Album: Wowee Zowee
Released: April 11th, 1995
Highlights: Rattled by the Rush, Black Out, Grounded, Father to a Sister of Thought
If Pavement were a major league pitcher, its repertoire would not contain a single fastball; it would only launch the nastiest stuff, the curveballs that start their trajectory waist-high and finish their journey by touching the dirt by the catcher’s mitt. As the beautiful melodies he comes upon by the dozens reveal, Stephen Malkmus – the group’s songwriter – does have the ability to write a straight-up pop rock song; he, however, simply chooses not to, whether because he is a punk rebel that was born a little bit too late or because he is just overly lazy. Even the sweetest and most likable Pavement tunes reach a point when the wheels come off, making them deteriorate into either a mass of noise or random jams, as if the band could not bring itself to conclude a number without letting their psycho blood get the best of them.
Out of all curveballs the group threw during its career, “Wowee Zowee” was unquestionably the most wicked one. Musically, it is not considerably different from its two predecessors – the noise-dominated “Slanted and Enchanted” and the poppier “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”. It, after all, still combines the alluring and clean jangly guitars of R.E.M., the impossible guitar distortions of Sonic Youth, and the indifferent and careless vocal delivery and lyric-writing that only Malkmus could pull off. However, “Wowee Zowee” seems to be the first time ever Pavement was given carte blanche to do whatever they pleased while in the studio, and the result – apparently – was a productive creative section in which the band threw everything they could at the wall to see what would stick, and then proceeded to burn songs onto the record regardless of whether they were still attached to the surface or forgotten on the floor.
The result is an eighteen-track beautiful mess that sees Pavement achieve fantastic pop rock victories (“Rattled by the Rush”), go through one-minute tunes that exist for the sake of rocking maniacally and serving as inside jokes nobody will ever understand (“Serpentine Pad”), perform thrilling operas of noise (“Half a Canyon”), and build tunes that are so utterly gorgeous (“Father to a Sister of Thought”) it is hard to decide whether Malkmus’ intentionally careless lyrics and singing turn them into wasted opportunities or amazing displays of subversive attitude (the latter option is far more likely). The opener “We Dance”, for example, has a piano and acoustic guitar combination that is so sweet most artists would kill for, but Malkmus chooses to use it as the background for his melodic and ethereal ramblings about the expiration date of the Brazilian nuts one has bought for their engagement.
Surely, many will see “Wowee Zowee” as indulgent, as if the band got way too enamored with their embedded recklessness; and, in a way, it is true, for a couple of tracks should have never made it. However, the album is ultimately fun, because by giving its fans eighteen tracks to pick from, Pavement allows us to choose to focus solely on the over a dozen remarkably great tunes contained within the package or just push the play button, sit back, and bask under all crazy twists and turns “Wowee Zowee” takes. As the nastiest curveball from a wicked pitcher, the record is not an easy one to grasp; those who spend a good time trying to wrap their minds around this madness will certainly be generously rewarded, though.
Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Released: September 9th, 2013
Highlights: Do I Wanna Know?, No. 1 Party Anthem, Fireside, Knee Socks
Gearing up to the release of “AM”, Arctic Monkeys’ leader Alex Turner famously stated that, to his ears, rock had become rather dull, as he found himself unable to be moved by legends of the past and stars of the present alike. According to him, the only music he listened to during the period in which “AM” was being produced was rap and Black Sabbath, and that those two geographically distant poles worked as his guiding lights during the album’s construction. Given how heavy metal and rap are two ingredients of such different natures it is hard to imagine how they would mix, one could easily have looked at Turner’s claims as musical trash talk; eye-catching remarks purposely built with the goal of luring people’s attention towards the album. As it turns out, though, the quotes were not empty: “AM” is a weird spot in which modern hip-hop trends meet heavy guitars that seem to come out of the depths of hell.
That concept is displayed, and masterfully proved, right on the opening track: “Do I Wanna Know?”. Like most songs on the record, it is guided by steady and slow drum beats and a heartbeat-like bass line that are more Dr. Dre than British garage rock; over those, Jamie Cook summons a low guitar tone that delivers a riff that would make Tony Iommi himself rather proud and a weary, yet resolute, Alex Turner addresses a potential love interest, wondering whether or not the feeling flows both ways. “AM” spends its running time alternating between songs that lean more heavily towards hip-hop (“Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”) and tracks that revisit the Arctic Monkeys’ fast-talking hard rock (“R U Mine?”), and on the way it even finds time to deliver a remarkable layered ballad that John Lennon himself could have written (“No.1 Party Anthem”); however, through all its shifts in tonality, it remains musically cohesive.
The album is uniformly dark, but not in the same way as The Cure’s “Pornography”, as it does not feature the cries for help of one who has given in to depression. Its darkness is that of the night, one where a group of friends goes club hopping for the sole sake of chasing girls, and “AM” paints that picture so vividly in its lyrics and music it almost plays like a movie. There is the indecisive girl the singer truly pines for; the various shallow and potential catches he bumps into during the night; and the alternation between moments in which they succeed in making him forget about the pain in his heart and occasions when all he wants to do is give her a call and escape the emptiness of those clubs. There is the sweet excitement of hope, the nervous tension of approaching a target, and the sadness of sitting by the bar and wondering what in the world you are doing.
In theme, “AM”, although thoroughly impressive because of its unity, is not surprising; as even though Alex Turner is one of rock’s most talented lyricist, boy-and-girl troubles have always been his sole subject of focus. Therefore, what takes it over the top is not Turner’s gift for analyzing that storm of feelings with a lot of words and clever sentences, but the group’s ability to merge heavy rock and hip-hop so seamlessly and take their creation to its most natural habitat: the night. Few albums in rock history are able to join theme and music so well, and by conjuring all the thrill, anxiety, and frustration of the sexual chase in all their contours and dilemmas, “AM” is a contemporary work of art.
Album: Fables of the Reconstruction
Released: June 10th, 1985
Highlights: Feeling Gravitys Pull, Driver 8, Life and How to Live It, Green Grow the Rushes
R.E.M. is a band that is historically associated with the American South. Its origins, which can be traced back to the depths of the state of Georgia, have always played a major role in the image they put forth and in the music they wrote. The mystery, the murkiness, and the idiosyncrasy of a rock group that crawled out of the swampy ends of the country and navigated the waves of minor radios to a level super-stardom that did not fit well with their quiet demeanor are part of their legend and legacy, and nowhere is it better exposed than in “Fables of the Reconstruction”. Ironically, though, their most southern album – one whose title makes a reference to the reconstruction the South had to go through after the American Civil War – was produced far away from the United States, under the cold embrace of the foggy London.
Still, the central subject matter of “Fables of the Reconstruction” is not surprising. R.E.M.’s second record, “Reckoning”, focused on being away from home, as the band wrote most of its tunes while out of Georgia on their first nationwide tour, a fact that is quite revealing regarding their affection for their roots and the feeling of being out of place that certainly took over many of the group’s members during the long journeys musicians must undertake. Therefore, with an ocean separating them from the simple confines of their hometown of Athens, R.E.M. changes their sound not by moving away from the gloomy brand of jangle pop rock they had established in “Murmur”, but by sinking further down into the abyss of the South. If “Murmur” and “Reckoning” felt like listening to a post-punk band in a watery swamp, with its sound being muted by the mist; “Fables of the Reconstruction” kidnaps its audience and takes it to a dark cave where southern myths are engraved on the walls.
“Fables of the Reconstruction” comes off as thematically stronger than its predecessors because it marks the point when Michael Stipe started writing lyrics that, instead of being a stream of consciousness soup of words, had meanings – even if obscure. Therefore, the album plays like a kaleidoscope (sans the bright colors) of southern tales and images. “Maps and Legends”, “Life and How to Live It”, and “Old Man Kensey” talk about curious old men the band had met during their college days; “Driver 8” references trains, railways, and people who work by traveling away from home; “Can’t Get There from Here”, “Auctioneer”, and “Good Advices” nod towards a rural way of life; “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, the band’s most sinister song, conjures in five minutes the darkness of the most remote places of the South; and “Wendell Gee” attempts to build a disturbing folk tale that could only have come out of the region.
Musically, “Fables of the Reconstruction” sees R.E.M. stretch their arms past the relatively standard, albeit played quite characteristically, rock arrangements of their early works, as the group toys around with strings (“Feeling Gravitys Pull”), a banjo (“Wendell Gee”), and even a horn section (“Can’t Get There from Here”). Still, this is a record of slow-to-mid tempo tunes that are in equal measures gloomy, alluring, and catchy – the latter quality being highlighted by Stipe’s great melodies. As R.E.M. would move on to a more mainstream sound with its next releases, “Fables of the Reconstruction” easily stands out as their darkest and foggiest effort.
Album: Muswell Hillbillies
Artist: The Kinks
Released: September 24th, 1971
Highlights: 20th Century Man, Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, Alcohol, Muswell Hillbilly
Like two siblings that became estranged from one another due to simple twists of fate, American and British rock have historically developed like two separate entities with no contact with each other whatsoever save for a few brief exchanged letters. While grunge was blowing up in the United States, for instance, the British youth remained entirely aloof towards the phenomenon and embraced the Britpop heroes that appeared as a reaction to a brand of music whose flannel shirts and loud guitars were quite unappealing to most of them. Similarly, numerous other major rock acts were only able to achieve success on one side of the Atlantic, remaining as obscure blips on the radar to folks across the pond. Still, truth is, British rock would never have existed if a pack of teenagers from the United Kingdom had never gotten in touch with the music produced by American musicians, and as such, the queen’s serfs own quite a bit of gratitude to their English-speaking brothers.
Alongside The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others, The Kinks were on the leading edge of the wave of groups that listened to blues, rockabilly, rock and roll, and R&B in order to forge music of their own. And out of all members of that gang, they were certainly the most British: being sarcastic and dry in their humor; dealing with traditions and behaviors that only made sense to British ears; and incorporating vaudeville, music hall, and other British musical traditions into their songwriting. It is rather ironic, and somewhat beautiful, then, that the point in history in which British and American rock came the closest to fusing together to form one musical monster would come to be through their hands: “Muswell Hillbillies”. The title says it all. A mash-up between Muswell Hill, a traditional London suburb in which the Davies brothers inhabited, and “hillbilly”, the American word to designate those who live in the rural and mountainous areas in the United States, it is a nod by four British lads to the country, folk, and blues musicians that made them who they were.
“Muswell Hillbillies” achieves its status as a musical bridge across the Atlantic by being positively British in its themes and absurdly American in its sonority. In “Muswell Hillbilly”, Ray Davies proclaims that even though his home is Muswell Hill, his heart lies in Old West Virginia and he pines for New Orleans, Oklahoma and Tennessee despite the fact he has never been there; and in the folk-tinged ballad “Oklahoma U.S.A.”, he speaks of a girl that is utterly bored by her working-class British life and wishes to travel to Oklahoma to become a star. Such a tone permeates the entire work: the words, paranoia, sarcasm, and problems of modern life contained within the package have been clearly written by British hands; but the music is composed of unfiltered American influences, extracted directly from the source and not changed by any transformation process.
Ultimately, “Muswell Hillbillies” is spectacular for it captures Ray Davies, one of the greatest composers and lyricists of popular music, working at the peak of his powers. His acute observations on the troubles of modern life are carried by witty humor and remarkable melodies, as he dissects the 20th-century man of the album’s opening track with all the sharpness and derision his spirit as an entertainer possesses. The fact it brings together two universes that are so distinct ends up being the artistic cherry on top of this fantastic work, which easily ranks among the band’s best albums.