Roundtable: Marquee Moon

Connor: For Christmas, I received a telescope, and I’ve been trying my hand at space photography with limited success. Thing is, it can take an hour to get a few decent shots, so I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to listen to music. One night, I tried out Spotify’s “Classic Punk” playlist. As often happens with Spotify curated playlists, it was 1/3 juvenile dribble, 1/3 ads, and 1/3 awesome stuff. Part of that last third was the title track for Television’s Marquee Moon, which I thought was one of the best songs I’d heard in a long time.

The album isn’t perfect: the vocals can be weak at times and a couple of the songs, like “Venus” and “Torn Curtain” feel a bit underwhelming, and “Marquee Moon” overshadows the rest of the album in terms of quality and length (its one fourth of the album).That said, I think if “Marquee Moon” had been released separately, Marquee Moon would still be a great sounding album. The rhythms are snappy but not overbearing, the lyrics are wistful and clever, and the guitar-work is just rad. Then, when you add the title track back in, which seriously blows my mind every time I hear it, you’re adding great to great. I seriously love this album.

Verdict: 1/1 lightning striking itself, would listen to again.

Alright guys, I’ve had my chance. Now come dump all over this thing I love! Is it too maudlin? Are the parts incoherent? Does the album lack something you’d want or expect from a more modern record?

Gerthquake: Connor, I was extremely excited when you picked this album, as I’ve alluded to in the group Facebook message we use to run this biz. There were three big reasons for my excitement: 1) I already knew this album front to back, meaning I didn’t even need to listen to it if I didn’t want to (I did anyway.) 2) I really like this album. 3) I was profoundly surprised by your choice, and indeed surprised you’d even heard of the album, much less enjoyed it, so I felt like I learned something about you (or at least about your musical taste) just by the fact that you’d picked it.

I also really like that you came across the title track on the “Classic Punk” playlist. I just looked that playlist up, and I’m sure that among that crowd “Marquee Moon” must have stuck out like a sore thumb on a hand with no other fingers. Television are *technically* one of the founding American punk rock bands. They don’t fit the stereotypical sound of “punk” as it’s been codified through decades of bands imitating each other, though. Their punk-ness has more to do with their time and place, and the bands they played with; they didn’t write two chord songs about sniffing glue, but they did literally help build the stage at CBGB in New York, which was the main venue the first American punk bands played at. (As a sidenote, I would gladly read your explanations of which songs you consider “juvenile dribble” and which are “awesome stuff” from that playlist.)

Anyway, I’m not going to dump on this thing that you love because I also love it. I agree with the broad strokes of your assessment: “rad” is the correct word for the guitar work; Tom Verlaine’s voice is pretty annoying sometimes. Honestly I think a lot of his best moments as a vocalist are the spots where he throws in spoken interjections: the “I ain’t waitin’, uh uh” part in “Marquee Moon” right before the first guitar solo, and the spots in “Prove It” where he says “just the facts” and “this case is closed.”

I will go to bat for “Venus” and “Torn Curtain,” although I agree they’re not the best songs on the album. “Venus” is really elevated for me by its guitar solo section, which transports the whole song to a more beautiful, jazzier dimension. I also like the “did you feel low?” “Not at all” “HUH!?” call-and response vocals. “Torn Curtain” is probably my least favorite song on the album, but I think it serves its purpose, closing things out on an appropriately spooky note.

It might seem a little obvious above to say “Venus” is redeemed by its guitar solo. Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar albums ever made. Every song has a guitar solo, and every song gets kicked up a notch when the solo hits. The best song on the album is the one that has two guitar solos. The guitar solos are individually credited on the CD, but you actually don’t need those credits to suss out who’s playing what: Tom Verlaine takes the long, weird, thin guitar solos, and Richard Lloyd takes the concise ones that feel like little songs of their own–you can hear the contrast clearly on “Marquee Moon” itself, where Lloyd’s solos is this 30 second outburst, and then Verlaine’s is several minutes long and kind of goes nowhere but stills feels satisfying. Lloyd’s solos have a fatter tone because he would memorize his solos and then record two takes on top of each other; the effect is clearest on his solo on “Elevation;” Verlaine, on the other hand, was too improvisatory to doubletrack his solos. It’s not just the solos that make the album, though: Marquee Moon has endured for 40 years because the way Verlaine and Lloyd wrote little interlocking clean guitar parts was really distinctive in the musical context of the ’70s.

I would argue that Marquee Moon is also one of the greatest cool intro albums of all time. The title track may in fact have the coolest intro ever. Very few bands write even one intro on that level in their career, but Television sandwiches it between the also incredible intros of “Friction” and “Elevation,” on the same album. The intros  of “See No Evil,” “Guiding Light,” and “Prove It” are second tier but still pretty cool. “Torn Curtain’s” intro is simple but very effective at setting the mood (listen to that fucking drum roll!) The intro of “Friction” in particular is really interesting to me because I think it illustrates, musically, the way Television were distinctively of their time while also being really strange and unique among ’70s bands: The first moments of the song actually bear a really strong resemblance to the beginning of the Eagles song “Back in the Fast Lane,” which is about as ’70s as it gets, but then the beat drops, and with it comes that totally alien, menacing guitar riff (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to the song again and you will); no one else was writing stuff that sounded like that, man.

Revisiting this album has given me a slightly greater appreciation of its lyrics, which I always thought were mostly pseudo-poetic nonsense that became sort of compelling because they were sung by a really fucked-up, weird voice. And I still think that’s basically what they are, but, I don’t know, I just like that more now. I really dig the chorus of “Prove It,” where Verlaine seems to take on the role of a film noir detective pondering his line of work as a Sisyphian metaphor: “This case, this case I been workin’ on so long,” he sings, wearily. The case is life itself, man. The part in “Marquee Moon” where the Cadillac pulls out of the graveyard and then immediately pulls back into the graveyard is still stupid, though.

If you Google Marquee Moon and read about it before you listen to it, you’re going to come into it with a lot of “classic album” baggage, so as a guy who was acutely aware of its reputation (as the 129th greatest album ever made according to Rolling Stone) going into my first listen, I am excited to see what you all think of it going in with (I assume) little knowledge of that shit (unless you’re reading this before you listen to it.) It’s interesting to hear stuff that’s acclaimed and influential with beginner’s ears, and just form your own opinion on it.

Verdict: Shreds, and Verlaine wails in a literal sense, but is not, actually, a good singer from a technical standpoint.

Connor: That’s some good insight, Gerth, I didn’t know pretty much any of that. And you’re right, the guitar solos are flippin’ rad. Regarding the playlist in question, an example of what I would consider “juvenile dribble” would be “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (I deleted my link because yours contributes more to the discussion and I don’t want two). To be fair, the guitar work is actually pretty good. But the lyrics and vocal quality make me use one of my precious Spotify skips when it comes on.

Gerthquake: I mostly agree with you on that Suicidal Tendencies song, but for what it’s worth it does have a pretty great video:

 

Easy J: Hey guys, it was neat to read both of you gushing over an album you both really love. My favorite song was not the title track, which is a bad sign. Here is the deal: I can’t do the vocals, I just can’t do it. I am just not into his voice. I am really bummed about it because the instrumentation, particularly the guitar work, is really good. The 2 guitar lines often dance as well as violin lines in classical music, that’s pretty neat.The rhythm section is never intrusive and  lot of the tracks have a neat sound. Back to my favorite track, I really liked “Guiding Light” honestly mostly because the vocals seem less in the way compared to every other track on the album. I would prefer the record if it was all instrumentals, I really can’t do it, I’m sorry.

There are so many people in the world who can at least kind of sing, maybe pick one of those people to sing in a band, just sayin. 9/20  17/20 guitar work

Connor (Just passing through to remove one of the “Institutionalized” links):  I’d agree that the vocal are the least good. I don’t know if I’d prefer not having them, but that’s an interesting idea.

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Awaken, My Love!: Groovy, but Where’s the Soul?

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You ready for some reading, motherfucker?

Well this was a kick to the head. Childish Gambino, my own namesake, is nothing if not inventive. But Awaken, My Love!, his third album, takes those few Gambino signatures and tosses them in the trash. Normally boisterous and spitting lyrics he knows are clever, Awaken, My Love! can best be described with two words I’ve never used to describe Donald Glover: chill and funky. Chill and funky is also how I describe so much of my favorite music, which bodes well for this review. Yet I find myself asking a question we Childish Gambino fans are so used to asking: “Why don’t I like this more?”

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Does this picture add anything to the article? – Yes

I’ve always liked Childish, he’s smart, artistic, funny as hell and hecka good-looking. Regardless of the actual quality of his raps, they were distinct in a landscape full of same-sounding rappers. While those rappers were writing poetry to read aloud, Childish was writing in his diary: it was shitty, and embarrassing to share with others, but oh so cathartic.

I think that’s what isn’t clicking for me with Awaken, My Love!. It sounds great and there is seriously just so much funk to bop to, I love the outro to “Zombie” in particular, but its missing the angst and aggressive lyricism that made it feel like Gambino just… gets me. (Call it guilty pleasure, but one of the best things about Camp was that I refused to recommend it and only listen with other people to it if I already knew they liked it.) Awaken, My Love! lacks that same unabashed Childish personality, for the first half of the album you would be forgiven for missing that Childish is singing on it at all, especially if you are used to him yelling out puns about oreos. Instead he peeks out from behind the instrumentals to croon a line, then recedes.

There is little doubt that Awaken, My Love! is Gambino’s best album to date, it just sounds so groovy and mellow and has some of the best autotune use I’ve heard in years. It is also an experiment, a break from classic ‘bino as I’ve already talked about. And all experimental phases have missteps (I’m looking at you, “California” and “Terrified”- get outta here!). We can only pray that Glover learns the right lessons. Give us this quality sound with the old Childish Gambino soul.

Final verdict: needs more of this^

7/10 peanut butter chocolate cakes with Kool-aid

Why I chose The Dock of the Bay

I didn’t settle on The Dock of the Bay until the moment before I posted my choice on the Facebook thread, though I think it was inevitable. The first album that any of us pick  is special, we could approach it as a joke if we wanted, but we all care deeply about sharing music we love and think is noteworthy. The three albums shared so far demonstrate this: Austin chose a beloved album that he wasn’t even sure any of us would enjoy, while Alex wanted to introduce us to one of the greatest rap albums ever recorded.These choices end up being more personal, more revealing, perhaps even more vulnerable than we intend.

This is why The Dock of the Bay was my pick this week. Most simply, I’ve been listening to it non-stop for months, especially the title-track. Otis has a voice that is intoxicating. So many singers lilt or glide through a song, but Redding digs into it. He doesn’t savor or relish, there is an honesty and desperation to his voice that separates him from countless others who enjoy their own vulnerability too much. If you let yourself relax and focus, you might believe he was singing directly to you, or from you. This is where I’ve found myself so many times this year, whether weeding the garden, or watching from the roof of the barn the wind roll across the brome grass hills. Dock of the Bay is hopeful and melancholy,  as if there is as much to be found in the negative space of the album; a few months ago I was listening through and I thought of a painting by Monet which has much the same effect on me (not to mention the same theme).

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. Try listening to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” again while looking at it.

As of the time of writing this, only Austin and Jason have published responses to tDotB, and both of them mentioned how the first track steals and completely overshadows the rest of the album. This is surprisingly fitting for my first album pick. Both Alex and Austin can confirm that I used to never listen to entire albums; I didn’t believe in their value as a cohesive work of art, instead opting to pick and choose the songs I loved, the mixtape philosophy, if you will. It was only with their help that I admitted that yes musicians probably have some purpose in their compilations and that an album in its entirety might be more useful for exploring a theme or time period than one song. So here is an album that is both: a mind-numbingly good single with some chasers and a cohesive exploration of one man’s experience of love and loneliness all wrapped up inside his own head (by the way, “Tramp” the apparent emotional-misfit, is much more interesting if you consider that it is the only duet, the only time Otis actually tries to speak with a lover. Regardless of the depth of his soul, he utterly fails at communication).

I don’t know if my enjoying tDotB so much says anything about me, but I think the fact that I chose it as my first album does say something important. I believe that whether we intend it or not, the first album we each pick will play out as a thesis for our musical taste. For however long this blog lasts and however many albums we each pick, they will always be in relation to these first ones, and each new album will add to the narrative. With his first choice, Alex gave us something spectacular. Austin gave us something sublime. I tried to give you all something earnest. I cannot wait for the rest of you to share your first albums and to share that part of yourselves.

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I love you guys

Steve McQueen is complex and beautiful, just like Austin’s eyes.

The lesson is that angels are tiny bastards.

If this week had a theme, it would be “Austin Gerth is right, and I’m wrong”. I started watching the TV show Twin Peaks a few days ago, and I was totally disinterested in it. I had seriously decided that I didn’t care for the show and was going to watch exactly five episodes in order to give it a fair chance to hook me. I afforded Twin Peaks this extra opportunity to pique my interest (a twin pique, if you will) only because I knew Austin Gerth liked it, and he has a tendency to be right about everything. Sure enough, I was captivated by the end of the third episode.

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A show so good that I’m creating a tenuous connection to the album just so I can talk about it.

So you’d think I’d have learned my lesson when I sat down to listen to this week’s album, Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout.  I was going to give it a fair shake, because when Austin says it’s good, it probably is. But oh man, that first listen was a slog. It was dreamy and lacked punch, full of synth that suggested it was best left in the 80s. The best I could say was that it would have be good to do paperwork to. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t interested.

But, I realized, this also pretty much how I felt about Twin Peaks, which had captured me with how dreamy and under-spoken it was. So I put in noise-cancelling headphones  and listened once more, this time with intent and care. And Goddammit all if Austin wasn’t right again. In the very first moments of the album, “Faron Young” are somewhere between Kerouac and Camus, searching less for meaning than for experience  while a sick banjo accompanies in the background.

I said earlier that I originally thought Steve McQueen was dreamy and lacks punch. I still think that; after listening to “Appetite” several times, I notice that the chorus has a buoyancy to it. Where many artists hit the drops hard and running, Prefab Sprouts stays light on its toes, perhaps even staying in the air. This is a motif both in the sound and lyrics: Steve McQueen is transient and searching, never truly coming to a rest, even if it feels relaxed. The album is lively and changes mood readily: from floating, such as in “Desire As” to the more pointed and lamenting “When Love Breaks Down”. The album at times relishes in hedonism, as it does when it calls itself a slave to appetite or in the line that could be the thesis of the album:

“Desire as a sylph figured creature who changes her mind”.

Yet it then seems to admonish itself in “Blueberry Pies”, acknowledging the danger of this ceaseless journey:

“And your being good
Only depresses me, knowing how oddly I’m behaving
Hello stranger, the stranger I’ve become, I’m an air raid”

Steve McQueen deserves so much more than I was willing to give it at first. Each subsequent listen reveals new layers of artistry in this beautiful album with each song a variant and new perspective on the same theme.

9/10 Blueberry Pies

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It’s really good

Illmatic: a stoner-poet’s Manifesto

My dad didn’t like it, so it’s probably good.

Released in 1994, Illmatic feels like a relic from an era when rap had more to say than whether or not an app made a million a minute (I hear it did). I’m not going to presume to know enough about rap to try and place Illmatic in its historical context, though I’d point out the contrast between this and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle from the previous year; the albums have similar chill vibes and stoner/gangster content, but where Snoop revels in this activity (an accomplishment in its own right), Nas explores and even waxes poetic about institutional racism, the absurdity of gang violence, and the very purpose of art in his world. Truly, Illmatic  is an album of a modern poet.

One of the most common themes of Illmatic is the  way that death is held at bay by music, as he notes in “The World Is Yours”:

“The beats make me falling/ I keep falling, but never falling six feet deep.”

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Death makes Nas sad.

This is the refrain in the first half of the album: these rhymes are personal salvation. But by the end of Illmatic, Nas’s raps are redemptive for his crew as well, and potentially can save the world.  The final line of the album suggests the these lyrics should be locked up if the status quo is to be maintained and “murder cops” are allowed to run rampant.

 

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America makes Nas sad

Regardless of lyrical content, Illmatic is right up my alley musically. Its laid back, its got a full sound and revolves around the vocals, instead of trying to distract us from them (I’d target Kanye again here, but I don’t want to draw attention to my lack of rap chops)

I think that the album loses steam in the second half. “One Love” is a rich, savoring exploration of street life, but it’s followed by the deliberately plodding”One Time 4 your Mind”, and the two really dilute the drive of the album.

You also have to really appreciate the contributions of Nas’s crew to the album. Usually you’d expect them to talk shit during the intros and hooks, but AZ actually contributes one of my favorite verses in “Life’s a Bitch”.

Simply put, Illmatic is a lyrical marvel, and NY State of Mind is a special treasure that I’m putting on my “Chill Shit” playlist.

8/10 Buddha sacks.

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Hats make Nas sad