In an ongoing attempt to study some of the most overlooked music in pop's history, I have decided to examine a few of the most misunderstood records. They go far deeper than the casual fan would dare go, and some may even challenge the most ardent of fans. I feel that if you give these titles the "special attention" they require, you could find yourself (like me) not only enjoying these records, but loving them. That said, you should enter at your own risk into these engaging waters.
Harry Nilsson—Son of Schmilsson (RCA, 1972) Harry has his cult. He is revered amongst the music nerds as a somewhat eccentric pop tunesmith. His best writing is melodic and whimsical. It is also topped off by one of the sweetest voices ever recorded. After a few years of toiling on marginal success, Harry teamed with producer Richard Perry (Barbara Streisand) and created a rock album that boasted a couple of FM radio hits (“Without You” and “Coconut”). That record, Nilsson Schmilsson, only hinted at Harry’s perverse sense of humor that long time fans had probably known about for some time. Harry followed his hit by teaming with Perry again for a true follow-up. Like most pop geniuses, though, Harry seemed intent on sabotaging his own stardom. What he created was a challenging piece full of crass humor (“Take 54” and “You’re Breakin’ My Heart”), sweet pop (“Remember (Christmas)” and “The Most Beautiful World In The World”), and just downright weirdness (“I’d Rather Be Dead”). It’s all sewn together with B-movie sound effects and belches. It’s all topped off by some of the best pop singing known.
Miles Davis—On The Corner (Sony, 1972) This record baffled the most open-minded jazzphiles upon initial release. People had come to accept Miles’s excursion into full-blown fusion with Bitches Brew. Here, he seems determined to take those challenges to an entirely new level. The bottom line is this is some of the rawest funk recorded. The songs don’t ever really begin or end; they simply exist. It’s a noisy mix of hard funk playing and improvisational instrumental playing with incredible results.
Weezer—Pinkerton (DGC, 1996) How can Weezer, a band of long term success and beloved by fans worldwide, be on a list of misunderstood records? History may tell a different story of why this record has come full circle. When Weezer debuted in late 1994, they were able to ride a crest of a wave of “alternative” bands that enjoyed heavy airplay on MTV and get swept up into one of the latest music trends. They got to be a flavor of the week, and they deserved it; they’re a great band. Fast forward to 1996 and this guitar-driven popwerpop music had fallen on hard times. Guitar music would be all but dead by 1997 and most bands that broke out since Nirvana opened the floodgates were finding themselves in the unemployment lines. Weezer released this, its most emotional and raw set of songs. The critics loved it, but the mainstream ignored it. Weezer retreated for five years before reemerging with a new set similar to their debut. In between that time, fans went back and discovered the beauty of Pinkerton. Rivers would never again release a group of songs this soul-baring. He would evenly publicly decry the fans clamoring for another. It obviously was a dark time for him. As with most masterpieces, though, time has accepted this work and now it’s considered to be on the best albums of the 90s. Some even point to its release as one of the first “emo” albums. Through all the hype and history, it’s still an amazing rock album.
Todd Rundgren—A Wizard, A True Star (Bearsville, 1973) Todd broke through with his commercial breakthrough, Something/Anything. While that record was full of accessible melodies and pristine production, he retreated and followed it with another double set of tunes that are most difficult. The melodies feel more forced, but the record is an aural playground and brings the listener on an adventure. This record messes with the mind and ears in delightful ways.
Paul McCartney—McCartney II (EMI, 1980) Sir Paul followed the arena-sized success of Wings with his second proper “solo” record. While the first McCartney record was an eccentric mix of pop whimsy and homemade charms, this second one is Paul’s foray into the world of synths. He has since said that he learned his mistakes of working with such a “cold” instrument. I say “nay” to Sir Paul. While I can admit that this music is certainly not as much ear candy fun as something like “Silly Love Songs,” it’s an interesting mix of oddities like “Temporary Secretary” and Paul’s sappy balladry like “Waterfalls.” There are some missteps here, but if you think you know McCartney, take a listen to this.
Marvin Gaye—Here, My Dear (Motown, 1978) If the cover doesn’t tell it, here’s the lowdown on the sad (and weird) circumstances surrounding this release by one of America’s greatest voices. Upon his divorce with Anna Gordy, Marvin was ordered to pay the royalties of his next album as part of the divorce settlement. That’s a shorthand version of the ruling, but the truth. It’s odd enough that a judge would rule something like that. What’s even odder is that instead of going into the studio and tossing a sub-standard set of songs just to appease the former wife, Marvin rose to the challenge and recorded a set of songs chronicling a sad break-up and divorce. Like most great art, it was born of suffering and regret. The record itself ranges from accusing anger to desperate sadness. It’s a hard listen, but under all of that darkness is a set of powerful emotional songs honoring a lost love.
Fleetwood Mac—Tusk (Warner Brothers, 1979) The Mac and Lindsey Buckingham followed Rumours, one of the most successful albums of the 70s, with a double set of self-indulgent grandiosity. See a trend here? If Rumours was Buckingham’s Pet Sounds, then this is certainly his Smile. He takes the listener through a set of overly-produced songs. Unlike the rest of The Beach Boys, however, this time the band just went along for the ride. “Tusk” was a strange single, especially following some of the biggest radio hits of the decade.
Bob Dylan—Self Portrait (Columbia, 1970) After the 60s heyday and generally being regarded as one of the most-revered artists of all time, Bob Dylan finally released a sub par album. Or did he? I’m sure that when people first encountered this mix of covers (“The Boxer” and “Let It Be Me”), recent live cuts (“Like A Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs To Me”), and instrumentals (“Wigwam”), they were perplexed. How can such a brilliant man be so fallible? This is the precise charm of this record. Dylan is always putting people on, especially his fans. People denounced and crucified him for going electric four years earlier. Still, that work is regarded as some of the finest rock ever. This just threw people for a complete loop. Bob would challenge us time and time again, but the truth is this is a nice and cool listen. Bob showed everyone that he didn’t always have to be mind-blowing to be engaging. The music speaks for itself, but this is a solid listen and deserves a place amongst Dylan’s best work. Self portrait indeed.
The Byrds—(Untitled) (Columbia, 1970) The Byrds had fallen on hard times commercially. No one was really paying attention by this point. Hell, only Roger McGuinn was left from the original line-up! However, I’d put this particular line-up of The Byrds up against anyone. There. I’ve said it and I’m proud. One good listen to this double LP proves my statement. Clarence White is one of the finest country guitarists that ever played. The first part of this record was a live set, featuring a 16-minute jam on “Eight Miles High.” The live set is really cool as it juxtaposes McGuinn’s classic twelve-string guitar and White country chicken-picking. It’s a crazy mix, but a satisfying one. The studio set is equally great with some of the most sensational Byrds music written. Everyone should do themselves a favor and seek out this amazing recording. I’d put it up against Younger Than Yesterday any day.
Big Star—Third/Sister Lovers (Ryko, 1975) I know I spend a lot of time talking about Big Star here. They never were commercially successful, they deserve a place in rock history, they’re a cult band, blah blah blah. This is the record that many will turn to in discussing the demise of the beloved band. Alex Chilton seemed determined to build and tear down some great rock/pop tunes. The band nearly comes unglued on more than two cuts on this set. This may be the birth of indie-rock. They may be one of the greatest bands that you’ve never heard. But if you follow their first two gems with this drugged-out collection of noise, then you can certainly say that you’ve fallen over the threshold. I must be a masochist; I have an autographed copy.
The Beach Boys—Love You (Brother, 1976) Brian is back! The band released 15 Big Ones. They toured. They returned on the coat-tails of their producer/writer/genius. What a great time! Then they quit. Pretty much a solo Brian Wilson album featuring The Beach Boys, Love You raised questions of Brian’s emotional frailty and general sanity. I was playing this later one evening at the record store I was working at when the manager emerged from the back, took a listen, and shook his head at me. This record is goofy mix of adult humor, farting synths, and Brian’s cigarette-destroyed voice. Gone are the sweet harmonies and simple girl/beach/car themes that The Boys are known for. Here we have paeans to Johnny Carson, the solar system (which brings us wisdom), and honkin’ down the gash-darn highway. This is where many fans split. They either followed Mike Love’s golden oldies tribute or went with Brian Wilson deeper into insanity. It’s a great record.
Alex Chilton—Like Flies On Sherbert (Ardent, 1975) This is Sister Lovers Part II. An even deeper dive into the drug-induced haze of Memphis during the mid 70s. Alex had pretty much determined himself that he would not record a collection of accessible pop melodies. Everything is gross and dismantled as the man himself. It’s a crazy trip and everyone’s invited.
Copyright © 14 Jun 2008 We
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