1 – Willie Nelson, Stardust: Everyone has had a crack at the American songbook these days, most with questionable results. It’s become the thing you do when you are becoming old and irrelevant, and want to milk a few more notes out of the punters. It’s pretty easy to do and fools and their money etc. Before the current crop of hacks and cafe crooners had a visit to the bank, Willie Nelson made Stardust. It was in the late 1970’s and Nelson was big in country music and something called The Outlaw Movement. He sported braided, greying, red hair with a bandana, and often a well-worn Canadian Tuxedo. In fact he looks much the same 40 years later. He smokes a lot of weed, has 7 kids with 4 different women, is politically active and has been done for avoiding tax. He’s played with both Julio Iglesias and Snoop Dogg. He did all that first, kids. At 80, he’d be on the Coolest Living Americans list.
Stardust was recorded in the late 1970s with production by Booker T. Jones. It’s a collection of self-chosen standards that the record company was sure would be a stiff. It didn’t fit the image of the artist. It wasn’t what “the kids” are into, etc. The album kicks off with the titular Hoagy Carmichael track dating back from the Great Depression. Willie does the best version I’ve heard. It’s a smoky, late night rendition with Willie on guitar and Booker T on keyboards, and a rather nice percussion underpinning. Blue Skies, which has become a Nelson staple, is on there. September Song is achingly beautiful. He does Georgia On My Mind at least as well as Ray Charles. There’s Moonlight In Vermont and Unchained Melody, with All Of Me and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore providing an uptempo balance. Stardust closes with a beautiful version of Someone To Watch Over Me. The arrangements are top notch; traditional, but with room for the trademark guitar and harmonica. Willie’s unique voice is on form, perfectly lived in, and his singing style slightly off the beat. This is such a sweet, sweet record.
2 – Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon: I really had to think hard about including this one. Dark Side has become so huge over the past four decades that liking it seems uncool. To some, it’s a defacto admission that you don’t really care about music or “get” Pink Floyd. Tens of millions of units and 741 weeks on the Billboard chart means that it really can’t be that great a record, surely. Presumably too many philistines like me bought it. There’s a rolling of the eyes from “real fans” and conversations about how the band sold out to commercial interests. Syd Barrett was the real juice in the band anyway, apparently. There may be an almost desperate search from the fanboys for a better album that really encapsulates The Floyd. I even had one guy try to sell me on Animals as an antidote.
I was too young to hear Dark Side of the Moon first time around. I never got to rush home with that fresh-sleeved vinyl LP and stick on the headphones, roll a joint and such. Probably just as well since I was two or three at the time. My first proper listen was on a bus between Dunedin and Alexandra on a Sony Walkman. (Kids, look it up). It was 1987 and I was a bum; not in school, not in work, not doing much. I think I borrowed the tape from a friend. As the tussock and rock sailed by I closed my eyes and listened. It was a moment. I hadn’t heard an actual “concept” album before, aside from Neil’s Heavy Concept Album which maybe doesn’t count. The first thing I noticed was that there weren’t tracks in a typical sense. It wasn’t singles stuck together with a bit of filler and one or two listenable album tracks, like most of what I had been listening to. It was an opus, one big listening experience meant to be heard all at once. Sure radio stations played a few tunes and called them singles, but they weren’t really singles. The outros were faded out too soon and followed by ads for colour televisions and car repair places. Get yourself a 45 of Time or Money and you were missing the whole point. It was/is a personal listening experience for me. Headphones were mandatory for all the panning sound effects and the voiceovers about mortality and conflict. In an interview, David Gilmour wistfully said how nice it would’ve been to go the local record shop and had that first, fresh listen with a set of headphones. Probably some weed too, the old bugger. Nowadays, I listen in the car to the most recent remaster. I’m beginning to see how they sold all those units. This edition includes a second disc of the album played live at Wembley in 1974. I wish I could’ve seen that show. To try and get the “being there” vibe I bought the SACD 5.1 mix when it came out. It was a great listen, but it never had quite the same pleasure of a hissy tape on bus in the middle of nowhere.
3 – Aztec Camera, Dreamland: I bought this at Colin Morris Records on Lambton Quay when they were closing down. I knew the band, originally from Roddy Frame’s awesome cover of Jump by Van Halen. I had a look and saw that it was produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Something about this pairing seemed entirely badass to me. Plus it was only $5. To this day, I cannot get why this was still sitting there for me to find. It is an amazing album. It has all the gorgeous, pop songwriting of Roddy Frame laid over a lush Japanese soundscape from Sakamoto. I imagine that some diehard Aztec Camera fans might hate it. Too many strings, too heavily produced and slick. Sakamoto fans might be put off as well, too many words and acoustic guitar riffs. To me, it’s pretty much perfect.
Dreamland is immersive, warm and hazy. The first track, Birds, sets the tone with a bass-line and string arrangement that sounds like late night cocktails at a Tokyo hotel bar, maybe a little slow dancing with Scarlett Johansson. As a film composer, Sakamoto layers in an expansive cinematic quality to this record; Vertigo, with its martial percussion and carillon sounding synths, could’ve come out of The Last Emperor. There’s the syncopated Pianos And Clocks and the sleepy afterglow of Valium Summer. Let Your Love Decide is a quiet yearning, the grown up man as a lovelorn, lapsed idealist. The most upbeat track, Spanish Horses, is all flamenco guitar and piano flourish. Quite fluffy. Valium Summer ends the album on a wistful note; “Too early for September songs, But much too late for love to bloom.” This album never fails to warm me up and make me think. Its slice of summer evening, loves found and never were, and dreams of what might be.
4 – The Grateful Dead, American Beauty: The film and TV producer Judd Apatow introduced me to this record. Not personally. There was an episode of Freaks And Geeks in which a teacher gave Lyndsey an LP of American Beauty to help her through a rough patch. The track used was Box Of Rain and I instantly needed this album. The Dead hadn’t really gotten my interest before. As a hippie jam-band they weren’t really my bag, man. They literally got together as a band at the intersection of Haight-Ashbury, long before it was a place for doughy white people to buy T-shirts. Their remake of the Twilight Zone theme for the 80’s TV series was kind of cool, other than that they never really featured on my radar. As a bunch of guys who could spend three hours playing one long acid-fuelled song in concert, and have no one recognise it, they really got their shit together for this album. They are all great live musicians, and somehow, someway, someone managed to distil it in a recording session. I could imagine The Dead making a four LP freeform set if they could get away with it. That didn’t happen, fortunately. American Beauty runs just over 42 minutes. It is a cohesive and complete album. The shared vocal harmonies are gorgeous; clearly this is where Fleet Foxes got their shtick. They skate across a range of subjects, heavy and not so much; the slow decline and death of Phil Lesh’s father (Box Of Rain), grifting through life one step ahead of the fuzz (Friend Of The Devil and Truckin’, the other guy’s girlfriend (Sugar Magnolia), sex and drugs (Candyman), and the deep halls of the soul (Attics Of My Life and Ripple). There’s guest mandolin from David Grisman on Ripple which is pretty sweet. Jerry Garcia’s wonderful playing reminds of how he was gone to soon, a victim of his addictions. The lyrics of Robert Hunter are nicely woven into the music; it was obviously an organic process in creating these songs. In terms of recorded work, this is the high point of The Dead. Everyone firing on all cylinders, all working towards a common end which becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Unless you followed the Deadheads for a few years, this is a close as you can get to what the band was. It’s a marriage of folk harmonies and instruments with electric rock and bluegrass, made by hippies. On paper, American Beauty sounds really awful. But it isn’t. It’s an album I couldn’t live without.
5 – Wilco, Sky Blue Sky: This record was released when I was going through an existential crisis. I connected with it, sensing a shared journey and hopefulness. I didn’t appreciate what it was going to mean to me over time. Jeff Tweedy had flushed his life down the toilet of addiction and hit rock bottom. His family left him, and just about everyone thought he was an asshole. He probably was. He got sober and wrote songs about being a recovering asshole, and trying to work out who he was. His biggest fear was that he couldn’t make music without getting high. I like this album for its raw honesty. I believe Tweedy is an honest songwriter, but it takes cojones to be this honest. The first track I heard was Please Be Patient With Me, a plaintive ode to his wife about how hard it was for him to get his shit together.
I had heard the early Wilco albums and liked them, but they hadn’t clicked immediately like Sky Blue Sky. The band was a different beast at this stage, with the absence of Jay Bennett, a loss to Wilco for sure, and the addition of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone. The rest of the band had been together for a while; John Stirrat (bass, harmony vocals), Mikael Jorgenson (keyboards) and Glenn Kotche (percussion). Stirrat, (the only original member aside from Tweedy) plays well, as does Jorgenson. In terms of the newer guys, Sansone is a working multi-instrumentalist who can provide a useable background, but it’s Nels Cline who is the real magic. Nels is Yoda with a guitar. Between him and percussionist Glenn Kotche you have the second generation Wilco sound. It’s amazing to hear them fill out an older, Bennett-era track. And the newer stuff has been built around their respective gifts. Cline’s background is as jazz guitarist, and as such he is comfortable with the improv-noodle. But like a great jazz guitarist, he knows when NOT to use the improv-noodle. He can work an electric solo, or a gentle steel slide, or a rhythm part without turning it into a jazz-fusion clusterfuck. He seems to know just how much of himself to put in and, more importantly, leave out. A searing solo on Impossible Germany or a little country slide on Sky Blue Sky, it’s always about the song, not the guitar player. Kotche does a lot more than keep the beat. He is a creative drummer, always looking to add a little something extra, without stomping all over other people’s work. There are no big, dumb solos or scene-chewing tricks, just solid musicianship and love of the work. Go back to Kicking Television or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for further listening on what a great drummer can do for you. There is cohesive, solid musicianship in Wilco. These guys enjoy playing together, and it shows.
The central theme of existential self-examination comes through most strongly on On And On And On, Hate It Here, Sky Blue Sky and Impossible Germany. This is the deep part for me, and why I love this record. Equally, there is a hopeful flavour here which I also enjoy. The songs aren’t all dark introspection. Either Way is a meditation on learning acceptance of the present without judgement. Walken is an upbeat rock jam. What Light is a warm reminder about being yourself, whatever that might be. There is a twin theme of crisis and rebuilding on this album. For a long time this has been my favourite album, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.