College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #632 to #629

santana marathon

632. Santana, Marathon (1979)

In many respects, the shifting trends of rock music in the late nineteen-seventies probably felt very accommodating to guitarist Carlos Santana. A master craftsman with his guitar, Santana had major hits with hard rock music as the seventies gave way to the seventies, but his style of playing often seemed misplaced surrounded by post-psychedelic thunder. He brought an intricacy to the guitar that was arguably more in line with the fusion of jazz and rock tipping more to the rock side that represented a natural progression from the floridness of prog rock. Marathon find Santana and the band that bears his name shifting into that mode, with clumsy results.

Part of the issue with Marathon is that it’s slip-slides around the prevailing sounds of the era without ever finding a proper groove. Aqua Marine” and “Runnin” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jean-Luc Ponty album, at least until Santana pushes his playing into a bluesier style and the whole track takes on a level of confusion that makes it seem like individual instrument tracks were edited together by mistake. At the most regrettable, such as “Summer Lady,” it just sounds like a Boz Scaggs record with slightly tougher guitar work.

Oddly, the evolutionary step from sixties hard rock to seventies fusion put Santana in a place where they wind up anticipating the nadir of mid-eighties pop-rock, when all the new wave was seeped out of it to leave generic shells that could fill in the track lists of Brat Pack soundtracks. “You Know That I Love You” and “All I Ever Wanted” are practically the same song, just played at different tempos. And “Stay (Beside Me)” is so concentrated in its blandness that it sounds like it was recorded to serve as the theme music for an attempted Love Boat spinoff about the mundane lives of the seawater-spritzed, besotted couples after they went ashore. The veneer of inoffensive suitability is fortified by the lead vocals of Alex Ligertwood, on his first of many albums with Santana. Ligertwood comes across as the tepid tea version of Paul Carrack, who is barely lukewarm coffee himself.

 

split colours

631. Split Enz, True Colours (1980)

When Split Enz turned in their fifth studio album, True Colours, their record label was disappointed. The already strong songwriting of the band’s brothers, Neil and Tim Finn, clearly took another step forward, but whatever verdict might have been delivered about the artistic merits of the album, one thing was certain to the executives: There was no hit on the record. The band suggested the earthy, groovy “Missing Person” was the album’s strongest cut and might make for a good first single. Instead, the label opted for “I Got You.” The song spent two months atop the chart in Australia, Split Enz’s home base at the time, and became the country’s biggest-selling single of the year.

When True Colours received its U.S. release, on A&M Records, the order of the tracks was rejiggered slightly to put “I Got You” right up top, leading off side one. What followed took listeners on a slightly wilder and wider aural journey than they probably expected. The album is locked into a distinctive pop sound, but also opts for a loose experimentalism. The wild art rock of “Double Happy” coexists with the orchestral refinement of “I Hope I Never,” and Split Enz seem equally comfortable no matter the extreme. They arguably lock in most firmly when deploying songs with a raggedy post-punk feel — the fervent “Shark Attack” or the yearning tingles of “Poor Boy” — maybe because the requisite brusqueness is an ideal match for strong pop songwriting.

In addition to the sterling material pressed into the grooves, there was a little something special skating across the upper plane of the physical record. In part to dissuade piracy, the record label used laser etching to put vivid designs across the surface of the vinyl. It was supposedly the first released album to feature the technique.

 

meat out

630. Meat Puppets, Out My Way (1986)

“When we work, we really work,” Curt Kirkwood, lead singer and guitarist of the Meat Puppets, told Spin magazine around the time the band’s EP Out My Way was released. “We tour for thirty days straight, and then when we go home we can afford to sit around for three months.”

By their own estimate, the Meat Puppets had mounted six tours over the course of four years when Out My Way came out, and the record naturally gave them cause to go out again. Standard bearers of Greg Ginn’s SST Records, the trio was known for raucous live sets and albums of freewheeling rock music. Like most college rock EPs of the era, Out My Way can reasonably be seen as a placeholder, provider a reminder to highly distractible student programmers about the continuing existence of a band they’d previously shown favor. Unlike some other short-form releases, Out My Way doesn’t come across as scraps and filler. Meat Puppets still raise a fine racket.

Opening with the burbling rock song “She’s Hot,” the EP clicks through a set of new offerings, all generally fine and sturdy. The spacey intricacies on “Other Kinds of Love” suggest the ranginess of the band, but the main impression of tracks stacked up like artisanal bricks, each special and appealing but most notable for dependability on display. When the steady gallop “Not Swimming Ground” turns into a lean, fierce jam at the end, finishing up well before it lapses into indulgence, it comes across as a mild variant, a wink of sonic expansiveness that the band can pull out of their collective back pocket any time they want. Only the closing track, an antic cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” is negligible.

The plan called for another quick return to the studio after touring in support of Out My Way. The schedule was derailed when Kirkwood broke his finger in an unfortunate encounter with the touring van’s closing door. The forced slowdown arguably contributed to Meat Puppets taking some of their most adventurous explorations to that point when the time to record again finally came around.

 

bruce dancing

629. Bruce Cockburn, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979)

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn released albums at a steady clip through the nineteen-seventies, building a strong fanbase in his native Canada and remaining fairly obscure in the nation to the direct south. In the U.S., Cockburn’s records sold modestly and the accompanying singles barely registered. The breakthrough finally arrived in 1979, with the release of Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.

In crafting the album’s songs, Cockburn was inspired by the writings of British novelist and theologian Charles Williams. According to Cockburn, Williams “was a terrible writer but had an astounding vision of how Divine/Human interaction works.” Cockburn consumed every bit of Williams’s writing he could find, and all those concepts were rattling around in his head as he pondered the crumbling state of the world and the existential threats, such as nuclear weaponry, that were under the control of highly questionable world leaders. These concerns converged into “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a lovely folk-pop number that, played with grace and emotive elegance, became a U.S. Top 40 hit for Cockburn, his sole song to tally that achievement.

The remainder of the Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws is in the same basic mode as its unlikely hit, sometimes remarkably so. “Hills of Morning” could almost be a demo version of “Wondering Where the Lions Are” with alternate lyrics. “Incandescent Blue” exhibits the offhand complexity akin to Joni Mitchell, and “Badlands Flashback” incorporates flamenco-light guitar plucking. If nothing else is as immediately arresting as the album’s established standout track, it all goes down impressively smooth and easy. Cockburn never had another sizable success on the singles chart in the U.S. One gem might be enough.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — Scene I: The End of October edition

angels

Angels in East Texas by Wes Ferguson

Part reporting, part reminiscence and reflection, Wes Ferguson writes about the staging of Tony Kushner’s widely acknowledged masterpiece, Angels in America, at an East Texas college in the late nineteen-nineties. Validating a stereotype of Lone Star State bigotry, a play involving gay themes brings out the worst in the community, as bible-thumpers decry it without bothering to read — much less attempt to understand — the work in question. Ferguson tracks the roaming blaze of hysteria and concedes to his own contribution of kindling as a student newspaper editor excited about covering a controversy. The article provides a reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that an entire community could be overtaken by raging, open hate of gay people and any cultural offering that dared to imagine them as deserving of respect and dignity. Of course, while broader acceptance and understanding has improved considerable over the course of the past two decades, similar instances of reactionary, ignorant intolerance crop up to this day. This piece was published by Texas Monthly.

My Misspent Youth — Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Watchmen comedian-001

I bought Watchmen, the limited series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shortly after the twelfth and final issue was released. Watchmen #12 was cover-dated October 1987 and hit comic shop racks in the last week of July. DC Comics, the publisher behind the project, had a trade paperback collection available by early September of that year, but I didn’t wait. “Waiting for the trade” wasn’t a thing then as it is now. Instead, I wanted to get the entirety of this comic series I’d read about in exuberant articles for months and never previously held in my hands. I took several comics from my collection and traded them in to Lone Star Comics, which ran the subscription service that fed my compulsion for monthly superhero adventures. With the credit I earned, I ordered all twelve issues, including the first couple that by then had spiked in cost. I didn’t matter. In the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided I needed this comic book series.

As I recall it, I read the entire run in a few big chunks, enthralled, and thrilled by the exhaustion I felt after scrutinizing every bit of it, occasionally doubling back to again read key sections. I lingered over Moore’s words, hunted for foreshadowing to the story’s many devastating riddles. In a way that I hadn’t previously, I studied the very structure of the narrative, eagerly hoping discern every last bit of meaning to be found in elements such as the concurrent rendering of a gruesome pirate comic book read by a cigarette-smoking youth camped out next to a surprisingly pivotal newsstand in the midst of a dilapidated city block.

Watchmen comic-001

With the many, many superhero stories I read, I was accustomed to homing in on the details, a common comic book reader practice that Moore and Gibbons leveraged in their deconstructionist saga. Originally pitched as a project that would give a modern, grim spin to the batch of old Charlton Comics characters recently acquired by DC, Watchmen became an original creation (albeit one that simply turned those Charlton characters into thinly disguised avatars). The invention of new characters, originally expected to be used for this one story and then taken out of rotation, allowed Moore to get deeper, darker, more daring with his tale. The fundamental premise was an imagining of the real ramifications of a world partially populated by super-powered beings, waging their battles in a reality where there’s no actual binary of good guys and bad guys, and where bystander citizens would sustain harm from the shrapnel of a slugfest. Other creators, learning the wrong lessons from this and the Moore-written Batman: The Killing Joke, released around the same time, extrapolated this striking new tone into the grim-and-gritty aesthetic that dominated — and stained — superhero comics for at least the next decade.

Much as I’d like to report that I saw through the surface appeal of the storytelling, that’s not wholly true. I was a teenage boy, blessed with only slightly more enlightenment that others in my lamentable brethren. Susceptibility to brutish cool was a side effect of the toxic norming I experienced. It was super awesome that Rorschach was so bleak and tough and uncompromising, just like Wolverine! Although Moore built nuance into the characterization, I wasn’t yet equipped to understand the damnable contradictions of the antihero.

And yet, I really do believe what captured me from the beginning, and caused me to proselytize for Watchmen as the only exhibit needed to prove that comics should indeed be considered true art, was the layering and complexity of the series. No matter how vast and sprawling my regular superhero sagas, they were obviously built to be somewhat disposable. Anyone could join or leave at any time, with only the most basic knowledge of the characters a prerequisite to joining midstream. That’s not how Watchmen worked. Individual issues had their own flavor, often structured around the tried and true superhero comic conceit of flashing back to an origin story, but they mandated an attentiveness to and consideration of the preceding entirety. In a way, Moore codified the primacy of the totality with the bravura issue focused on Dr. Manhattan, an atomic age hero approaching omnipotence. In the narrative, history stretches beyond reckoning and yet happens all at once, like a towering stack of comics.

Watchmen mars

The density of Watchmen left me stunned. That’s why I resisted the mighty temptation to race through it, treating it like other comics that I’d read and then toss aside, ready for the next multicolored potato chip. I sensed there was more to this work. It deserved more concentration and added time to sink in before careening to the next installment. I didn’t yet have the language to identify all its merits — or all the ways it stirred me to think in a meta-textual way about what I was reading — but I sensed its importance, both to me and to the canon of comic book storytelling.

Later, fortified by college English courses, I’d be able to expound on what made Watchmen special with a thesaurus full of high-falutin’ words. When I first read it, I mostly knew one simple thing: It floored me.

Watchmen plan

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Laughing Matters — League of Extraordinary Freelancers

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

If there was any benefit to The Simpsons rolling on and on and on and on, well past the point of its remarkable — and, to be fair, remarkably long-lasting — brilliance, it’s that the program eventually cycled through so many scenarios that it occasionally became, almost by necessity, delightfully esoteric in its references. Only a comedy show solidly in its nineteenth season can operate with the foolhardy confidence of building a whole set of gags around the appearance of a few icons of alternative comics. But there they were, lined up and each sporting the familiar Groeningian overbite: Daniel Clowes, Alan Moore, and Art Spiegelman.

For Clowes and Spiegelman, the crafted jokes were mostly general, riffing on the divide between indie comix and mainstream superhero falderal. The same was also true of Moore, but the Simpsons creative team (Matt Selman is the credited writer on the episode) also spun a little comic energy in the direction of Moore’s longstanding feud with the corporate callousness of DC Comics, the comic book publisher where the master writer made his fame in the U.S. The main joke was put in the hands of Milhouse, who blithely asks Moore to sign a copy of the cash-in knockoff Watchmen Babies, a fictional (and yet highly plausible) perversion of the mid-nineteen-eighties limited series that is arguably the writer’s masterpiece and inarguably one of the most influential superhero-based works of the era.

The joke is based on a betrayal. DC Comics promised Moore the copyright on the work would be returned to him and the series co-creator, artist Dave Gibbons, as soon as Watchmen went out of print. At the time, well before the proliferation of trade paperback collections repurposing comic book series into “graphic novels,” there was no reason to expect Watchmen would remain officially in print for much more than a couple years. Instead, Watchmen became a permanent fixture in the DC catalog, and Moore never got the ownership he was promised, engendering an entirely understandable seething animosity that persists to this day.

When this Simpsons episode aired, the middling movie adaption was still two years away, and there was certainly no weekly HBO show to further cement Watchmen into the public consciousness. Milhouse’s eager fandom of Watchmen Babies and Moore’s volcanic reaction to the corporate exploitation and dilution of his intellectual labor was based on a comic book well probably unknown to the vast majority of the viewing audience. That even a few minutes of broadcast network time was given over to it is a marvel. There’s a lot to lament in regards to the unwillingness of The Simpsons to exit the pop culture stage, but bits like this one almost compensate for the most dire moments.

The New Releases Shelf — All Mirrors

angle olsen

I don’t believe there’s another current performer who’s simultaneously otherworldly and vehemently down-to-earth in quite the same way as Angel Olsen. Part of the equation is fairly easy to work out. Olsen specializes in melding spare, airy music with words that are emotional haymakers. Even when the lyrics are somewhat oblique, there’s a clear underlying feeling that makes them real as scars. All Mirrors, Olsen’s fourth full-length studio album, carries all of these qualities while adding new dynamics that don’t jolt the listener but instead amass in the subconscious. It’s reminiscent of the mid-career reinventions of Polly Jean Harvey, but executed with greater stealth.

Olsen’s advance single “Lark” properly foretold the album’s magisterial drive. Vivacious in its complexity, the song undulates and cascades. It almost melts into itself. The same can be said of “Too Easy,” which is almost dreamy enough to be a Beach House song. “Impasse” sounds like Olsen is raising a tempest through sheer force of songcraft. Other times, Olsen pulls back, letting a song proceed with measured precision. “Spring” flutters like a tapestry caught in the wind, but it’s also clear that every ripple of its fabric is deeply considered. The obvious care adds weight to the lyrics: “Days that keep slipping/ Our lives that I’m missing/ I wish it were true love/ I wish we were kissing.”

As the album edges to the end, the music generally grows sparer, icier (the exception is “Summer,” which evokes the spooky seduction of Bats for Lashes). It builds purposefully to the album closer “Chance.” coming after a string of especially forlorn songs, the cut is breathtaking in both its wounds and its firm insistence on questing toward personal peace and maybe even redemption (“I’m leaving once again/ Makin’ my own plan/ I’m not looking for the answer/ Or anything that lasts”). To the degree that any album — any great album, anyway — is an argument delivered by the artist, “Chance” is a firm restatement of a running thesis. The uncertainty of simply being never goes away, and the best anyone can do is grab for whatever truths they can get in a moment, any moment. Thankfully, Olsen keeps taking her handfuls of truth and putting them, in every way, on record.

Playing Catch-Up — La Pointe Courte; Boy Erased; Stan & Ollie

la pointe

La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955). Three years before Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, the film usually cited as the beginning of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda delivered this film that certainly flaunts a lot of the hallmarks of the influential cinematic movement. In a small waterfront town, Lui (Philippe Noiret) meets his wife, Elle (Silvia Monfort), who’s journeyed from Paris. The two stroll through town discussing their relationship in the most way possible. The residents of the town go about their modest business, mostly centered around pulling seafood out of the water, sometimes in defiance of regulations. Varda made her debut film with only the barest sense of how narrative cinema was supposed to work. By all accounts, she wasn’t even an especially avid film fan at the time. And yet La Pointe Courte is brightly alive with inspired reconstructions and elegant visuals. There’s a hardscrabble realness to the scenes of the townspeople that contrasts marvelously with the more refined, restrained portions of the film intently focused on the couple. It’s a grandly great film.

 

boy erased

Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, 2018). Adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased delves into the harrowing, cruel culture of gay conversion therapy. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is from a deeply conservative and religious Southern family, and he willingly enters the perversely named Love in Action program after going away to college unearths portions of himself he’d been denying. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also plays the leader of the gay conversion program, the film tracks through the ugly faux therapy with painstaking attention to the brutality of it all. If anything, Edgerton is overly reliant on the program’s particulars, unfolding the therapy sessions with mounting misery that feels false, adhering to the dramatic need to escalate stakes rather than a believable progression. The approach has the unfortunate effect of deadening the piece’s emotions. The film’s strongest scene centers on a conversation between Jared and his father (Russell Crowe), mainly because its one of the few instances of the storytelling stretching away from the expected norm, allowing that familial conflicts and pain often don’t wrap up with a tidiness that audiences desire.

 

stan and ollie

Stan & Ollie (Jon S. Baird, 2018). This biographical drama about the beloved comedy team Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) is kind, well-meaning, and dreadfully dull. Mostly set during a tour of the U.K. the duo mounted late in their career, Stan & Ollie is about little squabbles and minor struggles, the latter escalating somewhat as Oliver’s health worsens under the rigors of performing. There’s not enough there to give the movie any momentum or real sense of purpose, a problem director Jon S. Baird compounds with his plain visuals and sluggish pacing. What the film does have are very nice performances. Coogan and Reilly are both very fine as familiar figures, but the scene-stealer is Nina Arianda as Stan’s brusque, headstrong wife. She seems airdropped in from a different, far livelier movie.