Thursday, June 22, 2006

Albums That Get No Love

Almost everybody owns albums they love and cherish, but which they are embarrassed to display in polite company. Most people don't respond all that well to snickering, so why risk it, you know? Or they own albums that vanished from the radar before they had a chance to make an impact.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I am bravely revealing my Top 3 Albums That Get No Love. But I like 'em anyway. Be gentle, gentle readers. I have a fragile soul. It is a tender flower that is easily bruised. And if you don't like my choices, screw you.

No, no, that's all wrong. I love you all. Really. Take it as the fervent hope and prayer of one fragile soul to another.

So before I break into a chorus of the Barney song, I'll offer a) Three Albums I Love That Everybody Else Hates, and b) Three Worthy Albums I Want Other People To Hear, But Nobody Ever Takes Me Up On It.

In the former category, I offer:

John Denver -- Poems, Prayers, and Promises -- John was an earnest little muppet, and the hug-a-tree sentiments became very annoying very quickly, but this album, one of his earliest, also shows that he was a fine songwriter. This one has "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which still brings a tear to the ol' rural eye. "Almost heaven, West Virginia" actually became a state motto. Never mind that the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are in Virginia, not West Virginia. Nobody ever said that those gap-toothed holler dwellers were geography majors. Or that John Denver was, either. It's still a fine song, one of the best examples of the laid-back country/folk that the hippies latched on to after Woodstock. It's totally uncool to like this album, or John Denver. Nevertheless, I like it.

Rick Wakeman -- Journey to the Center of the Earth -- Wakeman was the keyboard player for Yes. He liked to wear capes and dress in armor, and he would occasionally toss in Prokofiev quotes into the middle of rock songs. Eventually he had a solo career, and this was his second album. In typically overblown fashion, this one featured not only Rick's phalanx of pianos, organs, and synthesizers, but the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir, and several classically trained actors and actresses portentously intoning passages from Jules Verne's early sci-fi/fantasy novel. This is classic Spinal Tap fodder, and as such it has its comic elements, but it also features some astounding keyboard work from Wakeman. Strip away the ostentatious trappings and there's some great music here.

Steve Earle -- Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator -- By most accounts, this is the nadir of Earle's career. He was deep in the throes of heroin addiction when he recorded this live album, and he sounds like it. His voice, always an acquired taste, barely rises above a raspy whisper, and his band is loose in all the wrong senses of the term. The drummer can't keep the beat. The guitarist really likes that D chord, and plays it continually, whether it fits the music or not. Steve's long monologues in between songs are rambling and incoherent. But I like this album for the same reasons that I like to rubberneck at car accidents on the freeway. The carnage is fascinating. And these songs of desperation sound even more desperate.

There are so many albums that fit the latter category, but for starters I'll offer:

Tir Na Nog -- A Tear and a Smile and Strong in the Sun -- Good luck finding these albums. Tir Na Nog were a couple of Irish folkies who rose to what could charitably be thought of as their ascendance at the same time as Nick Drake and the early solo Richard Thompson, and they were clearly influenced by those artists on these early '70s albums. Nobody cared. They cover several Drake tunes (long before anybody knew who Nick Drake was), they write sweetly aching, melancholy originals, and they intertwine their acoustic guitars in breathtaking ways. Of course, they sank without a trace. But these are gorgeous albums, right at the top of my Best Music You've Never Heard list. Imagine Nick Drake harmonizing with himself, and you're in the ballpark, or on the soccer pitch, or whatever.

Chris Whitley -- Din of Ecstasy -- I will continue my one-man crusade for the greatest songwriter and guitarist you've never heard. Whitley caused quite a stir with his debut album, Living With the Law, an eerie mix of Edge-like atmospherics and raw Delta blues. Then he disappeared from the scene, and re-emerged four years later with this, his "grunge" album. At the time it was brutally slagged as a derivative attempt to jump on Kurt's bandwagon, and it effectively ended whatever chances Whitley had for hitting the big time. But listen to it now. It's raw, it's searing, it's gloriously explosive. And then there are the words -- an addict chronicling the desperate battle between soul-numbing escape and the desire to matter, to mean, to recapture some semblance of life. It's profane and it's angry. It's a man at the end of his rope, and it's a prayer. It's one of the most harrowing albums I've ever heard.

The Weakerthans -- Fallow, Left and Leaving, and Reconstruction Site -- Granted, these guys aren't exactly unknowns, but they are nevertheless criminally underappreciated. The transformation that lead singer/songwriter John K. Samson has wrought from Punk Brat (best shown in his former band Propagandhi) to Thoughtful Poet is nothing less than spectacular. The band mixes it up quite eclectically, tossing in influences from folk, country, and loud, abrasive rock 'n roll. But the secret ingredient is Samson's songwriting. He's one of the few songwriters whose words can stand alone as poetry. He tackles all the big subjects -- love and the loss of love, God, death, loneliness and alienation, the hole in the soul -- and he does so with compassion, warmth, humor, and something that sounds uncannily like wisdom. And he rocks like crazy.

9 comments:

Mark! said...

I think I agree with that last one...

KarlandBethany said...

Andy, I thought you didn't worry about what was cool or not.

Oh and BTW. Rick Wakeman Roxores!!!

So does working from home in the hammok on a warm sunny day.

I'd let you know what my top 3 were too but I seem to have a lack of knowledge of what is hip.

Does Michael Jackson's Thriller count as uncool? or maybe Keith Green and REZ Band? or maybe Debusey's La Muir?

Ok so here I have the one tape that I'm embarrised. In my prepubecent years my friends and I started a band called "Zero" (the name described how much tallent we had.). We made two tapes of songs like "poopy poopy poo, in side of my shoe" and our parody of Starway to Heaven "Escalator to Hell"

This tape brings me much joy when I'm alone and much embarasment when a friend finds it and wants to listen to it.

Karl

Brother-in-law Bill said...

As a former gap-toothed holler-dwelling citizen of the great state of West Virginia, where the unofficial motto is: It's hard to be humble when you're from West Virginia, I would like to point out that in the far far reaches of the Eastern Panhandle (Harper's Ferry vicinity), the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River actually make an appearance.

I must also admit that, as a former football season ticket holder at WVU, The WVU Marching Band, the Pride of West Virginia, had a killer pre-game show that included an incredible version of Country Roads, as well as Fanfare for the Common Man, Simple Gifts, etc. Not a dry eye in the place.

jackscrow said...

I ran into Denver in a bar in Nederland Colorado in I think the early nineties.

The clean-cut image was mostly just an image, but he struck me as a truly good guy.


I don't listen to anything that isn't real, right and cool (snicker), but my continual recommendation to any and all is Blue Rodeo's "Five Days in July".

Every song on the cd is good to great.

In my mind, at least, one of the best top to bottom albums ever made.

Andy Whitman said...

Karl, I am a bundle of contradictions. You would think that the paunch, the receding hairline, and the hearing aid would be enough to cure me of my desire for hipness, but I still hide the John Denver albums. O wretched man that I am, who will save me from this desire to be a scenester?

Bill, that gap-toothed holler dweller comment was just for you. I love stereotypes. They obviously don't apply to you. Then again, you did live in a town where people celebrate a football victory by setting their couches on fire.

Daniel, I'll certainly check out that Blue Rodeo album. Sounds good.

jackscrow said...

Andy,

PBS is re-running a YES live acoustic show occasionally. It is good to remember just how good musicians these guys were. They still have the chops and vocals.

"Five Days in July" is unlike anything Blue Rodeo has ever done. They certainly haven't done anything near as good since. Lightning in a bottle, maybe. Most people down here don't know them. In Canada they're huge. Probably not as Big In Japan.

A rock/pop band recording a mostly country album, in a house, not studio, over five days, using an old upright piano and their tour equipement. It sounds like a live album, without the crowd. Sarah McLachlan adds beautiful gospel piano and background vocals.

I was going to list the best tracks, but realized it would be too hard. The last three tracks are on my funeral list (Yeah, still spouting opinions, even from the grave.).

Just don't tell me if you don't like it.

scott said...

Andy:
You are indeed far more more hip than you realize. I was watching a show last summer where Dave Mathews and Emmylou Harris were on together (and can't recall if it was CMT's "Crossroads" or some other show) but the host was interviewing them together. When he asked both what their favorite musical "guilty pleasure" was, Mathews immediatley responded "John Denver songs. He was a great writer." Emmylou added something like "he sure was." Which reminds me of one of my alltime favoritre songs in the category of your blog - Wild Montana Skies. An incredible Denver-Harris duet.
Also love your Steve Earle live album choice - especially his take on "Dead Flowers."

Joshua said...

albums that i love furtively:

stephen bishop's on and on ("puts on sinatra and starts to cry...")

chuck mangione's feels so good (that sweet sweet cornet)

general public's all the rage (because of my lifelong unreasonable affection for the song "tenderness")

albums i can't seem to get anyone else to agree are brilliant:

jon gibson's forever friends (not that i try very hard; gibson is a ccm artist repulsive to most but who somehow slipped under my defenses completely)

sloan's navy blues (goes beyond pastiche to brilliance, imho)

pavement's wowee zowee (their lost weekend)

Anonymous said...

thanks!

i was in a "record" store in the midst of a closing sale (i guess that's sad)...and i picked up chris whitley's rocket house for $5 on your recommendation.

good stuff! very pleasantly surprised.