As a rule of thumb, songs titled “Untitled” are generally hackneyed attempts at mystery — something so complex and so deep, that no title would ever do it justice.
Interpol, on 2002′s Turn on the Bright Lights, is guilty of having the dreaded untitled track, though they pull it off in a way that almost instantly legitimizes it. If a “profoundly” untitled song ended up as the last track of the album, the shockwave from my eyes rolling could set off car alarms down the street. Interpol does the opposite: they start the album with their title-less offering — a stunt which rather gracefully sets the stage for an album that is both forceful and ethereal.
In those first moments of the album, each blip of a guitar, doubled and tripled with delay effects, seems to represent a flicker of red light in a dark space, building up to the bleak industrial swatches of red and black on the cover. That wistful drone works its way into a groove that rolls its way onto the soundscape like a reverb-ed fog.
The early oughts were a strange time for most people. I was a teenager at the time, barely into high school and discovering a strange new world full of strange new experiences — all against a newly emerging backdrop of post-9/11 fear and punctuated by youth. On the album, that curiously hopped-up sorrow manifests itself in a crisp, clear photograph that seemingly shows nothing despite its clarity.
For me, the album’s dual nature — gently determined and unabashedly driven — brought entirely different musical ecosystems to my attention. Everyone had spent the better part of the last year waxing poetic of the virtues of the Strokes‘ new millenium rock revival, but the inevitable comparison between singer Paul Banks and Ian Curtis was what originally led me to Joy Division and the epiphany that not all rock was filled with sloppy machismo and lead guitar bombast.
This was a sort of in-between realm of rock that I wasn’t yet aware of, where focus and composure took the place of punk’s often-juvenile aggression and grunge’s often-hollow roughness and manifested itself in something that resembled a careful arrangement. Interpol often use dual guitar lines in the album to create a ordered sound that borders on sonic pointillism. That precision shows up prominently on “PDA”, where all the pistons consistently fire in unison — that is, up until the collective “solo” appears about three minutes into the song. The starkest moments in the entire track — the first 50 seconds of this section — drop all the swagger and quirk of Banks’ monotone lyrical fragments for the pure scrape of mechanical catharsis.
That quiet minute where the rhythm is bolstered only by a few intertwining instruments gives the same deceptive simplicity on the cover of the album — where the uncomplicated suddenly blooms into something vague, cryptic and endlessly captivating.
You may think there’s not much to look at on first encounter of Television’s Marquee Moon, but this album files comfortably under “subtle masterpiece.” The group, posed somewhat oddly in a “stacked” formation, is rendered in a heavy yellowed tint, much like other photographs that might have been taken in the 1970s, but their stance doesn’t immediately hint too much about the sound of the record. Vocalist and guitarist Tom Verlaine stands front and center with his hand held up, possibly gripping something, though it’s not exactly clear. It forces you to stop for a second and look a little closer — up to the point where it becomes a strain to see if any glimpse of shadow affords itself behind Verlaine’s claw-like hands.
And that’s when you realize what you’re looking at. Verlaine sure is one ratty looking guy. His face is gaunt and his skin is sallow, and it’s somewhat hard to imagine those jagged bunches of veins and skin wrapped around a guitar without hearing the scrap of bone on metal. The whole image carries all the grotesque high-contrast realism of a Dutch vanitas painting (with a New-York-in-the-70s flourish courtesy of the white-on-black sans-serif). And just like those old paintings, a mixture of loose lines and rigid structure on the album make for a very distinct sound that is easy to miss on the first, second, and even third listen.
“Venus” is one of the earliest examples on record of Television’s precision and skill. This track starts off with thumping and repetitive riffs from all instruments until it all suddenly launches into a crisply executed series of jagged quarter notes — that’s the first hint. On paper, the idea of all members playing only quarter notes translates roughly into a boring and uninspired marching rhythm, but by putting a little variety between said passages (as well as a good amount of Verlaine’s nasal singspiel-ing) turn the track into a pulsing composition. When you’ve had enough of the contrast, the solo that populates the final 30 seconds provides a end that’s both formulaic and satisfying.
Side A of Marquee Moon ends with a sprawling 11-minute epic of a title track, which largely follows the same recipe as “Venus” (simple chugging rhythms and clean solos over idiosyncratic vocals, slowly feeding off each other). After a track with as much presence as “Marquee Moon”, it would seem difficult for Television to start up again with something in the same vein — so they don’t.
“Elevation” has the same initial swagger as “Venus”, but at the first refrain, the band breaks the regularity of the rhythm and launches into a off-center riff before employing a stop-start dynamic to introduce the next verse. This all makes an already angular sound even more uneven. The guitar solo is once again given center stage near the mid-point of the song, but this time Verlaine plays a little looser than before, dipping into the lower register before climbing towards a screeching high point, putting the cherry on top of the band’s most successfully enterprising song.
It might have been hard to look at Verlaine’s hands on the front cover and imagine them gliding over the fretboard, but after more than a few listens, I get it. The band’s sound is vastly dependent on those creepy, bony hands and all the angles they’re capable of creating.
The Norman Rockwell aesthetic is one that gets exploited constantly — by 90s punk revivalists seeking campy irony, tragically sincere housewives seeking Christmas decorations, and virtually everyone in between. The Magnetic Fields places themselves firmly within that strange crowd with 1994′s Holiday, in which lead songwriter Stephen Merritt and company establish a sound that would echo in their later albums: equal parts picture-perfect Rockwell and misogynistic De Kooning, filtered through a lovelorn baritone.
Front and center on the cover of the album is the image of a lovely young mid-century woman, beaming with the self-assurance that only youth begets. The man in the foreground is entranced by her charm, and even the naval officer in the background seems transfixed on something in her direction — my guess is the ambiguity is intentional. Her cherubic face and shining smile have so much gravity that it’s hard to even notice the rifle she’s brandishing. Then it becomes clear that despite the presupposition of the title and the optimistic yellow sky, something odd is going on here.
“Torn Green Velvet Eyes”, a woozy album highlight, all the hooks are present and accounted for in gloriously full-tilt synthy instrumentation. The clearest lines of the track point to a traditional love poem set to music, but upon closer inspection, for every sweet statement of love there are just as many strange lines are present. “It just rains because it can / and you just cry until you can’t,” sings Merritt at the end of the first verse. Later in the second verse, he states with his trademark deadpan, “You know the night is gone when the sunlight burns your eyes.” What a lovely statement?
The closer on the album, “Take Ecstasy With Me”, does no better to cover its bizarre intentions, only flipping the roles of title and lyrics. The lines Merritt drawls illustrate idyllic experiences and persecuted love, not unlike the classic Romeo & Juliet circumstances that dot classic love songs. The title, however, gives a certain druggy pretext that’s impossible to ignore, especially as it serves as chorus as well. Suddenly the lush colors of the front cover take on a whole new meaning.
At the end of the album, it becomes hard to look at the album art the same as when the instrumental intro track bounced along. In effect, the music shifts the artwork into a whole new context — something that the aforementioned Rockwell “enthusiasts” are always too overt to accomplish. As a musical illustration of the artwork, the album unites lush synth with young infatuation, and as a lyrical work, the words provide cleverly indirect satire — it’s among the band’s best, just based on how many layers it achieves from a seemingly flat cover image.
Sometimes Beat Happening’s efforts can sound a lot like the live model doodle that graces the cover of You Turn Me On. That is to say that they’re idiosyncratic, messy and half-assed, even if they do all of it with a charming wink. To be honest, because of that healthy dose of Flannel Belt apathy, I didn’t enjoy Beat Happening as I first came across them on 1988′s Jamboree, save for the dancey, gender-fucked opening track, but that wasn’t enough for me to reconsider. It wasn’t until I decided to give the band a second chance with 1992′s Turn Me On that I realized that the group was filtering through all the shit towards a keen sense of pop style, much like the cover’s sketch could hint to the elegance of a finished portrait.
As the lead-off track, “Tiger Trap” does a lot to set up the concept of the album. The opening jangles follow through to the end of the song, always present in a 6 1/2 minute song. This is the definition of a drone-y exploration of a sonic wasteland, but the band manages to avoid turning the drone into a conduit for flatness. Instead, the usually disinterested baritone of Calvin Johnson shines through in a way that almost lets us forget about the off-key ramblings of “Indian Summer“. In a rare moment, Johnson shows a genuine and calm directness, turning the track into a work as enjoyable as the scribbles of a future master artist.
For the album’s title track, the band turns the dial up a bit from the glistening love song of “Tiger Trap” to provide a tune that you can dance to in front of stacks of amps. The intro riff alone, split between two guitars playing three notes in different octaves, is evidence of the spartan beauty of rock’n'roll songwriting — stupidly simply, but undeniably genius. The squealing flourish of single guitar every so often and the mumbled incantation of a chorus (there’s that disinterested baritone again) make for an addictive send-off into a strange mash-up skeletal sensibility and full-bodied hooks.
At the end of my first listen of this album, which I embarrassingly report was only a few months ago, I was almost instantaneously convinced I had made the wrong conclusion about Beat Happening. That was me being idealistic, however — hoping in my head for a dinner party anecdote about how I initially hated the band that eventually became my favorite (Haha! Quel surprise!). But really, I just like this album don’t particularly like Jamboree, as great as “Bewitched” is as an opener. I suppose it’s because, like any study/sketch done early on in the history of a work of art, something is always changes in translation. For You Turn Me On, that dimension remains in the final product, as least for this listener.
I was a teenager, stoned and listening to Low in the back of a trust fund baby’s Mercedes. Everything slowed to a crawl, set in place by that band’s mournful hum. I was looking out the window over the darkened hills of Santa Monica when the words came at me, hovering in the air like early morning fog: “Sometimes you just want to hear music that makes you feel worse than you really do.”
They’re words I’ve always remembered for their simple poignancy, and as a reminder that music isn’t always about truth and reality. I didn’t have to feel bad for listening to the Who without having owned a Vespa, or for listening to Bauhaus without having been a vampiric actor. The music was about idealism and about dreaming without limits, and most importantly, it was and is about being able to leave your life, your pressures, and your problems behind for a bit. Some of the best escape artists don’t need tools or sleight of hand as much as they need headphones and some time alone.
Listening to This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears at my age, past the tumult of adolescence and now settling into adulthood, I can’t help but look at the cover and think of the hazy dreamscapes of 4AD Records — not only how wistful and beautiful they are, but also how unapologetically morose and hopeless they sound. With the waifish model Pallas Citroën gracing the front of the album, bathed in partial darkness and eight millimeter grit, the album is a definitive statement of woe and weltschmerz, and one that borders on trite by the standards of modern-day subtlety.
As far as Elizabeth Fraser tracks on TMC releases, “Song to the Siren” gets all the attention, and for good reason. That track’s skeletal but shimmering guitar tone, coupled with Fraser’s vocal acrobatics lend an atmosphere that isolates the space around the composition and amplifies it. “Another Day”, another Fraser-sung track on Tears, takes the singer’s controlled trill and softens it, placing it against a string accompaniment. The song’s melodies and progressions, originally penned by British singer/songwriter Roy Harper, are almost progressive, continually hitting new sweet spots in Fraser’s vocal flourishes. At the end of the track, a three-minute slice of rueful contemplation has come and gone, substituting clarity for quizzical details and stunning beauty.
One of the better attributes of TMC is that the frontman and leader of the odd collective is Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of 4AD, which begets access to various musicians associated with the label. It also makes sure that the band’s releases are always very diverse, covering a broad range of influences and styles. “Fyt” is an example of the more aggressive sounding side of Tears, which manifests itself in a collection of sampled drum and synth loops set against an artificial pipe organ worthy of the Phantom of the Opera. The track is instrumental, allowing it to express its dirge-like qualities through ominous atmospherics and numbing repetition — a soundtrack to another grimy day. With all the chaos swirling and stewing, it isn’t hard to imagine the fabric of life unfurling before your eyes.
Dramatic, yes. Romantic, very. Sensational, yep. Hackneyed, well… maybe. You can take the whole package — black-and-white photography, twenty-ton kickdrums, flowery vocal stunts, melodramatic synths, etc. — and deem it a product of the 80s, to be taken as such with a grain of salt, but you’d be missing a portion of this music that makes it endlessly relevant to escape artists everywhere. Albums like Tears make it possible to transport yourself into the world of the cover photograph, wedged in between the warble of a Cocteau Twin dressed in black lace. Not because it’s where you belong or where you should be, but because sometimes you just want to hear music that makes you feel worse than you really do.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the ultimate expression of unrestrained ambition, zealous stargazing, and confronting the “human condition of mortal sorrow.”
On the cover of the album (illustrated by John Craig), the angelic figure embedded in the star is a collaged combination of Saint Catherine of Alexandra (1507) by Raphael and The Souvenir (Fidelity) (1787-89) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The provided muse for this album was born across two centuries of European ﬁne art, removed from our earth and cast into a glowing constellation claiming Inﬁnite Sadness.
In 1995, the physical copy of the album came with a booklet of artwork. Corgan’s description of the music to designer Frank Olinsky was “psychedelic music by a heavy metal band from the 1920s.” The collage-style artwork reﬂects this with daring and surreal anthropomorphic scenes indebted to both Renaissance and Rococo art. It’s simultaneously harming, unsettling, and cryptic.
The ambition is felt throughout the double album. The vinyl edition is divided into six sides titled Dawn, Tea Time, Dusk, Twilight, and Starlight…and stretches beyond the two hour mark. Billy Corgan is the unironic believer in his mid-90s alt rock masterpiece, and “Tonight, Tonight” is his manifesto. The song bursts out of the instrumental opener with the help of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As the orchestra and the band swell into the climax, Corgan sings:
We’ll crucify the insincere tonight
We’ll make things right, we’ll feel it all tonight
We’ll ﬁnd a way to offer up the night tonight
The indescribable moments of your life tonight
The impossible is possible tonight
Believe in me as I believe in you, tonight
“Thru the Eyes of Ruby” begins with a piano phrase reminiscent of the album’s first song, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, before Corgan and guitarist James Iha unleash 70 guitars. It’s titanic glam rock performed with enough conviction and prowess to earn the group their silver pants. Corgan’s trademark whine preaching such gems as, “My love for you just can’t explain / why we’re forever frozen, forever beautiful, / forever lost inside ourselves,” and, “To the revelations of fresh faced youth / no one will come to save you / so speak your peace in the murmurs drawn / but youth is wasted on the young.” After another couple guitar movements, the piano phrase is back and the “melancholy” concept of the album is reinforced.
The lyrics are printed in yet another booklet, showing off carefully selected typefaces and symbols to accompany Corgan’s poetry. There is more than enough artwork provided here to move the listener through the aesthetic experience of the collection. The final product is a strange and beautiful realm as well as a high that the Pumpkins would never hit again. With Mellon Collie, the Pumpkins shot for the moon but ended up on their own planet where an album like this is possible.