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Sep. 7th, 2014

Walrus
In a further attempt to keep me more active on here, I am going to post some thoughts that pop into my head during my Sunday runs, which are our long ones. These thoughts often involve over-evaluating the music I happen to be listening to, and so one can expect that to be the subject of these (when I remember / have the motivation to do them).

Today's spacy Sunday-morning-long-run thoughts:

My soundtrack today was the two disc deluxe edition of what is undoubtedly Pavement's masterpiece, "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain". That album (among other things) is a testament to the importance of a great rhythm section. The appearance of drummer Steve West and bassist Mark Ibold were the catalyst for the reigning in of Steve and Scott's wild imaginations. "Slanted and Enchanted" and their early singles are great (and I know some hipster-esque Pavement fans would kill me for this opinion), but it wasn't until "Crooked Rain" that they released a truly enduring classic. West and Ibold might not be the most virtuosic players in the game, but what they lack in chops they more than make up for with style and personality. And, besides, it's not like Pavement was known for the precision of their guitar work. Slightly sloppy is their trademark, and songs like "Stop Breathin'" and "Fillmore Jive" would sound simply wrong if they weren't a little rough around the edges.

Speaking of "Fillmore Jive", one of the finest moments on the entire record is found on that track. It's very interesting that Malkmus offhandedly bids farewell to "the rock and roll era", since, on the one hand, the rock-music-as-massive-cultural-bohemoth thing was certainly fading away (and goodnight, indeed), but at the same time that very song and the album it is a piece of were a part of the vanguard for the new artistic face of rock in which an everyman could be an important factor in the genre, and taking oneself and career too seriously was no longer the norm.

Which leads me to my next (tangential) point: this "interview" with Gene Simmons that is getting circulated over the last few days (can a conversation with one's son in which you spout your opinions be called an interview?) in which he declares rock "dead". His evidence? The fact that he (and, apparently, his son) can't name a band since ~1983 that is "enduring" or something like that. The only name they can come up with is Nirvana. Apparently they never heard of Fugazi, Foo Fighters, Flaming Lips, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and countless others. Hell, if KISS is considered a legendary band that is "enduring" or whatever, than surely some pompous band like Green Day surely counts as well. Just because you can't be bothered to keep up with culture in the last three decades, Gene, that doesn't mean that rock music is dead. You are just a relic of an old age when making comic books, action figures, and hokey made-for-TV movies was considered a "rock" move, and as Malkmus would say, "they don't need you anymore".

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Bassy
As a bass player, I find myself drawn to bands with interesting, talented, and/or notable bassists. When I sit down to listen to a record, more often than not it is the lower register that draws my attention. So, after profiling my favorite albums, album art, and guitarists, I felt it was about time I paid tribute to some of my favorite bassists; people that I have enjoyed to listen to, and who have had an influence on the way I play. People made this list for a variety of reasons. Some it is because of their virtuoso abilities on the instrument, some it is because they take a wholly unique approach, and some it is simply because of intangible charm. I consider each and every one of these people to be great, and compiling and ordering this list was a labor of love that I spent some serious time on.

And with that, we'll start with number 25 . . .



Rick Danko had been playing music for a number of years when circumstance landed him the job as bass player for Ronnie Hawkins. Danko didn't let the fact that he had not played the instrument before get in his way, and he quickly picked it up. The people that would be his bandmates in this group would become his partners for many years to come as they went from backing Hawkins, to backing Bob Dylan, to being a popular group in their own right under the name The Band.

Danko's quirky, charming vocal stylings and stage presence made him endearing, and his bass playing mirrors those traits. He would be rumbling away in the lower register one moment, and then suddenly jump up several octaves immediately demanding attention only to draw back just as quickly, allowing someone else to take the spotlight.

Despite being in one of the most successful rock bands of the 1970's, Rick Danko maintained his cool, down-to-earth, "aw shucks" demeanor for all of his life, which was tragically cut short by a heart attack in 1999.

Here he is playing and singing his song "Stage Fright" from the legendary Last Waltz concert:



And this is one of my favorite performances of his where he focuses strictly on bass, Neil Young's "Revolution Blues" from his fantastic On The Beach record. Young and Danko have similar idiosyncrasies to their voicing on their respective instruments, and this collaboration is one of my favorite pairings in rock music from that time period:

Schroeder


When purchasing an album by a band from Seattle on the Sub Pop label in 1994, one would have had some expectations on what that record would sound like. The sludgy, punk-meets-metal sounds of grunge was the signature sound of the city, so Diary was a bit of an anomaly upon its release. The hushed, nearly whispered moments that suddenly burst into urgent, crushing rock all held together by Jeremy Enigk's angelic vocals that vacillate between fragile and furious borrowed more from bands from Washington D.C. (Rites of Spring, Fugazi, etc.) than their Seattle contemporaries. It has gone on to critical acclaim and is often noted as one of the first emo records (though it certainly can't be blamed for what that genre deteriorated into).

The artwork found on the cover of this groundbreaking album was designed by Chris Thompson, who also composed a whole series of pieces that are featured within the packaging:



He was also asked to contribute art when the band released their "comeback" record in 1997:



Each and every one of Thompson's pieces Sunny Day featured within their records is fascinating and powerful, but the one found on the cover of Diary is not only his best, but the finest album cover that I've ever seen.
Cross Buster


Suffer is a monumentally influential record, among the most notable of punk rock in the 1980's. Not only did it re-kindle Bad Religion's career (which had been reeling since the release of Into The Unknown), but along with Operation Ivy's Energy, it breathed life back into punk rock, a genre that was fading as its practitioners quit, died, or morphed towards metal. Bad Religion's signature harmony-rich, cerebral hardcore was defined with this album, creating a blueprint that countless bands would emulate (though few could equal) birthing the So Cal punk sound. Green Day, Sublime, and others might have taken the sound to more financial success, but Bad Religion did it first, did it smarter, and did it better.

Bad Religion has always unflinchingly embraced their suburban roots, a fact that might not seem very shocking today, but at the time ran counter to the image that most punk rock had. Hardcore punk, in its early days, was the music of struggle for the youth of larger cities like L.A., Boston, and New York, even though the genre has always attracted those who are outsiders from all areas. The fact that Bad Religion was proud of being well spoken, educated, angry, and isolated men from suburbia revolutionized the face of punk rock and inspired armies of young Americans to pick up instruments, start bands, and create scenes in their hometown, no matter the size.

Jerry Mahoney's striking artwork encapsulates the energy and rage of the music of Suffer as well as all the intangibles that the band brings to the table, including their suburban roots. Many bands have indicated that this cover was inspirational to them, most notably NoFX who parodied it on an E.P.
Bassy


Aside from being my favorite album and being critically hailed as easily one of the best albums of the 1990's, Siamese Dream boasts what I think is simply the best cover art of any major-label album.

There was an entire photo shoot done of these two young ladies dressed like fairies which yielded some pretty amazing shots, but this one is the obvious choice for the album cover. One of the predominant themes of the album is a wistful longing for days gone by when things were happier and simpler, making the old photos on which the lyrics are presented in the booklet fitting, and the vintage-looking image on the cover particularly perfect. "Mother weep the years I'm missing, all our time can't be given back" Billy Corgan sings in "Mayonaise", a lyric that neatly sums up the mood of all of Siamese Dream.

Recently, this cover art was brought back to the public's attention when the current bass player for the Smashing Pumpkins, Nicole Fiorentino, claimed to be one of the young ladies in the shot. After a bit of research, however, it was discovered that this wasn't true.
screamy


Bad Brains' self-titled debut is arguably the most important hardcore punk release of all times. Initially a cassette-only album, it has since been reissued on CD, vinyl, and digital formats and has been hailed critically as the enduring, influential, powerful work it is. The seemingly disparate genres of hardcore punk and reggae that the 'Brains introduced on this album would not only serve as a template for the rest of their own recording career, but would inspire some punk artists to blend ska and reggae with punk and some other musicians to explore extreme dynamic differences within their compositions.

The fantastic, legendary cover art (designed by David Lee Pearsons) is one of the most immediately identifiable images in rock history. The Bad Brains had originally hailed from Washington D.C. and had been such an explosive force there, and their shows so famously chaotic, that they were literally banned from playing in basically every venue for live music in the city (which inspired this song from the album) forcing them in effect to another town to continue as a band. This is how they ended up in NYC where they recorded these tracks. But the songs, their spirit, and their lasting legacy is firmly rooted in the Washington D.C. hardcore punk scene (which the Bad Brains more or less invented and influenced). With this in mind, a lightning bolt striking one of the best known buildings in D.C. is a fitting depiction of their time there.
Walrus


Pink Floyd's ninth record is a themed album of sorts, held together by criticisms of the music industry, duplicitous record label executives, and the impact this awful machine can have on performers. The seeds of this concept were the band's own experience, and specifically original songwriter / lead singer Syd Barrett whose psychological deterioration since leaving the band served as the inspiration for "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" an epic that was split into two and placed at the beginning and end of the album.

When developing the visual concept for Wish You Were Here, the band wanted to feature handshakes, the symbolic means of sealing deals. The cover photo of two men in business suits (one of whom is quite literally getting "burned" in the deal) was taken in a lot at the Warner Brothers movie studio. The original LPs hid this art behind an opaque outer cellophane wrap emblazoned with a sticker depicting two robotic hands embraced in that symbolic means of agreement.



I grew up listening to Pink Floyd as my father was a huge fan, and Wish You Were Here has always ranked amongst my favorites of theirs. In addition to amazing music, each of Pink Floyd's releases has amazing visual design, but there is no question that on this album Pink Floyd reached a creative zenith.
Dude


Phish's fourth studio album is a loose concept album about a person in the midst of relationship problems trying to sleep and getting haunted by dreams. For a recording by a band that is not particularly revered for their studio output, it is surprisingly focused and accessible making it easily their best studio album.

The artwork (created by David Welker) depicts the sleeper in the midst of his fitful slumber. Not only is it a beautifully crafted picture, but when seen in it's entirety (the front cover and back cover together), every song on the album (save one) is represented.



Some of them are more immediately obvious (it's hard to miss the maze under the bed for "Maze" or the fact that the sleeper is laying diagonal in his bed like in the song "Lengthwise") and some less so (the ice skater to represent the song "It's Ice" is seen in the reflection of the mirror off to the right) but each and every song, with the exception of "The Horse", is accounted for in one manner or another. The band would correct the omission of "The Horse" on the cover of their next album, Hoist.
Hank


By the time Life Time (the first album under the Rollins Band banner) arrived, Henry had already released one full length and an E.P. with guitarist Chris Haskett which quelled any concern people might have had about his ability to thrive without (Black Flag guitarist) Greg Ginn. Haskett cut his teeth playing in Ginn's instrumental project Gone where he clearly learned a thing or two about atonal, jazz-influenced rock which he used as a foundation to add his own blues, funk, and soul influences. His abilities and creativity were at least the equal of his mentor, if not slightly stronger.

The arrival of bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Sim Cain helped to add focus to Haskett and Rollins vision. With a rock solid, crushing rhythm section, Haskett's stellar fretwork and Hank's legendary vocals, the Rollins Band had arrived with Life Time. Stylistically, it is not a huge step away from the later Black Flag records or Hot Animal Machine, though Ian MacKaye's production lends the set a bit more muscle then it's predecessors. It wouldn't be until the next time the Rollins Band headed into the studio that hints of the dynamic funk they would gain (comparative) fame with would appear; this time around aggressive, barely contained blasts of post-hardcore rock are on the menu, and what a feast it is.

The artwork (care of Stephen Meyers) is direct and to the point, intense and unrelenting with no frills. A fitting tone for Life Time, to be sure. The band would continue with album art very similar to this (completely black and white with the same lettering for the text) for their next few releases, until The End Of Silence broke the mold for the Rollins Band, in more ways than one.
Jack


Depeche Mode is one of those bands with a huge, varied catalog that I genuinely enjoy more or less every phase they've gone through. There is, however, something about their first few records that I find particularly charming. There is no questioning the fact that their approach to electronic music not only revolutionized the way it was played, but brought its commercial potential from being a cult genre to a massive movement. They literally influenced nearly every pop act for the entire 1980's.

The artwork found on the cover of these early LPs is invariably striking, and A Broken Frame stands out as my favorite. The stark difference in colors between the stormy sky, the grain, and the woman's clothing combined with the variety of texture in each of those elements is slightly beyond my ability to describe analytically, but I know that it truly moves me. These aspects are augmented by the fact that the music found within the album was, at the time, the most technologically advanced possible while the artwork portrays an antiquated method of harvesting grain, and also the fact that the task the woman is undertaking seems insurmountable (all that grain by hand?), and yet she continues undeterred. This is truly a powerful image.
Hank


Black Flag's mammoth debut long player (which I talked about at length over here) is notable not only because it is one of the finest (or, in my opinion, the finest) hardcore punk albums ever laid to tape, but also because of the iconic photo of singer Henry Rollins putting his fist through a mirror taken by legendary punk rock photographer Edward Colver. One of only a few releases by 'Flag that doesn't feature artwork by guitarist Greg Ginn's brother Ray Pettibon, the image of young Hank reaching a boiling point and destroying things fits perfectly with the destructive mood of the music found within. The band created the perfect soundtrack for frustration, alienation, and abandonment, and Colver captured those same emotions on film, showing just how in tune he was with the musicians and their vision.
Don't Panic!


Green Day's second album for Lookout! Records, which would also be their last released by an independent label, is a charming pop punk romp which hides a surprising level of musicianship behind bubblegum-y melodies and a lighthearted, devil-may-care sneer. When I was in my early teens and first being exposed to punk rock, the two indie albums from the East Bay's most famous punkers were practically unavoidable. I always preferred Kerplunk because the lyrical content was slightly stronger (fewer simple love songs and more introspective brooding, something that suited me perfectly at that age) and also, I have no doubt, because of the striking cover art. I must have sketched that smiling potted flower on the cover of nearly every text book I had between 9th and 10th grade, and to this day the spare, barely colored drawing is one of my favorites.
Smalls


This fantastic image, which Zappa intended as a "direct negative" of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was created to be the cover of the Mother's third album, but was relegated to the interior gatefold because of legal action by Paul McCartney and Capitol Records (further proof that McCartney is, and always has been, a scumball).

The album itself is a brilliantly crafted lampooning of 1960's culture, and I am hard pressed to think of a way to portray that intention that tops this image. Though it was initially hidden within the album, a reissue years later would place this image in its rightful place as the cover of the album.
Doc Brown


Screaming Trees' major label debut features artwork by Mark Ryden, whose work is always beautifully crafted and mildly unsettling. Ryden would go on to design a more high profile album a few years later, but the acid-drenched hard rock kaleidoscope that is the Trees' sound suits the tone of his art much better.
Hank


OFF!'s debut full-length is the second album on my list to feature the artwork of Raymond Pettibon, who cut his teeth designing album covers and promotional material for Black Flag, Minutemen, and other prominent punk and hardcore acts in the 1980's. His distinctive sketches (which always come accompanied with captions that simultaneously add clarification and make the works more enigmatic) were an integral part of the punk rock scene in days gone by, so it is unsurprising that OFF! requested that he contribute art to their releases (this isn't his first piece for the group) as they are a super-group consisting of alumni of hardcore punk acts. OFF! has been making a splash for a few years now by proving that age is only a number, and with the right attitude even older punks can make some of the best music in the land. Similarly, Pettibon's art on this release is leaving offerings by people half his age in the dust.

The Residents - Not Available

Lucas


Several years ago a co-worker of mine was looking to clear some space in one of his closets when he came across a crate of records someone had forced upon him. The titles this friend of his had insisted he listen to had not appealed to this co-worker of mine in the least, so he put them in storage and basically forgot about them. When he came across this crate years later, he offered them to me, knowing that I am a big music fan. I was expecting a lot of crappy titles that I couldn't even sell at the local record shop, but was absolutely delighted to find that it was a small collection of punk and new wave in reasonable condition. Fear's The Record, Germs' GI, Minutemen's Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat, a few Lene Lovich 12" singles, and a number of other great stuff was suddenly mine!

Among these titles was a record by a band called The Residents with some very odd artwork and the enigmatic title Not Available. My knowledge of this band included the fact that they were covered by Primus on their Miscellaneous Debris E.P., and . . . well, that's about it. I put the LP in a protective sleeve, filed it on my shelf, and basically forgot about it for several years. Until this morning.

While doing some cleaning around the house, I decided to work on a project that I chip away at from time to time: taking my vinyl and ripping it to CD so I can file it in my iTunes where I can listen to the songs whenever I want without damaging the records. Today's choices included Madness' debut One Step Beyond . . ., and that strange looking album by that band that I didn't know much about. While One Step (which is a phenomenal ska record, by the way) was recording, I took to the internet to find out more about Not Available, and The Residents in general. It turns out that I have been missing out on a beautiful and challenging record with a great story around it.

The Residents are an art rock outfit from (possibly) Louisiana that have had a staggeringly prolific career since the mid-1970's. They firmly believe that the best art is created when the audience doesn't focus on things like the artists' appearance, race, gender, or basically anything that isn't the art itself. For this reason, The Residents have kept their identities absolutely confidential, performing on stage in eyeball masks and only communicating to the media through spokespeople (who may or may not actually be members of the band, though they deny it).

In keeping with this Theory Of Obscurity (as they refer to it), the band followed this line of thought to its logical end for what was their 2nd recorded album: what better way to create art that is free of the constraints of commercialism than by recording an album that the band has no intention of ever releasing to the public? Or, at the very least, as long as the members of the band remember what is actually on the recording. So they headed into the studio, recorded an album, and placed it in a vault never to be touched until such a time arose that even the members of the band couldn't remember what they had done. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the band's record label became impatient with them when they were behind schedule on a record just a few years later, and they pulled the masters for this album that was never meant to be available (hence the title), and released it without the band's consent. Which, strangely, keeps the Theory of Obscurity intact, as the band didn't intend for the music to be released, and yet it was.

The great back story aside, Not Available is a dense, haunting recording that vacillates between semi-tonal wailing, minimalistic chanting, and eerie ballad-like moments. It is presented as a rock-opera of sorts, though the story line is so obscure it makes Joe's Garage seem positively fluid in its narrative. The story is more or less the tale of a young woman named Edweena who heads to college with a porcupine named Knowledge, where she meets the Enigmatic Foe and a character named Catbird. Frankly, the plot (or, in this case, lack of one) isn't really important, since the music itself paints a vivid picture of confusion, uncertainty, and potentially impending doom while attempting to determine one's own identity (which is a fantastically accurate portrait of what many people experience when heading to college).

Not Available is an album that simply demands the listeners undivided attention (with a copy of the lyrics in front of them), and is absolutely unlike any other recording one is likely to ever hear.

Not Available - 8 out of 10
Walrus


Featuring alumni of the first grunge band ever (Green River), Mudhoney's first E.P. slated them as progenitors of that grimy, slow, metal-punk hybrid that their city would become famous for in a few years. Named for the distortion pedals guitarists Mark Arm and Steve Turner were using, Superfuzz Bigmuff has a boozy swagger and a defiant sneer permeating its six tracks which leaves the listener's ears ringing and desperate for more.

The cover art is a photo of the aforementioned guitar players on stage, and it perfectly embodies the wild, drunken antics the band was famous for in concert in those days. This is easily one of my favorite live shots of any band.
Bassy


Beginning with (roughly) Help!, and culminating with (roughly) Revolver, The Beatles' middle era is my favorite. These recordings still exude the air of camaraderie and light-hearted playfulness of their early recordings, but it is balanced with the musical sophistication of their later works, and some hints of the psychedelic influences that would eventually come to fruition. It is really the era where all of their strongest aspects are at work at the same time. While I enjoy all of the music from this period, Revolver is unquestionably the pinnacle of not only their career, but one of the best albums ever laid to tape.

The artwork was created by Klaus Voorman, an old friend of the band. The blending of ink drawings and photographs of the band was incredibly groundbreaking in its time, and this unique piece of pop art on the cover must have drawn quite a few eyes in record stores and helped add to the already significant sales of the album.
Lucas


Although nearly every song recorded by the Minutemen was a brief burst of inspired genius, few would argue that Double Nickels on the Dime is the crowning achievement of (singer / guitarist) D. Boon's short, yet prolific career.

After cutting their teeth on the underground music circuit in and around their hometown of San Pedro, California, and releasing a surprising number of singles and short albums in a brief time period, Boon, Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley set down to record Double Nickels, an album named as a typically Boon-esque stab at Sammy Hagar's infamous song about his inability to drive the newly instated federal speed limit. They found speeding to be a trite form of rebellion, and Mike Watt was quoted as saying, "The big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin' songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can't drive 55, because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we'll drive 55, but we'll make crazy music."

Originally conceived as a single LP, upon hearing Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, a sprawling, double LP punk masterpiece, the Minutemen decided to expand their most artistic recording to compete with their contemporary's broad scope. Comprised of a staggering 45 songs, Double Nickels isn't just an album, it is an in-depth manifesto, and the fact that it was all mixed in a single evening and cost $1,100 to make is further evidence of the Minutmen's philosophy of "jamming econo" (economically).

For the cover art, Mike Watt drove down the local highway in his VW Beetle with a photographer in the backseat, and when they got to a sign marking the exit for San Pedro while Watt was driving exactly 55 M.P.H., the photo was taken and history was made. The usage of this image on the cover along with the title of the album help to define the unifying concept of the album, which is the Minutemen's cars. (There are even several tracks included on the record titled "car jams" which are nothing more than the sound of the guys starting up their respective vehicles).
Lucas


Despite being a bit of a disappointment for the band in terms of sales and critical accolades (at least when compared to the adoration fans and critics alike heaped on their first two albums), Wowee Zowee holds a special place in my heart, in part because it was my introduction to the band, and partly because many of my favorite Pavement songs are found on this album. And I honestly might never have heard any of them if the artwork hadn't drawn me to it.

Pavement's reputation as the most innovative, quirky, and downright fun indie band had reached my circle of awareness by 1995 when Zowee hit the shelves, but I had never actually heard any of their music. Spending $15 on a CD by a band I had never heard a song by was not a practice I made a habit of in those days, but three factors made the decision for me. 1) The buzz around this band was incredible, 2) several people whose opinion I trusted absolutely adored them, and 3) the artwork for their latest release was just the kind of bizarre stuff that my 15 year old tastes went for. This third element was really what ended up pushing me over the edge and purchasing the album, and 18 years later Pavement is still one of my favorite bands, and Wowee Zowee is one of the most important records in my collection.

The art is by Steve Keene and it is a stylized take on a photograph from a 1970's issue of LIFE magazine which depicted two women sitting in dark robes near a goat. (lead singer) Stephen Malkmus chose this particular piece out of over 50 paintings that Keene produced at a live painting session.

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