Album: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Released: February 14th, 1994
Highlights: Silence Kid, Elevate Me Later, Cut Your Hair, Range Life
Pavement built their debut upon song fragments that often came off as charmingly unfinished efforts and low-fidelity sound drowned in guitar distortion. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” does not veer off of that path: it still features unpredictable song structures and astonishing unorthodox guitar work. Moreover, Stephen Malkmus continues to deliver his lyrics in a distinctive careless manner, as if he is utterly unconcerned as to whether his verses and rhymes will soar or fall to the ground.
The difference between “Slanted and Enchanted” and their sophomore album is that while on the former the group's fantastic melodies were frequently buried amidst the noise – only punctually jumping above the overall soundscape, on the latter they are far more pronounced. It is not that the band lost its edge or chose to adopt a standard pasteurized sound; they, by all means, as their strident feedback is bound to state, retain a strong market-defying demeanor. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” just pictures the band making their music less abrasive.
Hardly does a track go by without putting forth some remarkably catchy hook that could have easily been an integral part to a hit. However – as if deliberately stating that they had the talent and songwriting skills to make it big, but chose not to – no song makes it completely unblemished through the group's performance. Sometimes they just begin too abruptly or switch the tempo way too quickly, on other occasions Malkmus murmurs for too long, the words are frequently too awkward, the instrumentals too convoluted, and the music is overwhelmed by powerful noise pretty much everywhere.
Pavement was hardly the first band to purposely sabotage their own greatness. In fact, the indie movement of which they were such an integral part was inspired by musicians that brilliantly refused to live up to fixed expectations. Still, throughout rock history, it is hard to find a statement as subversive as this one. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” is the construction of twelve masterful tunes and their subsequent destruction through execution. Only, like any mighty beasts, they do not go down easily, and that is exactly why their fall is so spectacular.
Album: Le Noise
Artist: Neil Young
Released: September 28th, 2010
Highlights: Angry World, Hitchhiker, Peaceful Valley Boulevard
As far as appropriately titled albums go, “Le Noise” sits on a very high position. It is more than a pun on the name of its producer, Daniel Lanois, who is known for spinning big soundscapes with a lot of reverb. It is a nod to the fact that, more than any other Neil Young album, this is the result of a partnership. Although Lanois is not the composer of any of the eight tracks present here, his influence is felt in every passing second.
Lanois was able to work his magic to a great extent due to a simple fact: there is no backing band in any of the songs. Two numbers, “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” are purely acoustic, while the remaining six are electric attacks. The instruments used here are always two: Neil's voice and his signature loose guitar playing. Within the wide-sounding atmosphere traditionally created by the producer's style, that leaves a lot of room to be filled, and Lanois does not waste such opportunity: he makes the lonely guitar thicker, and infuses the rest of the space with amplified sounds.
Young also plays his role remarkably well. He takes advantage of the reserved mood of the album's production to deliver lyrics that often tread on confessional territory, and goes on to approach them accordingly during the songs. He is, through most of the record, seemingly spilling his guts out in the open. The greatest example of that attitude is “Hitchhiker”, in which he openly describes his adventures with drugs, shamelessly name-dropping a few substances.
Despite the record's mostly angry tone, accentuated by the power Lanois' echoing musical chambers give Young's guitar, there is also opportunities for Neil to tackle more emotional themes. There is depression (“Someone's Gonna Rescue You”), eternal love (“Sign of Love”), partnership (“Walk with Me”), and even a seven-minute environmental dirge (“Peaceful Valley Boulevard”). “Le Noise” rounds up as a fantastic musical experiment that is made stronger by solid songwriting and plain honesty. It is far more than a gimmicky, it is worthy of sitting close to some of Neil's finest work.
Album: Candy Apple Grey
Artist: Husker Dü
Released: March 1st, 1986
Highlights: I Don't Know for Sure, Sorry Somehow, Hardly Getting Over It, No Promise Have I Made
Sitting near the end of one of the most brilliantly prolific runs in rock history, which saw the release of six flooring records – including two double albums – in a span of four years, “Candy Apple Grey” is – unquestionably – Husker Dü's darkest effort. It shows the group veering slightly, not completely, towards a more balanced production that would later fully flourish on “Warehouse: Songs and Stories”, hence starting to abandon the hardcore roughness of their first five works.
Even if the sound is more polished, it does not really lose its rawness. Husker Dü still comes off as one of the world's loudest and dirtiest bands, and the record kicks off with four massive attacks. “Crystal” is yelled all the way through, and would have been right at home on the group's early EPs; “Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow” are fantastic and typical Grant Hart tunes, on which vicious music is fronted by sentimental lyrics and borderline bubblegum hooks; and “I Don't Know for Sure” is yet another Bob Mould anthemic punk gauntlet.
What really sets “Candy Apple Grey” apart amidst the group's catalog, though, is mostly what comes after that grand opening act. Out of the remaining six songs that are committed here, three are quiet ballads, something that both Hart and Mould had never attempted to tackle despite the fact their blatantly emotional songwriting was always a perfect fit for balladry. Given the band's track record, those three numbers exhale an experimental aura, but they manage to land like stunning pieces around which the rest of the album gravitates.
“Too Far Down” is a despairing and haunting song where, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, painful lyrics are delivered by Mould, who comes across as if he is singing from the bottom of a well. “Hardly Getting Over It” is a six-minute exercise in misery held high by a gorgeous instrumental section. And “No Promise Have I Made” features a tearful Grant Hart over a piano that sounds gigantic. Where other Husker Dü albums are an endless flood of energetic anger, “Candy Apple Grey” seems bent on showing the sorrowful hangover that follows the emotional violence, and it does so extremely well.
Album: Let It Be
Artist: The Replacements
Released: October 2nd, 1984
Highlights: I Will Dare, Favorite Thing, Androgynous, Sixteen Blues
As the band's leader himself would come to declare, The Replacements' initial brand of sound consisted, mostly, of “banging out riffs and giving them titles”. It was not exactly original, but the group did it with such originality, humor, energy, and honesty, that it became remarkable. “Hootenanny”, their second full record, showed the band attempting to branch out their songwriting to various genres, but – despite the promise of growth – it lacked the focus to make it a truly solid work. The blossoming of the band was, clearly, yet to come.
That moment arrived one year later with “Let It Be”, where Paul Westerberg finely stitched up his bursts of teenage demeanor with grappling melodies and distinct song structures. Here, the wild experimentation of “Hootenanny” bears its fruits that go far beyond garage rock. “I Will Dare” kicks things off with bouncy guitars carrying a tempo that rovers around the territory of R.E.M.'s early fast-paced songs, and “Favorite Thing” follows with punk rhythms that come to a halt on the chorus.
It is only on the album's third song, “We're Coming Out”, that the band bumps into an aggressive guitar-attack covered with shouts that comes close to the shape of their first works. But now, tunes of this sort, along with the tongue-in-cheek humor found in “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary's Got a Boner”, are no longer the meat of the record. Rather, they are downright awesome songs that add dynamism to the listen. And they work much better like that.
The key performances here, the show-stoppers that stood as their best songs up until that point, are others: the piano-led “Androgynous”, the hard-rocking Kiss cover “Black Diamond”, the painful “Unsatisfied”, the two-minute instrumental “Seen Your Video” that suddenly culminates on an explosive chorus, the beautiful “Sixteen Blue”, and “Answering Machine” – a guitar-and-vocal closer. It is that mixture of inconsequential silly humor, garage spontaneity, and surprising maturity that make “Let It Be” one of the strongest and most fundamental supporting bricks of alternative rock. After listening to it, one cannot be surprised by the countless brains it inspired.