Alex Chilton was one of those musicians whose influence far outstripped his fame.
When he was 16 years old, he scored a number one hit as the singer of the Box Tops, with a song called “The Letter.” Everyone knows this song: “Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home, my baby just wrote me a letter…” The Box Tops had other hits, too, including “Neon Rainbow” and “Cry Like a Baby,” but they’ll always be remembered for “The Letter.”
And had Chilton stopped there, news of his death last week at age 59 of a heart attack would still have been important. But he didn’t stop there. In 1971, Chilton formed Big Star, and subsequently made three albums that should be in every pop lover’s collection. All you need to do is listen to the first half of the debut, #1 Record, to hear why. “The Ballad of El Goodo.” “In the Street.” “Thirteen.” “Don’t Lie to Me.” Pure pop classics.
Big Star never got the acclaim they deserved. Their record company, Ardent, even turned down their immense third album, Third/Sister Lovers, citing low sales of the first two. (Oh, and also? Third/Sister Lovers is a crazy, messy, uncommercial thing, the kind no record company thinks they can sell.) But ask any power pop songwriter with an electric guitar for a list of influences, and Chilton will be there. Hell, he was such an influence on Paul Westerberg that the Replacements even named a song after him.
Chilton’s death leaves the pop skyline a little emptier. He may not have been as famous as he should have been, but he was an important figure, a terrific songwriter, and a hero to millions of kids with six-strings and a love of good melody. Rest in peace, Alex.
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Every week, I go to my local record store and pick up the new CDs. And every week, I bring the resulting pile into work, and hand them over to our photo editor, a delightful woman named Marianne. She will pore through the stack, picking out the ones she wants to hear, and she’ll often comment on my predilection for “weenie” music. Finally, the other week, she point-blank asked me: “Do you have anything that rocks?”
This one’s for her.
Now, I love me some dreamy, sweet acoustic pop. I also enjoy all kinds of things played on pianos and violins. But never let it be said that I do not also, on occasion, when no one’s looking, like to rock the fuck out. The crushing, all-powerful sound of stomp-stomp-stomp Real Rock gets the blood going like little else, and when I’m done singing my little fairy songs played by chirpy girls on harps, I have been known to indulge in said rock, and also in the roll that often accompanies it. Verily, I tell thee.
It just usually takes more than a good beat and a sloppy six-string to bring me back. The real masters of rock ‘n’ roll play just as well as the artsy folkies I love, only they do it with an energy and an abandon that, when done right, rocks your face off. Their work will stand up to repeat listens, though, even once the initial thrill is gone.
Take Jack White, for instance. It took me a while to get on the White Stripes bandwagon – I still like both of White’s other bands, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, better than the one that made him famous. I appreciate White’s explosive talent on the guitar, and I like when he changes things up. The last couple of Stripes albums have been surprisingly diverse.
But I have to admit, I also love it when he goes all rock god on us. The Stripes’ new live album, Under Great White Northern Lights, is an hour of furious abandon and six-string heroics, and should be all the proof anyone needs that Jack White is the living spirit of the ‘70s, when men were judged by the ferocity of their playing, and just how far they were willing to take things on stage. After hearing this, no one can say Jack White holds anything back.
Of course, there are two Whites in the Stripes, and the other has always been more problematic for me. Meg White is an extremely basic drummer, like a less awesome John Bonham in a red and white dress. She essentially provides a powerhouse foundation for White to ramble over, but several times on Northern Lights, she misses beats and nearly throws off the song. What she does, she does well, but there’s no art in her playing, no setting on her internal metronome that isn’t “bash like mad.”
Luckily, the Michigan madman who handles the rest of the music is in fine form here. He’s basically the other three-fourths of Led Zeppelin live – he screams like Robert Plant, wails like Jimmy Page, and plays the organ like John Paul Jones, on ass-kickers like “I’m Slowly Turning Into You.” Jack White is even more unhinged on stage than he is in the studio, and at times it feels like his performance is hanging by a thin wire, ready to tumble into an unpredictable heap.
But he holds it together – the Stripes live are just the right amount of sloppy. They slow it down a couple of times, for “We Are Gonna Be Friends” and their signature cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” For most of this record, though, White is a powerhouse – just listen to closer “Seven Nation Army.” I mean, damn. The Stripes even made me like “Fell in Love With a Girl” for the first time here, by accentuating its bluesy bits, as opposed to its garage-rock ones.
Under Great White Northern Lights is the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name, which I haven’t seen. But it’s on my list. It took 10 years and two other Jack White bands to get me to appreciate the White Stripes, but now that I’m on board, I think this record is an hour of crazy-ass bliss.
Of course, rock bands tend to rock more live, but some of them are able to keep that energy when they get into the studio. That’s actually not an easy thing to do – studio albums are generally recorded in pieces, the drums and bass laid down before the guitars and vocals, and all of it’s done in a sterile little room, with no audience to feed back emotion. That’s why bands like Metallica end up making albums like Load.
Not so New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus. Capturing a live energy is pretty much their reason for being. In fact, their debut album, The Airing of Grievances, offered little else. When I chastised online indie-rock critics for championing some awful, awful stuff a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking of records like The Airing of Grievances, one of the worst pieces of musical shit I have ever heard. Three chords, amateur playing, incoherent screaming, no melody, 8.5 on Pitchfork. Naturally.
But despite that, I was inexplicably drawn to this band’s sophomore effort, The Monitor. Here’s why: it’s a 65-minute rock opera about the Civil War. You know I can’t resist a good rock opera.
Now, truthfully, The Monitor isn’t all about the Civil War. But it uses that conflict as a metaphor throughout, for everyday struggles. (Repeated refrain “the enemy is everywhere” references both the horror of battle and the effort it takes just to get up every day.) The Monitor is, however, a rowdy, emotional freight train of a record, bursting with ambition yet retaining that youthful, dig-my-heart-out-with-a-rusty-spoon feeling of the first album. That is, by the way, a good thing.
Titus lyrically reference their two main musical touchstones here in the first verse of opener “A More Perfect Union”: Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg, only louder and faster. Patrick Stickles sounds like a young Conor Oberst – the guy can’t sing, but he makes his spleen-venting work through sheer force of will. The Monitor pretties up its punk with barrelhouse pianos, bagpipes, strings and horns, and songs are interspersed with dramatic readings from speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Five of these 10 songs blow by seven minutes, with the epic closer, “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” stretching to 14.
Yes, the Titus boys have done everything they could to be more ambitious, except for one thing: they didn’t learn any more chords. All of these songs are simple and straightforward, relying on the same three or four chords over and over. And yet, the whole thing is done with such full-blooded abandon, such commitment, and such exuberance that it works anyway. You’ll be shouting along (“It’s still us against them!”) and pounding your fist in the air. Perhaps it’s the band’s use of old-time American music to dress up its Civil War imagery. I don’t know. But it all coheres, in ways I didn’t expect.
The Monitor is an insane album, no doubt, and its dogged simplicity probably grounds it. Whatever makes this record tick, it’s a raw and riveting listen, a nugget of ambition swallowed up by a shit-ton of Real Rock. I can’t explain why I like it as much as I do, but I do. It’s loud, fast, dramatic and widescreen, and it reaches for the sky. All that, and Marianne will probably like it, too.
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We’re halfway through my list of the Top 20 Albums of the 2000s, and with this week’s installment, we start the countdown’s home stretch. First, a look back at the first half, the way they do on those “top videos of the week” shows:
#20. Bruce Cockburn, You’ve Never Seen Everything.
#19. Vampire Weekend.
#18. Over the Rhine, Ohio.
#17. The Choir, O How the Mighty Have Fallen.
#16. Aqualung, Memory Man.
#15. Silverchair, Young Modern.
#14. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.
#12. Daniel Amos, Mr. Buechner’s Dream.
#11. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.
And now, onward:
#10. Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm (2005).
It was hard to pick an Aimee Mann album for this list. She’s one of my very favorite songwriters, and she’s never failed to earn a spot on my top 10 list. Over the last 10 years, Mann made four fantastic records, starting with Bachelor No. 2 in 2000 and ending with last year’s @#%&*! Smilers. (That’s not counting her wonderful Christmas record, too.) She’s so consistently good that comparing one Mann album against another is a futile gesture. You really should just hear them all.
But I selected The Forgotten Arm for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s Mann’s first and only concept album – its 12 tunes tell the tale of John, a Vietnam veteran and boxer, and his inability to connect with Caroline, the love of his life. The two fight and drink and mope and fight some more, and at the end, they realize they don’t fit, even though they love each other. It’s a simple plot, to be certain, but it allows Mann to really get inside these characters. Just about all of her songs are about lost souls fumbling towards any solace they can find, but on The Forgotten Arm, Mann truly delves deep.
For another, she enlisted guitarist Joe Henry to produce this album, one of the few times she’s handed over the reins. Henry finds a more aggressive, more live-sounding tone – the album is actually sloppy, by Mann standards, and the energy level is several notches higher than usual. This is Aimee Mann’s raw rock record, in a way, and it reaches out and grabs you.
But mainly, I’m naming The Forgotten Arm to this list because its songs are perfect. I don’t mean they’re pretty good, or even that they’re great. They’re glittering diamonds of perfection. Even the weaker ones, like “King of the Jailhouse,” are amazing, and the best numbers, like “Going Through the Motions” and “She Really Wants You,” simply cannot be improved. Listening to this album is like taking a four-year graduate-level class in songwriting. Most musicians would sell their souls to be able to write like this.
Mann knows she’s a throwback to an age when melody and craft truly mattered. Her whole style reflects this: The Forgotten Arm is designed like a dimestore novel, with a table of contents, illustrations and a blurb on the back cover. But her work is timeless. These songs will sound as good in 100 years as they do right now. The Forgotten Arm’s characters and story is the closest Mann comes to a gimmick. Her thing is writing perfect songs, and singing them beautifully.
This is a dark and painful album, to be sure. John and Caroline struggle with what they need – drink, drugs, sex, each other – throughout, and the resolution, though gorgeous, is not as hopeful as it may seem. Mann’s worldview can be depressing sometimes, but she makes pain so beautiful, so affecting, that her albums are like little emotional conduits. This record had me in pieces. Just listen to “Video,” or “I Can’t Help You Anymore,” or the closing track, “Beautiful.” The final sentiment is a heartbreaker, and could be sung from either character’s point of view: “I wish you could see it too, how I see you.”
But the final reason this album gets the nod is track eight. “Little Bombs” is my favorite Aimee Mann song, a distillation of everything I love about her. It finds John alone and miserable in his ratty hotel room, contemplating his life over a gorgeous shuffling acoustic backdrop, and his conclusion is shattering: “Life just kind of empties out, less a deluge than a drought…” That’s been Aimee Mann’s view for her entire career: life is a series of meaningless moments, and we’re all stumbling blind, trying to make our way through it.
No songwriter has ever made hopelessness her playground like Mann has, and no one has ever written songs this bleak, and yet this singable and loveable. Mann clearly loves her characters, on this album and others, and empathizes with them, and by the end of The Forgotten Arm, you’ll be right there with her. This is Aimee Mann’s best album of the last 10 years, but the margin is slim – everything she does is wonderful. She’s a national treasure.
As a side note, The Forgotten Arm is named after a boxing term for the punch you don’t see coming. In a way, she’s been writing about that very thing for her entire brilliant career.
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Next week, a bunch of stuff, including new ones by Barenaked Ladies and Frightened Rabbit, a live record from Dan Wilson, and a Hall and Oates tribute from The Bird and the Bee. Also, the First Quarter Report on my 2010 top 10 list.
See you in line Tuesday morning.