Thursday, June 29, 2023

Typography-Only Album Covers

 Cluster – Zuckerzeit

Ugh this is so gorgeous. Even thought it kind of looks like it says Fuckerreit (Fuck 'er, right?). Most experimental indie airbrush style artwork can be traced back to this. I don't even know what it sounds like, the cover is just too gorgeous. What if it's some late period album where they tried to make a radio hit (its Cluser, they would never do that). There's so much love put into the title that I forget that the bottom half of the album has absolutely nothing on it. 

James Gang – James Gang Rides Again

In the 70s, there was a wave of boogie woogie albums with stark, severe covers that were not a good indicator of the music inside. Edgar Winter Group were another offender, especially the obscure, bizarre cover to their album with Rick Derringer. The thick, black, tightly kerned text on Rides Again seems more appropriate for a modern techno record than from a guy who'd eventually join The Eagles. Their later album Miami uses a similar design but with the colors reversed. It's a little more clever, with the back of the cover just being the front reversed, but black text on white just seems a bit braver to me. Or lazier, I'm not sure. 

Despite this, I love the type on this cover. The tight kerning, the perfect leading (in the biz we call this the "lock up", when the letters are adjusted to fit together in a pleasing way). This cover always stood out to me while browsing the CD racks in high school, though its best presentation is on a battered, off-white vinyl copy with a noticeable ring from the disc. 

Richard And Linda Thompson – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight 

There's such a desperation in this cover. The sweaty condensation on the window, the hand-drawn letters. It looks intense and passionate. I wonder how many tries it took to get this just right? The lighting is perfect, the letters are all about the same size, mostly centered: this took dedication. That's not even including the work that went into figuring out the correct film speed and exposure. I find a lot of value is seeing the work that goes into a piece. 

The Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks

Punk is fashion, fashion is branding, and Malcolm McLaren knew how to do branding. Considering the lo-fi, grainy photo collage style of the punk and hardcore I grew up with, this cover looks a little bit too clean, but it's so iconic. It takes a closer look to see how the letters up top aren't lined up exactly, this was done with an Xacto knife and glue, you can see the history of paste-up lettering in the pre-digital age. It's got the extreme letter size difference with "Here's the" that harkens back to old time broadsheet newsprints, and the hot pink that presages New Wave. The variances in color offset printing mean those yellows and pinks differ dramatically depending on the edition, which to me is just another way the piece grows and shows history.

Lee Morgan - The Rumproller

If any designers work was a labor of love, Reid Miles covers for Blue Note fit that description exactly. The jazz label paid a pittance, but the limitations (mostly typography, maybe a picture of the artist) gave rise to some of the most enduring covers in modern history, still continually the subject of homage, and (more frequently) rip offs. The Rumproller is just one of many Miles did that were based on a single typographical concept, but definitely the trippiest. I'm not sure how he did it, presumably he printed the text on a piece of transparent plastic (like the kind used on an overhead projector), then manipulated it over a piece of photographic paper in a darkroom, then tracing the results. In any case, it's a genius solution that influenced my own experiments in manipulating existing typefaces. 

Daft Punk - Discovery

Alan Parsons - The Very Best (Live)

It's hard to see in smaller versions, but the rainbow gradient on the bevel of the letters really elevates this piece. Daft Punk had such an iconic visual style that's its kind of funny that the majority of their albums have type-only covers. They acted like a subtle calling card, reigning in their visual style so their maximalist live show would hit even harder. 

I'm not sure if the Discovery cover was digital or handmade, but this cover by Hipgnosis was all done in-camera. The photographer tasked to create it had their work cut out for them: getting liquid to congeal into a new version of the Alan Parsons logo, while bent over a light table. This is pretty laid back for an Alan Parsons cover, but I like the simplicity coupled with the obvious time and care that went into creating the lettering.

Explosions In The Sky – The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place

Alice Cooper – Zipper Catches Skin

XTC - GO 2

Did Explosions in the Sky know about this Alice Cooper cover? I'm not sure. The cover is about the best thing you can find about this obscure 80s Cooper album, recorded in the depths of his drug addiction (he has stated in interviews he has no recollection of recording it, or the albums immediately before and after). The all-over-text album cover is also nothing new, with Hipgnosis' cover for the first XTC album being the earliest one I can recall. With so many albums having sexy cover images, it's refreshing to come across one that asks the viewer to take a minute to read it. EITS seems like the scribblings of someone stranded in a post-apocalyptic landscape, frantically trying to remind themselves that there must be someone out there. Cooper's seems like an art director at the label was given free reign to do whatever, and the XTC cover was Hipgnosis' smartass reaction to the expensive, photo-heavy covers they were usually tasked with creating. 

Bee Gees - Odessa

You need to see this cover in person to get the full effect: The type is of course gorgeous, but the red is a fuzzy sort of fabric that has this beautiful tactile contrast to the shiny lettering. If you're unaware, before Saturday Night Fever the Bee Gees flirting with everything from psychedelic pop to this folky concept album about a sinking ship. The front almost looks like a funeral program, which is fitting as the gatefold is a painting of the ship mid-sinking, with a small child being thrown to a lifeboat on a stormy sea. The band thought this was their Big, Important Album, and needed an iconic cover to go with it. It seems almost perverse to have a type-only cover on such a densely orchestrated album, specifically written to be their answer to Sgt. Peppers

Aphrodite's Child – 666

For years I was unaware that the lettering of the title was designed to look like European license plates. That's just incredibly weird to do, plus having it re-appear on a car in the liner notes. The album is another concept piece wherein a stage play about the Apocalypse is performed in a circus tent while the actual Apocalypse is raging outside. Then the liner notes shows a car with a 666 license plate careening off a road. What?? Why?? I love how it makes zero sense. Covers like this make me think "this has got to be important if they decided to not put a sexy photo on the front." The cover kind of looks like a playbill too. 

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality 

Simplicity is the key to longevity, I think, and if copying is the highest compliment you can give a piece of art, Master of Reality may be the best album cover ever. At least the best metal album cover. The weird billowing letters presented slightly askew, the purple and black, its like the giant fuzzy slab of metal inside was transformed into a typeface. Can lettering be a lumbering beast? This one certainly is. It's got that old Universal Horror vibe without being beholden to a single era. 

The Belbury Poly – New Ways Out

Julien House's label Ghost Box always has amazing art, but I singled this one out because it has a cool 3D sort of effect. There's been photographs on Ghost Box covers before, but this is the first I've seen where the typography is given a sort of photographic effect, in this case the RGB cells in old CRT televisions. I love their whole Hauntology vibe, reminds me of the old PBS educational shows I watched as a kid. 

Ricardo Villalobos – Thé Au Harem D'Archimède

Other Ricardo Villalobos album covers have had the same slanted text, but I like this one because it really gives off the vibe of being a close-up picture of one of those DJ concert posters that are plastered all over the downtown areas of European cities. The CD and vinyl covers are also slightly different, which I like because they each take advantage of the pros and cons of each format instead of trying to squeeze the vinyl art onto the CD. The dynamic between the huge letters and the small tracklist & credit son the back is also really nice, gives an extra level of movement beside the slanted baseline. 

Muscles – Guns Babes Lemonade

The shiny digital letters is a good indicator of the hyper-compressed poppy bedroom House music inside. The letters are slightly beveled with a metallic sheen, solid like the kick drums, but the top is bright and fizzy like hi hats and synthesizers. I gotta respect sticking with type-only when most of the songs are about sex and getting fucked up. 

Aerosmith – Greatest Hits

This one is so close to looking like a budget bin compilation, but I have a soft spot for it. It was one of the stack of free CDs my parents got with their first CD player in the late 80s. Aerosmith's logo is so iconic, the lettering seems like a melding of 50's car culture and 60 psychedelia, and it's presented so large it won't even fit on the cover! Pre-comeback, this album graced nearly ever album collection in America. 12 million copies sold! The band is legendary for its excess, so it's funny that such a bold, simple cover became their best known. It doesn't hurt that it's got an almost impeccable track listing (we will not be discussing the last 2 songs). 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

(I Hate) Pink Floyd

Truly loving an artist means dealing with their less-than-great output along with the classics. 

Johnny Rotten's homemade "I Hate Pink Floyd" shirt was a great piece of merchandizing, but the once and future John Lydon didn't believe it. An acolyte of Hawkwind, Kosmische Musik, and weed, the man ended up making albums with Steve Vai and Ginger Baker. He was taking the piss on an easy target, despite Pink Floyd's output being marked by depression and madness, a far cry from the hippie dippy worlds created by peers like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. 

Some bands drop a couple (or just one) classic album then split. Their influence is etched in stone, their fans never had to see their inevitable drop, touring smaller venues and bringing in ringers to attempt to update their sound. Pink Floyd were in it for the long haul, their sound twisting as much from market forces as the band's increasingly different musical interests. Depending on who you ask, they ceased to exist after Piper at the Gates of Dawn, or after Meddle, or after The Final Cut. I have a love (or at least grudging respect) for all eras, even when the creativity took a back seat to court cases and backbiting. They're all still Pink Floyd, despite their only common thread being drummer Nick Mason. 

Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, and enjoying artists can mean identifying, analyzing, and coming to grips with the weaker parts of their output. Do I hate Pink Floyd? Sometimes. But it's all wrapped up in something I love, that ineffable Pink Floydness they created. The band did a great service to music writers of the 20th century, creating easily parsed eras with different lineups and the inevitable drama that comes with a cult band suddenly becoming huge. I've broken down each era to highlight the friction created when a band is searching for their sound, the pitfalls along the way, and how they navigate the thing they love turning against them. 

Syd Barrett Era

The band was signed in the late 60s feeding frenzy for the Next Beatles, despite being more known for their freeform all-night noise jams than their skill at pop songwriting. While Piper may be the only real Pink Floyd album to a generation of young punks, on record the band chafes at being squeezed into the pop group mold. The shorter songs, while decent, show the lack of leadership under the eternally distracted Barrett. The jam tracks tend to meander in a way that's probably great when you're on drugs at 2am, but trying to squeeze it onto a record turns it from a journey into more of a slapdash collage. It's no wonder the band would stretch their epics into side-length for subsequent albums. 

It's a mess, a beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless. Waters in particular struggled to carve a niche for himself, "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk" is more sound effects than songs, stumbling at the sort of mini pop symphony Barrett could toss off without a thought. 

Side B is, besides "Interstellar Overdrive", a Barrett solo album in all but name. The increasingly demented songs point directly to his brief but well-regarded solo career, though as an adult it's a bit queasy hearing someone so clearly in distress. 

Pre-Dark Side

A Saucerful of Secrets points the way forward, and sets the tone for what people think of when they imagine Pink Floyd: lethargic tempos, long jams, high-concept songs. It's also the beginning of the bands long tradition of re-using musical ideas, as opener "Let There Be More Light" is based on a bassline that popped up about halfway through "Interstellar Overdrive". Waters would bemoan the band's "Space Rock" label, but it doesn't help to open an album with a track about aliens visiting Suffolk. 

Few people, not least the rest of the band, weren't too keen on Richard Wright's contributions to this album, with perpetual bully Waters referring to "See-Saw" as "The Most Boring Song I've Ever Heard Bar Two". To be fair, he's not wrong. Wright's songs were fairly light and toothless, hewing closer to the softer, nostalgic end of the late 60s than the more outré lands Pink Floyd explored. Citing a lack of material, Waters eventually came to overwhelm the band, though it should be noted that following Barrett's dismissal, Wright was briefly considered the best hope for Pink Floyd's success. 

Despite his huge ego, Waters songs on the album tend to be pretty skeletal, creating a framework for the rest of the band to fill in but retaining songwriting credit for himself. "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" would blossom as an extended ambient jam on tour, but on record is downright narcotic. I still love this version, but anyone accusing Pink Floyd of being a little boring wouldn't be wrong if they used it as an example. 

The album ends with the sole Barrett composition, "Jugband Blues", which in hindsight is an uneasy listen, as he bows out with a clear acknowledgement of his mental illness. The band, especially Gilmour, were wracked with guilt over sacking Barrett from the band, and the inclusion of this track was perhaps their way of keeping him from being destitute. Barrett passed away a millionaire, mostly due to his royalties from the first two Pink Floyd albums. 

Pink Floyd were lazy. Tales abound of the hours whiled away in Abbey Road, since their record label contract allowed unlimited studio time. When that deal ran out, they quickly built their own studio. The band was capable of being quick and efficient, but only when making movie soundtracks. 

More was their first feature-length project, and they approached it with a sense of workmanship that was sorely lacking in their own albums. I've recently come around to it, which does seem a little slap-dash and lacking in the big over-arching concepts they're known for, but in its place is a set of compact, well-written songs that stretch psychedelia into some dark places. 

Well, half the record is great, at least. Side A has future live staples "Cymbaline" and "Green is the Colour", along with outliers like the proto-heavy metal "The Nile Song" and hazy "Cirrus Minor". Side B is home to instrumentals made specifically as cues, so it's pleasant but I'd be lying if I said I listened to it frequently.

The band also contributed to Zabriskie Point, but friction with director Michelangelo Antonioni led to most of their songs ending up on bootlegs. They've been officially available for a while now, but a word of warning: They aren't very good. Consisting mostly of re-recordings of old songs or short instrumental cues, it's mostly notable for outtake "The Violent Sequence" being re-used as the music on "Us and Them". 

I'm willing to bet most of the original vinyl copies of Pink Floyd's first double album, Ummagumma, have well-worn first discs and pristine second discs. Their record label finally understanding the band's epic-length jams were what fans came to see, disc one is a slightly truncated version of their regular live show, with "Astronomy Domine", "Careful With that Axe, Eugene", "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", and "A Saucerful of Secrets" stretched past their original recorded versions. Disc two... it's not a mess, and by that I mean at least a mess wouldn't be boring. Each member was given half a side to do whatever they want, and only Waters' harsh noise (you read that right) "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" leaving any sort of impression. Despite the animosity that would eventually split the band, they really did their best work as a unit. 

The band considered themselves Avant Garde Composers, so it makes sense they wrangled actual Avant Garde Composer Ron Geesin to co-write the title track for Atom Heart Mother, a 23 minute epic stitched together from various bits the band had written. The sound effects and the cow on the cover help to defuse the bands pretensions, along with their avoidance of the Big Orchestral Tropes, treating it more like a piece of film music than the grandiose style of Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The band hates it, but their recollection may be more informed by the torturous recording process and subsequent disastrous tour. I like an underdog, though it should be approached more like the zenith of their in-studio experimentation than a lost classic.

The second side, once again gives the band's three songwriter's their own showcase, and probably due to their brevity it's a lot more enjoyable than the 2nd disc of Ummagumma. Waters' "If" starts off shaky, with some of his worst lyrics (If I was a swan/I'd be gone), but in hindsight its a clear precursor to "Brain Damage". Wright's breezy, horn-inflected "Summer '68" isn't bad but nobody would have guessed it was a Pink Floyd song. Gilmour's "Fat Old Sun" shows his clear admiration of CSNY and the rest of their Laurel Canyon ilk. On record it's a decent folk-rock song, but live it would be stretched to nearly 30 minutes, which allowed its rose-colored nostalgia to expand and fill the whole room. 

"Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" is 13 minutes of filler, but honestly it's my second favorite song on the album after the title track. Between audio verité of roadie Alan Styles muttering to himself as he makes breakfast, the band jams on the most melodic material they had done up to that point. Does it kind of sound like a theme song to a lost British sitcom? Sure. Is that bad? Never. 

It stands to reason that Meddle, Pink Floyd's first front-to-back great album would also include its most notorious misfire, the blues throwaway "Seamus". Perhaps as a coda to the preceding song it would have been a funny bit of field recording, but as a separate track its eminently skippable. The album is bookended with the menacing "One of These Days" and the expansive "Echoes", but sandwiched in between sounds like a different version of Pink Floyd, one that pivoted to smooth yacht rock instead of dire, pessimistic albums about man's inhumanity to man. I have no qualms with the breezy "San Tropez" or "A Pillow of Winds", but their vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars do seem a bit at odds with their normal style. It's worth noting that most of these shorter tracks were co-written by Gilmour, who would go on to record with David Crosby and Graham Nash. 

The band was actually partway through recording Dark Side of the Moon when the opportunity to make another Barbet Schroeder soundtrack came their way, the wonderful and weird Obscured by Clouds. Tighter and more structured than the loose More, I like how the band focuses on a single sound for each track (like the electronic drums on the title track, or the arpeggios on "Wots... Uh the Deal") and build the track around it. It's not this epic sea change like Dark Side, but it's a good example of how they could merge their weirder and more mainstream sides into single songs. 

Mega Success 

There's not much to say about one of the best selling albums of all time, but let's take a crack at it. "Any Colour You Like" exists solely as a bridge between "Us and Them" and "Brain Damage". Even in its embryonic form, it was a pretty loose guitar-led jam, and on record it's most interesting aspect is the guitar being processed to sound like Eric Clapton's on Cream's "Badge". The punters who saw the band in their heyday probably heard this song muffled by the restroom walls as they prepared for the finale.

Wish You Were Here doesn't have any bad tracks (there are only 4, after all), but a recent re-listen of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" reveals that the song is just synth solo > guitar solo > guitar solo > verse > guitar solo, over and over. I get why the punks hated this album. That, plus the ridiculous album packaging, which saw the high-concept photographs hidden behind an opaque black wrapper. Like the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the band was this inescapable void that was easy to project your own ideas onto. 

I can't say anything bad about Animals, except that the bookend "Pigs on the Wing" were only split up to give Waters more songwriting royalties, as the payouts are determined by the number of tracks, not their length. Dick move! For a song that has nothing to do with the rest of the Orwell-inspired album. 

The Roger Waters Show

Waters already massive ego inflated exponentially during this time, when they played giant anonymous stadiums to huge crowds of fans obscured by elaborate stage lighting. Once you've reached this almost unbelievable level of success, where do you go? The rest of the band was content to play the hits and cash the checks, but Waters couldn't operate without pushing against something. 

The Wall doesn't really sound like Pink Floyd. Besides the short, bitter songs, the band itself rarely appears on the same track: Waters demanded Wright be fired (the reasons are numerous, and both sides made some reasonable points, but that's a story for another day), and a plethora of studio musicians were hired to flesh out Waters' album. It's not really fair to judge it in comparison to previous Pink Floyd albums, so it sits in a category all its own. My personal iPod playlist trims the fat a bit: tracks like "Empty Spaces", "One of My Turns", "Don't Leave Me Now", "Bring the Boys Back Home", and "Stop" exist mostly as connecting tissue, and while some of these brief songs are worth a re-listen ("Vera", "The Show Must Go On", "Outside the Wall"), I'm rarely in the mood to sit through them. 

The Final Cut is, without a doubt, a Roger Waters solo album. He seems to have forgotten what people liked about Pink Floyd, turning most of the songs into angry, quasi-Bob Dylan screeds. During the tense recording sessions, Gilmour finally had enough, telling Waters to only call him if he needed a guitar solo. My favorite thing to come from this album is Ruby Isle's disco-fied take on the title track. 

The David Gilmour Show

To me, the best Pink Floyd songs are ones where Waters came up with a skeletal, dissonant song, and Gilmour & Wright would (for lack of a better term) pretty it up. Neither the guitarist nor the keyboardist were especially prolific in or out of the band, and Gilmour especially seemed to choke when he was forced to make a record. About Face, supposedly his break away from Pink Floyd, failed spectacularly, with cancelled tour dates and lackluster critical reception. In hindsight, his 1984 solo album was a bit too much Of Its Time, full of stadium trad rock and none of the complex harmony and creative lyrics that Roger Waters brought to the table. 

Faced with record label pressure and mounting debts, Gilmour re-started Pink Floyd, which ignited a decade of lawsuits, as Roger Waters considered the band "a spent force". Their respective solo tours were disasters, with Gilmour willing to concede that having Pink Floyd on the marquee was going to put butts in the seats. Armed with record company backing and a platoon of co-writers, he got down to making demos for a new Pink Floyd album, which would give him an excuse to tour, as well as prove to the lawyers that Pink Floyd was a living, breathing organization without Roger Waters. It didn't start off well.

"This sounds nothing like Pink Floyd" was the record company's reaction to this first round of demos. To be fair, it was still essentially a David Gilmour solo album, with Richard Wright no longer in the band and Nick Mason, who already rarely contributed songwriting, content to delegate most of the drumming to session musicians. In any case, didn't the last two Pink Floyd albums not sound much like Pink Floyd either? 

It's an expensive facsimile of a Pink Floyd album, but a facsimile nonetheless. While not a total disaster, it did accomplish its goal: give the band an excuse to launch a years-long tour that once again made them millionaires. To the credit of Gilmour and returning producer Bob Ezrin, they managed to carve out yet another distinct sound in the history of Pink Floyd. Shimmering synthesizers, ultra-compressed guitars, a deep-focus production style that was top-of-the-line in the 80s. It just has no edge, no bite, even "Dogs of War" can't help but be surgically designed to go down easy. 

Here I will defend The Division Bell. After a marathon tour, drug addiction, sobriety, getting older, getting re-married, and Wright re-joining, the remaining members of Pink Floyd managed to somehow re-capture the feeling of their early albums. 

It's an actual Concept Album, for one. A decade had passed since their last one, even longer if you consider The Wall the last one where all of the members had been on board with the concept. This was an older, mature Pink Floyd, and having an album about connection and communication was right up their alley; that is, they had plenty to write about. Sure a lot of it is corny, and the production has that 80s hangover, but they managed to pull off an album that can stand next to their more well-regarded work. "High Hopes", in particular, closes out this era of the band by fusing their early work with the wisdom that only time can give.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the "last" Pink Floyd album is that it's non-canonical. Everything that people hate about post-Waters Pink Floyd is served up in high concentration on The Endless River. On paper, a tribute to the late Richard Wright using outtakes from The Division Bell sounds nice, but it all sounds hollow and one-dimensional. There's a reason this stuff was left off the album, and in any case, Gilmour's solo song "A Boat Lies Waiting" accomplishes a tender and heartfelt eulogy for his friend in 4:45, instead of the 90 minutes of The Endless River

Monday, May 10, 2021

Jim Steinman Song Showdown

 Who Covered It Best? 

For a guy so dedicated to maintaining a badass public image (still wearing leather jackets and spiked gauntlets into his twilight years), Jim Steinman is hopelessly square. His songs are unabashed music theater, he traffics in emotions only at their most operatic, and he has never once been accused of subtlety.

And for that I love his music, with all its bombast and drama. His work has shifted untold numbers of units since Bat Out of Hell debuted in 1977. In the midst of the Punk revolution, his first album with Meat Loaf became one of those inescapable cultural touchstones, like the Kennedy assassination or the last episode of M*A*S*H. It’s also incredibly uncool. Not content with the heightened teenage drama of West Side Story and Born to Run, Steinman pushed everything to its glittery neon extreme, not just abandoning good taste, but denying its existence altogether.

The thing is, for all his success, Steinman was only recently able to fulfill his lifelong dream: A musical based on Peter Pan. Initially written as part of his studies at Amhurst College, The Dream Engine was first produced in embryonic form in 1969. The musical’s theme of teens running amuck in a dystopian world was interesting enough to get him some heat from Broadway producers, and he spent the first half of the 70s toiling in the trenches, writing songs and working on other people’s musicals. By then his pet project was called Neverland, and was even more explicitly about J.M. Barrie’s eternal child. In 2017, nearly 50 years after his initial idea, Bat Out of Hell: The Musical finally premiered, though the seeds of the songs had already been scattered across his various collaborations.

That scattering is a common theme across Steinman’s career, with songs splitting off from his magnum opus to be covered by other artists, or in various projects he created during the decade-long legal battle between him and Meat Loaf. So I start to wonder, who did these songs best? Is Steinman really the best interpreter of his own music? Here’s some songs from his catalog that lived a couple different lives, from little-loved solo albums to huge pop hits.

Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through

Jim Steinman (Bad for Good, 1981)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

Bat Out of Hell II was supposed to come out in the late 70s. During the whirlwind support tour, the record company started bugging Steinman for another album. This was when the yearly tour/album/tour cycle was at it’s peak. Steinman didn’t need to tour with Meat Loaf, he was more of a behind the scenes guy anyways, so he took some time off to polish off other songs from his Neverland cycle. Now, anyone’s who’s seen the Meat Loaf Behind the Music knows that every conceivable misfortune befell the duo. Meat Loaf lost his voice, the excess of late 70s touring wore him down nearly to psychosis, and a notebook of lyrics was stolen from Steinman’s dressing room after he rejoined the tour. The wind out of their sails, and the combination of too much money & too many drugs eroding their partnership, they took the first of several long breaks.

When you make the record company the equivalent of several fortunes, they let you do whatever you want to do. What we got was Steinman’s 1981 solo album Bad for Good, which used the songs from the original Bat Out of Hell II. Meat Loaf may not have written the songs, but his undeniable skill and charisma is what sold the audience on mini rock operas about horny teenagers. Steinman… not so much. He tried, hiring a crack band and throwing a ton of money at the videos, but it wasn’t the same as when Meat Loaf was out front belting out his tunes.

Over a decade later, when the duo makes up and finally finished Bat II, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” was redone with Meat Loaf on vocals. So which version is better? Winner: Meat Loaf. Steinman’s version isn’t even all that bad, it’s just that Meat Loaf elevates the song to operatic heights, while the first version is more akin to the standard Album Rock of the time. It’s competent, if a little one-dimensional.

Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)

Megumi Shiina (Le Port, 1986)

Pandora’s Box (Original Sin, 1989)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

This one’s got the strangest trajectory: The first recording is actually a Japanese translation by pop singer Megumi Shiina. Three years later, Steinman’s project Pandora’s Box did their own version, and finally Meat Loaf did his another 4 years later. That’s seven years and a couple continents for a song about horny teenagers wrought in lyrics so purple only Steinman could do it.

Pandora’s Box is a weird beast, a solo project in all but name, containing songs that reach back almost 20 years to The Dream Engine, along with loose interpretations of The Doors’ “20th Century Fox” and Burt Bacharach’s “Little Red Book”. Not content to merely release an album, Steinman had several big-budget videos made, later released on home video as a mini-movie.

It’s not really a surprise that the Pandora’s Box version is the weakest, with its attempt at combining operatic rock and R&B coming off flat and boring. Winner: Meat Loaf. Both it and Megumi Shiina’s version use thick, palm-muted electric guitars and over-compressed tom-toms, but the former piles on even more riffs and instruments to really take it to epic territory. Opening with a cluster of saxophones is surprising, as they don’t appear on Bat II until then, and their slightly atonal, noir vibe is a nice contrast to the rest of the song. From there Steinman adds a descending chromatic guitar riff as Meat sells the hell out of the lyrics from the mountaintop.

And what lyrics. Rock & roll lyrics are not poetry, nobody expects a divine couplet in songs about getting wasted and having sex, but Steinman surrounds lines like “And every limb has been erotic'ly burned” with equally ridiculous music, so it works.

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

Pandora’s Box (Original Sin, 1989)

Celine Dion (Falling Into You, 1996)

Meat Loaf with Marion Raven (Bat Out of Hell III, 2006)

Winner: Celine Dion. Sometimes a songwriter is far from the best interpreter of their work, and besides, she’s Celine Fucking Dion. She’s got the pipes and charisma to deliver the drama of an epic musical that seems to just be one chorus after another. The Pandora’s Box version comes in second; Elaine Caswell’s voice (recorded as a guide vocal then later used on the final album, without compensating her) is a lot edgier than Celine’s cherubic wail, giving the song some gritty attitude. Way back in 3rd place is Meat Loaf’s eventual take, turned into a duet with Marion Raven. Raven does a good job with what she’s got, but it’s clear Meat’s voice is not the weapon it used to be. Whether it was to cover up his failing voice, or just to differentiate it from Celine Dion’s blockbuster version, making it a duet does not serve the song well. Meat and Raven constantly step over each other’s lines, and the lyrics never gave even a hint that it was a conversation between two people.

All three videos for these songs are bonkers, but the winner in that regard is hiring mad director Ken Russell (The Who’s Tommy, Altered States) for the Pandora’s Box version. Over-budget, nonsensical, and with a Cinemax-level of sexuality, it barely aired on MTV and the album flopped.

Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire)

Jim Steinman (Bad for Good, 1981)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

When Bat Out of Hell came out in 1977, hair metal didn’t really exist. There was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but Van Halen’s debut wouldn’t come out for another year, ushering in an era of hairspray, guitar acrobatics, and power ballads. It seems like a genre tailor made for Steinman’s vision, but in 1977 his music was still pretty firmly in the classic rock tradition, with boogie woogie guitars and soft rock piano. The funny thing is, by the time he reunited with Meat Loaf for Bat Out of Hell II, hair metal had already come and gone and become passé. That didn’t deter him, and the advances in recording technology meant he could take the proto-metal initial version of “Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire)” and crank every element past the point of good taste. Winner: Meat Loaf, but really just for the production, which buffed Steinman’s Wagnerian Metal vision to a fine polish.

Lost Boys and Golden Girls

Jim Steinman (Bad for Good, 1981)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

This piano ballad is incredibly sedate for Steinman, not far removed from that late 70s singer/songwriter milieu that took hold of the charts in America. To be honest I’m not a big fan of the song. Most of his work traverses huge peaks and valleys, running the gamut of dynamics, but this is just kinda… there. I understand that it’s supposed to be the emotional, stripped down finale for the original Neverland production, but his music doesn’t really scale down very well. Winner: Jim Steinman. Meat Loaf’s version may have the most advanced production 1993 could offer, but it couldn’t reproduce the chill 70s vibe of the first version. You can practically smell the Naugahyde furniture and hand-rolled cigarette smoke of the studio it was recorded in.

90s Soundtracks pt 3: Angus

Music Supervisor has been a job long before Seth Cohen played a Death Cab for Cutie song on The OC, but when Alexandra Patsavas started cramming the new Fox teen drama with all manner of pleasant indie-adjacent bands, it opened the floodgates to Music Supervisors being known tastemakers, able to break a band and crown the Next Big Thing with a crucial sync. Flaming Lips may have already played The Peach Pit, and Dawson’s Creek spawned two soundtrack albums, but The OC focused on Pitchfork-approved bands during the music site’s meteoric rise, giving it the kind of credibility teens gravitate towards. 

Producer and A&R guru Rob Cavallo tried a similar thing with the ascendant pop-punk scene with 1995’s Angus, a beloved (if little-seen) teen drama. Despite never producing a movie before, Cavallo finagled an Executive Producer credit, and along with The Muffs & Green Day managers Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman, proceeded to stuff the soundtrack with their own acts and other Reprise Records up-and-comers. The acts skew heavily towards Bay Area pop punk, with Dance Hall Crashers (discussed in a previous newsletter), Tilt, and of course, Green Day. 

When Green Day’s Dookie hit in 1994, pop punk became huge: Their old label Lookout! suddenly found themselves with more money and attention that they ever had before, there was the concert film Jaded in Chicago, the SNL appearance, and the laundry list of pop punk bands all over the country finding themselves getting winded & dined by industry A&R. 

1995 rolls around and the public is clamoring for more Green Day, and the stopgap before Insomniac came out turned out be one of their best songs ever: “J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva)”, written by bassist Mike Dirnt, about his childhood friend who died in a car accident. This was the lead single for the soundtrack album, and the only reason I even heard of the movie. It’s odd how siloed music & movies were at the time, where Empire Records could bomb at the box office yet have a big hit soundtrack. In any case, this is a great song about accepting death & moving on with your life, appropriate for a movie about dealing with the hand that life dealt you.

Angus is the type of movie that Hollywood used to come up with on a regular basis: a medium budget, down to Earth drama about normal people. Nowadays consolidation and massive franchises have all but decimated that segment of the industry. It also didn’t help that it opened when Braveheart and The Usual Suspects were still doing massive numbers.

For myself, the movie hits all the beats of my miserable school experience. I was fat, anxiety-ridden, and unable to relate to my peers, making me a prime target for bullying. We moved a lot because my Dad was in the Air Force, and for 8th grade we moved to a town in Ohio where seemingly everyone had lived there for generations, so my classmates were especially hostile to new kids. This was the type of town where the English teacher had taught 2 generations of the same shithead family and knew them all by name. Until I found my friends halfway through high school, with the help of our mutual love of pop punk, every torturous day seemed to stretch into infinity. Therefore I’ve only seen the movie once. Why do I need to rewatch something I lived through, minus the girl from Jurassic Park?

So the soundtrack album looms larger in my memory than the movie, and that success is due to most of the tracks following its emotional arc, despite almost none of them being written for it (more on that later). Young love, unrequited crushes, that bottomless despair specific to high school– all of these feelings show up across a relatively brief 12 tracks.

Ash stick out like a bit of a sore thumb, not just because they’re 1) Irish, or 2) way more of a bubblegum glam band, but because for some reason they get 2 songs on the album. “Jack Names the Planets” and “Kung Fu” are solid but unremarkable singles that managed to quickly get massive thanks to the UK music magazine machine. Ash weren’t (and aren’t) bad exactly, just a weird fit for this soundtrack, and in any case they have much better songs.

I don’t have much to say about “Enough” by Dance Hall Crashers except it’s what a lot of mainstream ska punk sounded like in the 90s: competent, but way closer to swing music than the marketing people would want you to believe. That’s not a knock on it: swing music is a lot more harmonically interesting than meat n potatoes pop punk, but like Phish and Dave Matthews Band, their fans made the scene more annoying than it could be.

The Riverdales and Smoking Popes (another band that appeared in a previous newsletter) are next representing the nascent Chicago punk scene. The Riverdales are essentially Screeching Weasel, a band massively indebted to Ramones, who broke up and immediately reformed to play, as they put it, more Ramones inspired music. I’ll admit that previous sentence is pretty odd, as it’s unclear just how Screeching Weasel could sound even more like The Ramones, but they did it! Their Green Day connection runs deep, as Billie Joe Armstrong mixed their first record (while pop punk mainstay Mass Giorgini produced) and the band opened for Green Day on the European leg of their 1995 tour.

Smoking Popes got another one of those sweet sweet 90s soundtrack placements with the midtempo “Mrs You and Me”, a perfectly sentimental ballad of unrequited love, reflecting the love story in Angus without rehashing the plot of the movie. That’s what Weezer did, submitting “Wanda (You’re My Only Love)”, a mellow acoustic song with lyrics that are just a description of the script. The song only exists as Rivers Cuomo’s acoustic demo, and by all accounts he was pretty torn up when the director rejected the song as too close to the movie. In the director’s defense, “Wanda” is not what Weezer sounded like in 1995, and the lyrics mention plot points (specifically Angus’ gay dad) that were cut from the film. “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” was chosen instead, a b-side from a band that regularly left its best songs off albums, forcing fans to buy overpriced CD singles to complete their collection.

Ain’t That Unusual” was an album track from Goo Goo Doll’s massive Boy Named Goo, and here it works perfect as another example of adolescent longing. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single from it’s original album, this is the kind of song music executives hear and immediately start calling radio stations. “Would you talk to me / honestly?” is such a great way to start a song, and it only gets better from there.

The Muffs contribute “Funny Face” from Blonder and Blonder and really what am I gonna say except listen to more of The Muffs (RIP). That said, it is surprising that a quarter of the songs on the soundtrack are by female-fronted bands, especially in the straight white male world of pop punk. I’m not sure how much of that was by design, since The Muff’s manager co-produced the soundtrack, and Rob Cavallo produced Dance Hall Crashers. Tilt’s “White Frame Homes” stands out not just as a great band, but tracing pop punk’s roots back to hardcore.

Within pop punk, there’s the smooth, melodic stuff (think NOFX or The Offspring) and the more rough n tumble type (more like The Descendants or The Ergs!). The former is what got huge in the mid 90s, but Tilt kept the flame alive for the noisier, out of tune pop punk for the hardcore fans not quite ready to give up their patch-covered vests. Naturally, a soundtrack about suburban angst also needed a song about how much the suburbs suck.

Queercore originators Pansy Division have a direct connection to Green Day; not only did they both play the Gilman Street scene, but Mike Dirnt wore their shirt (with a strategically placed patch covering up a picture of a penis) for Green Day’s SNL appearance. Pansy Division are unapologetically gay, a revolutionary stance in music at the time, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and within the punk scene, which despite its claims of liberal ideas was very (and lets face it, still is) hostile to anyone not white, straight, and male.

Deep Water” is just verse, chorus, verse, over and over, no bridge, nothing to distract you from the poetic yearning, from the horrible bottomless feeling that everyone has known. Desperate to escape their dead end town, unable to connect to anyone, counting the days til they escape: Pansy Division cuts right to the bone. The lyrics don’t attempt to make the theme applicable to everyone, this without a doubt a song about being lonely and queer, but that makes the song so good. We’re being led into the narrator’s hermetic world, with the anger and sadness particular to it, and the details from which the emotions are given a framework. We’re all the same in that we’re all different.

Am I Wrong” is a perfect closing song. It’s emotional, a little schmaltzy, but by the end of an album of desire denied, you just need to let all those emotions explode. For Angus, it’s the first thing you hear when the movie opens. I can’t tell if that’s cruel to start the movie out with the most emotionally charged song, or if it’s smart to get you ready for a movie that pulls no punches about the emotional damage that bullying causes. It’s a great way to end the soundtrack though, threading the various themes of the previous songs into one soaring power ballad.

In the end, Angus doesn’t get the girl, but he does stand up for himself, and by refusing to back down to a bully learns a much more important lesson about himself and the world: you can’t run away from your problems.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Let's play sax in a non-sax band

 Revenge of the Band Nerd

Let’s say you’re a tween being forced to join the school band, and the director decides they need another saxophone. Your only experience with the instrument is in the context of finger-snappin cocktail jazz, a genre that is generally not aimed at the discriminating 21st century child. So how do you get a kid into jazz when their only context is the boring academic jazz espoused by corny dudes like Branford Marsalis? Here’s a few that tickled my fancy before appreciating the perfection of Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Pharoah Sanders.

I’m aware that one person’s noise is another person’s jazz, but I’m trying to reach across the aisle, to build bridges, to let the younger generations know that saxophone is a cool instrument worthy of your respect.

Murder in the Red Barn - Get In Before the Rain

I was completely unaware of this band before seeing them open one of the last Lovesick shows at a Greek restaurant in Detroit. 404 Records was a force to be reckoned with in the harsher end of 90s midwest post-hardcore, but fitting a band named after a Tom Waits song, Murder in the Red Barn were closer to the creepy backwoods post-rock of Slint. In person, despite playing on a low stage in a well-lit second-floor bar, they were incredibly creepy. Two acoustic guitar players, an electric bass player, a drummer, and a sax player, the latter of which I and other audience members agreed looked like he was possessed.

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

The man gets around (Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson), but
his solo albums are an uncompromising aural assault, almost exclusively made with his arsenal of giant saxophones. Wired up with an array of contact mics, he conjures brutal soundscapes without the aid of looping pedals or overdubs. Live, he hunches over his instrument, lunging to the floor with the beat, channeling a carefully controlled fury. You see the guy and think “he kicks ass” then hear it and think “his music also kicks ass”.

Sweep the Leg Johnny - Tomorrow We Will Run Faster

The thing that unites a lot of the entries on this list is an intense physicality with an instrument not usually associated with it, after all you see more guitar players performing acrobatics with their instruments than saxophonists. Sweep the Leg, despite their sound being based more on noise, jazz and post-rock, were an integral part of the 90s emo scene, showing up on an Emo Diaries comp, and sharing members with bands like Swing Kids and Haymarket Riot. Part of this is due to their band connections, but it’s mostly due to their chaotic live shows, which could result in injury, damaged instruments, and in one legendary instance, an entire ceiling collapse. Kids can get into jazz-influenced weirdo rock as long as they can mosh to it.

Dickie Landry - Fifteen Saxophones

The most jazz-adjacent act on this list, Dickie Landry was part of the New York loft scene in the 70s and 80s, mingling with visual artists as well as performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Using a primitive looping system similar to Frippertronics, he folds layers of saxophones over each other, creating dense textures that don’t sound much like any traditional instrument. The three pieces here exist as a sort of musical cloud, melodically static but slowly morphing across the extended running times. While no one was going to mosh to this, it’s brutal in its own way, using the timbres inherent to a sax to create something new and surprising.

Music of 2020 (That I listened to the most)

2020 sucked (for global events) but was pretty good (for the kind of godless bleep bloop music I like). Here, in no particular order, are the albums I listened to the most during this horrible, no good, very bad year.

Rosa Pano by Luis Pestana

Weird (but good weird) even by Orange Milk standards, Luis Pestana combines glitchy textures and traditional melodies in a collage of organic layers split by hard metallic shards. Presented as a single piece, it flows through sections of noise, drones, melodies, and field recordings, but never feels piecemeal. We’re being led through a kaleidoscopic world where these disparate sounds reflect, bounce off, and complement each other in surprising ways.

Inlet by Hum

23 years is a pretty long gap between albums, but Hum never really broke up, they just went back to their normal lives after a brief fling with a major label. Free from the expectations of commerce, they made an album the way they wanted to: slow and patient. They still sound like Hum, but stretched out over (mostly) epic songs that near 9 minutes long. Besides the infectious “Step Into You”, they are more about vibe that melody, sketching out huge horizons and cavernous voids with their distorted, down-tuned riffs.

Be Up A Hello by Squarepusher

Tom Jenkinson returned to (mostly) straight ahead hardware breakbeat, after years in the wilderness making fusion, solo jazz bass, and DIY software music. This is about as close as you’ll get to the melodic hum and gritty beats of early stuff like Feed Me Weird Things, and for that we are grateful. It’s nice that he’s continually branching out, but, as he’s said in interviews leading up to this, Be Up A Hello has a melancholy undercurrent that perfectly matches this big dumb year.

Scis by Oval

2020 marked the (estimated) 30th year of Markus Popp’s Oval project, but 2010 was a watershed year, going from sampling damaged CDs to making original sounds of his own. O was a pretty abstract release, unfolding at its own pace, unencumbered by traditional son structure. In the decade since, his music has actually gotten more traditional, adhering to a steady beat, using clearly identifiable tones, and achieving something approaching catchiness. That’s not to say he’s lost any of the magic, and in fact Scis is full of aural surprises while maintaining his own glitched out version of four on the floor techno.

Speed Kills by Chubby & the Gang

When hardcore bands decide to do an Oi! throwback, it’s easy for them to come off like scientists in a punk rock lab, carefully trying to emulate the ancient 7”s they worshipped as kids. Instead of treating music with tweezers and microscopes, this London band takes the brute force of modern hardcore and straps on the catchy melodies of the punks of yore, before dissonance became an arms race. This is undeniably catchy and undeniably brutal, even the doo-wop song.

Suddenly by Caribou

Dan Snaith’s early one-man albums really struck a chord with me, but as he added live instruments it kind of turned into more of a straightforward indie rock thing. It was still good, and catchy, but seemed to be missing the slightly unnerving distance on albums like Up in Flames and Start Breaking My Heart. Suddenly finds a great middle ground between the two poles of his music, being catchy yet texturally interesting.

Rakka by Vladislav Delay

I’m a mark for everything this Finnish producer puts out, from his stripped down dub albums on Chain Reaction to today. Recorded while living with his family near the Arctic Circle, it describes the vast empty tundra in a way perfectly suited for his type of abstract techno. Vladislav Delay tracks always manage to make slick beats out of rough samples, and that juxtaposition always hits me just right.

The Common Task by Horse Lords

Hypnotic microtonal Saharan-influenced instrumental rock? Yes! The Common Task was supposed to be Horse Lords big break, but then Covid-19 happened, now they can say “well if it wasn’t for that damn pandemic!” *shakes fist*. There’s more of a loose 70s jazz rock feel to this album, like when Miles Davis drafted rock musicians or Santana did that album with Buddy Miles. The rhythms ebb and flow but never let up, as instruments sketch increasingly intricate lines around each other. Hopefully the next time this Baltimore band resurfaces, there’s not a damn global emergency happening.

Scacco Matto by Lorenzo Senni

Combining punk and electronic music usually ends up as some lame nu metal hybrid, but Lorenzo Senni successfully combines the energy of the former with the timbre of the latter. This new album is a bit less “artsy” than his last couple: instead of abstract repetitive rave buildups that refuse to reach the Drop, these are more song-oriented, with identifiable parts and a clear arc. While still using traditional hardcore aesthetics (there’s a song called “Xbreakingedgex”), this might be his Emo record, with elegiac songs named after Orchid and Mineral albums. Lorenzo Senni has rarely been this serious, but don’t worry, there’s also a song called “Wasting Time Writing Lorenzo Senni Songs”.

Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? by The Soft Pink Truth

Matmos’ Drew Daniel has used his The Soft Pink Truth solo side project for critical reinterpretations of punk and black metal songs, but for this Biblically-named new album he assembled a crew of avant garde luminaries for a meditative collection, far removed from the abrasive albums of past. There’s bits of noise, modern classical, ambient, and R&B flowing in the aether, traveling from hypnotic repetition to collage noise as a single seamless presentation.

Please Advice by Beauty Pill

Chad Clark’s multi-limbed project has always been a conversation with the eternal Present, dropping references to modern people & events in order to give a frame for the bigger questions. Beauty Pill’s music exists in the ecstatic options available with modern recording technology, throwing all manner of instruments & sound processing into the mix, then stripping things away until the core emotions of the songs reveal themselves. Despite being EP length, there’s more than a full album’s worth of ideas across the multiple formats (CD, vinyl, cassette) it comes in.

K.A. Music by The Chinkees

The ska-punk vets are back with a brief but killer EP of organ-driven tunes, with four tracks of all killer no filler. K.A. (Korean American) Music doesn’t just focus on third wave ska punk though, they go back to the first- and second-wave sources, embracing the Caribbean influence much more than their contemporaries. Above all, every song is a catchy, fist-pumping anthem, and we really need those now.

Skeleton Coast by The Lawrence Arms

I’m a Larry Arms lifer, from back when I saw them play in my friend’s living room in high school. There’s been a recent theme of pop punk bands singing about growing older, but this Chicago trio has always mixed their whisky soaked songs with an undercurrent of death’s eventuality. Concept albums are nothing new with the band, and Skeleton Coast links tracks with the sounds of whale calls, while lyrical motifs pop up across the album. I got love for the whole thing, but the standout for me is “Pigeons and Spies”, with its absolutely flooring chorus and seemingly random verses, which were influenced by rapper Immortal Technique.

Hot Wet & Sassy by Tobacco

Black Moth Super Rainbow got messier and messier until the main dude decided to change the name to Tobacco, the better to let listeners know to expect neon splatters instead of pastoral chunes. After a brief return to the sedate BMSR sound, Tobacco makes a 180 with an album that takes his hiss-drenched melodies into even spookier environs. The video of Falcor creeping around the forest is pure nightmare fuel.

Mass Cathexis by Krallice

Since going the full DIY route, Krallice have been pumping out progressive black metal at a quick clip, taking detours to prog epics and brain-melting complexity. This is a pretty brief, straightforward set from the Brooklyn kings of metal, but maybe that’s what we need right now, songs that cut to the bone and don’t mosey along with 100 riffs over ten minutes (which, mind you, they are very good at).

Sign & Plus by Autechre

Just when the world needs them the most, Booth & Brown drop two full lengths to sate the masses. At a combined running time of just over 2 hours, it’s short compared to their epic releases from the last few years, but that makes it all the easier to digest in one sitting. Autechre seem to be looking backwards with these releases, using their recent Max MSP software to grind up, splatter, and re-arrange the softer textures of early albums like Incunabula and Amber. The albums are split thematically, with one covering their ambient side and the other their off-kilter rhythmic side. Taken as one album it would be overwhelming, but split up it’s easier to see how the parts reflect on each other.

True False & The World Will Decide by Negativland

I’m a latecomer to the California satirical cut-up collective, this is as good a place to start with their unique take on cultural criticism. The thing I never knew about then was how often their tracks are built on jokes, like I was expecting shocking audio collages akin to Peter Sotos’ work? Negativland goes down a lot smoother, combining clicking beats and soundbites to show just how fucked we are as a society (a lot).