All Girl Summer Fun Band – All Girl Summer Fun Band

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

Self-criticism, if not self-flagellation, can come far too easily. Even in contexts where performance or achievement isn’t relevant. I probably didn’t even first become aware of Portland’s All Girl Summer Fun Band until maybe 2021 or 2022. And I didn’t listen to a note of their music until 2023, when I saw them live at a Slumberland-adjacent show with the excellent Tony Molina. And in fact, the AGSFB is a big name in the twee scene and has been since about 1998 when they first formed. But I didn’t know anything about them, and while I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the music I like, this wonderful band was just something I overlooked. There are good reasons for it (parenthood! job! depression!), but there don’t need to be. This shit isn’t a competition and I don’t have to justify why I didn’t happen to know about this band for so long; it really doesn’t matter how conversant I am in some musical subgenre. I am just focusing on how fortunate I feel that I now know about them.

What I Think of This Album

Truer marketing never existed. All girl band? Yep. Summer fun? You betcha. There you have it. Everything you need to know is right there. Of course, that’s hardly the case. While the album title/band name as essence is a reliable shortcut, taking it will mean missing out on other essential scenery. For one, there is the talent at work, as the four musicians swap instruments regularly and all are involved in the songwriting in some way. Also, there is the band’s pedigree, with Jen Sbraglia being one-half of legendary the Softies (with Rose Melberg of Tiger Trap) and Kathy Foster’s simultaneous rise to prominence with the Thermals. And there is the winking manner of the foursome as they pop out their short, sunny songs of innocence.

Somehow, the quartet of Foster, Sbraglia, and cohorts Arirak Douangpanya and founder Kim Baxter (she somehow convinced the other three, none of whom had every met the others, to form the band) manages to walk the line between sincerity and irony without tripping even once. So while the style is borderline frivolous and the presentation approaches archness, there is warmth, gentle humor, and undeniable intelligence to the songs. The four women are here to have fun and they’re going to do it in a way that is fun, and they realize you may think it’s not fun, but that only makes it more fun for them.

As with most twee, you’re either going to like this a lot or not at all. You will appreciate that “Later Operator” is somehow both G-rated and R-rated at the same time, the simple messaging of “Cell Phone,” the implicit humor in “Canadian Boyfriend,” and the fact that the band has a theme song (“Theme Song”), or you won’t. I hope you do, and I dare say you should.

K Records impresario and Beat Happening leader Calvin Johnson recorded the album and contributes memorable vocals to “New In Town.”

The Best Thing About This Album

How it is born of the bravery to do something just for the fun of it, even if most people won’t like it.

Release Date

February, 2002

The Cover Art

The drawing is by Sbraglia, and I like the ‘60s hair salon theme, as well as the stars in the band name (which remind me of the Eugenius album cover for Oomalama).

The Searchers – The Very Best of . . .

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I am pretty sure I got this out of an interest in rock history. As such, I don’t really listen to it that much. But there is some good stuff here, and worth a spin every now and then. The Searchers were from Liverpool and got together in 1959. After some early reshuffling of members, the core lineup of Mike Pender, Tony Jackson, John McNally, and Chris Curtis emerged around 1962. They spent some time honing their skills in both their hometown and Hamburg. They had some chart success but were essentially over as a musical force by 1967 (if not earlier). Jackson died in 2003; Curtis in 2005.

What I Think of This Album

The Searchers were the early British version of the Byrds, including before the Byrds existed. That’s my take. The difference is that the Searchers mostly played covers (or at least, their hits were all covers), and thus they had a very flat artistic arc. Still, it’s nice to hear that jangle and those harmonies.

True, some of these covers come across as silly, like  “Love Potion No. 9” (which for reasons I don’t understand the Searchers titled as “Love Potion Number Nine”) and “Sweets for My Sweet.” This latter song (written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) was a hit for the Drifters in 1961, while the former (a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tune) charted for the Clovers in 1959. The Searchers also recorded “Sugar and Spice,” which is a ripoff of “Sweets” and is likewise very lightweight, though the Cryan’ Shames recorded a garage band version in 1966 that made it onto the Nuggets comp in 1972, which is the opposite of lightweight. Also, despite the tough, bluesy vocals – which, admittedly, I sort of like – “Ain’t That Just Like Me” is literally a medley of nursery rhymes. This song was also performed by the Coasters (1961) and the Hollies (1963, beating the Searchers by several months). If I’m being totally honest, “Bumble Bee” (by LaVern Baker – the second female solo artist to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) also is sort of cringey.

Most of the rest is more sophisticated and compelling. Someone displayed excellent taste in selecting Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In the Room”. And it’s hard not to love “Needles and Pins,” a song that DeShannon herself recorded, and also claims to have co-written despite credit traditionally going to Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche. If you really pay attention, you can hear the bass drum pedal squeak at the beginning of the song (and maybe if you have better ears than me, throughout the rest of the track). 

“Needles and Pins” featured a 12-string sound that predated the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” by just over a year. But, this was achieved by double-tracking a six-string guitar. In any event, it is pretty clear that the riff that the Byrds used in “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” was pretty much lifted straight from the Searchers’ version of “Needles and Pins.”

Another excellent track is the cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” They do a great job with “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” and with protest song “What Have They Done to the Rain?” (written by Malvina Reynolds and also performed by Joan Baez and Marianne Faithful (not at the same time)). Also, there is a lot to like about “Someday We’re Going to Love Again,” originally performed by Barbara Lewis and written by Sharon McMahan.

The revolving door of vocalists helps make the collection more interesting than it might otherwise be (also true of the Hollies, actually). Bassist Tony Jackson took lead vocals on the early hits, like “Sugar,” “Sweets,” and “Love Potion.” But “Needles and Pins” and “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” were handled by guitarist Mike Pender (neé Prendergast). After Jackson left the band in 1964, they recruited Frank Allen (originally Frank McNeice), who took the mic for “When You Walk In the Room,” “Rain,” and “Take Me.” 

It is worth noting that the Searchers covered several songs written by women, which I am guessing was not the norm for bands in the early 1960s, so kudos to them for recognizing and popularizing those overlooked and unrewarded artists.

Also, the Searchers experienced a surprising resurgence in the late 1970s, when they were signed to Sire Records and released two albums that are reportedly very good:  The Searchers and Love’s Melodies (though this album was titled Play for Today in the UK). I am informed by the internet that these have never been released on CD in the US, though you can stream them . . . which I intend to do.

Trivia:  Drummer Chris Curtis (whose real last name was Crummey) has some fascinating connections to rock history. He replaced original Searchers drummer Norman McGarry, who left to join Rory Storm’s Hurricanes after that band’s drummer, one Ringo Starr, had been poached by the Beatles. When Curtis left the Searchers in 1966, he formed a band called Roundabout, and that group – which included Richie Blackmore – became Deep Purple (thought Curtis had been dismissed well before that).  

More trivia: Malvina Reynolds also wrote “Little Boxes,” a hit for Pete Seeger and which became the theme song for the show Weeds.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar jangle and the harmonies, though I am very close to picking “Take Me for What I’m Worth.”

Release Date

2002

The Cover Art

Whatever. The blue looks good.

Elf Power – Creatures

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

I have no good excuse for why I don’t own more Elf Power. Granted, I only have this album and the song “Jane” from the A Dream In Sound album to draw conclusions from, but even so – I am confident I need more Elf Power. An Elephant 6 band from Athens, Georgia, Elf Power began around 1994 as a mostly-solo project by Andrew Rieger. He eventually formalized things with multi-instrumentalist Laura Carter and bassist Bryan Poole (also known as Bryan Helium, and sometimes as The Late B.P. Helium) and at some point Aaron Wegelin joined on drums. The band has released fifteen albums through 2022, with Rieger and Carter as the only mainstays. They opened for REM and Wilco, and recorded with Vic Chesnutt. Wegelin became a chef in Los Angeles after leaving the band; he died in 2021.

What I Think of This Album

There is nothing terribly complicated on Creatures, which is besides the point. The point is that it sounds amazing – the band takes simple melodies and Reiger’s inviting, plaintive voice and carefully embellishes them with varied, fun, and compelling arrangements.

Thus, the band tears through “Everlasting Scream, which it coats in a mile-thick layer of distortion, whereas it adopts a jangly, light-psych approach on “Let the Serpent Sleep.” There is a delicacy to the playing on “The Creature,” which nonetheless comes across as ominous. Indeed, the title track is one of several that furthers the concept at the heart of this album – stories about mysterious, malevolent beasts from the murk. Incidentally, most of Reiger’s lyrics come across as Tolkien if he had grown up listening to Bauhaus and being tutored by Edgar Allan Poe, but only when you read them out of context. Surrounded by music, they sound dramatic but not cartoonish.

“Palace of the Flames” is the poppiest and prettiest of the tunes on offer, driven by keyboards and an insistent drumbeat. Laura Carter’s accordion, assisted by a strong cello part from guest Heather McIntosh and who knows how many keyboards, provides comforting warmth to the waltz “The Modern Mind.” 

“VIsions of the Sea” rides an ice sheet of instrumentation, only to be temporarily waylaid by a series of drones from outer space. While considerably more uptempo, neighboring song “Three Seeds” also relies on drones, and ends up sounding like Simon & Garfunkel backed by a more cheerful, less anarchic Mercury Rev. Closer “The Creature Part II” incorporates some world music percussion (I can’t tell what kind) and fronts Carter’s accordion while Reiger croons gently, leading to a lovely (and sort of druggy?) string part.

Guests include early band member Raleigh Hatfield, as well as Peter Erchick and W. Cullen Hart of fellow Elephant 6ers The Olivia Tremor Control. Heather McIntosh, who has played with Lil Wayne and Gnarls Barkley, now does television and movie scoring.

The Best Thing About This Album

I think it’s a tossup between Carter’s accordion and Wegelin’s drumming.

Release Date

May, 2002

The Cover Art

Not sure what this has to do with anything.I find it sort of disturbing, and not just because it’s a vulnerable-appearing child in the nude. I think it’s mostly the style of the artwork or the medium used. Anyway, it’s a fail for me.

  

Saturday Looks Good To Me – Saturday Looks Good To Me

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

There is a lot about Saturday Looks Good to Me that is confusing. First, this is not a real band, insofar as it is really Fred Thomas’s recording project, augmented by whatever group of friends and associates he has wrangled together. SLGTM has toured, but I do not believe the live cast of characters is standardized either. Equally disorienting is that, as a consequence of the haphazard lineup, there is no consistent lead singer. Whatever the merits of this approach, one drawback is that it is difficult to get a sense of the “band’s” identity. Also, their release history is a mess. Saturday Looks Good to Me was originally a nine-song, limited edition vinyl release in 2000. That was followed by Cruel August Moon in 2001, again with nine songs, this time on CD-R. Love Will Find You followed in 2002, possibly as a digital download only. They have issued a lot of singles, EPs, and CD-Rs.

What I Think of This Album

Motown for the indie set (albeit, a very white Motown), Saturday Looks Good to Me’s debut album gets by on melodies, production, and scruffy charm. All of those qualities would be amplified on later releases. There is a lot to like here, but you probably have to be predisposed to it. Sometimes the vocals are shaky and the lo-fi takes on Berry Gordy, Phil Spector, and occasionally Lee “Scratch” Perry, could throw some people off. If you keep a slightly open mind, though, you will be rewarded.

“Ambulance” sounds like weepy Motown/indie pop recorded underwater, ending in deconstructed echo. “I Could Cry” is pure girl-group, with a melody and rhythm to spare. “Ladder” is a male/female call-and-response duet with budget Spector sonics; the spoken word bridge against a saxophone backdrop is highly amusing. Heavenly by way of the Magnetic Fields is the touchstone for lullaby “Obstacle.”

A more robust Spector presentation is afforded to standout “Everyday,” which incorporates some stunning, mind-bending, dub-like production at the end. Sometimes, a certain section of the melody reminds me of “Do You Wanna Dance?” Thomas sings lead on ballad “I Would Find It So Beautiful,” a tear-soaked piece that really should have been a Jackie Wilson song. This gets a fuzzy instrumental reprise at the end.

Thomas continues warbling on “Bright Green Gloves,” perhaps the first appearance of his beloved “sink like a symphony” lyric, but Thomas’s vocal limitations are dwarfed by the melody and brass arrangement. Shades of the Magnetic Fields again, propelled by the specificity of the titular accessories. I’m not sure who sings on “No Point to Continue” but their everyman effort is similarly overshadowed by the baroque-indie-orchestral pop arrangement that SLGTM either threw together at the last minute or meticulously planned out (I can’t tell). 

The boomy, bassy “Don’t Try” is oddly compelling:  the cello, the spaghetti western whistling, Thomas’s unusually Danzig-esque intonation work together in a fashion that is equally unsettling and irresistible. The noise experiment ending only improves the song.

Even weaker tracks like “Car Crash” and “I Take a Chance Every Time” have something to recommend them.

The only real stumbles are the partially a capella “Last Night I Fell Asleep On Your Floor” (though the production does eventually get interesting), and the melodically stagnant, sing-songy “Think About Tomorrow.”

Among the 17 collaborators listed in the liner notes are Warn (sometimes spelled Warren) Defever of His Name Is Alive and Erika Hoffmann of Godzuki (and also, His Name Is Alive), as well as Elliott Bergman (Wild Belle), Chad Gilchrist (Outrageous Cherry, His Name Is Alive) and Zach Wallace (His Name Is Alive).

My version of this album is the 2002 iteration, which contains all of the original release but randomly peppers in three songs from Cruel August Moon and adds “Ambulance” and “Bright Green Glove,” whose origins are unclear to me.

Weirdness:  The liner notes say “Recorded 1976-2002,” and Thomas was born in 1976, so I am not sure what this means. Perhaps he threw in a recording of his infant speech somewhere in the mix?

The Best Thing About This Album

“Everyday” is amazing.

Release Date

2000 (original, vinyl only); 2002 (reissue)

The Cover Art

The layout decapitation is a little disturbing, but the aesthetic matches up well to the album’s sound. I don’t care for the white frame and the band’s name should be in a contrasting color. I like the blue in general, though.

Sahara Hotnights – Jennie Bomb

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The Ss are here. This might be the largest subsection of my collection. This is going to take *so* long. But it will be fun. Sahara Hotnights has the privilege of opening this chapter. Formed in Sweden around 1991, named after a racehorse, and partially comprised of the sisters Asplund (Jennie and Johanna), Sahara Hotnights released their debut album in 1999. Two years later, they released Jennie Bomb (though it didn’t hit US shores until 2002). They have released a total of six albums, none since 2011 (with a seventh rumored to be on the way).

What I Think of This Album

I won’t belabor the point about how this band should’ve been bigger. I will say only that if these songs had been arranged and produced a little differently, Pat Benatar could’ve had a hit with almost any one of them in 1983. Instead, in 2002, this was lumped in with the garage rock revival in general, and the Scandinavian garage rock explosion in specific.

But as attested to by the fact that I own two Sahara Hotnights albums and exactly zero Hives, Soundtrack of Our Lives, or Hellacopters discs, I think this band has better songs than your average Land of the Midnight Sun guitar basher, mixing punk trappings, glossy hard rock, and garage rock attitude.

And by better songs, I just mean more enjoyable songs. Nothing here is all that memorable, frankly, but almost every song is pretty damn fun. It makes it hard not to root for this quartet, who know their way around a melody. A couple of times, the sound maybe approaches a sort of arena rock Sleater-Kinney, when the band experiments with a little bit of indie texture?

Apparently there are distinct Swedish, UK, US, and Australian versions of this album. Jennie Bomb is named after band member Jennie Asplund.

The Best Thing About This Album

I think song title “Alright Alright (Here’s My Fist Where’s the Fight)” is hilarious.

Release Date

2001; 2002 (US)

The Cover Art

This is the US release cover. It’s not bad. I like the script and the two tone photo and the font for the band name. The color scheme is the only element I would change.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975 The Rolling Thunder Revue

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 7)

I once received Chronicles: Volume One, the Dylan memoir, as a gift. I only made it partway through, as I found it impossible to credit the impossibly detailed remembrances from the early 1960s. There is no way all the contents were factual or accurate, and as a novel, it wasn’t terribly interesting.

What I Think of This Album

An exciting, revelatory live album, I really think this is a must own for even a casual Dylan fan. Notably, Dylan and his unruly band tear their way through a series of songs with reckless abandon, offering new arrangements and an unexpected vigor. Dylan doesn’t come across as playful, but neither is anger the animating emotion; instead, he sounds compelled by some unknown force to inject as much energy into his songs as possible. 

The track listing is hard to beat, drawing from across Dylan’s career and relying on popular favorites. It should be noted that the two disc album does not document any specific show during the tour, or even replicate a complete set list. Rather, it is a compilation of highlights from various nights, and I have no problem with that. In general, the electric songs are the best, and I prefer the first disc over the second.

The version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is eye-opening, coming out of the gate like a caffeinated bucking bull; the slide guitar is slippery and silvery, Dylan is practically jumping out of his shoes, and the rhythm section keeps a monster beat throughout. The same energy suffuses “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which sounds less like romance and more like obsession, while “It Ain’t Me, Babe” gets a funky arrangement with skittering drums, supplemental congas, a bouncy bass line, and an impassioned delivery from Dylan, as well as more impossibly mercurial slide guitar work (plus harmonica). 

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie McCarroll” gains heft and intensity. And there is an expansive muscularity to this version of  “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Lot to Cry.” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is vibrant, intricate, and maudlin (but in a good way). “Just Like a Woman” is a trash song, no matter what the arrangement.

The songs from Desire  – of which there are several, not surprising considering it was Dylan’s forthcoming (but already recorded) studio release – all benefit from the live setting. In fact, I submit there is no reason to own Desire when you can get this album, which has “Hurricane,” “Sara,” Romance In Durango,” “Isis,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” and “Oh, Sister” in superior versions. “Hurricane,” in particular, comes to life vividly, with neutrino-speed congas and an emotive violin and “Sara” gets an urgent and pained reading. The tempo and melody of “Oh, Sister” make me think of “No Woman, No Cry” (which was released one year earlier).

There are a number of tracks that are solo performances from Dylan, and these are much more subdued. This includes “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” the latter of which does not come across well in this spare arrangement (and Dylan’s voice sounds fairly rough on this track). “Tangled Up In Blue” shifts to the third person for most of it, if you care about such things. I can’t say either “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” or “Love Minus Zero” gain much, but they are certainly not worse than the studio versions.

Splitting the difference between loud and spare are the duets with Joan Baez. The full-throated version of “Blowin’ In the Wind” is strident and somehow triumphant. Written during the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions (but never released), rarity “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is given a very nice Sweetheart of the Rodeo-type treatment (though I don’t know what the studio version sounds like). Dion & the Belmonts covered it. On the other hand, “I Shall Be Released” comes across as overcooked, stodgy, and self-important. On the other other hand, the song has been covered by the Byrds, the Hollies, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Wilco, Elvis, and Paul Weller (the Jam), so what do I know? Traditional song “The Water Is Wide” is also a duet, with a full band backing, and it’s okay but not really a highlight or anything.

The members of the large backing band included Mick Ronson (Mott the Hoople, Bowie, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter), a relatively unknown T-Bone Burnett, violinist Scarlett Rivera, and Roger McGuinn (Byrds).

The Best Thing About This Album

The energy.

Release Date

November, 2002

The Cover Art

I like the black/white photo of the be-hatted Bobby.

Dressy Bessy – Sound Go Round

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

Sometimes I think I am a bad fan. I honestly forgot that I owned so much Dressy Bessy in general, and this album in particular. I usually reach for the self-titled third album or even the more recent Kingsized when I want to hear some DB, and shame on me, because Sound Go Round is at least the equal of those albums. This thing is a bright shining gem that I could listen to forever.

What I Think of This Album

There is an explicit reference to Rubber Soul (“Tag”) and if you want to decree it so, possibly a sideways one to Neil Young (“I Saw Cinnamon”). And indeed, the album is full of ‘60s pop melodies and fat distorted leads (though hardly as knotty as Young’s), plus an increased reliance on keyboards.

The affecting “Tag” lasts less than a minute and segues seamlessly into “There’s a Girl,” which sparkles with glee (and keyboards). “That’s Why” is a fun, rollicking number with great guitar and bass work, and on which Ealom harnesses her less-than-classically-good voice into something that conveys grit and winsomeness in equal measure. In fact, Ealom is an underrated singer; she can shift from innocent to tough in a half-second and more importantly, she knows when to do it and what each song needs.

There is a very slight psychedelic facet to circular “Oh Mi Amour,” with a Farfisa sound in the background. John Hill chunks away pleasantly on “Buttercups,” but the song is overtaken by swirling keyboards. More straightforward is the aggressive “Maybe Laughter,” balancing Hill’s gritty tone with Ealom’s sweetly sour vocals and some soothing keys on top. The band continues down its candy-colored, sing-song path with bouncy “Big To Do,” which maybe skews towards precious but is enjoyable anyway.

“All These Colors” is an experiment that doesn’t work at all, starting out with a relatively sparse arrangement that doesn’t offer much before shifting into a strange, instrumental second half that seems the product of too many hallucinogens. The keyboards feature again as the band goes sweeping and dense on  “Flower Jargon,” which stretches past the four minute mark. For reasons unknown, catchy “Fare Thee Well” is not the last song, which instead is the relatively epic “Carry-On,” which despite its unnecessary repetitiveness works for me. This is an excellent Kindercore release.

The Best Thing About This Album

“That’s Why”

Release Date

February, 2002

The Cover Art

Ealom once again had a hand in designing the cover art. This looks like a protest sign at a pro-choice rally, which I guess we didn’t hold enough of because it appears that forced-birth is going to be the way this country chooses to go. Well. In any event, if I am being generous, this brings in elements of pop art and abstract art, and it’s fine, but it doesn’t move me. Also, never vote Republican.

Tegan and Sara – If It Was You

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

For better or worse, I remain a teenager at heart. Or “at mind,” more critically, as what we refer to as the heart is just the product of a learned fiction that prevents us from understanding our own wants and fears and taking responsibility for our lives. Of course, identical twins Tegan and Sara Quinn were in their twenties when they released If It Was You, but it is full of the turmoil and heavy emotions that can define (or ruin) us forever. Tegan and Sara changed their sound a few times over the course of their still-going career, eventually more or less fully embracing pop. I really like this middle indie-rock period, but I am not opposed to checking out both the very early and later albums.

What I Think of This Album

Drenched in drama, this is an album that represents a burst dam of feelings. Tegan and Sara are candid and raw in detailing their emotional states, from the frustrated despondency of “Monday Monday Monday” to the giddy enthusiasm of “Underwater,” with a detour to touch on the defiant remorse that runs through “I Hear Noises.”

I assume Tegan and Sara take turns singing lead but I can’t tell one from the other; Tegan gets credit for seven songs while Sara wrote the other five, and I guess I could try to spend the time to figure out who sings what. No matter, as they excel at writing melodic and insightful songs that resonate with authenticity and impress with their artistry.

The sound varies throughout, with shiny jangle (“Underwater”), quiet acoustics (“Not Tonight”), folk-punk abandon (“Time Running”), and even downhome banjo and slide guitar (“Living Room”). “Terrible Storm” is the only misfire, sounding too much like their fellow Canadian and much less tunefully gifted Alanis Morissette. The rest is excellent, including the delicate and sorrowful “And Darling (This Thing That Breaks My Heart).”

John Collins of the New Pornographers gets a co-producing credit.

The Best Thing About This Album

“I Hear Noises” would have been a fucking huge hit for Sinead O’Connor in 1989.

Release Date

August, 2002

The Cover Art

I think it’s funny, which is a nice touch on an album where humor is not really a priority. The photo is by comic book writer/artist and film/television director (and another fellow Canuck) Kaare Andrews.

Leonard Cohen – The Essential Leonard Cohen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I think I first came across Leonard Cohen via the cover of “Everybody Knows” prominently featured in Pump Up the Volume. And then Ian McCulloch’s cover of “Lover Lover Lover.” And while I knew of Cohen thereafter, it took me a while to start exploring. At some point, I owned several of his studio albums; I found them a bit overwhelming, though, so I pared back to this compilation. I shouldn’t listen to too much Leonard Cohen. I was once at a dinner and another guest – not musically knowledgeable – had recently heard “Hallelujah” for the first time (as hard to believe as that was, given the year and her age) and thought it was Neil Diamond. I have to admit their voices are not dissimilar; I try not to think about it. The I’m Your Fan tribute album is worth checking out. Cohen died in 2016.

What I Think of This Album

So . . . if you’re consumed by self-loathing and suicidal ideation, maybe listening to Leonard Cohen on repeat is not the best idea. Hmmmm. Cohen’s fame revolves around his lyrics, as befits someone who was a published poet prior to beginning a music career at the age of 33. But no one should ignore the often beguiling melodies that Cohen came up with, nor the importance of the arrangements and production touches that someone (as usual, there are no helpful liner notes here) came up with.

But yes, it is the lyrics. Sometimes, it’s a matter of detail – the “tea and oranges/ That come all the way from China” in “Suzanne.” It could be the simple (but not simple) poetry of “Sisters of Mercy” or the hard-won wisdom that permeates “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” The specific sharp phrase that lodges in your brain is a feature, too:  “You find he did not leave you very much / Not even laughter” (“The Stranger Song”) or “We are ugly but we have the music” (“Chelsea Hotel #2”). You can’t overlook the humor:  “You told me, again / You preferred handsome men / But for me you would make an exception” (“Chelsea Hotel #2”). Sometimes, it’s the emotion and pathos:  “I need you / I don’t need you / I need you / I don’t need you” from “Chelsea Hotel #2” and all of “Bird On the Wire.” The bleakness of “Everybody Knows,” the confusing bitterness of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the abasement of “I’m Your Man,” the fatalism of “Who By Fire,” and the desperation of “Take This Longing” are powerful and all-consuming. Oh, and don’t forget “Hallelujah.”

The first disc of this collection is made up of songs from Cohen’s first seven albums (except there is nothing from Death of a Ladies’ Man). The second disc also takes from I’m Your Man (creating a weird bridge with the first disc), adds a live track, and then delves into the next two albums. The first disc is where I spend most of my time, but there is plenty to enjoy on the second disc, though I frankly find the second disc to be more about craft than art.

Now for the trivia. Suzanne Priddy, a singer-songwriter and actor, sang the backing vocals that are so critical to “So Long, Marianne” (as well as “Suzanne” and “Hey . . . Goodbye”); she is the mother of actor Christina Applegate. David Lindley (Warren Zevon, the Church) plays a bunch of instruments on the first five songs. Horrible human being Charlie Daniels played bass, fiddle, and/or guitar on several tracks (including “Bird On the Wire” and “The Partisan”) and these Daniels-besmirched songs were also produced by Bob Johnston (Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel). Jennifer Warnes sings on “Hallelujah.” Sneaky Pete Kleinow (Flying Burrito Brothers) is probably on the I’m Your Man songs. “Chelsea Hotel” is about Janis Joplin, while “Longing” is about Nico. The Smiths’ debut single, “Hand In Glove” very likely borrowed a lyric (“everything depends on how near you [stand] to me”) from “Take This Longing.” I think the melody of the Mendoza Line’s “The Lethal Temptress” sounds a lot like “Chelsea Hotel #2.”

The Best Thing About This Album

I mean, obviously the lyrics.

Release Date

October, 2002

The Cover Art

The first thing I need to say is that Dustin Hoffman was the easy choice to have played Cohen, several decades ago. This is a pretty standard record company cover. I like the black and white photography and the blue text.

The Waxwings – Shadows of the Waxwings

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

I bought this album twice, but I wish I hadn’t had to buy it at all. The first time, I purchased it out of loyalty, and this was the Schnitzel Records release (with alternate cover art). Then, I found the original Bobsled release, and swapped that in for the first copy, even though by that point I knew I didn’t like it. As has already been discussed, I am inexplicably obsessed with the Bobsled album releases. The Waxwings released a third album – which I also bought, and that one was even less impressive than this one. The band came out of Detroit and lasted from 1997 until about 2005. Main songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Dean Fertita joined the Queens of the Stone Age thereafter, and eventually formed the Dead Weather with Alison Mosshart (the Kills) and Jack White. Fertita went to high school with Brendan Benson, and each has played guitar in support of the other on tour. I still find it shocking that the band that created one of my favorite albums ever also made this, possibly the worst album in my collection.

What I Think of This Album

It is unclear what the actual title of this album is – either Shadows of or Shadows of the Waxwings (it’s a Nabokov quote, in any event), and that mystery is emblematic of the greater confusion that infects this effort. The band seems to have completely turned their sound inside out. The chiming guitars are nowhere, and the harmonies are largely absent; also, the songwriting is a shadow of what it used to be. Similarly losing his mojo is Bryan Hanna, whose production on Low to the Ground was outstanding; here, the sound is grey and muddled, and the added flourishes of horns and strings are not well integrated into the mix. There’s no way around the reality that this is a massive disappointment. Even after cutting the band loose from the unrealistic expectations generated by Low to the Ground, there is still no reasonable defense of this album.

The gentle (and nicely titled) “Brilliant Grey” is the best song here – charming and intricate, though the sound has been asphyxiated and the drums are too loud. “Clouded Over” sounds like a pale imitation of the debut’s songs, and it’s one of the stronger tracks here. Closer “What’s Needed Now” is actually not bad, with a swirling atmosphere and intriguing, anomalous harmonica part, though it’s a bit too long for such a plodding tempo. “Look Down Darkly” maybe could have been salvaged with a little more effort, though the last two minutes are pointlessly self-indulgent. The band splits the difference on “Fractured,” which again could have germinated into something cool, but the guitar sound is all wrong (and the drums are mixed way too loud). The bridge of “Wired That Way” holds some promise, but the rest of the song is a turgid affair. Also, “Rifle Through” is just okay – again, taking a steep nosedive towards the end. The thin ballad “Almost All Day” is pummeled lifeless by an obtrusively busy and unreasonably loud drum part. “Blur to Me” is just awful – marred by a bluesy, macho guitar sound that wouldn’t have even made the cut on the second Stone Roses album. The trite psychedelic guitar sound and distorted vocals of “Crystallized” make for possibly the worst sounding song of the batch. Neither good nor bad is “Into Tomorrow,” which would have qualified as only a B side a few years earlier. Jessie Greene is credited with strings, though it is unclear if this is the same Jessy Greene of the Jayhawks and Geraldine Fibbers.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Brilliant Grey” is undoubtedly the only song on here that’s worth a damn.

Release Date

May, 2002

The Cover Art

Even the cover art is a let down. The pinstripes and vintage camera seem like they could have led somewhere interesting, but the framing is all wrong and the monochrome palette doesn’t work. The colors on the font are fine.

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