Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle (1973)

A little too wild, but sincere and it shows. Let the band play, Brucey.

Review by: Charly Saenz (Out of competition!)
Assigned by: Marissa Ashenfarb

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There was once an American Rocker, with big hearted dreams and small pubs gigs, his relentless band with great musicians, and his own music to go along. No, I’m not talking about the Piano Man (Elton John!). This is not the arena rock Bruce you’ll get to know (and love, I bet), mind you. This is a wild and innocent young man who played as hard and as black as he could (Dream on White Boy…). Innocent young man I said? Well it’s hard to be a saint in the city but.. that’s a story from the future.

Bruce tastes all kind of flavours in his debut. Which is fine, it’s a candy store (rock) and you gotta see what’s your thing. The opening song “The E-Street Shuffle”, is quite the R&B affair, heavy bass, all horns, Motown in the chorus. Fabulous song if you ask me, full of space for the band. God, these days Bruce was not that far from Paul Weller.. in 5 years.

I gotta tell you about Garry W. Tallent (adequate last name): what a bass player! and he played the tuba too. Smart guy, the boss, saving money in the horns section.

In other spots, Bruce starts to develop his traditional style. It doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I feel Bruce sings too many words, and sometimes there’s too much of a big, convoluted sound (dangerously close to that ugly mammoth called “Born To Run”), as in “Rosalita”, which in fact has no spanish (or mexican or whatever) musical tone in my opinion to go along with the title. Well, the slower parts work much better, I’m not such a fan of the E-Street band rave-ups. I try to dance to it, but my head hurts. Worst thing is, this is “la piece de resistance” in this album. It’s not bad at all, but a little underwhelming for me.

Other classics here like “4th of july, Asbury Park” work better – I’ve always loved Sandy and Mary and all her sisters and their stories: sue me. But I think at this moment Sandy wasn’t ready for the prime time, in lyrics terms. There’s too much words and I don’t feel moved (Compare “The aurora is risin’ behind us/The pier lights our carnival live forever” with any bit in The River or Darkness In The Edge Of Town and you’ll see). Still it’s a nice lullaby and I’d play it in the porch while waiting for.. Sandy, you know. Random thought: In a way Mark Knopfler might be more of a Springsteen son than Dylan’s if you think about it. There’s that italian canzonetta feel in the chorus:  Good.

Another highlight is “Kitty’s Back” – This would have fit snuggedly in Shaft’s soundtrack, my God. This is good, as “Born To Run” can’t even dream to be (though the lyrics were better there: you can’t have it all). The groove is fantastic. I can almost hear “Heatwave” in parts. WAIT is that Clarence at 6:35? You betcha. Taking control, the man. Goosebumps.

“Wild Billy’s Circus Story”? I’m on the fence about this one. This is all about the lyrics now, and this goes like what? “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” all over! (OH WAIT Dylan hasn’t released that yet?). One thing I’ll tell you: the tuba is amazing: Tallent. And about 3:00 there’s some delicious guitar plucking, some mean harmonica and a sweet banjo. I’m sold, alright, you get a pass. Anyway, “Incident on 57th street” is more directly engaging, and I love what Vini Lopez did here on drums, but the whole band shines after Bruce runs out of lyrics, finally (that lonely bass  & drum at around 4:00 with Bruce smoothly crooning, well done) Bruce plays that guitar solo on the end? Really? that’s slick. And the piano coda is a little delight too.

To wrap things up, “New York City Serenade” starts on a mystery classic tone. Film Noir Springsteen, you know. A different scene indeed. Bruce’s voice is different too (A motorbike accident? Woodstock retirement?). Well after all it’s a serenade. And all of a sudden at 5:20 there’s a gospel surge! Just a bit. And then some soul, jazzy piano and that magnificent bass. It’s a cute little (but long, yet not overlong) song to say goodbye for now. Clarence does his bits too. Wasn’t he a little underused? Or misused? I’m never sure, but he was a heck of a player.

All in all this is a humble, heartfelt album. Some songs might use a little trimming? I don’t know, it would break the freedom feeling, perhaps. The lyrics are traditional Boss stuff but, the expertise is not there yet, for sure. I like the soulful parts. A lot. It will be better by the second album. Then eventually it will all become too much: Landau, you ruined my boy!

 

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Tyler, the Creator – FLOWER BOY (2017)

Review By: Charly Saenz
Assigned By: Michael Strait

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The Bees and The Flowers And That Loneliness Inside Makes You Wanna Rap.

I thought this was a sort of Hip Hop compilation, but in fact there’s a lot of guest singers here. Tyler the Creator is well.. The Creator (“lead vocals, production, recording, art, packaging design”). That kinda intrigued me: why would a rapper whose primary function is to be the frontman, invite other people to do his job? Outsourcing is still a great plan!

My take here was: ignore the rapping, for now at least. So, while the cassette rewinded, I went and bought me a sandwich. We need a picture!

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I’m not sure how much Frank Ocean embellished “Where This Flower Blooms” but the ending is gorgeous. Oh hold on – there’s a guy actually singing in “See You Again”! This could even be a song in a Doris day movie! I feel there’s a flower vibe here (Is this a concept album of sorts?). The rapping sorta ruins it at 1:34! Oh well that’s what the business is all about. But it’s just a bit. Good for tea time.

I’m sinking into isolation and anxiety now.. I mean that’s the album theme it seems – so it’s working. “Who Dat Boy” starts with some buzzing sounds, until a heavy bass underlines the bad words rapped full blast. Mind numbing.

After a few minutes with my head under the water, I’m back. “Pothole” is a bit more in the Barry White style but ain’t this a little muzak? “Garden Shed” starts off like a Who tune! I know it! I know it! I think it might be something from Quadrophenia, no wait it’s “See Me Feel Me”. Who wouldn’t like a Who Opera? Well, sampling is legal, let’s move on. Nice little song!

Anyway I’m quite bored, I gotta say. Until a song called “Boredom” comes along: affinity, you see. There’s some singing here, I like it. It’s like that movie “Breakfast in Tiffany”. Cool and comfy. Someone raps in the middle: who invited this guy? It’s quite the neo soul thing I guess.

Next song sounds quite similar but.. oh, I somehow repeated “Boredom” (makes sense). I went directly to “911/Mr Lonely” because “I Ain’t Got Time”. Let’s inject some lyrics here, people never read, never listen to the words:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
My thirst levels are infinity and beyond
Sippin’ on that lemonade, I need a Beyoncé
Can’t see straight, these shades are Céline Dion”

Master rhyming, if you ask me. It’s true – the album is about loneliness! I see it now. Reviewers are so smart. Oh there’s a fancy keyboard trick under the rapper (move move!) that is quite fun. At 2:15.

The Grand Finale: “Enjoy Right Now, Today”. There’s a kid in there (“Isn’t She Lovely” was better at this, mind you), a small casio keyboard and a martial drums loop. Not sure what this all means. Didn’t I hear this song in some cooking TV show? Oh, wait.. my sandwich!

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)

Review By: Michael Strait

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Full of failures, and not yet the fun kind.

After reviewing a couple of consistently good/great artists in a row, I decided to try something a little different. Reviewing good music gets boring after a while, but I didn’t just wanna review some horrible shit right away. Now, how about an artist with a lot of raw talent who often messes it up with terrible artistic choices, who seems determined to compensate for her incredible, preternatural sense of melody with the worst taste imaginable? Ah, now we’re talking.  Continue reading “STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)”

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Sentimentally Yours (1962)

Review By: Michael Strait

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The last in a short line. Still lovely, though not really any more or less so than the other ones.

Three four-star records in a row, eh? On the one hand, the consistency is remarkable, but on the other hand I can’t help but wonder if she ever had it in her to achieve a real masterpiece. Alas, I guess we’ll never know – the plane crash in ’63 put paid to that. Wikipedia tells me the church bell in her hometown still rings out a hymn every day at 6pm in her memory, which I’m sure she’d appreciate. Still, best not to dwell on such mortal matters of flesh and blood – the music lives on regardless, and there ain’t a blemish on it.

I’ll confess, though, that the first half of this album had me worried I wouldn’t have much to write about. The songs are all good, but for the most part they’re just, y’know, Patsy Cline songs: slow, sparse, atmospheric, nocturnal, tragic and beautiful, lovely to listen to and almost impossible to write about individually. “She’s Got You”, “That’s My Desire” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – a Hank Williams cover, though actually most of these songs are technically covers – are all perfectly gorgeous and, really, perfectly identical, save perhaps for a nice little mini-crescendo near the end of the latter. “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It)”, meanwhile, is distinguished only by the particularly heartbroken inflection she puts on the words “give me, give me, give me what I c-ry fooor”, her voice cracking as she begs.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much of Patsy Cline’s music is about not just misery, but the loss of all dignity and internal strength; it’s music about suffering emotional wounds so deep that they scar you forever, and every song carries with it the assumption that no happy ending is anywhere in sight. You can hear it on “Strange”, too, with its circling guitars and dolefully placid vocal melody underlying lyrics about a profound level of powerlessness. “Strange you’re still in all my dreams/ Oh, what a funny thing/ I still care for you”, she proclaims to her unfaithful erstwhile lover, still trapped in his memory, permanently rent in two by his betrayal.

She sounds similarly wounded on “You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)”, a song which also serves to remind me how truly tragic it is that pop music has largely forgotten how to tastefully apply the string section. The strings here are part of the tapestry, a central but minimally-applied component to the atmosphere, adding just the right amount of extra smoothness to the gleaming little globe of perfectly-polished sorrow from which Patsy croons her heart out. When did string sections in pop music become irretrievably associated with schmaltz and melodrama? There’s so much more you can do with a few carefully-applied violins than bury your singer in sap. Alas, it’s an art we seem to have buried next to dear Patsy.

I wish she’d done a few more faster numbers in her career, ‘cos the ones on here are both great and unique. “Heartaches” sounds remarkably propulsive for such a sparse song; its rhythm is derived only from a walking swingy bassline and a lilting guitar skank, with the drums almost nonpresent in their quiet minimalism, and yet it still sounds perfectly danceable without giving up that heavenglow charm I associate with Patsy. “Anytime” performs a similar trick, adding lovely little wind instrument flourishes and a string section that melds so perfectly to the choir that they fuse into one glowing instrument. All rather gorgeous, and the sort of music I’d have loved to see her explore more. Oh, alas, if it hadn’t been for that plane crash…

There are a lot of questions about Patsy’s career that crash left forever unanswered. Would she ever have come into her own as a songwriter, rather than simply a singer of other people’s songs? Was there potential in her to grow from merely a great lamenter of heartbreak to an exploratory, boundary-pushing artist, or would she have remained in a comfort zone of steadily diminishing returns for the rest of her life? It’s impossible to answer those questions now, of course, but at least she’s left us with some lovely music to relax to if the mood ever takes us. Now, what next? Another woman, that’s for sure – gotta counteract that UGK misogyny somehow. Stay tuned, I s’pose…

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Showcase (1961)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Paintings of an America composed mostly of light, purity, and emotional pain.

Man, I’m still kind of amazed that this music was once as popular as it was. I had no idea the American public once had such a fondness for atmospheric minimalism! “Crazy” is still a bar karaoke classic in the South (and possibly elsewhere too – I can only speak from my experiences) to this day, and that usually stops making sense to me the moment I leave the establishment. It’s a heartbroken ballad, sure, but it seems like kind of a weird one by my modern standards. The instrumentation is more concerned with creating an atmosphere than conveying a specific emotion, as if it’s trying to construct the sort of environment in which a loving connection could, conceivably, be found and then lost rather than actively trying to evoke the way it feels. But what’s most fascinating about the song – and, indeed, the album as a whole – is that this atmosphere is conjured mostly by suggestion, with sparse, barely-there instruments sketching faint outlines of an emotional universe that you are encouraged to fill with your own experiences. I, personally, think the faint pianos and barely-audible rhythm guitar scratches of “Crazy” evoke the lovely emptiness of the American South on a not-unpleasantly warm summer’s night, but that’s almost certainly just my personal biases leaking onto the canvas. The architecture is here for you to provide your own setting for Patsy’s plaintive wailing, and that’s true of much of the album.

It’s evident right away, with “I Fall To Pieces”. Like the rest of the album, it’s mostly very sparse – just a bassline and vocals, really – but it sounds like far more is hiding in the distance, occasionally making suggestions of itself visible for a second or two at a time. Par example: there’s a little three-note guitar refrain that pops up repeatedly in the verses, laden with softly chiming echo effects and matched by a quiet male backing choir, casting a dim and momentary glow over the fields from the heavens before folding back into the vast, velvet darkness that blankets all things, smothering the world in tranquility and peace. Shortly thereafter, we reach “The Wayward Wind”, which sounds as if it has entirely disconnected itself from human foibles and flaws and exists in some ephemeral dreamworld, floating atop tremulous string arrangements and egoless guitar. The flawless beauty of these environments does not, of course, do much to ease poor Patsy’s soul – still she wails out her heart about missed moments, lost love and the miseries of life without companionship, immersed in the ceaseless beauty of this American dreamscape and yet lacking a soul to share it with.

“I Love You So Much It Hurts” is the other song that immediately jumps out at me as a big highlight. It’s barely two minutes, but the world itself seems to slow to a crawl as you listen, with a glacial mist of low organs, near-imperceptible guitar chimes and soft backing vocals coating the world in a ghostly, angelic haze that shields one from the passage of time. It’s easy to get lost in this world, at least until the dancier, more energetic “Seven Lonely Days” jolts you out of the dream-haze and into a more physical, motive world with fewer distractions from poor Patsy’s endless heartbreak. If it seems like a weaker song in comparison, then that’s only fair – it’s a great song, but how can it compare to the rich tapestry that preceded it?

If there’s a flaw with this album, it’s that it’s a little frontloaded. “Crazy” is the last real highlight, save perhaps for a rerecording of “Walkin’ After Midnight” which is just a teensy bit more polished and, alas, less devastating than the original. The other songs on the post-“Crazy” second half are all beautiful, but they contribute to the overriding atmosphere of the album more than they set themselves apart as individual pieces. Great for laying back and bathing in, but if I were to analyse them I’d pretty much just be repeating myself, so I won’t bother. Of the couple of songs on the first half that I’ve not covered, “Foolin’ Round” is very intriguing in that it is nearly impossible to identify any of the individual instruments played on it save for the bass, so successfully do they meld into one unit. “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”, meanwhile, isn’t quite on the level of brilliance of its immediately surrounding brethren but nonetheless feels like it exists in a far less corporeal world than our own, evoking mystical concepts and distant lands only vaguely corresponding to the places we know as Mexico or suchlike.

Pop music, eh? Amazing what the public is capable of appreciating so long as it comes packaged with relatable lyrics. This is as painterly and atmospheric as any ambient music, and it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of emotional impact for it. Certainly worth your time as much as any Oren Ambarchi record. Now, how long shall I make my dedicated three-or-so readers wait until my next review? I’m thinking maybe five hundred years…

 

 

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Patsy Cline (1957)

Review By: Michael Strait

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Misery itself. As beautiful as it gets.

“It’s nice to know that there’s music that isn’t rooted in misery.”

– Dave Grohl, idiot, on country music

I plan to review a lot of country artists in my time here, but I’m not entirely sure how I’m gonna go about it. Country artists are a prolific bunch, and the legends tend to have discographies that stretch off into distant solar systems. I’ll come up with a way of reviewing them in depth one day, but in the meantime I’ll start with Patsy Cline, who had the decency to die in a plane crash after releasing only three albums.

Now, I’m not the most knowledgeable bloke when it comes to this era of music. I know, however, that this album isn’t what you might call pure country. It’s got that cosmopolitan Nashville style, pulling all sorts of different influences into a great country-shaped melting pot that bears a striking resemblance to just about every form of American popular music of the time without actually committing fully to being any of them. That sounds like a sneering insult, but it’s not, because the end result isn’t the beige pile of mud one might usually expect from such a collection of distilled references. Instead, all the styles ultimately end up subservient to country music’s peculiar lightweight gorgeousness, where all the individual instruments seem to disappear into a shimmering, ephemeral cloud of divine beauty, annihilating the musical ego entirely as the individual musicians disappear into the collective. Atop this glowing fog resides the heartbreak of Patsy Cline, screamed and wailed out with the power of a thousand suns. This dichotomy between the divinely perfect and the brokenly human is what motivates much of my favourite country music, and this album is as lovely a representation of it as you will find anywhere.

Across this album’s runtime – less than half an hour, as was normal in country music (and, indeed, much other music) of the time – there are two components that remain constant, undergirding all the tracks and binding the influences together. The first, most famously, is Mrs. Cline’s gorgeous, sonorous voice, resonant with overwhelming emotion and occasionally inflected with just a little bit of ugly phlegm to get the point across. The second, more subtly, is the backing vocals of The Anita Kerr Singers, present (unless my memory doth deceive me) on even the roughest, bluesiest tracks here. That serves to smooth down the edges of some of the grittier influences here, making sure that even the r&b riffs of “In Care For The Blues” and the swingy horns of “Too Many Secrets” ultimately sound as if they are in the service of some omnibenevolent being. This goes both ways, though. The opener, “That Wonderful Someone”, is ostensibly a plain-and-simple worship song for that aforementioned omnibenevolent being, and the softly clean instrumentation sounds as tranquil and bright as a clear mountain stream, but Patsy’s voice still peals across the shimmering waters like a doleful horn, reminding us all – I guess – of the perpetual fallen sinfulness of humanity, tragically heartbroken even as surrounded by the natural wonders erected by that wonderful someone.

I don’t know how genuine her pain was – I’ve not properly read up on her biography – but it certainly sounds real. I’ve never heard anyone wail quite as desperately as she does on “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again”, which may contain the most wince-inducingly convincing scream (so to speak) of the words “I feel like dying” ever uttered. “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray”, too, is truly tragic, as Patsy wails her heart out in a smoky, empty room lit only by sparse chiming guitars and soft backing vocals. That’s a continuation of the implicitly nocturnal theme found on “I Can’t Forget”, with its quiet, intimate piano and sleepy rhythm guitar laying contentedly atop the angelfeather bed conjured by the backing choir. Patsy herself, sadly, enjoys no such contentedness – she’s still up, bathing in the meagre light of a fading fire, sadly reflecting on her lonesomeness. Even amid the comfiest domestic bliss a set of instruments and a choir can evoke, she gets no rest.

That nocturnal theme is finally made explicit on the album’s big, famous standout, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which is far more evocative and atmospheric than a two-and-a-half minute song about loneliness has any right to be. It’s got a lovely, meandering slide guitar riff and a bit of a doleful rhythm, but most of that atmosphere comes from the echoey resonance of Patsy’s voice and the painterly fullness of the lyrics, sketching a fulsome picture of an emotional state rent between lonesome anguish and the tranquil peace of midnight solitude. “I stop to see a weepin’ willow/ Cryin’ on his pillow/ Maybe he’s cryin’ for me”, she sings, drawing out the last syllable into a mournfully climbing peal of despair. As someone who finds very little in the world as relaxing as being alone at night, I relate; I just hope I never experience pain like this. What was it Young Thug said? “I ain’t never been in love, I don’t know how pain feels”? If this is what love leads to, maybe he was right about it all along.

There isn’t a bad song on the album, but I guess I have to concede that “Walkin’ After Midnight” is the only really big standout. “Then You’ll Know” is so gorgeously tranquil that it seems to make time itself stop when one listens to it, but I’ll freely admit that it kind of disappears fairly easily from the memory after it’s done, as do most of these. It’s a great album, but ultimately it’s not a masterpiece and it’s far from the best country album I’ve ever heard. Still, come on – ninety whole ratings, RYM? Ninety? This lady deserves so much better than that. I’ll do what I can to correct this grave collective error myself over the coming weeks.