Album Assignments: Empty Glass

There are lots of reasons people make solo albums. Sometimes it signals the next phase of an artist’s career after their band’s final creative demise, as with Sting, or Paul McCartney, or Paul Simon. Some artists produce far more material than their band can accommodate, such as Stevie Nicks, or Amy Ray, or Phil Collins. Sometimes they’re really just side projects — Stephin Merritt, Thom Yorke, and Mick Fleetwood come to mind. But some solo albums demand to be made, and such was the case with Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass.

Townshend had been writing for The Who since 1964, a songwriting career of relentless innovation and spectacular success. But by 1980, that career and indeed his whole life was foundering on a variety of shoals and reefs. He was struggling with a substance abuse habit, including alcohol and heroin. His 12-year marriage was coming apart. Punk rock had exploded in Britain, creating a culture that cast Townshend and The Who in the uncomfortable role of Establishment dinosaurs. The last Who album, Who Are You, had been a commercial success but was difficult to record, and had received mixed reviews. During the Who Are You tour, 11 fans died in a crowd crush due to festival seating arrangements in Cincinnati. And Keith Moon was dead, claimed by an overdose on the sedative he’d been prescribed for his alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

The songs on Empty Glass give us a look into Townshend’s anguish over these issues, sometimes obliquely and sometimes with startling directness. But even more than that, they show an artist freed from a musical framework that had come to constrict him more and more over the years. The Who is a phenomenal band, obviously, and for many years they had served as Townshend’s creative outlet, but The Who has its limitations. Chief among these is Roger Daltrey as a frontman, and I say that with full respect to Daltrey’s sensational stage presence and potent singing voice. Daltrey is many things, but one thing he isn’t is uncertain – he has a clear “golden god” image, and extends that image to the band in general with swagger and machismo.

Empty Glass album cover

But Townshend’s new songs, though some of them were firmly in the Who idiom on a musical level, were not necessarily a good match with Daltrey. The album’s opening track “Rough Boys” is a perfect example. Musically, it could easily be a Who song. Lyrically, it starts out that way too: “Tough boys / Running the streets”. That’s an image that would have been at home on Quadrophenia or Who’s Next. But the song quickly takes an unexpected turn — “Rough toys / Under the sheets”. Okay, so now we’re talking about rough sex, but even that’s not so beyond the pale. Here’s what’s next, though: “Rough boys / Don’t walk away / I very nearly missed you / Tough boys / Come over here / I wanna bite and kiss you”.

Whoa! So, hey, it turns out maybe the rough sex is with the boys themselves! And the homoerotic tone gets clearer and clearer: “I wanna see what I can find”… “Gonna get inside you”… “I wanna buy you leather”… “We can’t be seen together”. And just in case that’s not transparent enough, Townshend also gives us “And I Moved,” an unmistakable portrait of a tender erotic encounter with a man, whose “hands felt like ice exciting / As he laid me back just like an empty dress.”

Now is probably a good time to say that yes, of course, Pete’s not necessarily writing about himself, and in fact is more prone to write in character than most rock songwriters. And yes, it’s true that “And I Moved” was originally written for Bette Midler, though that doesn’t change the fact that he still chose to sing it himself, without changing the gender. In any case, can we really picture Daltrey singing these songs, at least in the way they’re presented here? It was daring enough in 1980 for Townshend to put them forward, and what they express was not in the Who’s iconic vocabulary, at least not at that time.

Empty Glass is full of one thing, and that is multiplicity, more than The Who could have contained. Nowhere is that clearer than on the astonishing “I Am An Animal.” Most of the song is sung in Pete’s “sweet” register — think the “don’t cry” bridge from “Baba O’Riley”. Townshend’s voice is very different from Daltrey’s, but for me it has a magic all its own, tough and tender at the same time. Parts of the song are sung almost in a hush, like a lone choirboy practicing in a cathedral.

The words put forth a series of bold, contradictory metaphors: “I am an animal / My teeth are sharp and my mouth is full”… “I am a vegetable / I get my body badly pulled.” “I am a human being / And I don’t believe all the things I’m seeing”… “I am an angel / I booked in here, I came straight from hell.” In one moment, he’s proclaiming himself “queen of the fucking universe”, and almost immediately afterwards, “I am a nothing king.”

It all returns to the chorus, in which the speaker is lost in a timeless present moment, without history or future, where he’s being carried along into the unknown, accompanied by all these versions of himself:

I’m looking back
And I can’t see the past anymore, so hazy
I’m on a track and I’m traveling so fast
Oh for sure, I’m crazy

According to Townshend, the song “Empty Glass” is based on 14th century Sufi poem, in which the heart is an empty cup filled up with God’s love. And that certainly fits the words, but I would suggest that in another sense, the empty glass of this album is Townshend himself, so long a vehicle through which another voice expressed itself. When he stepped out of that structure, he found himself filled with beautiful multitudes, some complementary, some oppositional.

He is lost, yes, and desperately seeking — “I’m losing my way”… “I’m boozing to pray”. Some lines seem to speak clearly to his troubled relationship — “I don’t know what I have anymore / Anymore than you do”… “I don’t know where you are anymore / I’ve got no clue.” As another great songwriter once put it, pain is all around.

But at the same time, love is all around too. Empty Glass contains two of the greatest love songs Townshend ever wrote: “Let My Love Open The Door” and “A Little Is Enough.” Both of them are open-ended enough to encompass many kinds of love — romantic, agape, divine. Both have a spiritual component, reaching toward a kind of devotion that is generous, open, and focused outward. And both are musically ecstatic, locating an elevated bliss in the declaration of passionate attachment.

Pain and love sit side by side most manifestly in “Jools and Jim”. Fundamentally, this is a furious song, striking out vehemently at a poison pen of the British press named Julie Burchill, who had recently co-written a book-length rant about rock and punk called The Boy Looked At Johnny with her future husband Tony Parsons. In a promotional interview for their book, they had slagged off Keith Moon, saying “we’re better off without him.” Townshend lets them have it with both barrels, spitting out line after line of rebuke: “Typewriter bangers on / You’re all just hangers-on”… “You listen to love with your intellect”… “Your hearts are melting in pools of gin”… “Morality ain’t measured in a room he wrecked.”… “They have a standard of perfection there / That you and me can never share”.

But in a remarkable bridge, Townshend admits his own complicity, and allows for the possibility of connection even with such enemies:

But I know for sure if we met up eye to eye
A little wine would bring us closer, you and I
Cause you’re right, hypocrisy will be the death of me
And there’s an I before e when you’re spelling ecstasy
And you, you too…

Immediately afterward, he invokes Krishna, and says it was “for you that Jesus’ blood was shed.” He finds forgiveness in his heart even for those who have stabbed it. He doesn’t let them off the hook — the “you too” attaches to the statement about hypocrisy in my reading — but he believes “for sure” that they could connect if they met on a human level. We don’t see this sort of stance taken very often in rock and roll, do we? Townshend blends rebellion and humility, anger and contrition into something more potent than either.

It’s clear that in part, Empty Glass was a reaction to punk rock. He dedicates “Rough Boys” to both his children and to the Sex Pistols. “I am an animal” not only echoes the Pistols’ “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist”, it replies back to their song “Bodies”, in which the chorus cries, “I’m not an animal!” But where punk culminates in blistering anger, for Townshend that’s merely a starting point, on a road that ends in an open door.

Put On Some Silver

Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.

Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?

Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.

That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.

1. Taylor SwiftClean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.

2. Jefferson AirplaneEmbryonic Journey
As I wrote in my review of Surrealistic Pillow, I think this is my favorite rock instrumental of all time. I find it absolutely transcendent, in a way that defies encapsulation in language. Maybe that’s part of the definition of “transcendent.”

3. Joni MitchellCarey
Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.

4. Fountains Of WayneAction Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.

5. The LumineersSubmarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.

6. The MotelsSuddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.

7. Bob DylanPositively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.

8. Peter GabrielLovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.

9. The Velvet Underground & NicoVenus In Furs
As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.

10. Bob DylanUp To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.

11. Stevie NicksSisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.

12. Buckingham NicksCrying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.

13. The PretendersStop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.

14. The PoliceTruth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.

15. Bob DylanTombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.

16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson TwinsThe Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.

17. HeartGoodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.

18. ColdplayAmsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.

19. Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.

20. Taylor SwiftShake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.

Happy New Year.

Album Assignments: Peace Trail

On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen fired their weapons above, below, and into a crowd of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed, nine wounded. On May 15, LIFE magazine dedicated its cover and a set of photo spreads to the killings, giving America a firsthand look at the results of what it called “senseless and brutal murder at point-blank range.” And on May 21, after seeing those pictures, Neil Young brought a new song to his bandmates Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The song was called “Ohio”, and it was a howl of rage and confusion against “tin soldiers and Nixon.” The music was a fierce, harsh protest march, returning again and again to stark statements and questions. “Soldiers are cutting us down.” “What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground?” It was on the radio just a few weeks after the shootings, elbowing its way onto the charts to sit ironically alongside CSNY’s much more optimistic “Teach Your Children.” “Ohio” is the iconic example of pop music responding to world events with galvanizing immediacy, marrying the folk protest tradition of Woody Guthrie to the power of mass distribution, broadcasting, and electric instruments.

Peace Trail finds Young in “Ohio” mode. He recorded the whole album in four days, and its songs are full of responses to the tumultuous headlines of November 2016. The album was released on December 9, just a few weeks after the events it references. But there are some differences too. Where “Ohio” mentioned Nixon directly, Peace Trail doesn’t name Donald Trump or Standing Rock. And where “Ohio” was energized and powerful, Peace Trail is overall more muted, more acoustic, and more contemplative.

Peace Trail album cover

The album starts with its title track, and its best song. Over chords vaguely reminiscent of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” Young observes that “something new is growing” in and among the same old signs, and that this new development has moved him to “hit the peace trail.” He’s decided to keep his hand in, to not cash it in yet — and this album is evidence of that decision. To my ears, it’s a pretty clear reference to the election of Donald Trump, “something new” in an American president: no experience, little interest in governing, swept into power on a tide of authoritarian appeals to racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. People of all stripes were energized by this election to hit their own versions of the peace trail, to speak up and stand up wherever and however they can to protect the vulnerable, resist economic inequality, and forestall environmental disaster. Young is speaking for all of those people in this song.

Why would a 71-year-old artist maintain this level of commitment, still responding to the news after 46 years when so many of his contemporaries have faded away or locked themselves into an endless run-out groove of nostalgia? He explains why in track two: “Can’t Stop Workin’.” Continued dedication like Young’s is “bad for the body, but it’s good for the soul,” so he tells us, and once again, this album is evidence. His voice has always had a frail, tender quality to it, but he sounds particularly ragged in many of the tracks on this album. Despite that, though, his facility with words is intact, as is the fire in his belly.

“Indian Givers” and “Show Me” provide evidence of that. The first is a clear explication of the conflict over the Dakota Acccess Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. For me, the second verse to this song is the most powerful moment on the whole album:

Now it’s been about 500 years
We keep taking what we gave away
Just like what we call Indian givers
It makes you sick and gives you shivers

It’s one of those moments when poetry and words can bring together ideas to form an undeniable conceptual juggernaut, blowing through any possible opposition. “Show Me” isn’t quite so concrete, but is still clearly grounded in the “battle over water” on the sacred land.

None of these songs has the urgency of “Ohio.” They tend to roll along at midtempo or slower, mostly acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, and quiet bass, with the occasional intrusion of harmonica so heavily distorted it sounds like guitar, or perhaps it’s the other way around, or both at different times. After “Show Me,” though, something unsettling starts to happen. Young seems to more or less run out of musical ideas.

“Texas Rangers” is spoken rather than sung by Young, over a quasi-musical figure that is singsongy in the extreme. It reminds me of the little non-songs some people (including my spouse) sometimes hum to themselves as they go about their business, narrating the mundane events of their lives. “Wipe the counter, fill the cat bowl, fold the laundry and sweep the floor.” I was tired of it the first time I heard it, before it even ended. Talk-singing like this dominates the latter half of the album, especially on songs like “John Oaks” and “My Pledge”, which are more or less Young reciting doggerel over simple beats.

The whole thing winds up with the baffling “My New Robot,” which seems to be pretty much the story of an unemployed guy sitting around the house, getting a robot in the mail from Amazon.com, and programming it to say odd and incoherent things for a loved one. It’s a very strange ending to an album so engaged with the political and environmental aspects of the world, and an unsatisfying one at that.

That’s not to say that the latter half of the album doesn’t have its moments. Young nails a character study in “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” in which frightened white people ask, “It’s all those people with funny names / moving into our neighborhood / How can I tell if they’re bad or good?” without any recognition that “all those people” might ask the same question about them, and often with much more legitimate cause to feel threatened. The auto-tuned sung background on “My Pledge” is a haunting avant-garde evocation of the soul and emotion that can linger behind a plainspoken presentation. And “Glass Acccident” effectively captures how many of us felt waking up on the morning of November 9th.

Still, overall Peace Trail ends up a fairly slight and uneven album, gradually petering out after a promising beginning. Nevertheless, it’s the first rock and roll response I’ve seen to the New Trump Order, and as I’ve said, it has some very powerful moments. It’s not exactly The Rising, but it’s still something to be grateful for. Neil Young can’t stop working, and we all get to reap the benefits.

Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders in Denver, 10/27/2016

I saw my first Stevie Nicks concert 30 years ago, when I was 16. Since then, I’ve seen her every time she’s come to Denver, either solo or with Fleetwood Mac, and even gone to a few out-of-state shows. And I’ve had a wonderful time, every time. But if I had any criticisms, they would be these. First, Stevie’s opening acts tend to range from “okay” to “ugh.” On the “okay” end — Chris Isaak, Boz Scaggs, Peter Frampton. On the “ugh” end — Billy Falcon, Venice, Darden Smith.

Second, Stevie’s set list is almost always very safe, and very samey. She’ll open up with “Outside The Rain”, segueing into “Dreams.” She’ll play “Stand Back”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Rhiannon”, and some songs from whatever album she’s promoting. She’ll end the show proper with “Edge Of Seventeen”, and finish her encore with “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?”. She has a repertoire of other songs that regularly show up in sets — “I Need To Know”, “Beauty And The Beast”, “Landslide” — and a catalog full of many, many more wonderful songs that she virtually never plays.

Now don’t get me wrong (heh) — I’ve loved every single one of those shows. And predictability has a comforting quality of its own. But I’ve frequently longed for Stevie to take a page from the book of more adventurous artists, like Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, or the Indigo Girls, who surprise fans nightly with rarities and deep cuts interspersing the hits.

Well, I got my wish this year. Early in the show, Stevie said, “This is not going to be your typical Stevie Nicks show. In fact, this is going to be the Stevie Nicks show you’ve been wanting for 35 years! Now, 35 years is a long time — you may not remember that you’ve been asking for this show all that time. But you have!” This show lived up to that promise, one hundred percent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me return to my first point, about mediocre opening bands. I could not have been more thrilled when this tour was announced, with the freakin’ PRETENDERS as an opening act! This is a band I’ve seen as a headliner multiple times — they’re one of my favorite artists of all time. Easily in the top 20, probably in the top 10. They didn’t disappoint either. Chrissie Hynde’s famous bangs are a little greyer, and her frame isn’t whip-thin anymore (having graduated to just “pretty thin”), but she still sounds fantastic.

Chrissie Hynde rocking out

Photo credit: Evan Semón

She strutted out with the latest version of the band, including original drummer Martin Chambers (who’s always a hoot in concert), and opened with the title track from their new album Alone, a rockin’ anthem which declares “Nobody tells me I can’t / Nobody tells me I shant / No one to say “you’re doing it wrong” / I’m at the best, I’m where I belong, alone / I like it, yeah, I like it alone!” This was the first time I’d heard the song, and I loved it. She also played several other good new songs, including their single “Holy Commotion”, which she introduced as “all over the radio in Europe… and that’s a total fuckin’ lie. But it will be!”

The band also played plenty of hits — “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, “I’ll Stand By You”, “My City Was Gone”, “Brass In Pocket”, and a particularly fierce “Stop Your Sobbing.” There were some lesser-known catalog tracks too, like “Private Life”, “Mystery Achievement”, and “Hymn To Her.” Oh, and “Tattooed Love Boys”, which I’ll never hear the same way again after having read the backstory about it in her autobiography. I won’t recount that here, because it’s… disturbing.

Anyway, they finished with an exhilirating “Middle Of The Road” before ceding the stage with a promise that “the Elizabeth Taylor of rock” awaited us. Their set would have made for an excellent evening on its own, but instead, I still had a whole Stevie Nicks concert to look forward to! Amazing.

So after the appropriate inter-artist interval, Stevie came out with her band, opening the show with… not “Outside The Rain”. In fact, amazingly, not any song from any released album, but rather the Bella Donna outtake “Gold And Braid”! Right then, I knew this was going to be a special show. Stevie had played “Gold And Braid” on one other tour, the 1998 tour promoting her box set, Enchanted. Up until this year, that was my favorite tour of hers, because she gave herself permission to play some more obscure songs that appeared on the box set, songs like “Gold And Braid”, “After The Glitter Fades”, and “Garbo”, which I never thought I’d hear in concert.

Opening with “Gold And Braid,” though, hearkened all the way back to the only other time she’d played it, on her very first tour in 1981, when she only had one album’s worth of solo material to even play. There’s a famous (among fans) recording of her dad introducing the last night of that tour, and the band kicking into “Gold And Braid.” It’s a funky, soulful number with tons of energy and drama, and she absolutely sold it, then and now.

From there it was “If Anyone Falls”, a seldom-played song for having been a Top 20 hit, and one I absolutely love. Speaking of hits, the next song was “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, originally a duet with Tom Petty but when she (occasionally) plays it in concert, she duets with her guitarist Waddy Wachtel. Except this time, here came from the back of the stage… Chrissie Hynde! In a bright orange Denver Broncos t-shirt, no less. It was an incredible thrill to hear two of my favorite singers duet on such an iconic song. Chrissie makes a hell of a Tom Petty substitute, and Stevie seemed to feel the same way, saying afterward, “You don’t often get to do something that cool.” She also mentioned that Chrissie scared her, because she was expecting the typical black clothes, and when this orange sight started approaching she thought, “They’re sending the wrong person out here!” Heh.

Stevie and Chrissie dueting

Photo credit: Evan Semón

It was about then that she made the “not your typical Steve Nicks concert” comment, and I was believing it. She said she was going to sing some songs that were meant for earlier albums, like “Gold And Braid”, but which she pulled because she didn’t like the production, or the way the song turned out at the time, or some other factor. That led into another fabulous Bella Donna outtake, a song called “Belle Fleur”, which she finally recorded for her 2014 collection 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault. We’d moved from “seldom heard in concert” songs to “never heard in concert” songs, and I was over the moon.

I was also starting to figure out what was going on. See, Stevie never toured on 24 Karat Gold — in fact, she released it on the very same day that Fleetwood Mac kicked off a yearlong tour. So these shows were the long-delayed tour for that album, meaning that we could expect to hear several more outtakes and demo tunes, since those were the backbone of the album. Not only that, she’d just released reissued deluxe versions of Bella Donna and The Wild Heart, stuffed with their own loads of demos and outtakes. No wonder this would be the show we’d been awaiting for 35 years! (Or 30 years in my case, since I was only 11 when she started touring solo. 🙂 )

It was at this point in the show that Stevie played the “Outside The Rain”/”Dreams” combo — a return to familiarity that was itself a surprise due to its unexpected placement. Then came one of the absolute high points, another never-before-played song: the title track to The Wild Heart. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, but I never expected to hear it in concert, given that she didn’t even play it when she was promoting the album. It’s an epic song, with an epic high note at the end, and perhaps she never played it because she wanted to avoid singing that note night after night. Well, she figured out a way to do it — the band truncated the song before it got to that climactic section, clicking immediately into the title track from Bella Donna, a song she hasn’t done since 1981. I was a little disappointed that the big finish was missing, but hearing these two super-rare title tracks back to back more than made up for that.

I’ve been going through the show song-by-song, but if I keep doing that, I’m going to run out of superlatives. Those who want to see the full set list can find it at the awesome setlist.fm. I’ll just mention a few more high points:

  • The other major jaw-dropper, and probably the peak of the entire show for me, was when she played “Crying In The Night.” This is the opening track of the still-unreleased-on-CD Buckingham Nicks album, the record she and Lindsey released before joining Fleetwood Mac, the one that Mick Fleetwood heard in the studio when casting about for a new guitar player. Talk about a song from the vault!
  • “Starshine” was another great selection from 24 Karat Gold, an ebullient rocker preceded by a fun story about how she recorded the original demo in Tom Petty’s basement. “You wish you could have been there, I know,” she chuckled.
  • “Enchanted” was another delight, though it doesn’t fall into the same seldom-played bucket as some of the others, at least not recently. The track is from 1983 (The Wild Heart album), but she didn’t play it in concert until 1998. However, since then it’s shown up frequently in set lists.
  • Not everyone knows that Prince wrote the keyboard riff to “Stand Back”, but Stevie drove the point home by projecting a huge photo of him on the screen behind the stage as the song started. Lots more Prince photos followed later during “Edge Of Seventeen”, appropriate for a song about (among other things) grief and death.

The final song, rather than the typical “Has Anyone Ever…”, was a lovely, chiming “Leather And Lace.” There was no Don Henley, and no Chrissie Hynde to substitute for him, but Stevie was magical singing the song by herself. An exquisite end to an enchanted night. All in all, I’d say it was the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.

Stevie losing herself in the music

Album Assignments: Welcome Interstate Managers

Robby has been a teacher for the past 12 years, so I took a page from his educator’s handbook before this assignment by giving him an assessment first. “On a scale from 1 to 10,” I asked, “with 1 being you’ve heard the name and that’s all, and 10 being you know all the words to all their albums, please rate your familiarity with Fountains of Wayne.” His answer: “I have heard of them and I think I have heard one of their songs, so I guess a 2 or 3.” That told me what FoW album to assign.

See, my friend Trish has been singing the band’s praises for a couple of decades, and so when I finally decided to check in with them, it was her I consulted for what album to start with. Her recommendation: Welcome Interstate Managers. So a couple of years ago that album found its way into my life, and I loved it. So much so that I’ve sought out a bunch more of their records and now count myself a fan. If Robby was already a fan too, I might have assigned him one of those later albums, but for a beginner, there’s no better introduction than Welcome.

This album epitomizes the wit, the sparkle, and the pure pleasure that makes Fountains of Wayne such a fun band. Let’s start with the lyrics. Just on a mechanical level, there’s so much cleverness going on here. Rhymes like “I saw you talkin’ to Christopher Walken” or “working all day for a mean little guy / with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie” demonstrate a wonderful mastery of lyrical forms. “It may be the whiskey talking / but the whiskey says I miss you every day” starts with a cliche and then squeezes the poignancy out of it. “Ever since you hung up on me / I’m hung up on you” is a perfect satire of typical country music wordplay, so perfect it hardly seems like an exaggeration. And could a tune about feeling exploited by the music industry possibly have a better title than “Bought For a Song”?

Welcome Interstate Managers album cover

Then there’s the conceptual level. So often on this album, Fountains Of Wayne takes the emotionally charged pop song structure and applies it in unexpected ways. Take “All Kinds Of Time”, which grafts a U2-like anthem onto a football play, taking an overused game-announcer phrase and turning it into something transcendent. Or how about “Halley’s Waitress”, musically a wistful missing-you soft-rock song, but lyrically grousing about poor table service at a diner? “Fire Island” takes a chorus-starting lyric of “we’re old enough by now to take care of each other”, and builds around it a teen-movie scenario of “driving on the lawn / sleeping on the roof / drinking all the alcohol.”

Such comedy inversions are all over the album, but the band isn’t simply having a laugh. Taken together, these songs form a panoramic picture of early 21st-century suburban male life in New York and New Jersey, in all its ludicrousness and pain, skipping from character to character like a Robert Altman movie. “Little Red Light” drops us into the car with a guy who’s stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge, recently dumped, and bemoaning his lack of messages. “Bright Future In Sales” shows a different kind of desperation, an alcoholic salesman who keeps vowing to get his shit together, but never quite seems to get there.

And if the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” is the fantasy version of what happens when your childhood crush gets famous, “Hackensack” sounds a lot more like the reality — a guy who works for his dad, scraping the paint off hardwood floors, but promising his now-Hollywood acquaintance, “I will wait for you / As long as I need to / And if you ever get back to Hackensack / I’ll be here for you.” As if she’s ever coming back, and as if she’d want him waiting even if she did.

These marvelous lyrical inventions find themselves polished and set in glorious, glittering musical gold. Fountains of Wayne absolutely nails both the power and the pop, with tender melodies in some places, slamming rock in others, and utterly dazzling harmonies throughout. Pretty much every song is musically excellent, but a particularly superb example is “No Better Place.”

Acoustic rhythm guitar, chiming Byrds-style electric, subtle bass, and powerful drums meld together to form the firmament over which shoot meteoric synth effects. The first verse features Chris Collingwood’s vocals unadorned, but they’re double-tracked on the chorus and thrust aloft by gorgeous chorded backing harmonies. The second verse has Adam Schlesinger singing harmony on lines like “the night-time’s wrapped around you”, setting the loneliness of the lyrics into stark relief. Those intermittent harmonies come in with regularity throughout the song, and they’re a pleasure every time. Schlesinger and Collingwood’s voices fit together like Lennon and McCartney, which is to say both jarringly and perfectly.

Then there’s the bridge, in which the subject of the song seems almost dissociative, and immediately following the line “so you sail between the rooftops and the sky”, a powerful thrumming synth bursts in, rattling bones and raising goosebumps into the guitar solo, which evokes and echoes the narrator’s yearning tone. The last note of that solo carries us into the final verse, in which Collingwood is alone again, with just rhythm guitar and the occasional tambourine hit. Then the electric guitar, drums, and harmonies return to take us to the chorus one final time, everything shimmering and magical as the meteors crowd the sky, slowly fading into the distance.

Every element of the song combines for a symphony of aching pleasure, and every song on Welcome Interstate Managers is full of such treats. If you like rock or pop music at all, there’s something here for you. For me, it’s a tremendous smorgasbord whose delights get deeper with every listen.

Album Assignments: Dookie

Do you have the time
To read as I opine
About an album sweet and sharp all at once?

If so, great, because that’s what we’ve got in Green Day’s Dookie. This is called a punk rock album, but lyrically it’s a far cry from the political Molotov cocktails of Nevermind The Bollocks and the first Clash album. Rather than striking out at the world, Green Day’s ammunition is mainly aimed at itself. Musically, the punk energy is there for sure, particularly in the thrashing beat and hyperactive fills of drummer Tré Cool, but the whole thing is laced with power-pop riffs and harmonies, albeit sped up to Ramones-level velocity.

It’s the pop-punk hybrid that made this album palatable to the masses, and boy did the masses dig it in the mid-90s, propelling the album past ten MILLION copies sold. Nevertheless, until Robby assigned it to me, I’d never listened to it. I knew the singles — they were inescapable at the time — and had bought American Idiot long ago, but I’d never sought out Dookie. Something to do with the name, maybe.

Album cover of Dookie

Anyway, having now spent a little time with it, I’m hearing a couple of things jump out. First, the dynamic shifts. This album is at its most thrilling when it jumps from quiet to loud or vice versa, and it’s no coincidence that its three biggest singles — “Longview”, “Basket Case”, and “When I Come Around” — all pull this dynamic trick. This is most noticeable in “Basket Case”, which starts off with only guitar and vocal, sweetened at the end of each line by harmony. Then we get just a tiny bit of hi-hat layered in, until the line “it all keeps adding up” ushers in an explosion of guitars, harmonies, and drums. That level keeps up through the song, except for a few times where one instrument or all instruments drop out, then pick up a beat or two later. It feels like letting go of one trapeze, floating for just a moment, and then grabbing the next one.

“Longview” puts a different set of instruments in the quieter intro bit — strutting bass and low drums playing a jungle beat. But otherwise it’s pretty much the same tactic — giant guitars (this time harmonizing with each other in pale shades of Boston) jump in suddenly on the “lazy” part of “I’m fucking lazy,” kicking the song into pogo gear around a riff jumping back and forth between two notes. Then they drop out again, back to the jungly bass/drum combo. You know it’s coming back with the chorus, and that’s part of the pleasure — BOOM goes the song, exploding into, well, self-hatred, but more about that later.

“When I Come Around” doesn’t start quiet, jumping right out front with a big, meaty riff. But for the title line, everything drops out, leaving Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice jumping to the next trapeze, which always arrives just like it should. That trick of a musical gap, the bottom dropping out from the song, happens all over this album. Take “In The End”, which does it on Billie Joe’s “sooooooo…”, or “Welcome To Paradise”, which does it on the “welcome to”. Quiet-to-loud isn’t limited to the singles either, most notably “F.O.D.” which starts even quieter than “Basket Case”, as it substitutes acoustic guitar for electric, and stays quiet for a full minute and a half before the punk rock kicks in.

Those two songs (“F.O.D.” and “Basket Case”) pretty much sum up the tone of the lyrics too, which are, as the man says, neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it. Especially “Basket Case”, which is the perfect examplar of the album. (I was going to say “quintessential Dookie“, but really, ew. The name is a problem, guys.) The tone fit in well with the times — in the 90s rock music was stuffed full of apathy and self-loathing. In a context that went from “oh well, whatever, nevermind” to “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” to “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”, a line like “sometimes I give myself the creeps” fit right in.

That alienation and disaffection permeates the album. Sometimes it’s aimed at a former friend or lover, as in “Emenius Sleepus” and “F.O.D.” Sometimes it’s aimed at the world in general, as in “Having A Blast.” Much more often, though, and frequently even alongside the externalizing, it’s aimed inward. “Longview” paints a picture of a character so filled with ennui and self-hatred that all he can do is sit around the house, watch TV, masturbate, smoke pot, and wait for phone calls that never come. “I’m so damn bored, I’m going blind, and I smell like shit” just about sums it up, wouldn’t you say?

Zooming out just a bit from the interior angst of “Basket Case” and “Longview”, there are some songs that contextualize these desperate characters. “Welcome To Paradise” shows us the “cracked streets and the broken homes” of the narrator’s environment, which he has internalized to the extent that he now believes there’s nowhere else he belongs. “Coming Clean” is spoken by a 17-year-old whose self-understanding has alienated him from his family. (Reportedly this is an autobiographical song about Armstrong’s coming to terms with himself as bisexual.)

The whole thing is pretty grim, but combining those lyrical concerns with the furious energy of the band and the adrenaline acrobatics of its dynamic shifts gives us an album made to plug right into the outlet of teenage angst, and deliver enough energy to make it through the days.

Album Assignments: Outlandos d’Amour

By the time a classic rock canon was forming, The Police were already in it. They’d had unbelievably huge success, especially with their 1983 album Synchronicity. They’d made iconic music videos at a time when that really mattered. They’d garnered widespread critical respect for literate songwriting and inventive musicianship. And breaking up immediately after Synchronicity ensured that they wouldn’t hang around to tarnish their reputation with lesser works. (Well, except for “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86”.)

As a part of that enshrinement, all their albums have been elevated to a lofty position of regard, including their debut Outlandos D’Amour, ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 greatest all-time albums, and one of the 100 greatest all-time debuts. All that reflected glory obscured from me a fact that only became clear upon closer scrutiny: this album is weird as hell.

Let’s start with the fact that its two biggest hits are about falling in love with a prostitute and killing yourself. Then let’s move on to the sound, a brilliant but bizarre mix of reggae and punk that kept the rhythmic pattern of Jamaican music but accelerated it to a speed and aggression that made it almost unrecognizable. For instance, Sting admits that “‘So Lonely’ was unabashedly culled from ‘No Woman No Cry’ by Bob Marley”, but you have to listen pretty hard to hear the resemblance. That “white reggae” inspired the title of their next album Reggatta De Blanc, which was just a little less peculiar than the title “Outlandos d’Amour”, which is not even really French or really Spanish or really anything.

Album cover for Outlandos d'Amour

The weirdness continues into individual songs. Here’s an easy one: “Be My Girl – Sally” starts with Sting singing the same five words over and over again (more on this later), but quickly swerves into Andy Summers telling a story about marrying a blow-up doll. Then back to Sting and the five words, over and over. This is a rock song.

Or how about “Peanuts”, which is a Dr. Seuss-esque jab at an overexposed sellout rock star (apparently based on Rod Stewart), but which devolves in the middle into a chaotic guitar solo from Andy Summers, notes all over the place with no particular regard for rhythm? Then after another chorus, an even stranger instrumental break from some woodwind (a clarinet? an oboe?) that skips around the scale, caroming off the drums in squeaks and warbles, and then Sting for some reason starts yelling “Peanuts! Peanuts! Peanuts!” like a ballgame vendor before fading out with the woodwind bouncing back and forth between the same two notes.

Or here’s one: “Masoko Tanga”, a phrase which means even less than the album’s title. This is five minutes plus of a cool bass groove, backed up by drums and guitar, underneath lyrics which are literally gibberish. Like, here’s a sample of how a lot of lyrics sites transcribe this stuff:

Don’t ba bose da la lomb ba bay
Ping pong da la zoe da la la low
People know what de lee do da day
Key wo wa di com la day wa da

With occasional feeble attempts at English transcription, along the lines of “Keep the sugar warmed up, hey!”. Then there’s Genius, which just lists the lyrics as:

[Ad-libbed chanting]

And that’s why I love you, Genius.

So you get it, right? This is weird, wild stuff, with the emphasis on weird. And yet… it works! It works magnificently. Why is that? Well, a lot of reasons I’m sure, but what I really dug when listening to it this week can be summed up in two words: STEWART COPELAND. I think this guy may be my favorite rock drummer. His drums and percussion bookend the album — the very beginning of “Next To You” and the very end of “Masoko Tanga” — and in between, they define the album.

He and Sting are the bedrock of that “white reggae” sound, and while I’m not much of a musician, that sound strikes me as no simple task musically. But that accomplishment aside, there’s so much to enjoy in Copeland’s work on this album. Check out the delicate hi-hat work on “So Lonely,” especially the latter half. Check out the caffeinated, skittering fills in “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Check out the furious toms in “Truth Hits Everybody.” I don’t normally notice the drums much in a song, but even I can hear the incredible creativity that Stewart Copeland brought to The Police, even in this first album. Later on, he’d conduct master classes on songs like “Walking In Your Footsteps” and “Message In A Bottle,” but this album shows that from the beginning, he was an incredibly mature and complex player.

Just one more thing. Robby’s mom used to call Sting “Repeat Man,” and while listening to this album, I couldn’t stop laughing about that. Sure, not all the songs are as repetitive as “Be My Girl – Sally”, but the majority of them are pretty damn repetitive. I’m reading Elvis Costello’s autobiography right now, and he mentions this in passing:

The best English groups lean forward and are more concerned with “How do we start?” than “How do we end?” This is just my theory, but it might explain the impact of early records by both The Who and the Sex Pistols and why so much great English music ends in chaos.

That certainly describes plenty of the songs on Outlandos d’Amour, which when they don’t end in chaos end in the same phrase over and over. I can’t I can’t I can’t stop repeating I can’t I can’t I can’t stop repeating I can’t I can’t I can’t stop repeating I can’t I can’t I can’t stop repeating…

Album Assignments: A Night At The Opera

If I only had two words to describe A Night At The Opera, they would be “pleasant surprises.” Again and again, this album catches you off guard in the most delightful way. It starts from the first few moments — a gentle, cascading piano arpeggio more at home in a Chopin etude than a rock and roll album. But after about fifteen seconds, weird synth noises start to fly at the fringes, and then a deep, menacing figure takes over, with even deeper harmonics in the background, guitars echo through the mix, the whole thing crescendos into a screech…

And suddenly it’s just piano again, this time more purposeful, accompanied quickly by a guitar, and then the drums kick in to open the curtain on a vicious rocking takedown of a song, “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)”. By the time the rock starts, we’ve had one surprise piled upon another, and the song itself is a bit unexpected, far more angry and vindictive than a typical Queen tune.

But then! Just when we’ve settled in for an arena rock album, here comes “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon”, which is pure vaudeville, or music hall if you’re a Brit. Tinkly, jaunty piano plays behind Freddie Mercury’s vocal, in broad comedy character mode and played back through headphones in a tin bucket, to give it the hollow sound of early 20th century recordings.

That’s immediately followed by a song that is neither written nor sung by Mercury, Roger Taylor’s passionate love song… to his car. I know this because the song is called “I’m In Love With My Car.” But just in case you start to think that Queen is only capable of negative or sideways emotional displays, John Deacon’s “You’re My Best Friend” proves that they can write one of the best, most loving relationship songs of the decade.

Album cover for A Night At The Opera

And so it goes, just one joyous surprise after another. They don’t all work perfectly, but most of them score awfully high, and in any case it’s impossible not to admire the sheer chutzpah of the thing. Queen seems to be out to expand the concept of rock until it can take in almost everything. They can combine science fiction and acoustic folk, as they do in “’39”. They can prog out with the best of them, as on the eight-minute-plus “Prophet’s Song.” Hell, they can even rock “God Save The Queen” with layers and layers of guitars, in winking tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the British monarchy, and maybe even themselves?

Appropriately enough for an album titled after a Marx Brothers movie, one of the most fun aspects of A Night At The Opera is its sense of humor, which itself often takes the form of startling left turns. For instance, in another music hall-ish number, “Good Company”, the first verse follows a strong meter and hits rhymes based on the title: “me”, “knee”, “company”. The second verse seems to be following that same pattern until…

Soon I grew and happy too
My very good friends and me
Would play all day with Sally J
The girl from number four
And very soon I begged her
Won’t you keep me company?

Number four? I laughed out loud the first time I heard it — Brian May suckered me into thinking I would hear a “three”, and then pointed that fact out by giving me the next one in line.

Then, of course, there’s the goofy magnificence of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” What starts out as a gorgeously harmonized musing, along the lines of The Beatles’ “Because”, resolves unexpectedly into a murder ballad. That’s startling enough, but then things get deeply, deeply weird, in the most flabbergasting and hilarious way. The famous operatic section of that song strings together meaningful-sounding nonsense, sung with incredible gusto, so much passion that it somehow transitions seamlessly into a fiery hard rock crescendo of explosive guitars and steely vocals.

Mike Myers has done more to demonstrate the comedy and grandeur of this song than I ever could here, so I’ll just point out that the secret sauce of this song and its album is the genuine emotion behind all the zany hijinks. Just as with Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, what makes Queen’s music more than a momentary laugh is that it taps into real feelings of rage, betrayal, affection, awe… a whole panoply of deep emotions. See, that’s the other part of a night at the opera. Just to one side of the Marx Brothers hilarity, there’s the grand exaggeration of human drama spilling over the edges of its container.

Not that everything has to be grand. Probably my favorite tune this time around was “Seaside Rendezvous”, a perfect meld between the music hall style and the signature Queen sound of layered vocals. You can practically see the straw boater on Mercury’s head as he struts and taps his way through the song, but even better is knowing that the “tap dancing” sound was made with thimbles on the mixing desk, and that the entire “instrumental” bridge was performed vocally by Mercury and Taylor. Silly touches like a revving engine and a ringing bell complement ragtime piano and insouciant lyrics.

The whole thing is jaunty and fun, and once again shows Queen demonstrating that rock music is large enough to contain multitudes. As I listened to A Night At The Opera, I kept thinking of the Beatles’ White Album. That collection too brought together wildly diverse expressions, and had its own music hall influences, on songs like “Honey Pie” and “Martha My Dear.” But where the White Album was a portrait of a band in dissolution, A Night At The Opera shows us a group at the height of its powers, embracing its diversity rather than letting it push them apart. That is radical acceptance, and at least here, it results in great art.

Album Assignments: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

I loved Car Wheels On A Gravel Road when it came out in 1998. Consequently, I started to seek out other Lucinda Williams albums. I bought the subsequent Essence and World Without Tears, and reached back into her catalog for Happy Woman Blues. What all of these records have in common is Lucinda’s utterly unique and compelling voice. She doesn’t sound like anyone else alive. That voice can conjure up incredible ache, longing, and defiance, no matter what song she’s singing. But even with such vocal magic in action, her earlier and later albums didn’t enchant me the way that Car Wheels did, so this month I assigned it to Robby, in hopes that I could revisit it myself and figure out what makes it so special.

I think the first key is specificity, which works through Car Wheels in several different dimensions. The most noticeable of these is specificity of place. I count fourteen different specific place names on this album, all in the American South. Three of them even serve as song titles — “Lake Charles” (in Louisiana), “Greenville” (in Mississippi), and “Jackson” (in Mississippi). Car Wheels, true to its traveling title, is a virtual travelogue of Louisiana and Mississippi, with occasional forays into Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas. Grounding the album so specifically in a set of related locations gives its stories a ring of authenticity — you feel you’re hearing about the lives of actual people in actual places.

It’s not just place names, though. Another area of specificity is all the mentions of individual musical artists. The couple in “Metal Firecracker” didn’t just listen to music — “We’d put on ZZ Top / And turn ’em up real loud.” In “Lake Charles,” another couple, or maybe the same couple, drives through Lafayette and Baton Rouge, in a yellow El Camino, listening to Howlin’ Wolf. That lyric brings together places and music, just as “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” mentions Rosedale, Mississippi, and then in the next breath invokes Robert Johnson, who immortalized the town in song. The title track’s lyrics mention voices on the radio twice — Loretta and Hank. Thus Car Wheels gives us musical journeys alongside its physical ones, with music deeply integrated into the lives of its characters, so much so that they’re often on a first name basis with icons like Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams.

Album cover of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

That yellow El Camino from “Lake Charles” illuminates another kind of specificity on the album: specific images. Several of the songs give us vivid portraits of the characters’ lives through the use of small, expressive emblems. The words scrawled on the bathroom wall in “2 Kool”: “Is God the answer? Yes”. The watch, earrings, and bracelet in “Right In Time.” The long, smooth guitar neck and shiny strings in “Drunken Angel.” Queen of them all, though, is the song “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” From the first moment, Williams sets a luminous scene:

Sittin’ in the kitchen, a house in Macon
Loretta’s singing on the radio
Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon
Car wheels on a gravel road

Immediately, we’re there — sights, sounds, smells, and even time of day. The images continue through that song — a dusty suitcase, a screen door slamming shut, a low hum of voices in the front seat. Engine parts scattered in a yard with barking dogs. The car traveling past cotton fields, telephone poles, trees, and wires, with a child in the backseat hearing those voices, that music. Even in the deployment of a specific phrase, Williams reveals volumes: “You better do what you’re told / When I get back, this room better be picked up.” Who says that but a mother?

Yet even as specific as those images are, it can be hard to discern what the song’s about. Take them sequentially, though, and a story emerges. We start in that kitchen, but then take the child for a ride, to a house once familiar but now a mess. The narrator retrieves a suitcase, and reveals herself as a mother. That mother is traveling to Jackson with the kid, the Southern landscape flying by. She arrives at a broken-down house, and the child is weeping. And between each moment, we return to the chorus of the song and its central image: the car wheels, the gravel road.

I hear a story of a woman who has decided to leave her old life and seek a new one, taking her child with her. It’s like a prequel to the Pretenders song “Thumbelina” — “What’s important in this life? / Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”

And there we have the other bright thread weaving through this album: loss. There are a number of songs on Car Wheels that don’t invoke particular places or artists, but what those songs provide indelibly are powerful emotions of yearning, grief, and loneliness. Again, the titles tell a tale: “I Lost It”, “Can’t Let Go”, “Still I Long For Your Kiss”. The languid sensuality of “Right In Time” is inextricable from the lover’s absence. She takes everything off, moans at the ceiling, but in the end all she can do is reach over and turn off the light. The nostalgia in “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles” stands in sharp relief against the deaths of their subjects.

That’s a template for several other songs, with the difference being it’s a relationship that has died. “Metal Firecracker” reminisces about a wild intimacy, but circles back to a heartbroken plea: “All I ask… Don’t tell anybody the secrets / I told you”. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is even more plaintive: “I had a lover / I thought he was mine / Thought I’d always be / his Valentine”.

And of course, it keeps coming back to the title track, where indeed a relationship has died. We feel that pain keenly in specific places, through specific music, lit by specific images, until it winds up in the single image that sums up the whole album: “Little bit of dirt, mixed with tears”.

Album Assignments: Wild-Eyed Southern Boys

My thesis for this one is going to be straight out of the Linda Richman playbook: The “wild-eyed Southern boys” of .38 Special were neither wild-eyed, nor Southern, nor boys. Nor were they 38, for that matter, but the contradictions above are what made them special. Discuss.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant knew each other from their neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida, and formed .38 Special in 1974, bringing in Jeff Carlisi as a guitarist and third principal songwriter. Wild-Eyed Southern Boys was the band’s fourth album, released in 1981 when Barnes, Van Zant, and Carlisi were all 29 years old. Not in their late thirties, maybe, but not “boys” either — they were seasoned music business veterans at that point, who’d seen a few changes along the way.

One of the biggest of those changes had to do with the band’s southern rock identity. Prima facie, it seems ridiculous to claim that .38 Special wasn’t Southern. For one thing, Donnie Van Zant is the little brother of Ronnie Van Zant, legendary lead singer of the iconic southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Basically, if you’re being asked a trivia question that starts “What southern rock band…”, you can probably just stop listening right there and have an 80% chance of being right with “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” So .38 Special has pretty much the ultimate southern rock pedigree, and every single member of the band is from Jacksonville, so in what way exactly aren’t they Southern?

Album cover of Wild-Eyed Southern Boys

The answer goes back to their previous album, Rockin’ Into The Night. The band’s first two albums on A&M Records were pretty much straight-ahead southern rock, and made pretty much zero impression on the charts. However, with the title track from Rockin’, the band had a minor hit, getting to #43 in the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s the thing about that song, though: it wasn’t written by .38 Special. It was instead written by the main songwriters from the band Survivor. In fact, the song was meant for Survivor’s debut album, but their producer rejected it as “too Southern,” so the scrap went to .38 Special and they made the most of it.

Well, A&M executive Jim Kalodner smelled potential, so he asked Survivor songwriter Jim Peterik to get together with .38 Special and see what happened. (By the way, isn’t it hard to imagine a record company today sticking with a band who had .38 Special’s kind of track record up to that point?) Now Peterik is a pop-rock guy from Chicago, a pretty far cry from Jacksonville, but a funny thing happened when he got together with Barnes and Carlisi at his kitchen table in La Grange, Illinois. Carlisi offered a lick (“It’s kind of a Cars rip-off,” he said), and Barnes offered a title based on some struggles he was having in his marriage. Then Peterik came up with verses, chorus, and a melody, and the result was “Hold On Loosely,” the band’s first big hit and its first great song.

The other great song from this album, and not coincidentally the other hit, was “Fantasy Girl.” Also not coincidentally, Peterik was a co-writer, this time with Carlisi alone. Both of this album’s hits were fueled by a guy who couldn’t have been less Southern, a guy whose greatest claim to fame would eventually be his co-writing credit on Survivor’s massive hit “Eye Of The Tiger,” and to a lesser extent writing The Ides Of March’s one-hit wonder, a Blood Sweat & Tears sound-alike called “Vehicle.” He could play the part well, though. In fact, the album’s title track was written by Peterik alone, not a Southern boy in sight. Turns out he originally wrote the tune for Molly Hatchet, but they rejected it.

Peterik kept contributing to the band past this album, in particular co-writing their 1982 Top 10 hit “Caught Up In You.” One of .38 Special’s later hits, “Teacher Teacher”, was written by Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams, a couple of Canadians who I believe are the mathematical opposite of Southern.

I’m not disputing the quality of the music, just pointing out that in order to realize their full potential as a band, .38 Special had to stop being quite so Southern. It took a record company executive to make that alchemy happen, to deliberately inject an arena rock flavor into what had up until then been literally Lynyrd Skynyrd’s far less awesome baby brother. Now, what quality of mood characterizes that kind of approach? Would you call it “wild-eyed”? I wouldn’t. The word that comes to mind is “calculated.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But what turns out to be true is that underneath the surface of their image, this is the album where .38 Special became essentially an AOR rock band with a Southern coating. Protestations of the title notwithstanding.