Saturday, October 19, 2019

Randy Newman: Sail Away (1972)

Release Date: May 1972
Produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman (Reprise)

Side One: Sail Away; Lonely At the Top; He Gives Us All His Love; Last Night I Had A Dream; Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear; Old Man

Side Two: Political Science; Burn On; Memo To My Son; Dayton, Ohio -1903; You Can Leave Your Hat On; God's Song (that's why I love mankind)

Randy Newman's at times comical, at times heartbreaking, 1972 album Sail Away updates the American songbook with a post-1960s sensibility. Majestic and satiric, the record ricochets between romanticism and cynicism.

"Sail Away" encapsulates the promise of America as a bountiful land of promise, only it's from the perspective of a slave trader beckoning Africans to cross the ocean into bondage. The striking arrangement itself is deceptive, wrapped inside inside the melodies are suffering and shame. 

"Political Science" serves a companion song to "Sail Away," a prophetic song imagining MAGA movement. 

"Lonely At the Top" is a Sinatra parody, the narrator has everything an entertainer could ever want and yet feels unhappy. While "Simon Smith" looks at the bottom side of fame in a playful manner. Both songs aspire to a God like perspective, a recurring theme throughout Sail Away

"He Gives All His Love" imagines a compassionate God kindly looking down on everyone from above, an erstwhile hymn on the surface. On the closing track, "God's Song", Newman imagines a sadistic deity amazed at humans still worship him after all the loss and destruction he's wrought.

The melancholy "Old Man" imagines a life lived, "Memo to My Son" a playful song about fatherhood. 

"Last Night I Had A Dream" and "You Can Leave Your Hat On" are fanciful love songs that lighten up the mood of the record. 

Two songs are about Ohio. "Burn On" makes light of the Cuyahoga river catching on fire set to a pastoral melody. "Dayton, Ohio 1903" imagines an idyllic America, full of industry, kindness, and confidence in direct contrast to the Rustbelt of the 1970s. 

In 30 minutes of music, Randy Newman takes an ironic and emphatic view of the American experience, each track could be a novel.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Albums of 1996: Wilco: Being There

Release Date: October 29, 1996
Produced by Wilco
Active Members: Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Jay Bennett, Ken Coomer, Max Johnston, Bob Egan

Side One: Misunderstood; Far, Far Away; Monday; Outtasight (outtmind); Forget the Flowers
Side Two: Red Eyed and Blue; I Got You (at the end of the century); What's the World Got in Store; Hotel Arizona: Say You Miss Me
Side Three: Sunken Treasure; Someday Soon; Outta Mind (outtasight); Someone Else's Song; Kingpin
Side Four: (Was I) In Your Dreams; Why Would You Wanna Live; The Lonely 1; Dreamer in My Dreams

The sophomore Wilco LP Being There was a double album recorded in an era when the concept was borderline obsolete. Featuring 19 tracks that recalled the power pop simplicity of A.M. and the Midwest punch of Uncle Tupelo, yet at the same engaged on a deeper level with the past and present of rock.

"Misunderstood" unabashedly goes for the big time, an epic rocker that quotes Ohio cult hero Peter Laughner, as if Tweedy is putting the entire experience of a disaffected young men in the Midwest into one song. "Far, Far Away" is smooth country western rock song about longing. "Monday" channels Exile on Main Street Era Rolling Stones. "Outtasite (outta mind) and then "Forget the Flowers," very much in the twangy Uncle Tupelo style.

"Red-Eyed and Blue" opens side two, a melancholy state of mind song about writer's block and trying to hold a fledgling band together. "I Got You (at the end of the century)" defines slacker rock, feelings of dwindling expectations in the Rustbelt but the records are still on the shelf. "What's the World Got in Store" mediates on uncertainty and malaise, "Hotel Arizona" deals with the life of a band at a crossroads. "Say You Miss Me" Tweedy goes a soulful lyric on another song about the road.

Disc 2 opens with "Sunken Treasure", a continuation of the themes of introduced on "Misunderstood" albeit a more mature approach. "Someday Soon" is another alt-country rocker, "Outta Mind (outta sight)" is a reprise at a slightly slower tempo and a wearier vocal. On the acoustic ballad "Someone Else's Song" Tweedy confesses, "I keep on singing, your eyes, they just roll" speaks to how his music might be derivative of many others, but he'll keep singing anyway. "Kingpin" is a swamp rocker worthy of CCR. 

Side four begins with "(Was I) In Your Dreams" another country western ballad with a Gen X edge. "Why Would You Wanna Live" returns to the world weariness motif, backed by excellent strings and banjos. "The Lonely 1" may be one of the tenderest ballads ever written by Tweedy, while "Dreamer In My Dreams" serves as a coda to the entire record.

Critic Robert Christgau called Being There a triumph, but an insular one. While it's bigger and more ambitious than A.M., it also lacks some of the sly sense of humor. The incarnation of Wilco on Being There would transition to modern folk rock by collaborating with Billy Bragg. Tweedy would write more abstract lyrics more informed by his reading of modernist literature. Jay Bennett would also change the sound of the band and add a sonic dimension to the sound. Being There got the attention of critics (and fans) and cemented Wilco as a distinct voice in the rock landscape. 


The Albums of 1970: Paul McCartney: McCartney

Release Date: April 17, 1970 Produced by Paul McCartney Contributors: Linda McCartney (vocals) Side One: The Lovely Linda; That Would Be Som...