908. The Bears, Rise and Shine (1988)
Rise and Shine was the second album from the Bears, a group guitarist Adrian Belew assembled when King Crimson went on hiatus. At the time, Belew had a reasonably healthy solo career and a resume dotted with highly valued stints with iconic acts such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. Presumably, he could have pursued just about any creative avenue he wanted in rock music, and what he wanted was a truly collaborative band focused on songcraft. Joined by musicians from the relatively obscure Cincinnati-based band the Raisins (who Belew had produced at one time), Belew formed the Bears and landed a contract with Primitive Man Recording Company, a subsidiary of I.R.S. Records.
The egalitarian vibe is clear from Belew’s conviction to just another part of the combo. His wickedly warped guitar heroics are deployed sparingly — such as the burst of fevered squall at the end of the quite funk workout “Rabbit Manor” — in favor of solid, unpretentious tracks pitched clearly at the college radio market. There are still doses of weirdness here and there, surely a result of Belew’s curious tinkering in the studio (the album was recorded in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, essentially Belew’s home base at the time). Trilling sonic trickery subtly simulates ambient sounds from a primeval forest on “Save Me,” taking its cue from opening lines “I was a monkey dancing in the trees/ Out where the jungle used to be/ Before the lumber company/ Took my home away from me.”
As the environmental theme of “Save Me” indicates, Rise and Shine finds Belew and his cohorts joining in the social discourse. Released in the closing months of the Reagan era, the album is awash in the leftward politics of the day, agitating for enlightenment. “Robobo’s Beef” refutes attempts to impose motives of villainy onto other nations and people, but it also makes its point with such flat-footed literalism (“If you watch the news on TV/ It’s enough to make you sick/ Think we need a new solution/ Think we better find it quick”) that it comes close to Sting at his most geopolitically tedious. At least the argument is clear. Sometimes the direct language of the lyrics still can’t rescue a song from inscrutability, leading to the cryptic and the didactic to become intertwined. On “Old Fat Cadillac,” Belew sings, “‘So, Mr. President/ Whatcha doing?,’ I propose to say/ About this fallout business/ Raining all over our parade.” It’s puzzling, but the preacher-lite raving about the titular vehicle anticipates the carnival barker rock star tomfoolery of Jack White.
The single “Aches and Pains” plays like a less restless version of a Dave Edmunds song, making it one of the most successful realizations of the Bears’ mission of creating fine, straightforward pop songs. But I also find plenty of appeal in moments of goofball invention on Rise and Shine, like “Highway 2,” a throwaway play on Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.” And I will surely never be able to parse the meaning of “Complicated Potatoes,” but there’s a clear, happy sense that the band is following their shared muse with a blithe fearlessness.
907. Dixie Dregs, Dregs of the Earth (1980)
It’s sort of remarkable that it took until their fourth full-length release for the Dixie Dregs to use the most obvious album title at their disposal. Dregs of the Earth was the Georgia band’s first outing on Arista Records, which they’d jumped to after their previous label, Capricorn Records, filed for bankruptcy. Led and produced by guitarist Steve Moore, Dixie Dregs made a careening mashup of all the styles of seventies rock music. It’s hard to say how good of a finished product they came up with, but it’s definitely of the era.
Comprised entirely of instrumentals, the album sometimes feels as though the Dixe Dregs are mostly committed to coming up with material that can be easily used as soun beds for other projects. Any given thirty seconds of the mid tempo “Twiggs Approved” could have been culled from to provide the theme music to a late night talk show hosted by a cool, up-and-coming comedian. If NBC had scrapped Pink Lady and Jeff and instead given Jeff Altman the slot after Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show, the opening titles would have sounded like this.
The tracks on Dregs of the Earth are mostly fairly compact, but the infectious sprawl facilitated by album rock pomposity sometimes gets the better of the band, “Hereafter” is just redundant enough to feel as endless as the afterlife, and “Old World” seems like it was crafted specifically for closing time at the Ren Fair. At nine minutes and change, “I’m Freaking Out” is all the traits of southern rock, prog rock, and fusion jazz plopped into one boiling stew of crazy.
Although this all seemed pitched right into the wheelhouse of rock record buyers, Dregs of the Earth apparently didn’t stir commercial appeal in accordance with the band’s hopes. By the time of their next record, the band had changed their name to simply the Dregs, believing it would help them find a larger audience. They evidently didn’t have a clear view of what might be holding them back.
906. John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Milk and Honey (1984)
Milk and Honey was released in January of 1984, a little more than three years after John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York City home. Assembled by his widow, Yoko Ono, from material he’d been working on shortly before his murder, the album was a spiritual sequel to the 1980 comeback effort Double Fantasy. As was the case with its predecessor, Milk and Honey was a collaborative affair between Lennon and Ono, alternating between his post-Beatle adult pop and her deconstructionist art rock. Taken as a whole, it traces the ways in which artistic discord and alignment can be mere threads apart.
Lennon’s half of the album is loose and a little loopy, obviously comprised of early takes that may have gone through steps of refinement before being pronounced ready. There’s no guarantee, however, that Lennon would have kept buffing them into shape, since he’d long been inclined to preserve his most spontaneous moments. The cartoonish scatting on “Borrowed Time,” for example, sounds like filler. If it is, it’s easy to imagine Lennon recognizing its playful charm and keeping the scattered syllable in place on the finished product. I’d like to think he would have eventually decided “Grow Old with Me” was pure schmaltz and moved it to the discard bin, but he was hardly immune from gladly hurling that kind of material into the world across his career.
More than most, Lennon and Ono always did seem to be cracking themselves wide open when they created music. They set their shared and individual memoirs to music. “I’m Stepping Out” is about Lennon’s time as a househusband, and “I Don’t Wanna Face It” explicates his mixed emotions as a curmudgeonly activist (“You wanna save humanity/ But it’s people that you just can’t stand”). Ono’s tilt toward the odd can initially make it more difficult to find the biography, but this insomniac recognizes the tale she’s spinning on “Sleepless Night.” Working in feeling and impression rather than more literal expressions of information doesn’t automatically make a song more distant from the truth.
As was clear at the time of its release, Milk and Honey was the final studio statement of Lennon, one of the most important songwriters of the rock era. That imposed a tremendous burden on the release. Everyone wanted to find a meaningful closing statement, a track that would encapsulate all Lennon had said before and perhaps hint at the future perspectives criminally snuffed from the world. The single “Nobody Told Me” meets that impossible expectation just well enough. Wry, observant, a little mischievous, irresistibly catchy, and quietly reverberating with personality, the track was originally written for Ringo Starr, but it feels rightly at home in Lennon’s land. If nothing else, “Everybody’s smokin’/ And no one’s gettin’ high,” that last word delivered in a cheerful falsetto, is everything endearing about Lennon’s creative outlook in a few buoyant seconds. He shines on.
905. Soul Asylum, While You Were Out (1986)
Soul Asylum wasn’t a well-known band in 1986, but they made sure there was plenty of music available for the faithful. Including the B-sides and random bits collection Time’s Incinerator (available on cassette only), the Minneapolis band released three different albums during the calendar year. While You Were Out was the final member of the trio and Soul Asylum’s last before jumping to major label A&M Records. Understandably, then, the album is brash, headlong, and mildly undistinguished.
The band bashes away at the songs like the power is likely to be cut at any second. “Freaks” is a steady march of fab hard rock clatter, and “No Man’s Land” sounds a little like the more muscular R.E.M. found on the same year’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Betraying their civic roots. “Miracle Mile” comes close to merely aping the punk tunefulness of Hüsker Dü. If the band is sometimes a little simple, seemingly plowing ahead with the first notion that comes into their heads, they’re at least always earnest about it. There’s nothing all that profound or defiant about the message of rejecting outside criticism found on “The Judge” (“Not that I care what you think of me/ But I hear every word that you say/ And I can’t let you misjudge me that way”), but the outcast empowerment of it undoubtedly sounded great in the confines of a dingy Midwestern club.
Although most of While You Were Out is Soul Asylum in their brash development stage, “Closer to the Stars” offers the clearest forecast of the band that would eventually crossover: yearning, achingly sincere, a little simplistic, offering rock that managed to be ragged and polished at once. Whether the song is good or not is immaterial. Listening to the track, it’s clear this is a band that has a least one hit in them.
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.