Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Low-Hanging Fruit, Pt. 1

For the past couple of months I’ve been feeding on low-hanging fruit -- stuff that’s plentiful in the used vinyl bins, and cheap. I like to go to the record store with a hundred bucks or so and come home with more records than I can hold in my arms. The trick is to like music that other people have liked enough to buy but not enough to keep. Lots of other people. Big-label stuff from the halcyon days of the record business, the 70s and 80s. Records that sold by the thousands and hundreds of thousands but never became universally accepted as must-haves. There are a lot of wonderful things to be found within these broad parameters. Here are a few of my recent favorites.

Gentle Giant – Free Hand and Interview
These records came out near the end of the band’s life, when they were at the peak of their creativity and skill, and they’re unlike any records made by any artists before or after. They weren’t the big breakout hits the band hoped they’d be, but they sold better than anything else they’d done, though they’re less sought after today than their earlier records. They’re less like collections of rock tunes than compositions of abstract aural patterns. Which is not to say they’re muddy mélanges of free-form psychedelia and noise; weird as the arrangements are, they’re always accessible and often infectious. The same can be said of Gentle Giant’s earlier records, with their mix of hard-rock edginess and the complexities of classical music, but what makes these stand out in my collection (besides their cheap price) is how far they lean forward, especially Interview, which weaves strands of as-yet undefined new wave into the pastiche, particularly on track two, “Give It Back,” with its odd electrified and heavily layered polyrhythmic reggae vibe. I’ve listened to this record many times and every time it surprises me. It’s just some of the most unusual and unusually well done music in my collection.

Kinks – Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace
If you put any stock in the ratings on AllMusic, you’re bound to think the Kinks hit a low in the mid-1970s, at the tail end of their run of concept records. Don’t believe them. Reading the reviews for Soap Opera and its immediate predecessor Schoolboys in Disgrace (which earned one and two stars respectively) I expected a couple of pretentious, sprawling, incoherent, prog-rock wannabe pieces of crap. Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re both tight collections jam-packed with high-quality, hard-rocking pop songs – relentlessly fun, catchy and danceable. And funny. Especially Soap Opera, a tale of a rock star who changes places with an everyday bloke and gets trapped in his boring, miserable life. The poor chap has to drink to get some relief from the relentless monotony of it all and, in one of the funniest rock songs of all time, “Ducks on the Wall,” he falls into sexual frustration because of his new wife’s turn-off taste in interior design (“I love you baby, but I just can’t ball with those ducks on the wall!”). Great stuff to crank when you’re cleaning the house or drunk.

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
With the possible exception of Son of Schmilsson, this is the weirdest high-budget, major-studio, top-40 album of all time. It came on the heels of the band’s biggest success, Rumours, and it was said to have cost a million dollars to produce. For most of the record it sounds like they spent that much: flawless late-70s pop, densely layered with lovely sounds from all kinds of different instruments, and dreamy harmony vocals, every note tucked into one another so perfectly that it’s endlessly airy and light. But some of the songs are strangely lo-fi, with fuzzed-out bass lines and guitar solos and spastic beats that sound like they were made with electrified rubber and a bunch of shiny new metal trash cans. And the title track is perhaps the strangest song ever to hit the Billboard top ten, with its marching band core shrouded in echoing crowd sounds and overlays of jungle sounds (“ooga agga ooga”). Back and forth this album goes from the lovely lovelorn dream pop of Christine McVie to the Wiccan crystal melodies of Stevie Nicks to the frantic break-all-the-rules genius of Lindsey Buckingham. Two LPs packed in double inner sleeves made from thick, shiny paper, covered with elaborate and dreamy art inspired by coke, Colombian weed and Cutty Sark. It’s a peerless artifact of a gloriously decadent time. It’s been reissued on heavy audiophile vinyl, but if you’re lucky, like I was, you might just find a pristine copy for six bucks – or less.

1 comment:

Juliox said...

Gentle Giant's CD/LP Free Hand is one of the most creative of the entire 1970's progressive music era. They still have a large following 40 years later. Check out