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)”

Sam Phillips, “Fan Dance”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #69 – released July 31, 2001)

Track listing: Fan Dance / Edge of the World / Five Colors / Wasting My Time / Taking Pictures / How To Dream / Soul Eclipse / Incinerator / Love Is Everywhere I Go / Below Surface / Is That Your Zebra? / Say What You Mean

Favorite albums often act as portals—aural spaces you want to return to again and again until you know them by heart, or at least you think you do until hearing, discovering, registering something you hadn’t before. You give them yet another spin and find no difficulty, no weariness, no effort getting lost in these hyper-specific worlds only made possible through sounds and songs, instruments and vocals, lyrics and melodies. As they seep into your consciousness, it can almost feel like two worlds merging together: the one the album creates and carries, and your own interior state of mind.

Sometimes, you have to spend some time immersing yourself in albums, gradually getting to know their structures, their secret passages and slight crevices in order for them to register and feel known. For every favorite record that I instantly connected with, like If You’re Feeling Sinister or Apartment Life, I can identify another that took weeks, months, occasionally years to reveal its merit, such as It’s Heavy In Here or Hejira. Fan Dance falls into the latter category for sure. I still recall my first time hearing it on its day of release, picking up the CD at the Newbury Comics in Harvard Square after work and playing it on my living room stereo while I cooked dinner.

On that first spin, Fan Dance struck me as lacking… something. It had a dozen songs (nearly as many as Martinis and Bikinis), but perhaps only three or four discernible hooks among them. Nearly half the tracks clocked in around the two-minute mark (or less), the whole thing barely over thirty-three minutes in length. More significantly, even though her then-husband T-Bone Burnett was still on board as the album’s producer, this sounded absolutely nothing like their previous records together: instead of her usual Beatles-esque chamber pop teeming with ringing guitars and lush, girl-group harmonies, this was almost gaunt and malnourished in comparison, stripped down to the bone, forgoing bass on nearly half the selections, sticking mostly to a strict diet of vocals, acoustic guitars and unconventional percussion (for pop music, anyway) like traps and hand drums.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised at this total revamp. After Martinis’ glowing reception (and her sly, silent turn acting in Die Hard With a Vengeance), a commercial breakthrough felt eminent with whatever she’d release next, but that turned out to be Omnipop (It’s Only A Flesh Wound, Lambchop). The title alone suggests Phillips wasn’t about to play it safe, but the album’s deliberately quirky (over)production baffled and put off rather than seduced critics and consumers, not to mention Phillips herself, who has since publicly disavowed the record and only retains one of its tracks (a “performance art” take on “Animals on Wheels”, which she also performed onscreen in Wim Wenders’ 1997 arthouse monstrosity The End of Violence) in her post-2000 concert setlists. Omnipop was no Martinis, but it’s not a bad record, necessarily—its first seven (out of a dozen) tracks are fine, with “Power World” something of a lost gem. Still, when compared to its sharper, more soulful predecessor, you can see how it was sort of a dead end for Phillips, especially as the sound of crickets greeted its arrival in the summer of ’96.

Apart from a pair of previously unreleased tunes on Zero Zero Zero, a 1999 compilation (which also curiously promised “newly remixed” versions of several songs that seemed rather identical to the ones I already knew and loved), Phillips hadn’t released any music after Omnipop. Given this silence, plus the fact that said compilation had more than a whiff of contractual obligation to it, I was beginning to suspect/fear that she wouldn’t release any more new music, period. Thus, it almost goes without saying that my expectations for a new album were through-the-roof (and somewhat unreasonable.)

If any clue existed as to what direction she’d take on Fan Dance, one could’ve spotted it in her highest profile activity of that period, her mostly instrumental background music for the TV series Gilmore Girls, which had premiered to low ratings but rapturous acclaim the year before. Just hearing that Phillips provided the soundtrack was enough to make me check out the pilot episode (and was a significant factor in my instantly becoming a fan of the show.) Primarily acoustic and laced with “la, la, la’s” sung in her inimitable voice, her Gilmore Girls music draws extensively from the same limited but carefully designated palette she uses on much of Fan Dance.

After a brief snippet of equipment being quietly turned on, the first sounds heard on the album are a lone, strummed guitar chord followed by Phillips singing, “The violinist puts his violin away,” then another chord, with her resuming, “Forbidden city broken into tonight.” She continues, “I use my blindfold to dry my tears / the stage is empty and tired of light,” and her emphasis on those last three words emanates a warmth and comfort that draws you in. Then, the album’s title track comes into focus on its gentle, celebratory but reverent chorus, “But when I do the fan dance / I’m all the red in China / I’m dialing life up on my telescope.” Like most of the album’s songs, it’s simple at first—a close-knit quintet playing acoustic instruments (and some exotic ones, like a Quattro banjo guitar), performing a folk song with delicate but discernible Eastern-flavored accents. With time, though, little things in the mix stand out, like a slight shiver of cymbals, or a higher-pitched *ting*, possibly from a triangle (or something similar, since no triangle appears in the credits.) They casually emerge, unexpectedly (or magically?) but with utmost precision.

One of its few songs built around piano chords, “The Edge of the World” also introduces a vital component of Fan Dance (and, subsequently, most of Phillips’ post-Omnipop career): more than a soupcon of Kurt Weill-derived cabaret, with Phillips embodying the role of the sly, knowing chanteuse. It sports a melody as both twisty and solid as anything on Martinis, but with an entirely disparate musical approach, forgoing any Beatles-isms or guitar tropes for a nimbler, two-step pace more suited for theatrical stage than the concert hall. “At the edge of the world, looking up,” she sings, rather than down, as one would expect such a lyric to end. The song itself also ends unconventionally, with pounding piano ceasing on one lone, dramatic note taking nearly thirty seconds to fade out.

At the exact millisecond that piano disappears, an acoustic guitar strum supersedes it, playing a minor chord as Phillips’ vocal comes in, followed by a repeated four chord progression. From there, she rarely takes a breath throughout “Five Colors” as the song is primarily driven by her lyric and the melody, which both spool out almost effortlessly, circling around those four chords. It’s by far the catchiest song on Fan Dance, but hardly the most direct. The chorus, “Five colors blind the eyes / See the world inside / Amazed alone” is lifted from a Tibetan quote (Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tsu) and it gels with Phillips’ persona as a seeker, a questioner rather than a believer or follower (something she firmly established in 1988 after giving up her career as a contemporary Christian artist under her birth name, Leslie, going secular and professionally adopting her childhood nickname.) “Five Colors” pulls off the neat trick of maintain a healthy skepticism/pragmatism (“I don’t mind if I am getting nowhere / circling the seed of truth”) while also permeating itself with a sense of wonder, heard in the way those last two lines of the chorus slightly, gorgeously overlap, or at that moment in the second verse where the percussion enters, subtly but effectively adding heft, maybe even enlightenment.

Fan Dance was one of seven albums Phillips made with Burnett between 1987 and 2004. His dexterity in allowing an artist’s personality to shine through but also feel embedded within the arrangements had not undiminished, even as Phillips’ sound had shifted radically from her previous works. On “Wasting My Time”, she also employed another longtime collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, to arrange the song, which consists entirely of her vocals and an overdubbed cello. Despite such sparse elements, so rich and inventive is Parks’ contribution that as a whole, the song feels practically lush. Phillips repeats the title phrase somewhere between 25 and 30 times throughout, turning it into a mantra, enabling it to make the journey from novel to repetitive and back to novel again. Due to this omnipresence, when she forgoes those words in the middle-eights, their impact is heightened. “But the rain remembers your face / and the streets know your name,” she concludes—a nod to U2, of all people, or just the Cheers theme song, perhaps?

“Taking Pictures” is one of those many Fan Dance tracks that clock in around two minutes. Tentative at first, it would seem but a fragment, if not for the sense of turning or epiphany that Phillips exhibits on the twice-repeated lyric, “Places I go are never there,” stretching out that second “there” to an ascendant four syllables. Immediately following that, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be / I can only picture the disappearing world when you touch me” is as perfect, provocative and succinct a chorus one could ever hope for. Ironically enough, it’s also arguably the most nostalgic-sounding, Beatles-reminiscent track on the album, albeit sparse and strange enough (dig Parks’ distorted, nearly guttural-sounding harpsichord) to resemble a White Album demo (or outtake.)

Fan Dance’s first half comes to a close with its most generous and lovable song, “How To Dream” (which, at least in an instrumental version, appeared on Gilmore Girls multiple times.) It’s as simply constructed as “Five Colors” but suffused with far more wistfulness and awe, thanks to her wordless, glorious “aah’s” that introduce each chorus. Out of all her lyrics about searching for meaning and illumination, the most definitive may be this one: “When we open our eyes and dream / we open our eyes” is her philosophy at its core essence. A sentiment that could easily scan as too New Age-y, it instead feels earned and wise, like a perfectly formed thought that nonetheless did not come from thin air. With Phillips, you always sense the worth and purpose behind each phrase she uses, like this song’s repeated, “All to reveal a secret we can’t hide.” And yet, you don’t feel a strain or any calculation. There’s an ingenuity to her lyrics that these sparse arrangements only accentuate.

“Soul Eclipse” kicks off Fan Dance’s more experimental second half with an eccentric interplay between her upfront vocal and a few acoustic and electric guitars skittering around the mix. It’s one of three tracks on the record featuring only Phillips and avant-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot (another longtime collaborator), and it resembles a handful of puzzle pieces the listener is encouraged to piece together. Though the melody is one of Phillips’ most approachable, it’s grounded not by a rhythm section, but random emissions of electronic feedback and a peculiar Optigan lurking in the background. Occasionally, a lyric such as, “You think I’m interesting like the Apocalypse” surfaces and warrants your attention, before Phillips retreats to fuzzier imagery like, “I wear colors to bed / and dream I’m writing the skies with joy.”

The song’s barely over before “Incinerator” begins: it’s another Phillips/Ribot performance that’s a weary, tentative, back-alley blues, again without a rhythm section but spiced with some Chris Isaak-style surf chords. She addresses the titular object like a lover making an unwanted advance, warning it, “This is not about sex / it’s about a personal slant,” and pleading for it to “go on and on right through me”. She’s not quite playing the femme fatale—she’s smarter and more detached than that, yet defiant (“I’m made of fire and you’ll never get to me”), if still steeped in ambiguity (“I don’t have your number cause I can’t count to eternity.”)

In the middle of these weird little songs comes a fairly straightforward ballad, “Love is Everywhere I Go.” More amplified at the start, it reprises the simplicity of “How To Dream”, delving back into that sense of wonder without verging on being too precious. As with “Five Colors”, folk-pop singer/songwriter Gillian Welch provides bass and backing vocals, though the latter are nearly inaudible (particularly for someone with as distinctive a voice as Welch’s)—perhaps that’s not to distract from Phillips, whose elongated reading of every other syllable on the chorus gives the song its meatiest hook, along with another overlapping of phrases (right at the word “go” comes the answer lyric, “looking through you”) on the chorus.

After that song’s relative lucidity, Fan Dance immediately plunges back into opacity with “Below Surface”. Fittingly, it feels subterranean and submerged, as if recorded underground or better yet, under water. Phillips’ already deep voice has rarely seemed as voluminous as it does here, or ominous, for that matter, especially when she sings, “I’ve been waiting for Noah’s God to destroy my world, so I can find life,” or “Drain our blood with information screens, obsolete, obscene.” It’s as if she’s distilled the essence of Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave into 102 seconds of dark, dreamy effluvia; such compact duration leaves one a little unnerved, as if briefly peeking into another world or, more likely, another interior state.

Does the next track “Is That Your Zebra?” feel downright disorienting or like sweet, sweet relief following that sinister chasm? Instrumental except for six singularly uttered words (“What When Who How Where When”) and occasional “la, la, la’s”, it’s of a piece with her Gilmore Girls music—pleasant, tender, graciously fading into the background if you let it. The title, however, doesn’t entirely let you off the hook. What does it mean? Is Phillips withholding vital information, or is that all there is? As with “Below Surface”, “Incinerator”, or even “Soul Eclipse”, did she choose the song title for a cognitive reason, or just because it scans well as a song title? You can listen to it twenty times and come no closer to a definitive answer.

Rather than close Fan Dance on a question, however, Phillips concludes with a request. “Say What You Mean” is cut from the same bluesy cloth as “Incinerator”, only slowed all the way down, slower than even “Below Surface”. As Ribot and Burnett accompany her with spooky, resounding guitars, she sings as if detained in a sort of slow-motion David Lynch-ian horror-scape, a cocktail in hand or perhaps the remnants of one, for it feels like the bar’s long since shuttered for the night. Steeped with questions (“How hungry are you? How much can you lose?”) and revelations (“The secrets that you want to know are yours not mine”), each languid verse ends on the title phrase, which just sort of hangs there in the air whenever Phillips utters it. Is it meant to be an order? It almost sounds like a punchline—a rather macabre one at that, given how everything gradually fades to black after the song’s final, lonely chord.

I returned to Fan Dance often after that first listen, initially content with my impression of it being an interesting album, a good album, even, if not a great one. Weeks later, I wrote about it extensively in my journal over two entries, at one point noting “with this album, she gives as much weight to the songs as she does the sound,” which she had done, granted, on previous records (although maybe not Omnipop.) By the end of 2001, it was my second favorite album of the year after Here Come the Miracles. In early 2010 when I compiled my best-of-decade list for albums, it ended up at #26—lower than her next two albums, actually. At the time, I wrote that on Fan Dance, “she opened up a new world of hidden gestures and small pleasures—nine years later, it continues to grow on me.”

It’s one of those conundrums in writing about something as abstract and fluid as music that I’m at a loss for words as to exactly why Fan Dance has stayed with me for so long. I now return to it even more frequently than Martinis to the point where for the past couple years, it’s unequivocally my favorite album of hers. If I were to re-do that Best of the ‘00s list, it would surely make the top ten—maybe the top five. Going through it track-by-track (as I did here), I can easily parse out what I admire about each one, from specific phrases, chords and instrumental touches to how the songs often seem to conform to recognizable pop structures only to usually, unexpectedly, almost thrillingly defy them.

As a whole, Fan Dance appears to me as this ongoing, beguiling entity: the result of Phillips discarding much of what was familiar about her music while retaining those constants she couldn’t help but retain because they are an essential and true part of her as a vocalist, songwriter, musician, and person. Throughout, she continuously reveals and withholds, reveals and withholds so that you remain invested and intrigued, seeking to understand what’s all being expressed and what’s merely implied. One could argue she’s always done that, but sometimes it was obscured by everything else going on in her music. By stripping her sound down to such carefully chosen essentials, she sharpens everything that remains. This world, her world, has seemingly bottomless potential in how it conjures ever-shifting states of being, continuously asking questions without necessarily expecting absolute answers.

Up next: What is an album (and what can it contain?)

“Five Colors”:

“How To Dream”:

Steve Wynn, “Here Come The Miracles”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #68 – released April 24, 2001)

Track listing: Here Come the Miracles / Shades of Blue / Sustain / Blackout / Butterscotch / Southern California Line / Morningside Heights / Let’s Leave It Like That / Crawling Misanthropic Blues / Drought / Death Valley Rain / Strange New World / Sunset To The Sea / Good and Bad / Topanga Canyon Freaks / Watch Your Step / Charity / Smash Myself To Bits / There Will Come a Day

Beginning with The Beatles (aka, “The White Album”) and enduring through the likes of Quadrophenia, English Settlement and Sign O The Times, the Rock Double Album long served as an ideal format for musicians to make a grand, artistic statement. However, by the 1990s, it had fallen out of favor, apart from the occasional outlier such as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or triple-LP 69 Love Songs. For this, you could blame compact discs triumphing over 33 1/3 vinyl records as the dominant physical format since the former could easily fit up to 79 minutes of music on one disc (as opposed to on average 45 minutes over two sides of a vinyl record.) With some classic double LPs even coming in short enough to comfortably fit on one CD (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bad Girls), the etymology changed, the mere idea of an album being a single or a double now mostly irrelevant. If you really wanted to make such a distinction between the two, you’d say something like Boys For Pele clocks in at double album-length (and then perhaps grouse about how it could’ve benefited from some pruning.)

Still, the double album (not to mention the spirit behind wanting to make one) never entirely went away. As we enter the final third of this project, we’ll encounter a number of single CDs with enough music on them to spread over four LP sides (and indeed, some of the later ones will be available for purchase as actual double LPs thanks to the vinyl resurgence), plus at least three honest-to-god double albums of the “released on two CDs” variety. The first of them ticks off the prerequisite boxes: a grand artistic statement made by an artist several albums into a venerable career, containing too much music to fit on a single CD (just barely—both discs together clock in at 82 minutes.)

Steve Wynn (obv. the musician, not the casino mogul) had spent the 1980s leading The Dream Syndicate, an L.A. post-punk quartet so ardently reminiscent of The Velvet Underground (with Wynn’s vocals initially coming off as if he were Lou Reed’s kid brother) that they and other likeminded bands were dubbed members of a new “Paisley Underground.” After four albums and numerous personnel changes, they split up just in time for Wynn to go solo in 1990. Over the following decade, he put out six albums comprising one of the richest and sorely overlooked discographies of the era. Most impressively, each one is its own distinct animal, ranging from chiming power pop (Kerosene Man) and pastoral folk rock (Fluorescent) to back-to-basics guitar grunge (Melting in the Dark) and a magisterial blend of all three with some Stax-like soul added in for good measure (My Midnight). There’s not a weak title in the bunch; such consistency renders Wynn possibly my favorite relatively obscure singer/songwriter of all time (next to Sam Phillips, of course).

His seventh solo album Here Come the Miracles utilized the double album format almost as a means to vindicate that undiminished consistency; the copy on cover insert also made blatant what Wynn was reaching for, calling it “his Zen Arcade, his Exile on Main Street.” I remember around the time of its release, in an interview Wynn said that the only reason it ended up a double album was because he felt all of its 19 songs deserved to be there. While conceivably he could have released each disc as its own single album, when examining Miracles as a whole, you can’t help but feel he made the right call. In my mind, the best thing a double album does is firmly hold a listener’s interest over its extended duration. With the exception of a concept album we’ll get to down the road, Miracles more successfully fulfills this criteria than any other double album on this list.

Each of Wynn’s albums has a particular feeling or flavor that’s often a result of where and with whom he recorded it—for instance, 2008’s made-in-Slovenia Crossing Dragon Bridge is like absolutely nothing else in his catalog due to its exotic locale, factoring in heavily to its sound and subject matter. Likewise, Miracles was recorded in the Tuscon desert and its songs often feel agreeably dusty and dry, their compact hooks given space to breathe via lengthy instrumental intros and codas. Wynn also made the album with a core group: Chris Brokaw (lead guitar), Dave DeCastro (bass), Chris Cavacas (keys) and Linda Pitmon (drums). Arguably the most simpatico unit he had played with since the lineup on The Dream Syndicate’s debut album The Days of Wine and Roses, he’d record a few albums after Miracles under the moniker Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, which included DeCastro, Pitmon and guitarist Jason Victor.

Part of the reason as to why Wynn has forever remained a cult artist, never achieving the commercial success of contemporaries such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads or the critical cachet of someone like Bob Mould or Robyn Hitchcock is that he’s never strived to innovate or reinvent the wheel. That’s not to classify him as overly derivative, a la Lenny Kravitz; Wynn’s more of a traditionalist, really. He’s the guy in high school who wore out the grooves on his Velvets albums, yes, but also the Nuggets compilations of ’60s psychedelic garage rockers. His sound also exudes heavy traces of Big Star-like power pop, along with the guitar-end of the new wave spectrum and a healthy dose of Dylan-esque troubadour. He doesn’t necessarily synthesize all those influences into something new, but neither does it at all smack of anonymity. Crucially, his personality always shines through, whether he’s being witty, wistful, introspective or just an asshole (albeit a well-meaning one, usually.)

Miracles kicks off with its title track, a concise rocker that neatly distills the album’s overarching garage aesthetic by way of a fuzz-tone guitar riff, a stop-and-start rhythm, cheapo organ, sneering, spoken vocals on the verses followed by a sweetly sung chorus and just to make things interesting, an unexpected sitar on the coda. Managing to come across both ragged and off-the-cuff, but also tight and undeniably catchy, it’s a two-prong approach Wynn returns to often, with minor variations: the juiced-up, psycho-billy stomp on the even briefer, delectably-titled “Crawling Misanthropic Blues”, the relentless, monolithic, ultra-compressed Nu-Ramones of “Southern California Line” (which features the slyest “Hey, hey” heard outside of a late-period Beatles record), the two-note, Bo Diddley riff monster “Strange New World” (which just as appropriately kicks off the second disc and finds Wynn spooling out such clever rhymes as “New Orleans/gasoline”), and the titanium-plated glam-rock of “Watch Your Step”, which soars to heaven-on-earth on its final chorus by cutting out the vocals for a surplus of irresistibly melodic, instrumental hooks.

While Wynn could’ve easily churned out 19 tracks of this kind of stuff, the bulk of Miracles branches off into various stylistic turns that provide the versatility required to sustain one’s interest for over an hour and a quarter while all sounding like they belong on the same album. Immediately following the title track, “Shades of Blue” showcases Wynn’s poppier, janglier side to great effect. Its primary four-note riff harkens back to The Dream Syndicate’s arguably best-known song, “Tell Me When It’s Over” and the lyric, “lost in wine and roses,” is a blatant callback to that band’s aforementioned first album. However, he’s not trying to recreate his old band’s sound; if anything, “Shades of Blue” shows how far he’s progressed in two decades as a songwriter—just check out the stirring chord changes of the middle-eight or how serendipitously the song’s melody compliments the occasional roughness of the guitars.

Those occasions where Wynn turns down the volume a notch and fully gives in to his singer/songwriter side are when you really notice his melodic strengths. Perhaps the highlight of the first disc, “Morningside Heights” practically shimmers into focus on a bed of piano, vibes, cymbals and blissful, gentle “wooohs”. It could easily fit on The Velvet Underground, of course, but also on an early Laura Nyro record or even Revolver, particularly when the “ba, ba, ba’s” buoy the middle-eight. The next track, “Let’s Leave it Like That” carries over that song’s essence but at a decidedly more jaunty pace, the percussion practically tap-dancing as Wynn in a conspiring whisper spins an almost whimsical tale of a gal named “Champagne Sally” who “kinda likes it rough,” as a bleeding, Yo La Tengo-ish organ makes nice in the background with a bass harmonica on the chorus. And even when he lessens the tempo but not the volume, he can still churn out a memorable trifle like “Butterscotch” which carefully ekes out every last drop of its melodic potential with surgical focus, from its sublime “ooohs” and “aaahs” to its hypnotic, deliberate, plodding rhythms.

Atmosphere also plays a significant part in Miracles’ appeal. One constant in Wynn’s oeuvre is that no matter where an album is conceived or recorded, more than a hint of California noir runs through it (at least up until that album he made in Slovenia.) On mid-tempo tracks like “Drought”, “Blackout” and “Sunset to the Sea”, he instantly conjures a world of despair and regret, loose morals and actions mourned, placing the rhythm section in the foreground with piano and guitar providing character and shading but never obscuring the songs’ tightly wound melodies. Faster tunes such as “Death Valley Rain” or “Sustain” (which sports the album’s best intro—a stretched-out-towards-infinity lone chord that finally resolves itself when the rhythm section comes in with a killer bass riff) retain a likeminded vibe but with a noticeable edge, careening on by at a precarious pace, almost as if you the listener are in the passenger seat of a vehicle haphazardly navigating a steep, winding mountain road.

His knack for atmosphere and expansive song structures becomes even more apparent on Miracles’ second disc, beginning with its third track, “Good and Bad”. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, it’s his definitive Neil Young-style epic, minimalist in every way apart from length. Piano-led and mostly acoustic, it’s a song about healing that achieves a sort of catharsis in Wynn’s extended, blistering, more-instinctual-than-technical guitar solo. “Topanga Canyon Freaks” follows with a swampy, gleefully sinister, Gris-Gris-era Dr. John-inspired palette of tape loops, tinkling piano, half-spoken vocals and scattered references to taco stands and “tequila-soaked bedsheets”. After the relative concision of “Watch Your Step”, “Charity” again stretches things out to nearly six minutes, drifting off into a barren, endless Southwestern landscape, Wynn’s barely-there muffled vocal moving the whole thing along while all remains slow, beautiful and immense. It dribbles to a close, and “Smash Myself to Bits” makes an abrupt entrance at full throttle, repeating a two-bar riff ad infinitum while harmonica and mewling guitar noise build towards a glorious bedlam. This goes on for two-and-a-half minutes until the vocals finally come in, replacing the riff until they swap places again for a ninety-second outro.

Smash Myself to Bits” stops as suddenly as it started, making way for “There Will Come a Day”, Miracles’ final song—rightly sequenced, for its placement anywhere else on the album is inconceivable. Beginning with lone electric guitar chords on the left channel before the rest of the band kicks in, it’s a big, warm, gospel-y confessional number of the sort Bob Dylan and The Band might’ve included on The Basement Tapes. With soulful organ and piano as prominent in the mix as the guitars, Wynn, in possibly his most outgoing vocal on Miracles, sings of “Everyone who had done me wrong / and those who would wrong me still.” While he goes on to wish on his enemies such maladies as “loss of limb and lingering disease,” by the time he reaches the chorus, he’s come around, revealing this as a lament about redemption for all people, not least himself: “There will come a day / There will come a day / When all of the evil / will be washed away / The patient will be rewarded / and their tormentors will pay / There will come a day, lord / There will come a day.” Everything in this song exudes pure joy, not least the “Hey Jude”-like ending where a ramshackle choir repeats the title for nearly two minutes before concluding with applause and the clinking of glasses. It’s admittedly a little corny, but damn effective—never more so than when I first heard it, about six months after the album came out but only six weeks after 9/11. It served almost as a balm, a corrective at a time when everything was uncertain and irrevocably altered. Even hearing it now, I find uncommon comfort in its utter sanity and grace.

Wynn has made a few good records since Miracles (mostly notably its follow-up, 2003’s Static Transmission), but perhaps its status as a definitive double album has kept him from even trying to top it. And yet, at this writing, he’s assembled a new version of The Dream Syndicate (with the original drummer), which in a few months will release their first album in nearly thirty years, How Did I Find Myself Here. If the expansive lead single/11-minute title track is any indication, he’s not exactly resting on his laurels, which I suppose is the most one could hope for from a veteran artist.

Up next: Rip it up and start again.

“Morningside Heights”:

“There Will Come a Day”:

Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Facts of Life”:

“Start As You Mean To Go On”: