Brett Sparks is one half of The Handsome Family. The band’s new album is out at the end of this week, it’s called Wilderness. The new record is coming out on vinyl, so Brett went out and bought himself a turntable to listen to the test pressings. He grew up with vinyl so it’s been a joy to resurrect it as a way of listening. Some of these records are 50 years old, some are brand new. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
1 – Jim Reeves, The Best of Jim Reeves: There is a little white piece of masking tape on the corner of this record that has handwritten in ink “80-A, Album, $1.00.” I bought it at the thrift store where the proceeds go the animal shelter here in Albuquerque. My favorite song on the record is The Blizzard, the story of a man who is lost in the snow, but refuses to leave his horse, Dan, behind. Because of his decision, he perishes in the snow. Reeves was a huge success, one of the first Nashville “crossover” artists, selling on the pop and country charts with equal power. Incidentally, this record says in small print on the back at the bottom “Produced by Chet Atkins.” Atkins was the king of what was called “Countrypolitan” (or the “Nashville Sound”) – country music you could sip martinis to. Many associate this period, and Atkins himself, with the beginning of the end for real country music. But Atkins produced some of the greatest country sides by the likes of Ray Price, Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, George and Tammy (and yes, The Louvin Brothers).
2 – The Beatles, The Beatles (AKA “The White Album): This is from the new vinyl remaster of The Beatles albums. It is hard to believe that this record was begun a mere 11 months after the release of Sgt. Peppers. Pepper, in comparison sounds studied and meticulous. In contrast, the White album is a leviathan mess (yes, leviathan: check out the “white” chapter of Melville’s Moby Dick), a big tangle of wire, a scream bleeding through the headphones. One moment it is pastoral (Dear Prudence), the next utter razor-edged chaos, (Helter Skelter and Yer Blues). Paul is at his most banal (Back in the USSR, Rocky Raccoon) and sublime (Blackbird). And John at his most pissed off – the sneering sarcasm of Sexy Sadie and Happiness is a Warm Gun (maybe the best anti-establishment pop song ever written. This song should be currently playing on every radio station in America). As a work of art it is full of folly (Revolution 9) and smart-ass art school posturing (the cover “art” ala John Cage). Check this out this amazingly evocative artwork based on the “artwork” of The White Album
3 – Mozart, Last Six Symphonies – The Academy of Ancient Music: Although Christopher Hogwood is credited as playing “Continuo,” the AAM is his baby, his claim to fame. What a novel idea – performing the music of the period and instruments that are appropriate. And the fact that he is credited as “continuo” brings a few points to light. In Mozart’s time the basso continuo (bass and harpsichord, which together played the harmonic underpinning) of the Baroque period were still hanging on strong. The “conducting” duties fell to the harpsichord player and/or the Konzertmeister (1st violinist). This is just one example of the differences the AAM have adopted as far as performance practice goes. But the most wonderful and stunning aspect of this recording is the smaller size of the orchestra. We are used to hearing Mozart’s Symphonies played by orchestras that are more suited to Beethoven or Brahms. AAM’s paired down ensemble really creates a clarity wherein you can follow Mozart’s elegant lines. The woodwinds are audible, since the giant string section is not stomping all over them. Much better overall balance.
4 – David Bowie, Scary Monsters: This album just serves to remind me of what a creative period New Wave was. Bands from Joy Division to Throbbing Gristle were breaking barriers and questioning what sounded “good.” Gary Numan and Wall of Voodoo mixed new colors of synths with rock guitars. Love songs were abandoned and new, oddball emotional themes and psychoses were explored. Talking Heads’ David Byre seemed to crawl into his own head and sing from in there. But the palette on Scary Monsters was so ahead, so expansive. Bowie had already plowed his way through a handful of genres both conventional and outrageous. SM wasn’t just weird for its own sake. It pulled back from the conceptual edge of Heroes and Low, but pushed the parameters of what pop could be (see Lodger). Like the best work of The Beatles, where a fairly simple pop song form (say Strawberry Fields) is subverted and twisted, the songs on Scary Monsters take pop and even Tin Pan Alley forms and morph them into little dystopian symphonies. The chorus to Ashes to Ashes takes a circle-of-fifths chord progression with descending melody line ala Cole Porter and paints it with bizarre instrumentation, paranoid lyrical imagery, and drug references. Perfect.
5 – Terry Allen, Bottom of the World: This is the only CD-release listed here. Also the only recent record: it just came out last month. Terry Allen is a true original. He was part of that late 1970s Lubbock outsider-country posse that included Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, The Flatlanders, etc. An unusual crew, and Terry was unusual even for them. His masterpiece, Lubbock on Everything, was an artist’s look at what it means to be a Texan for better or worse. And, like myself, a West Texan at that. Terry is also a sculptor of some renown and his records are informed by the conflict between the art world, the music industry, Texas, and the real world. His new record is razor sharp (at the age of 70), minimal, and just plain melancholy. Produced by the genius Lloyd Maines, there is enough space in the arrangements for a ten-foot tumbleweed to roll though.