Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #78 – released February 10, 2004)

Track listing: David / Manhattan Avenue / Sari / Ding Dong / Baby Watch Your Back / The Dog Song / Waiter / I Wanna Get Married / Change The World / It’s A Pose / Toto Dies / Won’t U Please B Nice / Inner Peace / Suitcase Song / Work Song / Clonie / Respectable / Really

“The debut of the year, possibly the decade,” is what I wrote about Get Away From Me when it placed #4 on my 2004 year-end albums list. I stand by those words today, even if Nellie McKay’s subsequent career hasn’t lived up to those expectations. Despite the considerable media attention accompanying Columbia’s release of her debut, this 22-year-old singer-songwriter was never going to pose anything resembling a commercial threat to the likes of Norah Jones (the title parodies Jones’ own massive 2002 debut Come Away With Me.) Still, so dazzling and fully-formed was McKay’s talent right from the start, I did not expect her to sink into relative obscurity so quickly.

Perhaps this exchange I had with a record store clerk (at the late, lamented Disc Diggers in Somerville) anticipated her fate. As I picked up a copy of the album weeks after its release, he asked me, “Have you heard this? She’s talented but man, she is precocious.” He wasn’t exaggerating, for much of McKay’s initial appeal stemmed from her audacity to mix and match genres at the drop of a hat and do so with an impeccable confidence (and considerable profanity.) Early on, she received comparisons to both Doris Day and Eminem; although only “Sari” and maybe “Work Song” come close to such a mashup, the tag stuck in part because it aptly summarized what made McKay so unique. Young, blonde and wholesome-looking, she’s physically a dead ringer for Day and her obvious affection for jazz and torch balladry syncs up well (so much that her fourth album would be a Day tribute.) But don’t be fooled, for she can be nearly as much of an irreverent, confrontational wiseass as Marshall Mathers (minus the misogyny and homophobia, of course.)

Still, enough of Get Away From Me falls so completely outside even that spectrum, leaving one ill-advised to reduce McKay to a descriptive soundbite. “Ding Dong”, for instance, really has no precedent: it’s like a jazzy novelty song on the order of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ “Twisted”, only sui generis—she expertly uses the “show, don’t tell” narrative rule here, expressing her burgeoning lunacy not only via a peculiar point of view (“My cat died / so I quickly poured myself some gin / Did he die of old age / or was it for my sins?”) but also in her idiosyncratic, often legato or drunken delivery (“died” becomes “di-i-ied”, “lighter” rendered as “LIE-ter”) with ample help from an arrangement crisp with staccato piano and whimsical chimes.

After I placed the song on a mix for my friend Bruce, he amiably referred to McKay as a “delightful nutjob”, two words that capture her appeal more fully than any artist comparison could. Only someone of that exact description would ever insist on releasing her hour-long major label debut that could easily fit onto one disc as a double CD (and really, a half hour of McKay at a time is easier to digest), or rhyme “God, I’m so German” with “Ethel Merman”, or kick things off with catchy, scat-and-sound-effect-enhanced reggae-pop (“David”) and immediately follow with a smoky jazz ballad (“Manhattan Avenue”), a wonky, ultra-modern rap seething with spat-out, rapid-fire phrases (“Sari”) and, well, “Ding Dong”!

Before one accuses McKay of showing off, however, note that she’s neither a dilettante nor an opportunist (you think she thought these tunes would ever crack top 40 radio?) Get Away From Me still endures and excites not only for showcasing the unfurling of a considerable talent but also for seemingly not imposing any boundaries on it. More often than not, you come away from these peculiar little songs, their nagging melodies and detail-rich arrangements lodged in your brain, wondering where they came from and how you ever lived without them and why the rest of the world has next-to-no knowledge that they exist.

If unconvinced, start with the most traditional jazz ballad stuff. Sure, “Manhattan Avenue” and its musical cousins “Really” and “I Wanna Get Married” could pass for Doris Day with flying colors in a blind test from a musical standpoint. Of course, Day in her day would never sing a lyric such as “What strange a vice / that a mugger and a child / should share the same paradise,” much less get across the irony of wanting to “pack lunches for my Brady Bunches”—as a young woman in 2004, you expect, nay, demand McKay to do both. But she takes the knowing charade a couple steps further. Sure, when she sings “that’s why I was born” as the inevitable punch line to “I Wanna Get Married”, it’s all good postmodern fun, but what about when she unexpectedly, if sweetly discloses, “I’m such a shiiiiiiitttt,” in “Really” (remarkably similar to how Rufus Wainwright claimed he didn’t want to be “John Llllithgow” in “Want”)? Is she playing a part, having a laugh, or actually revealing something deeper about herself? Her poker-faced conviction is solid enough to leave one guessing and intrigued.

Next, consider songs where she’s a little more upfront about where she stands. “It’s a Pose” rousingly opens the second disc in upbeat, boogie-woogie swing mode (another thing she shares with Wainwright—nearly every track here is, to quote Nina Simone, a “show tune for a show that hasn’t been written yet”), but it’s just a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of calling out faux male feminists smoothly go down. “Sari” (just another word for “sorry”, which, she emphatically, repeatedly claims, she’s not) might rush by in a blur of swagger and tongue-twisting wordplay (“When you’re female and you’re fenced in and / Phen-phened to no end”) but overall, you’re left with more than a glimpse of the singer’s motivations and ideology, even as she argues, “You can hear what’s on my lips but you don’t know what’s in my mind!”

As a manifesto, “Respectable” is more clear-cut. After a melodic up-and-down carousel of an intro (like “The Windmills of Your Mind” at warp speed), the music briefly, almost entirely drops out for McKay to deliver a cautionary tale of “a rich boy” who “wants to do right” but “has to subscribe to the rules of the tribe.” The arrangement gradually builds back up, reaching full flower in the brilliant chorus of “You’re the respectable member of society / but you don’t have nothin’ on me.” From there, McKay never wavers, nimbly shifting to a flamenco bridge (complete with castanets!) without breaking a sweat, embedding a message within a catchy melody without being preachy.

Still, the less McKay dilutes her oddness or relinquishes her ambiguity, the better. By the time “Waiter” arrives, the last thing any listener expects from her is a stab at Eurodisco, but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s spectacular. Instantly, you recognize both the genre tropes (an insistent drum machine rhythm, sighing strings, drawn out, Bee Gees-worthy “ahhh’s”) and how well they mesh with McKay’s by-now-familiar vocal affectations. Also, that crescendo she builds from the bridge to the chorus packs a mighty wallop, actually sending this ditty about dining out amidst hearing about the “end” of the Iraq War into euphoric overdrive (and that’s before her sudden, equally ridiculous and sublime quoting of the Tin Pan Alley standard “Carolina In The Morning” surfaces over the song’s outro.)

On that note, would another singer-songwriter dare risk resembling the funkier, more frenzied music Joe Raposo composed for vintage Sesame Street (“Baby Watch Your Back”) or ever think to alternate martial beats with a pea-soup, pea-soup shuffle, sing “Okay, Dr. Phil, / Ready, for my pill,” and call the whole thing “Change The World” (as in, “Does it really matter if I…”)? Who else could credibly survive the shift from “That’s what it’s all about,” to “bow-wow-wou-out,” in “The Dog Song” or inject the iconic “OH-WEEE-OH” from The Wizard Of Oz into a driving mélange of tango rhythms, pizzicato piano and strings and call it “Toto Dies”? Or come off like a goofier (and still scarier) younger sister to Fiona Apple on “Inner Peace”? Or further sweeten the altogether daft bubblegum of “Clonie” with flutes and plonking xylophones and conclude on that most stereotypical of “Chinese” melodic cues?

McKay threads a fine line—rarely more precariously or marvelously than on “Won’t U Please B Nice” (note the Prince-inspired spelling.) Another jazzy throwback a la “I Wanna Get Married”, the music could’ve been recorded anytime since 1955. Although McKay sings coquettishly like Blossom Dearie or, better yet, Marilyn Monroe, what comes out of her mouth is an entirely different matter. She begins by beckoning her fella to sit close to her, only to warn him on descendant notes, “If you don’t / I’ll slit your throat,” before kindly asking the titular question. As she continues, her threats grow more… severe (“If you go / I’ll get your dough,” “Give me head / or you’ll be dead.”) And yet, she plays it all straight enough that, if you had no knowledge of her or her other music, the song could convincingly scan as either satire or the subversive musings of a damaged mind. That she goes out by quoting Chopin’s Funeral March (over which she lets out a gleeful “whee!”) is just the cherry on top.

Delightful Nutjobs, however, tend to become problematic whenever they seem less than charming and thus, merely nuts. Any career momentum McKay established with Get Away From Me was derailed a year later after her label delayed her second album, Pretty Little Head, because they wanted its 23 tracks over two discs pared down to a single. It was eventually released independently, uncut, in 2006; although it’s occasionally great (complete with kd lang and Cyndi Lauper duets), in this case the label was right—the 16-track version currently available for streaming is a much tighter, more rewarding listen.

Regardless, it pushed McKay back to the margins, where she’s since put out records both inspired (2007’s confounding, near-brilliant, and unusually concise political song cycle Obligatory Villagers) and indifferent (2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home drones on by in a Lithium haze.) As of late, she’s mostly eschewed songwriting for interpretation with cover albums of 1960s pop (2015’s My Weekly Reader) and 3:00 AM torch ballads (the upcoming Sister Orchid.) Even though she never became a household name, you actually can hear her influence in everything from your finer YouTube song parodies to the lovably demented musical comedy TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if co-creator/star Rachel Bloom, herself a likely precocious teen when Get Away From Me dropped, is unfamiliar with McKay, I’ll eat my CDs.) But forget about being ahead of (or behind) her time—McKay’s sensibility is decidedly outside time, forever, and all the better for it.

Up next: Mysteries of Love.

“Ding Dong”:



Rufus Wainwright, “Want One”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #77 – released September 23, 2003)

Track listing: Oh What A World / I Don’t Know What It Is / Vicious World / Movies of Myself / Pretty Things / Go or Go Ahead / My Phone’s On Vibrate For You / 14th Street / Natasha / Harvester of Hearts / Beautiful Child / Want / 11:11 / Dinner at Eight

We tend to associate particular albums and songs with times in our lives when we first heard them, and they imprint on us memories we recall as we hear them again. From my early childhood, it’s the soft rock chestnuts that played incessantly on my parents’ car radio: “Baker Street”, “Sailing”, “Eye in the Sky” and the like. From my teens, it’s the somewhat bent modern rock hits that crossed over to top 40, among them “Love Shack”, “Chains of Love”, “Enjoy the Silence” and “Losing My Religion”, the latter leading to Automatic for the People, which I forever link with my senior year of high school. The golden age of commercial alt-rock radio summarizes my college years, while an unlikely but thrilling fusion of turn-of-the-millennium dance-pop and indie rock represents that most hectic of ages, my mid-20s, all too well.

By my late 20’s, having long since cultivated my own voracious taste (like a spider web forever expanding off in different directions), I listened to more music than ever. I consumed discs I was assigned to review for a music website (more on that in a few entries), endless discoveries made via libraries and used CD stores and of course, anticipated new releases from artists I already loved. Whenever I look back on that era and in particular, late 2003, it’s one of the latter that’s still definitive for me: Rufus Wainwright’s third album Want One. Even then, I knew well enough to place it at number one on my year-end list (the only other entry that made it to 100 Albums is Phantom Power (down at #10), which goes to show how much one’s taste changes and mutates over time.)

When his self-titled debut dropped and generated considerable buzz five years before, I didn’t really know anything about this singer/songwriter just three years my senior. Had only faint awareness of his famous musician parents (Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle), had no clue that he was openly gay (until I saw an MTV interview where he was so flamboyant I can’t fathom staying in the closet was ever an option for him), a rarity among young aspiring pop stars. Still, his debut single, “April Fools” was an instant earworm, and, with its gently baroque Jon Brion production, right up my alley. Rufus Wainwright did indeed herald a new, original talent, but little of its piano-heavy chamber pop was as memorable as the single. Second album Poses (2001) was more promising and idiosyncratic, bursting with hooks (“California”, “Grey Gardens”) and also growing confidence to experiment with various styles, even attempting an audacious, re-contextualized cover of his dad’s song “One Man Guy”.

He resurfaced more than two years later with his third album, and 9/11 wasn’t the only major change reflected within. An infamous New York Times article weeks before its release found Wainwright speaking frankly of going to “gay hell” and back in the interim, his descent into rampant drug use and promiscuous sex followed by a stint in rehab and eventual recovery. He had written and recorded enough songs for a double album originally called Want, but decided to split it into two separate releases cheekily titled Want One and Want Two (the latter arriving some 14 months later.) If you listen to the two back-to-back, it’s a no-brainer as to why he split them apart. With each one clocking in at nearly an hour, even one disc at a time is a lot to take in; the two together would’ve been overkill for all but his most ardent fans.

One immediately notices how much bigger and bolder Want One feels than its predecessors. “Oh What A World” opens not with the lone piano-and-voice of the debut’s “Foolish Love” or Poses’ “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” but a coliseum of multi-tracked humming Rufuses, followed by gargantuan, lone notes from what appears to be a synthesized tuba. “Men reading fashion magazines,” he inimitably brays, kicking off a state-of-affairs preamble that grows increasingly thick and loud until, near the 2:45 mark it borrows nothing less than the brass fanfare from Ravel’s “Bolero”! In producer Marius de Vries, whose prior credits include albums for Massive Attack and Madonna (with partner Nellie Hooper), he’s found a kindred spirit fully attuned to providing an aural canvas large enough for all of his operatic and melodramatic pretensions.

If anything, the next song sports even more layers upon layers. “I Don’t Know What It Is” has a jaunty piano-pounding rhythm and a sanguine melody that wouldn’t feel out of place on Wainwright’s earlier work; however, like “Oh What A World”, it just keeps building and expanding, piling on vocals and instrumental parts and orchestral flourishes, not to mention such characteristically playful touches as a lyric or two borrowed from the Three’s Company theme song. The average listener might find it all a bit too much, but to Wainwright’s credit, the song never falters or collapses—it even elegantly simmers down to a close as its layers gracefully float away against a descendant melody, softly ending on a question mark of an augmented chord.

Having established such a luxuriant soundscape in two tracks flat, Wainwright spends the rest of Want One sustaining its tone over a variety of other arrangements. He makes room for Lindsey Buckingham-like power pop (“Movies of Myself”), a gentle, shuffling jazz ballad complete with a Bacharach-ian trumpet solo (“Harvester of Hearts”), plucky, Noel Coward-esque social commentary (“My Phone’s On Vibrate For You”), more grand symphonic fanfare (“Beautiful Child”) and yes, even some tried-and-true, stripped-down piano-and-voice stuff (“Pretty Things”). What unifies them all is Wainwright’s rare blend of confessional songwriter, literary mettle and boundless theatricality. To paraphrase Nina Simone, as she once noted to her audience in her famous live recording of “Mississippi Goddam”, these are show tunes, but the show for them hasn’t been written yet.

Of course, one could say the same thing for just about any Wainwright composition. Still, Want One is his best album not only for its stylistic advances but also for the newfound candor and introspection in his lyrics and indeed, his overall demeanor. Perhaps fearlessness is a more precise signifier—having gone through addiction and recovery, and having also turned thirty, he predictably sounds wiser and more world weary than before, but also as if he’s reached a turning point where former vices like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” no longer provide ample satisfaction. Desire is still omnipresent (the word “want” is in the title, after all), but he shows more caution and contemplation in his pursuit of it—you could even argue he’s become an adult, even if he can’t resist musing on how he’d rather not be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen in one verse of the title track, only to replace those names with John Lithgow and Jane Curtin (outing himself as a Third Rock From the Sun fan) in the next verse.

Still, maturity alone does not make for great art—it also needs inspiration and ambition, both of which Want One has plenty of. Coming right after those first two tracks, “Vicious World” seems slight and subdued in comparison, but its treated, almost circular electric piano (in an odd time signature, no less) and nimble melody leave an impression. “14th Street” initially screams throwback with its slowly swinging, vintage rock-and-roll beat and chord changes, yet other things such as backing vocals from his mom and sister Martha, occasional blasts of brass on top and the lone banjo on the outro defy such easy categorization. “Movies of Myself” replaces its opening electronic feedback loop with what resembles an insistent Motown beat turned sideways but scans neither like electronica nor Motown thanks to all of its acoustic and electric guitar interplay. And somber closer “Dinner at Eight” tempers its rather traditional orchestral balladry with remarkably cutting words detailing a fracas between him and his father, complete with confrontational phrases like, “So put up your fists / and I’ll put up mine.”

Wainwright’s lyrical prowess and expertise at constructing a song to be an all-encompassing experience most fully coalesces on “Go or Go Ahead”. It begins with softly strummed guitar, soon joined by barely audible vocals—you almost have to strain to hear them at first. Over three verses, the volume and intensity both gradually build as new elements appear, like a slowly skittering electric guitar melody or a brief burst of “do-do-do-do-do” backing vocals. As the third verse ends, everything including the now ascendant melody thrillingly ramps up to full volume for the chorus, which he sings as if his life depends on it: “Go or go ahead / and surprise me,” he wails, followed by a majestic, piercing guitar solo and iterations of a repeated lyric from the verses, “What has happened to love.”

What happens next is a tried-and-true pop music trope, but one Wainwright uses most effectively. Everything quiets back down for another brief verse before it all startlingly swerves back to full volume with a spine-tingling, multi-tracked cry of “AHHHHHHHH!” that leads into the bridge (“Look in her eyes, look in her eyes / forget about the one who’s crying”), itself punctuated by more of those exquisite cries. You can practically feel the entire song swelling and sighing as it carefully spools out over its six-minute duration. “Go or Go Ahead” appealed to me so effusively at 28 (and continues to do so at 42) because it’s exactly the type of song that would’ve been in sync with my hormonal, sensory overloaded teenage self, but with an eloquence and refinement that only an adult who has lived, loved and had their heart broken could adeptly express.

Such lucidity rematerializes on Want One’s penultimate track, “11:11”. One of many obligatory 9/11 songs artists composed in the immediate years after, it finds Wainwright applying his personal account of the day as the basis for an epiphany. “Woke up this morning at 11:11 / Wasn’t in Portland and I wasn’t in heaven / Could have been either by the way I was feeling, / but I was alive, I was alive,” he sings, and it’s his emphasis on those last three words that resonate so deeply over crisply strummed guitars and august but not overpowering timpani drum fills. Rufus being Rufus, he also flashes a little ironic gallows humor (“Realized that everything really does happen in Manhattan”) before offering a way forward, vowing to make up for “precious time we’ve wasted.” Sure, it’s a simple sentiment, but an attainable, meaningful one given its context.

Want One arrived in my life at a time when I myself was searching for a way forward, having come out the other side of a few tumultuous years of essentially learning how to be an adult. Want Two didn’t make nearly the same impact—good as its numerous highlights were, its further-down-the-rabbit-hole dive into its creator’s psyche proved far less cohesive. By then, I was on the cusp of turning thirty and headed towards epiphanies of my own. Wainwright would cultivate a discography touching upon opera, Shakespeare, Judy Garland, Neil Tennant and even a live album recorded in my hometown. 2012’s Out Of The Game, perhaps his warmest, most accessible effort remains my favorite of his post-Want career, but I know which record to put on if I ever want to remember the joy and chaos of this now-distant, ultra-specific glimpse in time.

Up next: What to do about a Delightful Nutjob.

“Go Or Go Ahead”:



The Weakerthans, “Reconstruction Site”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #76 – released August 26, 2003)

Track listing: (Manifest) / The Reasons / Reconstruction Site / Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call / Plea From A Cat Named Virtute / Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961) / Time’s Arrow / (Hospital Vespers) / Uncorrected Proofs / A New Name For Everything / One Great City! / Benediction / The Prescience of Dawn / (Past Due)

The Weakerthans are a band as defined by and emblematic of where they come from as Calexico. Granted, Winnipeg, Manitoba is by nature a far less exotic locale than Southern Arizona; the difference immediately surfaces in the former band’s sound, which is your basic guitar-bass-drums (and very occasional keyboards) rock quartet setup—a far cry from Feast of Wire’s melange of mariachi horns, pedal steel, accordion and likeminded regional elements. Still, in terms of subject matter and sensibility, The Weakerthans are unquestionably Winnipeg-ian to the core, which may explain why they only ever generated a cult following south of the border.

Formed in 1997, the band’s breakthrough beyond Canada occurred six years later with their third album Reconstruction Site. I’d like to think this happened simply because it was so damn good, although signing to notable American indie punk record label Epitaph surely had something to do with expanding the band’s reach. While no one would ever in their right mind call The Weakerthans “punk” (although a majority of this album’s songs clock in at under three minutes), at least three of their four members had roots in Winnipeg’s punk scene, with vocalist/lyricist John K. Samson playing bass in the long-running punk band Propagandhi in the early-mid ’90s. A few of this album’s more uptempo numbers, like “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” and “The Reasons” could even almost be punk if they weren’t so polished and, well, pop.

Still, Samson conceived the band as an outlet for more introspective songwriting than punk as a genre could ever allow. Keeping this in mind, Reconstruction Site discloses its ambition from its very first track, “(Manifest)”, a brief preamble that opens on the couplet, “I want to call requests through heating vents / and hear them answered with a whisper, ‘No.’” It turns out those words are the first two lines of a sonnet, a poem of strict rhyme scheme and specific structure popularized by Dante and Shakespeare but not widely found in Rock music. Later, at the album’s exact midpoint and end, two other tracks, “(Hospital Vespers)” and “(Past Due)” repeat the same melody and sonnet structure, forming a trilogy with “(Manifest)”. The only variable between the segments (apart from different lyrics) is the music, which changes from a martial thrum-and-strum complete with a concluding trumpet fanfare (“(Manifest)”) to a rhythm-less crawl through backwards tape loops and other fancy production effects (“(Hospital Vespers)”) to, finally, clanging percussion enveloped in synths, closing out with a bit of electronic effluvia (“(Past-Due)”).

Just as ambitious is Samson’s literary/intellectual bent. On one song, he imagines an inebriated conversation between an eminent French philosopher and a fellow traveler of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctica expedition (with the wordy title “Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)”); on another, he sings from the point of view of a disgruntled pet (“Plea From A Cat Named Virtute”.) And yet, the former never feels obscure or impenetrable thanks to its brisk pace and sing-along worthy cries of “Oh, Antarctica!” Likewise, the latter never turns overly twee, greatly enhanced by a monster of a guitar riff, but also such first-person feline observations as “So, we should open up the house / invite the tabby two doors down. / You could ask your sister, if / she doesn’t bring her Basset Hound.”

Virtute” also reveals perhaps the most vital component of Samson’s persona—a mile-wide empathy streak befitting of someone from an underdog metropolis like Winnipeg. The song’s titular narrator may pity its depressed owner for holding on to such ephemera as “tape-hiss” and “Card Catalogues” and even lash out, threatening, “I swear I’m going to bite you hard and taste your tinny blood.” The music comes to as dramatic pause at this moment, before Samson concludes the thought, “…if you don’t stop the self-defeating lies you’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home.” Samson concludes on the phrase, “I know you’re strong,” and his vulnerable, near-wobbly reading of it reveals everything you need to know about his capacity for and belief in human nature.

Empathy bleeds out of the edges of a majority of The Weakerthans’ tunes, and Reconstruction Site features some of their most intricately observed and deeply felt expressions of it. “Psalm For The Elks Lodge Last Call” depicts its milieu as an object not to be satirized or sainted, but as a collection of ultra-specific details—the crackling “Golden Oldies station”, the “secret handshake” that needs safeguarding, how small talk about “the ballgame and the weather” conveys its own respect for the social contract. And the repeated phrase, “Before we say goodnight,” resoundingly renders it all a pop song, not only for the Elks members to sing with each other, but as something any listener can partake in and relate to.

Psalm” is but one of many examples here. The title track is itself kind of a “Card Catalogue” of precise recollections such as “I’m afloat. A float in a summer parade, / up the street in the town you were born in,” and “I broke like a bad joke / somebody’s uncle told at a wedding reception in 1972.” “Time’s Arrow” similarly depicts “a mirror you will find at your parents’ house in 1989” as a place to keep promises to yourself. Rather than lapse into solipsism, Samson remains congenial and approachable, his words enhanced by a poignant melody and a gorgeous guitar riff that resembles something close to a less-corporate Gin Blossoms. “A New Name For Everything” admirably resists the urge to make light of both gentrification and redundancy—while not humorless (“So put on the clothes you never grew into / and smile like you mean it for once”), it thoughtfully considers such common problems as “When you can’t save cash or conviction,” or when “the threads of your fear are unfurled with the tiniest pull.”

The album’s anthemic single “The Reasons” finds Samson at his most direct and immediate. It kicks off with him confessing, “I don’t know how to sing. / I can barely play this thing.” The unnamed person he’s addressing doesn’t mind, but he or she tells him to “fuck off” whenever he needs someone to say it to him. He sings of “how the time is never now / and we know who we should love / but we’re never certain how,” conveying sentiments most of us have had at one time or another, while the song’s opening melodic guitar riff returns in the bridge to a chorus as simple and heartfelt and perfect as anything ever written: “I know, you might roll your eyes at this / but I’m so glad that you exist.”

However, another song on the album’s second half even more fully encapsulates why anyone should be glad The Weakerthans exist. “One Great City!” is a standout alone for its spare, acoustic guitar-and-voice arrangement, but that’s not what makes it special. Over three verses, Samson depicts a most particular and vivid portrait of his hometown, a place where “Another day is nearly done / A darker grey is breaking through a lighter one.” It’s a city full of Dollar Stores, “that hallowed, hurried sound of feet on polished floor,” and such dubious homegrown celebrities such as The Guess Who (bluntly, they “suck”.) Each verse ends with him singing, “I Hate Winnipeg.” The first two times, it comes off almost sardonically, as if Samson’s taunting the town and its euphemistically optimistic tourism slogan (which provides the song’s title.) And yet, there’s a crucial tonal shift in the truncated third verse: “Our Golden Business Boy will watch the North End die, / and sing, ‘I love this town,’ / and let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim, ‘I… Hate… Winnipeg.’” On those last three words, Samson sounds utterly remorseful and almost defeated. What previously edged towards mocking celebration is now an elegy, quietly devastating in its plainspokenness.

The Weakerthans would release one more album, 2007’s nearly-as-good Reunion Tour, before officially splitting in 2015. “One Great City!” would find new life in 2008 as a theme song for a Canadian TV series, Less Than Kind. Samson eventually forged a solo career with Provincial (2012) and Winter Wheat (2016); the latter features extensive contributions from two of the three other Weakerthans and works as an older-and-wiser, predominantly acoustic brother to Reconstruction Site, with Samson’s enduring empathy fully intact (one lyric from “PostDoc Blues” goes, “I believe in you and your PowerPoints.”) As for myself, I probably won’t ever visit Winnipeg, but between this band’s greatest songs and the films of fellow denizen Guy Maddin, I feel like I already know it well.

Up next: I’m An Adult Now.

“One Great City!”:

“The Reasons”:

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”: