Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

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Album Assignments: Bare Trees

For its most recent tours, Fleetwood Mac replaced Lindsey Buckingham with a new singer (Neil Finn) and a new guitarist (Mike Campbell.) Now, I’ve seen Fleetwood Mac lots of times, in lots of configurations, and I’ve also seen Lindsey on his own, and with Christine McVie. If you lean in close, I’ll whisper something to you, something heretical among a lot of Fleetwood Mac fans: I’ve kind of had it with Lindsey.

Sure, I appreciate him as a guitarist, as a songwriter, and as a producer, especially on Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage. But I’ve also listened to his endless pontifications and solos from many a stage, and I’ve read numerous sources that detail his abusive, controlling behavior. In fact, the band’s excuses for dismissing him were so threadbare that I really wonder if his firing was actually connected to the #metoo movement, which happened to peak right around the time they made the announcement. In any case, for me it was really listening to and writing about Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie that crystallized my perception that he’s been standing on Fleetwood Mac’s neck for the last 20-odd years.

Well, seeing Fleetwood Mac without Lindsey Buckingham on these last tours was quite a revelation. Here’s what I wrote about it the night after the first Lindsey-less show I saw:

Have you ever gotten out of a toxic relationship and found pieces of yourself coming back to life, pieces you’d shut down, maybe without even fully realizing it? Like opening the windows of long-sealed rooms and letting the outside air in at last? That’s what it felt like to see Fleetwood Mac in concert without Lindsey Buckingham.

Apparently, without Lindsey in the mix, Fleetwood Mac can acknowledge that it existed before he arrived! Can Stevie sing “Black Magic Woman”? Sure, why not? Can Mike Campbell play and sing “Oh Well”? You bet! Can Fleetwood Mac play a Danny Kirwan song in 2018? HELL YES.

Album cover art for Bare Trees

And that brings us at last to Bare Trees. Fleetwood Mac released this album in 1972, back when they were just a working band rather than an international sensation and cultural juggernaut. The lineup, besides Mick and John, was Christine McVie, Danny Kirwan, and Bob Welch.

In a previous post, I called Welch “criminally underappreciated”, and I stand by that statement. Welch was a great musician and songwriter, and was responsible for some of the best Fleetwood Mac songs between the Green and Buck/Nicks eras. But for whatever reason, he gets consistently ignored in retrospectives of the band’s history, and was unconscionably snubbed when Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Sadly, he died by suicide in 2012.

The thing is, it’s hard to appreciate Welch within the confines of a single Fleetwood Mac album. His best stuff was spread across the albums from his tenure — “Lay It All Down” and “Future Games” from Future Games, “Did You Ever Love Me” (with Christine) from Penguin, “Emerald Eyes” and the wonderful “Hypnotized” from Mystery To Me, “Silver Heels” and “Bermuda Triangle” off Heroes Are Hard To Find. But Bare Trees has one of his all-time classics, “Sentimental Lady”, a song he re-recorded and had a Top Ten hit with on his 1977 solo album French Kiss.

I confess to preferring the solo version, partly from childhood familiarity and partly because I love Christine singing “all I need is you” at the end of the chorus. But the Bare Trees version is charming too, with Christine singing an intriguing countermelody across the chorus. Lyrically, too, the Bare Trees version is superior, as it retains a full verse that got cut from the solo version — “we live in a time when paintings have no color, words don’t rhyme.”

Welch was pretty sentimental himself, given to emotional mysticism and spooky imagery, as in his other tune on Bare Trees, “The Ghost.” Where the wind in “Sentimental Lady” is gentle, it’s a “strange wind” that haunts this song. Where “Sentimental Lady” is about holding on to love in the face of threatening odds, “The Ghost” is about the threat of, well, nuclear holocaust. “And then the winds start to blow / And the fire comes scorching down / And then the sky disappears / In the cloud with an awful sound / And when you can’t hold out / Then you run to the underground.”

Compared to this, Christine McVie’s troubles seem pretty small, but they’d loom large in the future of the band. Even in 1972, she told us in “Homeward Bound” that she’d rather be at home in her rocking chair than traveling the world. It wasn’t until 1998 that she made good on that conviction, quitting Fleetwood Mac for about 15 years. “Spare Me A Little Of Your Love” is her highlight on this album, a sweet love song leavened with just enough of McVie’s trademark ambivalence.

In the end, though, this is Danny Kirwan’s album. He has more songs on it than Welch and McVie put together, including the title track. Kirwan’s another one whose best stuff is pretty well distributed across albums (really, they all are), including the tune performed by the band on its recent tours (“Tell Me All The Things You Do”, from Kiln House) and the excellent “Trinity”, which somehow never made its way into the light until the band’s 1992 box set. Bare Trees was his swan song with the band, though — he was destined for one of Fleetwood Mac’s many strange and sad endings, fired from the band for his excessive alcoholism and a violent backstage incident, and homeless for much of the 1980s and 90s.

His intensity and lyricism are in full flower on this album, as is his deft way with a melody. In fact, two of his five tunes are instrumentals, with “Sunny Side Of Heaven” being a particular knockout. Woven between them is the story of a full life. The album opens with “Child Of Mine”, a poignant declaration of love for his infant son. Eight songs later, Kirwan closes with “Dust”, an ode to death with lyrics from the first two stanzas of Rupert Brooke’s 1910 poem.

Kirwan’s stuff here is serious, but I’d never call it bleak. His melodies are too joyous, his playing too passionate, for such a label. Really, that applies to the whole album. Where John McVie’s cover photo depicts a world stripped of life, looking almost like a misty Dante-esque purgatory, Fleetwood Mac’s cascading synchrony of songwriting, vocals, guitars, and rhythm section feels more like the sunny side of heaven.

Album Assignments: Scarecrow

Lou Reed may have grabbed first dibs on the title Growing Up In Public, but John Mellencamp perfected the art of it. Once upon a time, John J Mellencamp of Seymour, Indiana had a rock and roll dream. In chasing it, he found himself rebranded as “Johnny Cougar.” After a few failed albums and a label change, he broke through with a song, “I Need A Lover”, and an eponymous album, where at least he managed to upgrade from “Johnny” to “John”.

There were a few more John Cougar albums, a few more hits, and a bigger breakthrough with “Hurts So Good”, “Jack and Diane”, and MTV. With some star power on his side, Mellencamp managed to reclaim his last name, appending it to his stage name to forge the awkward Frankenym “John Cougar Mellencamp”. 1983’s Uh-Huh was his first album under this name, and also the first album where he started to stake out the artistic identity that would provide the foundation for the rest of his career.

Album cover for Scarecrow

Now, I love those early John Cougar albums, especially the first two. (Never sought out the “Johnny” stuff, though.) And I dig American Fool and Uh-Huh, particularly the singles. But to me, Scarecrow is Mellencamp’s artistic peak. He did plenty of great work beforehand, and plenty of great work afterward, but Scarecrow captures a magic that stands above the rest, because it’s the album where he first fully owned all the aspects of himself that lend power to his art. It’s the album where the seeds planted on Uh-Huh fully ripen, and I like to think John would appreciate the agricultural metaphor. This album springs from fertile ground, both artistically and literally. Mellencamp’s childhood friend and frequent songwriting partner George M. Green described it this way:

The highway between John’s house and the studio where these songs were recorded cuts through a stretch of Indiana where the land is fertile and full of growth. It is from this land and its people that these songs are born, and though it is not necessary to know this to enjoy and appreciate them, it does lend a certain understanding for those who care to think about such things.

Which brings us to the first aspect of John Cougar Mellencamp that shines on this album: RURAL. Mellencamp had written plenty of songs set in rural America — witness the Tastee Freez in “Jack and Diane” — but “Pink Houses” from Uh-Huh was the first of his rural anthems. Scarecrow unleashes two more stunners in this genre, with “Rain On The Scarecrow” and “Smalltown”. In the former, he reminisces about his grandfather (to whom the album is dedicated), and rails at the way 1980s society has failed the family farm.

In the latter, he honors his rural identity, exulting in the small town where he can be himself, albeit in a way that’s clear-eyed about its shortcomings — such as how he was “taught to fear Jesus.” In between, he records his grandmother crooning the first two verses of an old folk tune, “In The Baggage Coach Ahead.” This is Mellencamp fully embracing his roots, the pieces of him underneath “John Cougar”, and while “Smalltown” is celebratory, “Rain” is angry, in a way we haven’t seen before from Johnny Cougar.

That blistering anger opens the album, announcing that this wouldn’t be just a typical roots-pop exercise. It also sheds light on another of Mellencamp’s traits: REBELLIOUS. Once again, Uh-Huh laid the groundwork with “Authority Song”, and to a lesser extent “Crumblin’ Down”. On Scarecrow he stopped singing about being a rebel and started singing in a more rebellious way, starting with “Rain On The Scarecrow.” The political tone from that song continued through “Justice And Independence ’85” and “The Face Of The Nation.”

Both of those tunes are allegorical and a bit clunky lyrically, but they are venturing a critique of contemporary America, which was new territory for Mellencamp. The guy who wasn’t even recording under his own name in the beginning of his career had found his way towards claiming a voice of protest. “You’ve Got To Stand For Somethin'” wasn’t really about this very much (ironically), but its title certainly sums up what Mellencamp seems to have concluded about his art.

Though he hadn’t fully matured this political voice, he more than made up for any deficiencies by being such a ROCKER. Where on Uh-Huh he sang about how he loved to “Play Guitar”, and made sure we knew that rock and roll was “Serious Business” for him, on Scarecrow he expanded out to the whole musical world with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock)”. This song joyfully conjures the rock and soul dreams of a generation of musicians, in a deliberately inclusive way, name-checking black and white, male and female, solo and group, pop, rock, and soul. As fun as that salute is, Mellencamp still shows more than he tells when it comes to rocking, roaring through this album’s set with a crack group of musicians.

In particular, I have to bow to the prowess of drummer Kenny Aronoff, who is responsible for some of the most stirring moments on the album. The pounding, martial drumbeats of “Rain On The Scarecrow”, which get louder and louder until they crest with six powerful hits, provide a spine-tingling opener to the record, and Aronoff remains excellent throughout. He and rhythm guitarist Larry Crane rescue “Justice And Independence ’85” from what could be a bit of a wincer into an electrifying rock and roll song. And it’s Aronoff who propels the other big hit from Scarecrow, “Lonely Ol’ Night.”

That song finds Mellencamp in another space he’d touched on Uh-Huh, that of the ROMANTIC. Where “Golden Gates” on that album spoke of “promises made from the heart”, in “Lonely Ol’ Night” he paints the picture of a whole relationship, one of necessity and maybe a little love. But his romantic nature mostly isn’t about relationships, but rather the kind of artistic and literary Romanticism I talked about in the Making Movies post.

It’s a romantic figure who occupies “Rumbleseat”, somebody who moves from being a “pitiful sight” to being a dreamer “singin’ shotgun”, who’ll blow you a kiss as he goes by. The insistence that “You’ve Got To Stand For Somethin'” is pure Romanticism, as are the heroes described in “R.O.C.K.” — “pipe dreams in their heads and very little money in their hands.” In fact, I’d say he’s on surer ground here than when talking about relationships — the other relationship song is the closer and the one stinker on this album: “The Kind Of Fella I Am”, which seems to take pleasure in being toxic and controlling. It’s a bit reminiscent of how “Run For Your Life” leaves a foul taste at the end of Rubber Soul.

But as great as all these aspects are, by far my favorite side of John Cougar Mellencamp is when he turns RUMINATIVE, as he does in Scarecrow‘s two best tracks: “Minutes To Memories” and “Between A Laugh And A Tear.” The latter is a rueful meditation on life, with some great images — “smile in the mirror as you walk by” — and one of the best lines in Mellencamp’s entire oeuvre: “I know there’s a balance / I see it when I swing past.” Rickie Lee Jones provides wonderful harmony vocals, and the whole thing provides a lovely, uplifting message. Living between laughter and tears may be as good as it gets for us, but “there ain’t no reason to stop tryin’.”

“Minutes To Memories” pulls all the strands together. It’s the story of a Greyhound bus ride from Jamestown, Kentucky to Seymour, Indiana, sitting beside an old man telling the story of his life. It is rural as can be — “through the hills of Kentucky / Across the Ohio river”, with downhome aphorisms like “an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind.” Mellencamp’s narrator is a rebellious, romantic figure, whose credo is, “I do things my way, and I pay a high price.” The old man himself is romantic too, in his way — a fierce individualist who says, “I earned every dollar that passed through my hands,” and who will carry his family and friends home “through the eye of a needle.”

The lyrics ruminate on nothing less than the meaning of life, but ultimately what makes this song work is the rock. It starts out midtempo, a contemplative riff with support from Aronoff and bassist Toby Myers, and then it builds to the vivid, inspiring chorus, infused with rock and roll power:

Days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned
You are young, and you are the future
So suck it up, tough it out, and be the best you can

Yeah, on paper I guess it sounds like platitudes, but between Mellencamp’s fantastically committed vocal and the incredible power of the band, it becomes, I think, the high water mark of John Cougar Mellencamp’s career. I get chills every time I hear it, and I’m filled with gratitude that Mellencamp managed to find his way to such a mature expression, and managed to fill it with the crazy rock potency of his youth.

Album Assignments: Pretenders II

I love Pretenders II. I mean, I love this album like loving a person. I’ve known it for over 30 years now. Whenever we get to spend time together, no matter how much, the time always feels too short. It was my companion through some of the most intense parts of my life, and every time I’ve revisited it over the years has been a pure pleasure. I listened to it so much during the writing of Earth And Sky 3 that I gave it a shout-out in a SPAG editorial. It was only a matter of time until I assigned it in this series, so that I could write a tribute to this album that’s meant so much to me.

What is it that’s so special about Pretenders II? That’s the question I was trying to answer as I listened this time, and this record, in its richness, offered up quite a few explanations. The first of these that comes to mind is Chrissie Hynde’s voice. This extraordinary instrument glides effortlessly through a dizzying variety of moods. She snarls on “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, and croons on “I Go To Sleep”. She’s frenetic in “Louie Louie”, nostalgic in “Birds Of Paradise”, and furious in “Pack It Up”. “Talk Of The Town” aches with unrequited desire, while “The Adultress” manages to exude contempt and compassion in equal measures.

Huge ranges of emotion are available even within a single song. In “Jealous Dogs”, for example, she moves from indignant (“Who do they think we are? / What do they think we do?”) to sardonic (“Mind your leg”) to downright goofy (“You’re not allowed on the couch! / Get down off the couch!”) and many points in between. No wonder I could connect with this album no matter what I happened to be feeling in my own life.

Album cover for Pretenders II

There’s a lot more here than just an amazing voice, though. Hynde and James Honeyman-Scott pack this record with fantastic riffs. “Message Of Love” is Exhibit A — a bouncing, slashing guitar hook that pulls us into the first verse and then amps up our excitement for the next one. “Day After Day” opens with a fusillade of eighth notes, underpinning the song’s warplane imagery. The guitar in “Pack It Up” is all punk-rock energy, propelling Hynde’s inner John McEnroe while she skewers inadequate men as “the pits of the world.” Meanwhile, “The Adultress” sports an absolutely filthy riff, and Honeyman-Scott adorns it with desperate solos befitting the song’s subject. That riff is so filled with disgust that Hynde later repurposed it for her Ohio gentrification kiss-off, “My City Was Gone.”

This would be Honeyman-Scott’s last album with The Pretenders, as both he and bassist Pete Farndon would die of drug overdoses after recording it. Farndon’s contribution shouldn’t be underestimated either. Menacing bass crawls at the feet of “Jealous Dogs”, slinking around and constantly threatening attack. It provides the melodic foundation for “Talk Of The Town”, an unsung hero complementing Hynde’s voice and providing emotional heft behind the drums. The pseudo-reggae of “Waste Not Want Not” lives entirely on Farndon’s striding bass figures.

So yeah, there’s great music here, and marvelous vocals, but it’s the songs themselves that make Pretenders II into such a close friend of mine. It’s far from a concept album, but there is a thread running through many of the songs, and that thread is the experiences of women. We jump into it right away with “The Adultress” — the character in this song is filled with shame, but nevertheless compelled by wretched loneliness to meet her married man, over and over again, her assignations carrying the mystery and power of ritual.

A very different woman rules “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, a dominatrix who brooks no bullshit. “You don’t listen, do you, asshole?” she asks, pure Dirty Harry ferocity. “Pack It Up” gives us a similar character, though she’s kicked those bad boys to the curb, fed up with their crap, their trousers, their insipid record collections, and their banal pornography. The narrator of “Jealous Dogs”, on the other hand, reserves her disdain for the other women who are sniffing around her lover, “always wanting more.”

The most complex and satisfying of these characters arrives in “The English Roses.” In it, Hynde keeps the distance of a storyteller, tying together themes that arose earlier in the album. The woman who paces around her room, looking to the sky for an answer, may well be the future version of the lovestruck and lonely character in “Talk Of The Town.” As she presses a rose into her hymnal, the ossification of her hopes and dreams, she’s a mirror image of the spinster in “The Adultress”, albeit one whose loneliness has not driven her to desperate extremes. This story, “of fruit cut from the vine / forgot and left to rot / long before its time”, is of a woman who heard the message of love, but spent day after day unable to find anyone but the pits of the world. She was looking for someone to hold, but ended up with a wish made on a star, and a thousand broken dates. Melancholy bass and guitar seal her fate, as Hynde sings her away.

Before I close, I want to talk about the song that moves me most on this album: “Birds Of Paradise.” For me, it’s the culmination of the band’s artistry on Pretenders II. Hynde evokes heart-piercing images of innocent love and girlish dreams, reaching a crescendo in these lyrics:

Once upon a time, my mind still there wanders
Back in your room, the things I remember
One time when we took off our clothes
But you were crying
You said, “Nothing lasts forever”
We were happy together

Have you ever been in a relationship that was doomed by forces beyond your control? If not, let me tell you: this is exactly how it feels to look back on that time. Hynde’s vocal performance is masterful, bringing together regret, nostalgia, resignation, and eternal fondness. I’m sure I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, especially since I listened to it on endless repeat at certain times of my life. And yet even now, decades later, it still moves me deeply. That’s the beauty of old friends — they knew you way back when, and can bring back your memories of long-lost selves, reconnecting you with the long line of your soul’s history. Thanks Chrissie.

Album Assignments: Pearl

Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970, at age 27. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. When she died, she was in the midst of recording Pearl. She hadn’t finished the sessions, but her survivors determined that there was enough material completed to release the album.

This is an absolutely magnificent album, but it cannot escape the long shadow of Joplin’s awful death. Though ironic and tragic echoes are everywhere, there’s one song that just screams loss, and that song is “Buried Alive In The Blues.” Joplin had been scheduled to lay down her vocals for this song on October 4, but she never arrived — her band’s road manager found her dead in her hotel room that morning. The track appears on Pearl as an instrumental only.

Listening to Pearl this time, I didn’t know the song’s history. It just seemed deeply weird that an album credited to Janis Joplin would feature an instrumental, given that her star attraction was her singing voice and style. Once I did the research to learn the story behind the song, I couldn’t hear it without a deep sadness about what might have been. The presence of a fantastic instrumental track, without Joplin’s vocals to complete it, strikes me as mournfully emblematic of a life cut short far too soon. Not to mention, its eerily apropos title seemed to describe her situation exactly, so much so that her publicist Myra Friedman appropriated it for the biography she wrote a few years later.

Album cover for Pearl

It’s not just “Buried Alive,” though. The context of Joplin’s death seeps into almost every song, recasting their meanings in melancholy tones. “Half Moon” joyfully extols a love that makes Joplin sing, “You fill me like the mountains / Fill me like the sea.” But this wasn’t her reality. She struggled with a constant sense of emptiness, which she tried to fill with men, with Southern Comfort, with heroin. “Your love brings life to me” is a heartrending line in light of her impending death.

The grief spreads outward like ripples in a pond, broadening in scope though lessening in obviousness as it goes. “My Baby” has much the same message as “Half Moon”, albeit expressed with less painfully apparent contrasts against Joplin’s reality. “Cry Baby” says “I’ll always be around if you ever want me.” “Mercedes Benz” jabs at the notion of finding happiness in material possessions or alcoholic revelry, but doesn’t identify where that happiness can really be found. “Trust Me” asks for more time, “A Woman Left Lonely” talks about how “the fevers of the night” can burn an unloved woman, and “Get It While You Can” forms its philosophy around the fact that “we may not be here tomorrow.”

Even “Move Over”, though it lacks any of the lyrical knifepoints that specifically cut to the catastrophe of Joplin’s overdose, still gets its meaning darkly clouded by historical circumstance. The song is forward-looking, demanding that an ex-lover stop hanging around, to make room for new paramours. As it turned out, it was Joplin herself who would no longer be hanging around.

Yet “Move Over”, like so many of the songs on Pearl, is absolutely bursting with life. Joplin’s band at the time was called Full Tilt Boogie, and they lived up to their name gloriously — a tight, swinging rhythm section surrounded by triple dervishes of piano, organ, and guitar. The organ in particular gives the music a gospel feel — when it comes in on “Move Over”, the song elevates to a new level, like hands thrown upwards to the heavens.

Then there are Joplin’s vocals. A critic in 1968 wrote that if she were presented in the proper context, “there would be no adjectives to describe her.” This is 100% accurate, and Pearl is that proper context. So I’m not going to ladle adjectives onto her prowess as a singer. Suffice it to say that her voice on this album embodies pure life force. More than any other aspect of the album, more than its lyrics, more than its music, it is this voice that hurts the most in light of the album’s history. Pearl captures Joplin at the highest artistic peak she would ever reach. What a sickening loss for all of us that she’d never get the chance to go higher.

Album Assignments: Just Tell Me That You Want Me

When the Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me came out almost seven (!) years ago, I saw it as vindicating and validating the value of Stevie Nicks. Of the seventeen songs on this CD, fully ten are Nicks songs, settling any question of whether Stevie was respected by the next generation of bands. (The distribution of the rest is: three Peter Green, two Lindsey Buckingham, one Christine McVie, one Bob Welch.)

Several of those Nicks covers had a beneficial effect on me back then, and listening to the album now, I still find most of them pretty beguiling. Bethany Cosentino’s voice on “Rhiannon” made me dive into the music of Best Coast, who became one of my favorite bands of the last ten years. A friend had already turned me on to Antony and the Johnsons, so Antony’s tender voice on “Landslide” wasn’t a surprise, but it was a delight. Then there’s Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Angel”. Nobody does “burned out and weary” like Faithfull, but that’s not a tone that Nicks ever brought to this song. Faithfull’s cover, slowed down and wistful, replaces the transcendent rock of the Tusk track with a very effective dark nostalgia.

Speaking of darkness, The Kills turn “Dreams” from gauzy recrimination to a sinister and distorted goth threat. By the climax of the song, Alison Mosshart’s voice shreds through any sentimentality the words might imply. Craig Wedren and St. Vincent take “Sisters Of The Moon” in a similar direction, albeit more synthy and less crunchy — less Siouxsie and the Banshees, more Joy Division. The spooky tone fits in more easily with this song, and it’s a brilliant move to put St. Vincent’s vocals on the introspective chorus.

Album cover for Just Tell Me That You Want Me

Some Nicks covers aren’t quite as effective. Beck’s production and musicianship can’t save Karen Elson’s “Gold Dust Woman” from being a pretty pedestrian exercise. Washed Out renders “Straight Back” in a way that really lives up to their name — thick waves of synth-pop and mumbly vocals diluting the power of Nicks’ words, which is a shame because I really love the Mirage original. Gardens & Villa do a little better with another Mirage classic, “Gypsy”, but again it’s a pretty sedate reading, lacking the passion and power that Stevie brings.

My favorite Stevie cover this listen, by far, is Lykke Li’s magnificent, echoing “Silver Springs.” Li sounds like she’s in the middle of a cathedral, and that it still can’t contain her emotions. I love the choices she makes to alter the melody, and the eerie harmonies behind her. As the song builds, it’s just a relentless drumbeat, harsh drone, and Li’s powerful vocals. Goosebumps all the way through.

For all that, though, what really captivated my attention this time around were the non-Stevie covers. Now, they aren’t all home runs — Tame Impala is kind of meh on “That’s All For Everyone”, and an instrumental like “Albatross” is never going to be a standout song for me no matter who’s doing it. Also, credit to MGMT for a) honoring the criminally underappreciated Bob Welch by covering “Future Games” and b) bringing a wildly creative approach to it with a really futuristic sound, robotic vocals and mechanical everything else, but nine minutes is a really long time for such an exercise to last.

On the other hand, The New Pornographers turn Christine McVie’s “Think About Me” into a fantastic burst of joy. The band puts its wonderful vocal blend to grand use here, shuffling between A.C. Newman’s solo vocals and various other harmonic combinations, almost from one line to the next. Crazy synthesizer laser-bursts make a charming substitute for a guitar solo, and sweet ooh-ooh-ohhs carry the song to its conclusion.

Fleetwood Mac’s founder Peter Green hasn’t been forgotten in this tribute. Besides the aforementioned “Albatross”, Trixie Whitley turns in a marvelously soulful “Before The Beginning”, hitting the peaks with hot, bluesy passion. Even better than that, probably my favorite track right now from this album, is Billy Gibbons and Co.’s “Oh Well.”

Now, “Oh Well” is my favorite Peter Green song, and has already been fabulously covered by a variety of artists, including Joe Jackson, Tom Petty, and the Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac. Billy Gibbons seems like a bit of an odd choice to cover it, given that he’s swampy and the song is spiky, and I didn’t have high hopes when I heard sluggish pace of the first few notes. But damned if Gibbons and Co. don’t pull it off anyway. He takes away the frenetic pace of the original and replaces it with multi-layered guitars oozing funk. What’s neurotic in the original turns hypnotic in this version, and I can’t help moving to it, every time it plays.

In a year when Fleetwood Mac has affirmed the value of Stevie Nicks (by touring under its own name with Nicks included and Buckingham out, shortly after the other four Rumours-era members had recorded a different album and didn’t put the FM name on it) and embraced its past by playing Green and Kirwan songs on tour, this collection feels timely once again. It’s gratifying to see that the music of one of my favorite bands means a lot to many other musicians too, and to have some covers that reinvigorate the originals is pretty great as well.

Album Assignments: Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe has spent most of her career distancing herself from her humanity. Dirty Computer lets us into her journey from accepting that humanity tentatively, to embracing it gloriously. Monáe made her major-label debut with an EP called Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), and it sounds like an excerpt from a high-concept Broadway musical, in which Monáe plays an android named Cindi Mayweather who is on the run from bounty hunters after having fallen in love with a human. She followed this with two more Mayweather albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, which combined an increasingly R+B sound with the deeply prog-rock concept. Throughout the whole thing, Monáe was Cindi, and the inhuman persona extended even into her public presence, where she was famously known to deflect questions about her love life with, “I only date androids.”

All these albums were presented as parts of a larger whole. Metropolis was called “Suite I” right in its title, while ArchAndroid was labeled “Janelle Monáe Suites II and III” (and structured with overtures to each suite included in the track list.) Not only that, the concept seemed to grow as it went on. Metropolis had a series of four dots on its cover with one filled in, and ArchAndroid had three of those four dots filled in, suggesting that the whole story would consist of four suites. But when Electric Lady came out, suddenly there were seven dots with five filled in, alongside the legend “Janelle Monáe Suites IV and V”, and Cindi’s story continuing throughout the tracks, with apparently two more chapters to go.

Five years passed between Electric Lady and Dirty Computer. In that time, the Metropolis project seems to have been sidelined, because this album has no dots, no suites, and no Cindi. Instead, it stars Janelle Monáe, for the first time, as herself.

Album cover for Dirty Computer

That’s not to say her sci-fi fascinations have gone away, and the opening title track continues the high-tech metaphors that have pervaded her career. She calls herself a dirty computer, saying that she’s crashing slowly, full of bugs, and needs someone to fix her drive. “Take A Byte” says “Your code is programmed not to love me”, and “Django Jane” references ArchAndroid. But as the album progresses, the technological trappings fall away, replaced with more and more organic imagery.

This trend climaxes in “PYNK”, a celebratory song whose touchstones are pure biology: tongue, brain, lips, skin, thighs, eyelids, and heart, all around an implied vagina, and the blood that flows through the whole system. Then it all comes together in “I Got The Juice”. The central metaphor looks at first blush like an extension of “PYNK” — Monáe’s juice is the liquid that flows through her body, and in particular between her thighs. “Now go on girl and use that sauce”, she urges, a sauce that isn’t just sexual but is pure power and passion, squeezed from the passionfruit.

But she also says “you’re so damn electro-cute” and “Baby I’m the plug”. She reprises the “dirty computer” image in the outro. Now liquids and computers really don’t mix well, but “juice” has another meaning, as another kind of power: electricity. Thus “I Got The Juice” lets Monáe slip her techno-costume back on when she wants to, without sacrificing a single cell of the organic body she finally claims for herself on this album.

Monáe’s body is the most fundamental part of her, but humanity isn’t the only identity she fully declares on Dirty Computer. Womanhood is her next step up the ladder, as “PYNK” and “I Got The Juice” both show, but right beyond that is race. We get the first part of this in the rap that ends “Crazy, Classic, Life”, in which she talks about how she may be friends with white people but their divisions are inescapable: “The same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of shit / You living life while I’m walkin’ ’round mopping shit.” That rap ends with this quatrain:

I was kicked out, said I’m too loud
Kicked out, said I’m too proud
But all I ever really felt was stressed out
Kinda like my afro when it’s pressed out

Monáe always said that androids in her work stood for “the other”, but here she steps into the otherness she’s always felt as a black woman, and inhabits it with a vulnerability expressed within a perfect metaphor that comes back again to her body.

This persona comes back at the end of “Screwed”, and reaches its full flower in “Django Jane”, her fantastically fierce declaration of independence as a powerful black woman. Here, Monáe doesn’t have to make up a character’s history — she possesses her own: “Mama was a G, she was cleanin’ hotels / Papa was a driver, I was workin’ retail.” These details correspond to Monáe’s real biography, as do the references to her role in the Oscar-winning Moonlight.

“Black girl magic” is what she calls her art, in an extraordinary vocal moment of joyous defiance, and she’s almost exactly right. There’s just one dimension more, as Monáe revealed in an excellent Rolling Stone article: queerness. Or, as she puts it, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” There are hints of this through the album, from the pervasive celebration of pussy power to her claim that she’s got “juice for all my wives.”

Here is Monáe’s bravest step, her ownership of being not just “highly melanated” but queer and free. “I Like That” is her affirmation of everything that comes before, her celebration of being “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” Janelle Monáe doesn’t have to be an android anymore. After more than a decade as Cindi Mayweather, she’s discovered at last that the far more compelling story is her own.

Album Assignments: Automatic For The People

Looking through the liner notes of Automatic For The People, there’s one credit that jumps out at me: “Orchestral arrangements by John Paul Jones”. The John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin? Yep, that’s the one. Turns out that Jones was an expert arranger way before Zep came along — for example, the very creative string arrangement on the Stones’ 1967 song “She’s A Rainbow” is Jones’ work.

He certainly did a wonderful job for R.E.M., because this time listening to Automatic, I found myself really moved by the album’s use of strings. The first time we hear them is midway through the build of “Drive” — they swell underneath the first drumbeats, and when that jagged guitar comes in, there’s the whole ensemble, decorating the song’s eerie structure with perfect counterpoint. The solo acoustic guitar in the first half of the song creates an intimate mood, but once the cellos and violins come in, intimacy turns to grandeur, elevating Michael Stipe’s echoing voice and cryptic words.

Those same players make “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” a richer and more fun experience, but they don’t become essential until Jones’ other two songs: “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming.” In the former, Stipe drops his usual penchant for lyrical mystery to sing a straightforward pep talk in an aching, plaintive tone. His voice and the lovely melody make the message a plenty strong one, but like in “Drive”, R.E.M. holds the strings until a couple of minutes into the track. When they arrive, they’re the foundation for the song to expand outward into a warm wave of reassurance. And then we return to the first instrumental configuration: picking pattern on electric guitar, wash of organ chords, soft percussion. Soon the strings return, just a subtle support, and at last they are the wings that take us into a brighter sky, with Stipe behind us all the way, urging us to hold on.

Album cover from Automatic For The People

And then there’s “Nightswimming”. Where “Everybody Hurts” gives me chills with the power of its distilled love and encouragement, “Nightswimming” I find utterly piercing and poignant in its ability to capture both childhood memories and how it feels to recall them. Unlike the other songs with a Jones arrangement, “Nightswimming” opens with strings, just for a few seconds, pulling back the curtain on an exquisite duet of piano and vocal. Stipe’s lyrics paint vivid scenes: the photograph on the dashboard, the shirtless boy, the water’s edge. And after “the moon is low tonight,” the strings return, dancing an elegant gavotte around the duet. “These things they go away,” he sings, “replaced by everyday,” and man oh man is that true, in that our adult experiences rarely attain the intense highs and lows of adolescence. But at the same time, this song reminds me that those feelings still exist inside us, ready to be called up by a photograph, a scent in the air, or a haunting oboe melody backed by just the right mix of piano and strings.

As great as Jones’ work is on the album, I think my very favorite use of strings comes in a song he didn’t touch: “Sweetness Follows.” On that song, Knox Chandler’s cello just plays a very simple pattern, over and over again, turning into a drone worthy of the Velvet Underground. It lifts up a little at the chorus, and more and more each time, but otherwise it is just a relentless, deep, thrumming floor under the song. Atonal, feedback-drenched guitars contribute to that VU feeling too, but where Lou Reed or Nico would render the lyrics in a distanced monotone, Michael Stipe cannot help but evoke emotion. He’s singing about death, and the strange bereavement of someone mostly estranged from who they’ve lost. Under that complicated sorrow, I found the cello’s depth and simplicity acutely resonant.

Resonance is, I think, another theme of this album, right alongside death. The album is full of tributes at various levels, combining to show how we are affected by each other’s works and lives. “Sidewinder” is of course a musical nod to The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and Stipe riffs in falsetto on the song’s famous opening notes. “Drive” can’t help but echo David Essex’s “Rock On” — “Hey kids, rock and roll.” A little more buried under the surface is the fact that the lush layers of backing vocals in “Star Me Kitten” were a loving imitation of the same technique in 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”.

Automatic For The People has plenty of real-world resonances too — a couple of the songs are straight-up celebrity homages. “Monty Got A Raw Deal” thematically recalls “The Right Profile” from London Calling, musing on the vintage tragedy of Montgomery Clift. And of course there’s “Man On The Moon”, a fantastic and mysterious tribute to Andy Kaufman. I was, I think, a little too young to get in on the Kaufman joke while it was happening, and have never really picked it up since, but people who get Andy seem to think this song gets him too. I’m particularly reminded of a David Letterman interview from 1993 in which he extols Kaufman’s qualities and mentions how “Man On The Moon” made him miss Andy all the more.

As for me, I found the most resonance in “Ignoreland.” Automatic For The People comes from about the same era as The End Of The Innocence, and it shares the same sense of exasperation with 12 years of Reagan and Bush. Where Henley takes every target one by one, Stipe sprays vitriol at “these bastards” all at once:

Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready
Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever
Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense defense defense defense

And later:

Calculate the capital
Up the republic my skinny ass, TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report anything that isn’t handed
On a presidential spoon, I’m just so profoundly frustrated
By all this, so fuck you, man

Mind you, where Henley makes sure to enunciate every syllable, the above is all delivered in a Stipey mumble and covered over by vocal processing and aggressive instruments, but it sure does strike a chord today. 1992 was twenty-seven years ago now, but this song hasn’t aged a minute. I think I need “Everybody Hurts” to tell me to hold on again.

Album Assignments: The End Of The Innocence

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in the golden age of solo Don Henley, and this 1989 album is certainly a part of that arc. After eight years of Reagan and the subsequent election of Bush the Elder, Henley was fed up. Never exactly a mellow customer to begin with, he’d seen years of greed, sanctimony, predation, warmongering, and inequality, and he was pissed. (Though being pissed about Reagan and Bush-1 seems kind of quaint nowadays, but how could he have known what was coming?)

Song after song on this album picks off Henley’s targets. “Gimme What You Got” — boom, materialism, avarice, and consumer culture. “Little Tin God” — boom, sham religion and demagoguery. “Shangri-La” — boom, envy and complacency. But the one that cuts the deepest is also the one that plays the gentlest: the title track. Over a gorgeous piano riff by Bruce Hornsby, Henley’s world-weary voice elegantly braids together the failures of a relationship with the failures of a social fabric.

Lawyers keep popping up in this song, and the genius of Henley’s lyric is that you can’t tell whether they’re divorce lawyers for a shattered couple or defense lawyers for a disgraced politician. The song combines the macro and micro levels of our eroding societal bonds, and shows us how we’ve been poisoned by fairy tales at each level, tales of true love and true patriotism, all too often a masquerade for acquisitiveness and venality. But Henley’s tone is wistful, not angry — he still believes in that place “still untouched by men”, at least for the duration of this song, even knowing that it’s only a temporary sanctuary from the truth behind our destroyed illusions. That tonal contrast is what makes the song so powerful, such a high-water mark of his career.

Album cover for The End Of The Innocence

Hornsby also helps a lot. This album came out before the days of “featuring” credits for songs, or else there would be a whole lot of them on here. Hornsby’s piano defines the sound of “The End Of The Innocence,” and he’s just the beginning of the cavalcade of late-80’s stars. Check out Axl Rose screaming along with “I Will Not Go Quietly.” Hey, there’s Patty Smyth backing up “How Bad Do You Want It?” Ooh, both Melissa Etheridge and Edie Brickell (an odd combination for sure) are over there getting behind “Gimme What You Got.” Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch are all over this thing. Oh, and I guess Sheryl Crow too, though that doesn’t really count since she wouldn’t get famous for another 5 years or so.

Crow’s presence isn’t the only bit of prescience on the album. “New York Minute”, one of Henley’s all-time best, has imagery that was likely inspired by the grimness of late-80’s New York City, the danger and dread on display in books like The Bonfire Of The Vanities, but it sure does sound like a 9/11 song now. “In a New York minute, everything can change… You’d better take a fool’s advice and take care of your own / One day they’re here, next day they’re gone.” Similarly, in “Gimme What You Got” he sings, “All these trumped up towers / They’re just golden showers.” Henley had Donald Trump’s number (and the letter “P”) way back then, though nobody knew what kind of golden showers Trump would be raining down on all of us 30 years later. On the other hand, time hasn’t been kind to everything on this album. Henley’s shots at mentally ill homeless people and testifying women in “If Dirt Were Dollars” haven’t aged so well.

More timeless are the relationship songs on The End Of The Innocence. Like I said about the title track, there’s an extent to which many of the political songs are also relationship songs — “I Will Not Go Quietly” wants to wrap its loving arms around the small of your back, and “New York Minute” knows the days were so much brighter in the time when she was here. And “How Bad Do You Want It” dresses down an immature guy who mishandles a relationship, but Henley’s narrator stays at arm’s length from the story.

There are two pure relationship songs, though, both of which were deservedly popular (each just barely missed the Top 20 by peaking at #21): “The Last Worthless Evening” and “The Heart Of The Matter.” For as bitter and jaded as Henley is throughout the rest of the record, these two both display a wonderful romanticism and tenderness. In the former, he’s making himself vulnerable to someone else who’s in similar post-breakup pain, suggesting that if she gives him a chance, he’ll show her love again. “The Heart Of The Matter” also looks back on a breakup, though rather than looking for new love he’s just seeking forgiveness. Both of these songs strike at deep truths of the heart — the need for closure and the power of hope.

That’s where redemption lives on The End Of The Innocence. Yeah, it’s clear throughout the album that “if dirt were dollars / we’d all be in the black”, but there’s a place where we can go to wash that blackness away. That place is our own heart, and the hearts of others, and the path there requires forgiveness, emotional risk, and just a little bit of preserved innocence.

Album Assignments: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Art Garfunkel’s name has become a bit of a punchline. “Garfunkel” is now pretty much synonymous with “second banana”. And fair enough, Paul Simon wrote almost all the original songs, played the guitar, and arranged a lot of the music (with the critical exception of the vocal harmonies.) There’s no question that Paul Simon was the dominant force in the duo.

But to listen to Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme is to be reminded of the irreplaceable magic that Garfunkel brought to the table. Really, we need look no further than the opening track, “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”. Garfunkel’s voice over Simon’s guitar fingerpicking immediately takes us into the mystic, a spooky intimacy with its shroud over both the present and the distant past, as he sings the centuries-old ballad words. There’s a huge amount of space around his voice, like he’s singing in a cathedral, and his perfect and breathy tone provides the appropriate spiritual hush. Simon comes in later, initially harmonizing but quickly diving into “Canticle”, weaving its anti-war theme around the ancient words. Meanwhile, Garfunkel’s voice gets multi-tracked into a heavenly choir, as well as floating over the top with pieces of “Canticle.” There is simply no way this glorious song could have been anywhere near as beautiful without Garfunkel’s haunting voice.

That goes double for his peak on the album, “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.” It’s everything “Scarborough Fair” would be if Simon were removed, leaving just the mystical, exquisite innocence. “What a dream I had,” the song begins, and Garfunkel’s voice makes it feel like a dream, in a way that is just not in Paul Simon’s vocal capabilities. It’s the kind of dream where you struggle to express what it felt like, falling onto sensory metaphors like “crinoline of smoky burgundy” and “cathedral bells tripping down the alleyways”, but what you know is that in the dream, there is someone with whom you share a pure and perfect love. When she arrives, just walking with her and holding her hand is the greatest emotional elevation you’ve ever felt. And then you wake up, your real-life love is there by your side, and the rush of gratitude you feel moves you to tears.

Art Garfunkel singing, “Oh, I love you” at the end of this song was, for years, the nearest expression I’d ever heard of what love feels like. With the benefit of time, I now know that it is in fact a near-perfect expression of what young, new love feels like, but when I listen to “For Emily,” that feeling returns to add both depth and sparkle to a longstanding romantic partnership, even if just for two minutes. That is a pretty wonderful musical achievement, and I don’t believe Simon could have pulled it off so successfully without Garfunkel.

Album cover for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Now, I don’t mean this to be a hit piece on Paul Simon, who I absolutely adore. I was just struck this time by just how valuable Garfunkel’s presence on this record truly is, and how easy it’s become to dismiss him as some kind of backup singer, in the light of the two men’s post-1970 careers. Garfunkel is in fact a crucial part of why this duo is so beloved, on a level surpassing even Simon’s extraordinary solo accomplishments. His ability to bring Simon’s music to gorgeous life is unparalleled. Take, for example, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”. It’s a fun little ditty, kinda giddy and almost exuberant, but when Garfunkel comes in to harmonize on the last thirty seconds of “ba da da da” vocalizations, we move from a light sense of fun to a profound feeling of joy, or at least I do.

“Feelin’ Groovy” is also a shining example of another aspect of this 1966 album, which is that some of it feels really 1966 at this point. Like, “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” is a sendup of advertising and consumerism, which is still plenty relevant, but dilemmas like “all the hippies seem to get the jump on you” and your boss telling you to “find a more productive bag”… not so much. Similarly, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” has about as much currency as the Jared Kushner joke in Deadpool 2 will have in 50 years. On the other hand, as a satirical document of its time, Paul Simon doing his Dylan impression and muttering “folk rock!” (then fumbling his harmonica) at the end is still worth a giggle. Also, the swipe at hip ignorance (“He’s so unhip, when you say Dylan he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was”) still has bite.

However, though some of the album’s references feel quite dated by now, its final track, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”, has become even more devastating with the passage of time. There’s of course the contrast of one of the world’s sweetest harmonies singing a quiet and hallowed Christmas carol, slowly being drowned out by the grim news of the day, and that contrast still lands, but now it is itself drowned out by how much worse the current news feels, pretty much systematically on all points. Just a quick tour:

  • President Johnson proposes an outright ban on all housing discrimination in the open housing section of the Civil Rights Bill, but these noble sentiments are hobbled when “a compromise was painfully worked out in the House Judiciary Committee”: Ha! Remember when congressional committees would work out painful compromises in aid of getting legislation passed? How about the notion of a president who is an activist on behalf of social justice?
  • Lenny Bruce dies from an overdose of narcotics: Prince. Tom Petty. But not just celebrities — an ongoing national emergency of opioid addiction and death.
  • MLK refuses to cancel his plans for an open housing march in a Chicago suburb: Hey, how about that, a moral leader whose activism captures tons of media attention and prompts massive social upheaval! Today’s moral leaders are… people who express indignation on Twitter, I guess? This can be very effective, witness #metoo, but the 24-hour news cycle makes it also rather evanescent. For that matter, the very idea of impartial journalistic authority suggested by the sober 7 O’Clock News anchor was so thoroughly replaced by news-as-personality, news-as-entertainment, and news-as-meme that Russian trolls were able to undermine a democratic election through propaganda pieces disguised as news.
  • Richard Speck stabs and strangles nine student nurses: Oh, a mass murder. Yeah, we get a lot of that now too, so much so that they really don’t seem so shocking anymore. I have a friend who in 2014 started contacting his congressional representative every time there was a mass shooting. He’s now done so 67 times.
  • Congress investigates anti-Vietnam War protests. Nixon warns there could be five more years of war. (There were actually nine.) He calls opposition to the war “the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.”: We’ve been at war for seventeen years. Opposition and protests are… I’m gonna say nonexistent at this point? And the greatest single weapon working against the U.S. is sitting in the Oval Office.

It’s a deeply depressing litany, when you really think about it. (Especially since I didn’t even mention the whole “climate change catastrophes have begun and we’re doing very little to stop them from continuing to escalate” part.) One of the few cures is the type of spiritual renewal you get from listening to something truly sacred, so it’s a damn good idea to listen to this album on repeat.

Album Assignments: Jumpin’ Jive

When my Dad was my age, jazz was not respectable. It played in whorehouses not Carnegie Hall. These classics of jump, jive, and swing are all from the 1940’s. “Jumpin’ Jive,” “We The Cats,” and “San Francisco Fan” from Cab Caolloway; “Symphony Sid,” a Lester Young tune with words by King Pleasure; “Tuxedo Junction,” our tribute to Glenn Miller; and the rest, all performed at one time or other by our main inspiration, Louis Jordan, the king of juke boxes, who influenced so many but is acknowledged by so few. Like us he didn’t aim at purists, or even jazz fans — just anyone who wanted to listen and enjoy, reap this righteous riff. –JJ

That’s Joe Jackson’s full “statement of purpose” from the liner notes of his 1981 album Jumpin’ Jive. Now check out the statement from his previous album, Beat Crazy:

This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?

By 1981, Joe Jackson had released three successful (though decreasingly so) albums of spiky, melodic pop with the Joe Jackson Band, music which was labeled “New Wave” and “Angry Young Man”. He’d had an international hit with “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, and a UK Top 5 hit with “It’s Different For Girls.” So a full album of 1940s swing covers was quite the unexpected move, but looking at these quotes, the choice starts to make a little more sense.

Beat Crazy was the third Joe Jackson Band album, and for all its freneticism, it does have an exhausted quality about it, a sense that the tank is running dry. According to Joe’s longtime bassist Graham Maby, drummer Dave Houghton left the band after that album, giving Jackson the opportunity to choose a new way forward for the Joe Jackson Band.

Album cover for Jumpin' Jive

He decided instead to dissolve that band entirely, dismissing guitarist Gary Sanford and instead hiring three horn players, a piano player (!), and drummer Larry Tolfree. Maby was the only one who stayed. This dissolution became Jackson’s first opportunity to reinvigorate his music by going in a new direction, a trend that would continue throughout his career with departures like salsa music, a symphony, a film score, a concept album, and various points in between. As I’ve written before, Jackson hates to be pigeonholed, and refuses to sit still — audiences had already seen some variety from the jazz, ska, and punk influences of his first three albums, but Jumpin’ Jive threw down a much bigger gauntlet.

Which is not to say that the album comes off like a stiff-necked exercise. On the contrary, it’s incredibly fun! Jackson sounds like he’s having the time of his life in his vocals, and he jumps all the way in on weird character work (like the beginning of “What’s The Use Of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)” and the entirety of “You Run Your Mouth and I’ll Run My Business”) and period slang. Every song is alive with exhilaration, the sound of a loving tribute that comes close to a full resurrection.

In fact, some have argued that this album kicked off the swing revival that hit its peak around 1998, when suddenly bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra were having hits with songs that came from (or might as well have come from) the 1940s. I don’t see much of a through line there, though. I wouldn’t even say that Jumpin’ Jive predicted the trend, because it’s pretty clear that Jackson doesn’t give a damn about trends. But I will say that this album makes those songs sound better, crisper, and more fun than any of those late 90’s bands ever managed to do. Which is no slam on those bands, just a recognition of Jumpin’ Jive‘s musical achievement.

The key here is that the musicianship on this album is just impeccable. Check out Nick Weldon’s smooth piano intro on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”. (So strange to me that Jackson stayed off the keys, limiting himself to “voice and vibes”, but I can’t argue with the results.) Check out Tolfree’s crrrrazy drum breaks in “How Long Must I Wait For You”. Check out the perfectly locked-in and interplaying horns at the beginning of “You’re My Meat”. (Also, everywhere else.)

Most of all, check out the staggering skill of Mr. Graham Maby. Jackson has used Maby at every possible opportunity throughout his career, the only player to whom he’s stayed so faithful, and this album makes the reasons for that loyalty crystal clear. Pretty much every song contains jaw-dropping examples of Maby’s bass virtuosity. In “You’re My Meat” he’s bouncing all over the scales. In “San Francsico Fan” he’s mournfully underlining the melodrama of Fannie’s tragic tale, marching in her funeral parade. The beginning of “We The Cats (Shall Hep Ya)” finds him nimbly soloing before settling into a vivacious walking groove.

It’s pretty impossible for me to pick a favorite Maby moment on this album, but I would put in a word for the iconic beginning of “Tuxedo Junction”, which perfectly sets the stage for the song. He revisits the theme throughout the song, adding flourishes and filigree as the spirit moves him, and makes the entire thing sound so great. Maby had never played this style of music before Jackson invited him to this album, and he rises to the occasion with such incredible aplomb that Jackson pretty much never lets him go from that point forward. I wouldn’t either.

One more note — Jackson gives a shout-out to vintage vocalist King Pleasure in the liner notes I quoted above, but he’d circle back in a much more substantial way much later. “King Pleasure Time”, from his excellent 2008 album Rain, turns the name into the personification of pleasure itself, who “rules the world, but not everybody knows it.” The song extols the idea of pure pleasure as the driving force in life, and if that’s true, Jumpin’ Jive is a pretty good path to get you there.

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