So we’re only two weeks away from my Top 10 List, but I thought I would pre-empt any criticism right now by telling you that TV on the Radio’s Dear Science does not appear anywhere on it.
It doesn’t even get an honorable mention.
I suppose I’m destined to run into this at least once a year, but the wild acclaim for this album is simply beyond me. I mean, far be it from me to call this record terrible – it’s not – but it’s far, far from the best of the year. It’s fun and all, but there aren’t very many revelatory (or even complete) songs here. But with the end-of-the-year praise it’s getting, you’d think these guys had just made this decade’s Revolver. (Or even this decade’s OK Computer.)
TVoTR’s last album, Return to Cookie Mountain, received similar acclaim, but this time, it’s deafening. Rolling Stone, Spin and the Onion AV Club have already selected Dear Science as the best album of 2008, and I’ll bet you $100 Pitchfork follows suit. I know I sound like everyone’s cranky, uncool dad when I say things like this, but I just don’t get it. I have no particular problems with Dear Science, but I don’t think I’m hearing what everyone else is hearing here.
Of course, as you’ll see in two weeks, I’m an old-fashioned melody guy, and my top picks are by artists who found new ways to burrow into organic, blossoming pop music. As much as I like “Dancing Choose” and “Golden Age,” TV on the Radio didn’t give me anything that moved me, that altered the way I see the world. My top five picks – two new bands, and three old favorites – all did. Whether you hear what I hear in them, I couldn’t say. But if the reaction to Dear Science is any indication, I’m going to be all alone in my top selections this year, once again horribly out of step with the zeitgeist.
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Okay, let’s talk about Darn Floor – Big Bite, my pick for the most welcome reissue of the year.
Every long-running artist has an album like Darn Floor. It’s the Labor of Love that Nobody Bought, the album said artist poured his heart and soul into, only to release it to near-total indifference. In Terry Taylor’s case, that indifference was even more dispiriting – as an artist marketed to Christian outlets only in the ‘80s, Taylor managed to alienate even the tiny fraction of the music-buying audience who even knew his name.
It’s only in subsequent years, as the long-out-of-print album grew near-legendary among Taylor’s fans, that Darn Floor came in for a reappraisal. For the hardcore, it’s always been a favorite, the album on which everything Taylor and his band, Daniel Amos, had been reaching for since the late ‘70s fully came together. It was a record that could only have been made at that time, by these people, under those circumstances, and for me, it stands as a high water mark in an already remarkable career.
It is my favorite Daniel Amos album, and for years I’ve only had two options if I wanted to listen to it – I could dig out my old cassette copy, or I could spin a poorly-burned CD an old girlfriend made for me eight years ago. My other option, I suppose, would be to pay the exorbitant prices a CD copy of Darn Floor fetches on eBay, and I’ve been tempted now and again. But thankfully, Taylor and Arena Rock Recording Company have finally put together a gorgeous reissue package, complete with an hour-long bonus disc of rare stuff.
Why do I like this album so much? To talk about that, I have to take you back to 1987, and into a dark and forgotten corner of the music industry.
When I say “Christian music,” I know what you think I mean. You think I mean processed Nashville pop, with a relegated “Jesus per minute” quota and slick, squeaky-clean marketing image. You think I mean sanitized worship music geared more towards “increasing the flock” than making any kind of artistic statement. And for the most part, you’re right. But suffering in their own ghetto off to the side of the already tiny Christian music industry, there have always been real, serious, brilliant artists looking to explore faith, rather than just present a cardboard cutout of it.
Terry Taylor has always been one of the best of these. He’s a living example of the fact that religious faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, no matter what Bill Maher might tell you. What Maher’s sneering documentary Religulous missed is that faith, for thoughtful and reflective people, is a constant struggle. It’s a common assumption that faithful people are blind to the horrors of the world, or the logical inconsistencies of their beliefs, and I think this is a deeply flawed misconception. And Taylor proves my point.
Here’s a guy who knows and sings about the awful realities of life. He knows and enumerates all the reasons faith doesn’t make sense, and then tells you why he believes anyway. He’s full of doubt, but understands that these doubts don’t negate faith, they strengthen it. His is a complex, poetic worldview, and his music is similarly complicated and difficult, particularly in an industry that has consistently pumped out interchangeable cheerleaders for a simplistic “God is good” message.
And yet, for most of his career, Taylor worked within that industry. At first, he had no choice – Daniel Amos began in the late ‘70s as a sometimes whimsical country-rock Jesus band, like the Christian Eagles. The first album is almost unrecognizable as the work of Terry Taylor, honestly, and no mainstream label would have touched it. But from there, Taylor’s gone on to make some astonishing works of art, aimed at an audience that will probably never hear them. He’s labored to change a machine that has never appreciated the nuances he brings to his art.
In 1981, Daniel Amos began its most ambitious project, a four-album concept narrative called The Alarma Chronicles. Their label, Frontline, hated it – musically, Taylor had embraced new wave head on, making clattering, dissonant guitar-pop with the best of them, and lyrically, he’d embarked on a multi-year examination of just how awful the world is. It was dark stuff, with no easy answers and no pat Christian solutions. Jesus was mentioned just once in the first three albums, practically drowned out in an ocean of shady preachers, celebrity culture and greed, greed, greed. (It was the ‘80s, and where were our rocket packs? Seriously.)
It all led up to the final volume, 1986’s Fearful Symmetry, and even Taylor will tell you he stuck the landing a little bit. He’d set himself up with an unenviable task – three albums describing the world’s problems, one describing the solution – and I’m sure it weighed on him. How does one articulate God, without being cheesy and simplistic? To be fair, he gave it a great try – Symmetry is full of poetic observations cribbed from some of the best minds in history, and the music, while dated-sounding, is some of the most complex the band had yet written.
Still, the goal of Fearful Symmetry was to put God into words, and on that score, Taylor didn’t come up trumps. You can tell it was quite the learning experience, though – the entire next Daniel Amos album would be about how God is indescribable, beyond mortal ken. It’s about how we try and try to sum him up, but, as in the case of Fearful Symmetry, always fall woefully short. It’s about admitting that we don’t understand, and we won’t understand, and trying, as a thinking person, to live with that and accept it. Some theologians have written entire theses on this topic, trying to make sense of the idea that God will never make sense.
Terry Taylor? He wrote Darn Floor – Big Bite.
Yes, I know the title is odd, but it makes sense. There’s this gorilla named Koko, who lives in captivity in California, and she has learned more than a thousand words in American Sign Language. And one day, there was a massive earthquake that rumbled through Koko’s cage, and she expressed it the only way she knew how – by signing the words “darn floor big bite.” Taylor being Taylor, he saw this as the perfect metaphor for man’s attempts to describe God. We use primitive language, and we don’t even come close to getting it right.
The whole album is full of imagery like that. Take “Strange Animals,” the album’s mission statement, on which Taylor uses the animal kingdom to explain why we act the way we do towards one another: “I want to hold you, but it’s not clear, just what’s your intention if I get too near, I feel the danger but I cannot leave, will you tear open the heart on my sleeve?” “Earth Household” imagines us as caretakers, the world as a single home, and its characters struggling to get out, to “go to the other unknowable side.”
“Pictures of the Gone World” is brilliantly foreboding, its protagonists sharing photographs of a world that no longer exists. They are meant to be Adam and Eve, saying to each other, “We could lose this world too.” The album’s centerpiece, “The Unattainable Earth,” is at track nine, near the end. In it, Taylor brings all the threads together – “Language is weak, but I keep on speaking,” he says, before wondering, “Should you really reveal anything when I just misunderstand it?” The denouement, “The Shape of Air,” is Taylor’s last word (well, here, at least) on the futility and beauty of trying to reflect God in art. “Describe the voice from heaven, and paint the grace you’re given, it’s the shape of air…”
I’m giving the impression that Darn Floor is a scholarly document, but that’s because I haven’t talked about the music yet. It was on this album that Taylor, guitarist Greg Flesch, bassist Tim Chandler and drummer Ed McTaggart cohered as a unit. The music on Darn Floor is spacious, jagged, energetic, and unfailingly melodic. It occasionally sounds like it was recorded in 1987, which it was, but of all Daniel Amos’ ‘80s works, this one holds up the best, because it sticks to the three basic rock instruments and lets them breathe.
There are only a handful of bass players in the world as good as Tim Chandler, and on Darn Floor, you can really hear how terrific he is. On the album’s opener, a snide retort to puritanical Christian attitudes called “Return of the Beat Menace,” Chandler is as reserved as he’s ever been, laying down bedrock-solid accents. But jump ahead to the almost jazzy arrangement of “Pictures of the Gone World,” and you’ll hear a dissonant master at work. Chandler gets away with incredibly bizarre bass parts in otherwise simple songs – man, just listen to what he plays during the chorus – but they work.
Then there’s Greg Flesch, who doesn’t as much play the guitar on this album as conduct it. You will very rarely hear a strum or a simple chord from Flesch – he complements Chandler’s improvisations with his own dissonant lines. Often, neither one is playing what you’d think of as “the song,” but with Ed McTaggart’s rock-solid drumming, they hold it together, and Taylor’s vocals are always to the point, tempering his bandmates’ flights of fancy.
Darn Floor covers a lot of ground in its 10 tracks, 36 minutes. There are the straight pop songs, like “Strange Animals” and “The Unattainable Earth,” but then there is the groove-laden powerhouse of the title track, which sees Chandler providing the foundation for Flesch’s towers of sound. “Safety Net” is built around a merciless electronic drum beat and an odd 7/4 time signature, but it rocks like a house on fire, Taylor’s vocals sounding ragged and worn by the end. “Half Light, Epoch and Phase” gives Flesch a chance to whip out his surf guitar chops over a constantly shifting backdrop, and “Earth Household” is strikingly beautiful, its circular bass line leading into the perfect chorus.
And then there is “Divine Instant,” which, thanks to the reissue, sounds like a completely different song to me now. I never quite figured out that the lyrics are about sex, which Taylor sees as another way of touching the divine. Now that I know that, thanks to Taylor’s new liner notes, I can hear that the music was trying to tell me that all along. It’s so funny – the whole vibe is almost porn-tastic. Even the way Flesch bends his strings here sounds salacious. I don’t know how I didn’t hear it before. “Divine Instant” is a really good song to begin with, but now I just crack up every time it plays. “Time standing still…”
Darn Floor – Big Bite is the most beautifully odd record Daniel Amos ever made. Even now, after two decades, it remains one of the most insightful examinations of faith, doubt and the inability of language (both spoken and played) to encapsulate either one. It also remains a challenging, incredibly rewarding work of musical art by four men at the top of their game.
So why have you never heard it? Beats me. This record stands shoulder to shoulder with its ‘80s contemporaries, and towers over most of them. The only reason for its obscurity is that it was produced within, and released strictly to, a part of the music industry that doesn’t look for, nurture or support thoughtful art. You can shout about Jesus from the rooftops in this part of the industry, but if you sit down and carefully examine your thoughts about and relationship with him, without overtly mentioning his name in the lyrics, then you will be shunned. You’ll be “not Christian enough” for the Christian marketing machine and “too Christian” to have your records sold anywhere else – even in the days when U2 ruled the world.
It’s a strange little trap, and Terry Taylor’s been in it for roughly 30 years. In that time, he’s created a legacy many songwriters would kill for, and he’s still at it. Last year’s The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule, under the Swirling Eddies moniker, was extraordinary, and he continues to write one great song after another with the Lost Dogs. And he keeps struggling with his faith and his doubt, always with the honesty that marks a true artist. Darn Floor – Big Bite may be my favorite, but it’s just the tallest spire, and the whole building is worth exploring.
Arena Rock’s reissue, by the way, is beautiful, and the bonus disc is great too. You get some instrumental cuts that really show off Chandler and Flesch, a few live bursts (including an awesome rendition of “Safety Net”), and a 22-minute interview with Taylor that puts the whole thing in perspective. I highly recommend it. Get it here.
Next week, a couple of live box sets to mark year’s end.
See you in line Tuesday morning.