Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is always a great album to break out in the fall. Even though much of the music is played with a with a sort of menace, Martin Hannet’s production creates an eerie atmosphere. The use of space and overall feeling of the performance is just as important as the songs. You put on Unknown Pleasures and you can feel the daylight fading early: the last rays of the sun closing down over the horizon.
I always think of Bernard Sumner’s guitar on Unknown Pleasures playing as a sort of slowed down version of James Williamson’s fiery slash, best evident on Raw Power. Raw Power is of course, the sound of the apocalypse reigning down all around with Iggy front and center, reveling in the destruction and hedonism. Unknown Pleasures is the album for the aftermath.
My favorite track on the album has always been “Day of the Lords”. It’s the song that made me fully appreciate the album and believe the hype and mythology surrounding Joy Division. There’s not much structure to the song other than dissonant noise courtesy of Sumner’s controlled feedback. The sludgy feeling of the song only heightens the tension of Ian Curtis’ bloodcurdling cries of “where will end?”
In high school, I was obsessed with The Clash. To say that they were a major influence on my person and political outlook is a bit of an understatement. Like many people, I worshipped at the altar of Joe Strummer. His fiery and passionate lyrics resonated with me in a way that few artists have. As a teenager shifting into adulthood, figuring out the type of person I wanted to be, The Clash were the right band at the right time.
So, naturally I was intrigued by the idea of what a Joe Strummer solo album would sound like. I put off purchasing it for a long time, mostly out of fear that it would be a disappoint. More often that not, solo albums by lead singers of a legendary band, are pretty terrible. Solo albums allow artists to indulge in their worst tendencies. Even the great solo albums, have a tendency to drift into self-indulgence. As much as I like Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon’s solo debut is the work of a whiny prick. Pete Townshend’s solo albums bought his all of his pretentiousness to the forefront, losing much of the humor and unbridled energy of The Who.
Luckily, 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style was actually quite good. Strummer delivered a focused record that added new shades and colors to his already wide musical palette. It was experimental, without being “arty”. The word “organic” is used a lot, but the record did have a natural feeling that suggested Strummer was coming to terms with growing older.
The highlight of the album is “Road to Rock N’ Roll” which combines folk, hip-hop and country. Over looped drums and an acoustic guitar, Strummer seems at ease, letting the music over-take him as he muses about good and evil, snowing falling on the city and the meaning of music in people’s lives. Supposedly written with Johnny Cash in mind, “Road to Rock N’ Roll” is the kind of song that could be written by a man who truly believed that rock and roll could change the world.
It all begins with a snare crack and roll. Right from the beginning, you know it’s a call to arms. But Sly Stone quickly turns the idea on its head right away, by proclaiming in the very line, “in the end you’ll still be you.” Usually, this type of declaration would be made at the end of the song; especially a song that lists all the types of things you should do be a socially consciousness and upstanding part of society. By beginning the song with the concept of still being one’s self through personal and political change, the message is clearer and more direct for the listener. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to accomplish these things though.
Despite being over 45 years old, “Stand!” still seems particularly relevant and potent in today’s society. Like the late ’60s, society is changing at a rapid pace, and while much progress has been made, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The song is a good reminder to “Stand! for the things you know are right.” There’s also an acknowledgement that not everyone will come along for the ride, because, “they will try to make you crawl, and they know what you’re saying makes sense and all.” “Stand!” ends up a high note by suggesting that you are free, “well at least if you know you want to be.”
And that should be the end of the song. Any other songwriter might have concluded on that note. Really, how do you follow a philosophical statement like that? And just like the beginning of the song, Sly bucks conventional wisdom and completely turns the song inside out. What was a funky R&B tune, is suddenly transformed into straight up Gospel. With that musical interlude, Sly is suggesting that there is much here that just us and there’s a bigger picture than what we know.
Check out “Stand!” below.
About 10 years ago when I first discovered Neko Case and Blacklisted, I was obsessed with this song. I used to play it constantly in the early morning hours on my way to a dead end job. Somehow, Case’s soaring vocals – which seemed to come somewhere unexplainable; maybe the center of the earth? – made me feel better about my own situation in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. I’ve been lucky enough to see her three times (twice with the New Pornographers and once solo) and live her vocals are even more magnificent.
“Personality Crisis” sets the tone for the rest of the New York Dolls’ eponymous first album: crunching guitars, outrageous vocals and pure sleaze. Allmusic describes the song “as a turbo-charged Phil Spector a sound that both the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen would emulate within a few years.”
But more than anything else, “Personality Crisis” would help bring back some of the more fun aspects of rock and roll that seemed to have been forgotten in the early ’70s as many artists grew to be more and more pretentious. “Personality Crisis” is the kind of song that demands you to crank up the stereo and for three glorious minutes bask in the power that only good rock and roll can provide.
The Strokes are hardly an original band, but damn if they didn’t sound fresh and exciting on their debut, Is This It. Even fourteen years after its release, it still sounds incredibly cool.
Besides good songwriting, perhaps The Strokes greatest strength is the way that guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr play off each other. Throughout Is This It, they constantly play against each other, one tends to favor more melodic and slower rhythms while the other aggressively plays beneath. This unique approach creates an interesting tension in Julian Casablancas’ proto-Hipster songs. (I say proto-Hipster, because I’m almost certain that modern Hipster-dom can be traced direct to the success of Is This It.)
This sound is most evident on the album’s centerpiece, “Someday”, album’s sole ballad. Fittingly, Hammond and Casablancas both take a bit of a somber approach. But neither Valensi nor drummer Fabrizio Moretti are having any of it. Valensi’s dirty riff pulls the rug out from underneath the slick surface while Morretti pounds away. The result is one the best songs on an album that is already full of great songs.