Monday, December 28, 2009

Galaxie 500 - "On Fire" (LP Review)

As I said on my review of "Today", Galaxie 500 "sounds like college" to me, even though I did not learn of them until nearly 10 years later. If there is ever a movie made of that time of my life, songs like "Blue Thunder" or "Snowstorm" should serve as the soundtrack.

"On Fire", Galaxie 500's second LP, is considered by many to be their finest LP. As I said before, I might give that nod to "Today" because it was first, but one could certainly make an argument for "On Fire". "On Fire" continues the sound and concepts introduced with "Today", but with some small advancements such as expanding their minimalist arrangements with additional instruments on some of the songs, as well as bassist Naomi Yang singing on "Another Day".

I would say the quality of the songs of "On Fire" is a little more variable: the best songs are better than anything on "Today", but there are a few songs that while not bad, are also not quite as magical as the others. Every song on "Today" is a gem, but even though none of the songs on "On Fire" are bad, they're not all gems either.

However, the first five songs of "On Fire" is without a doubt their best five song sequence (that's "side 1" if you're rocking the vinyl):
  1. "Blue Thunder"
  2. "Tell Me"
  3. "Snowstorm"
  4. "Strange"
  5. "When Will You Come Home"
Each is a tour de force, but since "When Will You Come Home" is very similar to "Tugboat" (their first single) thematically and structurally, it deserves special attention:
When, when will you come home?
Watching TV all alone
Watching Kojak on my own
Staring at the wall
And waiting for your call
When, when will you come home?
This is clearly by/for the same person as "Tugboat"...

Past side 1, only "Another Day" and the cover of the George Harrison song "Isn't it a Pity" achieve the same level as the first five, the latter being the closing song on the original release. Fortunately the Rykodisc reissue of "On Fire" includes three excellent bonus songs from the 1990 "Blue Thunder" 12": "Victory Garden", "Ceremony" and "Cold Night". "Cold Night" is a Galaxie 500 original, while the other two are covers: "Victory Garden" is a cover of a Red Krayola song and "Ceremony" is a cover of the Joy Division / New Order song which I have already reviewed.

Standout songs: "Blue Thunder", "Tell Me", "Snowstorm", "Strange", "When Will You Come Home", "Another Day", "Isn't it a Pity", "Ceremony", "Cold Night". (Many of the previous links are live versions; find all the studio LP versions on Grooveshark.)

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 10/10. The original 10 song release would have merited a 9/10, but the three excellent bonus songs push it to a 10/10.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Galaxie 500 - "Today" (LP Review)

Prior to discovering The Cribs 3-4 years ago, Galaxie 500 was my favorite lo-fi, garage-rock band. And while the two bands are not directly comparable, Galaxie 500 remains a close second.

Active from 1987-1991 (corresponding exactly with my college years), I did not discover Galaxie 500 until about 1999 or 2000. Despite not knowing about the band while I was in school, their sound so perfectly captures the sound of the era that it invokes nostalgia for the late 80's, even though I learned of them nearly 10 years later.

Formed by Dean Wareham (guitar, vocals), Damon Krukowski (drums), and Naomi Yang (bass, vocals) while all three were at Harvard, the band took their name from the Ford Galaxie owned by one of their friends. The magic of their sound is not virtuoso performances (though they are certainly more than adequate), but through excellent song writing and hazy, dreamy production quality. Similar to but generally softer and quieter than most shoegazing bands, their sound invites the inevitable comparisons to The Velvet Underground. Although on one hand, their sound is very much of their time, on the other hand they sound nothing like the stable of 4AD artists, nor the Athens, GA sound. By default, they become the Cambridge, MA sound. Credit to producer Mark Kramer for generating such a unique sound.

"Today" is the band's first LP, released in 1988 after their "Tugboat" 7" single from earlier that year. While many critics consider their 2nd LP, "On Fire", to be their best, I have to give the nod to "Today" since 1) it establishes their sound and 2) has no false steps -- every song is a gem, even the aptly named "Instrumental". The LP was initially released on the tiny Aurora Records, but was later re-released by Rough Trade, and then ultimately re-released by Rykodisc. Although the original release had only 9 songs, both re-releases have the B-side to the "Tugboat" single, "King of Spain", on them.

"Tugboat" is a fitting song to discuss, since it was their first single and may actually be their most representative, if not best song. The song features sparse, reverberating, haunting sound, with distant, and almost apologetic vocals from Wareham with the lyrics:
I don't wanna stay at your party
I don't wanna talk with your friends
I don't wanna vote for your president
I just wanna be your tugboat captain
It's a place I'd like to be
It's a place I'd like to be
It's a place I'd like to be
It's a place I'd be happy
After repeating the above, the the song closes out with an extended instrumental portion. After admitting "I just wanna be your tugboat captain", there's really nothing left to say. While Galaxie 500 has many, many excellent songs, this has to be their definitive song.

Standout tracks: All. Sure, that's a cop out, but just listen to the entire LP.  If forced to select just a few, I'd settle on: "Tugboat" (studio, live 1989 - from their "'87-'91" DVD), "Flowers" (studio, live -- from their "Peel Sessions" LP, live 1990 from "'87-'91"), "Pictures" , "Parking Lot", "Temperature's Rising".

Skip 'em tracks: none.

Final score: 10/10

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pretenders - "Stop Your Sobbing" (forgotten song) (the song remains the same)

Sure, this was originally by The Kinks, on their 1964 eponymous debut LP, but they never released it as a single so I'm going to credit it to The Pretenders. The take away lesson here is that Ray Davies is such an incredible song writer that a "filler song" for The Kinks can be a hit single for any other band.

"Stop Your Sobbing" was released as the first single by The Pretenders and was also featured on their 1979 debut LP, Pretenders. Despite doing well for their first single, few people probably remember this song because 1) there was no video for MTV (to the best of my knowledge anyway), and 2) "Brass in Pocket", also from their debut LP, pretty much overshadowed the rest of the band's songs, at least by The Pretenders Mk. I.

That's too bad, because "Stop Your Sobbing" is easily the band's best, or second best song (some days I think "Talk of the Town" deserves that honor). Ray Davies writing, Nick Lowe producing, and Chrissie Hynde singing... well, it is just hard to improve on that. This is one of the few cases where the cover surpasses the original.

The original lineup of the band produced two excellent LPs, and then bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of drug overdoses during a three day span in 1982. The Pretenders recruited new members and found greater commercial success with 1983's "Learning to Crawl", but I never cared as much for this version of the band. Hynde was always the principal song writer, but the sound just wasn't as good.

But none of that matters -- "Stop Your Sobbing" is a brilliant song and a testament to both The Pretenders and The Kinks.

The Pretenders: 1980 on the Kenny Everett Show, 1987 on the David Letterman Show, Live Aid (1985).
2016-04-15 Edit: I just now discovered the "official" video.

The Kinks: "Stop Your Sobbing"

B-Side Bonus Link: "The Wait" (live version from the 1981 LP "Concerts for the People of Kampuchea")

2010-11-15 Edit: A cover by Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson.

Obligatory Hynde/Davies fact: well after this song was recorded, they began a relationship (~81-84) and had a child together. This has no bearing on the song, of course, but I think there is a rule somewhere that states this fact must be repeated when discussing "Stop Your Sobbing".

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Queensryche - "Queensryche" (LP Review)

This one goes out to my HS friend Robert Gordick, the person who originally introduced me to Queensryche when the self-titled EP came out in 1983. He had it on vinyl and I had a tape copy of it (which I probably still have somewhere).

Most people probably didn't know much about Queensryche prior to their 1988 LP "Operation: Mindcrime" or their 1990 LP "Empire" and the singles from that LP, "Silent Lucidity" and "Jet City Woman". By then they had firmly established themselves in the prog metal genre; aspiring to be a sort of a metal version of Pink Floyd. But back in 1983, their sound was firmly rooted in the speed metal / NWBOHM and they had an almost Spinal Tap level of cliches: heavy metal umlaut? Check. Stylized, neo-gothic font? Check. Nazi-exploitation reference? Check. D&D / Manichean themed lyrics? Check. All those things seem silly in 2009 but boy, were they cool in 1983. We wore out our respective copies of this EP.

The production is high-quality (for the time, and especially for a low budget first release) and the songs are very heavy -- much heavier than their later material. In retrospect, "The Lady Wore Black" is an indication of their future sound, but at the time I just thought it was a really heavy power ballad, similar to Metallica's "Fade to Black". And how about the first 30-40 seconds of "Queen of the Reich"?! Great stuff. Of course, the lyrics then begin with "In the dead of night / She'll come and take you away / Searing beams of light and thunder / Over blackened plains / She will find her way". You can't help but think of Marty DiBergi quoting the review of "Intravenous de Milo": "...they are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry."

In 1984, Queensryche's first full-length LP, "The Warning", came out and it was good (I bought the cassette of that), but it was clearly moving away from the NWOBHM sound and toward prog metal. Although it was not as heavy as their first EP, it was still pretty good. Then "Rage for Order" came out in 1986 (I still have that on vinyl) and it **sucked**. Whew, it was a-w-f-u-l. And that was pretty much the end of my Queensryche era. I recognized that "Operation: Mindcrime" and "Empire" were decent LPs, but I was done with them. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't still enjoy "Queensryche".

Standout tracks: "Queen of the Reich", "Nightrider", "Blinded", "The Lady Wore Black".

Skip 'em tracks: none. (Note: when the EP was reissued in 1989, a "Rage for Order" outtake, "Prophecy" was included, but there were no skip 'em tracks on the original four song version.)

Final score: 9/10. In the mid 80s, I would have given this a 10/10. I still think it rawks, but I don't think it is ground-breaking enough to deserve top marks.

(Anti-)Bonus Links: There are official videos for "Queen of the Reich" and "Nightrider". I don't recall these videos from back in the day -- or perhaps I've just blacked out that memory. The videos are terrible, and I'm pretty sure I would have even thought they were terrible in 1983. You will regret watching them.