Posts Tagged ‘Steely Dan’

Canon? What canon? Oddball music recommendations

June 30, 2020

In this post, I am going to write briefly about a few albums that don’t rank that high up in the canon of the artist in question for a variety of reasons.  Often times, the critical and fan consensus at the time of the release is influenced by what they expected then of the artist.  Which isn’t wrong as such; it’s just that the album may hold value and interest beyond the context of those expectations.  These albums may be unexpectedly risky endeavours from usually conservative (in terms of being safe, not political ideology) artists.  Or, on the flipside, they may be thoughtful albums that didn’t rise up to their fans’ expectations of risk being otherwise adventurous artists.

1. Swing Out Sister – Filth and Dreams: Swing Out Sister are specialists in staid but melodic and pleasant sophisto-pop/jazz-pop.  They particularly love to make music that would fit right in a James Bond soundtrack or a remake of Thomas Crown Affair.  Their 1999 release, Filth and Dreams, then was a seismic shock by those standards.  In one fell swoop, Swing Out Sister embraced contemporary sounds, with the sound often hewing towards trip hop without necessarily slotting there.  Vocalist Corrine Drewery eschewed some of her trademark smoothness for more raw emotion.  Most importantly, these wizards of uber smooth jazz-pop embraced heaps of musical tension.  Nowhere more than on World Out of Control.

 

2. Rush – Snakes & Arrows: Actually, this album (released in 2007) did get a reasonably good reception at the time of its release, with the band themselves affirming they felt this was special (then again, every band says this about their latest release; even Metallica said so about St Anger!). Somewhere down the line, though, feelings about this album have mellowed. Rather apt, you could say, given the album IS mellow by Rush standards.

But mellow isn’t a bad thing here at all.  This is a very adult Rush, a far cry (no pun intended) from their Ayn Rand worship days.  Peart is still an atheist but he sounds more like a Lennon kind of atheist, preaching compassion and kindness.  He has achieved enough by now that he doesn’t have to obsess about it in the way he would have on 2112.  As a result, this is one of Rush’s most lyrically satisfying albums and also one of their most sumptuous, melodically.  There isn’t much of the back breaking pyrotechnics the band is associated with.  But that isn’t a bad thing here at all.

 

3. Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool:  Somewhere, the fact that this 2016 release was almost entirely composed out of outtakes and songs that had long been in rotation in Radiohead’s live set seemed to cause a degree of underwhelm that has yet to be shaken off.  MAYBE my own highly favourable view (it is my third favourite after Kid A and OK Computer) is indeed shaped by the fact that I hadn’t heard these live/raw cuts before and only heard them for the first time in the finished album versions on Moon Shaped Pool.  Be that as it may…what super versions these are! Radiohead changed the world of rock twice back in the day.  They are done disrupting. Instead, they reveal themselves to be masterful orchestrators. Not to say this album is full of chamber music; rather, they orchestrate moods beautifully.  Once, I nearly missed my change station while commuting back home because I was lost in the sounds of Decks Dark.  When you listen, I am sure you will understand why. 🙂

4. Cathy Dennis – Am I The Kind of Girl:  Cathy Dennis had a sparkling debut in 1990 with the aptly named dance album Move To This, which sold a million copies worldwide.  Unfortunately, her follow up Into The Skyline (1992) got a much more lukewarm response. For her third album (Am I The Kind of Girl, 1996), then, she decided to completely change tack.  You would expect a dance-pop singer-songwriter to move into something like blue eyed soul if dance pop was no longer moving copies off the shelves.  Instead, she went for Brit pop.  At least, that’s what it’s called.  But the melodies are quite soulful and it’s almost like listening to a best of 60s British classics (she DOES cover Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset).  Here, her songwriting showcased the stunning versatility that she would put to full use in her later career as a specialist songwriter for pop artists (my previous post on this blog was about that vocation of hers). Alas, Am I The Kind of Girl fared even worse than Into The Skyline.  Whether or not this was because Polydor lost interest is not known, but she never made another solo album.  But we can still savour the beautiful Don’t Take My Heaven.

 

5. Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale: This 1974 album is sandwiched between two undeniable masterpieces of soul, Innervisions and Songs In The Key of Life.  It suffers in comparison to both, but only a little.  It is still a brilliant soul album that would make the top tier of the canon of any great soul artist.  Stevie himself performed an excerpt of They Won’t Go When I Go at the Michael Jackson tribute concert.  Please Don’t Go as well and Bird of Beauty are fun soul-rockers while Creepin’ features backing vocals by the late Minnie Riperton.  But my personal favourite is It Ain’t No Use.

 

6. Steely Dan – Katy Lied: Sometimes, a band’s over perfectionism can hurt their own cause. Steely Danners-in-chief Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were so upset about the production of Katy Lied (1975) going wrong that they haven’t lost an opportunity to mention this. As a result, it is now seen as the one to skip when you accumulate the back catalog of this prolific band.  But…truth be told, the production is NOT all that problematic on this album.  It still sounds fine and the songwriting is still fine. Nay! It’s awesome, as it usually is with Steely Dan. The solo on Your Gold Teeth II is particularly worth your consideration but my favourite is Doctor Wu.

7. Karen Carpenter – Karen Carpenter:  The first and only album released by Karen Carpenter as a solo artist (and not as part of the brother-sister duo Carpenters).  It was recorded in 1980 but released years after her death in 1996.  The reason proffered for not releasing it back then was that producer Phil Ramone had pushed Karen Carpenter to sing in unfamiliar and uncomfortable (?) ways and that the album’s inevitable failure would have dealt a severe blow to her self-esteem (fun fact: without much promotion and years after Carpenters getting dated as a pop culture phenomenon, it still sold a million copies upon release). I beg to differ with the official narrative and submit that the chief attraction of this album is indeed that you get to hear Karen shake a leg which she should have done more often.  Some experiments like Still In Love With You don’t come off so well but the Paul Simon cover Still Crazy After All These Years is a fabulous jazz-pop reworking of the original while If We Try is vintage Carpenters sans Richard.  My favourite, though, is My Body Keeps Changing My Mind for you get to hear Karen render disco with full throated and uninhibited joy.

8. Blue Oyster Cult – Spectres: The consensus is that Agents of Fortune marks BOC’s descent into toothless AOR dreck and every album from that point on needs to be avoided barring Fire Of Unknown Origin.  I do not fancy either Agents of Fortune or Mirrors (though I do appreciate both Don’t Fear The Reaper and In Thee).  But Spectres (1976)…now Spectres is different.  Spectres is enigmatic, mystical and eclectic.  Again, where there is eclecticism, there are cuts that don’t quite come together like R U Ready 2 Rock. But there are also solid numbers like Going Through The Motions.  And above all, there’s I Love The Night, the most magical, haunting Blue Oyster Cult song of all and one of the most haunting rock ballads you’ll ever hear.

9. ABBA – The Visitors:  Should you ever want to engage with one, just one, ABBA album seriously and not as guilty pleasure music, make it their last one (released in 1981). By now, ABBA were unable to fuse their marital woes into dance pop to enliven the proceedings.  Instead, here, they resorted to writing magnificent ballads of melancholy with some of their mischief remaining intact in numbers like Head Over Heels.  Soldiers, Slipping Through My Fingers are beautiful but if I had to pick one, it would be One Of Us.

 

10. Kate Bush – Lionheart:  I can only say that I find the 3.40 average score that Lionheart (1978) ‘enjoys’ on Rate Your Music to be quite inexplicable.  I would readily buy an argument that Never For Ever and The Dreaming are more accomplished successors to Lionheart but even the debut? I don’t see it.  Fullhouse and Peter Pan are delightful, Wow! is a hoot. But the opening salvo is the strongest.  And so it is that I wrap up this post with the magnificent Symphony In Blue.


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