Album Reviews – 48th Edition

as_you_wereAlbum: As You Were

Artist: Liam Gallagher

Released: October 6th, 2017

Highlights: Wall of Glass, Paper Crown, For What It’s Worth, Chinatown

Following the disbanding of Oasis in 2009, it was common knowledge among fans and music aficionados alike that, out of the two warring Gallagher brothers, Noel would most likely be the one to do better on his own. Surely, Liam – via his voice and behavior – embodied a lot of the coolness, and rock and roll recklessness upon Oasis was built; however, as great as his interpretations might have been, he was – ultimately – a singer who lent voice to the creative work of Noel, whose pen and paper gave birth to many of the greatest anthems of the nineties. It was not shocking, then, that while Noel was able to achieve solid critical acclaim while fronting his own band (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds), Liam struggled to find solid footing with Beady Eye, in which he and other former members of Oasis were left with the task of filling up full albums with fresh material, something they never had to do as a part of the Britpop phenomenon.

After the implosion of Beady Eye, it seems Liam – armed with extra maturity and knowledge – was able to learn two very valuable lessons: first, that with his strong personality, perhaps more stability can be found in a solo career; second, that even though his own songwriting eventually yields shiny gems (such as “Songbird” from Oasis’ “Heathen Chemistry”), he needs collaborators to help him through the ordeal of writing a full album. Those two reasons alone make “As You Were” be remarkable: almost a decade after Oasis exploded as spectacularly as everyone thought they eventually would, the signature voice of the band is once more featured in a record of solid rock songs that will put listeners back in touch with his confrontational persona while also giving them a glimpse of a more sober and older version of Liam Gallagher.

Like Noel has done while fronting the High Flying Birds, Liam never quite treads back towards the bombastic rock sound of Oasis; a rather wise decision given the past cannot be reproduced and the world of music is vast enough to house many new possibilities. Still, through a few hooks (such as the ones found on the choruses of the beautifully layered ballad “For What It’s Worth” and of the pounding “Wall of Glass”) and guitar-oriented pieces (“You Better Run”, “I Get By”, and “Come Back to Me”) he gets pretty close to channeling some Oasis-like vibes, even if the rockers lean towards the generic and passable. It is quite pleasant, though, to see Liam drop his thick outer shell and let vulnerability and more personal songwriting shine through in cuts like the fully acoustic “Chinatown”; in the quiet yet grandiose “Universal Gleam”, where he sings of acquired wisdom; and in “When I’m in Need”, where Liam and Noel’s biggest influence (The Beatles) is clearly perceived from a melodic and lyrical standpoint.

In fact, nodding towards his idols is something Liam does quite a lot in “As You Were”, as he has perhaps seen the freedom of a solo effort as a chance to pay the due respects to those he feels deserve it. Through the record, he either quotes or downright names Neil Young, Joy Division, The Kinks, Talking Heads, Grateful Dead, and others; there is even space for mentioning the title of the second record of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (“Chasing Yesterday”) even though in that instance the reference is more likely meant as a stab rather than a homage. Overall, “As You Were” is surprisingly good, albeit not great. The tracks Liam penned on his own, with the exception of “Universal Gleam”, certainly fall behind those in which he had the help of collaborators: they are not bad, but they fail to impress. Moreover, like his brother, Liam is rather irregular and sometimes too obvious as a lyricist. Nevertheless, the fact that, on the closing days of 2017, the main voice of Oasis has unexpectedly emerged with an album that holds a good amount of excellent tunes is a satisfying gift to the music world.

chain_gang_of_loveAlbum: Chain Gang of Love

Artist: The Raveonettes

Released: August 25th, 2003

Highlights: Remember, That Great Love Sound, Heartbreak Stroll, Little Animal

Sugary pop melodies borrowed straight from girl groups of the 60s and the early work of The Beach Boys combined with a polluted, dark, and noisy ambiance – which can be traced back to “The Velvet Underground and Nico” – provided by fuzzy guitars and blistering bursts of feedback. With such a description, one could easily be talking about The Jesus and Mary Chain; after all, those heterogeneous elements were somehow successfully mixed together in the bowels of Scotland by the Reid brothers and unleashed violently upon the world for the first time in 1985 via a classic album appropriately called “Psychocandy”. Almost two decades later, amidst the rock revival of the early 2000s, that recipe was brought back to the forefront by The Raveonettes in their debut, “Chain Gang of Love”.

As The Jesus and Mary Chain would prove during the course of their great discography, that particular brand of noise pop is – despite its greatness and originality – severely limited. As so, it would be easy to beat on The Raveonettes for treading the very same sonic waters that had been so vastly explored during a not-so-distant past; and, indeed, “Chain Gang of Love” has such blatant echoes of “Psychocandy” that occasionally listeners may be led to think some of its tracks had already been written and put to record by The Jesus and Mary Chain before 2003. However, “Chain Gang of Love” has a set of songs that is so strong, carrying hooks that are so irresistible, that complaints regarding a supposed lack of inventiveness quickly succumb to how The Raveonettes’ catchy bubblegum melodies, paired up with blasts of cacophony, stick to listeners’ minds after a few spins.

It is not all purely derivative, though. Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo, who form the duo, harmonize pretty much through the entire album, thereby accentuating the pop side of the songs a little more than the abrasive noise. Additionally, Sharin Foo’s soothing feminine voice places the tracks closer to the playfulness of the girl groups of the 60s than to the avant-garde mannerisms of The Velvet Underground. Therefore, while The Jesus and Mary Chain tackled pop hooks because it was simply subversive to drown them in unaccessible feedback, The Raveonettes approach them because it is part of their nature. And that makes quite a difference. The brothers who formed The Jesus and Mary Chain could not harmonize if their lives depended on it; furthermore, it was part of their rebellion to sing the sweetest melodies with the utmost indifference. Wagner and Foo, conversely, are clearly having fun amidst the sugar and buzz.

Surely, there are tracks, like “Remember” (which comes packed with a solo guitar line that William Reid would unquestionably applaud) and “Noisy Summer” (which has a discomforting and lengthy explosion of feedback to rival those of “Psychocandy”), where Wagner and Foo pay homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain by singing the lines as if they were bored out of their minds. The Raveonettes, though, anchor their music in previously untouched slices of water when they put enthusiasm behind the hooks they are sending out towards the world, like in the fantastic choruses of “That Great Love Sound” and “Heartbreak Stroll”, which are accompanied by angular riffs that could have appeared on The Strokes’ first two records; in “Let’s Rave On”, which is played at Ramones-like speed; and “Love Can Destroy”, where the pair uses their noise pop to create an unlikely ballad. Among many great records that suddenly poured into the market during the rock revival of the first years of the century, “Chain Gang of Love” is, therefore, an overlooked gem that leaves nothing to be desired when compared to the usual giants of the era.

murray_streetAlbum: Murray Street

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: June 25th, 2002

Highlights: The Empty Page, Disconnection Notice, Karen Revisited

More than an institution of noise rock, Sonic Youth has always stood as a role model for indie bands due to a career arc that saw the group emerging from the American underground scene until they slowly made their way to stardom on their own terms. Therefore, as four individuals who always approached music in the way they saw fit, it is hard to say that by 2002 the band was lost; they were, in fact, precisely where they wanted to be. Still, their latest two releases, “A Thousand Leaves”, from 1998, and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”, from 2000, indicated a key element of their sound was missing, the very item that produced musical masterpieces that bridged the inscrutable experimentalism of dissonant soundscapes with immediate pop flavors. That sweet balance between avant-garde tendencies and likable hooks was too diluted in the long-winded jams of “A Thousand Leaves” and it was completely absent from the unstructured cacophony of “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”. In that sense, “Murray Street” is a moment of epiphany; a point in time when, whether organically or intentionally, Sonic Youth reconnected with their most accessible and best nuances.

It is not that “Murray Street” is devoid of challenges or unchained trips down a rabbit hole of buzz, it actually has plenty of those: “Rain on Tin” opens up with eight brief verses before being sucked into a gripping jam full of ups and downs that continues until the track hits the eight-minute mark; “Karen Revisited” follows three minutes of one of the band’s most hooky melodies with eight minutes of abstract noise; and “Sympathy for the Strawberry” also concludes with a lengthy instrumental segment that shows the band is still embracing the concept of extending songs to their limit, an idea that had been fully explored in “A Thousand Leaves”. In “Murray Street”, however, the band seems to be bent on contrasting beauty with chaos. As so, they build songs that lean as heavily on ringing guitars whose tones have the cleanliness of Television’s “Marquee Moon” as they do on Moore and Ranaldo extracting sounds from their guitars no one thought existed until Sonic Youth came along.

And it is with that concept in their hearts that the band travels through the length of “Murray Street”. Similarly to what happens in a great Pavement record, no song makes it to the end unscathed. The sweet and soft rock of “The Empty Page” features a middle segment where Moore and Ranaldo scratch the strings of their guitars to oblivion; the equally smooth “Disconnection Notice” has an omnipresent wave of feedback looming in its background; the astounding choruses of “Karen Revisited” are haunted by loud bursts of noise that threaten to make the song implode, which is exactly what happens at the three-minute mark, when listeners are taken to a void where only the most confronting sounds exist; and “Plastic Sun” is a short and angry tune where the buzzsaw guitars of punk rock are replaced by what might as well be a buzzsaw itself, only it is lacking oil, creaky, and spinning so out of control it might burst out of its axis at any moment.

Consequently, after seven years during which Sonic Youth opted to explore grounds far removed from those that yielded their finest records, such as “Sister” and “Daydream Nation”, the band comes gloriously back to that realm. “Murray Street” is a remarkably strong record from a group that has been able to maintain an unlikely consistency during a long career. And, much due to its impressive melodic components and sober guitar-playing during the sung portions of the tracks, it might as well be one of Sonic Youth’s most welcoming set of songs, setting the band up nicely for a stunning run of records that would bring a historical and transgressive path to a victorious close.

franks_wild_yearsAlbum: Franks Wild Years

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: August 17th, 1987

Highlights: Hang on St. Christopher, Innocent When You Dream (Barroom), I’ll Be Gone, Yesterday Is Here

“Franks Wild Years” is the final piece of a trilogy that saw Tom Waits transform from a late-night bar crooner who played sorrowful ballads for drunkards and losers into a musical madman who sang like Captain Beefheart and whose band used an assortment of instruments acquired at the nearest landfill. Rather than feeling like a culmination of what preceded it, though, it comes off as comedown; such quality, however, is more closely tied to the excellence of the two legs that came before it than to the tracks it contains. “Swordfishtrombones”, from 1983, was a revelatory explosion of wild and insane ideas that were frantically splattered over the wall of a dark dirty alley located by a shady harbor where drunken sailors, abundant prostitutes, and violent mafia henchmen lurked. “Rain Dogs”, released two years later, was the consolidated masterpiece created in a colorful carnival that had the joy sucked out of it by a downpour, which led its attendees to go from happy families to bums and beggars looking for shelter inside the rides and tents.

“Franks Wild Years” is, therefore, the hangover: the sailors are back to the ocean, the prostitutes have receded into the brothels, the mafia henchmen have been killed, and the beggars and bums are lying unconscious over piles of garbage. Nevertheless, even if the scene is neither as refreshing and alluring as the one from “Swordfishtrombones” nor as inspired as the one from “Rain Dogs”, “Franks Wild Years” is quite fruitful, frantic, and varied. All the usual suspects from Waits’ rackety orchestra of lunatics are here: there are enough horns to assemble a big band, there is a melancholic accordion over which Tom sings at his most intoxicated, there is a piano for when sadness seeps in, there are keyboards and electric organs that are employed to create a foggy atmosphere, there are more kinds of percussive instruments than one can find in a calypso ensemble, and there is even a rooster, whose playing (done by undisclosed means) is credited to Tom Waits himself. With that army of instruments, which are most certainly in precarious states, Tom tackles – and finds success – in numerous genres, giving his restless spin to each one of them and somehow bringing it all together under an idiosyncratic umbrella.

Originally serving as songs for a play Waits wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, “Franks Wild Years” follows the titular character through a sleazy trail that alternates hope and despair, which are always underscored by a destructive nature that appears right in the opener, “Hang on St. Christopher”, where Frank – who is driving recklessly – asks the patron saint of drivers for protection. As Frank takes his emotional turns upwards and downwards, the record zaps stylistically: “I’ll Be Gone” can bet better described as pirate music; “Straight to the Top” gets two wildly different versions, one in which Waits dabbles in rumba and another where he emulates Frank Sinatra; “Train Song” is a traditional Waits bawler where the piano takes center stage; “Temptation” is carried by the Cuban guitar of Marc Ribot; “Innocent When You Dream”, which earns two version as well, is an irresistible and tipsy sing-along; and “I’ll Take New York” is another shot at Frank Sinatra territory, only – in this case – Frank is too inebriated to care and his band has not rehearsed in a decade.

As such, even though the position of “Franks Wild Years” in Tom Waits discography has led many to qualify it as a lesser release – and it indeed is inferior to the two albums that came before it, such a drop does not stop it from being utterly remarkable. Due to the fact its tunes originated on the stage, as part of the same play, there is a thematic and atmospheric coherence that permeates the entire work, one that lends it a cinematic aura, as if it songs were meant to conjure – and perhaps be accompanied by – moving images. It is a trip through the back alleys of life guided by the always watchful, insightful, and romantic eye of Tom Waits, and he expresses what he sees and gives life to the characters that inhabit his mind in unashamed musical experimentation and rich lyrical imagery.

2 thoughts on “Album Reviews – 48th Edition

  1. Some really neat write-ups here Matt. Sonic Youth have always left me a bit cold though, but I’m a big fan of the Raveonettes, I wish I’d bought their stuff on LP at the time though, it’s worth a fortune now.

    1. The Raveonettes are awesome! They have a pretty solid discography, save for Pretty In Black, which does not do anything for me. I had no idea their LPs cost a fortune nowadays.

      Too bad about Sonic Youth!

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