Saturday, June 28, 2008

365 Albums - Week 1

Here we are at the end of Week 1. Here's the rundown of what I heard this week, plus a few notes at the end.

1. Plain White T's, Every Second Counts
- I received this album as a Christmas present and hadn't taken it out of the shrink wrap until this past Sunday morning. This seemed like as good a time as any to give it a listen. Of course, I was well aware of their single, "Hey There Delilah," a staple on every Top 40 radio station. I'd also heard one other song, "Hate (I Really Don't Like You)," on the radio at some point. Otherwise, I'd had no contact with this band's music.

About 45 minutes later, I had become fully aware of why this band appeals to high school girls. Nearly every song features lyrics fretting about, second-guessing, pining for, or rejecting this or that relationship with the emotional depth of a 15-year-old. The aforementioned "Hate" features the study hall note-level chorus, "I really really really really don't like you." The next track, "You and Me" features the gag-worthy refrain, "We make a good you and me." And all of this prosaic tripe set against your garden-variety pop-rock power chords. They even spelled their name wrong. Why do people insist on apostrophes where none are needed? Fail.

2. Kenna, New Sacred Cow - After the musical debacle of the previous day, I wanted to hedge my bets a little and choose something that I had a much better chance at enjoying. I first heard Kenna's song "Hell Bent" my first semester of seminary, when the video was regularly played on MTV2. In fact, hearing the song instantly took me back to my shoebox apartment, with the weather beginning to cool and my own sense of self just beginning to undergo a jarring upheaval that wouldn't right itself for at least a year and a half. For that to be properly told, however, I'll need to write a separate entry.

Musically, Kenna features a combination of rock and electronica, neither of which especially overpowers the other. Kenna himself plays all keyboard/piano parts, and one is able to appreciate this on the understated "Yenah Ababa (Rose)." His lyrics are a vast improvement over the T-apostrophe-s, exploring themes of setting up mental walls to keep others at bay ("Freetime"), trying to keep from allowing carnal pleasure to rule one's life ("Man Fading"), and seeking something stable in which to ground yourself ("Love/Hate Sensation"). I was able to hear "Hell Bent" with fresh ears as the singer tries to come to grips with a new reality: "Naked, broken/My world is crumbling/and I can't find myself/or my way out of here." That speaks perfectly to the beginning of my experience at Eden. It also helps explain my Hess tattoo, if you're still wondering about that.

3. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, This Is Somewhere - I truly had high expectations for this one. Relix Magazine speaks of this band quite highly, and I'd been meaning to check them out for quite a while. Potter and Co. employ a rock-blues-country sound, complete with hints of slide guitar and dirty riffs behind Potter's no-nonsense tone.

That's the good part. I'm surprised that I've been so hung up on lyrics so far, but holy crap. Half of these songs are non-sensical diatribes that seem to be about relationships, or maybe they just rhymed, or maybe they're striving to be profound, or something else. By Track 4, I'd already heard two songs using guns and war as metaphors. On the pseudo-ballad "You May See Me," we're treated to this brilliant couplet: "You got the eyes to look for what you saw/And when you don't win or lose I guess you draw." And how many songs can we write that basically say, "I love you, but it's wrong, but I love you, but it's wrong." I don't know how else to say it: this album annoyed the crap out of me, mostly because I hoped it'd be so much better.

4. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark - Prior to listening to this CD, I'd only heard the Truckers' song "Let There Be Rock," a tribute of sorts to going to rock shows and the trouble one can get into along the way. These guys (and girl) play their own no-nonsense southern rock, but unlike Potter and the Nocturnals, it's southern rock that means something.

This album is loaded with "day in the life" sorts of tales that are mostly depressing, but can also be quite humorous. The guy in "Two Daughters and a Wife" is wracked with guilt over his family's deaths, while the guy in "The Righteous Path" is trying to keep on the straight and narrow as he balances work, family, bills, and his own sanity. The guy in "Daddy Needs a Drink" uses alcohol as a security blanket while the guy in "The Opening Act" is just trying to make it day to day playing gigs in bars. The Truckers also have a political side, featured on "That Man I Shot" ("That man I shot, I was in his homeland/I was there to help him but he didn't want me there") and "The Home Front" ("Now they're saying on the flat screen/They ain't found a reason yet/We're all bogged down in a quagmire/And there ain't no end to it").

The Truckers chiefly rotate between three songwriters, although two of them take precedence: Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. For this album, I was struck more by Hood's stories; they're the ones that have stuck with me more.

5. Beck, Midnite Vultures - I had two people recommend this one to me, so it had to be good, right? I think so, although what I've already written about lyrics gets muddled when I say that. Let's be honest here: does anyone really know what Beck is singing about most of the time? Take the chorus from "Nicotine and Gravy:" "I think we're going crazy/Her left eye is lazy/She looks so Israeli/Nicotine and gravy." Is this anything other than figuring out what rhymes and running with it?

I'm the type who gives Beck a pass because his unique musical stylings make up for his lyrical weirdness. We have drum machines, horns, slide guitar and banjo...and that's just the first song. Beck will go from hip-hop to rock to bluegrass to '70s R&B in a matter of seconds, if they're not just layered overtop each other. I freaking love that, because he can pull it off. As a total package, Midnite Vultures works for me for that reason. I think that I'd have a tougher time with it if Beck wasn't such a visionary in how he arranges such a diverse sampling of influences (read: if his music was more bland like, oh I don't know, Grace Potter or somebody).

6. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral - I said the other week that I wanted to find some new industrial stuff, so I looked up one of the landmark albums in the genre. This album came out in 1994, which I like to think was my musical-coming-of-age year. It was the year I really got into rock, started teaching myself how to play the drumkit, started dreaming of being in a band. I never really got into NIN during this period - I'd only heard "Closer" and "Hurt." Right when I was about to seriously give this group a listen around 1996, I became a super Evangelical-type Christian and threw away a lot of my "stumbling block" music without really thinking about it. So there's a lot of baggage that comes up as I revisit this album and finally give it a complete listen.

This is definitely an album that super Evangelical-type Christians would consider a "stumbling block." Trent Reznor is not a G-rated guy. Against heavy distortion and drums, he sings/screams about how our desires/addictions control us ("Mr. Self Destruct"), declaring God dead because of atrocities committed in God's name ("Heresy"), a dramatic change in psyche ("The Becoming"), and feeling burnt out and wanting a greater purpose ("I Do Not Want This"), all sprinkled with f-bombs along the way.

Yeah, this would've gone into the burn-box if I'd bought it back in the day. In that sense, I'm glad that I waited until now to listen. Reznor presents plenty of themes to wrestle with and think about, but his presentation isn't going to appeal to everyone. For me, at this stage in my life so many years removed from the kid handing over a big stack of his CDs for the Bonfire O' Righteousness, I hear what Reznor is doing and I like it.

7. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde - Yeah, I just went from Nine Inch Nails to Bob Dylan. How you like that? Anyway, I tracked down this staple Dylan album to get a better idea of why he's so revered, and I'll be honest...I was very surprised at just how much I liked this album. Seriously. I constantly make fun of his voice, and the words really don't always make that much sense. But here is where music's intangible elements were able to make a connection. I like the way he puts his stuff together. He's got a folk-blues style that caught me off guard with how much I enjoyed it.

We start with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its refrain, "Everyone must get stoned." The song itself has a certain "stoned" quality to it. "Pledging My Time" made me want to rush out and learn how to play the harmonica. "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" looks back over regrets and causes of a break-up. "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" tells a former love that he's not going to take back someone the singer no longer trusts. And all of it against the backdrop of tight arrangements featuring guitar, harmonica, and organ.

I can't get over how much I connected with this album. I just figured that it'd be a token listen of a "classic," and I could just move on. This greatly surpassed my expectations. I certainly "get" Dylan much better than I did before, and I'm going to seek out some of his other stuff.

Album of the Week: Kenna, New Sacred Cow
Song of the Week: Kenna, "Hell Bent" (it seems like a copout, but I gained a whole new appreciation for it here)
Lyric of the Week: "I used to hate the fool in me, but only in the morning/Now I tolerate him all day long." - Drive-By Truckers, "Perfect Timing"
Learn Punctuation, Morons: Plain White T's