Thinking of a Place

Live Drugs, The War on Drugs, 2020

My relationship to a band I love isn’t entirely solidified until I see them play live. I want to obsess over the band for a week before the show, I want to talk about possible setlists with the people who are going with me to the show, I want to chat with strangers standing near me at the show, I want to see what guitars are on stage.

More importantly, though, I think it’s obvious when a band is passionate about the music they make, and seeing that passion in person affirms my love of the music in some way. I saw The War on Drugs a few months ago, and they did exactly what I want a band to do at a live show. The songs weren’t rote copies of their studio counterparts, and it was clear Adam Granduciel and company cared deeply about the music they were playing. Live Drugs, their 2020 live album, presents (in abbreviated form–the album is only about 75 minutes, and the show I saw was about 2 hours 15 minutes) everything that makes The War on Drugs a live band that will keep someone who’s seen them a fan for a very long time.

The first thing that you notice while listening to Live Drugs is that everyone involved in The War on Drugs is extremely good at playing their instruments, and they’re particularly good at playing them together. There’s 7 people on stage at a War on Drugs show, but they are making 1 sound. Each member knows exactly when to provide ambience and color and exactly when to kick it into high gear. “An Ocean In Between the Waves” starts the album by showcasing drummer Charlie Hall’s propulsive nature, but Granduciel and the keyboard players are working in complete tandem with Hall, too. The keyboards sort of swirl around over the verses, and Granduciel’s voice goes from a mumble to a shout just as Hall starts hitting the snare a bit harder. Everything is timed so perfectly. I think it was a good choice to open the live album with “An Ocean” even though the song doesn’t normally open their shows. To someone unacquainted with the band, “An Ocean” lets you know immediately what The War on Drugs is about. They’re a locomotive train that rarely stops to refuel.

So, The War on Drugs is a 7-piece wrecking crew, sure, but it’s also very much Adam Granduciel’s Band. And, like many great rock singers, Granduciel is not very good at singing. Not if you think singing is about hitting notes. But Granduciel absolutely knows how to deliver his songs in a way that makes them compelling, which makes him a better vocalist than most in my eyes. Granduciel, in the Bob Dylan/Bob Weir spirit, does not deliver a line the same way twice, and thank god for that. If I wanted to hear him adhere note for note to the studio version of “Pain,” I would just listen to the studio version of “Pain.” Instead, Granduciel changes his vocal inflections like a pitcher changing arm slots. “Pain” has the line: “I met a man with a broken back/he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand.” On the studio version, “he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand” is all delivered at a lower register. On the Live Drugs version, “he had a fear in his eyes” is up higher, and the second half goes back down to the lower register. On the version of “Pain” I saw in DC, the whole line is delivered at a higher register. Which one sounds the best to my ears? It would probably depend on the day.

The War on Drugs pull another one of my favorite live band tricks, which is cover a song and play it so well it sounds like an original. The War on Drugs has no interest in playing a cover to elicit an easy singalong, either. When I saw them, they played “Born in Time,” a Bob Dylan song from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky, which many critics say is his worst. On Live Drugs, the band covers Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” a ballad that’s also the second least played song on Spotify from Zevon’s album Excitable Boy. Granduciel likes the songs, though, and that comes through loud and clear from the covers. Granduciel gives “Accidentally Like a Martyr” two weird, unsettling guitar solos and trades the Zevon song’s piano fills for twinkling guitar licks. What could have been a weak point on the live album instead both introduced me to a great song and set up a ridiculous three-song stretch to end the album of “Eyes to the Wind,” “Under the Pressure,” and “In Reverse.”

“An Ocean in Between the Waves” is a perfect encapsulation of The War on Drugs Live, but “Under the Pressure” is the pinnacle of War on Drugs Live. It’s a revelation what the band pulls off in 12 minutes. The obvious downside of a live album is that it’s not a video, so I guess it’s possible to miss the intensity that the band gives to “Under the Pressure.” But I think they know it’s their best live song, and they give it the attention and drama it deserves. The studio version features about 30 seconds of ambient build-up to the first piano riff; the live versions provide 3+ minutes of that build-up. Same goes for the break mid-song, which lasts about a minute in the studio and goes on for about 3 minutes live, as well. All this anticipation makes the moment when the drums come in feel infinitely more satisfying. Granduciel understands that too–on the last verse on live versions of “Under the Pressure,” he’s literally shouting over the rest of the band.

I think it’s extraordinarily easy to have a good time at a concert. I’ve enjoyed 99.9 percent of concerts I’ve been to. A lot of times, though, the fun I had at a show had more to do with the people I went with, the drinks I had, etc. With The War on Drugs, the music alone will keep me coming back regardless of the setting or the context.

It’s Bigger Than You, and You Are Not Me

Reckoning, R.E.M., 1984
Introduction

For several reasons (the Get Back documentary, a couple concerts I’ve been to recently, etc.), I’ve been obsessed for weeks with the idea of a band and how insane it is that anyone would be able to sustain a relationship like that for an extended period of time. It’s impressive to me that a band that’s truly built on collaboration could create one successful album together, much less several albums over a decade plus.

That’s why this show I just watched about R.E.M. blew my mind. The show is called “Song Exploder.” Song Exploder is a podcast I listen to sometimes, but they also put out a few documentary-style episodes on Netflix. The gist of the podcast/show is they bring an artist on to discuss one song in their discography, and the artist talks about how the song got made and what went in to creating each constituent part. Normally, the “bandleader” or “principal songwriter” or whatever is the main speaker, and any contribution from anyone else who worked on the song is secondary to the head honcho.

R.E.M. went on the show to talk about “Losing My Religion,” no doubt their most famous song. If you know a decent amount about R.E.M., you know that Michael Stipe is the lead singer and lyricist, and it would make sense to assume Stipe has “control” of the band in some way. Every band has someone in “control.” After watching the Song Exploder episode, I’m not convinced R.E.M. operated in that way at all.

Losing My Religion

The song was built around a mandolin riff that guitarist Peter Buck came up with while fiddling around at his house. Once the riff was built, I would imagine most documentaries would cut to the “bandleader” saying how much they liked the riff and how they then took it and ran with it. Song Exploder instead talks next to drummer Bill Berry, who says he is the one who knew they had to make a song out of the riff. He says he tried to play congas to give the song a “latin feel,” because the riff itself should be the standout. But the “general consensus was” that “we” felt the song needed a bit more power, so Berry switched to some straight up drumming. Song Exploder cuts back to Peter Buck, who explains that all his drummer friends beg him to explain how Bill Berry is such a good drummer.

I guess that’s a relatively mundane sequence of events, but to me it was revelatory. This Song Exploder episode was filmed while these guys were all in their 60s. They have not made music together in over a decade. And yet, all they can talk about the entire time is how good the other band members are, and how the band as a whole decided to change the direction of the song. This is not how broken up 60-year-old bandmates speak about each other. A lot of bandmates who broke up would get on something like Song Exploder and distort history to make themselves look like the hero behind “Losing My Religion.” Instead, Peter Buck goes on to say that bassist Mike Mills’ bassline made Buck’s own mundane mandolin part stand out.

Maybe all this socialist harmony is undercut when Mills says a song doesn’t go anywhere unless Stipe is inspired to write lyrics for it. But that doesn’t feel like Mills saying Stipe is the ultimate one who decides if an R.E.M. song gets made. It feels more like Mills saying that they are not an instrumental band, and Stipe’s part is just one-fourth of the necessary components for R.E.M. to decide if an R.E.M. song gets made.

R.E.M. seemed to operate under the idea that each band member had total autonomy to create their own part, and it seems as though they never undermined this idea in the way that, say, Paul McCartney appeared to in the Get Back documentary. R.E.M. appears to take this idea so seriously that when the Song Exploder host asks Peter Buck what he thinks Stipe’s lyrics mean, he says he has his own ideas, but it is not his place to say. In fact, he says he and Stipe would never even talk about what Stipe’s lyrics meant.

If anyone in the band were to have a huge ego about “Losing My Religion,” I guess it would be Stipe himself. He’s the lyricist and lead singer of a song that has been streamed over 750,000,000 times on Spotify. Instead, when Stipe listens to the isolated vocal track, his only comment is about Mills’ and Berry’s backing vocals. “Fuck, they’re so good,” he says.

Reckoning

I think R.E.M.’s penchant for collaboration is obvious even if you listen to their music stripped of the band’s commentary. The first three songs on their second album Reckoning paints a clear picture of R.E.M. as “Band” with a capital B.

The opening track, “Harborcoat,” is driven by Bill Berry’s drums without a doubt. The song begins with snare hits like gunshots. From there Berry drives the verses with fast, sharp cymbal hits. The chorus has overlaying vocals and background vocals, strummed guitar, and a quiet bass part, but Berry continues his propulsive drumming. The guitar riff in the pre-chorus is awesome, and Stipe sounds great, but I’d call the song a show for Bill Berry.

The second song allows Berry to take somewhat of a backseat. I don’t mean to say Berry’s drum part isn’t great here; what I really mean is his drum part is opening up space for Buck and Mills to do some crazy stuff with their guitar and bass. Mills’ bass part is much louder than it is on “Harborcoat,” and Buck creates four separate guitar parts that work in very different ways. One strummed part controls the verses, which is backed up by a lower part that is essentially mimicking the main part. The chorus has two parts, as well: one arpeggio part and a part with a separate effect take turns leading the way. Once again, Stipe is great, but the song is an engine for Buck and Mills.

And then Stipe finally gets to shine on “So. Central Rain.” Mills, Buck, and Berry all do their part here, but Stipe’s calm delivery of the verses and his surprising shouts of “I’m Sorry” in the chorus are the highlights of the song, and create one of the highlights of the whole album.

Wrapping Up

There are a million ways for a band to make great music. But this has to be the best way, yeah? R.E.M. made music together for 32 years, stopped making music on their own terms because they just didn’t feel like making music anymore, and have sworn ever since that they don’t have any intention of making more music together. Interestingly enough, though, Buck mentions in the Song Exploder episode that the four of them still talk and hang out regularly. “It’s not as if the band is broken up, we just don’t make music anymore,” he says.

Listening to R.E.M., it makes sense to me that they operated in this collaborative way. Music can be incredible when the creative engine is driven by one person (Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Adam Granduciel, Paul McCartney, millions of others). And I used to think it was the most impressive thing when someone could get in a studio, play every instrument themselves, and release an album with a one-person credit list. But I actually think what R.E.M. did is even more impressive. They managed to listen to each other and allow each other enough space to create music that was undoubtedly better than the sum of its parts. Michael Stipe is not Michael Jackson. Bill Berry is not Neil Peart. Mike Mills is not Jaco Pastorius. Peter Buck is not Jimi Hendrix. But together, the four of them were R.E.M., and I guess they still are.

Endurance Like the Liberty Bell

Robert Pollard

The last post I wrote was about Crack-Up, a Fleet Foxes album that came out six years after the one before it. I mentioned that I applauded lead singer Robin Pecknold for making a decision to quit music for a while and returning with a renewed sense of himself. That approach allowed him to create what I think is his best album.

Looking for the opposite approach to a six-year hiatus? Check out Robert Pollard.

Robert Pollard is the lead singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter of a band called Guided By Voices. Pollard releases a lot of music. That’s actually a gross understatement. Guided By Voices’ debut album was released in 1987. Since that time, the band has released about 45 albums, and each album averages about 15-20 songs. So let’s say Guided By Voices has released over 800 songs on studio albums since 1987. But that’s not all! Pollard also releases music under his own name. Robert Pollard the solo act has released roughly 25 albums since the mid-1990s. Those albums average around 15-20 songs, as well. So let’s say Robert Pollard has released about 400 songs as Robert Pollard and about 800 as Guided By Voices. That’s 1,200 songs just on the studio albums alone. Then there’s all the EPs, the non-album singles, and the endless list of bands with which Pollard plays on a regular basis. It’s staggering to think about.

Unsurprisingly, Pollard isn’t really a meticulous guy. A lot of his songs are under 2 minutes long. On the most famous Guided By Voices album, Bee Thousand, six of the songs are under a minute-and-a-half. It’s probably more accurate to call Pollard’s songs ideas. They’re just musical ideas, and he presents them to his audience for as long as he feels like they’re interesting.

And he doesn’t necessarily seem to care how well he presents his ideas. On the first Bee Thousand song, “Hardcore UFO’s,” the guitarist stops playing for about 10 seconds, and it’s definitely an accident. Maybe he dropped his pick or something, but there are ten seconds where there should be guitar and instead you just hear drums and tape hiss, until the guitarist resumes playing and the band pushes on to the end of the song. I don’t know many bands that would release a take like that, but for Pollard it was good enough.

It’s hard not to respect a musician who places such little importance on presentation. I hope it doesn’t sound like I think Pollard is a lazy songwriter, because the fact is I think the opposite. I think Pollard is so confident in his songwriting skills, and so passionate about the idea of making music, that he simply doesn’t care about the imperfections in song structure and musicianship that most other people care about. The ideas are what he wants to present to people.

One of the coolest things about music is that both Pecknold and Pollard entertain me to no end. Two guys with seemingly opposite approaches to songwriting achieve essentially the same result. Their songs stick in my head and make me happy that I have the ability to hear.

Both these guys clearly love making music. Pollard clearly loves making music or else he wouldn’t write 1,200 songs. Pecknold clearly loves making music or else he wouldn’t put so much effort and time into each one of his slightly fewer than 1,200 songs.

I think the takeaway from Pollard and Pecknold is just that: the only pre-requisite for making good music, or good anything really, is to truly like doing it.

Process be damned.

Biding Your Time

Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes, 2017

When I first became a Fleet Foxes fan around 2013 or 2014 or whenever it was, I assumed I would never get to listen to a new Fleet Foxes album ever again. Lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold had left the music scene to study at Columbia University, and drummer Josh Tillman had left the band anyway to make music under his new moniker Father John Misty. Maybe other people felt differently, but I had no expectation of ever listening to a new Fleet Foxes album. It was a revelation to me, then, when I heard the single “Third of May/Odaigahara” in 2017, six years after the last Fleet Foxes release. Nevermind that “Third of May” is now one of my favorite songs; that I was hearing a new Fleet Foxes song at all was amazing.

That’s sort of the bar with a so-called “comeback” single, though, isn’t it? I won’t speak badly about other bands specifically, but plenty of artists have taken long hiatuses and then returned with singles that are received warmly primarily because everyone is happy to have them back. The real challenge is to successfully put out the comeback album. The comeback album is subject to much more scrutiny than the comeback single. The single is one thing, but the album is what people have been waiting for. There’s an unfair amount of pressure associated with a band releasing new music after a lengthy break. But the pressure is there nonetheless, and often the disappointment amongst an artist’s fanbase is palpable in the aftermath of a comeback.

I guess there are two options with the comeback album: a band could stick to their previous style, or they could pivot and explore different styles from their old material. Each option carries its own risk. The first option, The Continuation, runs the risk of sounding stale. Thanks for the new tunes, but you did this better eight years ago. The second option, The Deviation, runs the risk of seriously alienating a fanbase that has been waiting years to hear music they love from musicians they love. This band used to rock, man. What happened in the last eight years?

Which route did Fleet Foxes take with Crack-Up? Did Robin Pecknold get the gang back together and conjure up the Crosby, Stills, and Nash melodies of his youth or did he abandon the folk scene completely in favor of some uncharted territory? For the benefit of us all, he picked the lesser-known third option: Make Your Best Album By Combining Options 1 and 2.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me that Crack-Up was my favorite Fleet Foxes album. What attracted me to the band in the first place was the impeccable harmonies of course, but also what the songs themselves evoked: the breeziness of their self-titled and the baroqueness of Helplessness Blues called to mind the ’60s folk explosion, but more specifically the poppier side of the ’60s folk explosion. It’s quite easy to sing along to most songs on those first two albums.

Crack-Up doesn’t offer that immediacy; in a word, it is enormous. Most of the songs are comprised of multiple sections–a cryptic piano melody explodes into a sunny outro, or muttering turns to shouting and then back to muttering, or a massive epic concludes with an ambient soundscape. But for maybe one song, what you see is not what you get on Crack-Up. It took some getting used to as a fan of the hook-laden Fleet Foxes of the late 2000s and early 2010s. But the more I listen to Crack-Up, the better it gets.

It turns out there are tons of hooks on Crack-Up. It’s just a matter of finding them. That’s what I mean when I say Pecknold was able to combine Comeback Album Options 1 and 2: everything I loved about Fleet Foxes remained, but it was also very clear that six years had passed since Pecknold wrote music. And shouldn’t that be clear?

Comeback Album Option 3 is on full display right from the jump. Track 1, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” opens with a whisper. It’s actually difficult to hear Pecknold at all. No hooks to be found. The I Am All That I Need section transitions to the next section, which offers the incredible harmonized vocals Fleet Foxes is known for, but the hooks still aren’t there. The melody is too dense to stick in my head, at least. The harmonized vocals are interrupted several times by a muttering Robin, and then the song transitions again to a very quiet passage delivered over hushed acoustic guitar. Finally, four-and-a-half minutes in, Robin’s voice emerges in its recognizable form, and a hook arrives that could get stuck in anyone’s head. It only lasts about twenty seconds though–then the song goes back to the theme heard in Part 2, and closes on a sample of a high school choir singing Fleet Foxes’ biggest hit, “White Winter Hymnal.” Pecknold knows he’s been gone a while; his music has resonated enough to be sung in high schools. This is for sure a comeback, and Pecknold makes sure his listeners know it.

That was just Track 1. Dense doesn’t even begin to describe Crack-Up. If you think it sounds too dense, I don’t really blame you. It’s not a problem for me, though, for two reasons. First of all, despite all the interlocking passages, nothing feels unnecessary. Never does it feel like I’m waiting for the a passage to be over so I can listen to the good stuff. “On Another Ocean (January/June)” is a prime example. The second section, June, is one of my favorite moments on the album. Robin’s vocal lines are outrageous and play really well off the guitar lines that begin the section. The first section, January, is mysterious and piano driven, and there’s really not much to latch on to melody-wise. By writing lyrics that deal with winter vs. summer, though, Pecknold makes the January section essential. June’s hook would not be as appealing to me if it wasn’t introduced after the darkness of the January section.

The second reason the density doesn’t bother me is because Pecknold’s voice is inhumanly good. I have no problem saying he’s my favorite singer of the 21st Century, and that might actually understate how much I like his voice. The more cryptic passages make his voice sound that much better when it’s time for him to belt something out. On “Cassius,-,” the first section alternates between a verse and chorus that create a bunch of tension. When the song transforms into the second verse, Pecknold’s voice takes control, and the payoff (I walked home/no words to say/Cassius one month gone on his way) is one of the best parts of the album.

Pecknold’s vocals take control of the entirety of “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me,” and it’s no coincidence it’s the most popular song on the album. It’s a welcome departure from the rest of the record–most of these songs are designed to be as big as possible, but “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” was small enough to be the only Crack-Up song included in Pecknold’s solo acoustic live show A Very Lonely Solstice.

Here’s Pecknold himself talking about Crack-Up before its release: “I don’t want to change genres necessarily–I feel like there was a period from 2012-2016 where it would have been very culturally exhausting to release a ‘folk’ sounding album…I didn’t want to be working from a place of reaction but from a place of action and that was just impossible to do in those years considering what Fleet Foxes had come to mean and what had happened after.”

Pecknold’s otherworldly voice certainly helped him achieve Comeback Album Option 3, but it’s his self-reflection that I think pushed him over the edge on Crack-Up. Comeback albums aren’t any good when the artist is making music just because they haven’t in a while. Pecknold finally felt he had something to say in 2017. And ultimately, I would rather wait six years between incredible albums than one year between lackluster ones.

Being There at the Right Time

All Things Must Pass, George Harrison, 1970

I just finished watching Get Back, the new Beatles documentary. It’s everything I hoped it would be, and it serves to undercut the 50-year myth that The Beatles ended their association as band members with ugliness and hatred. It ain’t all flowers, but overall Get Back is a celebration of The Beatles and their endless talent and charm.

Most of the tension of the film relates to George Harrison and his frustration with his role in the band. The first installment shows Harrison quitting the band for about five days and then returning after airing some of his grievances with the lads. The five-day absence was taken seriously by everyone, and George eventually returned to a much more group-oriented and relaxed atmosphere.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, Harrison should have been even more upset than he actual claimed to be at the time. The upshot of The Beatles’ breakup a year after the Get Back sessions was that Harrison put out All Things Must Pass in 1970, which contains 22 songs (not counting the Apple Jam that appears at the back-end of the record). For reference, Harrison wrote 22 songs that ended up on Beatles albums from 1963-1970.

This is more than just an interesting factoid–every song on All Things Must Pass would have been not only a worthy song on a Beatles album, but one of the standout tracks on the album. That’s not an exaggeration, either. The brilliance of All Things Must Pass is comical when you consider the only songs he penned on Let it Be, which was released the same year as All Things Must Pass, were “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue.” If there was something disappointing about Lennon and McCartney in 1969 in 1970, it wasn’t their relationship with each other–it was their inability to recognize that Harrison was their songwriting equal, and perhaps their songwriting superior at that time.

And it’s not as though Harrison suddenly found a burst of inspiration after The Beatles broke up for good. Several of the songs on All Things Must Pass were written, pitched to, and ultimately disregarded by McCartney and Lennon during the Get Back sessions. Get Back was an incredible documentary, but I think it could have used a little more footage of McCartney and Lennon’s dismissal of Harrison’s work, if only to gain some more context for how they could have tossed aside incredible songs when they were seemingly desperate for material to meet their fast-approaching deadline to complete their newest album.

I’d imagine one reason Harrison’s material didn’t get its due with The Beatles is that Harrison was simply operating on a religious level that the rest of the group wasn’t interested in. The Beatles were OK with being spiritual–Lennon makes use of the Hindu mantra “jai guru deva om” in “Across the Universe,” and even though the Mother Mary sung about in “Let it Be” was McCartney’s mother and not the Virgin Mary, the band was still seemingly comfortable allowing people to make the incorrect association. But the Harrisongs on All Things Must Pass are Religious with a capital “R.” Harrison begs and pleads with higher powers all over the album. He expresses his desire to see and know the Lord on “My Sweet Lord,” he asks the Lord to forgive him and listen to him on “Hear Me Lord,” and he even encourages others to chant the names of the Lord on “Awaiting on You All.” The guy really liked the Lord.

The songs that are not explicitly about the Lord may as well be, too. On “I’d Have You Anytime,” which Harrison co-wrote with Bob Dylan, Harrison sings “let me in there/I know I’ve been here/let me into your heart.” On “Beware of Darkness,” Harrison warns the listener to “beware of Maya,” which is a Hindu term for things that obscure spiritual reality. On “The Art of Dying,” Harrison opens by proclaiming there will come a time when “there’s nothing Sister Mary can do” to keep him on the Earth. Heavy stuff, that. I can see why McCartney and Lennon would maybe not have wanted all those intense sentiments flooding a Beatles album, but in another sense I have no clue why those sentiments wouldn’t have been any more valid than whatever personal sentiments they had to offer lyrically.

A huge benefit of Harrison releasing all these songs under his own moniker was that he got to collaborate with people who realistically were never going to show up on a Beatles album. A short list of people who showed up to work on the album: Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Derek and the Dominoes members Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon, Rolling Stones saxophone player Bobby Keys, Badfinger founder Pete Ham, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Yes drummer Alan White. Pretty good musicians.

It’s amazing to me that Harrison wanted his first foray into solo music to be so collaborative, actually, because Lennon and McCartney took the opposite approach. Lennon’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, features a pretty sparse outfit of accompaniment, and McCartney’s first two solo projects, McCartney and Ram, feature almost no one except for the McCartneys Paul and Linda. It seems that Lennon and McCartney had grown tired of extensive collaboration, but Harrison, after all those years of being relegated to collaboration duty, still wanted his first solo album to be a group effort.

And the songs really benefit from all the camaraderie that went into constructing them. “Wah-Wah” is a song about Harrison getting a headache from dealing with his Beatles frustration, and features him extolling the benefits of staying away from all that drama. Sounds like it’s fit to be a quiet number, but the horns and layered guitars and pianos turn the song instead into a symphony so loud that Harrison has to literally scream over top of them to be heard in the mix. Same goes for “Art of Dying,” which Harrison wrote in 1966, most likely only with an acoustic guitar part in mind. The session musicians, however, turn Harrison’s lyrics about reincarnation into a proto-disco jam.

There’s a fascinating part of the Get Back documentary when the four fellas are working out how they’re going to play the bridge of Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” McCartney is trying to construct these harmonies behind Lennon’s lead vocals, and Harrison says very curtly in the middle of the whole process that he thinks the harmonies are terrible. He says something to the effect of “if these were played back to you right now on a tape recorder, you’d throw them out right away.” It’s telling that the final version of “Don’t Let Me Down” that is recorded as the B-side to “Get Back” and then played live on the rooftop at Savile Row doesn’t feature any harmonies in the bridge at all. Harrison was absolutely right that the harmonies sucked. He wasn’t wrong about that, and I don’t think his musical instincts were wrong again for a very long time. It’s a shame McCartney and Lennon didn’t know that at the time. I love “Let it Be,” but I don’t think it’s heresy to say the album would have been greatly improved by some more George. What couldn’t, now that I think about it?

Because I want to talk about All Things Must Pass some more, here’s a bit about each song on the album and my favorite moment from every one.

“I’d Have You Anytime”

Apparently Harrison wrote the lyrics to the verses, and Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics to the chorus. It’s a perfect intro to the album, as it provides a gradual lead-in into the heavier lyrical content/more involved musicality to come.

Favorite moment: The ascending basslines in the verses that precede the “let me into your heart” and “let me roll it to you” lyrics play so well off the lead guitar licks.

“My Sweet Lord”

Probably the most famous song on the album, and for good reason. The Hare Krishna is kind of addicting, as it turns out.

Favorite moment: The key change around 1:45, and then the introduction of the drums right in time with that.

“Wah-Wah”

Crazy guitars in this one. I talked about the lyrics above, but they deserve another mention, because they’re so victorious. “You don’t see me crying/you don’t hear me sighing.” He knew he had a hit with this album.

Favorite moment: It hooks you right from the jump. The two guitars play a similar line over each other, the bass comes in, and then it’s just off to the races.

“Isn’t it a Pity”

Definitely another one about the breakup of The Beatles. The lyrics are awesome: they don’t offer any solution or declaration beyond “it’s a shame.” I like songs like that.

Favorite moment: It’s gotta be the last two minutes or so, with Harrison proclaiming “what a pity” over and over while the slide guitar, drums, and strings all play steadily behind him.

“What is Life”

Not only is it great and fun and joyous, but it was in Goodfellas and This is 40.

Favorite moment: At the three-minute mark, Harrison adds slide guitar into the mix behind the verse, and he plays a couple cool lines that never show up again. I’m always waiting for those when I listen to the song.

“If Not For You”

Another Dylan song. Harrison’s version is way better in my opinion. In Dylan’s an organ plays the descending hook. I like it more in this one where the guitar plays the hook.

Favorite moment: The last time Harrison says “the winter would hold no spring.”

“Behind that Locked Door”

Think this one was written for Dylan, not by Dylan, because he was nervous about performing live for the first time in a while. Harrison tells him “the love you are blessed with/the world’s waiting for.” Nice guy.

Favorite moment: The repetition of “please” in the choruses. Makes the song nicer somehow that he says it twice.

“Let it Down”

This was written in 1968 while Harrison was still a Beatle. They really missed out on this one. I think McCartney would have had a field day on bass. Oh well.

Favorite moment: Every time the song goes quiet after the loud choruses. Such cool dynamics.

“Run of the Mill”

Potentially my personal favorite song on the album. Incredible vocal performance. And the drums are so tight and interesting.

Favorite moment: “No one around you will carry the blame for you.”

“Beware of Darkness”

Really good lyrics here. “Watch out now, take care/beware of soft shoe shufflers/dancing down the sidewalks/as each unconscious sufferer/wanders aimlessly/beware of Maya.” Not entirely sure what it means, but it sounds perfect.

Favorite moment: Whatever clean, echoey effect is on the intro guitar should be on more songs.

“Apple Scruffs”

Don’t listen to “Apple Scruffs” very often, but it’s a funny song about the weird girls that would hang obsessively outside The Beatles’ studio all the time.

Favorite moment: The triple-tracked vocals in the choruses.

“Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)”

Used masterfully in How I Met Your Mother. Also used masterfully on All Things Must Pass. Awesome piano hook.

Favorite moment: The key change at :30. Not actually sure that’s a key change but I love it.

“Awaiting on You All”

This chorus gets stuck in my head so often that I think it’s going to actually get me to chant the names of the Lord some day.

Favorite moment: “The Pope owns 51% of General Motors.”

“All Things Must Pass”

Best lyrics on the album. There’s a cool part in the Get Back documentary where Lennon suggests George change “a wind can blow those clouds away” to “a mind can blow those clouds away.” George ends up taking the advice.

Favorite moment: The bridge is an all-timer.

“I Dig Love”

Weird lyrics, but I like the strange piano ascents and descents.

Favorite moment: The syncopated piano in the verses.

“Art of Dying”

This song is years ahead of its time. Seriously crazy that it came out in 1970. As catchy as catchy gets.

Favorite moment: A tie between the horns and the bassline. Both are so active and full of tension and energy.

“Hear Me Lord”

Very interesting choice to put the final plea to the Lord as the last track on the album. Killer song, too, if you’ve made it this far.

Favorite moment: The background vocals seal the deal on this one. Particularly on “above and below us.”

Tropicalia

Acabou Chorare by Novos Baianos, 1972
Missing Out

If you’re reading this and you were living in America in 1972, I have horrible news for you. If you liked rock music, you probably thought you had it made in 1972. You got to have heated arguments about whether you liked the new Rolling Stones album better than the new David Bowie album. If you were a little more hip, you got to have heated arguments about whether you liked the new Lou Reed album better than the new T. Rex album. If you were a little less hip, you got to argue about whether you liked the new Yes album better than the new Jethro Tull album.

The horrible news is that every single music lover in the country of Brazil in 1972 listened to better music than you did that year. You could have been listening to Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges’ Clube da Esquina, or Caetano Veloso’s Transa, or Arthur Verocai’s self-titled album, or (most importantly) Novos Baianos’ Acabou Chorare. All these guys had been listening to the psychedelic and folk music being released in the U.S. and the U.K. and decided they could combine it with their country’s musical styles to make both styles more interesting. And they were 100% right. And you had no idea.

To be fair, how could you have known about these albums? And even if you had somehow found out from someone you knew that Brazilian musicians were doing laps around the American music scene, how could you have listened to the albums? The Brazilians had a pretty easy time listening to your music–it was a bit more difficult for the pipeline to work the other way. If you were 23 in 1972, you probably had to wait until you were around 50 to have your musical life altered.

The best news is that I, a 23-year-old in 2021, have to put essentially no effort into finding and listening to Brazil’s finest from 1972. It’s actually embarrassing how easy it is for me to listen to Novos Baianos. I can do it on my walk to class. Outdoors. On the same device that I can make phone calls.

The Tunes

I understand it’s not a novel concept to talk about how crazy music streaming is. But I think about it most often when I listen Novos Baianos’ Acabou Chorare. If you pressed me on it, I would say Acabou Chorare is my favorite album. It’s a painfully fun 80 minutes (it’s only 40 minutes but I usually listen to it twice). And it’s so insane that I get to listen to it all the time. Even more insane: I don’t even know how I heard about it. If you wanted to dive into a music scene outside the popular conversation in 1972, odds are it was because someone else told you to do it. It’s so dumb that you can just trip over the best music you’ll hear in your life completely by accident while just sitting around in your own house.

And Acabou Chorare is the best music you’ll hear in your life. I guess that’s probably not true for most people, but if you were only going to listen to one full album mentioned on this blog, I’d highly recommend you make it this one. Apparently Acabou Chorare translates to “No More Crying,” an apt title considering it’s the happiest sounding music imaginable. The acoustic guitars are awesome and jazzy, like in “Preta Pretinha,” where one acoustic solos over another one playing the chords under it. But the electric guitars are what set the album apart from all the other amazing Brazilian albums of 1972.

“Tinindo Trincando” is probably the best example of the album’s ridiculous guitar sound. The guitar is the first thing you hear, and it provides the energy for the song both at the start and throughout. Stop-and-start songs like this one are usually driven by drums, but the guitar dictates the direction of this one, and the playing is so good it sounds like everyone else is just following along. Ditto with “Mistério do Planeta,” where the guitar plays so many different chords under the wordy lyrics that it’s easy to forget there even are lyrics. The guitar is that good.

Speaking of the lyrics, they’re in Portuguese. I’ve tried several times to read translated lyrics while I listen to the music, but the translations aren’t direct and they don’t make much sense. But it truly doesn’t matter. The songs are immediate–they grab your attention from the jump and they create a world around them so you can imagine they’re saying whatever you want. It’s like a communal chant–the feeling you get out of the sounds is strong enough that you get the message in any language.

The album does a reprise with “Preta Pretinha,” which is both the second song on the album and the last song. This can be unnecessary from other bands, but Acabou Chorare works as a meditation on energy and happiness, and the reprise works so well because it feels like the band has to play the song again. They’ve built up too much excitement to let the album end at “Um Bilhete Pra Didi,” so they take a victory lap. The album begs you to listen to it twice in a row.

Wrapping Up

Music connects with audiences for a million different reasons, but I think bands probably feel the best when they connect with audiences because their music about being happy has, in fact, made them feel really happy. Acabou Chorare is pure musical escapism; no music I’ve listened to has achieved the same effect. Spotify has too many issues to count, but it’s a blessing that I get to escape to Novos Baianos’ psychedelic Brazil whenever and wherever I want. When music is as good as this, it’s nice not to take it for granted.

The Special Relationship

A Dumb Comparison

In April of 1989, Pixies released their second LP Doolittle. In May of 1989, The Stone Roses released their self-titled album The Stone Roses. Some would say the similarities between the two end there. Their sounds are extremely different, which I suppose makes sense. The Stone Roses are from the UK, and their influences are pretty clearly based in the UK, as well. Most people would probably hear The Beatles, The Smiths, Primal Scream, and The Jesus and Mary Chain in The Stone Roses. Pixies formed in Boston, and their influences were naturally all American–The Cars, surf rock like The Ventures, and then American hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag.

So, The Stone Roses and Doolittle sound nothing like each other, the bands in general take their influences from entirely different sources, and they formed on different continents. And yet, whenever I listen to The Stone Roses, I think about Doolittle, and whenever I listen to Doolittle, I think about The Stone Roses.

Leaving aside the fact that the albums came out a month apart from each other, I think I make the comparison because both albums sum up what I love about each country’s indie rock tendencies in under an hour. That’s probably a dumb and simplified way to look at the two albums, but I’m pretty sure being dumb and simple is only a bad idea if you’re being negative. And I could never find a reason to be negative about Doolittle or The Stone Roses.

The Stone Roses

Might as well start with the album that came out second. My favorite part about British indie is how big it all sounds. The Smiths, The Cure, The Chameleons, etc., all drenched everything in reverb, and each instrument sounded like it was jumping out of the speakers. The Stone Roses took that idea and sprinted with it. It’s easy to hear in the opening of “She Bangs the Drums.” The cymbals and bass immediately start driving the song, and then the guitar comes in like a wave. It seems impossible that anything could sound bigger after that, but the chorus adds double-tracked vocals and a guitar line that completely seal the deal.

The next song, “Waterfall,” begins with just an echoey guitar line. The drums don’t come in until beyond the :30 mark, but again the sound is so huge that you barely even notice there aren’t drums. “Waterfall” is an apt name for the song, because the whole thing–particularly the rave-up outro–drowns the speakers in bright-sounding guitars and drums. This album is so bright that even when lead singer Ian Brown gets dark lyrically, there’s still a pop hit going on in the background. The 8th track, “Made of Stone,” starts out much moodier than the rest of the album. The band can’t help themselves, though, and the chorus breaks the tension and provides one of the catchier moments on the album. And when I say they can’t help themselves, I really think that’s true. Allegedly, “Made of Stone” is about a car crash, and the cover of the single is in black and white to indicate the song is dark. But the chorus is a legitimate sing-along.

Ultimately, The Stone Roses is a completely over-the-top, hook-filled marvel that took the best of so much British music and mixed it all together to create a sound as bright as its album cover. “She Bangs the Drums” notes that “the past was yours/but the future’s mine.” I’d say Ian Brown was spot on about that; his band set the formula for British indie rock for the next decade plus.

Doolittle

If the defining element of British indie was its expansiveness, then the defining element of American indie was its aggression. The Replacements, Minutemen, Minor Threat, etc., played music that was purposely confrontational. Pixies took that sound to its logical conclusion a lot like The Stone Roses did with their country’s sound, but while The Stone Roses accomplished that by adding layers, Pixies accomplished it by carefully stripping layers away. Doolittle is famous for its “soft-loud-soft” sound, where the verses are pretty quiet, and then the choruses are laughably loud. Minor Threat, an American indie band pre-Pixies, were extremely loud right away, didn’t let up for about a minute, and then moved on to the next song. Pixies were content to let their aggression simmer for a while, which made their outbursts even more shocking by comparison.

A good example would be the second track, “Tame.” Lead singer Black Francis literally whispers the first verse, and legendary bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering play a steady rhythm. At around :20, chaos strikes, and Black Francis screams at the top of his lungs for a good ten seconds while a guitar comes in that sounds like factory equipment. By the :35 mark, the guitar falls out and Black Francis is back to whispering.

“Gouge Away” closes the album, and follows pretty much the exact same formula as “Tame.” I think “Gouge Away” works even better, though, because if you’ve listened to the album all the way through, you’re not tricked by the opening quiet verse. You know the explosion of the chorus is coming, which somehow makes the verse more exciting. Every song on Doolittle seems like a game: how will the band wind up at a point where they all sound like they’re participating in an exorcism?

What I like most about Doolittle is that it sounds menacing and angry, but the lyrics don’t reflect that at all. American indie in the ’80s involved a lot of screaming about the government and drug abuse and alienation. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of topics Pixies yell about on Doolittle: a Spanish movie from the 1920s, Samson and Delilah, Hebrew Numerology, College Roommates. There’s plenty of politics on the album, too, but you have to look hard to find it. Pixies were way more oblique than most American indie at the time, and helped usher in more surreal bands like Pavement into the scene.

Doolittle completely changed the landscape of American indie rock. Essentially every indie band in the 1980s started as a pure hardcore punk band, and that style was reflected even if they ultimately abandoned that style. Just like The Stone Roses, Pixies were a primary influence for nearly every other indie band in their country for over a decade.

Wrapping It Up

I wouldn’t say that The Stone Roses and Doolittle are necessarily my favorite British/American indie albums. I don’t really like ranking music in that way. But I’m willing to say that the two albums defined the sounds I associate with indie rock, and a lot of my favorite guitar-based music that came out in the 1990s and 2000s are indebted to them in a huge way. Again, this is way too simple of a statement, but to me, The Stone Roses are the British indie band and Pixies are the American indie band. How crazy is it that they both released their best albums within a month of each other? Music’s cool.

Alien and Yet Familiar

This post is about side projects. It’s going to seem like it’s about live music, but it’s really not. Were I a better writer, I would be able to figure out how to weave the two topics together more elegantly. I’m not a better writer though, so just remember this is about side projects.

I have seen a pretty good amount of live music in my life. Mostly rock shows, but other genres, too. I have watched all types of people put on all types of concerts, and the only thing I can say that was common to every single concert was that it looked exhausting.

Touring musicians play for anywhere from one to four hours, scream and sweat all over the stage, thank the audience, and then do it again and again and again and again for months. If I were a touring musician, I think I would last maybe a month before the whole thing felt like work instead of fun. I would quit so quickly. By contrast, there are artists who have been sleeping on a bus for 50 years and still find the energy to make thousands of other people happy every single night.

Here’s a good example of how “the road” would ruin me. About a month and a half ago, I went to Asheville, North Carolina with a friend to see a Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill. The plan was to see that show on August 17th, hang out in Charlotte, North Carolina for a couple days, and then drive to Baltimore on the weekend to see the same Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill again on August 20th. There was a heavy storm in Asheville on the night of the 17th, though, so the show was rescheduled for August 19th, the day before the Baltimore show.

My friend and I were determined not to waste either of our tickets, so we rearranged our Airbnb, saw the show in Asheville on the 19th, woke up early on the 20th, dragged our hungover carcasses into the car, and hoofed it 7 hours or so back to Baltimore. We were completely burnt out and delirious by the time we made it to my Baltimore apartment, but we got to the next show successfully.

You know who else had to wake up early and drive 7 hours or so from Asheville to Baltimore for the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill? Wilco and Sleater-Kinney! And they were actually playing the show. The whole thing struck me as insane. Our experience felt like a saga in and of itself, and it was just 5 percent of what those bands would go through on their tour. Not only did they not seem tired in the slightest on stage, they actually seemed to have way more energy than my friend and I did. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney actually watched the Wilco show from the side of the stage after their set, even though they had already been on tour with them for over two weeks at that point. Incredible. I would have been asleep on the tour bus.

I said about 450 words ago that this post was about side projects, and it still is. For the unacquainted, a side project is when a musician is still in their primary band, but puts out an album under a different name anyway. Normally artists don’t tour behind these projects. They are usually created between tours of the main band, or while the main band is recording a new project, too. They are also generally less successful than their main band’s albums in terms of pure sales. Unfortunately, fewer people hear them.

Here’s what I love so much about side projects: these musicians, frankly, have a more physically demanding job than any of us will have in our entire lives, and in between that they still find time to explore new creative outlets. Doing so can only mean that they love music so much that their job is also their hobby. I think that comes out in the music, too, and listening to side projects is a reminder that music is supposed to make everyone involved happy, and it’s pretty cool when it does.

Jerry Garcia, in his 30 years as founder and frontman of the Grateful Dead, made songs that quite literally inspired people to live their entire lives following a music act. What’s his favorite album he ever released? His Jerry Garcia Band side project album, Cats Under the Stars. “As far as I’m concerned, Cats Under the Stars is my most successful record–even though it’s my least successful record!” Garcia said. “I’ve always loved it an it just never went anywhere.”

That’s what the side project is all about.

Here are six side projects you should check out.

Martin Courtney- Many Moons (2015)

Main Band: Real Estate

Martin Courtney is a founder of Real Estate, who are known for their jangly, arpeggiated guitars. They’re almost uncommonly pleasant to listen to. Courtney keeps that trend up with Many Moons, which has guitar lines and layered harmonies that are every bit as good as Real Estate’s best songs.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vestiges”; “Northern Highway”; “Little Blue”

Lotus Plaza- Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)

Main Band: Deerhunter

Deerhunter is definitely a collaborative effort, but if someone were to ask whose band it is, the answer would invariably be lead singer and primary songwriter Bradford Cox. Lotus Plaza is not a side project of Bradford Cox, but rather a side project of Lockett Pundt, Deerhunter’s lead guitarist. Pundt takes a more direct approach on “Spooky Action at a Distance” than Deerhunter ever had to this point in their career. Deerhunter, along with a band soon to be mentioned, were the forerunners of the 2000s psychedelic movement, and their music was extremely catchy but also fairly esoteric. Pundt keeps the reverb and the interesting outros from Deerhunter’s catalog but creates a brighter and less nocturnal sound.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Strangers”; “Jet Out of the Tundra”; “Eveningness”

Deakin- Sleep Cycle (2016)

Main Band: Animal Collective

Here’s that other band that was a 2000s psychedelic pioneer. Animal Collective’s two most famous members–by far–are Avey Tare and Panda Bear, each of whom have had wildly successful solo careers outside of Animal Collective. Deakin is neither of those people, but for my money this is the best Animal Collective side project. It’s a perfect blend of acoustic folk music and psychedelic synthesizer atmosphere. The songs, most of which are over 6 minutes, seamlessly change shape and form, and they end up feeling much shorter than they are as a result.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Golden Chords”; “Just Am”; “Good House”

Dukes of Stratosphear- Chips From the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

Main Band: XTC

Is this a proper side project? I’m unsure. The situation is this: all the members of XTC created this album under a different band name in order to explore a different musical style than they usually did. I think that counts, actually. XTC makes very weird, very catchy new wave music, and Dukes of Stratosphear make very weird, very catchy psychedelic music. XTC said their idea was to recreate the psych records of the 1960s that they loved so much, and for the most part they used vintage recording equipment to get the sound as close to the 60s as possible. It worked and then some, as this is a perfect combination of 7 or 8 different psych-pop legends. Try to tell me “Brainiac’s Daughter” doesn’t sound like a lost Paul McCartney song.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vanishing Girl”; “Collideascope”; “Brainiac’s Daughter”

Loose Fur- Loose Fur (2003)

Main Bands: Wilco and Jim O’Rourke

Sorry to talk about Wilco so much. That’s two posts in a row. Next time, no Wilco (maybe). Anyway, Loose Fur is a cool side project from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, who is a multi-instrumentalist who’s been involved in a million different bands. He played instruments and helped produce Wilco’s most experimental and critically acclaimed albums “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” and Loose Fur is definitely in the mold of those two albums. The songs have a looser feel than the songs on those albums, though, which is fitting given the name of the band.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Laminated Cat”; “You Were Wrong”; “Chinese Apple”

Traveling Wilburys- The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)

Main Bands (Really Main Artists): George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison

I guess this is more of a supergroup than a side project, but I’m going to count it, because the existence of The Traveling Wilburys is proof of my argument that side projects are awesome because they show how much musicians love making music. All five of these guys had very lengthy careers at the time this album came out. The “newest” guy, Petty, had been putting out albums for over a decade. I don’t think anyone would have blamed any of these guys for hanging up their rock n’ roll shoes and retiring from the life completely. Instead, they made this album, and frankly they sound like they’re having more fun than they’d had in years. I can’t confirm that, but Harrison’s main criterion for adding a band member is he had to enjoy hanging out with them. They also gave each other fake nicknames: Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, etc. These guys should have been grumpy, over the hill old men, but that doesn’t sound grumpy to me. Long live the side project.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “End of the Line”; “Handle With Care”; “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

Let Him Have My Seat

Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan, 1969

Without looking it up, I’d guess that Bob Dylan is the most written about rock musician who ever lived. There’s nothing at all that I can add to the conversation about Bob Dylan–50,000,000 people smarter and more informed than I am have already shaped the consensus around Dylan’s life’s work.

Dylan is my favorite musician of all-time, though, and I think the consensus’ reaction to Nashville Skyline–and album I like a whole lot–is very, very wrong. And I think it’s wrong for the same reason I think consensus on a lot of other albums is wrong.

The Consensus

The consensus is that Dylan was at the peak of his artistic creativity from around 1964-1966, then changed styles in 1967 with John Wesley Harding, and by 1969, with Nashville Skyline’s release, he had lost the magic.

What’s the main issue with Nashville Skyline, according to critics? Too happy. The albums is full of short country tunes about quiet life, and the critics weren’t having it. I was looking at the album’s Wikipedia page a couple days ago and saw two quotes which captures the consensus pretty well. The first is from a guy named Tim Souster from the BBC, who said “one can’t help feeling something is missing. Isn’t this idyllic country landscape too good to be true?” The second is from Ed Ochs at Billboard, who said “the satisfied man speaks in cliches, and blushes as if every day were Valentine’s Day.”

The bizarre thing is that, from what I can tell, people had no issue with how the album actually sounded. It was just too optimistic for someone like the sarcastic, energetic, confrontational Dylan to write. I think Nashville Skyline sums up one of my least favorite parts about rock criticism: rock critics absolutely love it when supposed “ambitious” musicians are miserable, and they don’t know what to do with themselves when the artist presents them with something that isn’t miserable.

The Tunes

It’s a shame, too, because if people just took Dylan at face value, they’d have a way better time. The songs sound really good! Dylan’s slow duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” is way better than the faster, finger-picked version Dylan recorded six years earlier. The way the piano and guitar play off each other on “To Be Alone With You” is really fun, and the organ in the background of “I Threw It All Away” is a genius production move. “Lay, Lady, Lay” is one of Dylan’s more famous songs, and it definitely deserves to be. It’s one of his best vocal performances, and whatever kind of percussion is going on during the verses is so strange and cool. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” has a catchy organ riff that leads most of the song, and then ends with a descending piano riff that’s completely addicting. Every time I listen to the song, I listen to the last 20 seconds three or four times at least.

The last song on the album is the most obvious statement on Dylan’s happiness. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” has lyrics like “throw my troubles out the door/I don’t need them anymore” and “if there’s a poor boy on the street/then let him have my seat/’cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.” I’m sure this is the kind of song Souster had in mind when he assumed the “idyllic country landscape” Dylan had created was “too good to be true.” It was 1969. There was a lot of horrible shit going on! Dylan can’t possibly be happy about the state of the world! I’m willing to accept the premise that Dylan actually wasn’t happy around this period of his life, because how the fuck am I supposed to know what he actually feels inside? So, sure, assume the whole album is a facade for Dylan’s crippling sadness and anger. How does that make the music any different? Why should I be dissatisfied with the album because Dylan is lying? He’s the most notorious liar in the history of modern music. It’s like 40 percent of the reason I like listening to his music so much. The obvious conclusion is critics didn’t like the happy Dylan, whether it was the real thing or not.

But Who Cares?

I think expecting “high art” to be miserable is a horrible way to listen to music, and unfortunately that type of thinking has survived to this day. Take Rob Mitchum’s notoriously terrible review for the album Sky Blue Sky by another one of my favorite bands, Wilco. Sky Blue Sky came out after two of Wilco’s most experimental albums, and its sound was much more straightforward than the older stuff. It’s also far less dark than the previous two Wilco albums–Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy had gone to rehab and become more invested in his family life at the time of the album, and the lyrics reflected that. I think Sky Blue Sky is great. Mitchum called it “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise–the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.” The message is pretty clear. Dark and experimental, at any cost, is better and more important when it comes to art.

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco, 2007

I think the easiest way for critics to stop being so baffled by stylistic choices like Nashville Skyline or Sky Blue Sky is to stop having such ridiculous expectations for the way musicians feel at any given moment. Critics went into a panic when Dylan put out three albums worth of Christian-inspired music in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then panic turned into even more confusion when by 1983 Dylan was hanging out with Chasidic rabbis. Critics’ attempts to decipher Dylan’s life based on what was being said in his lyrics and in his interviews distracted them from four years of really good music. Dylan put it pretty plainly in 1997, in an interview with Newsweek. “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing…this is the flat out truth. I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.”

Dylan is history’s most indecipherable musician. Ultimately, I think people would be better served if they just stopped trying to decipher him. You are not his friend. You will never know him. But you can do the same thing Dylan does really easily. You can find the religiosity and the philosophy in his music, and you can find it there and only there.

All I Know is All I Know

“Bandwagonesque” by Teenage Fanclub, 1991

Context

Someone please let Bandwagonesque stand on its own merits.

This album is unfortunately doomed to be compared to other albums. The first album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Nirvana’s Nevermind. SPIN Magazine named Bandwagonesque its “Best Album of 1991” ahead of Nevermind, and the world seemingly never let the poor magazine hear the end of it. Is it Teenage Fanclub’s fault that SPIN preferred the Scots over the Seattleites? Not really, so let’s go ahead and make this the last mention of Nirvana for now.

The second album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Big Star’s Third. Bandwagonesque is purportedly so similar in sound to the Memphis band that critics labeled it “Big Star’s Fourth.” To be clear, Teenage Fanclub are outspoken Big Star fans, and would never deny being influenced by the band if asked about it. But, again, is it fair to Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond Mcginley, and Brendan O’Hare that rock media is obsessed with discussing influences? Not really. I’ll be done with the words Big Star for now, as well.

The truth is Bandwagonesque is a noisy, melodic, beautifully sloppy set of songs that deserves to be mentioned by itself, in its own catchy and clever universe.

The Tunes

A debate I’ve had many times with a friend: what’s the best opening track on an album? For me, the answer could very well be “The Concept.” It’s such a complete statement on what Teenage Fanclub is all about that you almost don’t need to listen to the rest of the album. Some heavy feedback leads to some funny lyrics about The Pill and the 60s band Status Quo and then the chorus provides some awesome harmonies. Around the 2-minute mark, there is a guitar solo for the ages, one more chorus, and a lesser band would have just stopped there. Instead, Teenage Fanclub breaks out a three-minute outro filled with harmonies, chiming guitars, and a slow but powerful bassline. It’s evident the band knows “The Concept” is transcendent–they go so far as to give listeners a quick cool down with the 1-minute noisy interlude “Satan” before returning to the rest of the record.

The rest of the album proves that Teenage Fanclub are masters of songwriting conventions. “December” makes great use of a violin in the chorus which plays nicely off a bright guitar riff. “What You Do To Me” is two-minutes flat and contains only twenty words, but the drum fills and the stop-and-start nature of verses and choruses makes it one of the catchiest songs on the whole album. It’s the little things with these guys.

“Metal Baby” is about a guy who takes a girl to a metal concert, and she promptly ditches him and takes off to a new city with members of the band after the show. Is she at fault here, or is he truly that boring? He is, after all, “not ready to be party to her plan.” It’s a tough call, but I think she might be in the right on this one.

As “The Concept” already proved, Teenage Fanclub are masters at the outro. It’s sort of a classic rock idea, the outro. But Teenage Fanclub make it their own, and “Pet Rock” and “Alcoholiday” are better as a result. “Pet Rock” spends most of its runtime on an outro that adds horns into the mix. All the song needs is one verse and an outro. There really is no chorus required when you can make guitars and drums sound as catchy as Teenage Fanclub can. “Alocholiday” is similar in structure to “The Concept,” but instead of the “oohs” of “The Concept,” this outro provides the band’s best lyrics of the whole album. “All I know is all I know/what I’ve done I leave behind me/I don’t want my soul to find me.” Great stuff.

“Is This Music?” is an instrumental that closes the album, and has an ’80s style guitar sound that contrasts really well with the rest of the record. The effect placed on the guitar adds the perfect amount of melancholy to bookend everything.

But Who Cares?

Here’s a dumb generalization: the 1980s and 1990s indie music scene worked to deny the things they thought had hampered the rock industry for the previous two decades. They hated guitar solos, they hated groupies, they hated unnecessarily long tracks, they hated it all.

For me, though, the best bands of the indie scene, the ones that are still talked about with reverence, managed to alter the rock landscape and play outside the lines without a condescending disdain about them. Teenage Fanclub were among the least condescending bands of the era because they understood it was the sound, not the scene, that would have staying power. They loved guitar solos. There’s a solo on most of the tracks on this album. Whatever their personal relationship to the “groupie” concept was, they still wrote a funny and potentially self-deprecating song about one. They loved unnecessarily long tracks. They knew the truth about them, which is it’s not unnecessary if it’s really catchy. Teenage Fanclub took the good things about rock music and made them their own, which is all that any band could ever hope to strive for.

So does Bandwagonesque deserve to be called 1991’s best album instead of Nevermind? I’m not sure. I’m not a rock critic. What I will say definitively about Bandwagonesque’s relationship to Nevermind is the former has no business serving as a footnote to discuss the latter’s place in music history. It’s all good music. Teenage Fanclub knew that better than anyone.