What a week. My company was saved, my father got married, and the Red Sox botched their way to the end of their season. Whew!
Thanks again to everyone who sent me notes of support about my job. It all happened very quickly: the auction last Monday turned up no bidders except multi-millionaire James Tyree, the unions came around by Wednesday, and the bankruptcy judge approved the sale on Thursday. Signed, sealed, delivered, we’re his. I’m hopeful for the future – if this guy believes and practices half the things he’s saying, we should be in good hands.
My father’s wedding was Sunday. It was a lovely ceremony, held in an old hotel in St. Charles. For a guy who obsessively plans things, my dad basically winged this – none of us had any idea what the ceremony would be like until it started up, including him. He’s married a terrific woman who gets him, and has made him a more whole person than I’ve seen in a long time. I’m very happy for him.
And then the Red Sox. Well, let’s not talk about that. Although Jonathan Papelbon should start considering his options. Anyway, on to the silly music column. Thanks for joining me.
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So it’s that time of year again. Time for me to take another long look at the rules governing my top 10 list, and possibly reconsider them.
I’ve been making these lists for most of my life. I thought I might outgrow the obsessive need to rank and compare things by now, but I haven’t. I’m still that same 16-year-old boy who would argue passionately about who was the better rhythm guitarist, James Hetfield or Scott Ian. And even back then, I knew these lists meant nothing unless they were strictly bound by rules and regulations.
My annual top 10 list is no exception. It’s governed by a series of rules, my attempt at keeping it on a narrow and particular track – new albums of new songs by current artists. I’ve come to think of some of the rules as immutable. For example, I only consider new records, not reissues or re-releases. Without that rule, my top 10 this year would include Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, and probably A Hard Day’s Night and Help as well.
So only new albums of new songs released during the current year count. But there are other rules I am constantly reconsidering. A big one is this: as of now, I only consider albums that have been released on CD. The delivery method is changing, and rapidly – I nearly had an issue with Radiohead’s In Rainbows, back in 2007, when the band released it for download only. It deserved to be on the list, and I grappled with the idea of including an album distributed digitally, but thankfully, the CD hit UK stores on December 31, so I didn’t have to worry about it. But I know I’ll have to eventually.
There are other rules, all of which were written with the best of intentions. But every year, they keep excellent, otherwise worthy records from taking top honors. And every year, I write a column like this, in which I review and ruminate on several of those disqualified albums, and question the rules that keep them outside looking in. When it comes right down to it, though, I believe the structure is necessary and important.
The exact nature of that structure, however, can always be questioned. For example, my rule about only awarding albums of new songs. For one thing, I all but broke that rule in 2004 by naming Brian Wilson’s SMiLE the best of that year. (My reasoning was that even though the fragments were composed in the ‘60s, the actual piece of music, as a symphonic whole, was only realized in 2004. I go back and forth on it, though.) And for another, this year that rule will keep Marillion’s terrific Less is More off the list.
The last few years have been particularly prolific ones for this long-running British band. They put out the middling Somewhere Else in 2007, and the extraordinary Happiness is the Road double album last year. You’d think they’d want to take a break, but no. Less is More is technically their 16th studio record, but it’s more of an in-betweener project, a stripped-down retrospective that takes 12 old songs and reinvents them in fresh new ways.
It’s much more than an unplugged-style exercise, though. In taking these songs acoustic, Marillion has completely rewritten them – I often felt like I was listening to brand new songs made from familiar elements. The band also pushed themselves by picking some surprising choices. They didn’t just string together a few verses of “Easter” and “The Answering Machine” and call it good. They took aim at some of their trickiest and most labyrinthine pieces, and the results are fantastic.
One of the most surprising is right up front. After the sedate and gorgeous version of “Go!” that opens the record, you get a recasting of “Interior Lulu.” Like the opener, “Lulu” is from 1999’s Marillion.com, one of the band’s most criticized efforts, and on that album, it was a 15-minute melodic prog excursion.
Here, the elements are all preserved (except the dazzling synthesizer solo), but rendered in fascinating ways. Steve Hogarth plays the hammered dulcimer and glockenspiel, while Mark Kelly gives us autoharp and harmonium along with his lovely piano. The first section of the song is a web of mallet percussion, but as the band snakes through the remainder of the piece, it becomes more and more beautiful. In this version, the lyrics are much more pronounced, and I never noticed how layered they are. The final bit (“And we gaze, dumbfounded, at the rain”) is sung over a subtle weaving of piano, acoustic guitar and harmonium. It’s breathtaking.
Even more beautiful is “Out of This World,” the centerpiece of 1995’s grand Afraid of Sunlight album. On that record, the song was a shimmery, ambient thing, all synths and electric guitars. Here, it’s a subtle acoustic and piano piece, more delicate and fragile. They skip the soaring electric solo, but include the striking coda, here rendered in acoustic guitars. I was most worried about this one, since the original is so singular, but they pulled it off wonderfully.
By far the most thorough rewrite here is “Hard as Love.” Originally the blistering rock moment (and arguable weak link) on 1994’s masterpiece Brave, here the song has been reordered and rearranged for piano. Hogarth and company have written a new chorus, based on a backing vocal moment in the original, and given the lyrics – written from the point of view of a teenage girl – a new poignancy. Hogarth is excellent here, as he is throughout. For my money, he’s one of the finest singers around right now, and on Less is More, you can really hear the nuances in his performance.
The band doesn’t stick to acoustic instruments throughout – there is electric guitar on two tracks – but the self-imposed limitations have sparked a new creativity. On 2001’s Anoraknophobia, “Quartz” was a nine-minute funk-rock journey, but here it is a tricky clockwork maze of percussion, with liberal splashes of jazz in the chorus. Bassist Pete Trewavas plays an acoustic stand-up, while drummer Ian Mosley is credited with playing “skulls.”
Are there weak moments? Sure. Hogarth pushes himself out of his range on “If My Heart Were a Ball It Would Roll Uphill,” another of the band’s braver choices. And the new song, “It’s Not Your Fault,” is a weak piano-vocal mantra that was obviously captured in one take. But the whole thing is so well-crafted, so lovingly made (and beautifully produced by Mike Hunter), that the small holes are easily papered over. The last track (barring a fun-fun-fun hidden tune) is a straight-ahead acoustic read of “This is the 21st Century,” one of my favorite Marillion songs, and this version builds up remarkable force as it goes along. Rather than inviting comparison to the original, the new take stands alongside it, as an equal.
Most of Less is More does the same thing, reinventing the familiar until it rises up new. Hence my dilemma – technically, this is not new music, but these versions are so different from the originals, and so very good, that I want to include this album in the top 10 list anyway. Still, since I am awarding composition as much as performance and recording, I will have to swallow hard and disqualify it. But you should absolutely buy it, even if you’ve never heard Marillion before. Go to www.marillion.com and check it out.
I also have a rule forbidding live albums, and b-sides collections. The first one still seems right to me, since (as I said above) I’m awarding composition as much as anything. They’ve got to be new songs. But collections of b-sides and unreleased tunes, well, that’s different. I still feel like, if I’m standing up for the album-length statement, I should stick to that rule. But occasionally, something like Morphine’s At Your Service comes along to make me question it.
Morphine was a Boston band comprised of one singing two-string bass player, one baritone sax player, and one drummer. And that’s it. The band was the brainchild of Mark Sandman, who also played in Beantown luminaries Treat Her Right, and they made five superb albums before Sandman tragically died onstage in 1999. Ten years later, the remaining members of Morphine have compiled this two-disc collection of unreleased tracks, live takes and unheard goodness. It’s awesome.
Sandman used to refer to Morphine’s sound as “low rock,” and that’s as good a description as any. Everything about the sound is in the low register, even Sandman’s rumbling, husky voice. They had a jazz trio lineup, but played dark rock and blues music, the kind of thing you’d hear wafting out of the windows of the smokiest bar in town. The collection is named after Sandman’s regular on-stage welcome: “From Boston, Massachusetts, we are Morphine, at your service.”
A lot of what you’ll hear here is rehearsal recordings, since just about all of the band’s b-sides have already been collected. Sandman compulsively recorded everything, and there are reportedly more than 60 complete Morphine songs, sitting around waiting to be released. You get 17 previously unheard songs on At Your Service, as well as a bevy of alternate versions and live workouts, and over two hours, this collection paints a picture of Morphine as a surprisingly diverse and supremely tight unit.
Opener “Come Over” is classic Morphine, a sliding groove played on both bass and sax, with nimble drumming, and a swell Dana Colley sax solo. But the creeping “It’s Not Like That Anymore” plays up the beat poetry influence that has always been a part of Sandman’s thing, and the awesome “5:09” shows just what a pure blues-pop outfit Morphine could be. “Call Back” is an early version of “Wishing Well,” from 1997’s Like Swimming, and the ever-growing “I Know You” saga gets a fourth and fifth part.
But it’s the live tracks here that really shine. The trio rocks its way through “Shoot ‘Em Down,” Sandman repeating the lyrics like a poem. “Claire” is just fantastic, as is “Radar.” Top that off with live-sounding alternate versions of some of the band’s best songs (“All Wrong,” “Empty Box,” “Buena”) and you have a second disc that truly captures the dive-bar essence of Morphine. The only glaring omission is “Honey White,” which didn’t end up on their one live album either. But that’s okay. Even without it, this is one strong collection of unreleased goodies.
Now, I know this thing doesn’t belong anywhere near my top 10 list – it’s full of live recordings of older songs, and the unreleased studio tracks don’t make a cohesive album on their own. But I still love it, and wish I could include it. Morphine was a one-of-a-kind band, tragically stopped in its tracks just as Sandman was leading his cohorts to new musical terrain. If you’ve never heard them, you could do worse than picking up At Your Service. It’s got just about every reason I liked Morphine, wrapped in one convenient package.
Morphine’s album gets disqualified for being a compilation of songs of random and diverse origin. But Neil Finn’s latest project has the exact opposite problem, and this is the one that’s causing me to look at these rules most closely. Finn, as longtime readers know, is one of my favorite songwriters – from Split Enz to Crowded House to his solo material to his work with brother Tim, Finn has written one charming and complex pop song after another for more than 30 years.
In 2001, Finn assembled a group of like-minded musicians (including Eddie Vedder, Lisa Germano and Johnny Marr) for a live album called 7 Worlds Collide. It worked so well that eight years later, Finn has brought back most of those same musicians for a benefit album (for Oxfam) he’s called The Sun Came Out, released under the name 7 Worlds Collide. Essentially, what we have here is a various artists collection of songs all written and recorded at the same time, over a few days at Finn’s home studio.
The full version of The Sun Came Out spans 24 tracks over 90 minutes, and while there are some stylistic shifts here and there, it’s mostly an hour and a half of lovingly crafted acoustic chamber-pop. And it’s also mostly wonderful. For this go-round, Finn has called on Marr and Germano again, as well as most of his family: brother Tim, wife Sharon and son Liam. He’s also brought a slew of new voices into the fold, including KT Tunstall, Sebastian Steinberg, New Zealand songwriter Don McGlashan, Bic Runga, Radiohead members Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, and most of Wilco.
The highlights come fast and furious, although McGlashan’s two songs are probably my favorites. “Girl Make Your Own Mind Up,” in particular, really works for me – it sounds something like Neil Young mixed with Beck’s Sea Change material. Neil Finn sings a couple of numbers, most notably “All Comedians Suffer,” but mostly he gets out of the way, adding guitar lines here and there while his guests take the spotlight.
Much of the press so far has centered on O’Brien and Selway, each taking vocal turns for the first time. O’Brien’s “Bodhisattva Blues” is one of the more rocking numbers here, while Selway’s two tunes are quiet and haunting. Wilco musicians Pat Sansone and John Stiratt each get a song to sing as well, and they acquit themselves marvelously. And Jeff Tweedy sings two tracks, one of them an early and more ramshackle version of “You Never Know,” which appeared on this year’s Wilco (The Album).
Yes, there’s the same sense of disconnectedness that comes from any record with different singers on each track, but The Sun Came Out is unified by its homespun vibe and its attention to melody and songwriting. There are only a couple of tracks I think could have hit the cutting room floor. The vast majority of this record is made up of fine, fine songs, and some number among my favorites of 2009.
But I’m having trouble thinking of it as an album that qualifies for the list. I have a rule against various artists compilations, and on the surface, that’s what this is. But I’m still considering it, since it was recorded all at once, by a collective of musicians, which could almost be considered a band. I have no problem including the Lost Dogs, for example, or even Works Progress Administration, the new collaboration between Glen Phillips and members of Nickel Creek. But this, with 18 different singers… I’m not sure. I do know that I will have fun listening to it again and again while I decide.
So yes, I am putting together the top 10 list as we speak. But looking at the new releases list through the end of the year, there isn’t much that lights my fire. I don’t expect it will change very much from here on out. Next week, I’ll discuss one of the albums that I have high hopes for, the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic. After that, a pair of orchestral works by Sufjan Stevens. And after that…?
See you in line Tuesday morning.