of mood and tone. In theory, another stirring mariachi instrumental in 12/8 time (“Close Behind”) shouldn’t necessarily transition well into a relatively straightforward, tender vocal ballad (“Woven Birds”), but both feel like they belong in the same universe: not only do they share a few instrumental touches (acoustic guitar, accordion), they also could be two sides of the same coin—a clear, expansive blue sky overtaken by clouds and a gentle mist (or perhaps an oncoming storm.) Likewise, after the supple interlude of “Dub Latina”, “Guero Canelo” gets the blood flowing with distorted, unintelligible vocals and a backbeat propelled with insistent cowbell, only for the mood to cool down again with “Whipping the Horse’s Eyes”, a brief, eerie intermezzo of just shaker, cello and pedal steel. Apart, the tracks seem woefully unrelated, but together, they coalesce as a series of textures, of emotional highs and lows, of scattered puzzle pieces that, when put into place, paint a whole picture.

On the album’s final two tracks, Calexico pushes their sound as far as it can reasonably go without eradicating that picture’s borders. “Crumble” takes a stab at straight-up jazz, complete with stand-up bass, lithe, swinging polyrhythms, tinkling piano and vibes, muted trumpets, a Wes Montgomery-esque guitar solo and Mingus-like horn charts. At first, it resembles nothing else on Feast of Wire—heck, it might even fool unsuspecting listeners into thinking it’s a recording of a mid-century cool bop combo. And yet, if you listen a little closer and consider all the stylistic diversions preceding it on the album, it’s no stretch to say it simply belongs as another facet of this genre-inclusive cosmos Burns and Convertino have assembled.

No Doze” closes the album by further defying expectations. Like “The Overload”, the final song on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, it eschews a backbeat and any hint of melody for an ominous soundscape dominated by percussive sounds that just seem to drip-drop into the mix (and definitely not into place.) The vocals arriving at 1:30 are barely audible over a growing, electro-distorted din. Snatches of instruments we’ve heard throughout the album (pedal steel, Spanish guitar) seem foreign, almost atonal in this setting. It all feels post-apocalyptic, as if we’ve come upon the most sinister aftermath of “Black Heart” imaginable. Everything just crawls to a slow fade, not tying up Feast of Wire into a neat, digestible little bow, but fully laying bare its frayed edges, revealing a dark, foreboding conclusion to an epic journey.

At this writing, Calexico has put out four more studio albums since Feast of Wire (with a fifth one on the way), not to mention a cornucopia of compilations, soundtracks, live albums and extended-play singles; all of them further the narrative Burns and Convertino have been judiciously crafting since Spoke. My favorite of these later efforts is 2015’s Edge Of The Sun, which was generally criticized for being too pop, the notion of which I balk at. Despite cultivating a seemingly boundless catalog of influences, what is Calexico if not a band continually, sometimes profoundly expanding upon the idea of what pop music can mean and contain?

Up next: Cardiff In The Sun.

“Quattro (World Drifts In)”:


Sparks, “Lil’ Beethoven”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #73 – released November 26, 2002)

Track listing: The Rhythm Thief / How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? / What Are All These Bands So Angry About? / I Married Myself / Ride ‘Em Cowboy / My Baby’s Taking Me Home / Your Call’s Very Important To Us, Please Hold / Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls / Suburban Homeboy

It’s just a little ironic that a good chunk of pop music is… not very popular. So many artists make significant contributions to the form but never become household names. Some burn out quickly, their achievements forever etched in amber via studio output and whatever videos or scraps of live footage surface on YouTube; others retain a cult following that sustains them either monetarily or creatively (or, if they’re really lucky, both.)

Sparks is for sure a cult band (they’ve never had a top 40 US hit), but also something of an anomaly. Although originally formed as a California-based quintet, Sparks is, at its core and for nearly five decades at this writing, a duo consisting of brothers Russell and Ron Mael. A visually striking study in opposites, curly-haired, baby-faced Russell sings in a theatrical, near-operatic trill, while Ron, who writes most of the lyrics, usually sits solemnly behind his keyboard, looking somewhat peeved (his tiny, Hitler-esque mustache not helping matters.)

Since their 1971 debut album, they’ve dabbled in expatriate British glam-pop, near straight-faced AOR, Giorgio Moroder-produced electronic disco, jittery new wave and good old fashioned synth-pop. Arguably, such genre hopping kept them from ever courting a Queen, Donna Summer or Erasure-size following, and yet, on multiple occasions, their version of pop briefly aligned with some part of the world’s—their mid-70s run on the top of the charts (led off by “This Town Isn’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, surely the strangest song to ever hit #2 in the UK outside of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”), that time they spent weeks at number one in France (1980’s “When I’m With You”), their early-MTV minor hits (“I Predict”, “Cool Places” with Jane Wiedlin (of The Go-Go’s)—likely the only two Sparks songs most Americans have heard.)

Despite so many stylistic shifts, they’ve developed and maintained a clear sensibility, thanks to two constants: Russell’s inimitable, fey vocals and a singular, somewhat snarky wit. They’ve written memorable tunes about sexually inexperienced young men (“Amateur Hour”) and freshly minted media moguls (“Now That I Own The BBC”), not to mention a fist-pumping dance anthem sung from the point of view of, um, sperm (“Tryouts For The Human Race”). Their back catalog is also packed to the gills with song titles like “Angst in My Pants”, “Academy Award Performance”, “Barbecutie”, “Dick Around” and “Lighten Up, Morrissey”.

After fleeting success all over Europe in 1994 with “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” (from the album Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins), the Maels fell into one of their periodic career slumps, resorting to recording new versions of their greatest hits (1997’s Plagiarism) and releasing an album only notable for its title (2000’s Balls). Essentially little more than mischievous, hetero Pet Shop Boys at this point, expectations for their next album were nonexistent. Although it didn’t really revive their career commercially, it ended up marking another major stylistic shift for Sparks and it was also something of a game-changer.

For this, their 19th (!) album, Sparks took the operatic, theatrical bent always lurking in their sound and shamelessly brought it to the fore. As the title somewhat implies, the bulk of Lil’ Beethoven sounds nothing at all like rock n’ roll, almost entirely eschewing guitars/bass/drums for mostly synthesized orchestration and overdubbed vocal chorales—a light (and occasionally, not-so-light) classical take on pop music that’s agreeably catchy and melodic but doesn’t have much of a precedent. It’s as if the Maels, tired of trying to replicate their past, fleeting pop successes finally said, “Fuck it” and made exactly the album they wanted to, not giving a damn regarding radio airplay or genre categorization. Of course, one could argue they’ve done this throughout their oeuvre, but here is where they draw that definitive line in the sand, and sound all the more freer for doing so.

Lil’ Beethoven, however, is not a challenging listen due to its aural break from contemporary pop music—the biggest hurdle most listeners may encounter is its extensive use of repetition. All nine tracks are built around phrases that reoccur until they turn into hooks, which of course is something most pop music does, from “Barbara Ann” to “Get Lucky”. And yet, the Maels take this practice to an extreme—most notably on “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”, which, apart from a brief spoken word section, repeats its title like a skipping record over one hundred times. It sounds boring on paper, but Sparks fully comprehend the golden rule of repetition: say something once and it’s funny or at least notable; say it a second or third time, and it’s somewhat redundant, but if you keep saying it over and over, it has the potential to become funny again—maybe even profound. Thus, as Russell belts out the title, near the tenth or fifteenth time, you start to notice various countermelodies in the instrumental backing, particularly in the piano. Even as the title and melody repeats itself ad infinitum, shifts in volume and density allow the song’s momentum to build, then decrease, then settle, then build again until it reaches a commanding peak in the final minute as an actual backbeat kicks in and the whole thing swells with the force of a Hallelujah Chorus.

Similarly, opener “The Rhythm Thief” is assembled out of various phrases (“Oh, no, where did the groove go?”, “You’ll never get it back”) and melodies that echo and alternate to create enough tension to go along with the staccato strings driving the arrangement. “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?” is an incessant call-and-response between the titular question and its joke answer (“Practice, man, practice!”) as rapid, repeated piano triplets conjure up images of a poor dope fervently attempting to perfect an arpeggio over and over until his fingers are left bloody and blistered. “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” may opt for a more traditional verse-and-chorus structure, but the former’s four-syllable phrases serve exactly the same purpose as the latter’s back-and-forth between the dramatically sung title and a rather twangy “Get back on a-gainnn.” “Your Call Is Very Important To Us, Please Hold” plays like a Dadaist collage, cutting up Russell’s recitation of the title’s seven words with a proto-Siri voice mechanically intoning the last two (along with other layered phrases such as “Red, red light / green / light.”)

Occasionally, Sparks ekes genuine pathos out of this approach. “I Married Myself” paints an absurd picture by following its title with the words, “I’m very happy together,” but does so to a swooning melody sweet enough for a Hollywood movie theme. Little “dit-dit-dit” vocals and strings of deliberate clichés (“Long, long walks / on the beach / lovely times”) sit side by side with erudite electric piano and classy muted trumpet flashes. Meanwhile, Russell sings, “This time it’s gonna last / forever, forever, forever,” with a wistfulness that feels utterly sincere, even as you’re trying to reconcile it with all the surrounding, surreal imagery.

Rest assured the Maels haven’t entirely gone soft. “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” succinctly takes down the then-ubiquitous likes of Limp Bizkit (and possibly Eminem.) Russell talks/sings the title in an affected sneer as Ron toughens up the mix with some electronic clutter. Naturally, the song’s cereal commercial-ready piano hook immediately deflates any hint of menace. Arguably, they save it all for the penultimate track, “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls”. After a genteel intro of a piece with everything preceding it on the album, Sparks gleefully upend expectations at the 0:43 mark when Russell suddenly yells, “WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT?” and screams the song’s title over a raucous guitar riff. Then, we get a lengthy soliloquy detailing the strange but time-honored phenomenon of how money often trumps looks, smarts, talent, etc. “It ain’t done with smoke and mirrors,” he seethes, cathartically laying bare the tension and frustration that had been burbling under the album’s light classical sheen all along. Or, in other words, revealing exactly what he and Ron are angry about.

Still, Sparks have always sheathed their anger in an impeccable wit, and that very device informs and uplifts Lil’ Beethoven’s closing number. “Suburban Homeboy” is an alternate-world Gilbert and Sullivan showstopper about, simply put, white men who act like they’re black. By far the most songful tune on the album, it’s rich with wordplay (“I’ll pop a cap up some fool at The Gap,” “She ‘yo yo’s’ me and I ‘yo yo’ her back”) and clever rhymes (“My caddy and me / he looks just like Jay-Z” and also “I / bought my cornrows on Amazon / I / started listening to Farrakhan”.) However, the Maels really sell it by effortlessly bending such a satirical character sketch to an ultra-specific spine of a type of song. Notice what impact a chorus of one hundred Russells has in the final verse delivering a lyric as absurd as, “We are suburban homeboys and we say ‘Yo, dog!’ and we mean it, by God!” Like the rest of Lil’ Beethoven, it’s equally ridiculous and sublime, only more so.

In the decade-plus since this record, the Maels have put out five more albums (don’t be surprised if the latest, Hippopotamus ends up on my best-of list this year), including a collaboration with Scots new wave-revivalists Franz Ferdinand (as FFS) and a ballet soundtrack about Ingmar Bergman; they’ve also recently worked with such kindred spirit filmmakers as Guy Maddin (“The Final Derriere” for his film The Forbidden Room) and Leos Carax (whom they are currently writing a screenplay with.) One suspects they’ll keep at it until either of them croaks, which is perfectly fine—most bands, cult or otherwise should remain so creatively solvent twenty-plus albums in.

Up next: Greetings from Tucson.

“Suburban Homeboy”:

“I Married Myself”:

Alison Moyet, “Hometime”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #72 – released September 10, 2002)

Track listing: Yesterday’s Flame / Should I Feel That It’s Over / More / Hometime / Mary, Don’t Keep Me Waiting / Say It / Ski / If You Don’t Come Back To Me / Do You Ever Wonder / The Train I Ride / You Don’t Have To Go

It’s tempting to call Alison Moyet the original Adele in that she’s also a white British woman with an unexpectedly powerful, soulful voice, but that’s really about all the two have in common. While Adele conquered both the album and singles charts worldwide with 2011’s 21, Moyet first broke through almost thirty years earlier as one-half of Yaz (known as Yazoo outside the US.) Whereas Adele dutifully followed the Amy Winehouse template of applying her otherworldly vocals to accessible retro-accented pop (minus the drugs), Moyet and ex-Depeche Mode synth pioneer Vince Clarke crafted a forward-looking, yin/yang electropop. Their brief, bountiful run of UK hits (“Only You”, “Situation”, “Don’t Go”, “Nobody’s Diary”) played out like happy little accidents resulting from placing Moyet’s immense, warm, sonorous wail against Clarke’s sparse, cold but efficiently tuneful synth squiggles.

This tension boiled over to Moyet and Clarke’s working relationship, as they split up after just two albums. While Clarke went on to form Erasure with Moyet’s male near-equivalent, she forged a solo career successful enough (in the UK, anyway) to produce a terrific greatest hits comp a decade later. Fittingly called Singles, it collects most Moyet worth hearing through the mid-90s, from mainstream pop (“Is This Love”, “Invisible”—her only top 40 US hit) and dramatic torch ballads (“This House”) to covers of jazz (“That Ole Devil Called Love”) and pre-rock standards (“Love Letters”). There’s also a remake of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, a smattering of Yaz songs (including album track “Winter Kills”) and sterling examples of her attempts at a more personal, Kirsty MacColl-like sound via “Falling” and “It Won’t Be Long”, the latter one of the great lost singles of the early ’90s. That the bulk of Singles fits together so perfectly is a testament to Moyet’s enduring talent.

Singles concluded with a great new track, “Solid Wood” that found her relying more heavily on guitars and Beatles-esque harmonies than anything she had done previously, suggesting a potentially rich new direction. However, a dispute with her record label, Sony Music (supposedly because they thought her latest offerings were not “commercial” enough) resulted in an extended hiatus that lasted until 2002—seven years after Singles and eight after her previous studio album, Essex. Luckily for Moyet, she had the last laugh—her next album, Hometime (released on indie label Sanctuary Records) sold a quarter of a million copies in the UK, even with no hit singles attached to it. Furthermore, it was a critical success as well—her first solo record to establish her as something more than just a “singles artist.”

While I admittedly have never delved deeply into Moyet’s first four solo albums (1991’s Hoodoo is generally regarded as the best), it’s immediately apparent why Hometime is something of an artistic breakthrough. Its eleven songs, which mostly center on the final stages of a crumbling romantic relationship and its aftermath, form a thematic wholeness that little of Moyet’s previous work contains. Many of the song titles alone (“Yesterday’s Flame”, “Should I Feel That It’s Over”, “If You Don’t Come Back To Me”, “You Don’t Have To Go”) place emphasis on heartbreak, turmoil and loss. And yet, rather than wallow in despair, Hometime ends up a strangely, beautifully uplifting song cycle. This is the sound of a woman sifting through memories, considerations, disappointments and misunderstandings. Although the devastation in Moyet’s voice is loud and clear, she sounds remarkably stronger than ever, devoid of pity or lethargy.

Moyet conceived and recorded Hometime with production duo The Insects, who had previously written and arranged songs for Goldfrapp, Massive Attack and Something To Remember-era Madonna. Augmenting subtle electronics with guitars and strings, their musical backdrops often resemble a lusher, earthier Portishead—indeed, that band’s guitarist Adrian Utley plays on a few tracks here. One can even imagine this album’s title track, with its hazy, trip-hop shuffle, Billie Holiday-on-acid phrasing and “weird bass” (as identified in the credits) easily fitting on Dummy, although Moyet and Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons are as disparate as fire and ice.

On the basis of other tracks such as opener “Yesterday’s Flame” (where Moyet comes close to the slinky elegance of Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards) and “Ski” (which works up a nice, burbling groove), it’s tempting to call Hometime Moyet’s take on trip-hop; like much of that genre, a few of the production touches scan as a little dated now, like the electronic bloopy noise that gives “More” its most noticeable hook. The synth filigrees and wah-wah guitar on “Say It” also practically scream early-Oughts contemporary R&B.

Fortunately, the bulk of Hometime sounds timeless, more so than most of her previous work, both solo and especially with Yaz. “Should I Feel That It’s Over”, for instance, opens on a bed of acoustic and electric guitars that feel folkish and almost pastoral, as if one has put on an old Cat Stevens record in error. Then, Moyet’s vocal kicks in and you’d never mistake the song for anyone else’s as her keen sense of dynamics envelope tragedy with a sense of discovery. The song’s earworm of a chorus is only bested by Simon Hale’s string arrangement, which subtly builds from the second verse, eventually reaching full flower as Moyet’s overdubbed vocals allow her to eke out whatever she can from the song’s already rich countermelodies.

Mary, Don’t Keep Me Waiting” also masterfully weaves together a tapestry of classical folk guitar and up-to-the-minute synths with an intricacy that’s nearly orchestral in scope (at times coming to resemble a big, throbbing ball of sound) but miniaturist and surgically focused in content. Playing out like an Alice Munro short story, it vacillates between narrative (the title is the song’s first lyric) and pure feeling (the gorgeous “la, la, la’s” that punctuate each middle-eight), with its imagery (“The sky is black and it’s menacing me”) coming across as both poetic and strikingly lucid.

Many of these songs have hooks that cunningly sneak up on you. Take “Say It”, where she gradually, delicately lays out each word (“Love… you… gave… / so com-plete / I want… you… back…”) until letting loose in the chorus, tumultuously repeating the song’s title a memorable seven times in succession. Or the rock-soul flavored “This Train I Ride”, where the tentative, slow-building verses almost effortlessly lead right into the resolute but impassioned chorus of, “The louder you scream, the faster you go.” Or even “More”, where, line by line it feels almost repetitive (“It’s the stain of the moon,” “It’s the choice that I made,”) until Moyet delivers the punchline—the descendant, one-phrase chorus, “It’s you and it’s me and it could’ve been more.”

Hale’s string arrangements also add to Hometime’s air of (non-stuffy) elegance. They give “More” a fullness that makes the song’s contemporary elements more palatable, and they lend both gravitas and an air of suspense to “If You Don’t Come Back To Me”, a consummate torch ballad tailor-made for Moyet’s agility in conjuring up as many different shades of emotion as there are hues of color in the sky. However, they’re most effective on the album’s centerpiece, “Do You Ever Wonder”. With a harpsichord intro straight out of Bacharach/David-era Dionne Warwick, it’s another torch song but at a quicker tempo. As the insistent strings gain momentum, the melody seems to effortlessly glide from verse to bridge to chorus, complimented by tart, clever chord changes straight out of the Great American Songbook. Still, it doesn’t feel stale, thanks to both Hale’s arrangement (which makes the song sound like it could’ve been recorded anytime since 1963) and Moyet’s command of the melody, stretching out monosyllabic words to five and six syllables without relying on melisma, delivering the chorus (“I won’t feel anything / I’m lost without you”) with the required turmoil but also an unexpected, affecting sincerity.

Hometime concludes with the gospel-flavored “You Don’t Have To Go”. Evolving from an almost reverently quiet intro to an all-out, wailing-towards-the-void maelstrom, it reiterates the album’s ongoing themes of dissolution and loss. Moyet’s performance here is absolutely startling in its immediacy, especially as it threatens to careen out of control against all the effectively building guitars, strings and Hammond organ near the end. It’s no stretch to say she and the song achieve some sort of catharsis that Hometime has been building towards all along. I don’t know how much of its content she drew from her personal life (she had been divorced and remarried at that point), but it sure registered with me. Released just a few months after my own most serious relationship to date had spectacularly crashed and burned, Hometime could not have come into my life at a more serendipitous time; it remains one of the best ever “break-up” albums, in part because of how fluently it details and expresses one’s discombobulation after a relationship fails, illustrating how achieving some sort of catharsis is a necessity in order to fully move on.

Moyet would record sporadically throughout the next decade, her career itself only finding some catharsis when she re-emerged in 2013 with The Minutes, a heavily electronic collaboration with producer Guy Sigsworth and arguably her most innovative album since her Yaz days. She then worked with Sigsworth again on a more musically diverse follow-up, Other, earlier this year. Touring the States (for the first time in decades) in support of it, she appeared older and noticeably thinner (having dramatically slimmed down prior to The Minutes) but her voice had lost very little of its power. She performed hits and misses from throughout her career; the setlist even included one unlikely Hometime track, “Ski”. While that album remains her most resonant collection, the fact that she’s made some of her best work in her fifties (and appears utterly comfortable in her own skin doing so) is a cause to celebrate. She may never sell as many records as Adele, but Adele should be so lucky to have this rewarding a career (and back catalog) thirty years from now.

Up next: The Fine Art of Repetition.

“Do You Ever Wonder”:

“Should I Feel That It’s Over”:

Sleater-Kinney, “One Beat”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #71 – released August 20, 2002)

Track listing: One Beat / Far Away / Oh! / The Remainder / Light Rail Coyote / Step Aside / Combat Rock / O2 / Funeral Song / Prisstina / Hollywood Ending / Sympathy

Most bands would kill for as consistent a discography as Sleater-Kinney’s. A female punk trio formed in Olympia, Washington, they followed a tentative but intense 1995 self-titled debut with five solid albums in a row and at least three of them are back-to-front superb (the other two ain’t far behind.) Still, the conundrum with such consistency is that I’m uncertain I could write distinct, illuminating essays on more than one S-K album (let alone three.) Early on, I had picked for this project Dig Me Out (1997), the group’s third album. A considerable leap from their previous records, you can practically hear everything literally clicking into place, thanks partially to new powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss but also to the more confident and dynamic songs of vocalists/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein.

I then shifted my sights over to All Hands on the Bad One (2000), at times still my favorite S-K album primarily because it was the first one I heard (roughly a year after its release). Obviously, it was also the one I fell in love with, driving me to seek out their previous four albums (including 1999’s denser, thornier, dreamier The Hot Rock.) Although it encompassed influences ranging from the Ramones and riot grrl to post-punk like The Cure and other (slightly less caffeinated) indie rock such as Yo La Tengo, it felt brand-new to me at the time: no other trio, male or female, matched them in spiky guitar riffs, thunderous but lithe percussion and ingenuously intersecting, overlapping vocals (mixing Tucker’s singular, commanding caterwaul with Brownstein’s sweeter, brisker undercurrents.) From the irresistible pogo-pop of “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” to the shimmering acoustic balladry of “Leave You Behind”, it also amply showcased S-K’s ever-growing capabilities.

However, when the time came to write about All Hands… for this project, I again balked, deciding to address its follow-up instead. I’m not going to argue that One Beat is, full-stop, the essential S-K album, the one you most need to hear; Dig Me Out and All Hands… are honestly just as accomplished. Still, apart from its sonic diverseness and songwriters Corin and Carrie arguably at their melodic peaks, One Beat has other implications that render it the S-K album I most want to write about. Released in late summer of 2002, it’s as pure an afterimage of that strange, post-9/11, pre-Iraq War period in America that you’re gonna get outside Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising—in other words, it’s as explicitly political as S-K ever got, and you can’t help but notice how this enhances the urgency in their concise, energetic, cathartic and, best of all, LOUD rock and roll.

You sense it straightaway in the repetitive, start-and-stop martial drumbeat that kicks off the title track. It’s followed by a similarly-inclined guitar riff (probably from Carrie) before the arrival of Corin’s clipped, angry vocal, which “leads” the song but also perfectly melds with everything else. She sings of striving for unity in a world of chaos, looking to science for an explanation (“If you think like Thomas Edison / could you invent a world for me,”) only to admit, “You can’t predict everything with Newton-like certainty.” The song’ subtext of an altered, post-9/11 existence becomes the text of the next track, “Far Away”: it’s as taut and relentless, with Carrie delivering her best Jimmy Page impression as Corin recounts nursing her “baby on the couch” as she watches “the world explode in flames” on the other side of the country. “Don’t breathe / the air / today,” she wails in two-syllable increments as Carrie sings, at a lower register and a far more rapid pace, “Standing here on a one way road and I fall down,” the two eventually merging on the furious and pleading, “WHY CAN’T I GET ALONG WITH YOU?” (All caps indicated on the album’s lyric sheet.)

They reference the attacks again on “Combat Rock”, which not only alludes to The Clash album of that name but also the rock-reggae leanings of their sound circa then. A treatise on blind patriotism, you could call it one of the more strident songs in their catalog, taking on an easy target (“Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance! / Oh god I love my dirty Uncle Sam.”) Still, you must remember how unpopular this opinion was at that exact time (think about what happened to The Dixie Chicks a year later)—the song hits hardest when at its most direct (“Since when is skepticism un-American?” is a still most relevant question at this writing.)

“Combat Rock” ends up a necessary protest song, but its immediate predecessor on One Beat is a transcendent one. Lyrically, “Step Aside” serves as a manifesto of what it’s like to be in a female punk trio as the world threatens to fall apart. More than that, it’s a call to solidarity just like the title track only with a clearer agenda that doesn’t pussyfoot around with metaphor or philosophical inquiry. “These times are troubled, these times are rough / there’s more to come but you can’t give up,” Corin sings before asking—nay, commanding listeners, “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?”, stressing the words “peace” and “love” with impassioned force. If that wasn’t irresistible enough, she proceeds to rouse her fellow band members (“JANET!  / CARRIE! / CAN YOU HEAR IT?”) before concluding, “It’s not the time to just keep quiet!” Oh, and musically the song’s an unlikely, powerful punk/Motown hybrid, made flesh and blood when the surprise horn section appears at 0:48.

While the rest of One Beat is rarely so overtly political, for this band, the personal and the political are often indistinguishable. It’s most apparent on a song like “Light Rail Coyote”, a paean to all small town girls (and boys) seeking solace in the big city, together ultimately making the city what it is—the concluding cries of “Oh dirty river / come let me in,” are just as forceful and effective as the exhortations in “Step Aside”. One can also hear it in “02”, particularly the key phrase, “I want to run away,” that last syllable stretched over a few measures of the tune’s anthemic power-pop.

Lest one think that One Beat contains nothing but high-energy bangers (see “Hollywood Ending” whose wonderful descending guitar riff gathers momentum until everything tyrannically explodes at the end), the album’s midsection is a bit more varied. “The Remainder” keeps the band’s no-fat-or-flab instrumentation in check, subtly adding synths and strings while slowing down the tempo a notch. The Carrie-sung, nursery-rhyme simple “Funeral Song” alternates between plucky, stripped down verses and a bang-bang-bang full-throttle chorus (plus a Theremin solo!) that would play well at any club’s Goth night. These post-punk-isms reach full flower in “Prisstina”: co-written by Hedwig and The Angry Inch lyricist Stephen Trask (who also provides synth and backing vocals), it brushes against that Siouxsie Sioux/Robert Smith axis nicely without sounding too much like either artist (thanks mostly to Corin’s near-unrecognizable, low-pitched tone.)

And yet, S-K do what they do best in a more typical number like “Oh!” Kicking off with a massive Carrie guitar riff worthy of The B-52’s’ Ricky Wilson, it’s a glorious lust song, packed with surf rhythms, handclaps, call-and-response lyrics, “Be My Baby”-style drumrolls and best of all, Corin’s animated, elastic, ecstatic vocal (worthy of The B-52’s’ Cindy Wilson; as with Carrie’s guitar, it goes beyond pastiche.) Listen to how she sings, “Nobody lingers like / YOUR hands on MY heart!” on the chorus or, “It’s ALL in / my POCK-et! / I CALL it / my ROCK-et!” on the bridge and try not to fall in love with her no-holds-barred jubilation.

S-K have a penchant for tremendous album closers, and “Sympathy” doesn’t disappoint. A blues where Corin relates her child’s perilous, premature birth, it begins with just guitar, vocal and after the first twelve bars, some cowbell. She pleads as fervently as she did on “Step Aside” only the stakes are much higher, more immediate and potentially devastating as she sings, “I’d beg you on bended knees for him.” Then, Janet’s full drum-kit crunch accompanies Carrie’s countermelody (“I’ve got this curse on my tongue…”) as Corin lets loose with “Woo-hoo’s!” deliberately swiped from The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”. Everything reaches an expulsive boil at the bridge as Corin, line by line, bares the depths of her soul (along with exclamations of “HEY!” from her band.) “We’re all equal / in the face of what we’re most afraid of / and I’m so sorry / for those who didn’t make it,” she affirms—again, the personal is the political, and we’re all in this together, whether the threat to life and well-being is singular or widespread.

One Beat and “Sympathy” could’ve been perfect cappers to S-K’s career. Their next album, The Woods (2005) had its fans, but I found it awfully disappointing—a sludgefest that almost entirely replaced their tightly wound precision with blurred walls of sounds and meandering jams. Perhaps they realized it was a dead end, for they broke up a year later. After almost a decade of solo and side projects like Wild Flag and The Corin Tucker Band, not to mention Carrie’s unlikely emergence as a sketch comedy queen with Portlandia, they re-united with No Cities To Love (2015), another solid S-K album that sounded like but neither added to or detracted from that original five-record run. S-K will always come in at the top of any short list of great all-female bands, but when you consider their peak output, it’s clear they’re more accurately one the era’s best bands regardless of gender or genre.

Up next: Catharsis at a more personal level.

“Step Aside”:


Stew, “The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #70 – released April 2, 2002)

Track listing: Single Woman Sitting / Giselle / Reeling / The Drug Suite / Love is Coming Through the Door / The Cold Parade / North Bronx French Marie / The Smile / The Naked Dutch Painter

In an era of digital file sharing and streaming, there’s a popular misconception that the album’s days are numbered. Granted, sales have dwindled to an extent where, just a few years ago (before they amended their rules to include streaming counts), a title could top the Billboard 200 on sales of only 40,000 physical units. Fortunately, the album is far from dead; it’s not really even on life support. Just look at how Beyonce’s Lemonade dominated cultural conversations in 2016 (or Adele’s 25 the year before.) At this writing, print and web media is agog with think pieces on the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer spurred on partially by a new, expanded edition released to commemorate it. Although an album is no longer the be-all, end-all way of consuming music (as it was in the immediate pre-iTunes age when labels deliberately withheld releasing popular songs as singles, giving you no other choice but to buy the whole album to own the song), people still listen to, write about and occasionally buy them, while most artists (save the occasional outlier like Robyn) still release their music in this format.

An album usually consists of an average of ten songs spanning 30-45 minutes in deference to what could fit on its original physical format, the long-playing vinyl record (or LP). Naturally, one can place more than ten songs on an album if they’re shorter (They Might Be Giants averaged 20 on each of their first five LPs) and less if they’re longer (Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti often crafted songs long enough to fill one entire LP side.) An overwhelming majority of these songs are new studio recordings, although in addition to that type of album, there are also live albums, remix albums, cover albums (consisting of nothing but new versions of songs recorded and made famous by other artists) and for those who just want the hits or a career-spanning overview, the compilation album—arguably the primary format that has suffered considerably in the download era, as iTunes and streaming services allow (and encourage) anyone to compile a playlist of their own choosing.

Going back to studio albums, they tend to feature anything from an assortment of hits plus filler to overarching concepts unified by themes or stringing along a number of tunes to form a medley. By the early part of this century, every possible permutation as to what a studio album could contain seemingly had been attempted, from allowing an aural motif to run through all of its songs to beginning every song title with the same letter to even compiling a dozen different cover versions of the same song. Around this time, singer/songwriter/The Negro Problem leader Stew followed up his solo debut, Guest Host with an album that, while not as audaciously conceptual as those examples mentioned above, defied easy categorization. Much of it was recorded live onstage, complete with spoken introductions and snippets of between-song patter. Still, it’s not exclusively a live album, for a few tracks feature noticeable studio overdubs and at least three were likely entirely recorded in a studio.

With this deliberate blend of settings, The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs comes off as a true hybrid. I don’t know why Stew and his bassist/co-songwriter Heidi Rodewald decided to construct an album this way—they could’ve simply made the whole thing strictly a live record full of new, previously unreleased songs. However, once you get past the novelty of hearing what’s essentially a live album with a few studio diversions, you’re left with a collection that features a singer/songwriter at his creative peak. The live bits highlight his strengths as a bandleader/performer/personality, while the studio bits manage not to detract from any of this (in some cases, they even enhance it.)

Single Woman Sitting” begins not with an onstage introduction, but a studio trick: its circular piano melody gradually fading in for nearly thirty seconds. Then, Stew begins singing about the titular figure who lives in “a very nice one room flat,” which has “paintings, photos, some mementos, a bookshelf and a cat.” As the song proceeds, his descriptiveness and wordplay turns droll and playful (“coffee cups in the sink, letterbox, litter box”) but it’s just (admittedly) clever window dressing to his fervent declarations of “I’m in love, now I’m in love, love, love,” in the chorus, alongside his heavenly “ahhh’s.” He sounds so intimate, so close-you-can-almost-literally-touch-it that it’s practically no surprise to hear the audience’s applause at the end, confirming that this is indeed a live recording.

The applause recedes and he delivers a spoken introduction to “Giselle” which he describes as “a song about girls who carry switchblades and are very well-read.” It retains the cabaret vibe of the previous track but with a full band and a jauntier, Kurt Weill-like two-step beat (not entirely dissimilar to the vibe of our last entry.) If anything, “Giselle” outdoes “Single Woman Sitting” in the clever wordplay sweepstakes, rattling off such tongue-tied feats of fancy as, “Whether spying for the Russians / or rushing to a plane” and “A transgender rendering of Helen Keller (!)” or pun-laced observations on the order of “Her rabbit won’t pose for Hef,” delivered with an exaggerated aplomb. Throughout, his one-of-a-kind wit is gleaned through strings of phrases no one else could likely come up with, the most immortal of them being, “Terribly rude to waiters, / Overtips like Sinatra, / Quite fond of Stiv Bators, / She drops acid and goes to the opera.”

And yet, one not need look further than the next track to see Stew as more than just a jokey raconteur. “Reeling”, with its mid-tempo, soul-funk strut stands in direct contrast to the previous songs—it’s like a mash-up of early ’70s Al Green or Marvin Gaye with The Beatles’ “Something”. Driven by an eight-note piano hook that ascends then descends (the only piano on the LP played by Stew himself), it’s an utterly awed, genuine declaration of love and lust. When he sings, “I’m dumbstruck ’cause it’s real / really, really real,” you believe he could nearly hold his own with Green and Gaye. His empathy, wonder and ease are all infectious.

It also clears the slate for “The Drug Suite”, a nine-and-a-half minute, three-part mini-medley that now sort of reads as a dry run for his eventual Broadway musical Passing Strange—indeed, two-thirds of it would end up in that production. The dreamy, blissful remembrance of “I Must’ve Been High”, gently sweetened by Rodewald’s backing vocals gives way to the more sprightly-paced, violin-accented, Noel Coward-esque “I’m Not on a Drug” (about being the only sober one at a party because you’re the host) which in turn leads into the blissfully stoned “Arlington Hill”. Fun, if somewhat arch, the Suite’s saving grace is the (assumedly) personal details Stew layers in throughout, like the fact that “Arlington Hill” is about getting high for the first time in a VW bug parked at the titular place or the “coked up debutantes” and the “nine foot, two inch bong” the narrator host of “I’m Not on a Drug” must reckon with.

The Drug Suite” concludes not with audience applause, but Stew counting off the album’s first full-bore studio recording, “Love is Coming Through The Door”. Positively gleaming with keyboards and propulsive drums (the latter courtesy of Blondie’s Clem Burke), it’s retro-anthemic sunshine pop with Rodewald’s “Look out, looook, look out” on the chorus the album’s most indelible earworm. Again, it’s conceivable that a live version of this song would’ve passed muster here, but the rich, expansive production is well-suited for a song so impassioned and life-affirming; the sonic disparity between it and the other songs ends up seeming irrelevant.

The Cold Parade” returns Stew and co. to the live stage. Following an extended spoken intro delivered over a slow, somewhat pensive instrumental backing, the song’s almost childlike melody uneasily co-exists with the lyrics where, in the first person, Stew constructs a character sketch about “a harmless fellow” who “has been known to scare the hell out of a dame.” Drawing on themes of loneliness, anonymity, social awkwardness and existential dread, it’s far from a typical pop song, but Stew sells it, the pleading in his vocal leading the listener to believe he easily could be this man he’s describing, even if he isn’t.

Both “North Bronx French Marie” and “The Smile” opt for a sunnier palette and the more amused persona that is Stew’s forte. The former is another lustful ode to a particular gal that pushes all his buttons (or, in this case, “Shakes my tree / sticks to me / French Marie”), laden with soulful piano, melodica and such psychedelic imagery as “You’re a punk rock t-shirt melting in the sun.” The latter could be a love song specifically for Rodewald (the two were romantic partners at this time) with its plaintive but loving chorus that merely repeats the phrase, “I see the smile on your face.” However, there’s more to each song than what initially meets the ear. After laughing at him and stealing his cigarettes, “North Bronx French Marie” suddenly, pointedly asks Stew if “all the negroes are like” him, somewhat altering his idyllic illusion of her, while in the verses of “The Smile” he attempts to “crawl into the window of your mind” and admits, “I just lost my mind today / it was starting to drive me crazy anyway.”

After a too-good-not-to-include snippet of stage patter where Stew ruminates on the multiple meanings of the word “garnish” (he approves it in the culinary sense, but not when it concerns his wages), the album returns to the studio for its title track and very best track. Over a delicate acoustic guitar riff and spiced with gentle “la, la, la’s”, Stew delivers an epic story song possibly gleaned from his younger days as an ex-pat in Europe, beginning with the attention-grabbing lyric, “The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you.” As usual, he depicts a desirable but unattainable figure with more than a trace of self-deprecation (“She says, ‘Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women,’ / but you’re not the Mahatma / that’s a whole ‘nother religion.”) As with any great songwriter, the details arrive fast and are deeply felt, rhyming “coffee amaretto” with “groovy black ghetto”, mentioning such talismans as a “Mingus tape” and a “freezing pay phone”, making astute observations about the painter’s professor who “can stretch her canvas tight.” Not only is the whole thing ridiculously catchy, it actually takes a poignant turn at the end when the titular figure is finally ready to admit her love for the narrator, only to discover “another naked dutch painter sitting in the kitchen” at his side.

If anything dates The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs, it has nothing to do with the music. Of the six albums he put out under either The Negro Problem or his own name between 1997 and 2003, four have unlisted bonus tracks—a product of the CD era where artists occasionally did this simply because they could. Here, five minutes of silence separates the end of the title track from something iTunes identifies as, ahem, “The Proverbial Hidden Track”, which amounts to less than a minute of a carnival-esque instrumental (at least apart from Stew noting, “Now, here’s the part I like.”) Fortunately, the other hidden track, a studio recording called “Very Happy”, has much more sustenance in that it’s an actual song, and a good one at that. Kind of a sequel to “The Smile”, only with a fun, Rockford Files-like synth hook, it’s the type of pop gem Stew could rattle off in his sleep at this part of his career. The chorus goes, “Now, I know that / I didn’t know that / this could make you very happy,” and it’s both as specific and universal as any classic Beatles song.

After putting out another Negro Problem album later that year (the awesomely-titled Welcome Black), Stew and Rodewald spent the next six developing and expanding Passing Strange, from a tiny stage at Joe’s Pub to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. I would never begrudge him this success, but it has come at a cost of putting out more albums as good as The Naked Dutch Painter. In the near decade since Passing Strange, he’s only released a soundtrack to a Shakespeare on the Sound production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream (2009) and one real album, Making It (2012), which disappointingly didn’t live up to its title. Although no longer a couple, he and Rodewald still regularly collaborate, most recently on a stage show about James Baldwin and a one-off single about Trump (as bitingly catchy as anything they’ve ever done.) I suppose when you have such a rich (if obscure) back catalog and a Tony Award, you have nothing left to prove. But I hold out hope that he still has another great, genre-defying album in him.

Up next: “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?”

“The Naked Dutch Painter”:


2001: We’re Not Those Kids Sitting On The Couch

This year was transformative in so many ways: unquestionably regarding world events (see the entry on Apartment Life for my thoughts on 9/11), but also in the music I gravitated towards. After my brief rediscovery of top 40 and a somewhat shallow dive into club music, by the end of 2001, indie rock (and pop) had become my mainstays. I was listening to WERS extensively, which is where I first heard Emm Gryner, Pernice Brothers, Ladytron and The Soundtrack of Our Lives; I also upped my music journalism intake, mostly via The Village Voice, which is where I first read about The Moldy Peaches, Basement Jaxx and Ted Leo (though for the latter, not until 2003’s Hearts of Oak came out).

It was an effort to think of at least 25 great songs for the 1999 and 2000 lists, but I had no trouble immediately reeling off nearly 40 for this year. Of course, a good chunk of this playlist comprises songs by artists I was already familiar with: Ben Folds’ solo debut (still his best solo track, ever), Depeche Mode’s second-last great single, Gillian Welch’s disarming narrative that did more to humanize Elvis than any number of tributes have before or since, a lovely, essential Belle and Sebastian B-side, an expansive gem plucked from a sprawling Ani DiFranco double LP and the happiest, breeziest song Rufus Wainwright will likely ever write.

Very occasionally, something unexpected would cross over, like Res’ now-all-but-forgotten hypnotic rock/R&B hybrid, or Cousteau’s loving Bacharach pastiche, which I probably heard on a car commercial before it ever played WERS. But even beyond my own particular, often peculiar tastes (A ten-minute Spiritualized come-down extravaganza? Sure, why not?), you had outfits like The Strokes and The White Stripes breaking out of the indie-rock ghetto. Suddenly, you felt the potential for hundreds of other bands to aspire to the same, and it didn’t yet feel played out. Despite plenty of sociopolitical turmoil by world’s end, there was also an unusual sense of possibility in the air. I was ready for it.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2001 on Spotify:

1. Ben Folds, “Annie Waits”
2. Pernice Brothers, “7:30”
3. Res, “They-Say Vision”
4. Daft Punk, “Digital Love”
5. Spoon, “Believing is Art”
6. The Soundtrack of Our Lives, “Sister Surround”
7. Royal City, “Bad Luck”
8. Ladytron, “Playgirl”
9. The Moldy Peaches, “Steak For Chicken”
10. Super Furry Animals, “It’s Not the End of the World”
11. Steve Wynn, “Morningside Heights”
12. Cousteau, “Last Good Day of the Year”
13. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, “Under the Hedge”
14. Depeche Mode, “Dream On”
15. Basement Jaxx, “Jus 1 Kiss”
16. Guided By Voices, “Glad Girls”
17. Kings of Convenience, “I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From”
18. Yann Tiersen, “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi”
19. Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”
20. Bjork, “Pagan Poetry”
21. The Dirtbombs, “Chains of Love”
22. Ani DiFranco, “Rock Paper Scissors”
23. Emm Gryner, “Straight to Hell”
24. Gillian Welch, “Elvis Presley Blues”
25. New Order, “Close Range”
26. Belle and Sebastian, “Marx and Engels”
27. Sam Phillips, “How To Dream”
28. Rufus Wainwright, “California”
29. Ivy, “Edge of the Ocean”
30. Spiritualized, “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)”