The New Releases Shelf — To Love is To Live

jehnny beth

Back in my college radio days, when I moved with a music-nerd crew that devoted our collective brain power to sussing every mystery of the artists we loved when there was no superhighway continually exiting information to us, one of the pastimes was guessing when various band members would spin off into solo endeavors. I remember once sitting in the studio, playing a track off of the then-new ‘Til Tuesday album Everything’s Different Now, and asking one of my cohorts how many more records he thought the band had in them before Aimee Mann decided to do her own thing. He simply held up his hand, fingers curled to resemble a zero.

I felt that same certainty that I was encountering a performer who’d quickly outgrown the band she stood in front of when I saw Savages play live, touring in support of their 2016 album, Adore Life. The personality Jehnny Beth brought to songs on the two Savages albums was formidable enough, but she was ferociously charismatic on stage. She couldn’t been more clearly a star if the International Astronomical Union had given her a name and number. There was little shock when the band announced plans to “take a break.” The only mild surprise is that it’s taken this long for Beth to get to her first official full-length solo outing.

To Love is To Live has some of the thrilling dark churn that typified the Savages’ albums, but it spins down radically different avenues. Beth was reportedly inspired to creative action in part by the passing of David Bowie shortly after the release of his monumental Blackstar, and her album wears some of that great work’s warped-jazz cloaks. The more simple and direct post-punk of Savages is still there, providing a spindly spine, but Beth and her collaborators (including Flood and Atticus Ross) load on jagged art rock. “Flower,” a love song between two women, is maybe the most emblematic track, swirling and surging in its post-Eurythmics pop deconstruction.

The album is imperfect in its explorations, sometimes employing distorted vocals and other studio effects to little impact beyond noticing their presence. More often, its enjoyable to hear Beth veer from the brusque death disco “Innocence” to the punk clamor and clatter of “I’m the Man” to the stark piano ballad “The Rooms,” never giving the barest indication that she’s uncertain traversing any of these sonic planes. At times, Beth signals that she’s developing toward true mastery, as on “French Countryside,” which finally answers the question of what Everything But the Girl would have sounded like had they added some soulfulness to their pristine pop elegance.

Savages might get together to make another album. They may continue on and have a long, extraordinary career together. If not, there will likely be plenty of Jehnny Beth requests, and To Love is To Live suggest that will be more-than-adequate compensation.

The New Releases Shelf —Sideways to New Italy

rolling blackout
(source)

When I fell for Hope Downs, the debut full-length from Australian band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, it was because I heard the college radio of my own personal era in the earnest, tuneful stylings. It wasn’t true retro, reliant on nostalgia in place of originality. Instead, the band drew on predecessors but placed themselves firmly in the now on the out-of-the-mainstream rock continuum of college to modern to alternative to indie. That I heard the bygone jangle and wistfulness of the late–nineteen-eighties in the album’s skillful songs made the album mighty difficult to resist.

For the band’s follow-up, Sideways to New Italy, it feels to me like they move ahead a few year with their baseline influences, as if embarking on the second leg in of a time travel tour of what dudes with guitars and an aw-shucks eschewing of pop slickness can come up with. “Falling Thunder” is like a peppier Death Cab for Cutie, and “The Cool Change” reminds me of something Wilco might have put on a mythical record between Being There and Summerteeth. “The Only One” has the easy charm of drifty, dreamy Britpop bands of roughly the same era, the lads who listened to the Go-Betweens and the Housemartins in their teenage bedrooms and thought they could give it a go, too, but landed on the endearingly basic version of the same music.

If Sideways to New Italy doesn’t offer quite the same surge of excitement as its predecessor, it’s still clearly the product of a smart, sharp band. “Cars in Space” has a racing energy to it, and “Cameo” is full to bursting. Al the elements come together in songs that are chunky and satisfying. For obvious reason, there’s a particular metaphor that’s primarily applied to flatly enjoyable movies that aren’t particularly demanding. But I think it’s fair to say that Sideways to New Italy is a popcorn album. 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #491 to #489

suburbs love

491. The Suburbs, Love is the Law (1984)

Serving as the trailblazers in a Minneapolis rock scene that went a long way towards defining alternative music in the pre-grunge era, the Suburbs were prepared to make a proper stab at the mainstream in the middle on the nineteen-eighties. Originally perpetrators of arty, angular punk songs, the Suburbs made a deliberate shift to more broadly palatable pop-inflected music, earning them the ire of some of their municipal peers.

“It was decision to make this insistent kind of music that could move people, and make them dance,” explained Chan Poling, frontman for the Suburbs, of the sound the band described as “underground disco music.”

When the Suburbs moved from hometown label Twin/Tone to major label PolyGram, with the album Love is the Law, they had their new, polished form down. The title cut, based on some scrawled graffiti spotted by Poling, is bouncy, bright, and big, like a more fun version of Simple Minds. (Years later, the song’s sentiment and upbeat spirit made it the perfect anthem for those fighting for marriage equality.) “Accept Me Baby” is funky and weird, like a first-draft Morphine song, and “Rainy Day” has the earthy elegance of prime Lloyd Cole. With confidence and aplomb, the Suburbs explore multiple sonic variants across the album, including enjoyably glum guitar rock “Monster Man” and a jittery, funk-laced workout “Crazy Job.”

Enjoyable overall, the album doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls of the era.“Skin” is scarred by yucky eighties synths, and other tracks have moments that come dangerously close to cloying slickness. Those a minor issues, though, easy to ignore when considering how Love is the Law is slyly innovative and sometimes distinctly ahead of its time, forecasting future pop iconoclasts such as Future Islands. If anything, Love is the Law might have been too forward-thinking. Dissatisfied with the commercial response, PolyGram dropped the Suburbs after one album.

 

doobie minute

490. The Doobie Brothers, Minute by Minute (1978)

The Doobie Brothers started 1978 by showing up in a highly unlikely place. The band appeared on the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!!, playing themselves in a two-part episode centered on the evils of bootlegging concerts. They closed out the year by releasing their eighth studio album, Minute by Minute, which proved to be the biggest commercial success of their career. It logged a total of five weeks atop the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles, including the defining #1 hit “What a Fool Believes.” For a harrowing pop culture moment, the Doobie Brothers were inescapable.

Album opener “Here to Love You” epitomizes the single-gear aesthetic of the Doobies, drifting along at a mid-range tempo with singer Michael McDonald baritoning out laughably bland lyrics (“Well, let me just go down as saying/ That I’m glad to be here/ Here with all the same pain and laughs everybody knows”) as everyone plays their instruments with unobtrusive professionalism, as if they’re expecting someone us to step up and take a solo at any minute. That familiar combo of uninspiring elements is still better than those instances when guitarist Patrick Simmons spells McDonald on lead vocal durties, such as the drab disco number “Dependin’ on You” and the bluesy “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels.”

Listening to Minute to Minute is a hunt for stray bit that escape the rut: Nicolette Larson’s sweet, brief guest vocals on “Sweet Feelin” or the passable instrumental hoedown “Steamer Lane Breakdown.” Perhaps tellingly, those moments feel like the band goofing around, less concerned with delivering pristine, rightly controlled music and more interested in having a little fun in the studio. The album that made a hit out of speculation on the belief systems of fools ends by posing the musical question “How Do the Fools Survive?” emphasizing the redundancy of thought that makes the Doobie Brothers one of the duller bands of their era. The disruptions, no matter how minor, to their heavily used patterns were the only elements that merited attention.

 

u2 wide

489. U2, Wide Awake in America (1985)

No part of Wide Awake in America was recorded in the United States. A stopgap release that hit just a couple weeks after the conclusion of the major North American leg of U2’s tour in support of The Unforgettable Fire, which came out the previous year, the EP consistent of two live tracks on one side and a couple songs that didn’t make the cut for the preceding album. The Unforgettable Fire brought U2 their first U.S. 40 hit with “Pride (In the Name of Love),” but it stalled at a mediocre #33 on the Billboard chart, despite saturation play on MTV. Even if the full commercial breakthrough hadn’t arrived, the fan base was building fast, as evidenced by the band sticking with arenas when they toured the U.S. and Canada from February to May. Providing a quick affordable record that felt like a tour souvenir was a shrewd move.

The two live tracks improve significantly on songs that feel overproduced on The Unforgettable Fire. Recorded live at a Wembley Stadium soundcheck and then layered with crowd noise in the studio, “A Sort of Homecoming” has a lean forthrightness and emotionally rich vocals from Bono. And “Bad,” an overlong anchor in its studio realization, becomes bold, freeing, and anthemic, practically defining the unique alchemy of U2 at their best, when they can make a song and sentiment feel intimate and massive at the same time.

Both castoffs from The Unforgettable Fire feel properly omitted from the full album. “The Three Sunrises” comes across as a soulless exercise, the sort of cut that might have been improved by another pass at it but also doesn’t hold enough promise to suggest it would be worth the effort. The probing, intricate “Love Comes Tumbling” is more interesting, if only because the band seems to be trying to channel Wave-era Patti Smith (the song pairs nicely with the band’s later cover of Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot”). The cuts are inessential except to diehards, but by then the band was starting to inspire quite a few of those diehards, all ready and eager to pledge their allegiance by seeking out any available additions to the collection.

 

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

This Week’s Model — Eric Church, “Stick That in Your Country Song”

eric church

I barely follow it, and even I know it’s been a helluva week for country music. I’m sure there are still plenty of practitioners of the form still relying on pickup truck cliches and jingoistic garbage to propel their creativity, but at least some country artists have decided the time has come to draw some lines. As part of the welcome, elongated trek back into music-making, a trio of unlikely agitators dropped Dixie from their name and released a fiery new protest song that further increases the likelihood that I will ask the proprietor of my favorite independently-owned record store to set aside a copy of what will now be the first album billed officially to the Chicks. At about the same time, Eric Church delivered his own tuneful demand for change, specifically calling out his country music peers for shying away from the significant social issues of the day.

“Stick That in Your Country Song” is a roundhouse punch of dissatisfaction, especially powerful because it’s coming from someone who’s hardly a disgruntled outsider. Three of Church’s last four studio albums topped the country charts, and at least six of his solo singles have reached the same pinnacle on their respective list. So when he offers the challenge to write and perform songs about wounded veterans, abandoned cities, and underpaid teachers, he’s implicitly including himself in the call to do better. On that front this stomper is goddamn good start, reminding me of vintage Steve Earle. I can muster few higher compliments for a country song.

 

Laughing Matters — Meet The CONAN Staff: Conor Oberst – Production Assistant

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.

The official announcement of the first new Bright Eyes album in nearly a decade seems as good of reason as any to share this recent favorite chunk of comedy. And the Phoebe Bridgers cameo also makes it timely.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #494 to #492

neil rust

494. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young had a record to promote when he went on the road in 1978. With backing band Crazy Horse sharing the bus, Young undertook a monthlong trek meant to draw attention to Comes a Time, a collection of understated, largely acoustic guitar–based songs. But fans who were hoping to enjoy the singer-songwriter operating exclusively in the mode of Harvest, the early–nineteen-seventies album that was — and still is — his greatest commercial success were nudged from that expected path by a true iconoclast deep in his lifelong exploration of creative oddity.

Young had lately been working on a film project, barely released a few years later under the name Human Highway, that included a collaboration with Devo. It was during a jam session with the art rock band that the term “Rust never sleeps” was intoned by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, quoting a Rust-Oleum slogan he remembered from his days working in the advertising industry as a graphic artist. Young liked the sound of it, and basically adopted it as a credo of constant creativity. If rust never sleeps, he better not either. The tour was emblazoned with that name, as was the album that followed it. Rust Never Sleeps was recorded in concert, pulling from both the solo acoustic sets that typically opened the shows and the hard rocking workouts with Crazy Horse that usually comprised the second half of the gigs, all of it supplemented by props, costumes, and other theatrical accouterments. According to the critical consensus of the time — which hasn’t shifted much in the decades since — the result was one of Young’s best albums.

Although a live album (overdubbed in the studio), Rust Never Sleeps is stacked with new songs, all showing Young at peak of his formidable powers. “Pocahontas” is a dreamlike exploration of the historic and ongoing hardship endured by Native Americans, and “Powderfinger” tells the story of a young man facing down a warship, punctuating with a squall of guitar rock that’s simultaneously ferocious and easygoing. The music goes glammy on “Welfare Mothers” and resoundingly lovely on “Sail Away.”  The intricate ballad “Thrasher” uses farmland imagery to extoll the satisfying feeling of seeking personal liberation, the simplicity of concept made transcendent through Young’s phenomenal songwriting (“It was then I knew I’d had enough/ Burned my credit card for fuel/ Headed out to where the pavement/ Turns to sand/ With a one-way ticket/ To the land of truth/ And my suitcase in my hand”).

The dual pinnacles of the album are also its bookends. The spare “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” opens Rust Never Sleeps, and the thundering “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” closes it. The overlapping message of the songs provides more detail to Young’s overall manifesto. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is the lyric that provides the bumper sticker version of the philosophy, but the magnificence of the songs together is the overall statement of endurance, the promise of legacy to those who give it their all, who invest in the power of music as a matter of defining belief. It’s a collective statement of aspiration and responsibility. Young showed — and still shows — the value in living that principle.

 

positively dumptruck

493. Dumptruck, Positively Dumptruck (1986)

The Boston band Dumptruck was enjoying the college rock version of a four-ace hand. Their debut album, D is for Dumptruck, had generated enough attention to get them signed to the emerging independent label Big Time Records, an investment that led directly to band landing in Mitch Easter’s Drive In studio with producer Don Dixon at the soundboard. Thanks to the benchmark success of R.E.M., who’d worked with the Easter and Dixon team on their first two albums, securing this combo of collaborators was absolutely the dream. And the resulting album, Positively Dumptruck, shows precisely why that was a worthwhile dream to have.

Chiming and crisp, the music on the album hits the perfect balance of rough yet polished, tuneful and raucous. Album opener “Back Where I Belong” establishes the Dumptruck musical personality: Americana with a funkier undercurrent and a warm, appealingly workaday guitar, bass, and drum sound. The tight, swirling rock song “Walk Into Mirrors” is more of the same, as are the chewy “Secrets” and the loping, almost hypnotic “7 Steps (Up).” The hangover-tinged lament “Autumn Light” has an opening couplet that approaches the evocative descriptions of Paul Westerberg, the poet laureate of regretful insobriety: “Woke up this morning in a foggy autumn light/ I don’t remember anything I did last night.” None of the material is groundbreaking, but it’s all admirably sturdy, the product of a band that clearly had to make their way on the rough, ungenerous club circuit that demand nightly proof of mettle.

Positively Dumptruck is a record full of promise. But maintaining a band is hard work, especially when there’s just a teeny touch of success that doesn’t yet include financial prosperity. Not long after the release of Positively Dumptruck, guitarist and singer Kirk Swan and bassist Steve Michener separately left the band, and there were questions about whether Dumptruck would continue. The remaining member eventually decided to keep going, in part because of the urging of label executives. But their next album, For the Country, came with its own considerable problems.

 

bram

492. Bram Tchaikovsky, Strange Man, Changed Man (1979)

Born Peter Bramall, the guitarist and singer Bram Tchaikovsky first gained a bit of fame with a brief tenure as the frontman for the pub rock group the Motors. He moved on from that band, recruited drummer Keith Boyce and bassist and keyboardist Micky Broadbent, and lent the resulting trio his own distinctive, memorable stage name. After securing a deal with Radar Records, Bram Tchaikovsky released their debut album, Strange Man, Changed Man. Modest yet propulsive, the album is nice representation of the end of the nineteen-seventies, when pop was splintering in countless directions and mastery of basic rock mechanics was its own sort of revolution.

That’s not to imply that there’s no edge to the tracks. The title cut almost makes the band sounds like the new wave version of Gang of Four. But Bram Tchaikovsky mostly comes across as a more rough and ready version of any number of rock ‘n’ roll true believers who were poking the heads out in the waning days of the disco era, checking to see if it was safe for guitars again. “Girl of My Dreams,” a U.S. top 40 single for the band, is like one of Tom Petty’s instant rock standards, “Lady From the U.S.A.” resembles the work of Jackson Browne, albeit at his blandest, and “Bloodline” could have been lent out to Humble Pie.

Strange Man, Changed Man is thoroughly enjoyable in its eager torch carrying. “Robber” has some guitar licks right out of nineteen-sixties British rock, and “Turn On the Light” is like a nineteen-fifties barnstormer, Eddie Cochran made current. The most significant misstep is when they reach to the past explicitly on a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” which is obnoxious in its sloppy bar band aesthetics. At this stage, Bram Tchaikovsky was too good to simply throw away a song like that. The rest of the album implicitly argues that they could have found their way to a new classic with that one, too.

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #497 to #495

rain explosions

497. Rain Parade, Explosions in the Glass Palace (1984)

Following their well-regarded debut album, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Rain Parade began to splinter. Most notably, band cofounder David Roback formally departed, evidently weary of jostling with the group’s other songwriters to get a spot on the records. His closing appearance came at the end of mini-LP Explosions in the Glass Palace, on the lengthy psychedelic drone “No Easy Way Down.” Gradually transforming a bluesy guitar slink into a swelling, thumping manta, the track invites a swaying immersion into its swamp of sound, exactly the sort of mind-bent indulgence the band was glad to soundtrack.

“What I get from your statement is that you hear something in our music that you’ve experienced more directly when you were tripping,” keyboardist Will Glenn responded to an interviewer coyly hinting at altered-state listening, at right around the time of the record’s release. “I think that’s good.”

The rest of the release holds to the revival of nineteen-sixties songs while simultaneously — and understandably, given the personnel circumstances —  tentatively testing out slight, interesting modifications. “You Are My Friend” has a lovely chiming tunefulness, and and “Prisoners” is crystalline psychedelia. “Broken Horse” is careful and tender, like the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” if it never exploded into angry rock. Whether the band viewed Explosions in the Glass Palace as a transitional work or a humble reintroduction — or, more likely, just the product of another day at the pop music factory — the record shimmer with promise of energizing new directions. Whether that promise was truly fulfilled by the band’s next album is very much in the ear of the individual listener.

 

three ever

496. The Three O’Clock, Ever After (1986)

Ever After was the third full-length record by the band billing themselves as the Three O’Clock (there was a prior release under the group’s original name, the Salvation Army). It was also their second for I.R.S. Records, the label that courted radio like a deeply smitten suitor, and there a signs that the band was doing their part to try to conjure up a radio-friendly pop hit. Veterans of the famed Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene, the Three O’Clock worked with producer Ian Broudie, who’d had significant success presiding over albums by Echo & the Bunnymen. Opening track and single “Suzie’s On the Ball Now” is arguably the clearest announcement of chart intentions, melding the clever artistry of XTC with the eager synth stylings of Erasure.

Much of Ever After fits into this deliberate pop mode while also hewing closely to the retro sounds that previously defined the Three O’Clock. “Follow Him Around” is straight nineteen-sixties girl group material, complete with a take on the famed “Be My Baby” drum riff. More characteristically, a shifted Summer-of-Love sound is heard in the drifty psychedelia “Step Out of Line” and the appropriately hippie-dippie “If You Could See My Way.” It’s only when the band strays too far from its roots — as on the pillow soft “When We Can,” which has the misfortunate of forecasting the polished aimlessness of Johnny Hates Jazz — that the material takes on an unpleasant veneer.

Despite continuing college radio affection, the Three O’Clock failed to score a crossover hit with Ever After, surely what I.R.S. was hoping for in the wake of the recent smash success of the Bangles, scene-mates to the band. If the label was disenchanted, the Three O’Clock had a famous fan ready to come to the career rescue. Not long after Ever After was released, the Three O’Clock was signed by Prince. The band’s next album was released on the Purple One’s Paisley Park label.

 

sun and the moon

495. The Sun and the Moon, The Sun and the Moon (1988)

The English band the Chameleons were coming off their most high-profile release when everything fell apart. Strange Times, the band’s third full-length, was released by Geffen Records and given a hearty promotional push, which didn’t necessarily translate into crossover success but certainly burnished their reputation. Then Tony Fletcher, the band’s influential manager, unexpectedly passed away at about the same time a personal rift between bassist-frontman Mark Burgess and guitarist Dave Fielding escalating to the point of irreparable damage. The band broke up, and Burgess and drummer John Lever recruited two new guitarists — Andy Clegg and Andy Whitaker — to form a new group, dubbed the Sun and the Moon. Geffen kept ahold of Burgess and released his new outfit’s self-titled debut album.

With The Sun and the Moon, Burgess intended to move the eddying psychedelia that was the most distinctive element of the Chameleons’ sound. To further establish the seriousness of that attempt at distance, he crafted the new set of songs as a loose concept album, presuming to spread one person’s reflections on a discombobulated world across two sides of a record. The album seems less like an aspiring novel and more like a set of songs from a creator of quiet ingenuity emerging into a new era, albeit one in which he’s still more informed by his former feats than he probably would have cared to admit.

The unique creative duality of the Sun and the Moon — and Burgess — is exemplified by the track “Speed of Life,” which is post-punk edginess all ensnarled with the undulating pop reinvention of Revolver-era Beatles. “House on Fire” has a similar dark-waters churn, while “A Matter of Conscience” suggests the Cult with the heavy metal influence stripped away. The more lasting place Burgess would have on the idiosyncratic fringes of rock music is found all across the album. “Death of Imagination” and “Limbo-Land” are the songs Julian Cope might record if his sound wasn’t always teetering on the edge of madness. And “This Passionate Breed” is like one of Peter Murphy’s glistening deep cuts, all grandiose seduction. Whether he meant to or not, Burgess declared his place in the rambling army of the musical iconoclasts, and no amount of Geffen marketing money was likely to budge him. The Sun and the Moon made only one album together before Burgess determinedly went his own way.

 

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

This Week’s Model — Leon Bridges, “Sweeter”

leon bridges

It’s probably unnecessarily reductive and comparative to note that “Sweeter” represents a sign that Leon Bridges is about to move into the What’s Going On phase of his career. But that’s what I finding myself thinking as I listen to the new single, while finds the modern soul singer lamenting the lack of progress in the U.S. since the tumult of the civil rights movement on the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties: “I thought we moved on from the darker days/ Did the words of the King disappear in the air/ Like a butterfly?” The song obviously couldn’t be more timely, but it’s not only its reflection of today’s headline that gives it power. It’s a beauty under any circumstances. The fact that the song’s message could have been pertinent at practically any point in the past fifty years, at least, makes it a heartbreaker.

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #500 to #498

inxs sha-001

500. INXS, Shabooh Shoobah (1982)

The members of INXS knew they were on the verge of a breakthrough when preparing to record their third album, Shabooh Shoobah. After a couple reasonably successful album releases in their homeland of Australia, the band shopped demos and got signed for worldwide distribution with a few different labels, including Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco for North America. INXS took their handful of new songs, which had been produced by Mark Opitz, and played them for other studio mavens they were interested in working with. Bob Clearmountain, just developing a reputation as an expert mix engineer and producer thanks to work with the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Church, is generally credited as the person who settled the matter of who’d get hired to oversee the record.

“Bob Clearmountain said to us, ‘I love the music, and I would definitely work with you guys, but I don’t have any ideas better than the guy who recorded these for you,'” INXS guitarist Kirk Pengilly later recalled. “‘The best advice I have for you is to go back to Australia and record the whole album with him.'”

INXS followed that advice, setting up shop at Sydney’s Rhinoceros Recordings and bringing focused musicianship to their new set of songs, most of which were captured live in studio. “The One Thing,” which masterfully apes the slicked-up new wave of Duran Duran, perhaps best demonstrates the level of commitment INXS brought to getting themselves a shiny international pop hit. To its credit, Shabooh Shoobah isn’t merely a set of trend-grabbing songs, however. Instead, INXS truly seems to be exploring, trying to find their place and they to try to spread beyond Australia. “Here Comes” deploys a jabbing dance beat, and “Old World New World” is probably best described as attempt to invent Australian soul. There are even airy art pop elements to “Spy of Love.”

Fittingly, it’s the album’s last track that best represents the future of the INXS, like a coupling between train cars. It’s also the sole cut on the album on which songwriting credit is shared by the entire band. “Don’t Change” is soaring, urgent pop rock, a yearning keyboard part undergirding a smash-up clatter of drums and guitars, the clear, smooth vocals of Michael Hutchence delivering the irresistible come-on “Don’t change for you/ Don’t change a thing for me.” The song has the simple directness of classic rock ‘n’ roll with a boldly modernized feel. In its four and a half minutes resides the band that was a couple years away from selling records and concert tickets in astonishing numbers. Stardom lurks in its groove.

 

husker zen

499. Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade (1984)

Zen Arcade started like all albums do: a few songs here, a few general ideas there,” Bob Mould wrote in his memoir, See a Little Light. “But at some point we realized that it could be so much more and ambition kicked in.”

With their second full-length release, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü unleashed a double album and a concept record, both largely anathema to the punk ruck culture that raged against the classic rock excess those forms represented. But then, there’s arguably nothing more punk rock than refusing to be pigeonholed, and Hüsker Dü were already being told who they were and what they were capable of on the basis of their blistering early songs. With a heaping dose of snarling rebellion, Zen Arcade aims to absolutely redefine everything.

As Mould and his bandmate Grant Hart wrote their separate songs, a story started to coalesce. Thankfully lacking the lapses into numbing exposition of Tommy and its misbegotten descendants, Zen Arcade is about a young man who escapes the unhappy home of his youth to become a video game designer. The burgeoning sense of freedom is quickly punctured by the realization that he’s susceptible to tragedy and dismay wherever he goes. Reinforcing the sense of futility, the entire journey undertaken by the protagonist is revealed to be a dream, and he’s left with the bitter knowledge that an uncertain future awaits.

In truth, the story is far less essential than the thundering vigor of the songs. The fevered, acoustic “Never Talking to You Again” is obviously aligned with the central character’s angry departure from his trouble household, but its empowered rejection of soul-draining figures has a bracing universality (“I’d put you down where you belong/ But I’m never talking to you again/ I’d show you everywhere you’re wrong/ But I’m never talking to you again”). And the tunefully caustic “Pink Turns to Blue” is more than a plot turning point, is fiercely authoritative in its depiction of losing some to a drug overdose (“No more rope and too much dope, she’s lying on the bed/ Angels pacing, gently placing roses ’round her head”) even if it eludes the listener that the protagonist’s girlfriend is named Pinkie.

Hüsker Dü was already edging in the direction of a more varied rock sound, but Zen Arcade is still predominantly punk fury. “I’ll Never Forget You” is assaultive, “Turn On the News” is a vicious barrage, and “Chartered Trips” is so rough and loose that it’s the hard rock equivalent of speaking in tongues. “Whats Going On” is a whirlpool of angry guitar work, and “Whatever” finds Mould shouting his voice into a sandpaper gargle. To close the album, Hüsker Dü channels all of their blazing creative and muscular playing into the mammoth “Reoccurring Dreams,” a fourteen-minute improvisational instrumental that is as jagged, complex, and dangerous as a collapsed highway.

Zen Arcade strayed far enough from norms of hardcore punk that the leadership of SST Records, Hüsker Dü’s label at the time, was convinced it would be only a modest seller. They left the album on the shelf for almost nine months, and then initially pressed only five thousand copies, a woefully inadequate number once the album received worshipful reviews. The meager allotment of records sold out quickly, and it took SST months to get new copies to stores, squandering the additional interest the band built while touring. in his book, Mould called this “the first crack in the bond between Hüsker Dü and SST.”

 

dream academy

498. The Dream Academy, The Dream Academy (1985)

After peddling themselves for about two years to all the major and not-so-major labels, the English trio the Dream Academy were finally signed by Warner Bros. Perhaps boosting their profile, the band had a high-profile fan in David Gilmour, the famed guitarist of Pink Floyd. Gilmour even came on board to produce the band’s self-titled debut album.

The Dream Academy is as advertised, delivering lush, swirling pop that relies on ethereal sensation for its impact. The band’s signature song, “Life in a Northern Town,” is emblematic, melding a pining nostalgia (“He said, ‘In winter 1963/ It felt like the world would freeze/ With John F. Kennedy/ And The Beatles'”) with a sense of mystery and gushing, singalong chorus, all of it nestled in a studio arrangement as billowy as a cloud. Released as a single, the cut went Top 10 in the U.S.

The rest of the album is right in line with the famous single, without anything else touching the same ethereal wonderment. “The Edge of Forever” is deeply bland, which didn’t prevent it from migrating to the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack, alongside a Dream Academy cover of the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” “This World” is like a bland version of the Go-Betweens, and “In Places on the Run” is unbearably sleepy. The band fares better on “The Love Parade,” a song about the withering of romance, and the charming “The Party,” which include an explicit callback to “Life in a Northern Town.”

The Dream Academy never again approached the heights of their most famous song. There were two more studio albums, including another collaboration with Gilmour, before the band broke up, in 1991.

 

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