FRANK ZAPPA – The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Assigned by: B.B. Fultz

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My first Zappa album! Thanks for giving me the kick in the ass to finally get on it, B. B.

I’m not good at analyzing jazz. I enjoy listening to it, and I know when I like it, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain what differentiates this jazz from that jazz and so on and so forth. That said—I do know when I like it, and I like this. Given Zappa’s rather crazy reputation, it was surprisingly straightforward as a listening experience—now, as I said above, I don’t know how to analyze jazz, so it could be insanely idiosyncratic and complicated in ways I’m not qualified to talk about. But as a listening experience it was, well, pleasant. Not to imply that it’s elevator-music-style smooth jazz, but it’s not the kind of fusion that Miles Davis was doing from Bitches Brew onward. Which helped me to like it pretty immediately—really abrasive fusion isn’t something that endears itself to an immediate click, but I was pretty instantly down with this record. It’s energetic without becoming frenetic, engaging without becoming overwhelming. And mad props to the guy for making it after he’d had his voicebox crushed rather than just giving up on this music thing entirely.

So that was less a review and more a really vague and roundabout way of saying “I liked it.” I always end up being the last one to complete my review on these things, and the review never ends up being very good. I can talk about books and movies at great length, but when it comes to music I often don’t have a whole lot to say until I’ve listened to an album multiple times. That said, thanks again, B. B. More Zappa is in my future.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: THE BEATLES- The White Album (1968)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1968
Review by: Graham Warnken

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The old chestnut that this is four separate solo albums smashed into one is a drastic oversimplification. At most, it’s two solo albums, a solo EP, and a solo single—John and Paul are running the show here, while George gets four compositions and Ringo gets two, one of which he didn’t even write. But the hyperbole of that cliche is driving at the truth—this album is at times almost unbearable to listen to because of how isolated its performers are.

The White Album has always felt like an endurance run to me. It’s not that I have to suffer the material reluctantly—it’s the feckin’ Beatles, after all, and of their LPs this is my #2 on a good day. It’s not the longest album I own by a long stretch—The Clash’s Sandinista and Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me immediately spring to mind as two longer ones. But I have to work myself up to listening to it. I always feel hollow when I’ve finished it, exhausted, and I can’t do it with headphones—I have to do it on vinyl, the music at a safe remove from my head as I listen. I love it, it’s one of the best records ever made, but I’m always left feeling unsettled and empty once the needle lifts for the final time.

For a long time, I thought this was due to the combination of its length and the diversity of its material—after all, it’s jarring to be hurled from gentle acoustic numbers to proto-metal to music hall to noise collage all on the same record. But the juxtaposition of genres and styles is no longer enough to startle me—I’ve been listening to this album since I was fifteen, and I’m intimately familiar with the track listing. Eventually, we grow accustomed to everything as long as we’ve heard it often enough.

No, the answer is less obvious, and it’s buried in that hyperbolic four-solo-albums chestnut. I realized this when I was listening to Rubber Soul the other day, closing my eyes and enjoying the blending of John and Paul’s voices into a seemingly single entity.

There are no harmonies on The White Album.

Now, that in and of itself is hyperbolic—of course there have to be some. But almost none of them spring instantly to your mind when you try to conjure them up. I can instantly summon the sound of Paul’s voice piping up in the verses to “Ticket to Ride,” the four-part unison of the boys on “Carry That Weight,” John and his co-lead barking the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise in tandem. When I try to think of similar moments on The White Album, I’m left with a blank.

It’s not just harmonies, of course. A huge percentage of the album’s tracks don’t even have the whole band playing. Ringo had quit the band for “Back in the U.S.S.R./Dear Prudence”; John and George were elsewhere when Paul and Mr. Starr decided to lay down “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”; Paul and John took “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “I Will,” “Julia,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and others themselves; John and Yoko holed up with a tape deck and pieced together “Revolution 9”. But it’s not as if this hasn’t been the case before. Ringo is entirely absent from “I’m Looking Through You” besides the occasional Hammond organ blast. “Yesterday” is all Paul. George is isolated from his bandmates behind waves of sitar on “Within You Without You.” Sure, there were never so many pared-down tracks at once before, but with this expansive tracklist it was bound to happen more often. The abundance of absences from song to song is unusual, but not enough to induce the disquiet that lingers on the album.

No, what does it for me is how even on tracks that feature the whole band, the lead singer still might as well be by himself. Vocals stand out alone amid the instruments; they’re not bolstered by anything, they hang entirely on their own. The rich, full melding of John’s abrasive, nasal tone and Paul’s velvety one is absent, and it leaves a vacuum. The singers sound thin, weak, left to fend for themselves in the midst of their own tracks and not quite up to the challenge. Yoko’s sometime vocal intrusions make it worse—now there’s more than once voice on the track, but no, that’s not right, that’s not a Beatle there. The Beatles have always been and will always be a source of comfort and friendliness, and Paul’s inherent goodheartedness, Ringo’s lovable dopiness, John’s infectious cheekiness, George’s… whatever it is, can’t be taken away from them regardless of how they sing their songs. But where elsewhere you feel, listening to the group, that you have a whole pack of friends encased within the LP, here you only have one at a time. You’re alone with John as he uses you for a therapist, with Paul as he hams it up to make you laugh, with George as he strives to elevate your consciousness, with Ringo as he lulls you to sleep, and while it’s still a nice sensation, it’s an unavoidably different one.

I haven’t listened to Let It Be often enough to completely determine if it shares this album’s unsettling feeling of isolation, but I don’t think it can. It’s still a portrait of a band coming to terms with its own demise, but you have John and Paul trading off sections of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” backing each other up on “Get Back,” paying tribute to one another on “Two of Us.” On both that album and Abbey Road, you feel intuitively that things are not and cannot be the same as they once were, but the boys are trying, doing their best to produce, if not a return to the old days, the best facsimile of one they can. The White Album is frightening, disheartening, and draining because none of that’s there. The group is in tatters, and they don’t care who knows it.

All this talk of fear and emptiness is pompous and overblown, of course, because it completely ignores the fact that there’s just beautiful music on here, easily among each songwriter’s best. Were the album truly nothing but discomforting to listen to, something would be very wrong indeed; even at their most cynical, fed up, or workmanlike, the guys are incapable of entirely alienating their audience. But I have to take the beauty in drips and drabs to feel good about it; listen to a track here, a track there, scattered amongst my driving playlist.

When I listen to the record all at once, a vague sinking feeling takes hold; and though I turn the volume up for my favorite songs, and sing along at times, and enthuse over individual moments, every time Ringo’s final whispered message fades out I breathe a faint sigh of relief. Good night, he says, voice so close to the microphone that it tickles your ear. On any other Beatles album it would be a soothing sensation. On The White Album, I feel his breath against my face, imagine him all alone in the studio hoping that eventually George Martin will come along and lend him some instrumental company, and shiver.

RHIANNON GIDDENS – Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015)

Review by: Syd Spence
Assigned by: Graham Warnken

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Ms. Giddens is a versatile performer. On this record she covers a plethora of rootsy styles everything from gospel folk, bluegrassy folk, folk folk, rockabilly, jazz among others. It’s got it all! And the voice, Oooo WEE, she has one. I wonder if she’s been on America’s got talent, because i bet she’d be a shoe in.

Despite all this talent, I loathe this record. Everytime i put it on, i just want to immediately stop it. Honestly, i’ve never made it all the way through. Hell, i haven’t made it all the way through most of the songs. The question you are probably asking right now is, “jeeze, is she that bad a song writer.” No she isn’t. I haven’t delved too deep, due to my instant revulsion, but she seems like an adequate rootsy musicians.

It’s just this album screams, SOLD AT STARBUCKS! This record is really emblematic of a trend in petty bourgeois society. The latest craze that’s sweeping this nations educated white middle class is back to the roots, retro hand crafted cool. You can’t throw a stone in a farmers market without hitting some neo folk blue grass singer. There god damn everywhere. And i get it, the world is a digital impersonal wasteland. Everything is going faster and faster, and god damnit, can’t we go back to simpler times. Thus we get shit like this.

See it’s not reason for the retro love that’s the problem, it’s the execution. See a going back to roots is a great idea. I have loved many of folky country good time swing old timey music. There is nothing wrong with that or nostalgia for an era you never experienced. But, and it’s big but, listening to these nufolk record is a pain, because all of it has super clear perfectionist production, that just sucks all the roots out. So when i listen to these records, I don’t feel i’m going back in time, I feel more like starbucks is curating retro cool to me. And that just instantly hits my revulsion button.

Look i’m not saying this record is bad. I’m just saying that capitalist culture is inherently alienating, and these nufolk records alienate me more than anything. Wholefoods presents the ‘20s is my idea of hell, but hey, if it’s your thing. Get this record! And enjoy your cultural zeitgeist meeting consciousness, you lucky prick!

PETE TOWNSHEND – Psychoderelict (1993)

Review by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

So, for our “pan round”, I was assigned Pete Townshend’s last solo album, a rock opera concept album about himself as a decadent rock star. A sure recipe for something awful, isn’t it? Well, yes, but I had to at least give the record a chance, for fairness’ sake. So I braced myself, tried to rid my mind of my prejudices, and played this thing. By the first listen, the situation wasn’t very auspicious, as the first track, “English Boy”, was supposed to be one of the few highlights here, and I found it bland. Thankfully, considering only the music aspect, the rest is pretty much on the same level, which left me wondering why that particular song got praised. I guess people somehow enjoyed / pretended to enjoy it more than the rest because it tries to recapture the Who’s rocking aesthetics, but it does so without real force and without a strong melody behind it.

During “English Boy”, I would come across what is the main nemesis of this album, the thing that makes an otherwise mediocre release bad: the dialogues. You see, that old school Quadrophenia style of having the story felt only by the songs wasn’t enough for Pete. He had to have voice actors saying bullshit throughout the whole disk, and some of the tracks are nothing but dialogues that go on for over a minute. This killed the album to me. Another album that has problems with dialogues, in my opinion, is Aquemini, which is an album I otherwise love. After every track, it has some skits that, while entertaining, ruin the flow of the music. Psychoderelict is much much worse on this aspect, because the dialogues try to tell an uninteresting story starred by awful characters.

In Psychoderelict’s defence, I must say there was a music-only version. However, it is pretty clear that one is meant to be a “lightweight” version for weaklings, and the true version is the one with the dialogues. Still, I was tempted to listen to that. The point of this round was to listen to awful stuff, though, and if I dared to inflict Zezé di Camargo & Luciano upon someone, then it would be dishonourable not to listen to the piece of garbage in its full form.
Back to music, let me stress that this album is mostly uninspired, it isn’t completely bad. Pete tries to be diverse here, which is a plus. There’s three “Meher Baba” instrumental tracks that taste like microwaved yesterday’s pizza. The third one, strangely numbered “M5”, is the best of them, the only one that managed to get me on a “vibe”. “Don’t Try to Make Me Real” has a good refrain. “Now and Then” has a cool bassline and a weird vocal delivery that works to its favour. That’s it for highlights though. The rest of the disk entered my brain through one ear and left through the other.

What was really unforgettable here was the story. In a very bad way. I don’t know what exactly made Pete think we would be interested in those dialogues, but they’re everywhere! They come before or after the songs in their tracks, they sometimes have their own, dialogue-only, tracks, and in some songs, they even come interspersed with the verses and choruses, so as to give the listener no respite. You’re going to listen to this insipid excuse for a plot, and you’re going to listen to this all the fucking time! And not only the story is extremely badly written, the characters are completely unlikeable assholes, that I hated the first time I heard their voices. I’ll save you the details, because the contents here are incredibly shallow, but I’ll point to two lines that grabbed my attention:

“Dear Lily, thank you for your pictures” WINK WONK

“Rose, you didn’t get, didn’t you. I knew it all the time.” YES THAT IS A LINE THE MAIN CHARACTER SAYS

In a fitting note, the album ends with a dialogue. “What happened to that loving hippy shit?” Fuck you Pete! If you’re daring to diss hippy shit, you fucking better have something better than it to show! Instead, you come up with this, and, really, fuck you!

GREEN DAY – American Idiot (2004)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

My only memories of Green Day were when they were on the radio a lot around the release of “Dookie”, so for me they were always this young pop-punk band, so when I read in the press that they were doing a conceptual rock opera thing I was thinking “Huh? Are they the right band to do this? Wouldn’t it be boring? Pop punk only has so much diversity and when you go for a concept album you need musical diversity”.

Or course I was not being aware that 10 years had passed since “Dookie”, and another 12 have passed since they released “American Idiot” to the day in which I’m listening to it for the first time.

First of all, I will not comment on the plot and the concept, for one simple reason: I would need to pay attention to the lyrics, and that would be something for a time when I can focus enough on them.

I don’t know if in the time span between Dookie and American Idiot they had already transcended their old sound, but in this record they sound quite more diverse than simply punky pop (although “St. Jimmy” – actually the second half of “Are We The Waiting / St. Jimmy”; a lot of tracks come in pairs – is totally classic punk). But the energy is there, oh boy is it there. The guitars jump at you with classic rock abandon, the drums are precise yet lively and the bass holds the ground as it’s supposed to do. Check the title track for an example – it’s exhilarating.

Green Day asserted that they had done their homework and studied classic rock operas and it shows. They said their main inspiration was “Quadrophenia” and I can agree – but if anything, it sounds like Quad if Quad had been done by the Who of 1965 rather than the Who of 1973. But that’s not the only discernible influence; take the second track and arguably the tour de force of the album, “Jesus of Suburbia”, a nine minute monster in several parts. Not only there are very strong hints of Ziggy Stardust here and there, but the third section (“I don’t care”) is so much in the same rhythm as the “I have to know” part of “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar – and it’s so totally appropriate in a meta level – that it cannot be accidental.

Diversity is also a mark of the “paired” tracks: the “Are we the waiting” section of that track I mentioned above has nothing to do with the “St. Jimmy” section; “Give me Novocaine / She’s a rebel” repeats the trick: the first part is funky and acoustic, the second is punk pop at its most direct; “Holiday / Boulevard of Broken Dreams” sounds like the reggaeified Clash in its first part (excellent!), and like Oasis in the second (damn!). “Wake me up when September ends” is the expected acoustic/power ballad, and its placement in the album makes it the equivalent of the typical Broadway “11 o’clock song” (clever!). Then “Homecoming” tries to repeat the trick of “Jesus of Suburbia” (it’s even a little longer) but not quite succeeding as much, although having the two guys not named Billie Joe contribute (and sing) a section is a welcome idea (in addition to a possible nod at “Tommy”).

In short, even taking the concept out of the equation, the album is an enjoyable romp and its opening stretch is certainly good; I’d nominate the entire sequence of “American Idiot”, “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Holiday” (a pity about the “Boulevard” part – sorry guys but Oasis????) as the best part of the album. Thumbs totally up.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ANAÏS MITCHELL – xoa (2014)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 2014
Review by: Graham Warnken

Anaïs Mitchell can certainly never be accused of a lack of ambition. Her most well-known project is the folk opera Hadestown (currently playing as an acclaimed Off-Broadway show), which transplants the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a Great Depression-type American dystopia and features guests such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Orpheus) and Ani DiFranco (Persephone). The fact that that album is even coherent is an achievement—that it’s one of the best releases of its year is incredible.

Due to her fans’ desire to see many of the full-band numbers from Hadestown and its follow-up Young Man in America recorded solo, as well as Mitchell’s desire to release a few new songs and re-record earlier pieces she deemed unsatisfactory in their original form, 2014 saw the release of xoa. It’s an oddball fusion of a greatest-hits collection with an inverted demo reel, familiar numbers rendered new in their stripped-down format and new songs peeking their way through the sea of music from days gone by. Fortunately, what could have been a perfunctory toss-off ends up being a wonderful album in its own right, equalling and often outright improving upon the earlier material that gives it life.

As with each of Mitchell’s preceding records, xoa is a mix of the personal and the political. The former category includes the heartbreaking “Out of Pawn”, written as a letter from a Katrina survivor to an uncle who didn’t make it; “Come September”, the lament of a migrant picker jilted by her lover; and “Now You Know”, a quietly gorgeous fusion of lullaby and lovesong, among others. Each of these tracks elevates sentiments that could come across as maudlin, thanks to the craft with which Mitchell shapes her lyrics. Internal rhyme and alliteration are constant presences, but avoid calling undue attention to themselves; the sonic rhythms formed by these poetic devices are as natural as they are precise, drawing the listener in unawares. The same holds true for the record’s political half—the propagandic round “Why We Build the Wall” (written a decade before America’s current Trump problem), the barren climate-change panorama of “Any Way the Wind Blows”, the desperate hungry yowl of “Young Man in America”, rise above mere polemic due to the wit and intelligence with which their words are wrought.

Besides wordplay, another constant is emotion. Playful and joyful numbers are lifted up by the little-girl lilt of Mitchell’s tongue, which seems genuinely pleased to be here; desolate dirges are delivered with a grief that’s completely believable. Perhaps the most effective emotional moment on the record comes with its re-recorded version of “Your Fonder Heart”, originally present on Mitchell’s The Brightness. In its original version, the song is a warm, teasing greeting to someone who could be a friend come out to play or a lover with whom to wander under the stars, evoking memories of adolescent summer evenings in all their nostalgia-tinged glory. The xoa recording takes the exact same melody and lyrics and twists it into something entirely new—the arrangement, sparse and bare, summons a vision of a caffeine-insomniac awake at two in the morning with no idea how to sleep, and Mitchell’s voice is crushed and yearning. The juxtaposition of the two cuts is startling; it’s as if they’re bookends on a broken relationship, and in hindsight complete each other.

I don’t know that xoa is the album I would direct new listeners to as a starting point for Mitchell—a couple of the Hadestown cuts don’t make much sense out of context, and while there’s the cohesive sound of Mitchell alone on her guitar the subject matter is too varied to form a unified album. That said, it’s the record of hers I find myself listening to the most, and is easily in my top ten albums. In almost every step it takes it improves on material that was already incredibly good, intimate and perfectly constructed. It’s the latest in a long string of storytelling achievements from the current Queen of Folk Music.

DEATH IN JUNE – But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter? (1992)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Jonathan Moss

When I was assigned this album, I was told it was by “possibly Nazi neo-folk band” Death in June. That’s one hell of an opener.

Fortunately for this reviewer, if the band does indeed have Nazi sympathies they weren’t especially prevalent throughout this album. Unfortunately, the quality of Symbols Shatter’s lyrics isn’t matched by its music; it may not be obviously neo-fascist neo-folk, but neither is it particularly interesting neo-folk.

Lyrically, this is an mostly fantastic collection of songs. Black imagery and ironic travesties of religious messages abound (four of the tracks are reworkings of ditties by Jim Jones—yes, that Jim Jones), painting sardonically nightmarish visions of a world on the brink of Armageddon. The overall sentiment does fall victim to the same problem I have with the Manic Street Preachers—the sheer determination to wallow in pessimism can come off as juvenile—but there’s enough craft to the songs’ wordsmithery that that can be overlooked.

Alas, the musical accompaniment isn’t equal to the text—it’s hard to distinguish one song from another in my memory because of a relative genericism. There’s an echoey, spacey quality to the production that actively works against it in the worst possible way, taking all the intimacy of the recordings and sucking it away. Combine this washed-out production with a consistent lack of melodicism and preponderance of samey arrangements—lazily strummed acoustic guitar with occasional flourishes of brass—and the songs become obscured by haze. If Douglas P.’s vocals were suitably arresting this could have been overcome, but they like his music are flat and droning. Thus what’s arresting on the page becomes a struggle to pay attention to in one’s ears.

And so, to my most alas, I set aside Symbols Shatter in all likelihood never to return. When it comes to neo-Nazis and music, I’ll settle for a rewatch of Green Room.