In an effort to get over a massive, long-running case of writer’s block, for this post I’ve decided to hold my loyal, non-existent audience captive while I harp about something completely silly: a few of my favorite music albums, like a short “Desert Island Discs” list (note to kids: that word “album” means those shiny doodads, also known as CDs, from which you cherry-pick tracks to rip onto your iPods. Believe it or not, some geriatric people like myself actually believe that all tracks on a shiny doodad are best experienced when played together, in the order in which they appear on the disc, the way the recording artists intended.).
There’s a special category of songs you know by heart in which, in the course of a mysterious and lengthy alchemy dating from before your earliest memories, they eventually cease being mere songs you know by heart and simply become a part of who you are. Everything on the Beatles’ simultaneously classic and infamous 1968 kitchen sink of a double album falls into that category for me. My mom owned, and I believe still has, this on an old-school vinyl record LP, and I played it incessantly for as far back as I can remember as a child. Many years later, when I first got a CD player, the first CDs I got for it were this album’s two discs. Today, on the occasions when I attempt to sing to my son (emphasis on the word attempt), 95% of the time, without thinking about it, it’s something from this album that comes out of my mouth.
Oddly, for as long as I can remember my favorite song on this has always been one of its lesser-known pieces, John Lennon’s “Cry Baby Cry.” Amidst a vaguely foreboding musical backdrop interrupted several times by a creepily sung chorus of “Cry baby cry, make your mother sigh; she’s old enough to know better, so cry baby cry,” the King and Queen of Marigold go about their day, eventually culminating “at twelve o’clock” in “a meeting round the table for a seance in the dark, with voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children for a lark.” From there, it segues seamlessly into an equally creepy voice singing, “Can you take me back where I came from? Brother, can you take me back?” and into the ostentatiously weird — but in a good way — musique concrete piece “Revolution 9.” Yes, I was a strange, strange little kid.
It’s the old question among music buffs: classical or jazz? What this 1960 album, one of the collaborations between Davis and Gil Evans, does is completely dissolve the distinctions between classical, jazz, folk and popular music. Based on Spanish folk music, it’s all of those genres and somehow none of them at the same time. I can’t find words to describe how good the version of Concierto de Aranjuez found here is, and Davis’ solo around which “Saeta” is based simply has to be heard to be believed. All he managed to do in that piece is to take the sound of a woman who has just lost everyone and everything that ever mattered to her, who is gripping the nearest railing until her hands bleed to keep from falling over unconscious from grief, who is wailing out their soul all the while, and funnel that through a trumpet.
For me, hearing this 1992 album for the first time was an experience akin to what people must mean when they talk about having a religious epiphany. I had never encountered Tom Waits before, and this was one mind-blowing introduction for an impressionable teenager. I’d never realized it was possible for anything to sound like this before hearing it. Waits has always had a knack for coming up with just the right, and often surprising, musical arrangement to match his impeccably written songs, but I don’t believe that combination is more fully realized on any of his other albums than it is here. It’s probably his darkest album, and the songs “clang and boom and steam” through an aural hellscape that sounds like it’s concocted by a machine made of bones, probably tended by beings who simultaneously possess “a halo, wings, horns and a tail” and spend their spare time shoveling coal inside your dreams. All the more amazing is that despite the grim subject matter and stark sound, it also manages to have a comfortable, off-hand vibe, like something produced by a bunch of guys who got drunk one night and randomly decided to record an album by breaking into a recording studio and banging on shit for fun.
There you have it, the three albums that, if I were marooned on a desert island and could only pick three albums to have for the duration, I would be sure to have with me.
Never mind the fact that if you’re marooned on a desert island, the whole concept of having albums to listen to is irrelevant because you won’t have electrical outlets or an infinite supply of batteries — Why yes, I am congenitally incapable of getting through a blog post without piling on a heaping helping of snark somewhere, why do you ask?
Tags: album reviews, albums, Bone Machine, Desert Island Discs, Gil Evans, John Lennon, Miles Davis, record reviews, records, reviews, Sketches of Spain, The Beatles, The White Album, Tom Waits, White Album