When I was a kid, my father had a subscription to the Columbia Record Club.
I’ve told this story before, about how my dad, who doesn’t really love music, ended up with some of the best albums of the ‘70s on vinyl. I was obsessed with these records as a young boy, playing them over and over again until I had them memorized. The selection included Led Zeppelin IV and Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark, Don and Mel and Leon Russell’s Carny. And it also included one of my favorites: Eat a Peach, by the Allman Brothers Band.
I didn’t know anything about the Allman Brothers at the time. Eat a Peach came out two years before I was born, and I must have been three or four when I first heard it. I didn’t know it was the last Allman Brothers Band album to feature both Allman Brothers – Duane Allman had died in a motorcycle crash shortly after finishing the sessions. (I do remember my dad later telling me the legendary – and untrue – story that the album had been named Eat a Peach because Duane had crashed his bike into a peach truck.)
No, all I knew about the album was that I liked it, a lot. The twin guitar harmonies on just about every song, but especially “Blue Sky.” The gorgeous “Melissa.” The 33-minute “Mountain Jam,” my first real experience with epic song lengths. I remember “Mountain Jam” was broken up over sides two and four, and I remember how revelatory it was to realize that it was broken up that way for record stacking – you’d listen to sides one and three first, then flip them both over to hear two and four.
I kept up with the Allman Brothers Band, and of course bought all of their classics once I was old enough to know how classic they were. Gregg Allman was a legend, helping to invent southern rock and setting the standard by which it is judged. He was also a fantastic guitar player. I know all this now, but whenever I think of him, I’m transported back to four years old, watching the record with the peach on the label spin around and getting lost in the songs.
Gregg Allman died this week at age 69, another legend taken too soon. May he rest in peace.
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I know no one really cares about my thoughts on Linkin Park.
Of all the bands I’ve admitted an obsession with here in this column, it might be Linkin Park that has generated the most backlash. My insistence that there is something worth paying attention to behind Chester Bennington’s screams and Mike Shinoda’s raps has all but ensured my eviction from the cool kids’ club. Between that and my ongoing praise of Hanson, I’m pretty sure I won’t be invited to write for Pitchfork anytime soon.
But for real, there’s something worth paying attention to here. Linkin Park’s first album established a core sound that mashed up rap and rock for, like, the millionth time, and their second followed suit, so I’m not surprised that people wrote them off. But those people need to hear 2010’s A Thousand Suns, an absolutely extraordinary inversion of that sound in service of a conceptual piece about injustice and love. They’ve yet to top it, but Linkin Park has steadfastly refused to make the same album twice – 2012’s Living Things builds on a foundation of electro-pop, and 2014’s surprising The Hunting Party goes full-on into thrash metal.
That’s one thing I love about them – they’re never afraid to alienate their audience. Hybrid Theory remains their best-selling effort, and they refuse to go back to that sound. They’re restless, challenging themselves and their fanbase as much as possible, never worried about sales or chart placement. And it works for them – they routinely hit number one on the Billboard chart, and in countries around the world, by doing whatever they want.
All of which makes their seventh album, One More Light, so mystifying. By every outward sign, this is a complete sell-out. The songs are all polished radio-pop, with virtually none of the raging guitars or abrasive synth sounds that have marked Linkin Park music since they started. Professional songsmiths share co-writing credits. Teen pop singer Kiiara duets. Cheesy pop drums click along as Bennington sings atop tracks that could have gone to Justin Bieber or One Direction.
And yet the band swears they worked just as hard on this one as they always have, and took this new direction seriously as an artistic choice. And it is only the fact that they have proven so restless, been so willing to throw caution to the wind, that I’m even thinking about this record in those terms. Everything about this record screams “we would like some hits, and we would like some money.” Which is odd, since they have been doing just fine, sales-wise. They don’t need to sell out, and they’re treating this obvious sell-out as genuine. So I almost have no choice but to believe them.
But man, listen to “Nobody Can Save Me,” the opening track. They’ve made this as safe as possible in every single way, from the fluttering keyboards to the snap-sound percussion to Bennington’s voice, smoothed out and supple, singing “I’m dancing with my demons” in the most radio-friendly way he can. “Battle Symphony” is even worse, a song of empowerment that even Katy Perry might have rejected, Bennington singing “if my armor breaks, I’ll fuse it back together” as if it were a strong lyric. This one is even more insidious because I can’t stop singing it in my head. As a pop earworm, it does exactly what it’s supposed to. “If I fall, get knocked down, get myself up off the ground…”
I could chalk all this up to maturity, to a desire to stop making angry, shouty records. Bennington is 41. Musical mastermind Mike Shinoda is 40, and you can hear those years on “Invisible,” a song of reconciliation and hope that features one of his best vocals. I’ll be 43 next week, so I appreciate a good maturity story, and that might be why I feel compelled to keep listening to this. Yes, “Heavy” sounds like every radio pop song from the past 10 years, and it’s hard for me to think of it as anything but pandering. But songs like “Invisible” work for me, even though I know they shouldn’t.
The title track, then, tips the scales in this record’s favor. It’s remarkably subtle – a faintly pulsing keyboard, some clean guitars, and Bennington at his most restrained – and God help me, I think it’s beautiful. It’s a song of compassion, reaching out to those who feel alone, those contemplating darkness: “Who cares if one more light goes out, well I do…” I could listen to this one for hours. It’s the best argument they have that One More Light is a true artistic statement.
I still don’t know whether to believe them. This is the most unabashedly radio-ready and inoffensive album they’ve ever made, and it only feels like Linkin Park in that it is typically uncompromising. There are virtually no nods to their previous sounds, no olive branches to fans of their louder material, no indication that they have ever been any more than a glossy pop act. Like it or not, this is the new Linkin Park, and the best I can tell you is that they never stay in one place very long, so this should be out of their system soon.
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I don’t know how this shoegaze revival got started, but I’m ready to give whoever got the ball rolling a wet, sloppy kiss.
Shoegaze has been part of my musical vocabulary since high school, when my good friend Chris introduced me to an entire gaggle of bands that remain favorites. Some are well-known, like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, some more obscure, like The Moon Seven Times and Kitchens of Distinction. In our entire friendship I think the only shoegaze band I ever introduced Chris to was Starflyer 59, which certainly doesn’t balance the scales. I owe him, is what I’m saying.
One of the bands Chris brought into my world was Slowdive, whose 1993 album Souvlaki has gone on to be considered a gem of the genre. (It didn’t do quite as well upon release, when Britpop was all the rage.) Slowdive was led by singer/guitarists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, and their intertwining voices were their trademark, along with their chiming guitars and cloudy, beautiful atmospheres. Their third album, 1995’s Pygmalion, was altogether stranger and darker, and it crashed and burned, seemingly taking the band with it. Halstead and Goswell formed Mojave 3, an earthier combo, and even that faded out by the late 2000s.
I never in a million years expected Slowdive to reunite. I got to see them on tour in 2014, and they were magical, and I figured that was probably it. But no, here we are in 2017 with a brand new Slowdive album, 22 years after the last one. And it’s fantastic. It’s a little smoother, a little more grown-up, but it handily sidesteps all the perils of a creaky old band trying to recapture their sound. Slowdive feels effortless, like it could have come out in 1997, or even 1991.
This record is obviously Halstead’s baby. He wrote most of the songs, except two he co-wrote, and he handles the majority of the singing and the production duties. I’d love to hear more of Goswell, but that’s literally my only complaint with this record. The glorious clean guitar sound is here, weaving its brilliant spell, and the band locks into its familiar groove on songs like “Star Roving” and “Everyone Knows,” both of which feel like rebirths. The epics (“Go Get It” and “Falling Ashes”) that close the record are monumental pieces, simultaneously crashing and soothing.
But it’s “Sugar for the Pill” that all by itself makes me overjoyed to have Slowdive back. This is a classic, deeply melodic and atmospheric, like floating and falling at the same time. It’s a song that makes me stop everything I’m doing and listen. It’s just the most beautiful thing, and it comes with seven other beautiful things on an album I never thought I would live to hear. Slowdive’s return is complete, and completely magnificent.
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I was hoping to get to the new Alarm album this week, but I’ll save it for next week. I’ll be 43 on Monday, and it feels like a good time to reflect on a childhood favorite. Talk to you then. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.