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Albums of the Month: June 2014

Album: Daydream Nation

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: October 1st, 1988

Highlights: Teen Age Riot, 'Cross the Breeze, Candle, Hyperstation

“Daydream Nation” marks the height of Sonic Youth's meteoric evolution through the early stage of their career. Where “EVOL” and “Sister” displayed the band giving structure to the pure noise of their first three records, “Daydream Nation” takes one extra step forward. It abandons the more atmospheric sonic of its predecessors for a nearly incessant vicious rock attack.

Although the guitars remain oddly tunned, hence retaining the signature Sonic Youth spice, they are no longer focused on producing loose soundscapes in which the group's melodies inhabited. That songwriting approach is replaced by riff-driven tracks that bring vocals to the forefront. It makes the group far more accessible – or, at least, as accessible as Sonic Youth can get – but it also brings the spotlight towards the band's irregular lyrics, which alternate moments of brilliancy (such as the whole of “Teen Age Riot”) and nonsense.

At the same time it forsakes part of the band's early identity, the record also brings to the studio – for the first time – one of Sonic Youth's greatest live staples: their gripping jams. The results are stellar. While their first five records were relatively short, “Daydream Nation” is a monster. Five of its fourteen songs float around the seven-minute mark, making the album clock at seventy minutes of a loud and distorted guitar pounding.

And that, right there, might be the record's greatest victory. Whereas most artists that take on the challenge of a double-album opt for stylistic variety, Sonic Youth – as usual – chose to swim against the current. With the exception of “Candle”, an island of beauty in the midst of a sea of chaos, “Daydream Nation” finds its musical focal point right on its opener and runs with it until its final seconds. It works wonderfully, and the group builds the ultimate landmark that proves they are giants within the alternative scene.

Album: Alligator

Artist: The National

Released: April 12nd, 2005

Highlights: Secret Meeting, Lit Up, The Geese of Beverly Road, Mr. November

With “Alligator”, their third record, The National strikes a fantastic balance between their self-titled debut and “Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers”. Where the former was acoustic misery sprinkled with great melodies, the latter went for layered atmospherics that added weight to the sad lyrics coined by Matt Berninger. “Alligator” stands right in the middle of that road and, as a consequence, the group finds a powerful sound on which their songwriting fits like a glove.

The album is quick to announce that discovery through its opener, the gorgeous “Secret Meeting”. A delicate unplugged guitar is backed up by an electric one that beautifully breaks through on the song's soaring chorus, paving the way for numerous numbers on which deep arrangements and instrumentation lend desperation and sorrow to the band's general anguish.

That constant mood gives birth to an album that is extremely cohesive in theme and music. On “Friend of Mine”, Matt longs for a friend who has taken a wrong turn in life; on “Val Jester”, jealousy gets to him and he seems to wish he had overprotected his daughter so she wouldn't have gone away; and on “Karen” he tries to desperately hold onto to a girlfriend who is set on leaving him. His often disconnected wording, which joins images from different times and places into one murky song, gives away a drunk and derailed feel to his characters, making the songs even more powerful.

At the same time, that heavy atmosphere sets the table so that the album's more distinctive compositions can stand out. The main examples of that effect are “Mr. November” and “Lit Up”, whose choruses come off as gloriously celebratory and self-empowering; and “The Geese of Beverly Road, the album's centerpiece and a song that switches miserable sadness for a contemplative sorrow, finding some hope in the carefree and confident demeanor of children, and giving the album some sort of bittersweet conclusion.

Album: On the Beach

Artist: Neil Young

Released: July 16th, 1974

Highlights: See the Sky About to Rain, On the Beach, Ambulance Blues

When one looks at a title like “On the Beach”, it is somehow natural to expect a record filled with hopeful sunny tunes that could accompany people as they head out for some unforgettable summer vacation. For Neil Young, though, the rendezvous of the sand and the ocean seems to be a contemplative place where a man can come to grips with his inner demons.

With lyrics such as “I'm deep inside myself but I'll get out somehow”, “I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day”, and “There ain't nothin' like a friend who can tell you you're just pissin' in the wind”, the record is a bleak journey. It is a trip through the mind of a man who, in addition to never feeling entirely comfortable with the success he had achieved, had to deal with losing friends that fell victim to the rock-star lifestyle.

Young and his band sound downright weary throughout the record, but – here – that is not a bad thing at all. Not only does it give the record the hard-edged, loose, raw, and careless vibe some of Neil's best recordings have, it also plays right into the hands of the style of the songs. Out of the eight songs, three feature the standard 12-bar blues progression, so the performers' state of mind happens to boost the emotional heights of the numbers

The rest of the tunes, with the exception of the relatively light opener “Walk On”, are sorrowful acoustic ballads on which Neil Young stands still in the midst of his turmoil, culminating with “Ambulance Blues” that – on its nine minutes – manages to hold both moments of silent reminiscence and spilled anger. Although it is not as accessible as “Harvest” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”, “On the Beach” is deeper and more rewarding than both, standing tall with “Tonight's the Night” as the best moment of Young's excellent discography.

Album: Love and Theft

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: September 11th, 2001

Highlights: Mississippi, Summer Days, Floater, High Water

After recording a collection of not-so-stellar hits and terrible misses during the 80s and most of the 90s, Bob Dylan seemed to re-encounter his inner genius on the turn-of-the-century trilogy of “Time Out of Mind”, “Love and Theft”, and “Modern Times”. Out of the three late-career masterpieces, “Love and Theft” is the strongest one, measuring up to his brilliant 60s output, and ranking as one of his best works.

On “Time Out of Mind”, Dylan achieved his creative rebirth in two ways: he contemplated his old-age wisdom and mortality in numerous quiet tunes, and visited his musical roots with great blues numbers. Here, he abandons the former, and fully embraces the latter. “Love and Theft” is not all about blues, though, even if most of the songs do sport the traditional 12-bar structure. The record is a trip through American music, joining folk, country, and Americana into one delightful varied collection.

Lyrically, the album is purely joyful. Its lengthy lyrics are often disconnected, but they are downright funny, unleashing a series of lines that – at their best – are a clash of sagacity and wittiness. It is blatant that Dylan had a blast recording the album, and looseness with which he approached the whole production process leaks into most of the songs. In his misery, his self-deprecating humor shines bright; in his glory, he sounds like he could build an empire; and in his emotions, he spins beautiful and unusual poetry that conveys an unshakable sense of happiness.

It is an album that wears its sources on its sleeve; or better yet, on its title. Dylan drinks straight from the fountain of old American musicians whose contributions have been invaluable to everything that followed them. And, in turn, he creates astonishing works of art to call his own: the foreboding “High Water” and its threatening ambiance that takes one right to the middle to the 1927 Mississippi Flood, the sweet and romantic “Moonlight” with its uplifting imagery, and many others. It's an undeniable tour de force, and it is proof that the grizzled man can still amaze.

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