Archive for September, 2012


#19: “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison

 

To be honest, this is a very difficult album for me to write about.  It’s not because I have some deep emotional attachment to it, rather it’s because I simply don’t know that much about Van Morrison, which makes it difficult for me to find a perspective from which to write about it.  You see, my only other experience with Van Morrison was back in the fall of 1996 when I purchased “The Best of Van Morrison” at Used Kids Records for $7.  I bought it because I was heading up to Ashland University to pick up the Drama Queen…she loved the song “Brown Eyed Girl” (probably because she had brown eyes), and I wanted it to be playing in my car CD player (Hell0–CD–Play) when she got in the car.  Damn I was a cheese ball back then!  But anyhow, if I remember correctly, I think it had the desired effect.

So yeah, other than that song, John Mellencamp’s cover of “Wild Night” with Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Willie Phoenix covering “Gloria” every time I see him live, I haven’t had much exposure to Van Morrison until I picked this album up on Amazon for $6.87.  And right away, I discovered that this album is completely different from any of those other songs.  The opening strums of the acoustic guitar at first made me think this album would be folksy, but gradually other influences become present.  Specifically, the flute and strings give the impression of classical chamber music, while at the same time several of the song structures are actually lifted from blues and jazz (“Cyprus Avenue” is in a straight 12-bar blues form).  It’s definitely an odd mix, but it all seems to work mostly because of the power of Van Morrison’s voice.  Channeling the power of ’50s rock ‘n roll and Mississippi Delta blues (pretty amazing for an Irish lad), Van Morrison’s soulful voice carries this record, even in its most ethereal moments.

Other lists: Van Morrison comes in at #24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #42 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

My favourite track: “Astral Weeks”

Honourable mention: “The Way Young Lovers Do”

Quote: “Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way that we were and the way that we were meant to be”

Mi madre and mon soeur have always been big Bruce Springsteen fans.  Me, not so much.  I never disliked Bruce though, I just never was real into his stuff.  As a kid, I remember the videos for “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark” being in heavy rotation on MTV, but I just never got the bug.  But mi madre had quite a few of his albums, and my whole family got to see him in Cleveland in 2004 on the Vote for Change Tour in Cleveland with R.E.M. and John Fogerty.  I didn’t go though…I think I stayed in Columbus that night and watched OSU lose to Northwestern in overtime.  Smart choice.

But recently I’ve been a bit more interested in Mr. Springsteen.  One of my favorite local musicians, Colin Gawel, has been compared stylistically several times to Bruce Springsteen.  It’s odd because Colin is half of the two-headed monster that is my favorite local band Watershed, and for the most part Watershed sounds like Blink-182 with more intelligent lyrics.  However, Colin has a scratchy, almost bluesy quality to his voice, very similar to Springsteen’s, and the songs he writes definitely have a midwestern roots rock sound.  Watershed even put a cover of “Born to Run” as a hidden track on their album “The More It Hurts, the More It Works”.  As Joe Oestreich, the other half of Watershed has moved out of town, Colin often plays solo acoustic sets with just a guitar and a harmonica, and these shows definitely show off his roots rock sensibilities.

So, with a new enthusiasm for Springsteen, this was my first ever listen to the album “Born to Run”.  I got it brand new on Amazon for the bargain basement price of $3.93 (the only flaw is a hole someone punched through the case).  Let’s just say I was surprised…I was expecting something guitar based with horns, maybe along the lines of Bob Seger or John Mellencamp.  Instead, I heard something much more artistic.  Apparently Bruce wrote most of these songs on the piano, and it shows.  The songs are carefully crafted, and at times they are very dramatic, in an understated Bruce Springsteen kind of way.  At the same time, they exhibit a wanderlust I never had the guts to succumb to in my youth…you know, that desire to just get in a car and drive wherever the road takes you, only stopping when you run out of money for gas.  Oh, and Clarence Clemons, may he rest in peace, wails on this album.  He was definitely the star of the E Street Band.

Other lists: “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road” are #21 and #86 respectively on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time.  Bruce is #36 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #96 on the list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.  He is also #23 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

My favorite song: “Backstreets”

Honorable mention: “Born to Run”

Quote: “And after all this time, to find we’re just like all the rest: stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding in the backstreets”

#17: “Nevermind” by Nirvana

It’s the underdog world strike! — Eugene Hutz

Back in the fall of 1991 (the year punk broke), I used to sit in the back of my 2nd/3rd period chemistry class discussing important musical matters like whether or not Hammer truly was too legit to quit (of course he was!) and which Illusion was more vivid (I rocked harder, but II had better lyrics) with Black Cloud, Gear Head, and the Real American Hero.  Around this time a new video began airing on MTV, and at first it seemed really strange.  There were no pyrotechnics or scantily clad women.  The lead singer didn’t have a perm and he never sang in a high falsetto.  And he was wearing jeans and a striped long sleeve t-shirt instead of leather pants and a wife-beater.  The video was for the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and although it was really weird, you had to admit it rocked.  Rocked hard.  And mi madre didn’t like it because she couldn’t understand the words, which probably made me like it even more.

So that was how I discovered Nirvana, the little band that changed the world.  And despite the fact that I really liked “Smell Like Teen Spirit” (me and seemingly every other person in the world), I didn’t run out and buy the album right away. You see, back then I had a rule: never buy an album unless you like the first three singles.  Working at an ice cream stand and as a carny in the land of endless summer wasn’t exactly making me rich, and I had been burned several times by albums with one good song.  So I waited patiently while “Come As You Are” came and went, and then finally “Lithium” rocked my world and called me Sally, so I decided to go ahead and buy the album.  At bandcamp.  Yup, “Nevermind” became one of my souvenirs from the Edinboro University bookstore my junior year at bandcamp (purchases from other years included “Sunshine on Leith” by the Proclaimers and “Sons of Soul” by Tony! Toni! Tone!, winners no doubt).  Unfortunately, the copy I bought did not have the hidden track, “Endless Nameless” on it, which caused me great consternation, but I was able to somehow convince the Elusive One to trade me his copy, which had the hidden track on it (that copy was subsequently stolen in the Rape of the Red Saturn, but I was able to replace it with a similar copy).

I was able to afford the album because by this time I was old enough to begin my indentured servitude to the Evil Empire.  As the new kid on the block, my job was to stand by the grill and cook the Royales with Cheese.  Next to me, Black Cloud toasted the buns.  Across from a table behind us, Lord Bacchus and Lightning 101 would assemble the Royales with Cheese and hand them to the manager, who would deliver them to the masses.  And as the four of us worked, we would argue about music.  You see, Lord Bacchus and Lightning 101 had already begun to worship at the temple of Pearl Jam (the temple of the dog?), and were devoted followers of the high priest Edward Louis Severson III (yes Pearl Jam is a religion…Eddie said so in Columbus on 5/6/2010).  Black Cloud and I were Nirvana fans (Black Cloud later ruined his credibility by claiming that Stone Temple Pilots’ “Core” was the best grunge album of the era), and since at the time there was a trumped up media rivalry between Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the four of us felt compelled to argue incessantly over which band was better.  Truth be told, I think all four of us liked both bands, but none of us would ever admit it.

As so often happens, arguing on behalf of Nirvana made me like them even more.  Kurt’s lyrics were delightfully sarcastic and contradictory, which fit my sense of humor perfectly.  His guitar playing was far from sophisticated, but he could strum some incredible rhythm parts (yeah, I realize that most of the solos just copy the vocal melody) and he could create an incredible effect by starting the song soft and then suddenly launching into an incredibly loud and distorted wall of sound.  Dave Grohl’s drumming drove the songs forward (such an upgrade of Chad Channing), and Krist Noveselic laid down the perfect mix of energy and groove with his bass lines.  And somehow cutting through this sonic assault was the wail of Kurt Cobain’s voice, scratchy yet powerful.  All of it combined to create an incredible energy and sound that drives every song on the album, including the slow songs.

Nirvana quickly became one of my favorite bands.  I bought their previous album “Bleach”, and I continued to buy their next several releases.  They were also a gateway band for me, as soon I was buying records by the other big Seattle bands like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and yes, Pearl Jam.  Soon I was wearing flannel and watching the movie Singles (best. soundtrack. ever.) on Friday nights with my friends at Black Cloud’s house.  Nirvana had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of my teenage life.

I suppose I can’t finish this entry without commenting on Kurt Cobain’s death.  About six months prior to his suicide, Nirvana was scheduled to play a show in Akron on October 31st, 1993.  Tickets were available for about a week, and Lord Bacchus, Black Cloud, Lightning,  and I all decided we wanted to go.  Back in the day, you had to go to an actual Ticketmaster outlet to buy tix (what was the world like before the world wide interweb?), and if you lived in northeast Ohio, that meant you had to drive to the Great Lakes Mall in Mentor.  Lord Bacchus agreed to go buy the tix while we were all working a shift for the Evil Empire, and on his way to Mentor the tickets sold out.  We were disappointed, but we shrugged it off and said we would see them the next time they came around.  Famous last words! (In retrospect, it’s probably good that we didn’t go to the show with Black Cloud, or else one of us would have fractured his tibia in multiple locations, asphyxiated on a sausage, or had his entire collection of ceramic sports figurines destroyed.)  I found out about his suicide along with the rest of the world on April 8th, 1994.  That day I had to work a shift for the Evil Empire after school, and I was pretty much worthless.  Unable to do much else, they stuck me on fries, and I couldn’t even keep up with that.  My friends, including Black Cloud, Lord Bacchus, and the Artistic One kept stopping by to make sure I was okay.  Finally, the manager just sent me home because I couldn’t do anything.  The Artistic One and the Music Lover, both big Nirvana fans, came over to my shitty little trailer on Myers Road and we sat on the couch and watched the coverage on MTV well into the night.

It’s a shame that Cobain’s death and the hype over the “birth of alternative rock” overshadow so much of Nirvana’s legacy.  If you strip all that away, “Nevermind” still holds its own as an incredible rock album.  The songs are catchy and well crafted.  The lyrics are witty and sarcastic.  The drums pound and the guitars scream.  And twenty some years later, it still sounds fresh and exciting.  Maybe that is because so many other bands have tried to steal this sound, but none of them have quite gotten it right.

Other lists: On the Rolling Stone list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ranks #9, “In Bloom” is #415, and “Come As You Are” is #452.  Nirvana is #30 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists, and Kurt Cobain is #45 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #73 on the list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. “Nevermind” is also the #1 album on the list of the 100 Best Albums of the 90s.

My favorite track: “Drain You” (although Dave Grohl has stolen this formula for virtually every Foo Fighters song)

Honorable mention: “Polly”

Quote: “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he knows not what it means.”

#16: “Blood On The Tracks” by Bob Dylan

 

So this is the album where Bob Dylan mentions Ashtabula.  Yup, in the song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, Dylan sings “I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”.  Is he referring to Ashtabula, Ohio, the largest city in Ashtabula County, the northeastern-most county in Ohio in which your humble narrator spent his first 18 formative years?  Well, according to Wikipedia (the greatest resource on the planet for trivial knowledge), Ashtablua can also refer to a township in North Dakota (with an accompanying Lake Ashtablula), a plantation house in Pendleton, South Carolina, and a genus of jumping spiders.  But since Bobby D is referencing two other cities (granted they are much larger cities: Honolulu, population 374,658; San Francisco, population 812,826; Ashtabula, population 19,096 and dropping), I am pretty sure he is actually singing about the town just 9 miles from where I grew up.

You see, Ashtabula (which means “river of many fish” in Iroquois) wasn’t always a hell-hole.  I actually have very fond memories of Ashtabula from when I was a kid.  The downtown area was an old fashioned shopping area with a five story department store named Carlisle’s, a Sears that had a playable demo Telegames system (basically, an Atari 2600 with a Sears logo on it), and several other cool shops and restaurants.  There was a beautiful old hotel, aptly named the Hotel Ashtabula, where mi madre used to take us for Thanksgiving dinner.  At Christmas time, the whole strip of shops was lit up like something out of “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  In the summer, there was a city park across the street from the library.  I remember getting Hardy Boys novels from that library and reading them in the park next to the fountain.  I got my first saxophone when I was in the fifth grade from the music store next to Carlisle’s and I learned how to play the notes G, A, and B while sitting in that park.  As I got older, there was a cool record store there called Jerry’s Records and Tapes that would special order anything you wanted (yes, that is where Black Cloud and I special ordered our copies of The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack).  Later its named changed to Slappy’s, and sadly it just closed recently.

I don’t mean to ramble on about Ashtablula.  I just have so many memories of the place.  It used to be a great city, but the harsh economic times (not just the Great Recession…the economy has been bad in northeast Ohio for about 20 years, maybe longer) have turned the downtown area into a ghost town.  Ashtabula Harbor seems to be doing okay though.  At least there are still some businesses down on Bridge Street near the famous lift bridge, and there are two beautiful parks down there, Lake Shore Park and Walnut Beach, that have been well maintained.  I still like to go to Lake Shore Park every so often and feed the ducks (although the geese seem to have taken over recently).  Hopefully the economy will turn back around and Ashtabula will bounce back along with the rest of northeast Ohio, but well, I’ve got a feeling the area is going to continue to struggle for awhile.

So I guess I better talk about this album a little bit.  It’s good.  Real good.  Bobby’s lyrics seem to be very personal on this record, mostly talking about failed relationships instead of his usual political rhetoric.  Many of the songs are heartbreaking (“If You See Her, Say Hello” and “Simple Twist of Fate”) while others are embracing the good things before the inevitable break-up (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Shelter from the Storm”).  “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is a great narrative, while “Idiot Wind” is one of his most scathing insult songs.  I picked this up at Used Kids Records for $3 back in June…a great deal for great music (I just wish the case wasn’t cracked).

Other lists: “Tangled Up in Blue” is #68 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

My favorite track: “Simple Twist of Fate”

Honorable mention: “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (However, I would have preferred an Oxford comma in the title)

Quote: “People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act.  Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.”