Monday, November 4, 2013

My Favorite Fall Albums [Part Two]

Halloween has come and gone, fall color is well past its peak, and we no longer have daylight savings time to stave off the early nights.  The transitional period is behind us, and we are now in the depths of Autumn; Winter is beginning to make it's impending arrival known and Summer has faded into a distant memory.  

I'm not sure if there are necessarily any inherent differences in this batch of fall albums compared to the first edition, compiled almost two months ago.  I will say that the swift progression of the season gives a more subdued, introspective flavor to the earthy, organic sound that albums from both lists share.  Whether it is the more prominent dreariness in the seasonal context, or an increased withdrawal in the music itself, these are the ten albums that I feel are most fitting for (late) fall.    


1.Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

I would be hard pressed to find any other album that comes this close to literally sounding like fall.  The sparse arrangements, with the lazily echoing drums and windy, ringing electric guitar strumming, seem to be crafted for the sole purpose of transporting the listener to a park bench with a steaming cup of coffee as brown leaves whirl about on the hollow wind.  And just as that coffee brings warm appreciation to the heart, so does the sublime voice of Neko Case.  For as great as the album is as a whole, it is crafted entirely around the warm, ethereal glow of her crooning.  

2. Patti Smith - Horses

Patti Smith the "post-Beat" poet probably could have been just as influential as Patti Smith the musician, but when framed by the raw, simple guitar grooves heard on Horses, her impact rises to transcendental heights.  Her anarchic free-verse wordplay drones through and dances around the improvisational garage rock song structures, and at the perfect moments erupts into cathartic hooks.  The hypnotic vocal meandering on Birdland and Land put the listener in a beatnik heaven in the darkened corner of a smoke-filled club, until the band bursts in, burning the world to ashes of proto-punk fury.  

3. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation

The album opens with breathy schoolyard taunts echoing over a droning guitar progression, but upon awakening to a Teenage Riot you are thrust headfirst into a sprawling land of experimental song structures, strange alternate tunings, bursts of sheer noise, and detached surrealist lyricism.  No matter how far Daydream Nation takes you into the unknown however, it always keeps its roots in sublime artistic expression.  The album is an odd, challenging, and occasionally even threatening journey, but at the end proves to be a brilliant marriage of indie rock and avant art.

4. Television - Marquee Moon

Gotham City was once described by Batman creator Dennis O'Neil as "Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November".  That happens to be exactly where I envision Marquee Moon taking place.  The tense, nervy garage rock is the soundtrack to distant flashes of lightning behind the looming skyscrapers, as smoke bellows out of grates in the wet street and shady figures maneuver in and out of the shadows.  

5. The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers, along with Exile on Main Street, is probably the mighty Rolling Stones at their absolute weariest.  In 1971, The Stones had already become the stuff of legend.  Their reckless barroom swagger, controversial subject matter, drug-fueled hedonism, and general contempt for authority was and still is the very embodiment of rock and roll.  Such legacy doesn't come without a price however, and by the time Sticky Fingers came out the band's personal troubles were catching up to them.  This is the sound of the world's greatest rock band running on fumes, worn out from their own lust for life.  As a testament to their power of musical expression, the dark moodiness of Sticky Fingers is exactly what makes it great.  Shamelessly decadent rockers are counterpointed with druggy, strung-out ballads and anachronistic country.  The album is dense and murky throughout, as instruments blend into each other to create the mood of the whole. 

The Stones more than paid their dues to the demons of rock and roll by the time this album came out.  Although they lived to tell about it, they found themselves at a turning point to figure out where to go next.  In this way, Sticky Fingers is eerily similar to the experience of Summer's magic fading closer into the dreariness of Winter as the world catches up to us once again.

6. Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff

As far as I'm concerned, Superfuzz Bigmuff (technically a combination of Mudhoney's early Sub/Pop EPs and Singles, but today considered an LP for all intents and purposes) is the pinnacle of the Seattle "grunge" scene in its purest form.  This is a collection of songs that all deliver massive melodic riffs with the intensity and destructiveness of punk music, while condensing punk's relentless energy and anger into a half-speed, down-tuned sea of distorted slop.  Meanwhile the attitude of vocalist Mark Arm is practically tangible as he delivers the snarky, debasing lyrics with aggressive sarcasm, his howls often drifting into and resurfacing from the underlying murk.  

7. Band of Horses - Everything All the Time

Like fall itself, I can't think of many better ways to describe Band of Horses than "a breath of fresh air".  Throughout the album the drums are beautifully compressed and splashy, the guitars chime and swirl, and the vocals echo with reverb as they stretch over the aural landscape.  The result is a dense, vaguely Spector-like wall of sound, which the wide, airy mix molds into one long gust of brisk fall wind.  Meanwhile the delivery and melodicism, which alternates between tranquil meditative country and explosive anthems to the majesty of the natural world, finds a comfortable balance somewhere between Beach Boys whimsy and Neil Young's woodsy naturalism.  

8. Dinosaur Jr - You're Living All Over Me

The debut album from indie legends (and Neil Young disciples) Dinosaur Jr offers an interesting blend of Neil's rustic, backwoods authenticity and fractured indie songcraft, the downbeat grime later heard in grunge, avant noise, and old school guitar shredding mixed with hints of psychedelia.  Perhaps more than anything though, it is known as the album that brought lead guitar back to indie music.  While the mumbled vocals and intentionally sloppy overall sound led to the band's reputation as "slacker" icons, frontman J Mascis certainly had/has the guitar chops to compete with anyone.  Of course his leads are delivered with an incredibly distinct recklessness and a near-violent lack of giving a shit; which makes the album that much more representative of the season. 

9. Broken Bells - Broken Bells

As an artist, there is nothing more satisfying to me than seeing a successful collaboration between styles that initially seem conflicting.  James Mercer is the indie icon that crafted dreamy, heartfelt pop music with The ShinsDanger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) is the prolific, primarily electronic producer/DJ.  The result is Broken Bells, a seamless melding of organic instrumentation with electronic beats and loops; indie-pop songcraft with technically ambitious production.  Songs like The High Road and The Ghost Inside make the two elements almost indistinguishable from each other, while others like Sailing to Nowhere and Mongrel Heart play on the relationship between the familiar and the intimidating.   All said and told, it just lends itself to the ominous underlying mystery of autumn.  

10. The Highwaymen - Highwayman

Willie Nelson.  Waylon Jennings.  Kris Kristofferson.  Johnny Cash.  Does any more really need to be said?  Probably not, but I'm gonna say it anyway.  It would have been easy for those four to have made a "successful" album full of cookie-cutter songs and fueled by name recognition.  Instead they crafted a ten-piece of songs so transcendental that it could only have been pulled off by a group of legends.  Songs like Desperadoes Waiting for a Train and We're All in Your Corner seemingly unite the group into one omnipresent force of outlaw spirit, while The Last Cowboy Song and The Twentieth Century is Over celebrates their impeccable longevity among the disintegration of their mythical outlaw ethos.  Of course it is all framed by the opening track Highwayman, a cathartic ode to the past and future of their immortal, unstoppable renegade legacy.  

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