Day Forty-Seven: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

Warner Bros. Records ■ BSK 3673

Released April 28, 1982

Produced by Richard Gottehrer and Marshall Crenshaw
Engineered by Thom Panunzio, Jim Ball [Assisting]
Mastered by Greg Calbi

Side One: Side Two:
  1. There She Goes Again
  2. Someday, Someway
  3. Girls . . .
  4. I’ll Do Anything
  5. Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.
  6. The Usual Thing
  1. She Can’t Dance
  2. Cynical Girl
  3. Mary Anne
  4. Soldier of Love
  5. Not for Me
  6. Brand New Lover

Another of my “Black X” titles that indicates a $1US purchase at Musik Hut, I first heard Marshall Crenshaw via the same tapes that introduced me to the video for “Oliver’s Army“, though the song I saw a video for was “Whenever You’re on My Mind”, from Crenshaw’s follow-up to this album, Field Day. I knew the song wasn’t on here, but figured for $1 I’d live, and figured I knew “There She Goes Again” and could justify the purchase with that. It was an unusual choice: the “Whenever” video cropped up a few times in those tapes, and the first few times did nothing for me. At some point though, it suddenly clicked and ran through my mind pretty regularly. So, seeing this at that price (being a non-major classic rock title, it also ensured it was probably in really solid condition, which it is), I figured–why not?

“There She Goes Again” was not, as it happened, the song I was thinking of¹ and this was apparent as soon as I heard it for the first time. Marshall’s brother Robert lays down a steady rock beat and Chris Donato puts in a somewhat dryly produced thickly-picked bassline, while Marshall himself drops a clean, light melody on guitar. His tone is bright and clear, the sound largely simple, but the actual playing a bit more complicated than it suggests. It’s reminiscent of the sounds that would soon permeate independent rock, in the power-pop sectors: ringing and melodic, finger-picked and gaining its impact from the energy used to play. The song as a whole is reminiscent of early rock like Buddy Holly (Crenshaw’s voice carries some similar phrasings, in fact), and feels lean and mean, the simple trio set-up very apparent, but the production keeping even that stripped of frills. Crenshaw’s vocals have a head-shake to them as he sings, “How I lost her/I’m not sure I know but/It makes no difference now I try/I get that feeling when she drives on by/And there she goes again with another guy.” His brother and Donato throw their voices in to strengthen the beginning of many of the lines in harmony, as well as the chorus, which sweetens Marshall’s lead, which is less openly sad than it is self-defeated.

Having never heard it before I bought this record, I never would have guessed that “Someday, Someway” was Crenshaw’s biggest single, but apparently it was. It’s not that the song seems like a surprising single, or a surprising hit, just that it failed to permeate with any apparent longevity. A catchy riff, some handclaps, “ooh”s from the boys in back, and a chorus that insinuates itself readily. The “Ah oh ahaw” that fits into the chorus is even more reminiscent of the vocalizations of Buddy Holly, but Marshall’s vocals are more sweet and spry in the whole track than they were on the previous one. On a few verses, he actually has an echo on his voice, which gives it the charm of a simple production trick at analysis but just a little more kick as a pop song.

“Girls . . .” has an introduction that is brighter than the title’s repetition as a hook, with harmonized “Ahh-ahh, yeah” vocals and all kick drums. Donato enters with a strong, short slide of a note, and brings with him the extra percussion of guest Michael Osborn, who mans conga drums in the back, allowing Robert to trade to the snare. When the title comes in, repeated in a fashion that’s far from Mötley Crüe’s later refrain of the same–less a frothing look at a sexual smorgasbord from which one expects to acquire at least the number of girls mentioned, than a sense of concentrated overwhelming experience. Donato’s bass is strong and deeper than previously, and Robert’s drums are more forceful. The tone is darker in a way that doesn’t imply a negative emotion, so much as an intensity of thought. There’s a lovely play with harmonies toward the end, overlapping each of their voices singing “Wild”, answered only by backing vocals with “Yeah-eah”, and a brief and subtle solo that doesn’t make much of a big deal about itself.

Donato’s bass is the order of the day with “I’ll Do Anything”, the sound less dry, more funky and further up in the mix, given its chance to define most of the melody, with ringing guitars (again, think power pop) largely functioning more as a chiming rhythm to the bass’s melody. There’s a kind of pull to the music that’s accentuated by Marshall’s vocals, which he modulates through most of the song, holding few pitches for any length of time. He burns out a lead and solo halfway through that are capped by the dug in vocals that are my call for the song’s real hook: “I’ve gotta send a message/Gotta send it to your heart from mine”. Probably the most unique song in the whole of the album as the instruments and his voice all seem to be played, arranged, and mixed with a very different emphasis.

“Rockin Around in N.Y.C.” has a nervous tension to it, the guitar tightly coiled and half deadened by it, Robert’s beat pounding a boundary around the building energy, Donato’s bass appearing only intermittently, until he’s let loose and the song’s energy is released by the chorus: “So round and round and round we go/Through seventeen lines in a row/Take a hold of my hand and come with me/We’ll go rockin’ around in N.Y.C.”, which ends abruptly after that last letter, allowing the following verse to coil tension back into the song. A loose, sliding set of riffs carries the song into a fade-out and let’s the tension become more of a quiet danceability.

Carrying in distinct rockabilly strains, “The Usual Thing” Tony Garnier on “slappin’ bass” for a easy-paced track of handclips and the country-inflected guitars that indicate that rockabilly influence. Of course, like much of Crenshaw’s work, it hints a bit at other early rock styles, with the faintest echos of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” hiding within its grooves. A double-tracked vocal reminds of that same era of music, though the song twists and turns into more contemporary movements quite regularly, though it’s not above the beat of vocals that builds anticipation for the instruments that follow. Crenshaw picks out a steady, non-showy solo into the end of the song, which ends in the familiar fashion of repeating the final line, even finally stopping with the three-chord-beat punctuation that seems to show up most often in oldies cover bands to announce the end of a song.

A distinctly surf guitar intro gives “She Can’t Dance” a different feel at the outset, but the verse opens into the ringing guitar that he uses throughout the majority of the album. The chorus is sung by the group as a whole, though, and gives a more easy pop feel to the whole thing. The bridge adds a whole lot more hook to the vocal, and then a solo that burns it up in classic fashion. It’s also one of the two songs on the album Crenshaw isn’t credited as writing alone, having been joined by Rick Cioffi and Fred Tood in the process.

“Cynical Girl” might easily be the best track on the album. A jangle-y riff that acts as backdrop to the song has the interesting addition of bells to establish melody before Marshall starts singing, which is where the melody is most clearly established. His voice treats his guitar as an outline to work withing the boundaries of, and it it actually has an interesting approach to the idea of love, as a kind of naïve and optimistic romanticism is married to the idea of looking for love in mutual cynicism–though it is cynicism about “the real world” and the rest of it. No doubt Marshall was aware of the contradiction, but the way he sings it betrays nothing of this contradiction.

The distinct and emphatic fingerwork and cheerful tambourine of “Mary Anne” hearken back more to bands from the ’60s in a way (perhaps the Hollies and “Carrie Anne” though it doesn’t actually resemble that particular song too much). It’s a bit  Byrdsian, but it turns in another direction when Marshall begins singing the verse, which is actually the right kind of serious for the Mary Anne he is singing to, who is “As down as [she] can be”, though he’s encouraging her to “Go on and have a laugh/Go have a laugh on me”. There’s some lovely harmonizing on the chorus, though, with the rest of the group singing the light variations on the lyrics that indicate many harmonized parts in songs. It leaves the song with the feeling that most of the lyrics were actually Mary Anne’s name, which is entirely appropriate, as it is the puzzling out of how to cheer her up.

While it doesn’t stray too far from the album’s sound, “Soldier of Love” is interesting and a bit unusual–it seems to draw influence from girl groups and the other R&B/soul sounds of the 1960s, though perhaps as it was filtered through the semi-contemporaneous rock groups of the same era. There’s a walk to the bass, a series of eighth notes that lead to quarter notes, thus lending them more weight and giving the song a certain swing. Guitar chords are used more in service of that bassline–none of this is terribly surprising, as the song was originally a soul single for Arthur Alexander (written by Buzz Cason and Tony Moon), and was covered by the Beatles in a BBC studio session (it strongly resembles a lot of their earlier cover material, like “Anna (Go to Him)”–which Alexander himself wrote–or “Baby It’s You”, a hit for the Shirelles, too). The boys in back get to even put in some “Sha la la”s, but it’s the big halt, defined by a snare hit, before the chorus that really makes the song go.

Robert lays down a steady 4/4 on the snare in “Not for Me”, which gives it a propulsive feeling like a lot of work from the groups that would record the songs that “Soldier of Love” was drawn from, though it resembles more of the Spector-y wall of sound-style drums, and Crenshaw’s vocal line (and his very voice) sound like something more appropriate for the year the album is released. “I know definitely/That it’s just not for me”, he sings, and the way his voice rises and suddenly dips is interesting and appealing, but odd. 

“Brand New Lover” is probably the most “modern” of the songs on Marshall Crenshaw, though it’s built from the same essential parts that create the nostalgic hints in all of it. The active bass of Donato and the circled strums of guitar jangling in a style that crosses R.E.M.’s with rockabilly. It’s upbeat and dance-y, but it also includes the kind of “a little bit louder now” repetition of “right now” in the middle to keep its influences present in mind.

I sometimes find it difficult to write about the music I know least well, or have enjoyed only briefly and occasionally, and Crenshaw’s stuff in particular gives me some trouble because of the nature of it. It’s pop without question: well-written, well-played, and even rather unique, actually, but its uniqueness is somewhat indefinable, as it isn’t so much about the melding of elder influences, nor about their limited role, nor even about the fact of those two exceptions. It’s a voice that hasn’t been heavily replicated, nor that is a replication itself, that has skill and craft in spades, but all honed to the fine point of clear hooks and simple construction. I can’t explain accurately, then, the appeal of his music, except that it does what pop should: it connects.

  • Next Up: The Cult – Love

¹In fact, I was thinking of the song by–no, not the Velvet Underground–the La’s, which was covered by the Boo Radleys and Sixpence None the Richer and seemed to hover around everywhere in a small respect throughout the 1990s. Oops?


Day Forty-Three: Communist Daughter – Soundtrack to the End

Grain Belt Records ■ GBR013

Released June 7, 2011

Mixed by Brad Kern
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Oceans
  2. Soundtrack to the End
  3. Not the Kid
  4. Speed of Sound
  5. Northern Lights
  1. Fortunate Son
  2. Coal Miner
  3. In the Park
  4. Tumbleweed
  5. The Lady Is an Arsonist
  6. Minnesota Girls

Since I moved a few months ago, there has been a serious decline in my concert attendance. Of course, that’s the inevitable difference between living twenty minutes from a venue where you can see independent artists to your heart’s content, eventually catching a small French band that was told repeatedly that they would have a great time playing there–and a place where an hour’s drive would risk reckless driving-level speeding tickets to manage for any kind of established show. As a result, I’ve been to two shows since moving, one at the suggestion of my father (to see Tom Russell in a tiny bar), and one of my own accord, intended to put my foot down on seeing an artist I’d let slip by a number of times. The latter was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, touring on the back of a live album that will work its way in here eventually.

But we’re in alphabetical order here, and “I” is a ways off. “C”, however, is right where I sit, and Communist Daughter starts with that very letter. As you might have guessed, they opened for Mr. Isbell that night, and made a very solid impression on me. I wandered over to their merch table a number of times over the course of the night, pondering how it was that I would acquire the items I was curious about from Jason’s as well as theirs, and how I would deal with carrying it all as the night went on. I found myself thoroughly enamoured of a number of their t-shirt designs, especially the generic female silhouette with its head replaced by hammer and sickle (especially in yellow on a pink t-shirt) and the “I [Hammer and Sickle] MPLS” ones. I’d not come in intending to spend a lot of money–I always keep in mind that any show will encourage it, either via tour-only music, interesting shirt designs, or something wildly unexpected, and usually plan to have some money set aside for opening acts, but I walked out of there with three shirts, a record, three posters and two CDs. To be fair, they were down to the last shirt sizes, and worked with me there and on posters.

When I mentioned the MPLS design, and that it was funny I was actually at the show in my Doomtree hoodie (their homebase is in Minneapolis, too), vocalist Molly Moore lit up and mentioned that songwriter/vocalist/guitarist for the band Johnny Solomon actually knows them, and he and I had a brief chat about P.O.S.’s recent kidney issues (he’s getting one replaced out of dire need). The two of them, and the rest of the band as they sidled up after the show (I was wandering around that table throughout the night) were extremely warm and friendly, incredibly appreciative and humble. I turned around after leaving and mentioned it was a smart idea to put a band member at the merch table, even if it was mostly for reasons of financial efficiency. Their music had enough of an effect to get me over there, and the fully human nature of the lot of them made me want to show as much support as I could manage–if I were to shake my fist at my unexpected spending, it would be with a broad wink, to say the least.

As is often the case with opening acts, I hadn’t heard a note of their music. Sometimes I do go out “scouting ahead” to be prepared and have a clean studio sound to wrap a live experience in (varying sound levels at live shows can have unfair effects on how a band sounds in that environment), but it was a show I’d left up to the last minute to finally go to, even as I was determined to see Isbell at some point.

While there’s a distant, low sound of picked strings before “Oceans” starts properly, it’s the steady muted guitar, the handclaps, and the tambourine that establish their sound immediately, the stride of it seeming to turn at the speed of a 33 1/3 12″ (which is, of course, exactly what I was just listening to it on), which is a favourite feel of mine. As an opening, it places us right into their sound, less like a fade in, but achieving a similar effect: it’s spare and light, loose in feel, but clean and tightly played; it’s not a cold open, yet it strikes the balance of an effective one kept quiet enough to maintain the ease of a fade in. Johnny and Molly come in harmonized, with keys and more guitars that act to fill the gaps left in the opening. “Or maybe now we’ve lost it all this time…” they sing, and splash cymbal adds a full drumbeat, and the song finds its full voice. Gone are the handclaps, the guitars now fully-voiced and supported at the bottom by bass, and a hazy guitar lead hides behind it all. The song is now right in front of us aurally, emotionally, and with the full weight of conviction behind it, even if there’s some doubt lingering in the words.

The title track follows it, and at first it’s a downbeat, bass-laden, muted guitar chug that reminds of the sort of things that define my less determinate youth’s radio listening (rendering me incapable of greater specificity, unfortunately), that is spiked by the addition of a much warmer set of notes from an organ. Johnny sings this one low, softened, so when Moore’s voice joins his, it’s an unfiltered beam of light along the top of his voice. As he describes a past that fell into a listless and inescapable state, seeming to ruminate quietly, she is like a subtle force moving from behind to suggest that action is still possible. Yet, they reach a bridge and their voices remain harmonized but fall out of step with each other–which, might I add, is a beautiful sound at this moment–but reunite as Johnny finishes the thought: “It’s not right to carry on/It might be over but she isn’t gone/And you never listened anyway”. It’s a kind of shrug; there’s not explicit anger at the situation, nor even self-pitying resignation, just acceptance of a strangely bright and nonchalant kind.

There are hints of the Kinks in their late 60’s heyday in “Not the Kid”, with an opening rollicking bass expanded on by the rhythmic circling of an acoustic guitar. Johnny breathes heavily for effect, singing in a voice that’s almost a morose Ray Davies, until “and spin around in circles” unexpectedly dips downward and the song is suddenly outside any sense of clear inspiration and finds its own melodic progressions. The chorus is the work of his voice kept at its restrained low end, yet moves an admirable space within the clear intention to keep things from going too far from the soft curves it inhabits. Hints of other artists from the 60s float in–especially with an echo-heavy tambourine–but are again subverted when the guitars shift into a more modern melodic approach, shakers added, but the bass and guitar most prominent and sitting in a range that would feel unusual in that time. When the guitars go electric and bells ring out in the background, all sense of the past is lost–and it makes sense. The verses are about the past, and the chorus is about that past being distant and different from the present: “I’m not the kid you/I’m not the kid you remember”.

Having been used in places people may actually have heard it without trying, “Speed of Sound” is reminiscent more of a variety of contemporary artists, though feeling more like unintended synchronicity than direct inspiration. Ethereal and beautifully harmonized vocalizations from Moore and Solomon drift gently over the  nearly-insubstantial acoustic’s rhythm, the bass subtly modifying the underlying melody as your ear is drawn instead to their voices. When Solomon starts the verse with the words, “Man I hate this town…” you would expect the words to ring out with some anger or bitterness, some sense of the hatred, but instead they come with a sort of tiredness, as if the fire of the hatred has been snuffed out by the weight of time, instead become tired and too expected to snap or flare with passion. “So I’m looking for the way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe not the life I should have found”, he continues and you hear now that maybe it’s so tired because there’s no fight, no search left, because no exit has been found, and none seems likely to appear. And then there’s the inevitable contradiction of the chorus, high, ghostly and passionate: “All those nights wasted on the speed of sound/I still think that I just might come around for one more…” And after it, Solomon’s voice sharpens its edge, and more is added to the thought of this inescapable life: “I’m afraid I’ll stay/It’s not because of all the things that you would say/It’s ’cause every time I fall in love is another time I watch you walk away”, and so his voice is drained again, having admitted part of the cause. The chorus, which is almost a chorus in the other sense–the voices of other entities, besides our “protagonist”, then returns and carries the song off into the ether on the waves of the first vocals we heard, the harmonized “Oohs” of Molly and Johnny.

“Northern Lights” seems to be a gentle piece, wavering hums that seem to be growing into something else, but are suddenly cut into by the full volume of heavily strummed guitars, a driving drum beat, and the lead of a bass that almost hides the guitar following it. It’s the sound of recollections as someone speeds away from the past, probably futilely–maybe physically escaping the locations of the past as described, maybe just trying to accelerate life itself past it all. The chorus is a ray of hope in this: “The northern lights through the windshield”, Moore’s voice appearing only here, both of them rising and full of hope, or at least possibility: “How I wish you could come too/For a better life, maybe another life or two”. But each verse makes itself clear, as it starts with “Down about as far as I can go…” Despite that, it’s overriding feeling is that chorus’s sense of possible futures that may not reflect that past, even if the instrumental passage that follows the chorus seems to take things back down a bit. But it’s followed by a full-fledged display of the chorus: Solomon sings with the backing flavours of Moore’s voice over the acoustic guitar alone, a lovely drum fill bringing the rest of the band back, the emphasis now established by that break.  When it all ends at a splash and leaves us with nothing but those initial humming waves, it’s a framing of the past, maybe rendering it exactly that, or maybe solidifying it.

While the title suggests Creedence, the sound is more reminiscent of the Kinks again with “Fortunate Son”: pounding drums, and Solomon’s voice suggesting Ray’s at songs like “Johnny Thunders”, rising and cracking into a less rounded, more uncontrolled crescendo. A huge slash of distorted guitar carrying a wonderfully full-throated organ line drops this association away again, and Molly’s voice furthers the distance, and it’s almost completely lost by that next slash and its drummed echo. When Johnny and Molly are left singing to the organ and bass alone, the song has become entirely its own, in perfect time for the chorus: they are left to their own devices for it, acoustic rapidly strumming behind only their voices. Interestingly, there are hints that this is not too far off in thought from the Creedence, but completely reframed, not as sneering indictment of the “fortunate sons”, but told from the view of a son who is fortunate for escaping the same call in another time, not by social placement but simply by not being the one who chose it. Guilt and a certain shame plague this, but tempered slightly by the thought that there is more to gain by others–family who still have him–despite this. It’s by far the most uptempo, biggest song on the album, and it makes heavy use of an organ, which always makes me happy when done properly (as here). We even get a few more quiet handclaps that emphasize, in a more new wave fashion, the uptempo and upbeat music contrasted with lyrics that can manage only a mild final balance of positivity.

Following in an altogether different sense, “Coal Miner” might be the most somber, quiet, and downbeat of songs. The first lines make clear that this will not be a rollicking joy as the last track–“Another day in the hole/I feel my lungs fill up with coal”. It’s the sound of a man lost in a coal mine collapse, who is trying to stay awake and alive, to hope to be found, though he seems unsure that he will be. He explains that he’s here to feed his family, that this is his home, and that the life’s blood of this home is this mine. He wants it to be understood, “Know that I did all I could/To save the others like Christians should”, but follows it with the notion that maybe this is the end anyway: “So maybe it’s just my time/Walk tall hold your head up high”, and a wash of distortion follows it, to return the internal mantra of the chorus: “All I need is to wake up…”, fading off with the thought that the repetitions of it may be failing in their aim as the song fades. There’s the clever but not hamfisted or clumsy thought of adding just the right kind of echo to the track to sound as if it is coming from the cavernous rock walls of a mine that perhaps has only had its entrance closed, rather than the entirety filled. Or maybe it’s the echo of solitude: thoughts sent out to others that actually just bounce off that rock and back to our fallen miner. Sad, but, beyond the mantra, his last words are telling those behind him to hold their heads up high–if this is it, then so it is.

Johnny’s voice alone with easy finger-picked guitar opens “In the Park”, the two instruments unified in melody and rhythm, calm, but stretching out with a kind of subdued nostalgic glaze. Only bass and Moore’s voice join him on the chorus, his guitar moving to chords from its prior plucked rhythms. It’s one of the most beautiful and aching choruses: “Nothing has gone wrong/It’s just gone on way too long/You and I are bound to make a better way”. The pull of two fingers on two acoustic strings is beautifully sad but tinged with the momentary echoes of happiness as it comes in alone after that chorus, keyboards adding the lightest notes of firm comfort to this. Like the verses of “Speed of Sound” this song benefits strongly from the limited instrumentation it employs for much of it, and makes the slide guitar’s sudden lead and the rising pound of drums and splash cymbal that much more heart-pounding in its hope. But the final notes are Johnny and Molly with that guitar’s plucked strings again, and they stop with an abruptness that’s only accentuated by the  amplifier hum that follows it.

A song that stood out at the show because it is somewhat unusual, “Tumbleweed” follows next and appears in many respects to be quite “normal”, the sound of a guitar played with barre chords way up the neck (giving it a ukelele sound, but broader and deeper), a shaker and Johnny and Molly in one of their best harmonies. A fantastic keyboard line, warping and phasing along a more normal organesque sound adds just the right alien tinge to the song to keep the weight of the lyrics from bearing too far down. The chorus seems like it shouldn’t work, like it should feel like a ridiculous choice to sing “Tumble, tumble, tumble, tumbleweed”, but it manages to work perfectly because it’s followed so appropriately by “Drift on the highway”, a few muted strums of the guitar, “and move on”, sung with a downed finality. The drums make their appearance now, the keyboard carrying the song inexplicably upward with the bright, uke-ified guitar, and managing a sort of nodding understanding of the needs of another: “If you’ve got that feeling/Feelings won’t be found/Go ahead and leave me/Just let me let you down”, and the “Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sorry/Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sad/Woah-oh-oh/You should leave me/Woah-oh-oh/And everything we had”. The slide guitar lead that begins to wail along in the background accelerates the drama of a feeling that is manifestly subdued, peaking and then exploding into an electronic echo. Exiting on the whirling keyboards and the isolated voice of Moore lets the song drift just as its singer hopes the one it is sung to will do. Knowing this very desire from either side, this is a fantastic representation of it, and a tumbleweed is perfectly appropriate, as is the tumbling the repetition implies.

The insistent picking and brush drums that start “The Lady Is an Arsonist” makes for an off-kilter upbeat song. The upstrokes of a smooth-toned electric guitar add to this sense, the patter of those brushes on snare moving the song at a nice clip, Molly and Johnny stopping suddenly for a half-amusing yet pleasantly fitting aside of a repeated line: “Cause I’m a Southern boy with a can of gasoline”. How in the world that could be an answer for anything is beyond me, yet even live and hearing it for the first time, it made perfect sense. The bridge’s call and harmonized response is similarly off-kilter and fitting for someone who would describe himself in this sense, too: “I’ve never been in love (Oh no)/I’ve never been ashamed (Oh no)”, and gives just the right hint of lopsidedness to the track’s varying inclusions of fire as a theme–gasoline, a liar’s “flaming” pants, the titles arsonist implications, and the inevitable result of receiving “all your flame”.

An acoustic recorded with the sound of fingers moving along strings, played at a deliberate pace, followed by the addition of Johnny’s relaxed and tired voice suggests “Minnesota Girls” is going to be the kind of closer that drops the band in favour of the drifting simplicity of a solo performance. But then the chorus swings its way in, and Molly and the bass, “So get down, you Minnesota girls/Get down to the bottom of the world/And I don’t owe you nothin’/No I don’t owe you nothin’ but blue skies”. The drums quietly make their entrance, a plaintive lap steel sound rising in the background. Now joined by single-picked electric as well as the other instruments, Johnny launches into a second verse, one that explains the tone here: “I dig it in Southtown/Where the music was my life/And the bathroom’s the place where I found it/I lost my friends/I turned off all my lights/It’s never quite as fun as it sounded”, hinting at a life that was just that: better as described than experienced. After the second chorus, roiling timpani (!), deep, echoing bass, electric guitar lead, and splash cymbals, all over a buzzing saw of guitar finally ends with a roll on a cymbal and then strings released to amplifier reverberations.

I’ve had a lot of luck over the years with opening acts. Sometimes they end up eclipsing the headliners in my listening, sometimes they float alongside, sometimes they are quite good but end relegated to a backburner unintentionally. This was an extremely worthwhile reminder that Communist Daughter deserves nothing of the kind. This album is incredibly good–professional, catchy, thoughtful, and all in keeping with a distinct, unique kind of tone. There are senses of bands I mentioned, as well as the vague impression of a Nick Drake-like detachment vocally, but none of them ever coalesce into the thought of even lazily obvious inspiration, let alone direct lifting of any kind. It’s just a sort of timeless, or perhaps temporally multiple, music. It’s largely at ease and warm, and feels like sitting in comfort and warmth, but looking out into a window at the snow. It’s pleasant, and looks lovely, and softens the edges of everything, removes responsibilities for many people briefly, but it’s a cold thing, and uncomfortable to be in after a time. It has the joy of memory for the kind of awe and enjoyment of a past where snow meant something good, as it often does to children–even if that isn’t the age of past being recalled. But it has that same distance that memory implies, of a half-smile and distant eyes, a time that’s gone, clearly out of reach but still there to be remembered.

There are a number of people–like my father–who would truly enjoy this band, and plenty more that I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, because this is just a very well constructed set of songs. None of the choices, whether “obvious” like a harmonized married couple (I’m not sure they were married at the time, but they are now), or strange like electronic noises or even handclaps inserted into otherwise acoustic and drifting melodies–they always seem utterly appropriate and right, measured and chosen for their effect on the song, not to create a niche or gimmick. It helps, of course, that the two of them have fantastic voices–though I have to say I had no idea that was the sound that would come out of a rather big looking guy like Johnny–bearded, in worn jacket and “trucker hat”, but so soft and completely of a tone that suggests that kind of detached weariness. It’s not exhaustion, though exhaustion may inspire it, it’s not even completely cynical resignation, though there’s some of that as well. It’s a sort of acceptance of the negative, with a subtle hope for the better.

Really, really special thing this–for all that it sounds like the kind of music that would be absconded with by advertisers and television drama (the latter I’ve read has even occurred), there should be no thought that that’s any more an indication of the music itself than the fact that, for instance, Nick Drake’s songs have been used in this way. It’s representative more of the broad appeal of music played and written well.

  • Next Up: Converge – Axe to Fall
    (Yeah, this one’s a big jump in style)

Day Thirty-Two [Belated]: Kate Bush – Hounds of Love

EMI ■ KAB1/EJ 24 0384 1

Released September 16, 1985
Produced by Kate Bush
Engineered by Del Palmer, Haydn Bendall, Brian Tench, Paul Hardiman, Nigel Walker, James Guthrie, Bill Somerville-Large
Mixed by Brian Tench
(“Hounds of Love” and “Mother Stands for Comfort” mixed by Julian Mendelsohn)

Hounds of Love (Side One): The Ninth Wave (Side Two):
  1. Running up That Hill (A Deal with God)
  2. Hounds of Love
  3. The Big Sky
  4. Mother Stands for Comfort
  5. Cloudbusting
  1. And Dream of Sheep
  2. Under Ice
  3. Waking the Witch
  4. Watching You Without Me
  5. Jig of Life
  6. Hello Earth
  7. The Morning Fog

With an opening note: Most reading this shortly after writing are already aware, but this entry was delayed (checking the posting dates and times will confirm this for anyone else). I apologize for the delay and can only do exactly that, really. I didn’t want to listen to this album or write about it while half asleep, as that would basically define the experience and render the whole point of doing either moot. It could have interesting effects, certainly, on my perception, but I can’t imagine many but the most esoteric (and vaguely pretentious) would actually aim for half-asleep listening to their work. Of course, esoteric isn’t really unfair in this case, but…

Some time ago, on my previous blog, I wrote about unusual voices and managed to bring up Leon Russell and The Blood Brothers, as well as some other artists who will appear on this blog at later stages. I asked for some other voices from others, attempting (ever-futilely) to start a conversation. I didn’t get any comments on that entry, but I did get a response from a friend elsewhere. It happened to coincide with enough other mentions of an artist to get me to shrug and keep an eye out. Part of me wants desperately to mention a completely irrelevant name just to obnoxiously subvert expectations about where this is going, but, no, it was Kate Bush. I was in the middle of my relatively constant visits to Hunky Dory in Durham, NC, and managed to run into a few of her albums there. During that time, I built up a backlog of new vinyl, to some extent, despite intending to use some of it for the blog at the time (successfully doing so a mighty once). I never really got around to the Kate Bush, despite throwing it under the needle a time or two, usually doing it more to push myself into not having unplayed vinyl than actually taking time out to listen.

And of course, that’s kind of the point here. I’m terrible with recommendations, and it’s best for me to find new things of my own accord–or, at least, to find semi-unexpected occurrences of recommendations, which is why some used vinyl at a place that was careful about what they sold made sense. But that doesn’t meant I’ll necessarily do anything further, even when I act on those recommendations somewhat whimsically. But now I haven’t got a choice, which I appreciate in this context. I had to stop, sit, and listen to this album, and really get a feel for it–at least, as much as I could in a single spin.

I’ll admit straight off that I was reading along from the inner sleeve and still didn’t immediately grasp the paired suites the album is divided into. As I listened, I did note a relatively clear difference in the overall sound of each side, but I didn’t put that fact into any conclusions. Additionally, I’m not sure I ever heard even Kate’s singles growing up (or “after” growing up, whenever that is–if I’ve even seen it yet), let alone any albums. Please bear these two things in mind, fans of Kate, and of this album in particular (which managed to eke out a teensy lead and win the poll over The Kick Inside, though I did hear a good reason to choose it–from the same person who suggested Kate in the first place, and who correctly noted that my poll inaccurately titled this album with the definite article “The”, for which I also apologize and will correct when it’s tucked into the previous poll results, but freely admit here for posterity).

While I hadn’t heard any of these song before (barring the half-hearted listens I referred to), I have heard and read enough that “Running up That Hill (A Deal with God)” rang some bells, at least with regard to it being a single. Apparently a very successful one, which I can readily understand. Stuart Elliott bangs out a powerful rhythm to open, but it’s immediately twisted by the introduction of what can only be Bush’s own Fairlight synthesizer, pulling out sounds that remind me of the (somewhat later, to be fair–1992) Thomas Dolby album Astronauts and Heretics–admittedly, a kind of meaningless reference, but I’m not sure how exactly to describe the sound. I’ve always found an appeal in it myself, as a sort of clearly electronic noise that seems more like a sort of low-pitched, warped, singing saw or something–the sounds are kind of like a knob being turned rapidly up and back down. Honestly, I’m pretty sure you have to hear it to understand. Kate’s voice has been known for its peculiar timbre, but is more clear than quirky here. She is her own backing vocalist, with sounds that are almost like vocal samples played from a synthesizer (and indeed might be). She does do something interesting with her voice–it sounds almost like she’s using it the way she’s playing that warping synth line: sometimes it seems to push on a single word as if she’s turning her volume up for just a moment, or sometimes like she’s holding a sustain pedal on it. I suppose it is quirky, in a way, but not an obvious one. The most fascinating thing about the song is that it doesn’t have a distinct instrumental progression–Elliott’s beat is nearly unchanging, and just trots along behind her, seeming as if it’s heading somewhere, but isn’t. It sounds like perhaps it’s a track to play behind an eighties cop show, but her voice is right for it, and completely destroys that chance, as it removes the overtly appealing “camp” somehow.

Opening a song with an obscure line of dialogue from a horror movie wins bonus points for anyone. The title track does just that, referencing Night of the Demon, a Jacques Tourneur flick form ’57 that I’ve yet to see, but was the source of the cover of the only horror movie book I ever saw on my dad’s shelf. If the name Tourneur means anything to you, you’re already a movie buff (or know one)–but this is #11 on Martin Scorsese’s list of scariest movies, though that’s not overly surprising considering his love for Val Lewton productions, of which three famous ones were Tourneur pictures. Considering it’s also from over a quarter century prior to the recording of this album, I’d say that qualifies it as obscure both then and now–so, bonus points awarded. Stuart Elliott returns, joined by Charlie Morgan, using a different but similarly big (there’s some of that ’80s drum sound here–that “huge” sound) beat. The way it’s laid over with synthesizer again gives it a similar feeling when compared to “Running up That Hill”, like it’s excised from the middle of a song that builds up to this beat and then calms again afterward, yet loses both slopes for the rhythm. Kate’s voice is not so strange as I recall it being in my brief listen to “Wuthering Heights” and the rest of The Kick Inside. It’s semi-normal as a whole, but used with an intensity and cadence that is only subtly outside the norm. The decision to turn her backing vocals into semi-“arf”s was also an amusing touch, but is very much a background to the sustained synth’s counterpoint to the rhythm, and the way the two complement her voice, and its proper placement in only the climactic point of a song, turned into an entire one.

I feel like I can’t quite get the point across about how this album sounds: it feels like it should sound like something else, like it should be a subdued and overtly palatable Enya album on some level, yet nothing really sounds like Enya, either. Or like it should be more bombastic like Big Country could be (such as on The Seer, where Kate guested on vocals). It’s some strange mix of those things and more, but sewn together easily into its own kind of odd sound, that manages to not be odd at all, unless you think about it. In “The Big Sky”, Charlie Morgan’s drums and Youth’s bass (apparently that’s Killing Joke’s own Martin Glover!) lay down a heavy weight again, though this time more acoustically accompanied by guitar and piano (though strings that are uncredited and probably synthesized appear). Kate’s voice is huge–appropriately, considering the title, I suppose–and backed by a delightful sort of non-verbal interjection from Kate at various points in her range, even wandering into the meandering vocal lines on her primary vocal track halfway through. When it all comes together around this time, it feels like the kind of unification that is the fade out of any other track that sounds anything like this, but only gets bigger and keeps going, Bush going here and there and everywhere with “all” of her “voices”.

“Mother Stands for Comfort” is perhaps the oddest song on Side One, starting with a halting drum beat (oddly reminiscent of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” opener), which has crashing, breaking glass dropped over it, Kate’s voice coming in on the low end with Eberhard Weber’s bass sliding and bending gently below it, but occasionally pulling into an aching high for a bass. The crashing sounds are chopped and used as rhythmic punctuation, with theremin-esque keys wobbling around behind her chorus (of sorts). Clear, acoustic piano and keyboard-played voices wander in and out throughout the rest, until it ends on half-chopped notes from the theremin-style synthesizer sounds. Delightful stuff, and very weird, in a good way.

Side One (and Hounds of Love) ends with “Cloudbusting”, which I also recognize as a single (as it happens 4/5 of Side One are singles–all but “Mother Stands for Comfort”). Beautiful strings from the Medici Sextet open the song with distinctly drawn bows, each muted enough to keep the notes quite separated, with just Kate’s voice. A momentary intrusion from a higher, twangier string instrument notes the song is not going to suddenly be a “normal” one. A full four-on-the-floor kick starts to back each draw of the strings, before the song nudges into a more forward-moving sort of feeling, the drums filled by quiet but insistent fills between the kicks, the strings no longer drawing lines between notes to keep the pace uninterrupted. It’s the story of a psychologist I’m not at all familiar with–Wilhelm Reich, as told by his son Peter, and his arrest for perceived subversive activities (later determined to be a mistake). It charges forward on the bass and those strings for seven minutes, accented by the beautiful and determined chorus that makes that delightful move of heavy syllable cramming: “Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen/And I don’t know when/But just saying it could even make it happen…”

The Ninth Wave is a suite of sorts, generally taken to describe a drowning woman–some theorize it’s about various methods of death, someone else suggested maybe it’s the thoughts going through her head as it occurs, so on and so forth. It is quite strongly interconnected, in any case. “And Dream of Sheep” establishes that essential point: “If they find me racing white horses/They’ll not mistake me for a buoy”. It’s Kate singing to her own piano largely, though there are occasional dramatic flashes of rhythm, samples of gulls calling and the voice of announcements of shipping information. At the end, there is a gentle bouzouki melody from Donal Lunny and airy, spreading whistles from John Sheahan.
“Under Ice” has a rapidly speeding undertone of synthesized cellos and violins. Kate’s voice is largely at its lowest register in the album, harmonized with her brother Paddy. The lines of the lyrics are shorter, heavily punctuated as sung, and feel like the song’s description: the flashes of momentary thought as she falls into the water, thinking that the ice is cracking. The most lengthy and impassioned moments are like calling out for help and finding no one to hear it, as Kate sings “It’s me”, realizing the thing under the water is herself.
“Waking the Witch” is populated at first only by the varied voices of others, calling for her to wake up. Warm, slightly echoing–as though submerged, like in a film where you watch someone sink serenely–piano backs mostly kind voices. A slightly muffled set of voices interrupts: “We are of the going water and the gone/We are of water in the holy land of water”, and then a chopped voice–like a desperate call through water–comes from Kate’s voice, calling for help. Guitars, synthesizers, drums and clanging bells enter with a sense of urgency as a demonic, electronically modified verse trades off with a small chorus of Kates, until her water-chopped voice returns, asking again for help, somewhat more clearly. “Get out of the waves/Get out of the water!” a voice calls from a helicopter (borrowed from Pink Floyd, apparently!) and we hear, now, “Watching You Without Me”, which seems to be the drowning woman out of her body and watching a loved one. The Fairlight seems to emulate the sound of whistles and airy organs in the musical vicinity of calliopes, a thumping beat and a double bass (played by Danny Thompson) help to give the feeling of a kind of dried out relaxation, but a sort of supernatural oddity. Vocals sung “backwards” to play out as distorted attempts to communicate with the living have less urgency than the calls for help from the water, and don’t seem to connect to the “you” that is without her.
“Jig of Life” is uptempo, fiddles and urgency, the imagined voice of the aged drowning woman calling out to the woman to live, to come to see her in the mirror one day. Most of it is low and insistent, not overly passionate, until the chorus, where the woman’s future cries out for her to not let go, to live and go on to see the old woman in the mirror. It eventually moves to what is essentially its own fully instrumental jig, joviality tempered by determination, as if the jig will pull the woman out of it and keep her alive. John Carder Bush narrates the voice of another attempting to draw the drowning woman out.
With a sad, isolated piano and her voice “Hello Earth” has Kate somewhat bemusedly watching trailing objects in the sky, watching the world disappear, thinking that perhaps it’s okay that she can’t be saved. Full backing moves in slowly, wondering briefly if maybe there’s still a light at the end of it all–though that takes a bit of German. Worked in is a chorale (The Richard Hickox Singers) singing “Tsintskaro”, a Georgian folk song, in a quiet, muted set of voices with a downward bent emotionally, though with the barest hint of hope.
The Ninth Wave closes on “The Morning Fog”, suddenly bright and cheerful, but light to start, mostly light guitar (John Williams!) and then drums and synth and bass as Kate sings with the sound of returning to life and breath, answering with a very pretty backing of “Dom dom dee-a-dom doo”. She realizes her love for the people in her life, her joy at finding her breath not overly energetic, just as you would expect from someone only finding they can breathe again, but the music emulating the increasing joy and racing heartbeat of emotion at this realization of joy and love.

It’s a lot easier to process this album as its two halves, to be completely fair. The way The Ninth Wave works itself out is very much a closed system. It has nothing of the sound of Hounds of Love in it, and could, in fact, easily be its own album, albeit a rather short one at about 26 minutes. The sound of Hounds is more distinctly her own–not in the sense that I could tell you what her “sound” is, but it’s unique in and of itself, in the grander scheme of things. As much as there are hints of things I am familiar with, none carry even the feeling direct descent or ancestry musically. It was one of those moments where sitting down and paying attention let something really unfold in front of me, catching my ear with its curiosities and peculiarities without those elements needing to reach out and slap me in the face to get my attention.

It’s interesting, too, because none of this has the air of pretension about it. It feels like the work of someone who wrote five songs, and then wrote one long one, or a set of seven small ones that all worked into each other, and decided they fit that way, so that’s how they would all appear on an album. There’s no sense of “Ah, my cleverly constructed…” There are two rather large plays on words that end two songs in a row–in “Mother Stands for Comfort” and “Cloudbusting”, but neither feels like an entire setup intended for that end, nor forced even in its place. They are both subtle, and best illustrated by the printed lyrics, as their alternate readings are the most contextually relevant as you hear them. That they are even the same essential idea is only more clever, most clever because they seem natural. The lyrics are not always apparent or clear, but always feel right. They aren’t consistent in meter, rhyme or much of anything else, yet they fit into the correct nooks and crannies of the songs. The way she sings is, as I said at the beginning, not so intensely quirky as I have heard, but uses her voice to sounds less like the way we expect a voice to be used, and more like the way one might, in particular, play a keyboard instrument. The emphases and held notes resemble, in a subtle way, the kind of distinct shifts that are possible with keys in particular, and the kind of lengthy sustain that pianos (and, more artificially, synthesizers) can hold. That these are the instruments she herself plays on the album feels like it’s no coincidence.

I’m going to need to listen to this album more, and, given enough time, give the others some time, too. It’s somewhat dated–in the only sense I’d use that in: it places it in its time of origin. I rarely feel that “dating” is a negative, or a complete counterpoint to “timeless”, though a certain measure of “timelessness” can appeal as well. Yet, it doesn’t feel utterly mired in and inextricable from a time frame I could specify. The Ninth Wave is obviously taken best as what it is: a singular work, rather than isolated pieces. While the grooves indicate it has separations, the actual auditory flow doesn’t make much of a deal out of those pauses, fitting them into the movement of the entire side of the album.

  • Next Up: The Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

Day Twenty-Two: Big Star – Radio City

Ardent Records ■ ADS-1501

Released January, 1974
Produced by John Fry and Big Star
Engineered by John Fry

Side One: Side Two:
  1. O My Soul
  2. Life Is White
  3. Way Out West
  4. What’s Going Ahn
  5. You Get What You Deserve
  1. Mod Lang
  2. Back of a Car
  3. Daisy Glaze
  4. She’s a Mover
  5. September Gurls
  6. Morpha Too
  7. I’m in Love with a Girl

I was left in a vague lurch on this one: I got seven people to vote on which Big Star album I should talk about, and 3 picked #1 Record, 3 picked Radio City, and one lone voice (which I very well might be able to guess) picked 3rd. In the end, my friend Brian suggested I consult my friend George¹, and so the dilemma was resolved. Honestly, it indicated to me basically exactly what I’d suspect. I don’t know, naturally, what motivated any votes (not even a single one, this time)–whether it was familiarity or gut reactions to titles or research or what. Still, it tends to be a very thin line between #1 Record and Radio City if you ask anyone who knows, and then a decent minority that prefers the frustrated, misanthropic nihilism of 3rd (aka Sister Lovers, but the version issued and reissued on vinyl bears the title 3rd). I was stuck myself–I have personal attachments to either, songs I love on both, a very mild preference and contrasts in stories of acquisition (one’s interesting, one isn’t). I couldn’t complain about ending up with any of them (though I’d stumble a bit more with 3rd, if I’m honest). If one marked out a ratio of amount of recordings versus listneing time, Big Star would likely be at some absurd height in my listening record. The only known set of statistics comes from my listening habits. You’ll note Big Star comes in quite soon, and behind artists that released at least twice as many albums.

All of my Big Star records are reissues, and only one was purchased used (and not by me–as a gift for me). I picked up Radio City as probably the most recent, making a trip out to purchase it deliberately when a then-local record store (Bull City Records) listed the reissue as newly in stock. I will often list Radio City as my favourite Big Star record by far, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. #1 Record has some sentimental elements in its favour (it was the gift, for instance, as well as the first Big Star record I heard), as well as a few songs it’s really difficult to argue with. But it’s Radio City I bought my first (and, to date, only) 33 1/3 book on², and it’s often “O My Soul” that I find myself craving or drawn toward.

“O My Soul” is the album’s opener, and I’ve touched on it before, when I previously wrote about Big Star. It’s a scorcher of an opener, with Andy Hummel setting the stage for the bright, clear guitars of Alex Chilton that can’t seem to decide whether to ring or be immediately muted, bouncing back and forth between the two, Jody Stephens pounding away with the sound of drums heralding an arrival, which is answered by Alex turning to consistenting ringing–but finger picked instead of strummed chords. Alex inserts brief flashes of Mellotron throughout the verses, but particularly on the lead-up to the chorus, three down-up, down-up repetitions that are finally let ring as he slides his pick up the guitar strings and breaks into an exquisite guitar lead that ties things into place for the chorus. It’s the longest track on the album by far, but it doesn’t feel like it–it feels like it should just keep going. That lead is unbelievable, the way it just bends and twists and seems to just pull your heart along in each and every direction, beating just a bit faster because it’s exactly where you want to go.

There’s a much more deliberate pace to “Life Is White”, bass, guitar, and drums all hitting on beat as it starts, before allowing themselves a bit more breathing space–space that Alex’s harmonica takes freely from the start. Of course, on guitar in overdubs, Chilton’s willing to let the guitar find various nooks and crannies, too. The counterpoint of his harmonica to his vocal, though, manages to give it the same feeling as forlorn harmonicas, without actually sounding like them–which is some kind of neat trick. The song pumps itself up for just a moment halfway through, and Alex works in a semi-honky tonk piano. The song is a point of view on relationships not seen often: the lines might hint at actual animosity, but the delivery and the way they go on says something else. They aren’t temptation, they aren’t disgust, they are just statement of rational explanation of a decision: “And I don’t want to see you now/’Cause I know what you like/And I can’t go back to that.”

There’s only one song on the album on which Alex doesn’t receive writing or co-writing credit, and it’s the third track, which is the responsibility of Andy Hummel, though Jody Stephens is tasked with singing it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “India Song”, his song on #1 Record, but it’s more fully developed by far. Like many tracks on the album, the introduction sounds something like a riff or lick from a previous song ending before it seems to “actually” start. Alex’s place as just guitarist (other than backing vocals, anyway) allows for a more fully realized guitar approach. He and Andy spend the earlier portions matching each other with riffing that seems to imply two steps forward and one back, but Chilton drifts off halfway through the verse, and the chords begin to ring and cascade string-to-string instead. Hummel’s chorus is sweet: “And why don’t you come on back/From way out west/And love me/We can work out the rest”. When Andy returns to his previous bassline, Alex doesn’t even return to his previous ringing, single string approach to his own part, instead moving all throughout the chords and tones, up and down and all over, but with hammer-ons and pull-offs that carry that twist to the heart that he does so well. One of the more interesting parts is the final repetition of the chorus, which has the same run-out, only Alex doubles the tempo of his playing briefly and it seems to yank the entire song in the same way, only for them all to drop back to normal speed for a final repetition.

One of the more morose songs on the album (hinting in some ways at the material that would be released as 3rd), “What’s Going Ahn” seems adrift and lost lyrically, bolstered by a meticulous but more spacious, open and seemingly free sound to the instrumentation. The electric/acoustic “duet” at the beginning has the sort of smooth-faced innocence of “India Song”, but is followed by a more oppressive mood emphasized by the deep drop of Andy’s bassline, seemingly miles below the airy guitars, and even Jody’s deliberate drumming. Chilton’s electric part is empowered by hesitant in most parts, other than the portions that slide, but they all inevitably slide downward, emphasizing the feeling of loss the song carries–which only makes the introductory moments that much more appropriate: the shift is like that opening innocence is lost. The way it ends, too, is somewhat less melodious and more like the stutter of braking from high speeds.

At first seemingly cheerful, Andy’s brief thrums on bass hint at the chorus that defines “You Get What You Deserve”. There’s a menace, but the kind that threatens less directly and more insinuating inevitable negative futures. The guitars overlaid are nothing of the kind, and Alex sings in the most comfortable upper portion of his range, even when he hits the chorus, where the tempo picks up, and there’s the feeling that the song is turning its head away and wagging a finger, telling you you’d better be careful where you carry that train of thoughts, words or actions–after all, “You get what you deserve/You ought to find out what it’s worth/And you’ve gotta have a lotta nerve”. At its second repetition, there’s a bass-driven passage, that turns too a castanet-rattled bridge that turns into a blistering solo from Alex that defines the tone of the song as a whole–that awareness that someone’s actions might turn out worse for them than they are considering. One more repetition of that chorus leads right back into that solo, which Alex briefly sings along to without words, bringing home just how high it is going, and with it, tension.

Side Two releases us from that tension entirely, with the easier groove of “Mod Lang”, which is heavily riff-oriented, and allows for some more interesting percussion instruments to appear (cow bells, for instance). Those riffs are powerful and pushy, and the whole song is exemplified by Alex’s call, “All night long/I was howlin’/I was a barkin’ dog”, which has too much character to worry about enunciation and gains, rather than suffering, from that.

“Back of a Car” is the other highlight of this album (for me at least–if you ask most people, it’s “September Gurls”). There’s no introduction, no easing in, it just blasts in: “Sitting in the back of a car” Alex sings as the ringing guitar notes seem to spiral up and drift toward the sky. The words manage to establish and identify the feeling immediately, even if it has no personal experience on the part of a listener to confirm its feasibility. It’s a blaring, space-filling sound, but one that seems constrained–ah, by being in the back of a car! Of course! Jody gets to stand out most on this track, too, his drums rarely able to stick to a single beat, filling constantly, and often with very full rolls and trips across the toms. Alex continues to send guitar up to define and bounce off the unexpectedly high but very “real” ceiling of the space they’re filling. It’s simultaneously a huge and an intimate sound: cold, but familiar and somehow warm for that.

Gone almost completely in the opposite direction is “Daisy Glaze”, which seems to be just Alex and guitar for a moment, both Jody and Andy hiding their rhythms within the much louder guitar sound. When they make themselves known, it’s quietly and gently, matching Alex’s voice. It’s very separated from the immediate, a floating sensation as of being out of one’s body, that Jody is eventually allowed to build up to with increasing tempo and more powerful hits, the melody suddenly whipping itself into a frenzy, Alex turning to a great, tight lead, Jody propelling the song faster than it thought it wanted to go prior to this, and sounding that much greater for it, as this is the sweet spot for “Daisy Glaze”. It ends on this same progression, but closing with a chord progression that sounds like group of guitars looking at each other and striking the chord in unison, but with enough pause between to make that apparent.

A brief flash of studio conversation and a count off announce “She’s a Mover”, which sounds like Big Star in general (if you can distill that) at first, but that quickly gives Andy his moment to shine, as his is the driving force there, but suddenly more emphatic and louder through the chorus, giving it a groovier, funkier feeling than it starts with.

“September Gurls” is a defining song, there’s no doubt about it. It’s called a masterpiece by Bruce Eaton (who wrote the 33 1/3 on the album and played onstage with Alex on numerous occasions). It’s the most heavily layered song, perhaps, in sound if not reality. All three of them bring their A-games, with a song that doesn’t push any of them into the front for too long, all three playing so well throughout, though of course Alex does throw in a solo halfway through, but the kind that’s less about showing off and more about exploring the melody and defining the feel and tone of the song, and it’s followed by one of Jody’s best fills in an album that has a number, and a song that has quite a few by itself. It’s true that this is probably the best vocal chorus on the album, Chilton’s approach to “December boys got it bad” stretching that last word and chopping it into multiple descending syllables.

The last two tracks on the album are, on occasion, considered to have been just tossed on in some respects. While there are demo versions of most tracks on the album, these are the only ones on the album that feature Chilton by himself. “Morpha Too” is Alex (singing along with two more of himself via overdubs) next to a piano that mostly just sticks to strong chords, but occasionally doubles its tempo with simple little dances key-to-key that give us the chorus of the song, as well as the chorus of “Alexes”.

One of the most famous Big Star songs (after “In the Street”, for its placement as theme song for That 70s Show) is “Thirteen” (which also made numerous appearances in that same show). It’s a sweet, acoustic love song. And so is the closer of this album: “I’m in Love with a Girl”. While “Morpha Too” has the studio trick of overdubbed vocals (as well as some cleverness with the way the piano was recorded), “I’m in Love with  a Girl” is a polished solo performance of one voice and an acoustic guitar. It’s very much to the point, but it’s carried by Alex’s fragile, occasionally brittle voice. It’s honest and it’s earnest, and it says something familiar and immediate, simple and obvious, yet not eye-rolling or clichéd in the way it’s done.

It’s frustrating to write these sometimes. I feel the limits of my musical knowledge and my vocabulary, and it becomes that much worse when I love an album like I do this one. It’s generally a given that if I bought a record new and sealed (and you can check the tags on any entry to see which I did, as well as looking at the images of my sleeve art–generally, the new ones have little or no wear, and are likely to still be in shrinkwrap, barring the gatefolds, at least) I deliberately sought out that album or felt it was really worth having personally. There are exceptions here and there where it was an album I stumbled into and felt I “should” own, or just couldn’t resist the idea of, but these are few and far between.

I decided I’d try to describe the music alongside the feelings as best I could this time, because I wanted to try to use words to convey something that “Hey, go listen to this band,” won’t necessarily achieve. If you can appreciate music but are not inclined to seek it out, or, if you are like me and like an anchor to attach new listening experiences to, then that’s what I’m trying to speak to. I can only phrase “This album is amazing” in so many ways, and my notoriously “egalitarian” taste in music doesn’t often convey the peaks very well. But, make no mistakes at all: this is a peak.

If I was given the chance to disseminate the experience of a musical recording to anyone and everyone at the snap of two fingers, I would–well, actually, I would choose one other band, but only because I think of Big Star as so obvious that I feel that I shouldn’t have to push it. I feel like playing these records should click for people who like catchy, tuneful pop (indeed, this album is often considered the pinnacle of “power pop”), or people who like obscure gems (the complete failure of distribution by Stax via independents for #1 Record and then Columbia fort this album is a travesty, but did give this band that obscure allure), or people who like quality playing, or good songwriting, or strong personalities, or pessimism, or romanticism–sure, there are some exceptions. It’s not going to be heavy enough for the metal-exclusive, or twangy enough for the country-exclusive, it has too much craft for the organic chaos of some of the most emotive music and so on, but, for most people, there’s something here.

It’s criminal how lost this band is, and inexplicable to me how it does not catch the ear of anyone who hears it. Certainly, it’s all subjective, but there’s so much good here, that all I can do is throw my hands up if someone finds it passable. What else can I do or say? The music should speak for itself, and I’m only trying to get you to that music.

¹aka Mr. Washington, aka Mr. President, aka “Old Wooden Teeth” (however inaccurate that actually is), aka “The One Without Carver at the End”. George Washington.
A quarter.
I flipped a quarter.

²It’s a series of books about classic/influential/important records, so named for the speed (in RPM) that albums are played at.

Day Twenty: The Beatles – Abbey Road

Capitol Records ■ SO-383

Released September 26, 1969
Produced by George Martin
Recorded by Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald
Assistant Engineering by Alan Parsons

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window¹
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End²
  11. Her Majesty³
 ¹Tracks 3 (“You Never Give Me Your Money”) through 7 (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) are often thought of as a medley
²Somewhat unbeknownst to me, 8 (“Golden Slumbers”) through 10 (“The End”) are also thought of as a medley. It does make sense, though.
³Unlisted on original issue. This pressing does not include it on the outer sleeve, but does list it on the label.
Yesterday, I was tasked–by either the gushing overconvidence in me or sadism practiced upon me by friends and family–with discussing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I’m not sure it turned out all that well, but I felt a bit out of place with it–many people seem to see me as quite knowledgeable musically, but I don’t think that piece of writing bore that out. It tends to make patently obvious my limitations in the music theory sense. The iconic nature of the cover above–along with the overall reputation of the music within it–is not something encouraging insofar as escaping that same trap on this immediately following day. However, it occupies an odd place. The most iconic Beatles album remains Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I would definitely feel about it the way I felt about Pet Sounds: a need to correctly place it in pop history and acknowledge that monolithic and kneejerk placement of it. It’s the sort of thing that’s generally no longer defended–it just is the greatest album of all time, or whatever. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t get addressed in a lengthy way most of the time anymore: it’s mostly the brainwashed kind of “Oh, Sgt. Pepper,” or the “I refuse to be brainwashed” response of “Anything but Sgt. Pepper.” As a result, despite being voted the best Beatles album with some regularity by both aggregated response and individual judgment on many occasions, Abbey Road often appears behind Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, and Rubber Soul in many a list of more general selections (the 1960s, all time, so on). That it is also my own personal favourite Beatles album does me no harm in my comfort.
However, the Beatles have been dissected more widely and thoroughly as a music group (and people) than the Beach Boys ever were, or likely ever will be. The very copy I own of this album has an insert for the Compleat Beatles book, and there’s the career-long Anthology set, the Anthology film set, the Compleat Beatles movie, and whole books that break down any and all recording sessions down to the take. The original liner notes for Past Masters, the non-album singles collections, actually talk about which take and which edits were used for final release, amongst other things. There are a few other bands who experience somewhat similar treatments (obviously, Pet Sounds has had some similar treatment, but much of the rest of the Beach Boys career has not, and the Kinks’ ’60s material has ended up similarly, but the pursuit has languished in the material that was released in the two decades following). The information is widely disseminated, and that the Beatles have a reputation even with those who don’t like them–and not just one for “surf songs”, but for being the best of this, that, or the other for all time.
It doesn’t leave me nervous and wary, but it does leave me to wonder: what information do you include in a self-contained piece on this? Silly trivia that’s old hat to people who look at music trivia, like the fact that this was recorded after Let It Be, despite the fact that Let It Be was released later, or that it was one of the only two Beatles albums officially released only in stereo? All of the nuanced commentary and ultra-specific recording history from Emerick, Martin and the Fab Four themselves? Context, with Yoko Ono and the strain on the band and all the changes and phases and moments that led to this? I’m not inclined to include a lot of that; where it seems appropriate, relevant trivia seems like a reasonable but not necessary thought. Describing the music–as I’m wont to do–seems like a waste of your time (and thus mine), unless it’s to clarify or elaborate on a more abstract or general point.
The album’s opener was part of a double A-side release with the track that follows it (“Something”). It is an extremely recognizable song, one of Lennon’s efforts (though, as always, credited to “Lennon-McCartney”, as was their practice) and in the vein of “Revolution” (the b-side of “Hey Jude”, not “Revolution 1” from The White Album), being rather rough, using distorted guitars and rather spare instrumental backing (though the guitar in “Revolution” is quite loud and constant, it seems to stand out by itself with how it is mixed). While much ado is made about Ringo’s “bad” (or at least banal) drumming, this is one of the tracks that really lets you understand the kind of feel that defined him, as well as letting him branch out into a more unusual beat. 
There are three parts that have always stuck out in the song to me: John’s voice (and he uses the “wilder” one, which emphasizes the connection to “Revolution”, for my ears), Paul’s bass riff, and Ringo’s hissing hi-hat venting of that riff. And that’s really what it feels like: the bass riff moves the song, but its weight needs a bit of a valve to let the rest of the music have some space, and that hiss is that valve–even sounding like one. In talking of Pet Sounds, I mentioned my normal approach of hearing music as a whole cloth, and that is emphatically true with music I’ve heard my entire life, which includes any and all Beatles hits, and many non-hits. The advantage of sitting and listening as this demands means I get to hear things like the wonderful trip across the toms that Ringo takes after that hiss, which is one of my favourite drum sounds in general when used properly. The simple beat he uses under the verses is just that, but the hits are just the right kind to fit the restrained aggression and chilly “cool” of the song. When John sings the last line of the verse and Ringo moves to that heartbeat bass kick, I realize that I really do like his style, however much or little skill it took.
And, of course, Paul’s bass, if you follow it through the song, is actually quite stunning. Driving the song with it in a way that never registered as being all bass to my young ears and just seemed like part of how songs were made–and, in general, it isn’t–is one thing, but the way it rides under the verses, the same riff, smoothed out but still powerful, that is something special.
It’s not much of a secret that, if pressed, I’d have to name George as my favourite Beatle (despite the empathic animated Ringo from Yellow Submarine defining my preference for many years–who of course had only a tenuous link to the real one, though he’s often been called the nicest, most humble and in general the “heart” of the actual Beatles). That means that the general feel of “Something” is one I’ve always found attractive–the fragmented guitar parts that seem to fade in only momentarily in the majority of the song, but that come out so noticeably after the chorus are just brilliantly tasteful. As a lead guitarist he rarely comes off as showy (and it was never his style, even in the years following), and even his solo here is neither the overly technical kind of impressive, nor the more jaw-droppingly soulful kind of solo that comes from the best of the blues: it’s just mood, and the tone and style he relied on–enough that he’s recognizable in his contributed solo on Badfinger’s “Day After Day”. The subtle descent in from Ringo, and the way Paul’s bass trades off and accentuates the song without controlling it–well, rhythm sections were never my strong point in listening, unless I concentrate. I’m realizing what a shame this is as time goes on.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Well, I can’t discuss this–can’t even begin to–without noting that it was the song that apparently broke my friend John on the Beatles. That is, broke him into them. It’s kind of funny, as, name indicating, he’s more of a “John” (as in Lennon) kind of person, taste-wise, and John quite hated the song and thought it was stupid “Granny music”, but John (the one I know myself) liked that the Beatles could be so cheerful about murder. And so they are: it’s not unfair of Lennon to declare this about the song (ever the mediator, Ringo elaborated that it may indeed be “Granny music”, but that this was necessary to help the album be listenable), but the subject matter is a bit odd for a pop musician known for his pop stylings but not known for that kind of ironic tone (at the least, up to this point). The song just bounces along merrily, even the anvil that represents the hammer (played by Ringo on the recorded version, though road manager/assistant Mal Evans can be seen in video playing it on another take) seeming more merry than menacing. The Moog bits, too–I’d never noticed those. Paul plays a short solo after the first chorus on it that wouldn’t be out of place in many a synth-defined album, though he matches it with a piano instead at the second entrance.
“Oh! Darling” is emphatically reminiscent of earlier rock (and preceding genre) music–my thought was more of the music that inspired and was covered by the Beatles themselves, but others have suggested Fats Domino-style R&B, which I think is perfectly reasonable. Still, Paul throws in a “Woo!” that it’s hard not to think of as influenced by Little Richard, of whom they were known to be fans. Paul uses his own “wild” voice, quite deliberately, on the song, and it helps that feeling of rougher, more soulful music that the song inspires. Oddly, Lennon thought Paul sang it poorly–but I’ve always felt his vocal performance was exactly in line with his intention to record “as though [he’d] been performing it on stage all week.”
In terms of songwriting credits, Lennon and McCartney were notoriously dominant in those credits, with Harrison rarely exceeding two credits on an album, though his songs were rarely thought of poorly. Ringo, however, has only two full credits. The first is on The White Album, which should come as no surprise for a sprawling double album that covers absurd amounts of ground. While he actually sang more songs for the Beatles than this (“Yellow Submarine”, “Good Night”, “Boys”, etc), he never got much further with songs he wrote. The second (the one on The White Album is “Don’t Pass Me By”) is actually the next: “Octopus’s Garden”. He wrote the song while away from the others, frustrated with their arguing and general tense mood. It’s very much in keeping with the notions of Ringo as a person and as a songwriter: it’s a bit goofy, as it describes a silly world where he and friends visit an octopus in the garden it builds from found objects, but it’s very warm and cheerful, too. He gives it a nice beat, but a much nicer piano performance on his part. The amusing studio activities of the rest gave it the little “underwater” touches that crop up, like the sound of bubbles, or altered voices.  In some respects, it makes for a nice break from the rest of the album, as Ringo himself apparently did in general: it’s a pleasant sounding song that doesn’t carry the weight of the serious tone in even the other positive songs. It also has some nice guitar from George and John, which never hurts.
I often reference “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a strong indicator of the talent of the Beatles. Fourteen words across nearly eight minutes–and it never gets boring or overly repetitive (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t repeat elements, of course–just that they don’t feel tired). Lennon actually plays the rather tasty lead that follows his own vocal, though George did contribute other guitars, and it only furthers the extremely emotive nature of the track–apparently written to/about Yoko. The desire in Lennon’s voice (and playing) is bare and naked. When the song shifts to the “She’s So Heavy” portion, the guitars are slowed, deliberate and heavy as all hell, the pick seeming to pull at each string with all the energy of desire focused–as much as such a thing can be focused–into each pick of a string, spaced out with the intense restraint needed to keep that focus. And let’s not forget that ending: it’s a shock as John intended, even as it comes out of the wash of the white noise machine, and somehow a brilliant end to Side One, despite its unexpected and sudden nature.
Let’s be honest for a moment: when I decided to name a favourite Beatles album for the first time, it was driven by my love for “Here Comes the Sun”. I’ve already noted my love for George’s songs, his guitar style and sound–though my favourites of his, and indeed favourite Beatles songs were neither singles nor normal album tracks. Still, that defining lick, and the way it seems to sit off in a corner, tiny and quiet but so pretty at the start, and then to seem almost shy in the way he plays it under his vocal, notes almost lost, only to come out clean and clear in the chorus and following it is just…affecting. It’s absolute beauty, and I remember deliberately pulling out the record as one of the few I played on the same turntable and stereo I use now to listen to before a day of high school, lo those many years ago–particularly one morning before school. Harrison even brings the Moog back (which, again, I had not noticed), too, and uses it in a fashion I think one might call a bit more normal–a bit more like an organ or standard electronic keyboard, perhaps, for the most part, though there are some unusual bits here and there. The very subtle orchestral inclusion avoids being overbearing or intrusive, too–which I suppose we can thank Martin for.
“Because” opens with Martin on a harpsichord, playing a melody that always reminds me of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, but quickly becomes much lighter, with the full harmonies the boys use (overdubbed to a full nine “voices”, 3 each from Paul, John and George). Those harmonies are really the focal point of the song: it keeps the whole thing in the air (as does the absence of anything  more than a rather quiet, simple bass from Paul in the rhythm section).
The “Abbey Road Medley” consisting of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” I always forget is a medley myself–and, in truth, that’s something I fear we might lose as we move toward this digital formatting of music. It’s not an issue at all with isolated tracks, or collections of songs meant to be played in an order–but correct transitioning between otherwise delineated tracks is something that can be easily lost or treated poorly, either with non-master crossfades, or with variances in how software chooses to separate tracks. Still, it is a medley, and a listen on vinyl makes that far more abundantly clear. The piano and bass that Paul opens the track with (both are his performances) are an exquisite sound, a kind of sadness in the initial piano bit that is brought up to something more like bittersweet by the bassline. The harmonies on this intro are also wonderful, and create a space for the bass to gain volume and pull the song into its transition, announced by Ringo. And then we get to hear one of my favourite Paul vocal styles, the kind he also uses on “Lady Madonna”–it’s pushed down and sort of strangled into a seeming parody of being straightlaced–or, at least, that’s the impression it always gives me: I always see him pushing his chin down and tucking it in slightly when he sings this way. It makes a kind of sense–there’s a certain musical synergy between the two songs otherwise in some ways. It’s actually a heavily varied song in-and-of itself, with the wind chimes and tape loops Paul includes at various points. If you aren’t familiar, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a huge chunk of the medley, rather than a single song that is part of it.
The movement to “Sun King” is forced for reasons I will get into later, but you wouldn’t know it had to be hacked together for listening, as quiet natural sounds are used to help the overlap. The opening is, interestingly, somewhat tonally similar to “Here Comes the Sun” (that it was originally titled “Here Comes the Sun King” and still includes this phrase doesn’t help), not in a way that feels like a repeat of any kind, but just like a coincidental mirroring. It’s very relaxed, and feels as if it might play over a cartoon vacation in some islands with palm trees, a kind of lilting sway to the guitars.
When it suddenly turns into “Mean Mr. Mustard”, it is simultaneously natural and strange: the tempo shifts so completely, yet so organically, you almost wouldn’t notice, as there’s only a small drum fill from Ringo that carries it, but it’s done at a natural point in the song–you think there’s more of “Sun King” coming, and another song starts playing, and whether the first reaction is “Ah, okay” or “What?” is a toss up.
It’s less disparate, the difference between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, as the tempo is up at a similar rate, though it has a very unusual, very wild, primal drumbeat from Ringo. John is back to his more “distant” style of vocals (a la “Revolution”).
It shows that “Polythene Pam” led directly to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” even as performed, with that pounding drum from Ringo seamlessly transforming into a more typical balance of bass and snare than tom-focused drumming. Paul brings back his “self-harmonizing” approach, which has a very unique and particular sound in the way it seems to create a weird expansion and funnel to his voice that hones in on it for “Didn’t anybody see?”, though the backing vocals of John and George give it that particular twist indicative of their overall unified vocal sound.
“Golden Slumbers” announces the final transitions of the album, with a string-enhanced piano melody, and gentle singing from Paul. It gives the feeling of descent from the album’s climax, and when he turns on the energy, it tells us that things may be winding down, but it isn’t without some energy still behind them. The second moment it seems it will go this way, we’re instead led to “Carry That Weight”, which manages to jump from “Hey Judge”-style chorus and repetition to a piercing horn sting of a bridge to an excellent and intimate–though “big”–solo from George. It’s enough that “Golden Slumbers” was recorded as leading directly into “Carry That Weight”, but after that solo it also calls back to “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which ties the two medleys of songs together. When the horns return again to bring the song back to its own identity, its as if the effect of that horn interruption is doubled.
“The End” is an exciting bit: while it is a clear transition from “Carry That Weight”, it manages to include a pounding opener from Ringo that is answered by a brief guitar riff, leads to another fill from him, one line sung by Paul and then a really, really great solo from Ringo, despite his distaste for them (ever the one to bow to group needs). The song comes back, and then we get a real treat: the three guitarists trade licks. Paul starts off with the sharp points and bends of a more “normal” guitar solo, George follows with the sliding tones he is known for, and John follows with a chunkier, more distorted blast, and they repeat the process. It feels like a trade off, too, which avoids the frustration (for some, at least) of solos designed purely for the purposes of showing off–it feels too much like them playing off each other. There’s a choral, string-backed, dramatic, ending point then: the point at which “The End” feels like The End, with George slipping in one last solo.
But there’s a brief pause, and we get a sudden chord–but it only leads to Paul and a finger picked guitar, singing for just a very brief time and cut off at the end. And that’s it–in some sense, the chronological end of the Beatles, even if Let It Be was yet to be released.
It’s actually very difficult to name a favourite Beatles album. There are no real clunkers (naysayers about the early years, at one point including myself, just need to listen more), but there’s definitely still a greater magic to the albums from about Rubber Soul onward, where more varied instrumentation and ideas were put into play. I’ve always chosen Abbey Road because there’s nothing off-putting (“Revolution 9”, I’m looking at you, and only you–and possibly “All Together Now”). A lot of the great songs weren’t on albums originally in the UK (“Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Rain”, “Revolution”, etc). Each album has some truly excellent songs, too, so there’s not even that feeling of “Okay, but it doesn’t have anything that great…” Other than my admitted cop-out (that I base the decision almost exclusively on “Here Comes the Sun”, which is no way to do this), there’s just a nice variety here, and one that doesn’t go on too long, that has some new and interesting elements, without letting those control everything. It’s a weak explanation, but does it really matter? The point is you can’t narrow it down to one album anyway. Picking one is just a waste of time, as you’d have to watch so much great stuff fall away as you drew it away from the others, you’d start fretting and place it back, and try to repair your little garden of Beatles–don’t really want anything missing, want it all in nice, neat shape with everything in place.
Is that a cheat? Maybe. But it’s the actual truth–it’s like when you ask me my favourite colour. If I’m bored or distracted, I will tell you orange (which apparently makes me weird; it seems that is oft-considered an ugly or terrible colour, I’ve slowly gathered). If I’m feeling sarcastic or overly honest, I just cheat. Indeed, I’ll often tell you my favourite colour is “iridescent”, which isn’t a colour at all. But, if you get something iridescent (often the aim of “favourite colour” questions), you end up with something that displays all the colours in some fashion. So, it’s a cheat, but a sort of honest one–as it gets to the reality of it: it’s a “puppet” favourite. There isn’t a real one in place, at least, not one with the kind of “power” a favourite really has. I feel as though I should make some snarky comment tying that thought into the ending–“Her Majesty”–but I can’t place one. Feel free to create your own.
■ ■ ■ 
Oh, and if you’re curious, those two favourite Beatles/George songs are “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song”. They only appeared on the Yellow Submarine songtrack. I’d blame that movie–which I absolutely love–for this, but those are not segments I like most at all. Indeed, I have a bad habit of wandering away from the ending where “It’s All Too Much” appears. There’s just something about, more than anything, that wailing distortion and that organ riff, and my love for organs is no secret. Which, for those familiar, should make “Only a Northern Song” no kind of surprise, actually.

Day Nineteen Bonus Track(s): Bad Veins – "Falling Tide" b/w "The Lie"

Dovecote Records ■ DCR 0012/DCR 0011

Released: ??, 2007

Produced by Bad Veins, Justin Baily, Daron Hollowell and Jonathan Fuller
Engineered by Justin Bailey and Johnathan Fuller
Mastered by Steve Girton


  • Falling Tide

  • The Lie

On my previous blog, I had a single poll, really, and it was to narrow the direction of my planned listening, in a more general and randomized sense than the ones I kept here. I matched Wire, the Skids, Dinosaur Jr, Slade and Bad Veins–a pretty weird blend overall, even if all of them are or were rock in some form or other. Dinosaur Jr ended up winning, probably indicative of the people I know. Bad Veins did reasonably well, and I knew at least one person who put in a bote there. I knew the same for Slade, for that matter. I never got around to writing about any of them but Dinosaur Jr (who won)–I just felt too overwhelmed by the volume of material, especially as compared to what I felt like I knew.

As time has gone on, Bad Veins has remained the most “limited”–they’ve released 2 albums and not much more. They were floating around the “legitimately” indie scene (in the sense of limited distribution, low-fame, independent in actual senses of divorce from industry clout) even when I saw them live. They opened for We Were Promised Jetpacks, who I saw completely on a lark, having forgotten the show was even occurring at the time. I ended up having hard cider for the first time (on the recommendation of a friend–via text, no less), but wandered in for the latter half of Bad Veins’ set. I normally show up at concerts at door time, or even sooner. This time, because it was so delayed (not to mention a venue I had never been to or even seen), I was a lot later though.
When I looked up at the stage, I saw two guys in pseudo-military dress with a podium and a reel-to-reel tape player, a rotary phone receiver attached to the microphone stand (leading to its base attached to the podium) and a covering of seeming wallpaper on that podium. One was manning drums, the other at the mic and playing guitar. It was an odd sight, to be sure. That this was the band opening for the post rock-inflected Scots who I knew as openers for The Twilight Sad (who I knew as openers for Mogwai) would have left me confused if the band who preceded We Were Promised Jetpacks when they opened for the Twilight Sad wasn’t Brakes, the English pop/rock band. Still, these were Americans, so I was left a bit confused all the same.
It wasn’t long before the strains of Bad Veins infected me at the show, though. It was catchy stuff, and the “gimmicks” didn’t feel gimmicky so much as creative and vaguely quirky–the telephone was used to distort Benjamin Davis’s vocals much like megaphones are used (and, indeed, he used one of those, too). Sebastien Schultz’ drumming was solid, forceful rock drumming, too, and there was a nice weight to their songs–and the reel-to-reel (nicknamed Irene, I’d later find) gave a more full sound than the pair could have otherwise produced.
I snapped up the only thing they had with them at the show–a 7″ of two songs, paired with a CD designated for the year’s tour (2012) and a download code for their first album (home-typed and printed, clearly!). I had the pair sign it (as you can see) and went on my merry way. The CD was actually composed of songs from their then-forthcoming album, The Mess We’ve Made, while the single was actually a pair of songs from their self-titled first album, released in 2009.
“Dancing on TV” was probably the catchiest song from the show, as well as the lead song on that CD, but that means, of course, it wasn’t on the single itself. The single is still in the same style the band sticks to, though: Schultz on drums and Davis on keys and guitar, singing, in a style that’s unique and somewhat difficult to describe. It’s very strongly enunciated, and quite exaggerated, and seems to carry a sort of hangdog happiness–strange though that may sound. It’s as if he’s drained of energy in a part of the sound, yet the range and modulation he puts into his voice betrays the lie of that notion. It gives them a bit of their own character, and it’s a good and enjoyable character to have.
“Falling Tide” is the louder song, a simple drum machine (tape loop, I’m guessing!) intro that very quickly turns to a real drum and a rumbling bass as Davis sings in that style of his, defining the melody. The chorus throws a spray of keys back at us and kicks in the guitar, but, most important, lets us hear the best part of Davis: his choruses. “I never would have held it back if/I thought that we’d get through”–and it’s that through, dragged through a sliding range of notes and three extra syllables. Absolute singalong in the best sense.
“The Lie” is the lighter companion. A ticking timer starts the track, and then in comes Davis’ voice, extra clear and completely up front, right in front of you in the mix, and only a calm, quiet keyboard line follows him for the entire first verse. The second verse shifts the keys up an octave or so¹, and halfway through adds a looped pizzicato violin. And then we get the chorus: “‘Cause sometimes, sometimes to get by/I believe in the lie”. Davis again is happy to give a single word multiple notes, and Schultz enters, too, as does a bass. A flute section, and the rhythm section get to follow him into the second repetition of the verses, and we get to hear that great chorus again–and Davis finally lets loose the third time through, and you hear his voice at full energy, the entire song coming upward with a faux chorus. The final, long-held instance of the chorus is perhaps the most exciting, and fades to the somewhat hesitant sound of his voice seeming to realize what he’s singing: he has just sung loudly of his habit of getting by by pretending. That little note of reality creeps in and the song falls to a stop.
You know, I’m not going to pretend that I’m in a space where there needs to be some kind of absolute ground-breaking, totally unique element–I’ve never demanded nor always appreciated that, it has to be done right. And so does a catchy song–and Bad Veins do it right, and have done. Given the right exposure they could–and should–get a lot more fans. If the engineer I know who has done sound for them (completely without my prior knowledge, mind you!) can appreciate them in his tendency toward the weirder, darker (and often more country or folk, but edged) kind of things, then that should say something, I think.
Most of the 7″s I have fit into the space one would expect a 7″ to fit in: they are catchy singles that are readily digested and immediate, great to listen to and enjoy as much as you want–not necessarily shallow, but accessible. Bad Veins is no exception, and none of that should be taken as anything but endorsement.

While we’re here, there’s actually the video of “Dancing on TV” from the very show I attended, embedded here for your enjoyment:

¹Let’s remember I’m not great at music theory, but that feels right? 

Day Nineteen: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Brother Records/Reprise Records ■  2MS 2083

Released May 16, 1966
[This release: 1972]
Produced by Brian Wilson

“This recording is pressed in monophonic sound, the way Brian cut it.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
  2. You Still Believe in Me
  3. That’s Not Me
  4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
  5. I’m Waiting for the Day
  6. Let’s Go Away for a While
  7. Sloop John B
  1. God Only Knows
  2. I Know There’s an Answer
  3. Here Today
  4. I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
  5. Pet Sounds
  6. Caroline, No

When I initially put the selection of Beach Boys records I own up to a vote(on vinyl, though the CD set is actually not much different), I debated listing this one as it physically presents itself. Those familiar with the album may notice (probably immediately) that the cover looks a bit strange. Truth is, this is actually a compiled double album, paired with Carl & the Passions – So Tough. It’s a weird looking thing, and one I own as yet another of the doubled (in the case of Pet Sounds, I think tripled or more, really) records my dad let me take. I’d call it the “crown jewel” of that set, but there are albums I like more personally (including my other Beach Boys record, Surf’s Up), but as something to blurt out at others it sounds more like it validates my taste and knowledge.

That said, this is probably the one classic album I own on vinyl that I’m in a bad position to write on. The poll that is still running on the Beatles as of writing indicates my limited selection of their material on vinyl–certainly, it includes their oft-considered best by those who stop and measure (rather than responding by reflex), but it doesn’t include the iconic, name-drop title (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), so there’s a certain measure less pressure. More to the point, that alleged best is also my favourite, so, much along the lines of Pink Floyd, I’m a bit more at ease dealing with it (the equivalent there, if you’re wondering, is Wish You Were Here–less an icon, more a qualified work. Depending on who you ask, of course). Here, I’m in territory I regard similarly to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: albums whose reputations precede them, and who have been so automatically doled out to responses to “What is the best album…” that the question doesn’t even need to be finished. For those bands? For rock music? Some people just list those because it’s “the answer”, some because they sincerely believe it and can explain it, and a handful reject it out of hand primarily because some people do the first.

I don’t much like dealing with albums like these publicly: it puts me in the position of having to establish a clear opinion–which means detangling and cropping off the influence of reputation and the opinion bluffs of those who feel the need to automatically bring the public impression of their taste to the same level, and finally that of those who emphatically feel the need to reject it simply to prove the “honesty” of their opinions. I make a show of acting nervous or intimidated by writing about something written about a million times before, but I’m not writing this for money, so it isn’t as if I need to justify the cost to those who paid. More than anything, I don’t like the segment of that which means I have to tell you something that isn’t obvious. I have a lot of leeway with obscure or semi-obscure items, as the unfamiliar will have nothing to attach to it anyway, and the familiar will be looking for the familiar to find common ground (or to argue against it).

In this case, I’m also left with the opinions of Sir Paul McCartney, of Sir George Martin, in attempting to address an album widely considered one of the most ground-breaking and influential of all time. A response to Rubber Soul and the inspiration for the album I just mentioned three times above: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thought in some ways to have been handed by the torch from Rubber Soul–itself given an infusion by the work of Bob Dylan–to carry the music industry out of the 45rpm single market and into the embrace of the 33 1/3 album approach. Those are some long shadows.

But that’s the reason I poll when I can: it means I don’t get to just dodge this, it means I don’t get to run off and happily talk about Surf’s Up and never have to nail down and clarify any thoughts I had, have, or will have about Pet Sounds. Or, it means everyone’s tired of hearing about Pet Sounds and I shouldn’t–if I weren’t directed–try to challenge myself. I know some people aimed for Surf’s Up (it was relatively close!) out of a personal affection, and some because it’s “not Pet Sounds“, in effect. So that’s where we ended up: more wanted to hear my thoughts–or torture me, perhaps–on Pet Sounds. I will do my best to live up, not to the reputation of the album or writing around it, but to be clear and as thoughtful as I can. I have notes (which I only occasionally take) as well as the information I have lingering around already–the Pet Sounds Sessions box set (with liner notes) and the 40th Anniversary stereo/mono dual release (in effect, I own about  6-7 versions of the album, counting the instrumental and vocal-only tracks on the box). Not so that I can just regurgitate Brian’s commentary or that of paid writers who got there first, but so that I can be most accurate regarding instrumentation and techniques involved in creating sounds, moods, tones, and atmospheres that I identify.

Beginning an album with a song that would become a single (though it started as a B-side to “God Only Knows”) was not an uncommon thing in the 1960s, but the totality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, particularly its intro, is still a sort of odd move. The sound of that opening (which apparently no one can confirm the instrumental identity of) that sounds rather like a harp is distinct and recognizable, but suggests nothing of the sounds one expects from the Beach Boys, the song that follows it, or the genre as a whole. Hal Blaine’s lone drum hit shifts the song entirely, and lets the intro fade quickly away, with Brian immediately launching into the chorus with his voice at full power, and the whole band (of session musicians–many with tens of thousands of credits under their belts at this point, and I mean individually) backs him for the rest, with Al, Dennis, Carl, and Mike assisting primarily with Mike taking over for the bridge. It’s a full, powerful song, using accordions, saxophones, mandolins, piano, organ and a variety of more expected instruments to chug along with a kind of energy that does not represent a large chunk of the album. It slows partway through, for just a brief time, which is quite unusual for an earlier pop album, at least in so distinct and constructed a way.

The energy that keeps “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” moving at such a quick clip (a lot if it driven by the accordions) is left behind almost entirely for “You Still Believe in Me”, though the intro is somewhat reminiscent of that song’s own introduction–even down to the bizarre methodology used to achieve the singular instrumental backing for a humming vocalization that seems to reverberate just slightly, but ethereally: album co-writer Tony Asher says one of them was left to crawl into a piano to pluck the strings, while another sat at it to let the notes ring.  As the song proper starts, we’re at a much slower pace than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and Brian’s vocal is given a great deal more space: the song is more intimate, more personal. The backing is no less complex, with timpani and harpsichord accompanying the far more expected bass guitar. Backing vocals primarily define the repetition of the song’s title alone, which is useful as it allows for Brian’s “I wanna cry” to take its looping shape as an isolated voice. There are strange touches that hint at its place in psychedelia in this track, too: bike horns and bells seem to drop in from nowhere in particular–not incongruous, yet startlingly odd at the same time.

Brian abstains from lead vocal only a few times on the album, but the first is on “That’s Not Me”, where his cousin Mike Love takes over, the tempo fittingly speeding up (as Mike Love is generally more aligned with the lighter surf songs of the group, which are generally uptempo in line with their “fun” nature). Brian Wilson’s opening on the organ eventually becomes notes that are just held for long periods of time, creating a hum in the background. Tambourines set the half-shuffling beat, strangely filling the middle ground of the song, which is primarily percussive and low end behind Mike’s voice. The song is one of the more drug-like and odd, despite being, in some respects, more conventional. The absent middle space, in particular, gives it a slightly weird feeling.

It’s almost like we have “You Still Believe in Me” Part 2 when “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” comes following in, as Brian returns to lead vocals. The song is slower, sadder, and has the first appearance of strong strings. It’s sweetly sad, though: obviously Brian is addressing someone in pain, but is offering consolation and hope. He asks the listener to listen to his heart beat–and for just a moment, the bass emulates a heartbeat. The bass thrums underneath it all even outside that moment, but the song has a comfortable embrace: it’s spacious, but not cold and filled with empty parts.

Giving the impression of alternating tones, “I’m Waiting for the Day” brings the tempo back up, with the curious choice of a percussive intro, though the use of timpanis gives a bit of variation in pitch, snare hits tweaking the sound just enough to kickstart the song, as if they are the turns of a key to start an engine. And when that engine starts, it’s with an organ’s keys slid across and then hit lightly but rapidly, the melody actually briefly introduced by flutes, but then taken over by violins as Brian begins to sing the verses–acknowledging the hurt of someone abandoned that he is attempting to bring solace to. “I’m waiting for the day that you can love again”, he sings, and the song jumps upward, as does his voice, which takes on a slightly harder edge, though an edge denoting determination rather than threat. The backing vocals–all Brian–move around each other for another of the drums’ moments of not only emphasis, but actual appearance: most of the track is absent the drum kit, though the timpanis do have a relatively strong presence through much of it. A last hushed lead up to “..when you can love again”, gives us a pretty string outro, but the drums don’t seem to want this to happen, and bring the organ, the backing Brians and timpanis back for him to repeat, “You didn’t think/That I could sit around and let you go”, which has that determined, self-confident edge as it fades out.

There are two instrumental tracks on the record, and the first is “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, which would be the end of side one, were it not for the decision to include a studio-unrelated recording (“Sloop John B”). Julius Wechter mans the vibraphones and defines the majority of the track as a result, which builds on a sound only they can provide: both percussive and gentle, melodic and curved but distinct. There are numerous instruments layered behind them, especially a piano that gradually takes over and brings horns with it, a drum fill bringing the song back down to a hush, but one that cannot keep down the string section, which builds the song back to horns, which only build more, to a seemingly unified note, then isolate themselves. A brief appearance from what I believe are temple blocks–echoing in the background behind the vibraphone, the overdubbed strings only gently drawn in the background, but a faux-steel guitar (apparently a Coke bottle on the strings) gives a bit of a rounding to the edges of the song, with more familiar guitars given their place, too. The intermittent drumming that crops up on the album appears again, marking separations in the piece to great effect–the absence of the drums previously is emphasized, yet so is the actual appearance. It’s really a great piece–no surprise Brian is most proud of this one.

The only cover on the album, “Sloop John B” was recorded long before the primary Pet Sounds Sessions, but doesn’t feel as out of place as rumours that it was jammed in suggest (evidence suggests this was actually not the case). The song was a traditional folk one, an arena with which Al Jardine (the only non-family in the original Beach Boys) was most familiar. A metronomic tapping and glockenspiel descends into Brian’s vocal, and slowly other instruments join up, a guitar, a bass, drums briefly, and then more steadily, another voice (Mike Love’s) comes in for the bridge and the chorus, after which, the backing vocals appear briefly in non-verbal form, and by the next chorus, the drums are regular and consistent, all the voices are joined in, enough that the instrumentation disappears entirely for a brief a cappella moment. The drums finally make up for lost time and pound every beat as the song fades, along with Side One.

A huge single for the group, “God Only Knows” opens the second side with French horns and keys, with a bass line linking it to the first verse, where we get to hear Brian’s brother Carl sing lead for the first time on the album. A simpler, wood block/temple block rhythm backs the verses, though a deeper rhythm transitions it to the next verse. When Carl gets to the title of the song, there’s a curious moment as the rhythm is broken and chopped from the steady beat it used previously, quite staccato but for a brief fill on the drums. Backing vocals that flit around each other converge and pitch upward to Carl’s repetition of the title that leads to the second verse. Later the voices of Brian and Mike are recognizable in alternating vocalizations of the title that start a beat off from each other and begin to spiral together, emphasizing the sentiment of the song in general: it’s a bit sad, but with a warmth and brightness at the core–who knows what the singer would be without the addressee, but they are both there right now.

At one point, we might have had “Hang on to Your Ego” next, but the title was changed and we’re instead left with “I Know There’s an Answer”. It’s centered around an intro of mutliple key instruments that lean into their parts, but a buzzing of baritone and tenor saxophones hovers in the background, with the rhythm defined by a tambourine. Any attempt to listen closely only reveals that it’s nearly impossible to pick through all the layers. The choice of baritone saxophone for the solo, backed by banjo is beyond peculiar, and slants the song in a way that a number of songs on the album turn: somewhere that is, on the surface, comforting pop, but something else alongside it.

“It starts with just a little glance now/Right away you’re thinking about romance now” begins “Here Today”, keys pounding rhythm and slowly transitioning melody under Mike Love’s voice, drums and tambourine pounding down each beat as the song moves in, his voice rising slightly and getting somewhat faster paced, until it all falls back down, and the pounding heart of new love is brought back to reality with the reminder: “You’ve got to keep in mind/Love is here today/And it’s gone tomorrow”.

I will forever associate the next song with my best friend in high school and college, who was getting into 1960s music when we lived together, and spent a while with the Beach Boys before I ever did–I could name at least a handful of peculiar injokes we ended up with, but few would make sense to anyone else. Still, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is a track that I think of him referencing the phrase a few times, and so the part that sticks strongest remains the title’s appearance in the lyrics. It’s odd, as it seemed that my friend meant the phrase in the reverse–being born too late, not early–and that moment is out of character, tonally, for the rest of the song. The song is light and airy at first, but there’s an odd temple block construction, and a backing of “Oohs” that seems almost as if it’s mocking or out of step (or rather, pitch) with Brian’s vocal. They even get to share the spotlight without any backing for a moment–it’s hard to tell what feels (quite deliberately) mismatched there: are the backing vocals sadder? Are they just significantly lower? Not harmonized? And then you hear a higher, modulating voice–but it’s not, and that rapidly becomes apparent: it’s the infamous theremin that Brian later made such famous usage of in “Good Vibrations”.

As a title track, “Pet Sounds” is weird. As a track on this album, despite the matching titles, “Pet Sounds” is weird. Ratcheting percussion launches it, hints of guitar that are distorted as if some force has knocked them silly appear, before a lightly wavering guitar line takes control of the piece, horns subtly building it up, but all of them stopped short for a moment. When it returns, the horns push again, seeming to attempt to take control away from the rather “castaway” guitar sound, bongos and tons of other instruments wandering in and out, until one baritone saxophone bleats out the noise that introduces the first large crescendo that comes to define the latter half of the piece.

“Caroline, No” is not necessarily the expected favourite, but it is indeed Brian’s favourite track from the album. A very dry tambourine defines the beat of the song, but is fleshed out with an organ line and Brian’s double-tracked vocals. A lone drum beat echoes at the start of each measure, as Brian pines for a girl who broke his heart. Woodwinds (primarily bass flutes) repeat the melody after Brian’s last vocalization of it, with light accents from the vibraphone we thought we’d heard the last of, until it all fades away. And then it fades back in, but not with the music we know: it’s the ringing bell and whistle of an oncoming train, dogs barking and finally that train passing, rattling the tracks and heading off into the distance amid the last barks of those dogs.

I find it no less difficult now to talk about this album: I found nooks and crannies I’d not heard, I gathered a lot of the elements that bring it lasting respect that I had taken for granted previously, but I’m still left with a central dilemma: how do you recognize brilliance after it is already labelled as such? Can you? Is there some element of self-fulfillment or expectation nascent in any attempt to explore or discuss a work so well-regarded? Can you really give it proper context once its context as brilliant has been determined, affirmed and re-affirmed?

I don’t have answers to any of that. I’ve always enjoyed this album, so it’s not exactly the kind of stretch for me that it is to listen to some albums where I have to take time and understand why anyone likes them in the first place. There’s a production sensibility Brian brought to this that I always found unusual, which is the sort of gauzy haze layered over a lot of it. Maybe it’s the way the vocals are mixed, maybe it’s the way they’re recorded–it’s definitely something around the vocals in general. I listened harder this time and was still left wondering. I found new respect–a lot of it–for the instrumental pieces (which might easily be my favourite parts of this album), as well as reaffirmation of my love for Carl Wilson’s voice over the rest. I found new appreciation for the absurdly brilliant craft and layering of the album. That point, that was brought home. The way that each and every part seems to live and last only for the moments it is to be heard, for where it brings the whole of a song to a conclusion, or a feeling–that is something that almost defines the differing listening styles I know best.

My aforementioned best friend, John (inevitably, at least a few people make repeated appearances if I talk about music) has always heard music “separated”, while I’ve always heard it as a whole cloth. If you do either, it’s difficult not to respect this work. Taken as a whole, an astonishing variety of sounds–recognizably different even without detailed listening–never seem to cause any conflict or confusion about the sound or feeling of any song, other than the kind that is inherent to the subject matter present. If you take the same piece and start to dissect it, you suddenly realize just how complicated that generally delightful sound actually is. Some parts fade shortly after others come in, without ever openly advertising that fact. Some are mixed low or off to the side and serve only to lock into their places and smooth out the whole of it all. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, in terms of the way this record is put together, its reputation is undoubtedly deserved. It’s full and lush and varied, yet measured and economic, and all the parts both fit and mesh without exception.

Pet Sounds manages, in some way, to simultaneously run into the realms of psychedlia, art rock, even classical music, and simple pop: lyrically, it’s very innocent and sweet, occasionally even naïve, but never uncomfortably so, as it’s supported by the music so artfully. It’s catchy and bright and nice, and sad in the right parts, but it’s also dense and complicated and experimental and unique. It doesn’t show off the latter at all though: experimentation and complication are used in service of the final pop product. That’s not a common thing: usually you end up with something more like I Robot or Tarot Suite where those other elements make themselves known, perhaps even boast of their presence. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing in those instances–at least not intrinsically–but it’s something amazing to witness those things folded in so neatly there are no seams left.

If you don’t respect this album–and I do say “respect”, as opposed to “like”–you would be well advised, if you intend on expressing a stance on it, or music in many senses, to explore and dissect it anyway, to try to see what makes it tick. While occasionally that metaphor is used to emphasize the idea that you might dissect a living animal and be left with none of the soul or life that drives you to find the driving force in the first place, this is more like a watch or a clock: find the parts and separate them out to understand it, but put them back together, wind it up and watch it go–it won’t miss a beat.

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