Davenport Cabinet – Damned Renegades (2014)

WP_20141019_001Equal Vision Records ■ EVR295

Released September 30, 2014

Produced by Davenport Cabinet
Mixed by Mike Major
Side One: Side Two:
  1. 41°15’22.0″ N
  2. Everyone Surrounding
  3. Aneris
  4. Bulldozer
  5. In Orbit
  6. Sorry for Me
  1. 74°21’31.7″ W
  2. Students of Disaster
  3. Damned Rengegades
  4. Glass Balloon
  5. Missing Pieces
  6. Graves of the Great War



Thanks to the questionable choices of WordPress¹, I lost about two hours solid of writing on the initial draft of this, which left me irritated enough to just sit—writing irritated on something like this is a recipe for disaster.

Now, then.

It’s not for nothing that I restart a previously dormant project.  I’ve been mostly running things (in an entirely different style) at Meandering Milieu, covering more in the range of comics and movies than anything else. Music never really stops being an important part of my world, but this particular blog (as I noted in my review of the previous album by Davenport Cabinet) is not really suited to writing during full-fledged employment, as it takes a pretty hefty time investment to do it the justice I intend.

Why, then, is it being revived?

Well, a few weeks ago I was at a show and met Travis Stever of Davenport Cabinet. After some jokes passed around the circle², I mentioned that I’d written the “vinyl” review of Our Machine and Mr. Stever very amicably told me he’d liked it and asked me to let him know what I thought of the new album. In my head, there was a twinge: I’d recently fallen out of favour with the employment gods, and had not pre-ordered the album as I’d hoped, but figured I’d just drop a line when I got around to it. I thought it was kind to respond with memory, but figured the chances that my one rambling writing had struck enough of a chord to stick were pretty low and let it be (and enjoyed the show).

Turns out, I may’ve been mistaken, as I was prodded out of the blue with a very polite question about actually writing something on the new album—after a moment of stunned confusion and pancake-levels of flattery, I agreed and snagged a promotional copy. Turns out that, taking pity on my financial state, this particular album (in the ultra-fancy, all-the-bells-and-whistles bundle form) had been pre-ordered for me by my own mother (thanks, ma!), of which I was notified after I mentioned the shocking request. That, then, is how a not-vinyl promotional copy was reviewed on vinyl and photographed poorly above, should you be curious.

Now, I realize that with a context like this, it might seem as if I’ve either been buttered, or am aiming to do so myself. I can very, very strongly testify to the contrary: that two hours I lost was crushing. It takes a lot to put this particular approach together, and that informs, further, why it’s not at all fun to do for anything mediocre (or less!). Witha predecessor like Our Machine, though, it’s not a huge gamble–it was in my Top 5 for the year last year—vacillating between two and three because I’m indecisive. These things together meant I was confident that doing this would be worthwhile to myself, anyone reading, and the band in question, with no questions about ethics (barring those who just can’t resist)

It’s a set of coordinates on which we open the album: “41°15’22.0″ N”. Deep, warm tones are interrupted and subsumed by sharp, distinct, clean guitar and the long-drawn bows of E’lissa Jones’s violin and viola. It’s quiet and a bit sad, the guitars acting to counter the other strings, but only slightly–it’s something truly weighty through which they press.

Snake-like muscular guitar starts “Everyone Surrounding”, with Michael Robert Hickey’s drums and Tom Farkas’s bass thudding beneath it, while additional guitar draws a web of suspension around that weight. Thanks to a comment from that same Hickey on a video for this very song, I know that the voices are Tyler Klose’s, multi-tracked. If the guitars’ undulations are snake-like, his voice is just riding the waves, until that chorus: “Don’t break down, don’t give it up, you got it/They were wrong about everything you wanted”, where his voice reaches high and chops to a rapid tempo, highlighting the space and lengthy syllables of the line that follows, which emphasizes the song’s title. Indeed, it is that line which finally closes the song, lowering as if defeated to ring for only a moment.

“Aneris” contrasts with the muscle of “Everyone Surrounding” by focusing its introduction on a distinctly picked melodic line. Hickey and Farkas then push the track out of this lazy swing with a thumping beat. The voices in verse are more in line with the feel of the guitars, even when set against that same thumping beat. But when they are kicked into the chorus by a perfect alternation of tom and kick thumps with cymbal and hat work, it hits the kind of chorus that is a lot of what I love about Davenport’s songs: “Talented with bringing the end/Maiden of structure music of minute hand/Broken circles will spin around again”. It’s complemented perfectly by Hickey’s percussive choices and skips along, zigging and zagging up and down in a delightful way. The bridge that follows its second run abandons that for bright, ringing guitar and shorter repetition: “She won’t leave She won’t let you fall/She won’t speak She is above it all”, which takes the instruments back through their first two progressions neatly and catchily, to their end.

Despite the title, “Bulldozer” spends much of its time rather restrained. The opening lacks restraint, in the best possible way: it has a tone that immediately makes me think of Davenport Cabinet as a sound, and, when I first heard it, brought a smile to my face as it confirmed that this was the same band, not a leap entirely away from what had already come. It’s warm and round, akin to a Jeff Lynne sound, though a bit more muted, which is such a wonderful touch that it’s difficult to express how good it just feels. The instruments seem to lead the voices around by their noses, until the words take control: “And never speak my name again to anyone”—the relaxed feel of the song is gone with Hickey pounding away (with a nice touch to the beat that stops it from being simple on-beats) under absolutely electric electric leads. The brakes are put on shortly, though: “And nothing can take you away from me”, returning the song to that tone. When the bridge begins and says, “Will we find a common ground?” I can only respond “Yes,” as the song itself finds a balance between the subdued introduction and the ever-increasing wave that leads to and through the chorus. A brief isolation of muted guitar introduces Scott Styles’s guest solo, which flies off into the stratosphere and perfectly meshes with the return to the tight curls of the chorus’s crescendo which gets one more run through, leaving us with a twinned set of guitar lines.

“In Orbit” lets Hickery veritably paradiddle his way through it, scaling things back and down with that snare focus underpinning a remote slide guitar lead that dips in and out around clean picking that is relatively low in the mix, letting Farkas’s most melodic bass-line drive the song more comfortably. The drums and vocals give the feeling of a sort of impromptu performance of musicians at a porch, or something of that ilk—which is only enhanced by the chorus, which is an excellent example of the harmonized vocals the band favours. It’s a bit of an odd mix: the slide is like something from space, but the rest of the track is utterly earthen. Though the former is not present, the bridge still manages to bring the sounds most completely together, culminating in a sharply toned and soulful lead line that marries the two elements for good.

As if still floating in orbit, slightly reverbed guitar sprinkles out notes in the darkness in “Sorry for Me”, until a lead-in fill from Michael’s drums lights the fuse and the song charges out of the gate. Smooth and slickened slide runs up and down the track’s steady momentum, and then spreads open to a ringing chime—that guitar that was out in space just a few moments earlier. The chorus is falsetto call of the song’s title for normal range answer—“Whenever the captors let me go”—and it actually lets the tempo breathe just a bit. It’s a good thing, as when it comes around again, it’s leading to a winding solo and lead from the guitars that Farkas anchors the hell out of and Hickey creatively backs. A kind of knowing repetition follows the final line, which is indeed heard over and over: “And I’m sorry again”, almost like a broken record, skipping and slowly diminishing to tremolo’d guitar lines that waver out, left to hang as most repeated apologies are. As I played the vinyl version for the first time, I sat hoping, avoiding confirmation, that this would end Side one—not because I wanted it to be over, but because it was the exact right way to end a side. And so I was right—whether by coincidence or agreed plans, I know not.

More coordinates open the second side of the album—“ 74°21’31.7″ W”—and Michael Robert Hickey is left to really shine in his second job: that of string arranger. This time, there is no accompaniment from any rock instruments at all, just a woosh of space and quavering orchestral strings from Jones again, though this intro is yet more brief than the last.

If there was any concern about a relative hesitation to flat out rock on this album, “Students of Disaster” throws it out the window after giving it a good swift kick. Drums crash in and guitars thunder after them, harmonized through melodic leads held to a jolting stop by Farkas’s bass. This time, they don’t really relent for vocals, with even noodling guitar fills sneaking in here or there. While I associate Travis’s voice most strongly with the first time I recall hearing it in isolation—a cover of the Band’s version of “I Shall Be Released”, lending itself more toward folk-rock applications, then—this is where it shines out in its perfect place (recalling somewhat Fire Deuce!). Soaring up to carry the chorus through tinges of the nostalgia that has lingered in all recordings (including the first album, which references it explicitly), it’s almost forgotten when the solo kicks in, book-ended perfectly by runs of that almost operatic chorus. Those big ol’ down-strokes on the chunky riffing just frame the whole thing in great big drapes of rock, which is exactly what it goes out on.

Perhaps to balance out the in-your-face-ness of “Students of Disaster”,  the title track that follows is shimmering guitars and even bells, answered by an early Thin Lizzy-esque (we’re talking Vagabonds of the Western World at the latest, and moreso the eponymous debut or Shades of a Blue Orphanage) lead. With phrases like “bag of bones”, “bourbon on my breath” and a title like “Damned Renegades”, there’s a feeling of morose, cowboy campfire tones—enhanced by the Mariachi-like touch of Gabriel Jasmin’s trumpet. The most emphatically instrumental passage of the album is sandwiched in here, with a knotted guitar solo, increasingly plaintive calls from that horn, and stampeding drums—the only voices that follow are non-verbal.

When “Glass Balloon” first started, I thought all the impressions “Renegades” gave me might have been right: a collision of Thin Lizzy’s early sound with a later choice—the sudden up-turn of their “Cowboy Song” to barnstormer. But no, “Glass Balloon” is expertly placed, but independent. Perhaps my favourite of the straight riffs with a nice little hammer-on/off kick to it runs the tune, even when there’s a lead laid over it. Interesting vocal choices mark the brief moments before that riff returns: “But screaming…to fill the void/Speaking to carelessly until I was so ready to go”—that pregnant pause before “to fill the void” is one of those choices that looks weird in words, but sounds strangely right when sung. Hickey’s rampaging snare brings in a new movement: deep, sawing riffs and a trill of distant lead thud and thump up to a four-on-the-floor pounding, which only harmonized guitars can rescue us from the punishment of. A lightly phased refrain of “So ready to go” repeats over that awesome riff, with bending, screeching solo—and suddenly halts.

With that built-in sound of “penultimate track” we come to “Missing Pieces”. Acoustic chords and pointy—I think that’s a 12-string?—electric licks are the fanciest of decorations on the track. It’s more song than showcase, in the least denigrating sense possible.  Somber like the title track, but somewhat more hopeful, “Pieces” is a vent for what came just before, not lost for energy, but redirecting it to vocal performance and emoting the core. A quiet passage of bass and guitar marriage helps to enhance the relaxing feel of the song, which shifts the vocals to a distant place in the mix, slowly fading them out with the rest of the track.

“Graves of the Great War” is unquestionably a closer. Timpani rolls in with piano (courtesy of Hickey) and guitar on a slow, steady beat, a kind of dirge, almost. The insistence and power of Klose and Stever is abandoned in vocal, “Aaaahs” chant-like in the background. “We floated your way/There’s not a soul to save/Our journey/Your place” they call out, momentarily re-ignited as if to make the depths of this more clear. And then holy dear lord that guitar. It brings to mind Eddie Hazel, just a bit, to touch on some truly hallowed ground, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome or take it too far. It just spirals out there, emotional fireworks, and then lets the song roll out on its own, strings sweeping in over the beat to find another solo that is just as perfectly controlled and restrained (excellent work, gentlemen!).

The most important takeaway I had from this album was its progression from the previous: Nostalgia in Stereo was Travis working out on his own, Our Machine saw the addition of Tyler to give the nascent band an even clearer identity, and now, with the addition of a selected rhythm section (instead of take-what-comes, get-what-you-can as before) really makes itself known. This is the sound of a qualified band this time around. In a year that’s seen the return of Aphex Twin after a decade away, and Braid after even longer, the still-lit spark of a band growing and finding itself, while still retaining enough of its own seeds to be recognizable as progression rather than overhaul shows its worth. Balanced and weighted properly, with care in production, construction, movement, and placement—that’s something not always seen in general, and even less so in this day and age.

I’ve sat here after solid, straight-through listening and then careful dissection (twice, in an even mix of misfortune and fortune—the latter coming from listening again) to find only more to appreciate. This is going to end up somewhere near the top this year, which is no small feat at this point. I would not be surprised if it finally settles into place before all the rest. The way that every instrument, from drum to bass to guitar to vocal serves its purpose and never becomes rote or mechanical, beyond the respects in which a section demands it acquiesce for the “greater good”—an invigorating and heartening thing to hear.

Give the thing a spin, then another, then buy it (I know how you modern audiences work!) and play it some more. I suspect it’s only going to get better—whether “it” is this album, or this band.

¹Apparently, knowing that one “New Post” link fails to trigger auto-saving for a year and a half doesn’t encourage anyone to do anything. Even just remove the bloody link. That will teach me to be used to Blogger’s fully-functional auto-saving…

²”Circle” meaning “Coheed and Cambria”, which is who I was there to see, on a fancy-pants ticket I pre-ordered before becoming unexpectedly unemployed. It turns out I coincidentally share initials with his son! Craziness.


WordPress Ate My Post

Thanks to the known (for at least a year and a half?) issue of “New Post” at the top right failing to use autosave, I lost two hours of work. As is, I feel distraught enough that I can’t quite restart in good faith at the moment.

Let this be a lesson: don’t write in WordPress’s editor. That’s a shockingly negligent problem, considering the volume of threads wondering where an auto-saved post went and being told, “Oh, did you start from there? Yeah, it’s gone forever. Oops!”

Incredibly disappointing.

Number Eight: Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)

Southeastern Records ■ SER 9984
Released June 11, 2013
Produced by Dave Cobb

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cover Me Up
  2. Stockholm
  3. Traveling Alone
  4. Elephant
  5. Flying Over Water
  6. Different Days
  1. Live Oak
  2. Songs that She Sang in the Shower
  3. New South Wales
  4. Super 8
  5. Yvette
  6. Relatively Easy

I suppose it’s a given that I know Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers, but the truth is I got into them via 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which postdates both his final album with the band (2006’s A Blessing and a Curse) and his debut solo record (2007’s Sirens of the Ditch). This put me in the strange and seemingly unenviable position of liking a band in what was considered a reduced state; many felt they’d declined severely after his exit, even with the natural caveats for the remaining members. It made me–as such things do–wary of his solo work, as it doesn’t give the greatest impression of anyone’s fans to often couch that fandom in dismissal of something else.

Still, during a random bit of shopping in 2010, I ran into his second post-DBT album, the one which eponymously named his band the 400 Unit, and fell madly in love (after all, wariness is not cause for dismissal, either!) with it. Since then, of course, he has released, inbetween that and this, 2011’s Here We Rest, still with the 400 Unit, and in post-or-mid-I’m-not-quite-sure start to sobriety. A lot of people prefer that record and this one, as I even found zero songs from that favourite four years ago in the last set I saw him play.
A lot of people called this one out around release as a pretty solid candidate for album of the year (the first I recall being someone I used to work with) and in principle I most definitely cannot disagree. Here We Rest felt a little more scattered to me than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–not weaker, mind you, just less focused. While Southeastern abandons a lot of the rock that drives that self-titled record (not all, though), it stays the course it chooses to perfectly to find any criticism in this.
“Cover Me Up” begins a small chain of breath-taking odes to Isbell’s wife, Amanda Isbell (née Shires), though perhaps the only one explicitly and directly that: it’s Jason accompanied only by himself, albeit multi-tracked. But as it starts, it’s just his lone acoustic, and his voice, with his slide creeping in only at the edges, crisp and lively. It rolls along at a steady pace, his voice low and almost whispered in its intimacy, but reaches for the ceiling at the chorus, and very nearly tears through it.
Should you feel discomfort with that intimacy, it is interrupted at the right moment by the shift to “Stockholm”, which brings a full band into play–not quite the 400 Unit, though it shares with the Unit Chad Gamble on Drums and Derry (ex-Son Volt) DeBorja on keys. Though the instinct, particularly in light of the lyrics, is to expect the mutually musical Amanda to join him, the voice heard alongside him is that of Kim Richey. DeBorja gets his most powerful appearance on the record here, the shuffling thump of Gamble and Brian Allen’s bass anchors it, but it is moved most explicitly by those keys, and, to some extent, the fried, electric riffs of Isbell himself. It’s love as Stockholm Syndrome, but with no intimations of negative association beyond the name itself–it’s the captivity breeding intimacy, but not the sense of forced captivity (though one can’t be certain: then-Shires was the one who ended up sticking him in rehab).
My father–who shares my appreciation, and got the album for Father’s Day from me–has told me that he has heard a fair bit of play on the radio for “Traveling Alone”, and it’s understandable, as it’s something like a balance between the heartfelt, unfiltered emotion of “Cover Me Up” and the power and winking joy of “Stockholm”, and this time it is Amanda alongside him, not only harmonizing but adding her fiddle to the track. In a strange way, it’s just vaguely reminiscent of Whiskeytown’s matching of Caitlin Cary’s fiddle with Isbell’s recent tourmate and friend Ryan Adams’s voice. Amanda’s playing shows that she typically fronts a band on her time, though, having a bit more elbowed jostling to the front in it–not in a bad way, but indicative of the playing that she does.
I don’t pay enough attention to know for certain that it’s seen this way, but I have difficulty imagining there aren’t a fair number of people treating “Elephant” as the centerpiece of the album. It’s another purely solo track (so long as we allow time-traveling clones to count, or however you would count overdubs), and it’s emotionally bare in entirely another fashion–the word doesn’t appear for a number of verses, and even then isn’t used in a way that literally states it, but it’s plain that Jason (as “Andy”) is singing of a dear friend lost to cancer. A writer like Isbell is ideal for addressing this: there’s rumpled reality to both “Andy” and his friend, with her actual character described in the song outside of what is happening to her, and Andy’s description of events conveying it instead. The elephant that’s in the room, though he says they both ignored it, we can hear from his point of view is not being missed at all, with her instead defiantly ignoring it outwardly, even “mak[ing] cancer jokes”. There’s no telling, without trawling interviews, if it is personally real, or some kind of amalgamation of experiences–and it doesn’t matter. It hits exactly as it should, never becoming syrupy, or even overly morose, defining itself with its last variation on the bridge and chorus: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
After the weight of “Elephant”, another electrified track like “Flying Over Water” is very welcome: it’s also back to a full band, though the pounded out intro gives way to loose electric chords, Jason’s voice and quiet taps on the rim from Gamble. Much of the time I am miserable at ascertaining lyrical intention from a songwriter who is not absolutely explicit, but I’m left with the notion that this is about the move (which is explicitly referenced, or damn near it) Isbell made from Muscle Shoals (in Alabama) to Nashville, TN. It’s questioning, concern, worry about a change, a move–and what might be lost in the process, it seems.
Though it begins with hints that it will return to the solo approach, Allen’s bass joins him early, and DeBorja flavours the largely acoustic chord-based “Different Days” with keys. Isbell straddles something like mourning for the life he used to live and an approving embrace of what comes now–mourning may not be the word, as there’s more regret in the days than there is to leaving them.
Side Two opens with perhaps the most haunting track: “Live Oak”. Introduced purely a cappella, I missed a lot of details in the song when I first heard it that clarify that it is not directly autobiographical–a history of murder, robbery, and having a sheriff on his back. Indeed, this is driven home by the muted, chunky, low, burnt chords of a guitar that emulates the kind employed by Ennio Morricone, crossed with the less dramatic version of the same used by the likes of Sun Records-era Johnny Cash. But, though I missed all that, I was not wrong in hearing autobiography, Isbell has admitted–there’s a fear of what he lost of himself in sobriety, hinted at in the track that closed Side One, but here made explicit, in the context of the relationship that inspired “Cover Me Up”–a scary thing indeed.
Sliding back in time, “Songs She Sang in the Shower” is the spiky, hell-raising not-yet-sober kind of Isbell: as described, it oozes with regret and self-doubt, but tempered by the fatalistic, “I deserve this” kind of thinking that tends to perpetuate that. It’s never more clear than after “she” leaves: “In a room by myself, looks like I’m here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else”. And as such things often are, he’s stuck on the most seemingly innocuous of reminders, the songs that she sang in the shower, which “experience tells me that I’ll never hear them again, without thinking of then”.
“New South Wales” brings some much-needed warmth to the album after that string of tracks, with Allen and Gamble acting only as a light anchor behind what largely remains an effectively solo track. While the first two songs on the album are clear in describing love as the finding of home, here it’s just the finding of something that amounts to home, however it’s arrived at, the notion of finding a place that feels safe and warm and, well, home-y.
Finally shifting things into an out-and-out rollicking rock movement, “Super 8” breaks the delicate tension of emotions and sounds that preceded it with the lick of flame that is the wild and “sloppy” slide of a well-done barnstormer. A sense of humour about wild days past and the decision to make them exactly that–past, not wild–the most ridiculous phrasing of it: “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel, just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well, if I ever get back to Bristol I’m better off sleeping in the county jail.” A morning that finds him “not quite breathing” that ends momentarily with “looks like that’s all she wrote” and the song seems like a kind of “Holy shit, this is not the way to do this”, kind of moment, just a good slathering of understatement.
Unbelievably mournful slide announces that “Super 8” was but a flitting relief. “Yvette” is about a girl the singer sees with “cut glass eyes” and “covered up head to toes, so nobody will notice you”. In response he sings, “I might not be a man yet, but your father will never be, so I’m cleaning my Weatherby”. It’s not about the song moving toward justice, it’s about the response this narrator has to this: there may be some sense of justice found in it, but it’s just something like the way Isbell chooses to address things like this–there’s no joy, relief, or pride in his voice, just the sense that he feels this is the only solution, ensuring that her father will simply never be. It’s not treated as right, or, for that matter, wrong. 
“Relatively Easy” is some relative of the comparative depth of problems phrased in the right way: it’s about seeing hope and goodness knowing things could be worse, not about reducing the problems that are via that comparison. And the word “relatively” manages to capture that almost perfectly. Kim Richey joins again on vocals, and the track is sad and quiet in sound, as it does recognize that problems remain real, but finds some light around those problems. The chorus is my favourite on the record, the way that their voices don’t drop a syllable in the whole beat, only speeding or changing for that word “relatively” as it is a difficult word to use here, as it’s attempting to encompass relativity in itself, which is not something any word should have to do alone. But it’s a damn fine closer for the record.
Listening to this, I was forced to remind myself how I had scaled my future choices going up (or is it down?) the list, and to shrug and settle for reasons I’ll address as time goes on, but none of those reasons relate to any downfall for this particular record. While there are a number of people I discuss music with on most occasions we interact, there are others who almost never say a word, and one of those is my mother–she was very pleased with the clever word choices in “Elephant” and said so at the moment she heard them. I don’t know that I can really work that into some kind of largely-silent-but-speaks-when-it-matters judgment, but certainly the lack of focus on music means that there’s a clearer sincerity when she hears something she likes.
If forced, I would probably render the old “favourite” versus “objectively better” comparison when it comes to Isbell’s work, now. I’m inclined to believe that this is indeed the staying work as things stand, even if that self-titled album remains my personal favourite. Which means, of course, that you would be well-served checking into this record for yourself!
  • Up Next: Number Seven!

Number Nine: Toro y Moi – Anything in Return (2013, of course)

Carpark Records ■ CAK77

Released January 16, 2013
Produced by Chaz Bundick
Engineered by Patrick Brown, Second Engineer Jorge Hernandez
Mixed by Patrick Brown and Chaz Bundick
Mastered by Joe Lambert

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Harm in Change
  2. Say That
  3. So Many Details
  1. Rose Quartz
  2. Touch
  3. Cola
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Studies
  2. High Living
  3. Grown Up Calls
  1. Cake
  2. Day One
  3. Never Matter
  4. How’s It Wrong

Toro y Moi came to me via the broadcast that is staff overhead selection at one of the music stores I frequent on longer trips–Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. The album had been out for all of two months when I heard “Cake” playing there and decided to go with an instinct I’d previously experienced during my endless trips to CD Alley in Chapel Hill in years prior. I’d never heard of Toro y Moi, nothing new for me and my complete obliviousness to modern independent music, except as it filters in by chance or through the few friends who track it.

As it was the one I heard (a reasoning that also inspired the purchase of records like Tobacco’s Maniac Meat and Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation), it was the first one I purchased. Causers of This followed in April, and then it was the synchronicity of a work trip to Atlanta that led me to see Toro y Moi in concert in October last year. I picked up the rest of his albums, as well as a few odd singles and the 3×7″ box set of bedroom recordings that was released as well. Still, Anything in Return is the one I return to most often.
At that show, Chaz was the closest thing I’ve seen to a superstar. Classixx opened for him (new to me, and worth checking out, as their Hanging Gardens could easily slip into an expanded top list for last year), but when he came out, it was unlike anything I’m used to in small venues or even large ones. There’s a roar for bands, and everyone is often focused on vocalists, but the fact that Chaz does his albums “Prince-style” (in the impossible-to-read-in-the-LP notes, it mentions he performed the entire album alone) seemed to shift the tone, somehow. The crowd was larger, it was a different kind of music, a different kind of venue, but there was still something to it.
It’s a bit strange, to be honest–not undeserved, but almost out of keeping with his music. He was first identified with the aptly-named “chillwave”, one of those terms that seemed a flash-in-the-pan, but defiantly remains in use as many such things do, thanks to sheer bull-headedness. Unlike his earlier work, though, Anything is a lot more energetic. That said, the energy is of a subdued and extremely cool variety, in most slang senses of the world, and often even a bit of the metaphorical incarnation of the most “literal” use of the word.

“Harm in Change” starts things on a rattle of percussion that leaves the bass away from the record for a good bit, until the song completely splits open over Chaz’s increasingly passionate vocals, rising in pitch and tightening, as if drawing in the disparate parts of the backing track to break it all open, even if the bass is still minimal. The second single from the album (though it did not actually receive a 7″, it did get a video) pushes a fuzzy bass beat to the forefront, or it would, anyway, if not for the chopped vocal sample that swirls around Chaz’s laidback vocal. The video almost manages to encapsulate the curiosity of Toro y Moi as a musical project: Chaz dances randomly, awkwardly, but almost stationary, throughout a forest. It’s restrained for the most part, controlled, and all about an infectious beat that maybe you don’t quite want to openly show your appreciation of.

“So Many Details” is the one track that did get a 7″, introduced with a faltering beat, and a thumping bass versus hi-hat beat. It is like a wonderful collision of the marching band-bass boom of hip-hop beats, the cold, alien piercing sounds of a lot of electronic music, and little hints of the synthesizer-oriented niches that ride the wave of nostalgia to their appreciation. In that sense, it sets the stage most completely for the album as a whole:

“Rose Quartz” continues this feeling, with punctuated bass swinging its weight behind every other sound, feeling ridiculously sensual in its way. “Touch” is one of the interlude-like moments on the album, but developed enough (it’s a good 2:30) to still feel complete. It’s nearly instrumental, and sets the stage for the yet-more laidback “Cola”, which hangs itself on the hook of reverberated monotone synthesizer wobbles.

The end of side two ends up perfectly setting up the stronger, harder beat of “Studies”, which is softened just enough by the falsetto vocals that it turns what could be a dark rolling bassline into a dancey movement. Guitar noodling layers the whole thing over to slide it into an easy place like half-lidded eyes, though a pinched, nasal sort of string rears up in little snarls at the middle and end to keep those eyes from closing completely. “High Living”, on the other end, has a ridiculous langorous cruising sort of movement to it, and doesn’t feel any particular need to force you awake, as it is just musically carefree: it’s tight and bound to its beat, but the beat is so natural that that almost doesn’t matter. “Grown Up Calls” is something of an R&B interlude from the 90s, a scatter of sounds until shaker and bass glue it all together to turn it to a full-on groove.

I don’t think I can question the fact that “Cake” is my favourite track on the record: warm, sustained synth chords, a wiggling curlicue of a keyboard lick over them, and the kind of beat that pushes your head down and forward to follow it. Chaz’s verses are exceedingly great at seeming to define the beat rather than follow it. The ebb and flow of the backing track as it goes through the sparse verses and then the thrum of the chorus is just fantastic. I’ve been openly guilty of miserable physical expression of my appreciation of this one in a work environment, no less. It just hits all the right kind of notes–alas, not one of the times where I picked the single (and I had 3 chances to be right!), but that’s all right.

“Day One” shambles along like something off Tricky’s Maxinquaye, but with just a little bit less of the deliberate ramshackle-ness: it’s clear Chaz was aiming for something smooth. And so it smooths out, even around that clatter of percussion, bonding it with softer, smoother synthesized sounds and some of his more mid-range and comfortable vocals.

While “Cake” didn’t make it, “Never Matter” did–it got its own video of random people videotaped dancing to it on headphones, and you really can’t blame them. It’s a dance-y beat, sprays of synthesizer and the plain-old irresistible hook of “Push it along…” that carries with it a wilder key riff than most of the album. And when those slow, sustained chords ring out by themselves and climb up slowly after the back-and-forth juggle bridge only to fall back on that hook–yeeow! Good stuff. Makes you wanna dance even if you can’t (Hello! We have something in common!).

“How’s It Wrong” closes the album, and still gives me those amusing mental points of Donald Fagen soundscape. It’s not unreasonable–electronics-heavy, smooth, but the rhythms and Chaz’s vocal style shake away such cobwebs pretty quickly. The beat is too heavy for Fagen’s stuff, and the groove far too sensual and dance-y. The track itself doesn’t scream out “album-closer”, but the dissolution into warbling wateriness and distant bleepiness, cold but friendly, spins it all off into space quite nicely.

Oddly, 2013 made it harder for me to pick the higher end of the list, rather than the lower end. My top two were undeniable, but as it got up the list, it got harder to say–I finally settled on this record because it’s one thing to make an ass of myself home alone, and entirely another to do so (in this fashion, at least) in front of coworkers. That the show made me feel like I’d somehow managed to magically catch a rising star on the way up, too–get in now, while you still have a chance to figure his stuff out for yourself, before you’re inundated and can’t divorce it from endless appearances! Only a few of my friends recognize the name, but all nod approvingly when it happens–join them, and start here.

On a silly sidenote: the CD version (which I also own) has a version of the cover in black and white, which bears the wonderful invitation “Color me!”, but the vinyl sadly lacks this, despite containing the same version of the image. Indeed, it is the flip of the first inner sleeve, and was facing outward when I found the record (amusingly, in October, back at Lunchbox, a week from the show I’d go to, and completely oblivious to that fact at the time). Ah, well. Guess it’s better not to risk folks trying to colour with the LP still in the inner sleeve!

  • Up Next: Number Eight!

So This Is the New Year…

Well, it’s 2014.

Every year I seem to flutter into a new approach to how to write about music, as one of my driving instincts is to share music, but an audience that is attuned to such a thing is not something I’ve yet grasped how to acquire (indeed, most of my traffic–what isn’t spam–is folks looking at something they already like). Of course, I understand–even my wide splatter of taste is informed more at random than it is by seeking out explicit and continual sources of new material, barring those cases where it comes as a by-product of what I’m doing otherwise, as is most readily seen in my affection for Nevermind the Buzzcocks and much of the music it exposed me to.

So, all I can do is type out words into the ether, maybe here and there actually clicking with someone, and maybe not. This format still seems logical to me, as it has that “hook” of the familiar, surrounded by things that aren’t.

I may relax the alphabet, or otherwise change up the progression (as facing Album XY, or Z would often leave me faced with forced listening), but I think I’ll stick with the overall theme of my own collection, unless I can again wrangle in some of my good friends to include their own thoughts.

What I think should start the year is a countdown of the top 10 albums–for me personally, of course, not necessarily as definitive answers–of 2013, as I own most of them on vinyl as well as CD. There’s at least one exception, and that would be number ten, hence this very entry.

It skirts the line for me on a multi-medium purchase, but it’s Neko Case’s record from last year–I haven’t got anything against it, obviously, but also no overriding instinct to double up on it, for whatever reason. I suppose, then, that’s why it comes in at ten. I do, however, own all 9 of the others on vinyl, so if I can manage around work, you can look forward to them (or down on them, if you so choose!) over the next nine days.

Cheers to anyone still here to see this!

The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

Saddle Creek Records ■ LBJ 180
(Originally LBJ-37 on same label)
Released August 21, 2001
(This compilation released November 1, 2012)
Engineered and Produced by Mike Mogis and The Faint

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Agenda Suicide
  2. Glass Danse
  3. Total Job
  4. Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat
  5. Violent
  1. Your Retro Career Melted
  2. Posed to Death
  3. The Conductor
  4. Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen

Though it ended up one of the most brief hiatuses I’ve taken, early June’s was instigated by a work-related trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which happens to be right next door to Omaha, Nebraska. I currently live in an area where there are barely handfuls of record stores for a good 60+ miles, so hitting a larger college town (like I myself used to live in) was a blessing and a curse: I flew back with a shoulder bag filled with vinyl, and a suitcase veritably lined with CDs. While there, I took occasion to visit the store that the Saddle Creek label operates there in their hometown, inspired more than anything by the associations it has with Cursive, a fellow fan of whom I discovered I was working with (who also shared a love for The Format and a handful of others–and ended up passing me a copy of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ on green vinyl!). While I was in there, I did walk out with a copy of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, having failed to pick it up already, and (rather amusingly) did finally get a copy of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an album by a band from the area I last lived in, but thought I should really pick up a record the label itself put out (I Am Gemini being on CD). The Ugly Organ wasn’t there (and, as mentioned, I serendipitously acquired it later in the same trip anyway!), so I wandered about until I ran into this.

I remember around the time this album came out, the band was pretty darn hot around the internet, though I was still in my formative musical explorations. I did glance at them, but moved on before anything took hold, eventually picking a copy of the album up on CD many years later. When this edition was released, I first stumbled into the CD/DVD version last year, and suddenly realized I’d really missed something. That was what pushed me to add to it this vinyl version–it’s actually the “deluxe edition” which contains not only a second 12″ of bonus tracks (remixes and b-sides) but also that self-same 2xCD+DVD set I already have, albeit in far more inconvenient format for a portable medium.

When it originally came out, the record used a different cover, but the rights to use it were thoroughly rejected–even more than a decade later, which is why it continues to use the cover above. Though this new cover was used for the later pressings, for this deluxe reissue it was re-tinted in neon pink instead of its original blood red. It’s a weird colour, very eye-catching, and actually feels more appropriate in a strange sort of way–though the red, black, and white colour scheme of the original issue fit nicely with the cynical overtones of the record and its goth-y vibe, the pink hits on the fact that those are not the whole, and it’s a ridiculously danceable record (or so I would guess, being as I lack the skill at such activities, personally).

“Agenda Suicide” was the lead single, and in keeping with old habits (though maybe not The Faint’s or Saddle Creek’s), it leads the album. A low-end loop introduces the track with a kind of eye-wink darkness, rumbling along electronically through its set of notes, a palm-muted rattle of guitar from Dapose and then a pulsing four-on-the-floor drum machine beat are layered on top, finalized with actual drums, alternating snare and bass with regular hi-hat. Flavouring it all is a knowingly “off” set of notes from keys that seem to be poking at the outer edges of the sound, bouncing from one edge or corner to the next and then repeating. Todd Fink (née Baechle, though he was still Baechle at the time) pulls his voice out of the playbook from the goth-inflected post punk–think early Robert Smith, nervous, half-bored, very cynical–his verses are split by the sizzling keys that mark one of the track’s great hooks, leaning menacingly forward and more confidently spread across the track than the pulses and scatter of notes that precede them. The last time these chords strike down, the keys spiral downward to make room for the chorus: “Our work makes pretty little homes”, which is followed by the cold sound of drum machine thumping and even more mechanical guitar rattling. This leads to the full realization of those menacing chords, harmonized with a higher set of keys. The nihilistic, cynical, depressed description of modern societal monotony–“Agenda suicide, drones work hard before they die/And give up on pretty little homes”–is realized by the track, but it’s matched to an absurdly insistent, danceable beat that just makes you want to move and have fun, perhaps in spite of the repellent nature of the cubicle life described. The musical “interstitials” that split the chorus are later slowed down to a breakdown-like pounding that somehow turns the track into one that almost recommends headbanging, without ever losing that edge of life-sucking darkness it’s there to describe. Don’t mistake this of course–the track is descriptive and musically appropriate, but it’s finagled into the shape of a ridiculously enjoyable one, despite all of that.

In contrast to the building, hinting, and layering of “Agenda Suicide”, “Glass Danse” gives only a few beats warning before it launches full bore into its brash, loud dancey beat. It moves constantly and puts Todd’s voice behind an electronic device–something in the vein of a megaphone–that distances it from that straight up oomp-tss of the verse’s instruments. The lead-up to the chorus loses the filter between him and listener, doubles the beat’s speed, but closes camp around both, close to the ground and ready to spring, a launch that is fueled by the sputtering of metallic keys, which finally ignite and take off. Coming after “Agenda Suicide” it functions as a refusal to let the beat slow or drop in any way, while maintaining enough variety to keep things really very interesting.

“Total Job” takes that boiling heat and drags it down to a simmer, but a persistent one. The tempo is down, but the energy behind it is untouched. Todd and Jacob Thiele use the doubled tones of the metallic key sound to give the track the most clear and focal melody the album has in its first three tracks, while Joel Petersen’s bass makes itself more known than before. A chopped female vocal sample is sprinkled across the track, while Todd’s voice is given a vaguely demonic filter toward the end of the track–but only on a background double track of them. It functions mostly as connective tissue between the burst of “Glass Danse” and its nearby neighbor, “Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat”.

That follow up track is introduced with a frog-croak like keyboard hook and a clatter of drum machine that suggests a thin, demo-ish sound, except that it’s the lead in to live drumming from Todd’s brother Clark, and the croaking keys are now joined by a high-pitched whine of companion keys, which shift upward and tighten at their peak to drop the tempo back down. Stereo-pan right-left hopping drum machine and keys are the canvas across Clark’s frame of restrained drumming. Todd’s filtered, vaguely sarcastic voice drops to a whisper to lead in the chorus: “Just let the poison spill/Spurt from your throat/Hiss like steam–” and that anticipatory drop of everything gives the song back its initial roar of energy: “‘Cause the pressure’s unreal/I’m not saying that it’s not/You’re causing a scene/You’re wearing out that note/You scream until it’s gone, gone, gone…” It’s an apt lyric for the music–or apt music for the lyric. Like much darker electronic-focused music, it has tinges of the machine and the song is like a machine hissing out steam, until the pressure is released in the chorus. Fascinatingly, the song features a more raw bassline from Joel, and moments where Clark drums in isolation, while Todd’s voice is at its most distorted and altered. The downward strokes of that hook are, it seems, more unreal than the pressure to which the lyrics refer–yow, but they are catchy!

Unlike the CD release, the vinyl (both the original and this deluxe edition) place “Violent” at the end of side one as track 5 instead of penultimate track 8. “Violent” is actually the longest song on the album, the only one clocking past five minutes. Instrumentally, it’s semi-unique–while Gretta Cohn’s cello appears on “Total Job”, too, it’s most apparent here when it is alone with Todd’s voice and a drum machine. More keys and electronic sounds–cracking rhythms, shuffling hiss and rattle–hide in the corners, but even when the song shifts gears and Todd’s voice goes “Transformer”, Dapose, Clark, and Joel remain rather silent–Dapose’s guitar does appear briefly as a short lead after this, but disappears after a few bars again. Clark’s hi-hat playing does come in a bit before the song attempts to tear itself apart, stuttering, starting, stopping and shuddering before returning as a skronking low-end key line. It’s joined by a fuzzy industrial metal beat and hi-hats that all skitter like a skipping CD until they become a single repeated beat. Then it all comes back together as a song centered around that grungy, bassy keyboard lick, with sustained horror-esque high-pitched keys carry a haunting melody in the background in keeping with the slow, low strains of cello. It only makes sense, I suppose, that the longest song be, in effect, a pair of songs smashed and converted into a single one.

Side Two opens with another scorcher, “Your Retro Career Melted”. An odd choice, in a way, for a band that is openly and obviously drawing from the past–but sung with enough venomous sarcasm that it manages itself quite well. The horror and sci-fi inflections continue with a squealing hook of keys around the pounding beat that blends so well into the primary keyboard melodies. The catchiest chorus and use of electronic voice filters by far, “Your retro career m-m-m-melted” is repeated over a tireless beat. Squealing and stabbing keyboards get to back Todd and Clark for a moment, just before the chorus returns for its last run, before stretching out over the last few minutes, ending with the electronic filtration of a bell-curved singing of “Melt-e-e-ed…” closes it all.

“Posed to Death” is rather strange, coming on like a vaguely tribalistic set of non-verbal vocalizations over a  2-and-4 beat, but Clark’s entrance turns the thumping keyboards Todd’s voice is mimicking into a back-and-fourth full four beats, until Todd steps back for Joel’s bassline. Now the beat is a body-moving of a 1-a2-a3-a4 swing. Distorted keys crunch away and leave a wash of disttortion in their wake, a wall of static behind the song’s hypnotic beat. It closes with Dapose harmonizing his guitar with the keyboards, a new sound for the record.

“The Conductor” has a fantastic intro: keyboards attuned to the slight fuzz of distortion on a sound somewhere between xylophone and piano, let ring just long enough to mimic an echo, hints of harpsichord-like twang making it almost like a moment of suspense in a mid-period horror flick, before a funereal beat backs an expansion of this marching melody, flattening with the weight of the louder, fuller chords of ominous, 80s-horror threat. Percussion backs this and turns it–without changing the melodic portions–into a dance movement. The song is haunting and dark in a new way, shadows and the kind of darkness that could be a room, a large room, or even open space. When Todd takes over the verse completely and his voice takes the fore–takes control, if you will (as he himself sings)–it becomes something closer to the merely dark-edged crunch of the Faint’s usual sound. It’s fuzzed by Joel’s bass, spiced by blistering Dapose leads, and propelled by keyboards–the chorus fades it away to keys, drum machine and Todd’s voice repeating “Control, control, control, control, control…” The bell-like xylopiano of the intro lingers over it all, keeping it haunting and mysterious, even more so as the beat drops out from under it to let it play alone and fade off.

Gretta Cohn’s cello opens “Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen” almost alone, and where it’s flavoured by keys, it is only that–flavour on her strong draws of bow. Then the jittering of a pounding beet against a sheet of metallic noise carves out a mechanized chunk of the track, tailed by a wobbling fuzz of grungey keys. It’s the most downtempo and downbeat track on the record. The beat is the strongest, clearest part of the primary band’s sound (Cohn acting in a secondary role, after all), with Todd’s voice again hiding at a distance, and even the keys burbling around Clark’s drums. For all the interesting layers of sound, it’s a sparse-sounding track in contrast to the uncontrolled burst of movement that composes the rest of the record. Certainly, this makes it rather fitting as a final track, though instead of the misleading final fade of piano and cello, distorted keys take the final moments for their own.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Take Me to the Hospital
  2. Mote
  3. Dust (featuring Bright Eyes)
  4. Falling Out of Love at This Volume
  1. The Conductor [Thin White Duke Remix]
  2. Glass Danse [Out Hud Remix]

Sides 3 and 4 are a collection of tracks from various places (a Saddle Creek compilation, the Mote/Dust non-album single, the remix album, the German version of the “Agenda Suicide” single, and the original German limited edition 2CD release of the album). “Mote” is a Sonic Youth cover, while “Dust” features “Bright Eyes”–aka Conor Oberst, a former member of the Faint, and Mike Mogis, who co-produced Danse Macabre. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is indeed a Bright Eyes cover, and “Take Me to the Hospital” is the only “completely Faint” track (the other two obviously being remixes).

Sadly, “Take Me to the Hospital” is not a misnamed cover of the Replacements’ “Take Me Down to the Hospital” (which I’d still like to hear them cover, just for curiosity’s sake). It is actually an interesting, stuttery track, that doesn’t quite have the slick goth-inflections of Danse Macabre, but has a stammering dance of a chorus that spells out the final word of the title. It’s a bit more intimate as a track, and points a bit more toward the group’s other work.

“Mote” is fuzz-loaded, with squeaky-tape rewind noises and pounding beats, perhaps the closest relative of the album proper to appear amongst the bonus tracks, barring the remixes of tracks actually from the album, despite being a cover.

“Dust” is a little more akin to a Depeche Mode-style dance music, with the kind of chunky synths that are so recognizable, but built on live drums. There are Faint touches for sure, but it’s mostly more readily accessible and cleaner than Danse Macabre.

“Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is odd, as, despite his former membership in the band, Oberst’s music is not in keeping with the rest of the Faint’s sound, but the band predictably “remedies” this (as would be almost inevitable in a band that is more keyboards than guitars). Interestingly, the over-echoed, watery effect on Todd’s voice does bring it closer to the demo-style recording they’re covering.

Thin White Duke’s remix of “The Conductor” is a severely re-designed version of the track. It moves to a more standard dance beat, and Todd’s electronically manipulated recitation of “Control” forms the central hook of essentially the entire song, even being layered over itself in various iterations, almost to the exclusion of the rest of his words. It’s something like the expectations of remixes, but it’s very much well done, even with its humourously stereotypical inclusion of strings.

Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse”, in contrast, is only subtly different from the original track, functioning closer to a remix in the “remixed and remastered” sense than the “make it their own” one. Of course, I cannot help but mention that I know Out Hud primarily for the fact that they did an early split with !!!, a band that actually shared three members with Out Hud at the time. Heck, that split was released on Gold Standard Labs (GSL) who released not only !!!’s first album (the self-titled !!!), but also the Mote/Dust Faint single, and a few records that will appear later in my collection–as a label that was co-owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s still a solid remix and they do make it somewhat more their own as it progresses, and in doing so actually keep it more like a Faint song than Thin White Duke did with his remix.

I bought this album very deliberately–it’s insanely catchy, particularly in its first half, but spread (and paced) nicely across both sides, or its full (CD) length. Finding the right space to suggest this, as a goth-tinged, crunchy dance album–I don’t know. It was pretty big in its time if I’m not mistaken, but to whom I would recommend it unwaveringly, I’m not sure. I mean, I’d recommend anything I like to anyone, because it’s all good music, but the taste that would make me say, “Ah, listen to the Faint!”? I don’t know.

Perhaps you should go and check it out (you should), and maybe return data so that I can assemble knowledge of what that taste is.

Or just check them out regardless (yep).

Donald Fagen – The Nightfly (1982)

Warner Bros. Records ■ 23696-1

Released October 29, 1982

Engineered by Roger Nichols (Chief), Daniel Lazerus (Overdubs)
Assistant Engineering by Wayne Yurgelun, Mike Morongell, Cheryl Smith, Robin Lane
Mastered by Bob Ludwig

“Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I.G.Y.
  2. Green Flower Street
  3. Ruby Baby
  4. Maxine
  1. New Frontier
  2. The Nightfly
  3. The Goodbye Look
  4. Walk Between Raindrops

While I definitively eschew any such categorizations as best I possibly can, I remain fascinated with the lines that are drawn around any work or artist to render it “untouchable” by certain groups. A work or an artist may be unmentionable to fit comfortably under the umbrella of “serious music fan” or “metalhead” or any of the other myriad communities associated with music–some very carefully defined, and others so loose as to be questionably meaningful. I like a lot of artists that cross those lines quite heavily–the first albums I ever owned mystify people to this day, and the first mix-tape I ever had made for me (by my father, partly from my requests, and partly from his own insertions) was a slew of Dr. Demento tracks from various decades and styles (“The Martian Hop”, “The Cockroach That ate Cincinnatti”, etc) mixed with Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Cherokee Nation”), the Coasters (“Poison Ivy”, “Mother in Law”, “Yakety Yak”), Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crimson & Clover”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”), and a few odd other tracks I’ll occasionally recall out of the blue.

For a time in and around middle school, my taste remained confined by the distance I kept from my father’s turntable and thus the questionable volume of music available to someone who didn’t look to spend limited allowance-type funds on it. The local library had its share of odds and ends, and I checked some out from them here and there, but two in particular ended up sticking with me for quite a while, as my non-existent owned music meant whatever I had checked out was what I was listening to, short of hitting the radio. Those two albums were–bear with me now, and feel free to look back at other albums I reviewed (and thus own) and drop jaws or shake heads as needed–Billy Joel’s Storm Front and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad. These (and the few albums I would gradually purchase) were strangely important: listening to the same songs from each over and over would have been tiresome with the limited (and tedious) programming capabilities of my cheap (discman-style!) CD player at the time, so I ended up listening to both albums straight through many times.
In some circles, it’s probably desirable to disavow my love for Storm Front, but that tends to be unsurprising to anyone who has spoken with even mildly devoted music people (though there are, of course, always exceptions). Kamakiriad fascinates me that much more: Fagen is of course best known for his work with his primary band, that which is defined by co-conspirator Walter Becker–Steely Dan. There are ripples of discontent surrounding the group, even amongst more serious music people, whether it be for the “appropriation” of jazz, the purported sterility of carefully expert and tight production and recordings, or even the “flaccid/soft rock” sensibility many have regarding them (including, if memory serves, George Carlin ¹). It’s strange, really–the band was named for a dildo (!) in the writings of William S. Burroughs (!!), and the lyrics are notoriously clever (maybe even obnoxiously so), often sardonic or dark. Sure–the music tends to be pretty relaxed and “smooth”, and the performances and recordings are absurdly tight, but the criticism does not easily bear out.
The Nightfly was purchased some years ago, unquestionably, because of my love for Kamakiriad. I had never heard it before, and may or may not have heard any of the songs that were released to radio (and later repeated on “classic rock” stations), and it was only $3 anyway. I listened to it once or twice at the time, but didn’t run out into the streets proselytizing. It wasn’t until it was repackaged (with Kamakiriad, and the much later Morph the Cat) as The Nightfly Trilogy that I stood up and took notice. Then, I had lovingly packaged (CD) versions of each album (in some of my favourite packaging ever) and time and ease to get to know each.
It was because of that time that revisiting this album like I did was both a familiar comfort and a pleasure.
The first thing I ever recognized about the album is how appropriate it is for certain environmental conditions: the first light, chiming tones of “I.G.Y.” (clarified on the inner sleeve as “International Geophysical Year” cannot ever seem to sound as right as they do in a comfortable, dark room. Sitting, alone, together, reclined–it doesn’t matter, it just sets the tone clearly, with a lovely synthetic intro where a backing bed of rising and falling cascading notes sits behind more definitive notes that seem to spike upward from an otherwise smooth surface. It turns to a swinging beat, horns enter, and it becomes a ridiculously catchy tune, marrying Fagen’s voice to a chorus of female backing singers in a wistful, nostalgic chorus. The track is fascinating aurally: it’s perfectly balanced in pitches and tones, yet seems to keep to a narrow range somehow. It’s the ideal energy for the tone of the track–defining the tone of the album as a whole. The fabled pin-point accuracy of both men who lead Steely Dan is apparent–even the parts that aren’t electronic sound as if they could be, but they hold the right warmth and variability that marks them as physically present acoustic instruments.
I always imagine (wrongly) that “Green Flower Street” was one of the album’s singles (instead, “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontiers” hold that honour), and feel that I can be forgiven this–keys tug at the song as hi-hat marks the time to keep it going. Bass dances along the back ground as keys phase and warp from channel to channel, and lightly played, muted guitar notes jump back and forth the same way. The guitar and keys are somewhat odd, a bit cut off, approaching staccato (readily meeting it in the case of the guitar part), acting as the primary hook and melody, but leaving so much space and riding so heavily on repetition that the restless movement of the bass pulls that old trick of really moving the song’s melodic progressions, but does it without being at all obvious. A rather tasty guitar lead is met with the snarled and curly notes of a brief key lead that is reminiscent of the kind of work I personally love in earlier Prince material–dense and funky, wrapped tightly around itself. Dig that sudden exclamation point ending, too.
I’m prone to unnecessary elaboration for sure, but it’s actually quite appropriate that I brought up the Coasters earlier–many of their hits were the writing work of Leiber and Stoller, who also wrote the only cover on this album: “Ruby Baby”. While the note on the inner sleeve points toward reminiscing (as does the cover), Fagen molds the classic hit into his own style, unquestionably, arranging it into more instrumental and drifting, electronic-leaning sound the album runs on, while maintaining the flavour of the original Drifters recording. It becomes extended, playing with improvisational (if probably pre-determined) instrumental stretches, and handclaps and crowd noises that are subtle enough that, on casual listen, they just feed the feeling of the track’s placement as drawn from a time closer to the exclusively live domain of music, rather than seeming like an intended faux-live recording.
Side one closes with “Maxine”, which drops the drum beat to a steady 3/4, warm and slow like I would immediately imagine from many a late night radio would play. It’s relaxed in an album that is innately relaxed, using keys that sound more like known keyboard-based instruments. It’s the breeziest track by far, though it is actually the third shortest, oddly enough.
“New Frontier” was an excellent choice for a single, no question. Reverberating as if underwater, keys thoughtfully and dreamily establish something of the melody, while an electronic beat bounces out cheerfully. Harmonica seems bizarrely out of place–but only if you stop and think: integrated into the whole, it somehow functions. The keyboard lines that introduce the chorus have an excellently suspicious quality about them, as if something is not quite right here, though everything remains as cheerful and enjoyable as they were when they began. That bouncing electronic beat is fascinating: it runs straight through the track, but is lost, almost ignored, as if it’s being followed entirely by accident rather than design. Double-tracking the chorus vocals is a clever touch, and puts just the right kind of tonal “oomph” onto them, to bring them above Fagen’s normally easy tones.

The title track embraces the image on the cover fully, as Fagen takes on the role of “Lester the Nightfly”, WJAZ DJ and host in Baton Rouge. He’s an amalgamation of Fagen’s remembered late night DJs, taking conspiracy calls, talking of his own life, and playing classic jazz tunes–indeed, he describes the show as “with jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mount Belzoni, sweet music, tonight the night is mine, late night ’til the sun comes through the skyline”. Semi-spoken verses are from Lester’s point of view, over steady cowbells and heavily played key chords, that have just enough spin on them to take on a bit of a funky hook. Female vocalists emulate the station’s call sign interstitial, sweet and clear, with a catchy emphasis on rhythm, jumping up and down in pitch sharply, but cleanly. The drums drive the trick in that same background fashion way, but hold themselves more apparent.

“The Goodbye Look” seems slightly out of place as the penultimate track–combined with its predecessor, it might even have turned into a sort of strange conceptual album (as opposed to a thematic one), suggesting the “goodbye look” given to a DJ as a signal that their time is shortly up–whether literal or just for effect. It’s actually a sort of paranoid tale of hiding away on an island instead, with a mention of steel drums that comes through in the unusual choice of synthesized sounds that resemble steel drums, later met with the sound of more distinctly synthesized steel drums, which is a peculiar union to be sure. The relaxed pace of the verses is hurried at its end until the staccato vocalizations of the chorus, which is where the most steel drum-like sounds appear, offsetting that sudden rush of terseness in an interesting way.

Instead, the album closes with “Walk Between Raindrops”, which rides organ-styled keyboards and walking bass through a pretty rapid and upbeat tune, somewhat unexpected after the relaxation of the midsection of side two, especially at the end of the album. It’s a bit slight and peculiar in this place, especially at its call out of Miami (!) that is followed by a smoothed out organ solo. It fits in its way of course–it’s an original song companion to the cover of “Ruby Baby”, recalling the kind of pop tracks that Fagen would’ve enjoyed in his childhood, rather than the actual cover of or reference to them.

The Nightfly‘s rather odd legacy is that of an album that has been used over the years as a test of sound systems thanks to its ultra-clear, clean production and playing. Certainly, this adds a lot of credence to the declaration that Fagen’s music is somewhat sterile, as achieving the status of ideal “index” recording to test a system–a demonstration disc, even.

While a laudable achievement, there’s something else to be said, in that all the subjective assessments of things like emotional content or flavour are difficult to render so complete and definitive: there’s unquestionably emotional content here, it’s just displayed less in the spontaneous burst of unrehearsed or knowingly loose playing, and more in the choice of tones, playstyles, genres, sounds, and all of the other detailed components used to construct it. Maybe it is a more “mechanical” assembly, but that doesn’t preclude creativity or emotion–it simply leaves it with pre-defined places to be assigned and then experienced. Any of that would be theoretical, were it not for this album, which most definitely confirms any of those thoughts has its place in reality: the album’s feel and sound are very engaging on even an emotional level, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the way Fagen puts music together.

¹This is a companion to Bill Hicks’ dismissal of a Judas Priest fan as a “future gas station attendant”–in context, it’s necessary for the joke (which is part of a much larger bit), but is vaguely dumbfounding in the context of a man who was also responsible for saying, “Let’s say that rock and roll is the devil’s music…at least he fuckin’ jams.” Someone who appreciates things that “rock” casually dismissing Priest seems to be drawing pretty arbitrary lines to me. Not that appreciation is necessitated, but–ah, well.