The Decemberists: improving with age

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve heard that rock and roll has been declared dead. The memo hasn’t gotten out to the band The Dememberists. In January, the band released its latest album, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World that is probably its best album in its fifteen-year history. This is good news because most bands do their best work near their beginning. The Decemberists are proving the exception to the rule while also proving that rock music is certainly not dead.

Of course rock and roll won’t be killed anymore than jazz was killed. Instead it has spawned many offshoots. Some music marked as rock doesn’t quite qualify. The 1968 album Blood, Sweat & Tears by the “rock” band of the same name is not really a rock album at all, but more of a jazz album with some classical music thrown in. The Decemberists deliver rock songs, but they are also do folk rock and generate a lot of ordinary folk music as well. Indie rock is how the musicologists like to categorize the band. The label doesn’t matter much to me, but the content sure does.

The Decemberists are a small band oriented around the singer and songwriter Colin Meloy and based out of Portland, Oregon. Meloy is a gifted songwriter but with a so-so voice. Do not expect a voice like Adele out of Meloy. Meloy’s tunes though are pretty infectious. For an album to cement itself in my brain though, I need more than infectious music. I need great lyrics too, and this is where Meloy shines. He can compactly meld the poetry with music, leading to tunes that are both infectious but not vapid. In this album we get many such bountiful lyrics including:

And I
Seventeen and terminally fey
I wrote it down and threw it all away
Never gave a thought to what I paid
And you
All sibylline, reclining in your pew
You tattered me, you tethered me to you
The things you would and wouldn’t do
To tell the truth I never had a clue

So this kind of rock music gets my attention. Rather than be one song after another focused on love, we get a variety of vignettes and musings about life dressed up with music. While Meloy provides a frame and common tune, it gets even more interesting when the rest of the band combines their talents to turn the songs into a synergistic experience, mostly using instrumentation to combine complex harmonies that complement the main tunes. With Meloy doing most of the singing, it’s easy to get the impression that he monopolizes the group. However, band members Chris Funk (mostly guitar), Jenny Conlee (most keyboard stuff), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums) do a great job of complementing the music and making it feel almost orchestrated.

The result is this latest album should resonate with mind, body and soul. The album includes quite a potpourri of melodies from the serious to the somber to the hilarious. The common theme though is that they all quickly cement themselves in your brain. Some highlights:

  • In The Singer Addresses His Audience, Meloy sings about the weird experience of having groupies and the odd things they do, including cutting their hair to look like drummer Moen’s.
  • Calvary Captain probably proves the most infectious tune on the album, in which a guy asserts that he is not just special but her one and only.
  • Philomena is apparently an ode to cunnilingus, or rather one man’s frustration that his girlfriend Philomena won’t let him “go down”. The arrangement here is particularly inventive.
  • Make You Better plumbs a romantic relationship and how it inevitably moves from infatuation toward clear-eyed realism.
  • Lake Song seems to be a continuation of the theme in Make You Better.
  • Better Not Wake the Baby betrays the group’s folk roots since it is not the least bit rock and roll.
  • Anti-summersong is another folk song with perhaps the second most memorable tune on the album.
  • 12/17/12 is about Meloy’s feelings of being pulled both ways on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: great joy in the potential of his new child combined with the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’d encourage you to give it a spin but since CD’s are obsolete these days, give it a stream on your streaming music service instead. This is a really excellent album and makes me hopeful that as the band matures their music will continue to do so as well.

Two very belated rock sequels

The Thinker by Rodin

Now that I have a streaming music service, I am discovering plenty of new music. I am also discovering a few surprises. Within a couple of weeks, I discovered two very belated rock and roll sequels from artists I had tuned into during my formative years in the 1970s.

Return to the Centre of the Earth (Rick Wakeman)

Rick Wakeman first came to mass attention as a keyboardist, composer and songwriter for the rock group Yes. By the early 1970s he had tired of Yes and struck out on his own. In 1974 he put out Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a hard to describe but definitely unique concept album that combined the classic Jules Verne book with his moog synthesizer, the London Festival Orchestra and narrator David Hemmings captured in a live performance. I was seventeen at the time. This album fused a number of genres amazingly well. Because of Wakeman’s often over the top antics on the moog, this album got plenty of play on my record player and grew somewhat beloved. It is an arguably a noteworthy album in the genre of progressive rock. He made two other attempts at similar concept albums during these years, one on the six wives of Henry VIII and another on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but of the three this middle album is definitely the best.

By 1999, a full quarter century later, the moog was desperately old fashioned. This didn’t stop Wakeman from issuing a sequel that year, Return to the Centre of the Earth featuring himself again on the moog still sounding so very 1970’s-ish. This version takes us on a similar journey of the imagination that is more homage to the old album than something new in the way of story. It is also longer, somewhat better and classier. The orchestra got upgraded to the London Symphony Orchestra, and the narrator upgraded to Patrick Stewart. Listening to Stewart is like listening to Morgan Freeman: his voice is naturally compelling so you just cannot not pay attention. Despite the repetition in story, tone and music it is a fun journey of the imagination through music and a grade letter better than the original album. Wakeman also got a number of his peers to contribute to the vocals of the album including Justin Heyward and Ozzy Osbourne.

Today progressive rock seems the opposite of progressive. It seems antiquated, but for us middle-aged folk it is still quite a lot of fun. This album is actually about twenty minutes longer than the original album and proves that Wakeman’s still got it, both as a composer and a master of the moog. It’s a fitting but comfy sequel to the original album that is hard to dislike.

Update 12/9/14: Apparently the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth was re-released and extended in 2014, and even went on tour. My music service clocks this version at 1 hour and 48 minutes. You can find a number of excerpts from concerts online including this 27:41 excerpt performed in Buenos Aires with narration in Portuguese.

Thick as a Brick 2 (Jethro Tull)

In the early 1970s the competition was on to create the world’s most outrageous rock album. At the time arguably no album came closer than Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in 1972: an in-your-face and often patently offensive screed against God and organized religion. This one-theme album is framed as music the band wrote around a poem by fictional eight-year-old child prodigy: Gerald Bostock. His poem looked brilliant until it was actually analyzed and discovered to be completely antisocial and antiestablishment. It was so over the top that Ian Anderson expected that no one could possibly take it seriously. As a work of art though it was quite compelling and the lyrics, while often offensive and even outrageous, had resonance both then and today. For example, thinking of today’s Republicans, I can’t help but recall these lyrics from the album:

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.

I played it many times anyhow, and enjoyed it with a rebellious glee as it coincided with my loss of faith. It was often puerile, but it was for a good cause. But mostly it was great music. Take out the lyrics and you are still left with an amazing musical roller coaster from the rock and roll talents that was Jethro Tull. They were centered, of course, on Ian Anderson and his flute, who is always the primary artistic force for the band.

A full forty years after the album’s release in 1972 came Thick as a Brick 2, which is a rumination on Gerald Bostock forty years later around the age of fifty. In tone this 2012 album has a lot in common with the original album, but this is not particularly an anti-religious screed. Rather it is an examination into Bostock’s many possible life paths: as a banker, a homosexual and homeless man, a preacher, a soldier and a shopkeeper. (I’m betting Bostock would have been the banker.) Only when examining his life as a preacher does it resonate with the original album. As a work of music though it’s a reasonably close homage to the original, full of sardonic lyrics, occasional bars from the original albums and some quite memorable songs and tracks. (I particularly like “Adrift and Dumfounded”.) The original album really had no songs. It was issued in two parts, separated only because of the need to flip the record over.

So this forty year later homage to the original album is not really a homage, but a rumination of a fictional character navigating midlife. However, it is equally as clever lyrically and musically than the original album, if not more so. It is both different and the same and worth a lot of spins even if it won’t inspire you to start burning Bibles. It’s sardonic and at times melancholy, but rarely nasty. A sixty-something Ian Anderson (with some lyrics contributed by his son) proves that a forty year later sequel can still be damned good and fun, just a lot less in your face than the original, which is good.

Update 12/31/14: Enjoy this tribute band doing the original Thick as a Brick. Except that the vocalist is no Ian Anderson, it’s amazingly faithful to the original 1972 recording.

The meat of Meat Loaf

The Thinker by Rodin

You miss a lot during your busy years. There are so many things I just gave up when real life consumed me. This included most television, most leisure reading, lots of movies and music. Now that I’m retired I’m trying to catch up on a lot of stuff that I missed. I’ll never catch up, of course, so it’s kind of futile to try, but I am trying to catch up on Meat Loaf.

His record Bat out of Hell soared to the top of the charts in 1977 and sold more copies than Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the world of rock music it was something of a nuclear warhead, flattening the competition for months. The album’s success was in part aided by the cover’s outrageously clever artwork. Still, I just had not gotten around to ever listening to it. 37 years later in semi-retirement, I found the time.

There were certainly many in the hard rock genre at the time. All sorts of artists were trying for the loudest and most outrageous acts on stage. We were looking for spectacle. We were looking for our eardrums to be pierced by music. In that sense, the artist formally known as Michael Lee Aday was just another screaming head. Still, when I finally got around to listening to the title track all these years later, I felt that he must have the loudest and certainly the most convincing of the bunch. Ably assisted by songwriter Jim Steinman, it’s not surprising that this album sold like gangbusters.

For a fat guy, Meat Loaf has had a remarkable career. Big fat guys aren’t supposed to be this talented, and if they are they are supposed to be spurned by the skinnier set. Meat Loaf was the exception but you can tell that his fellow artists begrudged his rise to success. Starting with a part in the rock opera Hair, not to mention a role on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this accidental artist somehow dramatically beat the odds against him. Listening to Bat out of Hell, not to mention two sequel albums also enabled by Jim Steinman, it’s clear to me what makes him different. It comes down to one thing: authenticity.

Meat Loaf is a talented singer and performer, even when he did not have Jim Steinman’s songwriting talents to draw on. For artists like Alice Cooper or Gene Simmons though, music is just an act. For Meat Loaf, singing is a projection of the person he actually is. Consequently he brings a loud but honest sincerity to his singing that makes him unique. It was this I think that people latched onto, and why his album went nuclear. His songs were quite good, but they were by themselves no better than similar songs of his era. The reason they shown was simply because he puts one hundred percent of who he really is into them. Every word overflows with emotion.

Most big fat boys who grow up to be men are going to have issues. Meat had many, as will be clear if you read his biography. It would be hard to find an issue he didn’t have, but certainly they included the ones that usually bedeviled rock stars of his time, including drugs and booze. In his case it also included a dysfunctional family, something he sings about candidly in Bat out of Hell II, in the song “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”. As Steinman wrote the song, I assumed it was fictional. However, if you take the time to hear his story, this is not fictional at all. Meat’s drunken father did actually tried to kill him with a knife. Meat suffered the discrimination common to boys who did not fit in. It was these taunting boys and his father that gave him the name “Meat Loaf”.

So it turns out that spinning through Meat Loaf’s albums is a heady and enjoyable experience, if you don’t mind hearing pain leach out of his voice so frequently. He eloquently connects many of us to painful periods in our own past. You might say he is a grounded artist, both in real life and in his work. Unlike most artists who make a one hit wonder, he was able to resurrect himself. Bat out of Hell II was released in 1993, sixteen years after the first album’s debut and inexplicably moved his career out of the toilet and back into the stratosphere. Having heard all three Bat albums, the second is actually better than the first, and longer as well. It is also more personal.

The third Bat album was released in 2006. Steinman was the sole songwriter for the first two albums and contributed to the third album, with other songs contributed by Desmond Child, who also produced the record. The success of the Bat albums, all of which went gold, triggered disagreements and lawsuits between Meat Loaf and Steinman. Nonetheless, when their collaboration worked, it was to both their benefits. Steinman tried to put out some albums of his own, but he simply isn’t gifted with Meat Loaf’s voice, so they floundered.

Music is supposed to affect you. Sometimes music will touch you. Very rarely sometimes music will grip you tightly and rattle you with its power. Not all of Meat Loaf’s music qualified in the latter, but some of it, particularly many of the songs on his Bat out of Hell albums have that rare magic. Some of them can make you cry in spite of their loudness.

It took 37 years, but I’m glad I took these albums for a virtual spin. It’s curious that Meat Loaf has not yet been invested in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let’s hope it’s not a snub, because he should be in its gilded ranks.

An Evening with Don McLean

The Thinker by Rodin

Popular musicians often fade into undeserved obscurity. Don McLean, who wrote American Pie, is one of these musicians. Most Americans know him only for American Pie, a brilliant 1971 song interweaving an irresistible tune with delicious metaphorical lyrics. American Pie is arguably the definitive coming of age song for his generation. In fact, a Billboard poll ranked American Pie fifth among the top 365 songs of the 20th century.

Unlike other popular musicians whose lives were cut short, at age 64 Don McLean is blessedly still among the living. I can report that his voice is still quite fine, as I heard him perform last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his band delivered a satisfying show full of favorites, his most brilliant (though lesser known) tunes, as well as various collections of folk tunes, not all of which he wrote. In short, McLean is a living American musical icon who now plays in smaller venues but who has lost almost none of his talent.

I know many people who have reverent feelings about Bob Dylan. I certainly respect Bob Dylan’s talent and like McLean, he can still draw in crowds, although he too often plays in smaller venues. Like McLean, Dylan’s lyrics can often be mysterious and metaphorical, but arguably, McLean has a better voice, is a more accomplished musician and is more inventive than Dylan. To me there is genius to be found among the few artists that combine great lyrics with a memorable tune. In my opinion, McLean is the contemporary master of this genre and American Pie is just one example of many for aficionados of this genre to savor.

Not all of McLean’s songs are full of imponderable lyrics. Many are quite ordinary. At his best, McLean is an expert at plumbing the depths of the human soul with music. What makes McLean almost unique is that he is poet that can consistently wrap music around his stunning poetry. Take for example the lyrics to one of his lesser-known but brilliant songs that he performed last night, Magdalene Lane:

Magdalene Lane is the red light domain
where everyone’s soul is for sale.
A piece of your heart will do for a start
but you can send us the rest in the mail.

For we have our own families to feed
and we can’t let them starve just for you.
Well, we’d rather not watch while you bleed
so come back in an hour when you’re through.

I went to hear McLean last night not for American Pie, but for lesser-known but arguably better songs like Magdalene Lane. This song, a sort of marriage of poetry and music is excruciatingly hard to find in any venue. Moreover, at 64, McLean still has the vocal range to carry it off. He joked about his age between sets. “A lot of you came here nervous. You were wondering, ‘I heard him in 78. Does he suck now?’” The answer, thankfully, is not at all. While his face is lined, his hair is now mixed with gray, and his belly broader, as the fortieth anniversary of American Pie approaches, McLean still has it. It is harder to say the same about Bob Dylan. His lyrics may be as imponderable as ever, but his age is showing in his voice, which is becoming increasingly gravely. McLean has some issues hitting the higher registers and may change the music a bit to accommodate, but otherwise he is the same gifted musician who gave us American Pie in 1971.

And speaking of American Pie, McLean is savvy enough to know that he has to play the song at any venue, so he gave us the full rendition, not the clipped version that you hear on the radio, as well as invited the audience to sing along in the choruses. He has doubtless sung the song a thousand times. Both he and his band must be sick of it, but he delivered like a trooper, including a last reprise of the first verse. It was shortly followed by his other required song, the much more introspective Vincent, which sketches the meaning of the life of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Most Americans are not familiar with it, but to a Don McLean fan, it is a must-be-heard-live song. Who can resist with lyrics like these?

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflecting Vincent’s eyes of China blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hands

Don McLean performed one other lesser-known hit of his last night. It is perhaps the most romantic song written in the 20th century, and a choice at eclectic weddings and, as he joked, playing in elevators near you: And I Love You So.

And I love you so
The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

It’s hard not to cry and impossible not to give your spouse a kiss after hearing this song.

If you have a chance to see Don McLean, do not assume he is washed up. Buy the tickets and celebrate the occasion. I did not learn about his performance until Friday night and I could still find two tickets for my wife and I. Even living legends like Don McLean cannot live forever. And if all you know of Don McLean is American Pie, you will probably be delighted to discover a brilliant musician whose artistry is so much broader than this one hit song.

You can find out if he is playing near you by going to his web site.

30 Years of Breakfasting in America

The Thinker by Rodin

Has it been thirty years already since the rock band Supertramp released its album Breakfast in America? Apparently. The album, originally released in 1979 as a 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record, came emblazoned with the now iconic picture of a waitress posing at the Statue of Liberty. It sold over eleven million copies worldwide. Since then, it has morphed onto CD (infamous picture still intact) and now is playing digitally  in MP3 players everywhere, including mine.

Breakfast in America cover art
Breakfast in America cover art

I would like to say I took the album for a spin recently, but that would date me. No, it came off my MP3 player where I most recently enjoyed it while pressing metal at my local Gold’s Gym. It really doesn’t matter. At three decades old, Breakfast in America is still going strong. Few would characterize the album as the best example of a rock album out there. However, if some aliens from outer space press me to recommend one album from the thousands that are out there to best represent rock and roll, Breakfast in America it would be. In spite of the band being British, it feels and sounds quintessentially American.

Perhaps it wins some sort of award for the most hits on one album. Breakfast in America came with four Top 40 hits and embedded themselves into our collective memory: the title track, “The Logical Song”, “Goodbye Stranger” and “Take the Long Way Home”. In 1980, the album won the Grammy for Best Recording Package, beating out fierce competition from Led Zeppelin and The Talking Heads.

Why did Breakfast in America succeed where so many others failed? It was hardly Supertramp’s first album; in fact, it was their sixth. For a rock album, it does have a unique sound, since it is rife with an unusual instrument: the Wurlitzer Electric Piano. Supertramp also emphasizes the harmonica and saxophone, hardly the sorts of instrument typically associated with rock bands. Despite some of the odd choice of instruments, it is unmistakably rock and roll. It succeeds, as best albums do, by fusing together a combination of good vocals and instruments with clever little song vignettes to which most people can readily relate.

For me the best song on the album is “Goodbye Stranger”. It brilliantly marries cleverly arranged rock music with the narrative of a handsome drifter. He moves from woman to woman, breaking their hearts and then abruptly moving on. But hey, no hard feelings. “Tried to see your point of view. Hope your dreams will all come true.” This is preceded with some devastating lyrics, which point to a likely handsome but vainglorious and empty man afraid of aging and commitment, and who is probably part misogynist to boot. “And I will go on shining. Shining like brand new. I’ll never look behind me. My troubles will be few.” Most women can relate; the dating pool is full of superficial men like this guy. Many men can relate too, in an uncomfortable way, for we may have modeled this man’s silly playboy-like behavior at times in our lives. A nice ending touch to the song is the way the guitar strums like a motorcycle accelerating into the sunrise.

For the most part the album is rife with songs like this. The title track “Breakfast in America” portrays a guy disappointed that he has a second-class girlfriend. He dreams of the dazzlingly curvy and buxom girls in California, while obsessively dwelling on how overwhelming ordinary is his own girlfriend.

“The Logical Song” may be an ode to the village idiot. It portrays someone totally confused by modern life who yearns for the innocence of childhood and cannot quite grasp why he is being molded to be logical, practical and cynical. Society is far more complex than he can fathom and he yearns for someone to give him a simple explanation of just who he is.

“Take the Long Way Home” appears to portray a star (a fellow rock star perhaps?) that thinks he is more popular and talented than he is. Most of those around him are not fooled, including his wife and neighbors who see him as flawed and vainglorious. His solution is to escape to the city, intoxicate himself with mesmerized fans while finding marital satisfaction elsewhere. But what happens when the applause stops and the fans fade away?

Other songs are arguably as good as those that hit the Top 40. The opening track “Gone Hollywood” is a good case in point and speaks to the empty feeling of despair of those drawn to Hollywood’s glare but who cannot seem to make it in that culture. “I’m in this dumb motel near the ‘Taco Bell’ without a hope in hell. I can’t believe that I’m still around.”

“Oh Darling” is something of the antithesis of “Goodbye Stranger”. It tells of a man drawn to love a woman who appears to be several points above him on the attractiveness and intelligence scale and knows it. He feels drawn to smother her with love but it seems it might be pushing her away in the process. He seems to understand that she will look for satisfaction elsewhere.

“Lord, Is it Mine” is a song about someone trying to find the personal presence of God but is not quite connecting. Instead, he keeps finding himself endlessly careening around in this messy place called reality where there are no ready answers and God seems distant at best and wholly absent at worst.

Not all the songs on this album necessarily make a lot of sense, but they are all worth listening to. “Just a Nervous Wreck” is a great rock and roll song, but the lyrics are a jumble of confusing metaphors. “Casual Conversations” is a song about an estranged couple with communication problems that are still in a relationship for no appreciable reason. It reminded me of “Overs” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album. The closing track “Child of Vision” described the disillusionment of a follower who realizes his role model is squandering his life.

I am still unclear why this particular album struck so many of the right physical and metaphorical chords. The lyrics are often good, but not outstanding. It is in the fusion of music to lyrics where it seems to reach greatness. Most rock and roll aficionados cannot imagine not having Breakfast in America in their collection. They would no more depart with it than their copy of the Beatles’ White Album. Amazingly, it still feels both fresh and relevant. The angst articulated by the band may be late 1970s, but we still wrestle with the same very human issues that underlie these songs today.

I know Breakfast in America will always be in my rock and roll collection, right next to others I consider iconic, including Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (also released in 1979). Perhaps some of these nuggets will enrapt distant future generations too. Breakfast in America may prove to be on that short list of rock albums that will be immortal, particularly if the aliens get a hold of it.