Album: #1 Record
Artist: Big Star
Released: June 1st, 1972
Highlights: Feel, The Ballad of El Goodo, In the Street, Thirteen
The history of rock music has been partially paved with the tales of a number of bands that while critically acclaimed and tremendously influential, never got their dues on a commercial level. Surely, it would have been too much to expect that all remarkable groups be widely remembered and revered on a scale similar to that of giants like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Still, it would certainly be nice to see the unsung heroes of the genre be more than a bleep on the radar that is only uncovered by those who dig far into its rich musical well. While some groups, such as The Velvet Underground and the Pixies got the respect they deserved down the line, for the banners of their glories were hoisted by acts that made it big – David Bowie and Nirvana, respectively; others never got there, for their greatness was praised by those who were, themselves, outcasts who embraced the existence on a rung below the mainstream.
Big Star falls into that second group. The brilliancy of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens was alluded to by both R.E.M. and The Replacements, bands that were too true to a non-conformist essence to break their musical principles and hang onto the radio waves by bending the knee to the industry’s wishes. And so, the three classic records that form the cornerstone of their legend have become secluded and unexplored stops along the rock music highway. “#1 Record” captures the group exploring the purest essence of their sound: Big Star may have been an American band formed almost a decade after the British Invasion, but anyone listening to “#1 Record” without any external knowledge would easily put the album’s release somewhere around 1967, as it stands somewhere between The Beatles’ sonic experiments and chamber pop explorations, and The Kinks’ hard rock days and pastoral period.
The first half of the album sees Bell handling vocal duties on vicious rockers whose simple yet powerful riffs share their DNA with The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, a link that becomes even clearer due to how Bell’s shrill voice is close to that of Dave Davies; while Chilton brings delightful innocence to the gorgeous acoustic tracks of “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and “Thirteen”, which carry the peaceful sonority of The Kinks during their “The Village Green Preservation Society” era, moving low-key melodies which can be traced to McCartney’s “Yesterday”, and the angelic harmonies The Beatles had perfectly mastered. “The India Song”, a piece of psychedelic pop rock, and “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, which would have been right at home on one of The Beatles’ first four albums alongside other straightforward and sweetened rock and roll reinterpretations, serve as a pleasant interlude before “#1 Record” unleashes a moving onslaught of five peaceful pastoral ballads that take the album, floating on clouds of harmonies and melody, all the way to its conclusion.
Truly, it is not a fully original mixture; however, it is remarkable for when it happened, as by 1972 the British Invasion had already left its mark on the general cultural spectrum and sailed straight onto the pages of rock history books. Big Star came out to show that someone in the Southern United States had paid great attention and developed a profound love for what The Kinks and The Beatles had done in their primes; and such infatuation ran so true and deep inside the hearts of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell they wanted to create their own take on those classic sounds. The outpour of that confluence of admiration and talent found its way onto “#1 Record”, an album clouded by the fog of time and obscurity, but that is nevertheless a treasured and highlighted spot on the maps of all musical sailors who ventured into the little-visited waters surrounding it.
Album: Licensed To Ill
Artist: Beastie Boys
Released: November 15th, 1986
Highlights: Rhymin & Stealin, Fight for Your Right, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, Brass Monkey
To put it quite simply, the Beastie Boys – as portrayed in “Licensed To Ill” – could be the classroom jerks of any average high school out there. It is easy to picture the 1986 versions of Adam Horvitz (Ad-Rock), Michael Diamond (Mike D), and Adam Yauch (MCA) sitting in the back of a classroom and cracking the world’s most obnoxious jokes while thinking highly enough of themselves to look at their classmates with a boatload of swagger and superiority. Surely, those kinds of folks do have their moments of victory, such as when they make the entire room burst out laughing or succeed in poking fun at someone who is universally despised by the whole class. Ultimately, however, unbeknown to them, but not to teachers and students, the classroom jerks are more pitied than beloved, because deep down it is universally known the jokes and annoying behavior are a shield or a life-vest that allows them to either protect themselves or stay afloat in the general misery of their losing lives.
How is it possible, then, to explain the brilliancy of “Licensed To Ill” as well as the musical genre-transcending legend that the Beastie Boys have become if the album and their career were built with the very same tools used by classroom jerks around the world? The clueless superiority is there: the Beastie Boys are the sort of guys who think getting thrown out of the local fast-food joint is the ultimate sign of badassery, and they will broadcast such a feat by rapping it onto the vinyl. The unjustified swagger is absolutely present: Ad-Rock, Mike D, and Adam Yauch think they are better than you and the rest of the world, and they will let you know about it (most likely while running away with your and everybody else’s girlfriends). And the ridiculous jokes are constant: this hip-hop ensemble does not use punchlines, because such a comedic tool requires a build-up, and the Beastie Boys are not developed enough for such subtlety; their attempts to deliver burns and climaxes are relentless.
The explanations behind why everything clicks in place are simple. Firstly, there is the gift of self-awareness. Classroom jerks are unconscious of the fact they are losers; the Beastie Boys, meanwhile, embrace it. They know how goofy it is that three white dudes think they can walk the streets of New York with the sway and style of black rappers, and they jump so fearlessly towards the silly stereotype it is borderline satirical, yet not blatant enough to make listeners sure they are not being serious about it. Secondly, there is the sheer smartness of the lines: where classroom jerks are occasionally witty, the Beastie Boys pack more references and jokes into their lyrics than one is able to identify after many dozens of listens; and save for “Girls”, whose sexist remarks come off as offensive under the light of the 21st century, they all still hold up.
Finally, there is the sheer musical and vocal talent. “Licensed To Ill” unites tracks built around sampled classic rock riffs and songs with simple turntable beats and scratches, and all numbers gain power due to the vocal exchanges between the three remarkable and unusual voices of the trio. Whether they are pillaging and plundering while leading a mutiny on a ship (“Rhymin & Stealin”), first meeting while robbing a saloon (“Paul Revere”), recklessly ignoring the need for rest while going wild on tour (“No Sleep Till Brooklyn”), or just fighting the good fight for our unalienable rights to party (“Fight For Your Right”), the Beastie Boys deliver the goods in “Licensed to Ill”. It is hard to shake the feeling they are classroom jerks after all; but if they are, they are made of a damn fine and special material. One that is good enough to make anyone want to join them in whatever antics they are planning on pulling.
Released: June 12th, 2007
Highlights: For a Pessimist I’m Pretty Optimistic, Misery Business, When It Rains, Crushcrushcrush
For most pop punk bands, either those that emerged from the ashes of the punk rock movement at the end of the 70s or those that took the genre to the mainstream radio waves at the turn of the century, achieving maturity was always a problem. Most of those acts became so deeply entrenched inside the niche they had initially built that they seemed to refuse to get out; tackling teenage angst over angry guitars ended up turning into a shackling comfort zone that, ironically, ended up trapping musicians that were – seemingly – nonconformists. Consequently, as they grew older, those bands had a tendency to transform into caricatures of themselves, for there is something inherently fake and forced when adults write about topics that afflict adolescents, especially in a tone of repressed frustration that is most common to those under the age of twenty.
As it turns out, Paramore is one of the groups that was smartly able to get out of that hole before it ate them alive. “Riot!”, however, is not the record in which they made that jump, which is perfectly understandable when one considers Hayley Williams and Josh Farro – the group’s two main songwriters – were, respectively, eighteen and nineteen when they put it together. “Riot!”, though, is when the signs Paramore would be able to break out of their cage began to show. In a way, those indications were always there: not only was the band ridiculously young when they assembled their debut (“All We Know Is Falling”), but Hayley – in her singing, lyrics, and behavior – always put forth an image that was sweet and honest rather than calculated and engineered by the marketing sector of a major label, which made the relationship issues described in her lyrics come off as genuine and the arrival of maturity to be looming on the horizon.
Through most of its running time, “Riot!” employs the same formula established in “All We Know Is Falling”, which means crunchy guitar riffs on the verses and sudden kicks into overdrive for sweeping anthemic choruses, a somewhat commonplace duality for the genre, but one that – in the case of Paramore – allows Williams to, respectively, show her power of interpretation and her stunning vocal talent. Singing, however, is not her sole prowess. By being centered around the same song structures, Paramore’s first works could have easily become meandering efforts that lack defining traits. Yet, that does not happen, because – melodically – Williams hits the nail on the head almost every single time, and it is not only because she has especially gifted lungs and vocal chords; it is also due to melodies that are truthfully good and effective.
What makes “Riot!” stand out as a more confident effort than its predecessor, though, is how – in four of the eleven tracks it contains – the band is shown stretching their wings past pop punk standards. “When It Rains” and “We Are Broken” are two gorgeously wonderful ballads, the former being highlighted by Josh Farro’s tasteful ringing guitar tone and the latter featuring a beautiful piano that gives William’s voice the spotlight it always deserves; additionally, “Crushcrushcrush” uses a steady synthesizer that lends the song some rather unique dynamics when compared to the group’s other heavy tunes, and “Fences” swings like a rockabilly track, which makes it a fun, loose, unpretentious, and unexpected presence in the album, giving it some much needed levity. In spite of still displaying many of the quirks of pop punk, then, “Riot!” – given the paths Paramore would follow in its future – is a first consistent and strong step out of the genre’s often inescapable cage. And the fact the band started that process when they had yet to reach twenty speaks volumes about their talent and the authenticity of their devotion to music.
Album: The Age of the Understatement
Artist: The Last Shadow Puppets
Released: April 15th, 2008
Highlights: The Age of the Understatement, Calm Like You, My Mistakes Were Made for You, The Meeting Place
Understatement is not a word that is exactly suiting for the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. He is, after all, a man that – from an early age – built a songwriting career out of talking about emotions, ideas, thoughts, and desires as blatantly and directly as possible while exhaling the suave demeanor of someone who is not one tiny bit concerned about regretting it, as if he knows (or thinks) there is no way he can lose. It is not surprising, therefore, that about two minutes into the debut record of his side-project, The Last Shadow Puppets, when the opening song is reaching its apex, “The Age of the Understatement” gains a somewhat sarcastic meaning. Alongside Miles Kane, of The Rascals, Turner uses the term to refer to a woman who rents her affection to anyone who is willing to pay the price, and she does it so naturally and frequently he states that even saying something like that is a massive understatement in the description of her behavior; his apparently bold and exaggerated words are not quite enough.
And, quite frankly, that comes as a massive relief, because there is something unshakably uncomfortable about the mere thought of watching Alex Turner operate in a low-key manner. There is absolutely nothing restrained about the first record of the trio, which also includes James Ford; in fact, it is lush, lavishing, and extravagant to the point it is a miracle it does not hit as overly pompous music. It rescues baroque pop – the mixture of rock music and classical orchestration – from the grave it had been lying in by pairing it up with the fast-pace and frantic marching beats of the Arctic Monkeys, albeit with guitars that appear far more subdued than they are in Turner’s original group in order to allow the string arrangements to be displayed in equal footing with the standard rock instrumentation.
Consequently, where The Beatles and The Beach Boys forged baroque pop as a bed for angelic melodies, heavenly harmonies, and soothing lyrics to rest on, The Last Shadow Puppets create an unexpected, subversive, and punk version of the style. The melodies are mostly aggressive, as if Turner and company are always aiming a finger (or a weapon) at someone while exposing their target’s weaknesses and flaws; the harmonies are almost non-existent, for Turner and Kane’s shared vocals are better defined as singing together than harmonizing; and the lyrics talk of affection not by dressing it up in beautifully crafted words, but via the expression of that feeling in its rawest, sincerest, and – thereby – most brutal manner, an approach that undoubtedly allows Turner to unleash his machine-gun mouth, spitting out smart phrases at faster rates than one can follow.
Smartly, though, The Last Shadow Puppets do not explore baroque pop for the sole purpose of tackling, by using a rather distinct approach, tunes that could have appeared on an Arctic Monkeys album. They, in fact, unearth a couple of gems that are products of trying something new and drinking from different sources: “The Meeting Place” and “The Time Has Come”, which are so relaxingly laid-back they could have been bossa nova songs written by the masters of the genre at Ipanema Beach. As a result, although “The Age of the Understatement” may justifiably seem like an Arctic Monkeys work that has been hijacked by Phil Spector’s orchestrated walls of sound, it is an intriguing take on baroque pop that revives the style – if not definitely at least briefly – and holds an impressive number of strong tunes with a few interesting detours along the way.