Saint Etienne, “Tales From Turnpike House”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #83 – released June 13, 2005)

Track listing: Sun In My Morning / Milk Bottle Symphony / Lightning Strikes Twice / Slow Down At The Castle / A Good Thing / Side Streets / Last Orders For Gary Stead / Stars Above Us / Relocate / The Birdman of EC1 / Teenage Winter / Goodnight

To paraphrase a classic title of one by Rod Stewart, every album tells a story: it could revolve around hastily assembled contractual obligation or inspired artistic reinvention, announce a new talent to the world or remind a long-uninterested audience what that talent is still capable of. Occasionally, it can even tell a literal story—a concept album, if you will. I’ve written about a few on this blog, from a concise suite about sexual infatuation to a conflation of the cycle of life with the four seasons. Some are predominantly defined by structure or sequencing; there’s also a number that forgo linear narratives for sustained themes such as childhood and parenting, impending mortality or a failed love affair (perhaps the most popular album concept of all.)

None of the three discs I’ve previously covered by British pop trio Saint Etienne were strict concept albums, but they each told at the very least figurative stories. So Tough (1993) served as a collage of early ’90s London sights and sounds, Tiger Bay (1994) combined electronic dance and acoustic folk into a shimmering whole and Good Humor (1998) recreated the 1970s AM radio gold its members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell grew up with. Their subsequent albums would also hinge upon a common aesthetic or theme: Sound of Water (2000) mostly eschewed the band’s typical pop hooks for atmosphere and texture, while Finisterre (2002) set out to capture London at the crossroads of a new century, linking together a dozen aurally disparate tracks with Michael Jayston’s authoritative spoken word narration. Neither album was necessarily subpar, but something about them felt less immediate and a little tentative, as if in a quest to continually explore new avenues, the band lost some of the luster that those three prior albums emanated effortlessly.

Fortunately, their next record, Tales From Turnpike House pushes their sound to new heights, but with none of that hesitation—it’s assured and complete as anything they’ve ever done. Not coincidentally, it’s their first album to sport an overarching narrative: a day in the life of various residents of a London tower block (for non-Brits, roughly, a high-rise apartment building.) It’s such an ideal concept for this particular band, whose back catalog’s not only undeniably London-centric but also steeped in humanism with a rare ability to find exceptional beauty in day-to-day life. Building upon such a strong, likeminded focal point brings out the best in them as lyricists.

However, Tales is even more special for the distinct backing vocals and harmonies on nearly all of the album’s songs, which were arranged and performed by Tony Rivers and his son, Anthony. It’s typical Saint Etienne for their members to reach out to a relatively obscure and forgotten-by-the-public-at-large figure like Rivers, a former member of late ’60s sunshine pop group Harmony Grass and a ’70s and ’80s session background vocalist. And yet, the familial, choirboy harmonies by him and his son are arguably the album’s secret weapon. On first listen, they seem more than a little retro and heavily reminiscent of The Beach Boys (a fitting touchstone, since St. Et. swiped the titles So Tough and Good Humor from them.) Over the course of an album, they become a wordless Greek chorus, musically binding everything together, their omnipresence gradually more resonant and profound.

“Sun In My Morning” opens Tales with a quiet but insistent ting-ting-ting percussive sound—possibly a triangle or a chime. Here, it acts as sort of an alarm clock, only softer and kinder (this is a decidedly slow, sweet wake-up call.) Over an acoustic guitar, Cracknell’s inimitable vocal follows, elongating words and phrases to their breaking point: “Made… a list of things to do… today / what a shame… the morning breeze just blew… it all away.” Then, just over thirty seconds in, the song’s title announces the chorus. On that chord change, everything brilliantly comes alive: some soulful organ, a skittering flute, and most prominently, the Rivers’ intricate, overlapping harmonies.

Having had ample time to wipe the sleep from our eyes, “Milk Bottle Symphony” vaults forward, upping the tempo and introducing us to various Turnpike House residents—among them, “Number twelve, there’s Amy Chan / Writing down a line for the candy man,” and “Emily Roe’s at Thirty-One / Twenty minutes left to get her homework done.” Gifted as the band is at pinpointing such minute details (Emily “leaves her cornflakes on the sofa / says goodbye to mum”), they also excel at painting a bigger picture: note the dramatic pause at mid-song, silence ceased by a sweet clang-clang-clang that could be a literal interpretation of the song’s title, or how effective the staccato string section sounds over the track’s driving electronic beat on the instrumental coda.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the first of many Tales tracks where Saint Etienne reclaim their status as purveyors of alternate-world number-one hits. Resembling a more earnest, if no less slinky version of synth-pop duo Goldfrapp, the song kicks off with Cracknell in her lowest register, modulating her vocal up a few notches with each line until it reaches the euphoric chorus of “Everyone should have a reason to believe / so I still believe that / lightning will strike twice for me,” dramatically stretching out that first word to “Evvv – ryyyy – one.” An irresistible paean to sustained optimism as a life-force, “Lightning Strikes Twice” goes out on a limitless high, reprising the song’s key-changing middle-eight with the Rivers’ harmonies guiding all into the stratosphere.

The contrast between it and “Slow Down At The Castle” could not be more striking: after a mournful folk guitar intro, it shifts into a minor-key suburban gothic that’s almost a warmer, kinder cousin to So Tough’s similarly-toned epic “Avenue”. Its childlike melody gels splendidly with Cracknell’s phrasing but its complexity comes from a few rather baroque but well-employed touches: a harpsichord break, impossibly lovely backing “bong-bong-bong” Rivers harmonies, even a surprise Theremin solo! The piano melody on the outro mirrors the guitar intro almost identically, adding an exquisite grace note at the end.

“A Good Thing” brings Saint Etienne back to masterful dance pop mode with a vengeance. This album’s second single and a close cousin to their biggest UK hit “He’s On The Phone”, it dutifully sounds ultra-contemporary, downplaying the idiosyncrasies of Tales’ preceding songs (almost nary a Rivers to be heard here.) Happily, even at their most accessible, Bob, Pete and Sarah rarely settle for anonymity. As in many a St. Et. composition, Cracknell remains pragmatic but urgent, droll but serious in advising and furthermore reminding a former lover just what’s he lost. Still, what sounds gloomy on the page is transformed by the music’s continual uplift, so much that Pedro Almodovar, a fan, placed the song in his film Volver and it fit beautifully without receding into the background.

An endearingly fragile bossa-nova practically gliding by on vibes, bongos, spare electro-beats and a whole lot of “ba, ba, ba’s” from Cracknell and the Rivers, “Side Streets” was an unconventional choice for the album’s first single, if only for all the surefire big pop productions surrounding it. The lyrics, about a single woman on her daily commute are also far more complex than your average top 40 fluff. Cracknell sings of taking the long way home, acknowledging but not altogether fearful about dangers lurking within an urban center’s corners. She’s at once defiant (“I’ve got features I quite like and don’t mind keeping”) and matter-of-fact (“I’ll probably get it tomorrow”) but the warmth of the arrangement and her vocal (try not to melt at the way she pronounces the word “bubble”) tempers what in less nuanced hands could come off as merely chilling.

After a somewhat deceptive, slow piano intro, “Last Orders For Gary Stead” suddenly locks into a two-chord glam rock groove, complete with electric guitar, pounding piano and Cracknell sounding like the love child of David Bowie and Dusty Springfield. The first St. Et. Tune that absolutely swaggers, it should be an anomalous fit but it works, especially when it reaches its heavenly, Rivers-assisted multi-tracked chorus. Having briefly met the title figure back in “Milk Bottle Symphony”, Gary serves as a through line for the album’s overarching narrative. Here, he’s at his preferred environment of the local pub, and a figure of amusement to some (listen to how tartly Cracknell sings, “He just cools it down / they should knight him for it.”) Still, he’s potentially a tragic figure as well. “She’s in two minds, maybe she’ll board up her door,” the chorus explains, before resolving itself in a neat bit of wordplay: “He sinks two pints / and that’s how it goes.”

As the band’s dance anthems go, “Stars Above Us” not only bests “A Good Thing” but on some days might even top “He’s On The Phone”. “Stars above us, cars below us / Out on the rooftop, baby,” is its glorious chorus, riding high on a shamelessly disco groove (nearly nicked from Kylie Minogue’s “Love At First Sight”) and Niles Rodgers-like rhythm guitar. Musically, it’s far from their most forward-looking song, but none of that matters when the beat kicks in after that dreamy intro and the chorus comes on full force. “Stars Above Us” is positively transformative, taking one to the best place imaginable; in a nod to their greatest early single, Cracknell sings, “Nothing can touch us, baby,” and it’s awfully hard to disagree with her.

Amazingly, “Stars Above Us” was not a UK single, but Savoy Jazz, Saint Etienne’s then-US record label had the foresight to promote the song and a series of remixes—it became the band’s first top ten club play hit in over a decade. Unfortunately, the label ended up seriously botching Tales’ US release seven months after the original edition came out: not only did they rearrange the track listing, placing the two UK singles at the beginning and thus doing away with the day-in-the-life-of-a-tower-block chronology, they cut out the two tracks following “Stars Above Us” and inserted two new replacements (“Dream Lover”, “Oh My”) randomly into the album’s sequence.

Granted, the two nixed tracks are arguably Tales’ least essential. “Relocate”, a duet between Cracknell and David Essex (sounding far more weathered here than on his ‘70s hits like “Rock On”) reads like a distaff Brit take on the old Green Acres theme (wife wants to move to the country, husband wants to stay put in the city.) It’s charming (love the pointed, irritated way she asks him, “You call this life?”) and fits in with the overall concept, but it’s also slight, its merry-go-round melody a touch too music hall for these sophisticates. Meanwhile, “The Birdman of EC1”, the album’s sole instrumental, is a melancholy organ, mandolin and Mellotron-accented breath of fresh air and little else. However, Tales needs both songs for they provide necessary texture; without them (as on the US edition), the transition from “Stars Above Us” to the album’s two final crucial songs feels jarring and rushed.

Tales enters its most powerful stretch with the startling fanfare of harmonies and chiming notes that announces “Teenage Winter”, one of the most unabashedly heartbreaking songs in a catalog with no shortage of them. In its verses, Cracknell delivers a spoken word monologue, reuniting us with such figures as Gary Stead and other various building residents. If “Milk Bottle Symphony” depicted them with an air of promise and hope, now they’re more wistful, almost melancholic, really. Their world is continually in flux: a chain tanning salon replaces a mom-and-pop bakery, and the internet’s daunting presence lessens the nifty stock for record collectors scouring the local thrift shop. Each person is inevitably getting older, “holding on to something / without knowing / exactly what you’re looking for.” Over melodic triplet notes resembling softly falling snow, Cracknell sings in the chorus:

Teenage Winter’s coming down
Teenage Winter floats a gown
Over every place I’ve been
And every little dream
Forever.

That last word just hangs there, gorgeously resounding through the song’s lush guitar, organ and woodwind arrangement (which also includes a sneakily affecting melodic bassline.) “Teenage Winter” is an incredibly poignant lament, made even more so by the fact that Bob and Pete had just entered their 40s when they recorded it (with Sarah not too far off)—for the first time, one can detect a real sense of mortality in Saint Etienne’s world. Rather than rally at time’s arrow with nostalgia and self-pity, they confront it the kindness, wisdom and acceptance that only comes with age.

It seems inconceivable that anything could top “Teenage Winter”, but closing track “Goodnight” comes perilously close. A simple lullaby, it brings Tales full circle from “Sun In My Morning”. Stripping away all instrumentation, we’re left with Sarah, Tony and Anthony. Hearing just these voices at this point in the album’s sequence and the extraordinarily haunting sound they make together (like a delicate tapestry of onomatopoeia) is almost too much to bear. So is Sarah pleading, “Please sing me to sleep and stroke my hair / I’ll close my eyes and pretend that you’re there.” That little couplet really gets at what Tales as a whole is all about: one can always uncover specks of brilliance in everyday, ordinary things, but real transcendence often comes in dreams, in imagining possibilities and processing pain, and using this learned experience to move forward. These threads run deep through Saint Etienne’s entire oeuvre, but on Tales they push furthest, expressed so eloquently they’re impossible to miss or shake.

In a cruel twist of fate, Tales ended up the band’s worst selling album to date in the UK (as with what happened to Tiger Bay, the botched US version didn’t help matters much.) Perhaps “Stars Above Us” or even “Lightning Strikes Twice” should’ve been the lead single, or maybe, just maybe, Tales was so ambitiously out-of-time with what constituted a hit in 2005. One could argue that’s always been the case with this cult-adored trio; for me, Tales had a larger impact than anything else I heard that year (possibly that entire decade.) It was like I’d been wishing, hoping, waiting for one of my favorite bands to create their masterpiece (despite them already having put out at least three great albums.) And then, they did. What’s more, while Tales was originally to be their final appearance in 100 Albums, as of this writing, I’m confident that’s no longer the case.

Up next: We become Panoramic.

“Teenage Winter”:

“Stars Above Us”:

 

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The Go-Betweens, “Oceans Apart”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #82 – released May 3, 2005)

Track listing: Here Comes A City / Finding You / Born To A Family / No Reason To Cry / Boundary Rider / Darlinghurst Nights / Lavender / The Statue / This Night’s For You / The Mountains Near Dellray

Band reunions are tricky, for they come with staggering expectations: Is the old chemistry present? Can they still hit all the right notes? And, what of new material—how does it stack up against the old stuff? From Van Halen to the Violent Femmes, you see previously defunct or on-hiatus bands getting back together all the time with all-over-the-map results. But, for every five or ten shadows-of-their-former-selves or devolutions into nostalgia acts, there’s the occasional reunited band that, against all odds, manages to not embarrass itself and even add something artistically vital to its discography. Sleater-Kinney, My Bloody Valentine and The Dream Syndicate are among those who have accomplished the latter in recent years.

One of the least likely and most satisfying reunions of this young century was the return of The Go-Betweens. When this Australian band, with their core singer-songwriter duo of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan last appeared in this tale, they were coming off an enviable decade-long, six-album run culminating in their 1988 pop masterwork, 16 Lovers Lane. Like all their previous records, it received glowing reviews but failed to score radio hits or break beyond their miniscule audience. As noted in Forster’s superb 2016 memoir Grant and I, a series of misunderstandings led to an acrimonious split in 1990. Forster and McLennan would each spend the next decade cultivating solo careers, but little either of them did separately approached the majesty of their past work together (McLennan’s 1994 double-album Horsebreaker Star, which I briefly considered for this project, came closest.)

As the 90’s wore on, the two men reconciled and started playing live together again. Recorded with a new rhythm section (including Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on percussion), The Friends of Rachel Worth was the first new Go-Betweens album in a dozen years. Far more stripped-down than the elaborately produced 16 Lovers Lane, it was defiantly a new chapter for the band, although on opener “Magic In Here” one could immediately sense some of Forster and McLennan’s rare, sparkling chemistry again. Another album, Bright Yellow Bright Orange followed three years later, and while it added nothing exceptionally new to the band’s catalogue, it was another solid set of predominantly acoustic jangle-pop.

If anything, these two albums sometimes felt as if Forster and McLennan were gently easing themselves back into being a band again with tentative, if encouraging results. For their third album of this second phase, they brought 16 Lovers Lane producer Mark Wallis back into the fold. Once again fortifying their guitar pop with a layered, Technicolor assortment of keyboards and a few horns, Oceans Apart miraculously ended up more a step forward than a look back, even if a couple of its songs lyrically, at times elegiacally reflected upon past lives and places. Moreover, it just gelled like anything from the band’s first phase and its ten songs were among Forster and McLennan’s strongest and sharpest.

From the count-off that announces Forster’s “Here Comes A City”, you can tell this is a fully-energized Go-Betweens firing on all cylinders. Spitting out clipped phrases over just two chords (but what glorious two chords!), lyrically, Forster is at his most observational: “Just pulled out of / a train station / we’re moving sideways,” he sings, “Passing churches / passing stations / a bustling complex.” Meanwhile, the music fervently chugs along, the guitar solo melodic enough but also hinting at an ever-so-slightly out of control bedlam that seems increasingly present all the way to the boiling teakettle noise accompanying repeated chants of the song’s title near the end. But it feels lithe and wry rather than heavy or foreboding, with such typically literate (and quirky) Forster asides as, “Why do people / who read Dostoevsky / look like… Dostoevsky?”

McLennan’s “Finding You” is just as striking and assured, but entirely different. Beginning with a chiming guitar fanfare worthy of all his best ones on 16 Lovers Lane, it opens with lyrics so romantic and incisive you feel Grant has been building towards them his whole career: “What would you do if you turned around / And saw me beside you / Not in a dream but in a song?” It’s pure heart-on-sleeve declaration, along with the chorus of, “Don’t know where I’m going / Don’t know where it’s flowing / But I know it’s finding you.” Because it’s expressed from such a heartfelt place and wedded to such a perfectly formed melody (and lush arrangement), “Finding You” is not easily dismissed as a silly love song. Its extended instrumental coda even provides time for contemplation of what it means to build and sustain a growing love.

“Born To A Family” finds Forster not for the first time on Oceans Apart dissecting his past. With an even lusher guitar palette than “Finding You” (including a 12-string and mandolins), it moves along on an irresistible folkish bounce as he sings about being “the square into the hole” of a working-class family. Even as a young boy, he recalls longing for art, literature and music. “What could I do / but follow the calling,” he repeats, slightly melancholy but mostly confident that he chose the right path; his breathy, “Uh huh’s” and “yeah, yeah’s” casually further confirm it on the fadeout.

By fiat of its initial resplendent waves of synths, McLennan’s “No Reason To Cry” is another step away from the more austere settings of the band’s previous two albums. Dreamily strummed major-seventh chords solidify into the title chorus (where Forster lovingly echoes his bandmate’s vocals), nearly orchestral in its numerous layers of sound. When he sings, “Been fifteen years since we last spoke,” you wonder whom the song is about—former band member and romantic partner Amanda Brown, or perhaps Forster himself.

McLennan follows the song with another of his compositions, “Boundary Rider”. As much of a confirmation of self as “Born To A Family”, it’s similarly crisp and concise, with guitar arpeggios so immediate and absorbing they seem like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. Still, there’s considerably more conflict and resignation in his voice. “So you reach for things / you’ve never satisfied / you’re running down the years” he sings, amiably but decidedly unsentimental, “And to know yourself / is to be yourself / keeps you walking through these tears.” It sounds like hard-earned wisdom, and it will be important to remember those words later.

Forster’s second song about his past, “Darlinghurst Nights”, kicks off the album’s second half. Epic like nothing else on Oceans Apart (it’s over six minutes long), it’s a vast but focused canvas for Forster to reminisce on a specific place and time via a talisman in the form of an old, unearthed notebook: “I didn’t have to read it / it all came back,” he remarks, soon reeling off long-forgotten names (“Frank Brunetti”, “Susie, who we never saw again”) and wishes (“I’m going write a movie / and then I’m going to star in a play”—he and McLennan did try their hand at screenwriting, although they never got a film made.) Although the same four chords repeat (except in the brief, heavenly middle-eight), the momentum never flags thanks to abundant instrumental and vocal hooks imbedded within. The phrase, “Always the traffic, always the lights” is the song’s North Star, appearing throughout and repeating over the extended coda, later accompanied by a chorus of rousing horns.

“Lavender” is the closest thing to love song for Forster here. Over a slinky reggae groove (rest assured, it sounds nothing like UB40), he describes a woman in a series of near-enigmatic phrases like, “She’s got a pair or black boots that kick stones / She’s got black moods she calls her own,” and also rhymes “good in bed” with “well-read.” The title is not her name, but her favorite scent and the song is not really as arch as it sounds, but rather sweet, with clarinet and flugelhorn providing elegance and an unexpected grace notes near the close.

McLennan’s “The Statue” shimmers into focus, its reverberating electronics like a sun rising over the water, its electric guitar hook practically euphoric, leading the way towards a sea of swaying romantic gestures. The lyrics build a metaphor around the titular figure with multiple uses of the word “touch” in different contexts, but it’s the melody that pushes everything forward, perhaps right towards McLennan’s next song, “This Night’s For You”. The previous track’s brightness lingers here but at a breezier, poppy tempo (dig those “ba, ba, ba’s!”.) A genuinely silly but blissful and transformative love song, it cleverly pairs descending verses with an ascendant chorus whose best moment is a call-and-response slash of guitar chords that bespeaks its author’s proficiency in stacking hooks upon hooks while allowing all of them to shine profusely.

“The Mountains Near Dellray” closes Oceans Apart with slow, dramatic grandeur: gradually fading in with guitars, keyboards and a massive sense of space, it’s half majestic ballad, half meditative tone poem. As Forster sings the song’s simple melody and plainspoken lyrics (“And when you make a wish / and you get the wish”), he exudes calm and acceptance that’s in extraordinary contrast to the hubbub and encroaching chaos of “Here Comes A City”. “Never let it go, it’s no struggle,” he concludes, and those words could apply to a myriad of things—what they actually are is less significant than the notion itself. A design for life, if you will, enigmatically inserted within a pop song.

A perfect ending to the album, “The Mountains Near Dellray” would unintentionally serve as a wistful finale to The Go-Betweens themselves when, almost exactly one year after the album’s release, McLennan died suddenly from a heart attack at age 48. While I’ll always long for all the music he and Forster might’ve put out on the momentum and goodwill Oceans Apart generated (a few songs they had begun working on would surface on Forster’s 2008 solo release The Evangelist), I’m grateful they ended up going out on such a high. “And to know yourself / is to be yourself,” is as modest and profound an epitaph as McLennan could ever have written for himself; a decade-plus later, as I edge closer to 48, they are words I increasingly take to heart as well.

Up next: Everyday People.

“This Night’s For You”:

Kings Of Convenience, “Riot On An Empty Street”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #81 – released July 27, 2004)

Track listing: Homesick / Misread / Cayman Islands / Stay Out Of Trouble / Know-How / Sorry Or Please / Love Is No Big Truth / I’d Rather Dance With You / Live Long / Surprise Ice / Gold In The Air Of Summer / The Build-Up

Read enough criticism and you’ll inevitably come across the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (or some variation thereof.) It has been credited to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa, though multiple threads point towards actor-comedian Martin Mull, of all people, as its originator. Regardless, this simile uncovers a truth about music most critics would rather ignore or better yet, transcend: sometimes, it’s a challenge to fully articulate why we like (or hate) a particular piece of music. Obviously, it’s not impossible—at this writing, I’ve spent four years of this blog going on and on about eighty-plus albums. Still, I fear that what I want to express about my love for all this music might occasionally get lost in translation: how can mere words recreate exactly what I felt the first time I heard side two of Abbey Road or the moment when Since I Left You clicked as a whole for me?

I’m reminded of this phrase whenever I try to explain why the music of Kings of Convenience hits me where I live. A Norwegian duo made up of former classmates Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, they’ve put out three albums of hushed acoustic folk-pop full of close-knit harmonies (somewhat accented but always sung in English) and delicate, nylon-stringed guitar work. Simon and Garfunkel are their most obvious antecedents—their best songs exude the same intimacy of something like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”—but they also neatly slot in with such liked-minded contemporaries as Elliot Smith or early Belle and Sebastian. Released in the same year as The Strokes’ Is This It and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, their debut’s title, Quiet Is The New Loud (2001) read like both an introduction and a provocation: here were two guys playing indie music not especially in sync with the garage rock revival times, which fit in well with their just plain unfashionable appearances on the cover.

What is it about KOC’s terminally untrendy, relatively simple folk-pop that I so strongly respond to? Øye and Bøe are far from the only duo to ever forge a career together out of songwriting, harmonies and acoustic guitars; arguably, they’ve done nothing as innovative as what The Everly Brothers (or, if you wish to be less charitable, Chad and Jeremy) accomplished decades before. And yet, when “Homesick” opens their second album with its clarion melody and rare, crystalline electric guitar lead, whatever irritations or distractions I’m feeling instantaneously dissolve. It’s calming but also instilled with wonderment approaching awe in the presence of seemingly endless beauty.

All of KOC’s limited oeuvre is worth hearing, but Riot On An Empty Street is the one to get because it builds upon what they established with Quiet Is The New Loud, honing their songwriting craft to a very fine point. As pretty as this music initially appears, it has considerable substance if you look beyond the placid surfaces—not that KOC is in any way dark or depressive, but once you consider the album title’s irony and apparent contradiction, it’s apparent how there’s so much more at play here than unassuming (if not silly) love songs. “Homesick” itself features a narrator whom describes home not by family or friends he’s left behind, but as fleeting memories made flesh by music: “I can’t stop listening to the sound / of two soft voices blended in perfection,” (hmm, whom does that remind you of?) they sing, “From the reels of this record that I’ve found.”

That’s not to say KOC aren’t all-out romantics, but they approach themes of love and infatuation with a pragmatism that bespeaks their Scandinavian background, not to mention the resignation of residing in a place with short-to-nonexistent winter days. “Love Is No Big Truth”, they conclude via one song’s title, while at least allowing for the possibility that “Love comes like surprise ice at dawn,” in another. On “I’d Rather Dance With You”, they lay out the law with ample charm, proposing to sidestep all small talk: “I haven’t read a single book all year / and the only film I saw, I didn’t like it at all,” they confess, so why waste time yelling over the din of the dancefloor and instead use the space as nature intended?

“I’d Rather Dance With You” is rather danceable itself in an indie-disco way, featuring a propulsive beat, banging piano and a lead viola riff. In the album’s midsection, it arrives after two songs that also manage a brighter, fuller, leaning-towards-contemporary sound without feeling at all out of place. On the aforementioned “Love Is No Big Truth”, Øye and Bøe somehow manage to resemble a rootsy New Order, entirely swapping that band’s synths and drum machines for guitars, pianos and live drums rhythmically manipulated to have a similar effect. Likewise, with its chorus eloquently turning on the guys’ harmonies, “Sorry Or Please” crisply shuffles along as if it were trip-hop played on real instruments, accented by strings, a trumpet solo and even a banjo.

Also widening the band’s scope are two guest appearances from Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (more commonly known by just her surname), shortly before her own breakthrough album Let It Die (and three years prior to her scoring a surprise top ten hit.) On both “Know-How” and “The Build-Up” (which she co-wrote with the boys), she’s deployed as a secret weapon, nonexistent until each song’s second half when her bell-like vocal suddenly takes over. She’s especially effective on the latter track, a pensive dirge that begins with Øye emitting plaintive phrases one by one. Then, the melody changes, perking up ever so slightly as Feist warbles her verses. Still, her album-closing lyrics, where she sings of a sound, “Written on your ticket / to remind you where to stop / and when to get off,” just seem to mournfully hang there, leaving a haunting afterimage.

There are hidden complexities throughout Riot On An Empty Street that can easily catch one off-guard. “Cayman Islands”, with its tranquil, wistful air, sounds like it should be a gentle account of time spent in a tropical paradise, but it’s more a metaphor for pondering the unexpected, labyrinthine path to love and closeness (“How someone could have chosen / to go the length I’ve gone.”) “Misread” wraps its scrutiny of intent and cross-wired communication up in such an alluring bossa-nova package you can get away with playing it at brunch, even with lyrics like, “The loneliest people / were the ones who always spoke the truth.” Meanwhile, “Stay Out of Trouble” affably re-writes Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” for a kinder generation (its narrator simply notes, “Try not to think about me too much,”) but doesn’t ignore a breakup’s pain (“I was alone and freezing / still trying hard to understand you.”)

However, for everything gestating within this music, I get the most pleasure from how it sounds and the tone it settles upon. As the album’s penultimate track, “Gold In The Air Of The Summer” also serves as the apotheosis of these qualities: the warmth of the guitars and piano and how the latter positively shimmers and sparkles in the brief instrumental break; the slow build up and back down again; the air of mystery withheld (opening line is, “Without giving anything away…”), followed by the promise of something found (“And now you and me are on our way,”); and most of all, the silence underscoring Øye and Bøe singing “You’ll shine like gold in the air of summer,” over and over before the piano and guitars resume and the song delicately comes to a close.

KOC returned five years later with a third album, Declaration of Dependence—initially, a minor let-down for simply being more of the same. Fortunately, its impact has deepened over repeated listens to the point where I now consider it nearly equal to its two predecessors. I’m not sure how much more they can eke out of this template, which may be why (at this writing) a fourth album has yet to appear (though they’re apparently working on it.) Still, if there’s one thing I can fully articulate about why I adore this duo, it’s the timelessness of their music—as fresh now as it was fifteen years ago. Much as I also love Simon and Garfunkel, could they even make that same claim fifteen years after their heyday?

Up next: A Reunion.

“I’d Rather Dance With You”:

“Gold In The Air Of Summer”:

Tompaulin, “Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #80 – released March 22, 2004)

Track listing: Slender / It’s A Girl’s World / North / Second Rate Republic (Demo) / Wedding Song / Swing Low Stuart / Ballad Of The Bootboys / Them Vs. Us / The Sadness Of Things / My Perfect Girlfriend (Demo) / My Life As A Car Crash / Give Me A Riot In The Summertime

In Spring 2003, I became a staff writer for indie music website Splendid!, which differentiated itself from Pitchfork, PopMatters, etc. by vowing to review anything submitted to it. I was required to write three reviews every week: one in the 300-500 word range of an album I liked, and two 150-200 word capsules about albums I didn’t necessarily have to like. Every couple weeks, I’d receive a box of fifteen or so CDs, some with press releases, others with handwritten requests from the editor to review them right away. And, I had to write about every last one.

Occasionally, I’d encounter a disc from an artist I’d actually heard of (Arab Strap, Sufjan Stevens, Beth Orton) but a majority of what I got was previously unknown to me. Over the next eighteen months, I was exposed to everything from Native American folk music to masturbatory prog rock, much of it relentlessly mediocre or just plain awful (such as a band named “Shugaazer” that had fuck all to do with My Bloody Valentine.) Most weeks, I’d strain to find a disc that I “liked” enough for the required lengthier review. However, once in a great while, something exceptional surfaced. For instance, I heard TV On The Radio before practically any other non-critic via their debut EP Young Liars. It remains in my regular listening rotation to this day, along with albums from other Splendid! discoveries like Swedish pop star Marit Bergman, winsome Aussie folk-rocker Tamas Wells, and American singer-songwriter turned film scorer Paul Brill.

Apart from Seven Swans, my all-time favorite Splendid! find was UK-based band Tompaulin. Arriving in my mailbox in March 2004, Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt compiled tracks from all of their singles to date. Named after a Northern Irish poet and having borrowed their album title from Kurt Vonnegut, I anticipated a strong literary bent to their sound (their first studio album, 2001’s The Town and The City (itself named after Jack Kerouac’s first novel) has tracks called “Richard Brautigan” and “All The Great Writers and Me”) but I had no other expectations. Nearly a year into my Splendid! tenure, I’d learned to be open to hearing anything on one of these discs submitted for review in terms of genre, sound, tone and quality (especially quality.)

EWBANH’s opener, “Slender”, commences with a soft hum of atmospheric sound, soon joined by a trembling, almost tentative guitar strum. Vocalist/lyricist Jamie Holman then sings, “All that I remember / is your wrists / and they were slender,” his delivery slightly-but-not-overbearingly-fey with a noticeable Lancashire accent. An electric guitar plays a countermelody, and a softly thumping drumbeat enters at the second verse. The song’s title cleverly shifts as Holman sings, “By Monday morning, I won’t even remember / your chances are slender.” All the while, the song has only two chords, which repeat measure by measure.

At the third verse, female vocalist Stacey McKenna takes over from Holman. The sudden switch to her voice, pitched somewhere between Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin and Neko Case, is striking. She answers Holman’s words, eventually concluding, “My chances are slender.” The music, continually building momentum from the start, keeps growing fuller and louder until, at 2:35, crunching, majestic electric guitar chords enter the right channel like a beacon of blinding light. McKenna returns, a few bars later, with the climactic lyrics, “And now you won’t hear me / won’t speak and won’t come near me,” sung over and over. It’s thrilling, it’s heartbreaking, it’s everything I could ever want from a pop song, up until it concludes on a final, tranquil grace note.

“Slender” is an ideal introduction to Tompaulin’s tiny, contained oeuvre—for sure, their greatest moment, but far from their only great one. The next two songs reinforce that this is a band worth your time and attention. “It’s A Girl’s World” weds confectionary pop full of strummed acoustics and twinkling keyboards with incisive, wry lyrics, rhyming “Walkman beat” with Exile On Main Street and dropping observations like, “She’s a fat girl / but she’d give you the world / in her ginger curls.” Similarly inclined phrases at the very opening of “North” cascade by in such a breathless, near-euphoric rush that they provide neat contrast to the chorus: a series of descending, clipped phrases (“Oh / when you go down / to the center of town / stay down”), followed by a steady string of trumpet-enhanced ba-da-da-da’s.

But remember, EWBANH is a singles comp rather than a greatest hits album, which means B-sides make up roughly half the selections here. True to form, some are demos, like a pretty but far-from-essential first take on The Town and The City’s closer, “Second Rate Republic”, or “My Perfect Girlfriend”, a deliberate goof which sounds like it was recorded in a cigar box and consists solely of McKenna singing “Debbie, Debbie Harry, Debbie Harry” repeatedly over rudimentary if punchy new wave guitar-bass-drums. There’s also pleasantly wispy stuff like “Wedding Song”, which dutifully emulates “Cemetery Gates”-era Smiths, and “Them vs. Us”, which does the same for late ‘80s Sarah Records twee pop.

Still, just because it’s a B-side doesn’t necessarily make it a castoff or a throwaway, as Pet Shop Boys and Saint Etienne have proven with numerous, above-average B-side compilations of their own. “The Sadness of Things”, for instance, could’ve comfortably fit on The Town and The City with its quotable lines (“She says she likes The Rolling Stones / but she’s only got the Greatest Hits”) and cozy, if melancholy allure. Conversely, “Swing Low Stuart” is a B-side for another reason. Over a sing-song melody, McKenna tartly notes, “Stuart’s the epitome / of white boy, middle class monogamy; / He’d like to know some deviants / he invested in some leather pants,” (one could only hope she’s singing about Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch.) Sounding as agreeable as early Black Box Recorder, it takes a left turn halfway through as guitar feedback slowly creeps in, wave by wave until it consumes all else and you’re left with a cacophony of nearly Metal Machine Music-like proportions.

However, such experimentation is a diversion rather than the norm with this group. Given their unaffected vocals, slice-of-life lyrics and propensity for using two or three chords at most, they most often resemble a punk band, albeit one curiously beholden to pastoral and chamber-pop arrangements. One discerns such tension in this comp’s final two tracks, both of them highlights. “My Life As A Car Crash” is almost ridiculously simple: it expertly shifts back and forth between wordy, subdued verses and wordless, caffeinated five-alarm choruses while keeping both parts urgent-sounding and razor sharp. Holman, meanwhile, expands on the title metaphor’s subtleties without ever mentioning it by name. Closing track “Give Me A Riot In the Summertime” neatly bookends “Slender”, gradually barreling across the volume spectrum from soft to loud; its minor key but ultimately rousing protest pop made immortal by a McKenna verse as impassioned, triumphant and fun as the best of Sleater-Kinney or one of The B-52s’ classic Kate-and-Cindy showcases.

Tompaulin would release one more studio album, 2005’s downbeat but pretty Into The Black before breaking up two years later. Given their perpetual obscurity, you can’t blame them for not carrying forward, but as I wrote about The Go-Betweens many entries ago, you also can’t blame the world for not knowing about them. Had it not been for Splendid!, I doubt I would’ve ever crossed paths with this music, and therein lies a predicament of the internet age. In the past few decades, music production and dissemination has skyrocketed to point where so much more is destined to fall through the cracks or remain obscure than previous.

My time at Splendid! encouraged me to keep one eye on those infinitesimal few musicians who manage to break through all the clutter and the other eye always open for those unknown quantities like Tompaulin, forever patiently awaiting discovery. The challenge is mustering up time and effort to sift through it all to get to those ultra-hidden gems, and I admit that it’s easier said than done—after less than eighteen months, I quit Splendid!, altogether burned out on finding new things to say about albums that were mostly mediocre-to-bad, week after week. The website itself folded a little over a year later, suggesting that its inclusive approach to music criticism sadly wasn’t a sustainable pursuit. Thankfully, with YouTube and a bevy of streaming services, we now have seemingly boundless means to get lost in rabbit holes, forever making our very own discoveries.

Up next: Singing Softly To Me.

“Slender”:

“My Life As A Car Crash”:

Sufjan Stevens, “Seven Swans”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #79 – released March 16, 2004)

Track listing: All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands / The Dress Looks Nice On You / In The Devil’s Territory / To Be Alone With You / Abraham / Sister / Size Too Small / We Won’t Need Legs To Stand / A Good Man Is Hard To Find / He Woke Me Up Again / Seven Swans / The Transfiguration

When he took the stage at the Academy Awards last week, Sufjan Stevens was likely unknown to a good chunk of the worldwide viewing audience. I can only imagine what kind of impression he made on them with his gentle, fragile voice and equally delicate/intricate music (not to mention his outré pink-and-white vertical striped jacket.) Joined by a typically eccentric band of indie-leaning musicians including St. Vincent and Chris Thile, Stevens performed his nominated song “Mystery of Love”, one of two compositions he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name. A shimmering tapestry of acoustic guitar, mandolin and other pizzicato, bell-like sounds topped off by his yearning vocals, it’s quintessential Sufjan in that it’s accessible, almost impossibly lovely and sounds like little else.

This notion of discovering Stevens on as immense and unlikely a platform as the Oscars takes me back to the first time I heard him, fourteen years ago when I was assigned to review Seven Swans for a music website (more about that in the next entry.) I recall lying on my bed as (take a breath) “All The Trees of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” began with a lone banjo playing a four-chord arpeggio, soon joined by a hushed, choirboy vocal falling somewhere between Elliot Smith and Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough. One by one, other layers (acoustic piano, female “da, da, da’s”) appeared over those same chords, the entire thing building and gradually solidifying into a gorgeous whole. It immediately left me beguiled—I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. Yes, it was folkish, singer-songwriter stuff, but it emanated awe at a level both intense and slightly unsettling (more so than comforting.)

His fourth album in as many years, Seven Swans arrived just eight months after his previous release (and the first to receive any college radio airplay), Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, a song cycle exactly about what it says it is. The latter was the first in a planned series of LPs, one for each of the fifty states. This absurdly ambitious undertaking (which to date has not gone beyond two albums) was my first inkling that Stevens was not only a major talent, but perhaps also a little nuts. The press release I received for Seven Swans positioned it as a break from that project, made up of recent songs falling outside those parameters. Recorded in producer Daniel Smith’s rec room, it stood in direct contrast to most of Michigan’s more extroverted menagerie of horns, polyrhythms, weird keyboards and epic-length narratives. As I would later find out, it was also absolutely nothing like the all-over-the-map indie rock of his debut, A Sun Came! (2000) or the instrumental, impenetrable electronic experimentation of Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001).

Multiple Seven Swans songs follow the lead of “All The Trees…”, building an arrangement one piece at a time, repeating the melody with minor variations until the whole takes on a hypnotic, zen-like quality. “The Dress Looks Like On You” does so gently, mostly limiting its scope to banjo and acoustic guitar, only thinking to throw in something unexpected like a brief, cereal-box organ solo when the melody shifts in the bridge; conversely, “In The Devil’s Territory” swells to a mighty, Steve Reich-ian roar, its Theremin solo ably mimicking a boiling tea kettle ready to explode. Stevens isn’t shy about pushing this trope to its breaking point—witness “Sister”, which spends four minutes repeating the same instrumental melody, with “da, da, da’s” eventually accompanying it, growing louder and louder until it almost feels satirical, like a backing track from another Stevens, Cat, turned into a game show theme song. Then, abruptly, everything drops out, the song shifting to just acoustic guitar-and-voice for its last two minutes, retaining the same melody, only with proper lyrics.

Striking as Stevens’ approach to sound and song structure is throughout Seven Swans, his lyrical content more radically sets the record apart from scores of likeminded acoustic folkies. Stevens is a devout Christian, and while he shies away from labeling himself as a Christian artist, maintaining in multiple interviews that his intent is to separate his beliefs from his music, themes of faith in a higher power liberally flow throughout his work—rarely more explicitly than on this particular album. The title itself refers to a passage in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, while there are also songs about “Abraham” and “The Transfiguration”. And yet, while his faith and devotion feels pure, he never moralizes and rarely proselytizes—the closest he comes to doing so is his refrain of “He is the Lord!” in the title track, and even there he sounds a bit fearful and overwhelmed about what he’s exclaiming.

At times, his exploration of faith falls much closer to Sam Phillips‘ (although she’s far more skeptical than he’ll ever be), in that he acknowledges the complexity of such mysteries. “To Be Alone With You”, with its captivating melody and spare, acoustic guitar-and-voice setting, initially comes off like a straightforward love song, with Stevens offering, “I’d swim across Lake Michigan” in order to fulfill the titular goal. However, by the second verse, the subject shifts from first to second person: “You gave up a wife and a family / You gave your ghost / To be alone with me.” When this song was new to me, I puzzled over exactly whom Stevens was directing these words to. A lover? A friend or relative? Most likely, it’s a higher power, especially after he sings, “To be alone with me / You went up on a tree,” possibly referencing the Crucifixion. But then, the final line is, “I’ve never met a man who loved me.” Is Stevens singing about Jesus or God or a literal man of the flesh? My inclination leans towards the former, yet his careful, specific use of language here is fascinatingly steeped in ambiguity.

Similarly, “Size Too Small” ostensibly concerns being the best man at a best friend’s wedding, the title referring to an ill-fitting suit. At face value, that’s exactly what it’s about, the quiet, reverent-sounding organ coming in on the second verse serving the nuptials theme nicely. But in that second verse, Stevens sings, “Everything rises, going at it all / All the surprises in a size too small,” before asking, “Would you surprise us / in a size for all of me?” No longer merely tangible, “size” becomes a concept that could encompass any number of things, from persona to friendship to even faith. “I still know you, the best man,” he notes, before concluding, “I still owe you,” and you’re left uncertain as to whom exactly “you” is, only that it’s someone or something close to his heart. The same goes for the “He” in “He Woke Me Up Again” or the subject of “The Dress Looks Nice On You”, which seems to be a celebration of spiritual rather than physical beauty with repeated admonitions of “I can see a lot of life in you.”

Even when Stevens largely forgoes abstractions, his music still retains an aura of wonderment. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” rewrites the Flannery O’ Connor short story of that title from the point of view of its villain, known only as “The Misfit”. It’s a clever, followable conceit further made flesh by a hummable melody and the awesome way it opens up at the wordless, carousel twirl of a chorus, complete with a guitar riff that could’ve come from a Simon and Garfunkel chestnut. And yet, when his narrator switches from second to first person in the last verse, singing of Hell and his own grief, you can’t help but draw parallels to themes running through the bulk of the album. Stevens’ ability to incorporate both character and self until the line separating them blurs is a rare talent, one that further distinguishes him from your average singer-songwriter.

On subsequent albums, he’d continue honing that skill while hardly ever repeating himself. 2005’s Illinois picked up where Michigan left off but further expanded his aesthetic, often crossing Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music with homespun theatrical drama. It ended up a breakthrough beyond college radio confines, thanks to its typically moving, catchy-but-still-singular anthem “Chicago”. Five years later, he returned with The Age of Adz, a flummoxing, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt at almost a pop version of Enjoy Your Rabbit, getting lost in excess electronic effluvia and songs that pushed pass the six-minute-mark (or in one case, twenty-five!) Five years after that, Carrie and Lowell seemed like a full-circle, course-corrective return to an airier, more reverb-drenched take on Seven Swans’ acoustic folk, but with a new wrinkle: centering on his estranged mother’s death, Stevens dove feet-first into purely confessional songwriting, teeming with grief and inconsolable pain as deeply felt and nuanced as his earlier admissions of faith.

“Mystery of Love” didn’t win an Oscar, which is neither here nor there (losing to Phil Collins in this category back in 1999 didn’t have an adverse effect on Aimee Mann’s career.) Still, along with the stark “Visions of Gideon” (and its devastating placement at the end of Call Me By Your Name), it suggests that no matter which path Stevens takes next, he remains a wholly original and essential voice.

Up next: Obscurity Knocks.

“To Be Alone With You”:

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:

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”:

“Waiter”:

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”:

“11:11”: