Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dressed to the Nines

An AM10 is iconic, epic in nature and a rarity.  Few bands have one, hardly any have more; only the Beatles have three.  Music of the new millennium may not even be eligible (there’s that longevity clause), and few will make the cut; iTunes and mp3s have whittled away at the album concept.  It’s almost as if we’re back pre-Rubber Soul when an album had one hit and no filling.  The album doesn’t amount to much in the new millennium.  I’m dying to add Muse and [more] Radiohead (Kid A (AM10) is already there); time will tell.  Essentially, Absolute Magnitude is improbable:

Beatles (3) – Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Abbey Road
Beach Boys (1) – Pet Sounds
Joni Mitchell (2) – Blue, Court and Spark
Pink Floyd (2) – Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here
The Cure (1) – Disintegration
Smashing Pumpkins (1) – Siamese Dream
Kate Bush (1) – Hounds of Love
Simon and Garfunkel (1) – Bookends
Led Zeppelin (2) - LZ4, Houses of the Holy
The Decemberists (1) - The Crane Wife

There are albums that make the list that are surprises, but that iconic list of AM10s is what one would expect; if anything, less than what one would expect: The Beatles make the list three times; the Stones don’t make it at all (Hear come the comments…).  AM9s are more inclusive.  AM9s might be "immature," too fresh to make the cut; they might be flawed through production or that one song that doesn’t fit.  In the US we were blessed by the album version of Magical Mystery Tour; indeed "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" didn’t even make it onto an album in the British releases.  AM protocol dismisses it as an album even though the standard release today is the American version.  (If the pieces fit, I’d still call it an AM9 and not an AM10 Despite the quintessential Beatles hits, the EP section is weak at times.)  Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark only more recently made the list.  The production values and musicianship are unmatched, but that awful original mastering, hisses and muffled playback, the vocal track too "hot," weren’t corrected until the Rhino remastering in 2007.  AM9s are the albums I tend to love more, they're more fun.  I feel as if I can’t listen to DSOTM if I can’t devote 42:59.  But Exile (AM9, reviewed below), I can put on and do the dishes.  It makes menial tasks less menial.  I love the nines.  Here's a smattering:

After the Gold Rush – Neil Young: Neil Young's After the Gold Rush is pure rock 'n' roll mythology.  He laces social commentary ("Southern Man," "After the Gold Rush") with beautiful songs of anguish ("Only Love can Break Your Heart," "Oh, Lonesome Me"). Neil has few boundaries as an artistic voice. His backing band (Crazy Horse) lends a graceful accompaniment, but it's Young's show.  "Southern Man" is one of the most important rock songs of all time, with its  patented Young, minimalist guitar solo and lyrics that cut straight to the heart of America's "silent majority" racist attitude. Alternately, with "Birds," Young still seeks hope through love. His singing and playing is emotive and instinctive. The lush landscape resonates far after you stop listening to this pithy 30 minute gem.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal – Lou Reed: Doesn't matter that Reed talked down the album in his reticence, "Intro/Sweet Jane" is still the most riveting live performance ever recorded. It’s worth the price of admission alone; a teasing interplay between solo guitars, each taking the lead, then crashing in a fit of counterpoint.  Drums and bass enter the crescendo and build until the guitars growl with an urgency, a fury rarely captured on tape.  The musicianship is so incredibly tight and controlled yet electrifyingly alive that when they finally kick into "Sweet Jane," you can sense Lou Reed coming on stage, stepping up to the mic, spiked dog collar around his neck. When he delivers his signature clipped, askew style, "Standing on a corner," you are a "Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal."  

Fiona Apple – Tidal: From the impossibly emotional "Sullen Girl," the story of Apple’s childhood rape, to the blusey pop classic "Criminal," Fiona Apple's debut is a gift in a world of superficialities, and a standout from the 90s.  In "Sullen Girl" Fiona sings, "They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea, but he washed me ashore and he took my pearl – and left an empty shell of me."  "Criminal" exists leaps and bounds beyond any pop R&B formula. With its orchestral arrangement, emotive piano, and low-registered bluesy vocal attack, the song evokes the concept of alienating love out of a victimized insecurity forged by her past treatment by men.  Apple’s plea for self-cleansing and true love is no gimmick; it is as powerfully sincere as possible.  And it's one of the AM10 singles of a sparse decade.  Not a happy record, but a beautiful one.

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