Paul Simon – Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Paul Simon had achieved what I always thought of as a puzzling sort of celebrity. For reasons I’ve never discerned, Simon enjoyed popularity in my middle school for a brief but intense period of time. “Cecilia” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” were particular widespread favorites. Beyond that, Simon was on Saturday Night Live multiple times and was married (and later again involved with) Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher. While his musical career foundered before Graceland, that album made him a superstar, and he was everywhere. Inescapable. Still, I never warmed to him.

What I Think of This Album

Is this a good or bad Paul Simon comp? I have no idea. And the mystery does not keep me up at night. I feel like this gives me what I need, and also a whole lot I don’t. Your mileage may vary. At one point, I owned Simon’s self-titled debut – entirely because I had read that Billy Bragg had based the “I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long” lyric from “A New England” on a song on that album but it turns out that is incorrect, as the line is from “Leaves That Are Green” which is on Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. The point is that I have some exposure to an actual Paul Simon studio album. Like I said, I feel that this album is sufficient.

This collection gathers 16 tracks from the six albums Simon released from 1971 to 1986. For some reason, that seems like a low output for such a long span, but I suppose he was also busy with other projects. Relatedly, 16 tracks seems like not enough from six albums, unless the albums were shitty. But Graceland by itself could have been basically grafted onto this – it is bewildering that only two of its songs are here when so many other lesser ones are included – so again I have to wonder:  maybe this is a poorly curated album.

On the one hand, this has the famous Simon solo songs that I know I like:  “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” “Kodachrome,” and “Late In the Evening.” And other songs that I was less familiar with and think are fine, like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

I always thought the lyric in “Me and Julio” was “the radical grease gonna get me released,” which I frankly think makes more sense – or anyway is better – than “the radical priest.” Whatever. I love the Latin percussion on this (courtesy of Airto Moreira). The use of gospel singers The Dixie Hummingbirds is what elevates “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

“Kodachrome” is phenomenal. Just a great melody with a stellar arrangement (love the drumming, and so well mixed, and the piano part towards the end is eye-opening), and a touch of sociopathy in the lyrics. The other true standout is “Late In the Evening,” with drummer Steve Gadd employing four drumsticks, a fun, compelling lyric, and a great Latin horn part.

I fully admit that “Slip Slidin’ Away” is cheesy – it’s got the Oak Ridge Boys on it – but I swear to God it gets me, clip-clopping into my ear drums. The Graceland tracks are by definition excellent.

But some inclusions confuse me. “Something So Right” seems pretty wrong – snoozer. Same for “St. Judy’s Comet,” I guess written for Simon’s son; on top of being a lullaby, it’s a waste of the Muscle Shoals musicians. “Hearts and Bones” is exactly what I would expect from Paul Simon in 1983, as is the even more pandering “Train In the Distance.”

I understand why “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is here but I’ve always hated it – it’s nothing but gimmick, and shoddily done (lyrically) at that. Similarly, it’s not surprising to find “Still Crazy After All These Years,” but it’s a ponderous, heavy-handed slog. “Have a Good Time” is a fucking embarrassment, or at least should be. 

There is nothing about “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” that could in any way burnish Simon’s reputation. If anything, it speaks to two of his great, interrelated weaknesses. One is his refusal to let his talent be what it is and to instead aim for transcendence, only to land on pretension. The other is that Simon often conveys a lack of sincerity, preferring to instead advertise himself as a protean craftsman. Thus, “Magritte” could have been a touching, tender song about an elderly couple strolling past sex shops and dancing in their home to doo wop, but he had to make it a piece of historical fiction and both borrow significance and manufacture sentimentality from Magritte’s stature.

So maybe this a bad collection, or maybe I just don’t like Simon that much.

Random fact:  Cissy Houston sings backup on “Mother and Child Reunion.” 

The Best Thing About This Album

“Late In the Evening”

Release Date

October, 1988

The Cover Art

The shadow from the blinds is the only acceptable thing about this art.

Paul Simon – Graceland

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

Wow. The history and legacy of this album is far more complicated than I originally knew. It makes listening to it a slightly different experience for me. The problems start with its birth. Apparently, a young singer-songwriter named Heidi Berg had secured Paul Simon’s agreement to produce her album; in anticipation of the work, she provided him with a bootleg mix tape (allegedly titled Gumboots:  Accordion Jive Hits No. 2) of South African music to give him a sense of the sound she wanted. Captivated by the music, Simon decided to use the tape as the basis for an album of his own. The Simon-produced, mbaqanga-influenced Berg album obviously never materialized.

Having decided to record with South African musicians, Simon was aware of the United Nations cultural boycott on South Africa in response to apartheid. He ultimately was not deterred. On the one hand, he consulted with Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, while on the other: a) so what; and b) he ignored Belafonte’s advice anyway. Also, Simon had already shown antagonism towards Nelson Mandela, according to Steven Van Zandt, and had refused to perform on Van Zandt’s 1985 “Sun City” protest song because of his allegiance to Linda Rondstadt, called out in the song for having performed at the titular resort also in defiance of the boycott. But he himself had refused to play at Sun City.

Simon’s decision was condemned by musicians like Billy Bragg and Terry Hall (the Specials), while the South African black musicians’ union voted to let Simon visit. The musicians on the album have all been nothing but supportive of Simon’s decision, while other African musicians have been critical. Simon was generous with pay and fair with royalties, while at the same time the very fact of the recording sessions endangered the musicians (e.g., risking being out past curfew) and forced them to risk their well-being for the promise of exposure and payment. And the question has been raised as to how the musicians could have been on equal footing with Simon in the studio when they were legally obligated to treat him as superior while he was in their country. Relatedly, Simon obviously benefited from apartheid while in South Africa even when not recording simply by being a white person participating in the societal framework.

Gallingly, Simon invited Rondstadt to sing on “Under African Skies,” knowing full well about her own transgressions (which Rondstadt pleaded ignorance to at the time) and in the midst of the criticism he was subjected to. This decision is difficult to interpret as anything but deliberate and petulant nose-thumbing. 

Moreover, two artists have accused Simon of plagiarism in connection with the album (not counting Berg, from whom Simon lifted the idea and executed with the privilege of his superior resources). First, featured artist The Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters averred that the tune “That Was Your Mother” was based on one of their other songs but let it slide, figuring that the exposure from being on the album at all made up for it. On the other hand, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos is adamant that Simon stole “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” and defied the band to sue him when they complained. As to why they did not, Berlin claims that label president Lenny Waronker talked them out of it. 

Finally, at the time the album was released, there was little to no mainstream (i.e., white) recognition of appropriation. There is now. Where does Graceland fall? Simon was voluble about the origins of the music and instead of mimicking it and passing it off as his own (though his original impulse was close to if not exactly this), he went out and found the native musicians and worked with them. He also gave credit to those musicians, including for songwriting. This sets him closer to David Byrne as opposed to, say, Vampire Weekend. But he also capitalized and profited from music that he has no organic connection to and, as he admits, he only relates to because it reminds him of 50’s American roots music.

What I Think of This Album

This is a wonderful album, regardless of all the baggage. The music is a revelation, and Simon delivers a set of lyrics that avoid pandering and pretentiousness. The bass lines, in particular, are a wonder to listen to.

“The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio” lyric would be enough for me to declare “The Boy In the Bubble” a classic, but consider also the accordion intro and those huge drum hits and frankly the rest of the lyrics and this is a tremendous opening song. It was cowritten with Forere Motloheloa and the African musicians were the members of Tau Ea Matsekha.

The title track is a gentle shuffle and while some of the lyrics are a bit overcooked, the bass line is fucking killer and the guitar work is excellent, as is the druming. The Everly Brothers sing backup on this. Ray Phiri was the guitarist, while Bakithi Kumalo played the fretless bass.

The opening of “I Know What I Know” reminds me of “La Bamba.” The song is based on the work of General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Singers, and Shirinda gets a co-writing credit. Frankly, Simon’s lyrics kind of suck on this one, but the music and the backing vocals are divine.

“Gumboots” is essentially a rerecording of one of the songs from the infamous mix tape that started it all. The tempo and delicate accordion work are fantastic. Not sure the saxophone overdubs add anything special. The synclavier is an admittedly nice touch by Simon. Songwriting credit and backing by the Boyoyo Boys.

Listening to the gentle vocal tones from Ladysmith Black Mambazo on “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” is like the most peaceful drowning imaginable. The rest of the arrangement is out of this world – the horns, the guitar, the bass, the percussion. Youssou N’Dour played percussion on this track. LBM’s leader Joseph Shabalala got a credit for this tune.

The big hit was “You Can Call Me Al,” propelled in part by a goofy, celebrity-guested music video. But the fact is the music is unstoppable and Simon’s delivers a set of lyrics of relatable disillusionment and displacement. The bass solo is palindromic – the second half is just the tape of the first half played backwards – which doesn’t make the first half any less goddamn impressive.

My least favorite track is “Under African Skies,” as it sounds like Simon is trying too hard for something transcendent. And then there is the Rondstadt element, which is difficult to ignore. But for the most part it’s just that you can see the seams on this one. There is no better parody of a Paul Simon song title than “Crazy Love, Vol. II.” This one feels a little slight – I don’t like the glassine guitar figure and the melody is fairly mediocre. These are really the only weak tracks.

Shabalala also co-wrote “Homeless,” featuring another performance by LBM, who again provide soul-stirring vocals. Notably, Simon is only minimally present on this track, which was a wise decision and one I am surprised he was capable of. The wash of LBM’s voices is wonderful.

The final songs are a bit anomalous. I get (or assume) that Simon was trying to draw some connections to American roots music but it throws the album off and makes it seem like more of a school project than a labor of love. That said, both “That Was Your Mother” and “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” are great songs. I have a minor soft spot for zydeco – I just can’t listen to much of it at once.

Adrian Belew also played on the album. Ray Phiri died in 2017, while Joseph Shabalala passed in 2020.

The Best Thing About This Album

The bass work.

Release Date

August, 1986

The Cover Art

I hate this medieval tapestry bullshit. Zero out of ten.

The Feelies – The Good Earth

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Six years separated the first two Feelies albums. Anton Fier and Keith DeNunzio both left the band and Bill Million and Glenn Mercer basically fucked around New York for a few years, making music in various guises. In 1985, they reformed with Dave Weckerman back in the fold and new members Brenda Sauter on bass and Stanley Demeski on drums. This five piece has been the Feelies ever since. This was the last of the core Feelies albums I bought, waiting for the 2009 reissue (the original had been released on the small Coyote Records imprint and it was impossible to find).

What I Think of This Album

Liberated from any momentum generated by Crazy Rhythms, and with a new perspective after years of exploring different approaches via their various side projects (some with new members Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski and returning original compatriot Dave Weckerman), the Feelies returned with the more sedate The Good Earth, a title that itself gives off bucolic vibes.

While some have attributed the change in sound to producer Peter Buck’s (REM) presence, he has denied playing much of any role beyond cheerleader. And it’s difficult to believe that Mercer and Million were somehow cajoled into doing something they didn’t want to. There are similarities to the driving sound of the debut, even if this album is much calmer. 

That said, this isn’t slowcore. There are plenty of electric guitars and Mercer still plays biting leads – check out the solo on “On the Roof.” If anything, there is a greater sense of steady propulsion and thrumming hypnotism on The Good Earth. Whereas the band communicated unease and tension on the debut, here they sound confident and determined.

Every track is excellent, but Demeski does a particularly impressive job on tracks like “The Last Roundup,” “Two Rooms,” and “Tomorrow Today.” “Let’s Go” is an invitation no one with a heart(beat) could turn down. The jangle of “The High Road” is immensely appealing. The twin guitar work on “Two Rooms” is fascinating. Closer “Slow Down” is a masterpiece of mood and tautness.

“Slipping (Into Something)” is an enjoyable slab of Velvet Underground homage while also being perhaps the least interesting song on the album. The atmospherics of “When Company Comes” sound like Ennio Morricone got his hands on, well, I guess the Velvet Underground. It is a lovely lovely lovely and meticulously crafted song – listen for the dog barking at roughly :40.

Note:  the reissue comes in a cardboard sleeve of non-standard size, which annoys me. It also comes with a little business card that allows you to download extra tracks (two covers (Beatles and Neil Young) and a live version of “Slipping”) – apparently the band wanted the actual album to stand alone. I have not downloaded the tracks, only because I don’t like “owning” music in purely digital form. I need a physical medium.

The Best Thing About This Album

Stanley Demeski is the absolute MVP on this.

Release Date

1986

The Cover Art

While I don’t feel strongly about it, I agree that this is probably the perfect image (with coloring) to accompany this album.

The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

The Feelies are low key one of my favorite bands. I wish they were easier to see, but you basically have to live in the New York area nowadays. I was lucky enough to see them in Chicago some years ago. I also saw side project Wake Oolo when I lived in New York (they opened for Luna), but I did not really appreciate the significance at the time. The core of the Feelies – percussionist Dave Weckerman and guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer – began playing together in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976. Lineup changes ensued and by the time of 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, bassist Keith DeNunzio (also known as Keith Clayton) had joined as had Anton Fier on drums (it is not clear what happened to Weckerman during this period, who otherwise has been a long time member).

What I Think of This Album

I don’t really believe in Top Ten Albums but fuck it, this is a Top Ten Album for me. It is odd and unsettling and comforting and comfortable and vibrant and vibratory and playful and inventive and impressive as fuck.

The title telegraphs the most obvious feature of the music, which is the polyrhythms that dominate the sound. Anton Fier is the main percussionist, but his efforts are augmented by the other three band members, who make contributions on exotic instruments like sandpaper, shoes, can, and coat rack (and also timbales, shaker, claves, castanets, maracas, temple blocks, cowbell, and extra snare and tom-toms). Keeping up with these darting and dizzying beats is a rapturous and disorienting experience, which I highly recommend.

The song titles also betray the band’s sensibilities:  “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness,” Raised Eyebrows,” and “Forces at Work.”  The Feelies share some DNA with Wire, in that both aim to strip things down to their essential parts. But whereas Wire exuded a sense of danger and mischief, the Feelies communicate anxiety and fatalism. And while Wire kept things spare in the most direct way, the Feelies one up them by creating a skeletal sound despite layering multiple guitar parts and percussion. Also, while perhaps less impish than Wire, the Feelies have a sense of humor, because no one is overdubbing sandpaper and coat rack without having some fun. Indeed, it is entirely possible this whole thing is a joke. While later albums built on this sound, the band never again engaged in this kind of perverse and claustrophobic minimalism.

The vocals owe a debt to Lou Reed, and the twin guitars are the offspring that Television and the Velvet Underground left to fend for themselves at the orphanage. Some songs approach pop while others simply find grace in repetitiveness and inflection. 

It’s all too easy – and liberating – to get lost in the beat of “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness,” which comes across like Jonathan Richman having sleep terrors. The unexpectedly delightful “Fa Cé-La” is insouciant and playful, with curlique guitar and a descending bass riff. Like “Perpetual Nervousness,” the slow build of “Loveless Love” creates dark tension that Million and Mercer amplify with their wiry guitar work; while Fier pounds away, the two cast spells around each other in a competition to see who will suffer a psychotic break first. 

The seven minute epic “Forces At Work” also starts atmospherically with a tremolo pulse before a motorik-type beat comes in and then a mesh of guitars is thrown in your face. Mercer adds some lead at points thereafter, seemingly without reason. The lyrics consist mostly of overlapping chants and eventually devolve into wordless vocalizations. This is basically “Sister Ray” but less artsy and more nerdy. It is appropriately the centerpiece of the album.

“Original Love” is probably the closest thing to a traditional song, albeit a smokily nihilistic one that would have made Ian Curtis dance dance dance dance dance to the radio. Speaking of icons, the Feelies have no compunction about making the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” their own. It’s an exhilarating ride, as if there was an actual capuchin in charge of the tempo. And, the coat rack really does sound great on it. “Moscow Nights” is a convoluted exploration of rhythm with some fantastic lead work courtesy of Mercer.

Jesus fuck, the drum hits on “Raised Eyebrows” stir my soul in the way I imagine love might one day. There is a credit here for “spasmodic drum” (as well as “anchor drum” and “random tom-toms” in addition to plain old “drum kit”). The lead part is fantastic, the staticky rhythm guitar is great, the jangle jangles like no one’s business, and there is even a fun vocal melody. This is one of my favorite Feelies songs ever.

There are actual lyrics to the title track, which really pulls out all the stops and barrels to the end of the album with aplomb. What a way to end an album. What a way to end THIS album. 

My copy is the 1990 A&M release, which tacks on a cover of “Paint It Black,” with the stable post-Crazy Rhythms lineup, and it really does sound like a completely different band. It’s cool to have but it feels very out of place on the disc, especially when “Crazy Rhythms” is the perfect closer.

By the way, I love credits like “left guitar” (Million) and “right guitar” (Mercer).

Fier later played with Bob Mould and Matthew Sweet, and was a member of the Golden Palominos. He died in 2022 via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

The Best Thing About This Album

Everything. It’s a classic and unimprovable in every way.

Release Date

February, 1980

The Cover Art

Like the album itself, there is something a little bit off about this art. Which is what draws you in. I do like the text at the top. I would accuse Weezer of having ripped this off for their debut, but I don’t think Weezer is cool enough to listen to the Feelies (well, probably Matt Sharp is). I can’t say for sure who is who, but I am relatively confident that Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are the center figures (Mercer the one with the curly hair). Anton Fier is for certain the guy on the left.

Simon & Garfunkel – The Essential Simon & Garfunkel

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

My first Simon & Garfunkel album was (a dubbed copy of) The Concert In Central Park. For many years, this was the only Simon & Garfunkel I owned, so it was a shock to me later when I heard the studio versions (and also when I learned that the Simon solo songs from the show were not Simon & Garfunkel songs). I still think of the Central Park versions as the relevant lodestars. One more thing. Simon & Garfunkel released five studio albums. They employed an ampersand for the first two (Wednesday Morning, 3AM; Sounds of Silence), switched to an “and” for the third (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme), reverted to the elegant symbol for Bookends, and then ended things back on the “and” (Bridge Over Troubled Water). This ambivalence – or carelessness – is fucking inexcusable. Just so you know, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel met in elementary school and started out as a duo called Tom & Jerry.

What I Think of This Album

It turns out that you don’t really need that much Simon & Garfunkel. I assume any Greatest Hits comp should suit almost anyone’s needs. This one is fine. Notably (and properly), it pulls almost half of its 33 tracks from Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water. And even then it cheats because the final song – “My Little Town” – is not really a Simon & Garfunkel song and they use a live version of “Overs” instead of the studio version from Bookends. So really, they use 17 songs from two albums out of a total of 32 legitimate Simon & Garfunkel songs. Frustratingly, they end up having to split the Bookends tracks across the two discs.

Implicit in this decisionmaking is that much of the early stuff is pretentious crap. I don’t know who decided to group “A Most Peculiar Man,” ”I Am a Rock,” and “Richard Cory” together – I sort of hope it was a cruel joke – but it makes me want to say “I. Get. It. Let’s move on to a different theme, please. Message received.” Also, “A Dangling Conversation” is embarrassingly terrible and all my life I have HATED “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”

The best of the early stuff is obviously “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and even this last one is sort of a squeaker. Which is not to absolve the later material. Paul Simon is consistently an affected wannabe poet. “Overs” is silly and “Bookends Theme” is stuffy. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” would be more annoying if it wasn’t so boring.

Bookends is an album that one could arguably justify owning (and I did at one point). “Hazy Shade of Winter” is fantastic, and I love “At the Zoo” (especially the harmony near-scream towards the end). “Mrs. Robinson” (later covered by the Lemonheads) is unbeatable and “Old Friends” is pretty good. “America” is also a stone-cold classic – just gorgeous. But again, you could just get a comp and make things easy and more economical for yourself.

There are a lot of live tracks on this – eight – but none of them is a song that matters. Some of the early material was produced by Bob Johnston (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, the Byrds) and Tom Wilson (Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Sun Ra).

The Best Thing About This Album

Making me realize that Simon & Garfunkel are overrated.

Release Date

October, 2003

The Cover Art

Did somebody order somebody else to find the picture of Simon and Garfunkel in which each of them has the worst haircut of their life?

Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

One of my random childhood memories associated with Simon and Garfunkel is that when I would hear the “In the clearing stands a boxer” verse of “The Boxer,” I would get chills (almost always at the “Or cut him / Till he cried out / In his anger and his shame”). At some point I noticed this somatic response, and I appreciated two things. One, I knew that there was an emotional component to my reaction – that something about those words and the way Paul Simon sung them touched me in a unique way – and that somehow my feelings were manifesting physically, and I marveled at the connection between mind and body. This was all the more fascinating to me because I knew my body’s response was genuine. I couldn’t manufacture chills on command, unlike crying or laughing; this was totally unbidden and beyond my control, so what I was experiencing was the power of music. Two, and relatedly, I tested the consistency and longevity of the experience. Every time I heard the song, I wondered if I would get the chills again or if I would have developed an immunity, or somehow become calloused. And every time, it would happen. It still does.

What I Think of This Album

The best and arguably only must-own Simon and Garfunkel album, Bridge Over Troubled Water is also their most varied and successful, and also their last (and fifth). I’ve always maintained that a good part of the appeal of the pair’s songs lies in the production, and I think that is particularly evident on this release. The booming drums on “The Boxer,” the percussion tricks and reverb-heavy sound on “Cecilia,” the gospel piano of the title track, all the harmonies on “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Let’s give Roy Halee some credit here.

Nonetheless, the songwriting on the album was superb. “The Boxer” is phenomenal – just a massive achievement – and Halee’s equally large production and the work of the Wrecking Crew (including Hal Blaine on drums) provides the perfect canvas for Simon’s tale of loneliness and validation. The power of the arrangement amplifies the poignancy of the lyrics. I fucking love this song.

Obviously, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is an epic ballad, based in part on Claude Jeter’s performance of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” when he was in the Swan Silvertones. I don’t normally care much for Art Garfunkel’s solo vocals, but he does an undeniably great job here. It’s been covered a million times, including by Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and Elvis. Every year at my middle school, the girls’ choir would perform this song at graduation, and not even those jejune, lily-white bombardments can inflict lasting damage, so sturdy is it.

“The Only Living Boy in New York” (a title later lovingly bastardized by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine) is a tender admission of Garfunkel’s importance to Simon and the loss Simon felt while Garfunkel took time off for his acting career. While relegated to a B-side, “Keep the Customer Satisfied” is a fun, bitter, and funny song from a duo who could be a bit dour, and one of my favorites of their tunes.

“Baby Driver” is another uptempo and lighthearted offering that counterbalances the two big ballads on the album. Speaking of fun, “Cecilia” is a sunny, lively vignette about a comically unfaithful lover, with an infectious Afro-Caribbean rhythm that foretells Simon’s interest in world music. To that end, Simon explores other cultural sounds in “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” (written by Daniel Alomía Robles), which he performs with Los Incas/Urubamba, and on “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” as well as “Why Don’t You Write Me?”

The live cover of “Bye Bye Love” (popularized by the Everly Brothers, natch) is pointless filler.

Trivia:  The album has sold over 8 million copies in the U.S and 25,000,000 worldwide. Roy Halee’s father (also named Roy) was the voice of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle in cartoons of the 1940s.

The Best Thing About This Album

That it allowed the act to go out on top of their game.

Release Date

January, 1970

The Cover Art

I like the vertical placement of the text and I like how it is mirrored by having Simon stand in front of Garfunkel. But the image itself is blah. I do sort of appreciate the grainy quality, like its a film still.

Shout Out Louds – Our Ill Wills

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The whole point of this (dumb, dumb, dumb) project is to examine exactly what it is that appeals to me about each album and band in my collection. But sometimes, the unexamined album is still worth listening to. Or something. I don’t really feel like thinking about Shout Out Louds and Our Ill Wills. Or more to the point, I am not sure there is much to be gained from thinking much about them. Focusing on the lyrics, for example, gets you nowhere, as they often do not make sense, though the line “you and I are rats at Cupid’s table” is one I’ll have to remember if I ever find that special someone. True, they are not singing in their native language but it’s fairly patronizing to suggest the band doesn’t know or can’t do better. I just think they like the way these words sound. And I have to agree. I like the way the words sound and if I read the lyrics, the effort only detracts from the experience. Similarly, I could mix and match with the Cure all day, but why? I want to take this album at face value and just enjoy it for what it is.

What I Think of This Album

Despite the explicit Smiths reference on “Meat Is Murder,” Shout Out Louds once again turn to the Cure for inspiration, as amply demonstrated by Adam Olenious’s puppy dog vocals and the unmistakable Head On the Door-era elements (particularly on opener “Tonight I Have to Leave It,” with its classically Boris Williams drum pattern). This is not a criticism – it works and I like it. In fact, this sophomore album only suffers in comparison to the debut because we know what’s coming this time.

That’s not entirely true, actually. This album deemphasizes the guitars and producer Björn Yttling (Peter, Bjorn and John) instead dresses things up with an abundance of strings and guest contributions from the likes of bandmate John Erickson and Lykke Li Zachrisson. And the tone is significantly gloomier this time. But the strings and the moroseness don’t make this a weaker album, just a darker one.

So this time we get the aural equivalent of sour patch worms:  colorful, bright, and addictive, but with loneliness and sadness at their core. This is best reflected in highlights like sophisticated “Impossible,” with its impressive percussion flourishes, bouncy keyboard line (more Cure) and harmony vocals, and the aforementioned “Tonight.” Similarly, “Normandie” sounds like “Close To Me” on vacation north of the Arctic Circle. And “Time Left for Love” tells a muddled story of catastrophic vehicular death that I think is supposed to be a reminder to love early and often, but whatever – it sounds cool, especially that piano part.

There are some nice surprises, too, such as Bebban Stenborg’s lead vocal turn on “Blue Headlights,” which she wrote (including the “rats at Cupid’s table” line) and which shuffles nicely and features a pristine piano part. Almost title track “Ill Wills” is a delicate, sweet Instrumental. And “Hard Rain” almost borders on lite psychedelia at times.

The Best Thing About This Album

Rhyming “serial killer” with “Caterpillar” (as in, the heavy machinery, not the arthropod).

Release Date

April, 2007 (Sweden); May 2007 (Europe); September, 2007 (U.S)

The Cover Art

Pretty good. The nautical flags (sorry, I mean the international maritime signal flags) spell out the band’s name and then the album title.

The Features – Some Kind of Salvation

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The Features fell on hard times pretty quickly. After 2004’s excellent Exhibit A, they were dropped by Universal and self-released second album Some Kind of Salvation did not emerge until 2008. In the interim, Parrish Yaw left the band and they added keyboardist Mark Bond. They eventually signed onto the label run by Kings of Leon, which rereleased SKOS in 2009. Since then, they have released three more albums but have been quiet since 2016. It’s a sad story for a band with so much promise. I haven’t checked out the later albums, mostly because they are hard to find. But just because everyone else moved on doesn’t mean that I had to. I’m sorry, the Features. I’ll do better by you.

What I Think of This Album

This album sort of betrays the difficulties the band faced after the delight that was Exhibit A and the putative success story that saw them rise from Sparta, Tennessee onto the roster of Universal. Perhaps it’s coincidental but song titles like “Off Track,” “Still Lost,” “Foundation’s Cracked,” “The Drawing Board.” The Gates of Hell,” and “Whatever Gets You By” more than hint at unhappiness. More to the point, the band also sounds like they’re working more and having fun less. This is a far less joyful album than the debut, even if the foursome try to mask it. 

If you come into the album clean, though, you still end up with a strong set of tunes, often presented in an original manner. The sea shanty feel of “Whatever Gets You By” quickly morphs into the hard R&B stomper “The Drawing Board.” I don’t care for “GMF (Genetically Modified Fable)” but it has an interesting new wave sound. Even more compelling is the bleepy “Concrete,” which could’ve easily been a Depeche Mode deep cut from 1987. And it’s hard to deny the appeal of anthemic “Off Track” and powerful closer “All I Ask.”

Sometimes there are similarities to the vocals of Hamilton Leithouser (the Walkmen) but the sound here is friendlier and much less abrasive. To that end, the music sometimes brings to mind Spoon, especially on “Foundation’s Cracked,” “Wooden Heart,” and “The Temporary Blues.”  

Newcomer Mark Bond does a great job on the keyboards, and bassist Roger Dabbs shines throughout. Production was handled in part by Jaquire King (Tom Waits, Modest Mouse, Clinic).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Temporary Blues” is pretty fucking great!

Release Date

June, 2008 (self-release)

The Cover Art

The vegetables kind of freak me out. I’m assuming the art reflects the song titles:  “GMF,” “Lions,” and “Baby’s Hammer.” There is no good reason for that. I can’t tell if I have the self-released version or the subsequent version.

The Features – Exhibit A

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

The Features (at least at the time of this album) boasted some truly excellent band member names:  Parrish Yaw, Rollum Haas, Roger Dabbs, and along for the ride, Matt Pelham. Also cool – they were from Sparta, Tennessee. Just a bunch of bored rural kids who found purpose in music. Dabbs, Yaw, and Pelham went to middle school together in Sparta. Dabbs and Pelham started a band and both eventually went to college in Murfreesboro; Yaw attended college in nearby Cookeville and soon after joined the band. A few personnel moves later found Hass taking over drum duties in 1998. They all dropped out of school and recorded and toured and were signed to Universal within a few years. Exhibit A came out in 2004.

What I Think of This Album

Matt Pelham sings like he is a hair’s breadth away from absolutely losing his shit. Somehow he rides this wave of intensity without ever losing his balance. Frankly, it would be a lot less interesting if he just gave over and started screaming; it is much more compelling to listen to his impassioned delivery and marvel at how it hints at a monumental effort to keep it together. What makes it all the more perverse is that the half-crazed delivery is often in the service of songs of surprisingly sentimentality:  “The Way It’s Meant to Be” is a song of paternal devotion to an infant; “The Idea of Growing Old” foretells the simple satisfaction of entering dotage with a partner. 

You know what I love? I love a song about loving music. Granted, I can’t think of an example right now, but I am sure they exist and that I own some of them. “Blow It Out” brims with joy as Pelham cleverly recounts how listening to vinyl replenishes his soul. I get it, Matt. “Here I found that I’m alright.”

Just as critical to the band’s sound as Pelham’s vocals is the keyboard work of Yaw. The songs are sturdy and melodic but Yaw’s lines somehow both soften the tunes and also add an otherworldly atmosphere that elevate them above even very good garage rock. 

I can’t say that every track is a standout but many are, including the borderline scary “Exorcising Demons” (sort of like Clinic if they wore trucker caps instead of hospital scrubs), the self-parody of “Me & the Skirts,” the ambiguously menacing but also romantic title track, and the closer, “Circus.” The rest are merely somewhere from good to very good. Overall, though, this is a goddamn blast to listen to.

Speaking of fun names, the main producer was Craig Krampf (who has an oddly mainstream resumé) and Mike McCarthy, who has worked with Spoon and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Blow It Out” is one of my favorite songs ever.

Release Date

September, 2004

The Cover Art

Average. Sort of messy but at least it’s colorful (I like the blue).

The Fastbacks – Answer the Phone, Dummy

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I saw either the Young Fresh Fellows or the Minus 5 (it can be hard to tell them apart) some years back and it was the first time I got to see Kurt Bloch play guitar live. So it was to my great disappointment that, now that I live in the PNW and have increased my chances of seeing Bloch performances, I learned that he has taken over the drum throne for the YFF and has relinquished guitar duties.

What I Think of This Album

There is nothing wrong with this Sub Pop album, and there is a lot right with it. But it doesn’t really cohere very well, and it somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Every traditional element is there, including a lengthy and impressive cast of drummers, to say nothing of guest vocals from the late great Kim Shattuck (the Muffs) and the very evil Ken Stringfellow (though no one knew it then, I guess), but – and it is shocking to say this about a band that is so fun and lively – it all lacks personality. That said, it is definitely worth a listen and individual songs will win you over.

Bloch delivers another set of excellent songs, including dynamic “Back to Nowhere,” the galloping but despondent “I’m Cold,” “On Your Hands,” surprisingly sophisticated and power-poppy “Meet the Author,” and “On the Wall.” Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick sing with enthusiasm and acid-tinged sweetness, and making their critical contributions on guitar and bass. And Bloch’s guitar work shines once again, sometimes intricate and pretty and other times blistering and raw; the workout on “Went for a Swim” is particularly impressive and the chunky riffing on “I Found the Star” will get your head bopping.

If I am being honest, wonderful Kim Shattuck does not really add much to “Old Address of the Unknown.”

Six different individuals split time behind the kit:  Nate Johnson and Rusty Willoughby from Flop; Dan Peters of Mudhoney; Mike Musberger on loan courtesy of the Posies; Jason Finn (Presidents of the United States of America); and John Moen, later of the Decembrists.

The Best Thing About This Album

Bloch’s songwriting

Release Date

1994

The Cover Art

This ungainly collage does nothing for me, though I am somewhat intrigued by the tropical-colored telephone handset. So I guess it does something for me.

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