Album Reviews – 36th Edition

back_in_blackAlbum: Back in Black

Artist: AC/DC

Released: July 25th, 1980

Highlights: Hells Bells, Shoot to Thrill, Back in Black, You Shook Me All Night Long

“Back in Black” is an oddity. There is no other way to put it. After six years on that elusive long way to the top, an already successful band produces their masterpiece – “Highway to Hell” – only to, during the same year, lose its vocalist and lyricist, Bon Scott, the man responsible for the melodies that stood on the incredible riffs of the Young brothers and a singer who was the dirty visual representation of the group’s thematic of sex, booze, and music. The band could have easily contemplated putting an end to their wild run; or, even worse, they could have opted to continue their high-speed journey to Satan’s fiery furnaces only to fall apart with a shameful post-morten release. Instead, AC/DC quickly hopped back to the studio with a replacement singer and came out of it with a record that besides surpassing its predecessor, climbed to the pantheon of the greatest albums of all time.

Appropriately, “Back in Black” opens with ominous echoing bells. What could be seen as a sign of mourning, though, quickly shifts towards an apocalyptic scenario. As “Hells Bells” reaches its two-minute mark, it is as if the gates of hell have been blasted open and the deceased Bon Scott has walked right out of them, promising to take listeners to some devilish after-life rock and roll party. That is because Brian Johnson, his replacement, shrieks and hollers with a high pitch that makes him sound a lot like Scott – albeit without much of the inborn filthiness that characterized the latter. In fact, Johnson, mostly due to that scarily similar vocal style, steps so comfortably onto his predecessor’s shoes that it feels as if AC/DC never stopped speeding at all, and “Back in Black” comes off as a mighty continuation – as its title implies – rather than a restart.

Of course, the fact that the band’s music heavily relies on its riffs – skillfully forged by Angus and Malcolm Young, who heavily drink from blues and rock and roll – also has a lot to do with that continuity. And “Back in Black” is ultimately lifted sky-high because, here, the duo seems to be more inspired than ever, pulling off remarkable rhythms, stellar choruses, and simple solos that invite listeners to enjoy the party and let go off their worries. It is feel-good, high-energy music that does not just make it seem as if having fun is the most important matter in the world; it actually reveals that there is nothing more relevant and critical than believing in that old cliché, and AC/DC leads by example, for they overcome a tragic death and go back to having a blast and creating some of their finest songs.

Perhaps no other line defines what the band does here better than one found in the album’s closer “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, as Brian Johnson wisely sings “Rock and roll ain’t no riddle, man / To me it makes good, good sense”. Although rightfully accused of being a group that has never changed its sound, AC/DC embraces the lack of riddles and mysteries to their music, and that transforms a weakness into a shield. They might be a band whose songwriting skills operate under a rather tight umbrella, but no other group embodies the youthful spirit of rock as well as they do through their simple songs and numerous lyrics exclusively concerned with drinking, women, and music. And “Back in Black” is the defining example of that formula; an enormous historic statement of mindless rock and roll. It makes great sense.

revolution_radioAlbum: Revolution Radio

Artist: Green Day

Released: October 7th, 2016

Highlights: Bang Bang, Outlaws, Still Breathing, Too Young To Die

During the twelve years that preceded the release of “Revolution Radio”, Green Day worked in two gears: one of operatic grandeur, seen in full display in the theatrical guitar statements of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown”; and one of bloated prolificness, exposed in 2012 when, over a period of four months, the group put out three albums of original material that, in total, held thirty-seven songs. Therefore, in a way, “Revolution Radio” is mundane: a brief focused package of twelve songs that proves Billie Joe Armstrong has a ridiculously unbelievable ability to adorn punk riffs and rhythms that are somewhat similar with melodies that are catchy and unmistakable. At the same time, it manages to come off as pleasantly refreshing, because given 2000’s “Warning”, the album that came before that run of extravagance, had a knack for unexpected eclecticism, it is possible to say the last time the group sounded this fierce and immediate was in 1997’s “Nimrod”.

The version of Green Day that emerges from that lengthy musical voyage may carry a no-frills-all-thrills philosophy that relates to their early years. However, their recent experiments and successes have certainly changed them. For starters, in many of the tracks – like the opener “Somewhere Now”, which begins with a gentle acoustic picking; and “Still Breathing”, the poppiest tune they may have ever recorded – the group plays around with transitions from quiet moments to loud explosions, one of the main musical motifs of their two rock operas. From those works, Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool also borrow marching rhythms that lead to anthemic choruses, as it happens in “Say Goodbye”, a song that would be right at home in “American Idiot”; and lengthier compositions that border on being multi-phased tracks, such as “Somewhere Now”, “Outlaws”, and “Forever Now”, the latter of which is broken up in three distinct pieces.

Thematically, “Revolution Radio” also owes a whole lot to the pair of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown”, as it is drenched in political and social ideas. The lead single, the vicious “Bang Bang”, explores the mind of a mass-shooter, and many of the record’s other tracks tackle similar issues related to the violence that seems to permeate modern society as a whole. The title cut was inspired by the riots of the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing a positive take on the fact people are inclined to fight for what is right. Similarly, but also contrarily, “Say Goodbye” looks at all that social unrest with a drop of fear and concern, wondering about how awful a world in which actions like those are necessary is. Given he is free from overarching concepts and scripts, though, Armstrong also finds the time to veer away from those themes and write about the boredom of life (“Somewhere Now”), the rebellion of youth (“Outlaws”), and his young wife (“Youngblood”).

“Revolution Radio” neither pushes any boundaries nor presents any musical surprises; with a few rare exceptions, Green Day never really aimed to be the sort of band that dabbles in that. It is, however, an album that rocks with loud passion, is filled with great tunes, and packs remarkable melodies in every one of its corners. After a long detour that yielded two excellent rock operas, with one of them ranking as one of the few rock albums of this century to achieve widespread popularity and have impact beyond the musical spectrum, it is good to have a leaner version of Green Day back.

night_thoughtsAlbum: Night Thoughts

Artist: Suede

Released: January 22nd, 2016

Highlights: Outsiders, No Tomorrow, I Don’t Know How to Reach You, Tightrope

With the unfair benefit of hindsight, it is easy to claim “Night Thoughts” is the album Suede was always destined to make. Although they were not the only Britpop band to play around with theatrical elements, as Blur – more specifically Damon Albarn – had an incredible knack for composing sarcastic character studies that belonged to the stage, they were certainly unique in the fact their musical plays were dramatized tales of sex, drugs, depression, suicide, and other experiences dealt with by those who lived in the moral outskirts of society. It was a look-at-me approach that only found a parallel in glam rock; only, the rock and roll rhythms were replaced by the hooks and guitars Britpop called for, even if the themes exposed, much to the discomfort of the petty, remained subversive.

It is not surprising, then, that “Night Thoughts” feels like a fifty-minute rock opera. It, however, replaces the spotlights of a stage for the projections of a movie theater, and it is not just a matter of perception: the album is actually accompanied by a film about a man drowning on a deserted beach and the remembrances that play inside his mind as he fights for life while preparing for death. It is hard to know which of the concepts came first, the motion picture itself or the album’s construction as something that transits between a soundtrack and a record packed with great tunes, but from the first minute of “When You Are Young”, which begins with a full-blown orchestra that is followed by a guitar-and-drums stomp, it is clear “Night Thoughts” aims for grandeur, both thematically and musically. Such tendencies also become apparent in “When You Were Young”, which – as the title implies – revisits the opening number; and the pair of “Pale Snow” and “Learning to Be”, two atmospheric pieces with a heavy focus on lush instrumentation.

Still, “Night Thoughts” is not one of those albums that naively succumbs to its bold aspirations, and that is not just because Suede has always had a built-in aura of extravagance – albeit far more subdued than how it is shown here. For every intriguing track with conceptual inclinations, there are at least two straight-up classics. “Outsiders”, “For Tomorrow”, and “Like Kids” have sweeping and snaking guitar lines that were so frequent in the band’s early works, and – in traditional Suede fashion – even though they are rockers, the three tracks feature gorgeous powerful choruses that could be easily transported to dramatic ballads. “What I’m Trying to Tell You” follows suit in that regard, but opts to build its momentum on a dancy riff that is a clear link to the days of the group’s poppiest records: “Coming Up” and “Head Music”. Where “Night Thoughts” truly comes together, though, is in the quartet of “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”, “Tightrope”, “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants”, and “The Fur and the Feathers”; tracks that balance pop rock and theatrics (two elements the band has always utilized) with their new-found love for cinematic spectacle, as they combine plenty of atmospheric value with bountiful hooks.

Following a hiatus that lasted twelve years, which included a messy breakup, 2013’s “Bloodsports” showed Suede operating on a level that could only be compared to the groove the band was in during their first two albums. “Night Thoughts” builds on that reconnection with quality songwriting and takes the group to previously uncharted waters where the emotional distress Brett Anderson was made to sing about is amplified. Veteran bands that are either returning from the dead or surfing on the waves of a lengthy uninterrupted career are supposed to be unable to make music that stands side-by-side with the golden material of their glorious era. Yet, the astounding quality that unites “Bloodsports” and “Night Thoughts” seems to indicate that such a rule can be broken; even if it is only on rare occasions.

heart_of_saturday_nightAlbum: The Heart of Saturday Night

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: October 1st, 1974

Highlights: New Coat of Paint, San Diego Serenade, Fumblin’ With the Blues, Drunk On the Moon

Tom Waits’ debut, 1973’s “Closing Time”, was a trip to a charming poorly lit bar in the middle of a frantic metropolis. The journey, however, was one that took place a little bit too late: by then, the night was not young and full of promises; sunrise was already around the corner, and a miserable bartender was counting the minutes until he could escort the last few drunk patrons out of the establishment and call it a night. A young man sat by the piano singing of melancholy, nostalgia, and lost love to the ears of those who had nothing better to do than to be there. “The Heart of Saturday Night” does not get away from that setting: it is the same bar, the same bartender, the same metropolis, the same young man by the piano, and – maybe – even the same night. What it does do is move its starting time to a few hours earlier; to when promises and expectations still exist, and people are looking for the heart of the action rather than at the bottom of an empty glass.

“The Heart of Saturday Night”, then, in a way, follows the mold of its stellar predecessor. Tom Waits gives his small audience a glimpse of his talent as a singer-songwriter, which here is comparable to that of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, by – like those two men in their early days – dressing his melodies and lyrics in simplicity. The difference between them is that while Dylan and Young did it with folk and country, Waits aims for jazz and blues, with his piano-playing taking center stage in all but two of the record’s eleven tunes, usually accompanied by lush orchestration or by a full-blown jazz ensemble with horns, drums, and bass. Meanwhile, the similarity between them is their uncanny ability to unearth remarkable melodies with every passing song, something that transforms “The Heart of Saturday Night” into a work that is invariably moving.

Waits, perhaps due to his constant touring through small clubs and bars that suited his material, shows he is a skilled architect of nighttime exuberance both in music and lyrics. The former element, by itself, would be more than enough to evoke images of a bright moon shining high above dark streets populated with the noise and lights of all kinds of joints and their customers; however, it is the wishfulness and strength of Waits’ voice, joined by his beautiful lyrical imagery, that take “The Heart of Saturday Night” over the top. Lines like “And I’m blinded by the neon / Don’t try and change my tune / Cause I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon” and “You know the bartenders / They all know my name / And they catch me when I’m pulling up lame / And I’m a pool-shooting-shimmy-shyster shaking my head / When I should be living clean instead” paint gorgeous pictures by themselves, and, when backed by music that is blissful and evocative, they form a synergy that is almost unmatched.

Given the delightfully odd detours he would take later in his career, “The Heart of Saturday Night” – along with “Closing Time” – are a showcase of Tom Waits at his most accessible and immediately likable state. Few albums out there are as cohesive in the thoughts and images they paint, and even fewer feature such an incredible level of songwriting prowess. Whether he is tackling more energetic numbers (“Diamonds on My Windshield”, “Fumblin’ With the Blues”, and “New Coat of Paint”) or dabbling in melancholy (“Please Call Me, Baby” and “San Diego Serenade”), Waits is always hitting his mark, and “The Heart of Saturday Night” is bound to fill with joy – even if it is of the contemplative kind – the most miserable drunkards, the greatest admirers of nighttime life, and all of those with a strong love for good music.

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