Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume IX, Letter E

elbow

Elbow, in the E’s for sure, and maybe right now in the entire alphabet, my favorite band.

Here we are with volume IX of a series of blogs about my attempt to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist in my music collection in alphabetical order. That is a mouthful. A mouthful for an earful.  I’ve been at it almost a year and I have worked my way through the first 5 letters of the alphabet–an alphabet which consists, I am told, of 26 letters.  It is Christmas eve, 2015, and I am  in the basement catching up on the writing about the listening while the family is upstairs watching “Elf” for the umpteenth time. There are some absolutely great things in my E collection–but they are slightly outnumbered by embarrassing acquisitions or some things that just no longer float my boat–or, they float my boat but I find little to say about them. You’ll see. Some dross, and then, among the dross, some of the greatest things ever.

The Eagles, “Desparado.” What a beautiful song that “Desperado” is, and what a lovely other thing is that “Tequila Sunrise,” but beyond that, beyond those tunes I heard over and over on album-oriented-radio of the 70’s when I was a wee lad, what a terribly boring record.  That’s just me. It’s a fault, I concede. I don’t appreciate, and did not appreciate as a youngun or as a teen, this thing the kids call country rock. Didn’t really begin to sing the Eagles’ praises until “Hotel California,” and even that was dispassionate and short-lived. This is a record I picked up out of an obligation to have at least one Eagles record, one that I knew was famous and for which I was unschooled. Okay. I’m schooled. I’m dropping out.     

Echo and the Bunnymen, “Self-Titled, 1987.” This record marks the first year of my marriage. It marks a transition into real adulthood.  Also, it marks the move towards trying to be a serious musician in a serious rock and roll band while graduating with an English degree from Lewis and Clark College, also serious.  A big time in my life, no doubt, and this record, a big serious record.  I think it’s safe to say that this was Echo and the Bunnymen’s breakthrough. It’s a terribly groovy, dance inducing, sexy record.  Not all of the tunes are “Lips Like Sugar” memorable, but they’re all worth listening to, and while I haven’t spun this disc in forever, I think it’s a worthy record of more favorable rotation, a record I could  totally see sucking up into the computer for a cool 80’s dance mix.

Eels, “Beautiful Freak.” I don’t like to say it, but I think one of the reasons Mark Oliver Everett (E), the man behind Eels, has had such a long-lasting, wonderfully multi-faceted career, is that one of these tunes, “My Beloved Monster,” was picked up for the “Shrek” film. Perhaps, (but I don’t know, cuz it’s never happened to me) this is a thing that can catapult a career–or at least, give one license to do whatever the hell one wants, which is the thing that Eels has been doing for almost twenty years now. The song that struck my attention on this debut album was the opening track, “Novocaine for the Soul,” which, for my money, marries perfectly the two things I love the most in music: pop sensibility and weirdness.  “Life is hard. And so I am I.”  What a great, perverse, funny first line! This record is full of the kind of characteristics that Everett would continue to exhibit throughout his career: sardonic wit, self deprecating humor, a touch of romance (only a dash), a wide stylistic musical range, an interesting marriage between tradition and innovation, and perhaps most importantly, an emotional depth at which most pop artists only scratch at the surface. And then there’s this bizarre personal connection.  I heard this record maybe 10 years after I made my first professional recording of my own music, and on that record a friend of mine, Allen Hunter, played bass. And then, I don’t know, maybe 5 to 10 years after the release of “Beautiful Freak,” Allen would get a bass gig touring with Eels around the world, a gig that has continued for him up to 2015 and has rewarded him with a musical experience that is THE DREAM for most  of us slugging away in the trenches of small local music scenes. I’m exceedingly happy for Allen and have enjoyed seeing him play with Eels, and finally, in 2015, seeing and hearing him perform with Mark Oliver Everett on the “Royal Albert Hall” concert film and record!

Elbow, “Asleep at the Back,” “Cast of Thousands,” “Leaders of the Free World,” “The Seldom Seen Kid,” “Build A Rocket Boys,” and “The Take Off and Landing of Everything.” That’s right. With this band (and this may be a first in this entire enterprise), I could not help but listen to every single record, in chronological order, from start to finish. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if  I was stranded on an desert island and could only choose the entire catalogue of ONE band to listen to for the rest of my days, it might be Elbow’s catalogue. Guy Garvey is one of the greatest pop singers I’ve ever heard, and he’s English, and he’s literary–his lyrics are artful and poignant and at least once on every record the combination of these words and this voice are apt to reduce me to tears. And the band, my god, this band is phenomenal and their production choices nothing short of wondrous. They can rock, for sure, but much of the music feels way underplayed, sometimes trancelike, quiet, while usually something crazy lurks under the surface. On that point (and another reason why I hold these guys so dear), one of their records, “The Seldom Seen Kid,” was perhaps the first rock album to really capture my son’s attention–then, only three years old. And I remember vividly the day it happened, when we were driving together in the car, just the two of us, and I put this cd into the player.  The opening tune on this record, “Starlings,” begins with this quiet synthesizer arpeggiation just percolating in the background.  It’s so quiet, your tendency might be to turn up the volume. The drums come in, again, quiet, a simple bass drum, hi-hat, and tom on two and four pattern. And in creeps, again quietly, these voices melodically chanting, almost gregorian, and then, and then, wait for it, wait for it, this intense and extremely loud, hair-raising horn blast on one. Blam! The first time I heard it I jumped out of my skin.  The first time three year old Emerson heard it, he busted out laughing uncontrollably. And again, every time it occurred in the tune, he just absolutely lost his shit in the very best possible way. And he would request this tune almost every time we drove together. This record, from start to finish, was a record he and I listened to at bedtime over and over again during that year. A pivotal moment–for me as a dad, for my son as a budding appreciator of music.  This record, and all the others, are nearly perfect from start to finish. I could not name a single bad song.  They are, Elbow, at this point in my life, my absolute favorite band. I hope they never go away.

Danny Elfman, “Music for a Darkened Theatre.” Don’t worry, when we get to the O’s where Oingo Boingo lives, I’ll go on and on and on about Danny Elfman and his influence on my life, but for now, suffice it to say how impressed I have been with him, with his move from punk new wave singer front-man to consummate composer of serious music for film. I consider his theme music for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, for The Simpsons, and for Batman to be absolute classics in the genre. Otherwise, unless I am listening to either of these three pieces or watching a film for which he has composed the score, this record is mostly skippable. It pains me to say this. Maybe I was just not in the mood, when I listened to this one weeks ago at the height of a professional meltdown, for movie music. I was not in the mood. But I do, just now, just thinking about it, have a hankering on this  Christmas Eve for a film scored by Danny Elfman.  Scrooged anyone? Nope, no one is interested. I’ll have to imagine it.

Electric Light Orchestra, “Afterglow” Boxset, Disc Three. Holy shit, these guys were great. Most of the time. Unable or unwilling to listen to all three discs in this box set retrospective, I go straight to the third disc. I find here a healthy collection from the two albums that, as a tween, I owned and listened to repeatedly: “A New World Record” and “Out of the Blue.” Both records are masterpieces. Both contain an abundance of truly great songs that nevertheless went on to become hits.  “Rockaria,” “Telephone Line,” “So Fine,” “Living Thing,” “Turn to Stone,” and my favorite, “Mr. Blue  Sky.” My cousin Nick turned me on to ELO and I have been forever grateful.  It’s hard not to think of him when I listen to this band. We were super close as young kids, our parents together often, camping trips together often–I felt closer to my cousins than I did to many of my grade school and middle school chums; but we grew further and further apart as we became adults, to the extent that we only ever see each other any more at weddings (less often) and at funerals (more often). So this music brings back my idyllic preadolescence and my friendship with my cousin Nick and it’s kind of sweet. But this music stands on it’s own and withstands the test of time. It’s superb pop music. The pre-Cheap Trick Beatles of the 70’s.

An Emotional Fish, “Celebrate” maxi-single. What the hell was this?  I have no idea why I bought this record but I am totally sure why I didn’t follow up and grab the full length LP, whatever it was.  This is a late eighties band trying to sound like a half a dozen different late eighties bands that were already in this territory. The “Celebrate” song is good in a derivative kind of way, but everything else on this five or six song “maxi-single” is completely skippable and immediately forgettable. One for the hopper.

Enya, “Watermark.” Sail away, sail away, indeed.  Music to nap by. I don’t know what turned me on about this either, except for that maybe I was trying to branch out into some new territory, a new age territory.  During the late eighties it was a record  that I could enjoy with my dad.  That was part of it, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong. There are some really beautiful pieces here. But it’s so safe, so pedestrian.  She’s the Kenny G of eighties new age music.

The Eurythmics, “Peace.” Of all the possible Eurythmics records, this is the one I buy?! The only one? 1999? Used for $8.50–the sticker says, still on the jewel case–and that explains a few things. Annie Lennox, to me as a young lad, was so captivating and sexy, and I loved those early videos, playing as they did into some slightly perverse territory, which I dug; she’s so undeniably one of the greatest pop vocalists of the era, but this record (purchased on a whim because I thought I’d take a chance perhaps and felt a little guilty because I had never bought one of their records and should have, and while I dig the reference to “Sweet Dreams” in this first track)–this record is so unremarkable. I must  have listened to it once and then filed it away. Nothing is familiar to me here. It’s not bad. The vocals are stellar, the musicianship is exquisite, the production value is high. The Eurythmics, at their very worst, were probably never bad. This just does not float my boat in any way that would make me want to listen to it again. I know I’m not being fair to the material–and I accept that. If I forced myself to listen to this record on heavy rotation I would probably grow to dig it. I just don’t have the time. I apologize, Annie. Forgive me.

The Letter F awaits. I know there are treasures there and I’m am anxious to move ahead.  Merry Christmas, music lovers.

 

 

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