Artist: Neil Young & Promise of the Real
Released: June 19th, 2015
Highlights: People Want to Hear About Love, Big Box, A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop, Monsanto Years
Neil Young is not one to step down from a political debate. A man of the protest singer-songwriter era, he has – differently from Bob Dylan, who got tired of being called “the voice of a generation” – never abandoned the fight for what he thinks is right. As he has gotten older, though, the once gifted subtlety he had to approach those themes has disappeared: where once were poetical, yet fierce, tunes like “Ohio” and “After the Gold Rush”; 21st century Neil has, when his will strikes, devoted entire albums to matters that bother him. “Living with War”, from 2006, was written within nine days after Young noticed nobody in the musical business would step up to confront George W. Bush through songwriting; and “Fork in the Road”, released three years later, was a conceptual garage rock work against fossil fuels and in favor of alternative energies.
“The Monsanto Years” is yet another album with that same approach. All of its songs are blatantly aimed towards the same target: the titular agribusiness giant. Through the tracks, Young accuses Monsanto of damaging people’s health (“People Want To Hear About Love”), being perverse to nature (“Wolf Moon”), breaking the law without being punished due to their size and lobbying power (“Big Box”), joining forces with Starbucks to veto a law proposed in the state of Vermont that would force all genetically modified food and derivatives to feature a label indicating their nature (“A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”), crushing small independent producers in court (“Workin’ Man”), patenting – with the aid of a corrupt judicial system – seeds (“Rules Of Change”), and scheming to monopolize the market (“Monsanto Years”).
As a testament to Neil’s unmatched level as a songwriter, “The Monsanto Years” is great. Backed up by Promise of the Real, a group led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, he forges a dirty, angry, distorted, and loose rock sound inside the same furnace from which the guttural wails of Crazy Horse came from. The melodies are catchy, and even though most of the album has a vitriolic vibe, it is clear to see the old man had a blast recording it. Conversely, as a testament to Young’s recent rushed approach to composing, the lyrics are problematic. Some might argue they are purposely obvious so that the issue is clear, but their overly literal nature makes them sound awkward.
There are a few great moments here and there, such as on “Big Box” when – through a Crazy Horse inspired mix of country harmonies over a viciously loud and mean instrumentation – Neil and crew sing “Too big to fail / Too rich for jail” as they point the finger towards every huge company or wealthy businessman who knows they can break the law without consequences thanks to their power. However, despite the fact its lyrics come off as being quickly put together by a marvelous artist who wanted to get his message across as fast and directly as possible, “The Monsanto Years” is worth a listen due to its incredible melodies.
Artist: Nick Drake
Released: February 25th, 1972
Highlights: Pink Moon, Place to Be, Which Will, Things Behind the Sun
Nick Drake’s third album, and the last one he would release before his unfortunate death, is far more intimate than anything that preceded it. Here, the folk legend who would only get his due admiration years after his passing chose to replace the lush and elaborate production of both “Five Leaves Left” and “Bryter Layter” with stripped down melancholy. The strings and arrangements that added size to his guitar-and-voice tunes are gone; and, other than a simple piano on the title track, the record’s brief twenty-eight minutes gravitate around Nick’s playing and his remarkable voice.
When stripped off its studio ornaments, weak songs fall to the ground; however, on “Pink Moon”, as proof of Drake’s songwriting, the tracks soar to some blissful landscape. His deep affecting singing is that of a man whose wisdom transcends his young age; he delivers lines with the humility of a folk singer, and with an insightful weight that could only be achieved by a very attentive observer. Nick’s learning, unfortunately, had been painful – a condition derived from the sensitivity that gifted him with an incredible talent, yet placed a heavy emotional burden he had trouble carrying – and his lyrics show it.
“Pink Moon” announces the coming of the satellite as an omen for bad luck; “Place to Be” shows the resignation of a man that had learned to live with the darkness he absorbed from the world around him; “Road” depicts the choosing of a path that will allow survival instead of one that leads to greater things; “Things Behind the Sun” paints, through a web of words, a contrast between honesty and pretending to be someone you are not; “Parasite” is a haunting take on depression, one that could only have been written by someone who had been through it; and “From the Morning” wraps it all up by using the briefness of the day as an allegory for the shortness of life itself.
Like the two works that came before it, “Pink Moon” emits a sinister vibe, and – from a place embedded in gloominess – Nick Drake delivers his sung poetry in an impressively effective and moving way. It is not a perfect record; “Horn” – a short instrumental that goes nowhere, and “Know” – which begins with over a minute of humming before moving on to a average melody are both a bit lackluster. In spite of that, it stands as one of the finest examples of the singer-songwriter genre and it features a foreboding aura of despair that folk music has failed to reach either before or since its release.
Released: February 8th, 1977
Highlights: See No Evil, Venus, Marquee Moon, Torn Curtain
Out of the door of the legendary CBGB – the notorious and historic New York club that was partially responsible for ushering in a fantastic musical era – came various shapes and styles of punk artists. The Ramones were basic and straightforward, Patti Smith joined rock with poetry, Blondie bridged the gap between the roughness of punk and a multitude of other styles, and the Talking Heads touched on bouncy rhythms and awkward melodies. Then, there was Television and their debut “Marquee Moon”, the precise point on which the stripped down energetic recordings of punk, not to mention the lovable-outcasts vibe emitted by the genre’s musicians, met arty and avant-garde terrain formerly explored by another mammoth New York act a decade earlier: The Velvet Underground.
“Marquee Moon” is, above all, a guitar record. Although Tom Verlaine’s production and creative control over the album’s sessions do plenty of justice to all instruments, which are homogeneously wonderfully recorded, the guitars reign superior over the soundscape. Their sound is pure, precise, and clean, but that neatness never strips “Marquee Moon” of its punk rock air; the eight numbers contained here are ragged, edgy, and so messy – adjectives that also apply to Verlaine’s singing – one frequently wonders if the quartet will make it unscathed to the end of the song. However, the reason the album is so unique and revolutionary is due to its blend of those rough elements with progressive quirks, jazz-like improvisation, and cryptic lyrics inspired by French Poetry that travel between confusion, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and enlightenment.
Yet, despite its daring mixture, “Marquee Moon” is utterly accessible. The opener “See No Evil” has a delightful hooky chorus, while “Venus”, which contains the stand-out line “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo”, is gorgeous and is constantly accompanied by a beautiful soloing guitar. All of the eight songs present here have plenty of lures to draw listeners in, but what truly takes them to legendary territory is the remarkable omnipresent interplay between Verlaine and Lloyd’s guitars, which ends up culminating on the album’s key tracks: the ten-minute titular song and its long instrumental segment; and “Torn Curtain”, a seven-minute dark and obscure look at traumas of the past with a haunting piano-accompanied chorus and a blistering closing guitar solo that makes the song earn its position as the closer.
“Marquee Moon” wisely separates those two lengthy and more demanding efforts with shorter – but still long for punk standards – tunes that still house plenty of complexity whereas featuring blatant hooks, including the borderline ballad “Guiding Light”; “Friction”, the record’s wildest cut; the menacing “Elevation”; and the detective story of “Prove It”. With those pieces set in place, “Marquee Moon” stands – easily – as one of the greatest records of all time, and it is no surprise its astounding quality and unique sound make it a mind-blowing musical revelation to most that listen to it.
Artist: Talking Heads
Released: October 8th, 1980
Highlights: Crosseyed and Painless, The Great Curve, Once in a Lifetime, Listening Wind
Quirky. That’s an adjective that is easy to associate with the Talking Heads; a quality that was ever present in all of their releases. “Remain in Light”, the fourth of their eight studio records, marks the point on which that peculiar unpredictability ran so delightfully rampant it transcended the invisible barriers of the rock genre. Where “Talking Heads: 77”, “More Songs About Buildings and Food”, and “Fear of Music” were mostly centered around punk riffs played to dancing beats and bouncing melodies, “Remain in Light” was guided by the fresh encounter of wild energetic African rhythms and electronic elements.
Considering the Talking Heads were always masters in the craft of coming up with remarkable grooves, that blend does not come too far out from left field; it feels like a natural step forward, as the quartet fully embraces the unrestrained wackiness of their sound. Yet, the fact their musicality has gone through an evolution that comes off as organic does not diminish the brilliancy of the progression; the sound that is found here is absolutely unorthodox, and it would be no absurd to claim that only the Talking Heads could use all the pieces available to put together immediately likable and irresistible numbers.
Some songs, such as “Seen and Not Seen” with its spoken vocals and the beautiful “Listening Wind”, which features one of the album’s best choruses, rely on African percussion and Brian Eno’s beats. “Remain in Light”, however, is at its peak when those items collide with the group’s frantic guitars. “Crosseyed and Painless”, for example, is led by intersecting and highly rhythmical riffs; the urgent six-minute “The Great Curve”, meanwhile, presents shredding solos that divide the song’s chaotic body; and “Once in a Lifetime” reaches for anthemic grounds when its electronic verses culminate in a guitar-based chorus whose melody is downright catchy.
Truthfully, even though it is generally regarded as the Talking Heads’ greatest work, “Remain in Light” falters a bit on its second half, which lacks a bit of the maniacal energy present in the album’s first four tracks. The bottom line, however, is that by turning jams into the fuel for their material and by adding beats and percussion to their propensity to write danceable numbers, the band greatly multiplied their already impressive originality and turned in an absolutely mesmerizing work.