1. The Decemberists – Of Angels and Angles (Picaresque, 2005) [singlepic id=386 w=80 h=50 float=left]
Closing chapter from the third book of Portland’s finest storytellers, an epilogue from singer Colin Meloy, only supported by the acoustic guitar. Although their sound may sometimes revoke a kind of lamenting feel (Meloy is a big Morrissey fan and the album was recorded in a church, go figure), they cleverly avoid a lethal blend with little personal stories. Instead, it matches perfectly with picaresque (satirical prose, apparently) stuff like this.
2. Leonard Cohen – Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967) [singlepic id=409 w=80 h=50 float=left]
No problem of course for good old Lenny to follow up such an acoustic ballad. It’s acoustic guitar and great vocals again, only briefly supported by a backing vocal during the chorus. One of the many Cohen songs covered by Westcoast nightingale Judy Collins and also my favorite song from his debut album with one of the best (although very sober) sung choruses ever. Very curious how the album would have sounded if Cohen would have had the upper hand over producer John Simon when finishing the album.
3. The Great Society – That’s How It is (How It Was, 1968) [singlepic id=350 w=80 h=50 float=left]
Live recording (including introduction, always adding some value if not reenacted afterwards) from Grace Slick’s family ensemble, recorded (obviously) before and released after Airplane‘s success. Together with Conspicious Only in it’s Absence a great pair of live albums, from the famous San Francisco Matrix Club.
4. The Doors – Unhappy Girl (Strange Days, 1967) [singlepic id=384 w=80 h=50 float=left]
Same era, same region, this tremendous Doors song with cracking organ riff. I’ve had a serious Doors year thanks to the many times their songs popped up in the shuffle, each time inciting me to play the complete albums. This one contains that raw, pure Doors sound from the debut album, which isn’t that strange as the songs of both records were written during the same period of time. Some kind of Amnesiac of its own era.
5. Buffalo Springfield – Hung Upside Down (Buffalo Springfield, 1967) [singlepic id=383 w=80 h=50 float=left]
Pass me the peace pipe once more, as we keep hanging around underneath the Californian sun. Another great switch by the shuffle, as the lead vocals don’t differ much from Morrison’s in the previous song. The stories of Buffalo Springfield’s origins are meanwhile almost as legendary as those about ‘successor’ CSNY, but we’ll concentrate on the role of those famous stages of that time. We discussed The Matrix Club before, and Buffalo Springfield’s first performance took place in Hollywood’s The Troubadour. A tour with The Byrds followed, after which Springfield became a regular at that third big club: The Wisky A Go Go. The disputes within the band were as similar as to CSNY’s ones and this (second) album even resembles Déjà-Vu as a collection of individual contributions of each band member. The joint tour de force of guitars and vocals in the end of this Stephen Stills song is very impressive, on an album on which the complete Westcoast elite is present, ranging from Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Jack Nitsche and … David Crosby.
6. Mogwai – With Portfolio (Mogwai Young Team, 1997) [singlepic id=285 w=80 h=50 float=left]
The piano intro is followed by sound effects that after two minutes inject this song with a serious load of stereo, a true gift for your headphones. A debut album from a post rock band can’t become much better than this.
7. Interpol – A Time To Be So Small (Antics, 2004) [singlepic id=282 w=80 h=50 float=left]
Unlike many other bands, Interpol didn’t just repeat the sound of their debut album, but didn’t improve it much either. Solid though, and they’d better stopped right here, as this closing track already lasts a little too long, just like the entire album and the band’s complete oeuvre.
8. The Olivia Tremor Control – Grass Canons (Black Foliage: Animation Music, 1999) [singlepic id=308 w=80 h=50 float=left]
The Elephant 6 was mentioned last time when talking about Of Montreal, and here we got its pioneers, founded by Will Hart, Bill Doss and Jeff Mangum. Mangum already left the band before the release of the first album (Dusk at Cubist Castle (1996)) to concentrate on Neutral Milk Hotel and the entire project basically stopped after this second and final album. This is in fact the complete anthithesis of the solid selling predictability of Interpol’s Antics: delicious Beatles-Beach Boys pop alternated with long, experimental audio-collages and brief intermezzos with a length that make the average GBV-fan become a little jealous.
9. Box Tops – I Pray for Rain (The Letter/Neon Rainbow, 1967) [singlepic id=385 w=80 h=50 float=left]
A last return to 1967 with this Memphis based band, but clearly rather an echo from the past than a glance into the future, as the artificial sound of rain and thunderstorm are rather touching after the sound effects in previous tracks. Closing track from an album that was released semi-obliged after the succesfull single ‘The Letter’, with Alex Chilton (who would later front Big Star) on lead vocals.
10. Grinderman – Electric Alice (Grinderman, 2007) [singlepic id=103 w=80 h=50 float=left]
Strong track, again dominated by several sound effects, that (combined with the shrilling guitar, the driving drums and the threatening voice of Cave) perfectly succeed to absorb you into the song. Cave’s temporary return to rawness after the baroque gospeltriumph on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
[singlepic id=29 w=320 h=240 float=left]
Genre: Country Folk
Preceded by: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Followed by: Harvest (1972)
Related to: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Déjà-Vu
Last time I spoke about the influence of a certain Neil Young on the music of My Morning Jacket. Neil Young is a man who used to rear chickens to sell their eggs when he was just a boy. Neil Young is the man Martin Scorsese had to re-edit his rockumentary ‘The Last Waltz‘ (about the goodbye concert of American group The Band) for, to get rid of the cocaine that was hanging from Neil’s nose during his performance. But above all, Neil Young is the man who delivered some of the most classic albums in music history.
Young was born in Canada where he became interested in pop music as a teenager and started to perform as a singer-songwriter in 1960, at the age of 15, after dropping out high school. During the early sixties, influenced by Bob Dylan, Young discovered that he also had a talent for writing beautiful folk songs. So in 1966, he left Canada and took off to Los Angeles, the place to be at that point for everyone with a guitar and some good songs. After meeting Stephen Stills, they founded the band Buffalo Springfield together. That band would fall apart after only two albums caused to high tensions between the band members, especially between Stills and Young. Where did we hear that before? Right, Young would join Stills again in 1969 for the super group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, another group that was condemned to a short existence.
But during those years in between, Young had already released two solo albums. In 1968 he debuted as a solo artist with the self-titled album Neil Young, including one of his well-known songs: ‘The Loner’. But Young apparently wasn’t such a loner after all, as he arranged a new backing band for his second album (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969): Crazy Horse. This new combination resulted in some lengthy jams with that typical guitar sound Young was developing at that moment. Young considered Crazy Horse as ‘his Rolling Stones’, just like he saw Crosby, Stills & Nash (who he joined shortly afterward) as ‘his Beatles’, . They claimed worldwide fame with Déjà-Vu, broke up again and Mister Young was now ready for his international break-through as a solo-artist, trying to combine Crazy Horse and CSN on his next album: After the Gold Rush.
How to accomplish this better than letting Crazy Horse jam with you on a couple of tracks, inviting Stephen Stills to do some backing vocals and CSNY band member Greg Reeves to play the bass? The result is a stunning classic album, mainly consisting of country folk songs, a genre that originated in the early sixties, when folk artists started more and more to reinterpret old country songs, in this way establishing an hybridization of folk music with country music. As one characteristic of the genre is the presence of thoughtful and personal lyrics, this album is the perfect representative.
The album starts with the typical country sound of ‘Tell Me Why’. It’s just Neil and his acoustic guitar, till the backing vocals kick in, giving this opening track a little more weight. You can guess after the meaning of the song for yourself. The second track is my personal favorite, also being the title track. The first times I heard it, it sounded to me like a demure antithesis of John Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’, with all kind of psychedelic lyrics. But Young is in fact warning us about what we’re doing to our environment, accompanied by a piano and a flugelhorn, which delivers a fantastic bridge in the middle of the song. Thom Yorke also covered this song solo during Radiohead‘s concerts in 2003, fading it into ‘Everything in Its Right Place’.
What follows is the first of four piano ballads that are on the album. Somehow they all have in common that they combine often melancholic lyrics with cheerful compositions, featuring a young Nils Lofgren (later on to become a member of Bruce Springsteen‘s E-Street Band) on piano. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ are both great songs, as they show us Young as a fantastic songwriter. The first one has this very recognizable lyrics, about how life’s simple before you fall in love. You’re not extremely happy, but everything’s just OK. Of course does love make you feel great, like you never felt before, but that same love is also the only thing that’s able to completely destroy you. The second one is a little more cryptic, but comes down to this: the world is a joke, I (Neil) know it, you know it, but don’t let this bring you down. Stay hopeful, because another attitude won’t help you any further.
The other two ballads, ‘I Believe in You’ and ‘Birds’, are both love songs (about doubts and goodbyes), which don’t really jump out among the other songs. Fitting in the same category is ‘Oh Lonesome Me’, a cover from the original song by country musician Don Gibson. Young turned this song into a beautiful lament about a dumped man, starting with an harmonica intro and with backing vocals contributed by Stephen Stills.
However, After the Gold Rush would never have become a classic album without the two songs where Young is joined by Crazy Horse, together jamming like on stage. First there’s of course ‘Southern Man’, one of Young’s most famous songs. This is the track that made me listen to the album more than once and in that way this song made me discover the other tracks out there. Don’t search for an intro, because there isn’t one: Young and the band immediately kick off with an upbeat piano and electric guitars. During the song Young condemns the racism in the American South, asking himself when the southern man is going to pay back the black people for treating them like slaves. The other grooves are to be heard on the heavily amplified ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’. This song also has this upbeat rhythm and a nice bassline, with the band having an awesome jam towards the end, including a nice solo from Young.
The remaining songs are ‘Till the Morning Comes’ and ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’, both about one and a half minute long. The first one is, according to my interpretation of the lyrics, about a guy who is only waiting till the morning comes. The other one is an easy going little country song, which closes the album perfectly.
In the years following After the Gold Rush, Neil Young would first reach it’s highest commercial peak on his next album Harvest, containing his only number one hit, ‘Heart of Gold’. Then followed the so-called Ditch trilogy, full of songs drenched in depression, and many many more albums till today. Young succeeded to create a different sound on every one of them, making his discography as eclectic as a Captain Beefheart song. But the best starting point to discover this man’s work must be After the Gold Rush. Take your time, give the album an extra chance if necessary, but never, never force yourself to like it.
[singlepic id=10 w=320 h=240 float=left]
Genre: Westcoast, Folk Rock
Preceded by: Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
Followed by: 4 Way Streets (live album,1971)
Last week I spoke about the Eagles’ masterpiece which predicted the end of an era. We travel back in time this week, to 1970, when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young launched Déjà Vu, marking one of the highlights of this same era. Crosby, Stills & Nash had debuted the year before with their self titled album, and on this second one they were joined by no one less than Neil Young.
In this way, ‘CSNY’ was one of the first supergroups, consisting of individual members who had been successful with their own bands before. David Crosby was one of the prominent members of The Byrds, Graham Nash was in the ‘British Invasion Group’ The Hollies and Stephen Stills and Neil Young played in Buffalo Springfield. The way they formed CSNY is an excellent example of how all musicians were intermingling in California during the seventies.
Crosby and Stills left their bands first in 1968, and started to jam together now and then. Crosby ran into Nash (who he already knew from his tour in the UK in 1966), when The Hollies were performing in California. They improvised a song with the three of them at a party at Mama Cass (Mama’s and the Papa’s) which convinced them of their vocal chemistry. Neil Young joined the trio after their first album, after he also arrived in Laurel Canyon. Just like The Eagles, CSNY were famous for their vocal harmonies, but very intricate sometimes, making Déjà Vu my personal favorite westcoast album.
The personal history of the individual members had a great influence on the recording of this album. All four of them (Nash to a lesser extent) had difficult personalities which would often lead to interpersonal problems. That’s why all songs, except for ‘Woodstock’, were recorded individually by the member who had written it, the other guys contributing what was needed from them afterwards.
Just like the CSN-debut (‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’), this album kicks off with an absolute gem full of harmonies from Stephen Stills: ‘Carry On’. It continues with ‘Teach Your Children’, one of the two Graham Nash songs on the album, the other one being ‘Our House’. The first one was inspired by a famous picture of an angry child holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park (NYC). By the way: Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead plays pedal steel guitar on this track. ‘Our House’ is about Nash’s short relationship with Joni Mitchell, with Nash’s desire for a monogamous family life in the middle of the free love era. Those were two of the three top 40 singles from the album, Joni Mitchell herself delivering the third one with ‘Woodstock’, which became the absolute anthem of the festival when it was played by CSNY there, being their first public performance with the four of them.
My personal favorite track however is ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, written by David Crosby. It’s basically a song about personal freedom and it’s a rare chance to hear Crosby sing with a very raw instead of a clear voice. Neil Young delivered the oh so typical Young songs ‘Helpless’ and ‘Country Girl’ for the album. Young had just released After the Gold Rush, and his perceptions of the wide marshlands in his home country are still prominent in this songs. Enjoy this masterpiece of musical chemistry.