Saturday, July 05, 2008

365 Albums - Week 2

8. Soundgarden, Down on the Upside - Soundgarden was my favorite band from the "grunge era," though the case could be made that they weren't strictly "grunge," whatever that really was anyway. My copy of Superunknown was a casualty of the Great CD Bonfire, one of the albums that I've since missed the most. After I'd more or less switched over to a strict diet of Christian music, the news of the band's breakup my senior year of high school caused feelings of longing for those former days of "secular" listening and feelings of guilt for having those feelings of longing. But I've written enough about that sort of thing for a while.

Anyway, I honestly didn't analyze the lyrics too much for this one. I was just happy to be listening, while at the same time pondering (and fuming over) the full extent of the above realization. "Pretty Noose" and "Burden in My Hand" were already familiar. On the whole, it's a solid rock album, though for me not a particularly memorable one, to my surprise. However, the words to the final track, "Boot Camp," lend themselves well to some aforementioned past regrets:

"I must obey the rules

I must be tame and cool
No staring at the clouds
I must stay on the ground
In clusters of the mice
The smoke is in our eyes
Like babies on display
Like angels in a cage
I must be pure and true
I must contain my views
There must be something else
There must be something good
Far away"

9. Morphine, The Night - I was introduced to Morphine in seminary by a good friend. I was fascinated by the unique combination of bass, drums, and saxophone, and other instruments peppered in as needed.
I'd try to be more precise about describing their sound,'s Morphine. They're ethereal, yet driven, yet bluesy, yet something else. They've got a sound that seems like it'd be enjoyed best in a smoky pub over a nice Cabernet.

From the opening bars of the title track, I knew this was a good one. Drums keep a light jazz beat under a wandering saxophone as Mark Sandman sings of a woman he considers to be a dream that keeps him going. It only gets better from there. "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer" excitedly invites people to someone's apartment for a party. "A Good Woman is Hard to Find" talks about that "what-if" girl, the one with whom you connect so well, and then for some reason she's gone and you wonder if you'll ever meet another quite like her. "The Way We Met" tells the truth about how most, if not all, relationships begin: "There's no cute story that we tell together/Laughing and finishing each other's sentences so charmingly/Truth is it was all an accident/Just like it is for everybody else."

I freaking love this album.

10. Widespread Panic, Free Somehow - A couple months ago, I was listening to the local community radio station (read: the station I can count on for musical diversity when all the pop/rock stations are letting me down...which is most of the time). This song that I'd never heard before started playing, and about a minute or so in I thought, "That sounds like John Bell. Is this Panic?" And sure enough, the DJ confirmed that it was "Up All Night," from Widespread Panic's upcoming new release, Free Somehow. It wasn't until this past week that I picked up the CD for myself.

I probably associate Widespread Panic most closely with my experience in Clinical Pastoral Education. I was looking to expand my jamband knowledge to something beyond DMB and one or two others, and had ended up downloading a few live Panic shows. The summer of 2003, in the midst of my CPE New Life Experience (which it truly was), I bought their album Don't Tell the Band and played it non-stop to and from the hospital parking garage. "Hey Little Lily," "Imitation Leather Shoes," "This Part of Town," and "Action Man" provided my soundtrack for what truly was an eye-opening, mind-expanding summer that I have to credit with so much.

The first few bars of this one had me worried. The opening track, "Boom Boom Boom," comes off as a generic southern rock song, and thus I worried that I'd just made a bad purchase. The rest of the disc makes up for it, though. "Walk on the Flood" gives us our first good introduction to Panic's new lead guitarist, Jimmy Herring, and since I'm not a Houser purist, I wasn't disappointed. "Three Candles" paints a musical picture of a ship at sea, yet the parameters of both are larger than they seem. "Her Dance Needs No Body" allows Herring to cut loose during its 8-minute span. This turned out to be a great addition to the Panic library.

11. Ani DiFranco, Reprieve - I don't know what exactly I like about Ani DiFranco. I do like her acoustic style, and I like her brutally honest poetry. I suppose that's enough. I had never heard her until someone played her live version of "Amazing Grace." That was when I wanted to hear more.

Reprieve is perhaps a softer effort than other albums. Drums are barely existent; it's mostly guitar and other strings. "Hypnotized" is about two people who may be imperfect but nevertheless drawn together. "Decree" is a biting commentary on how numbed out people's thinking is due to consumerism and selective news reporting. "Shroud" is about leaving certain beliefs or attitudes that can be blinding or limiting in order to experience life's richness.

12. Amos Lee, Amos Lee - I'd never even heard of Amos Lee until someone recommended him for this experiment, so I tracked down his debut album. Lee's sound is a combination of folk and blues, yet another softer album for the week. Lee plays guitar and is backed up by a modest group of musicians, yet the overall sound of the album is laid-back; a good CD to wind down with at the end of the day. Also, Norah Jones appears on a couple tracks, so I approve.

On "Seen It All Before," Lee tells a former love that he knows her tactics and games so well that he's not going to put up with it again. On "Soul Suckers," he sings to a woman seeking fame and fortune, cautioning her against becoming a phony, and reminding her that "nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world." I really liked the arrangement of strings on that one. "Black River" is a hymnic declaration of freedom from the worries of the day.

Both DiFranco and Lee were good early-morning listens, but if I'm honest I'm wondering when I personally might listen to either album otherwise. There were gems on both, but as entire pieces I don't think I'd turn to these CDs that often. I imagine that I'll encounter a lot of albums along those lines over the next year. Of course, down the road when I do encounter an appropriate moment, I'll wish that I had one of these on hand to soothe my soul.

13. Live, The Distance to Here - I was never into Live. Period. I remember liking "I Alone" in high school, but otherwise I didn't care to pay much attention to them. Years later, a friend would ask me to burn a bunch of songs for her onto a CD to be turned in with a theological statement. Mixed in were a bunch of songs by Live, and I had no real choice to give a listen. While not expressly Christian, there's actually some good theology in there, or at least plenty to think about.

Consider "The Distance," where Kowalezyk sings about visiting traditional houses of worship to find something bigger, and then being caught off-guard with a real presence while he's sitting at home with his cat. "The distance" that he sings about is his own mortal limitations while searching for a higher power and greater purpose. In "Run to the Water," he seeks to escape a loveless existence (not a romantic love, but a mutual-respect-and-care kind), and escapes to "the water," which seems to be a more transcendental place. People with an ear for those kinds of themes will be able to hear them. They'll also hear the f-bomb a few times, so the most uppity ones will probably reject it whole cloth.

I'm gonna remember this album for my senior high discussion group. I thought that Soundgarden would be the rock album I'd really get into this week, but it turned out to be this instead.

14. Counting Crows, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings - I really like August and Everything After. Have I mentioned that? I wasn't as impressed by Recovering the Satellites, and outside of one or two singles of theirs that I've heard more recently, I haven't heard a lot of Counting Crows' more recent stuff. This is their latest album, with a simple theme: the first half is more about being out late, partying, hanging out on the town, and the second half is about the regrets one feels the next day. Get it?'s okay.

We start out with the manic "1492," which sets up the first half very well. It's probably the most true to the concept that the first half has to offer. The rest seem to hint at some kind of awareness that he's going to feel bad about this later. On "Hanging Tree," for instance, he sings, "This dizzy life of mine keep hanging me up all the time/This dizzy life is just a hanging tree." On "Insignificant," he sings, "I don't know how to see the same things different now." There's plenty of nihilism along the way, and a lot of good imagery that helps paint the night scene that Duritz is singing about.

The Sunday Morning portion of the album is softer and more reflective. They capture the mood very well in both portions, actually. "On Almost Any Sunday Morning," we hear about the belief that this Sunday morning will be different; that this time one won't feel alone or regret, but one always does. "You Can't Count on Me" is sung to a woman that the singer is using just for pleasure's sake. See, there's some overlap the other way, too. In light of this, I was tempted to call the concept flawed. However, one can certainly feel regret in the midst of excessiveness, and likewise a twinge of excitement the morning after. In that sense, the concept works wonderfully well.

Album of the Week: Morphine, The Night
Song of the Week: Widespread Panic, "Dark Day Program"
Lyric of the Week: "The best thing about New Year's is the Christmas lights." - Widespread Panic, "Up All Night"