The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

Back in the day, when a friend told you how good an album was, it didn’t mean you would necessarily like it. It just meant they did. Unless they could play it or the local radio stations would promote it, you still took your chances when you bought it. One man’s trash is a nother’s treasure. But today, there’s the Internet, where you can easily check out almost any new band. So when I bought “A Deeper Understanding”, the major label debut by The War on Drugs last year, I knew I was going to love it.

The songs on “A Deeper Understanding” are mostly mid-tempo with a low-key feel to them. They have an edginess to them, but never go over-the-top. Easy to listen and relax to but exciting at the same time. Thoughtful and introspective lyrics are perfectly matched to the music by The Adam Granduciel’s slightly breathy, somewhat raspy vocal style. This is an album that can be motivating or relaxing; it depends on how you want to listen to it at the time.

After listening to “A Deeper Understanding” the first couple times I couldn’t help but wonder why music like this isn’t more popular. It seems to rarely achieve main-stream recognition or success. Then, a couple of weeks after buying it, I leaned it was nominated for Best Rock Album at the 2017 Grammys. It won. A well deserved award and a great achievement for te first major label album by a band.

I’m look looking forward to The War On Drugs’ second one.

Plan 9 – I’ve Just Killed A Man, I Don’t Want To See Any Meat

I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of this album.

That’s okay, neither did I until I saw it at a garage sale. I thought the cover artwork was cool and the record itself was in near mint condition. So I stole it.

Just kidding. I paid for it. But with what I got for the little I paid, it feels like I ripped it off from the guy. This is 1960’s psychedelic rock revisited and mixed with indie garage punk, recorded live at a smallish venue. I wish I had been there when it came down.

I have to admit, the spoken word “Intro Poem” had me worried at first, but it was really short. When the music kicked in about a minute or so later, I was like “WHOA! Iggy Pop and the Stooges meet The Grateful Dead!”

After some quick Internet digging, I found out Plan 9 was from the east coast of the US; Rhode Island, I believe. They released a few albums in the ’80s. I think this was their only live record.

It’s some pretty killer sh!t.

The best record I ever stole.

The Pretenders – Learning To Crawl

There was a two-year gap between The Pretenders second and third album. In that time, the band fronted had noticeably changed. Losing two members to drug overdoses can do that to a band.

Actually, Pete Farndon had been fired from The Pretenders because of his drug abuse; he died from a heroin overdose almost immediately afterward. Two days after Farndon’s death, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott would overdose on cocaine.

I thought that with the loss of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, The Pretenders were through, but the band, led by Chrissie Hynde, forged on. A little over a year after that double tragedy, The Pretenders released the double A side single “Back on the Chain Gang”/”My City was Gone” with temporary replacements. “Learning to Crawl” came out a year after that. The album included “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City was Gone” as well as eight new songs. The new songs featured the official new line-up of The Pretenders, who appear on the album’s cover.

The influence that James Honeyman-Scott’s unique guitar style had on the first two Pretenders albums is noticeably missing here. The songs are also a little less edgier than the earlier records and the album as a whole, takes less risks. That’s not to say it’s not as good as its predecessors. It’s just different; more straightforward.

I always thought “Learning to Crawl” was an appropriate name for The Pretenders’ third album. They were coming back from two back to back tragedies that nearly destroyed them. During the two years of its making, they were trying to find their footing again. They wanted to walk forward and continue on. But before you can walk, you have to learn to crawl.

Jack White – Boarding House Reach

I had a couple of friends recommend that I listen to Jack White’s latest album, “Boarding House Reach”, before deciding whether or not to buy it.

I did…

I bought it.

Some years back, Jack White relocated to Nashville, but he still holds a strong affinity to his roots in Detroit. With its deep R&B hooks, heavy production, and adventurous compositions, “Boarding House Reach” effortlessly makes a way stronger connection with Detroit than anything the Nashville music scene is known for. Overall, “Boarding House Reach” is Jack White’s most fractured album to date, having much less consistency than his previous solo records or any of his work with the White Stripes, Dead Weather, or Raconteurs. That’s why I loved it when I first heard it. The music went places White hadn’t gone before – many different places.

Like David Bowie, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and a handful of select others before him, Jack White is a true artist. True artists take risks. They make statements with their craft. They don’t give a sh!t about holding to convention or what is expected. They don’t try to do something that no one expects or might be ready for; it just happens. That is what best describes “Boarding House Reach”. It just happens.

And it just happens to be Jack White’s best album to date.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces

Sometimes the very first presses of albums get packaged with little extras. Maybe this was to reward those who “got it” and were waiting for the artist’s next album, buying it virtually unheard because they knew they would like it; I don’t know. But it’s cool when they do it.

Elvis Costello’s first three albums helped define what became known as “new wave” music. It was a welcome change in direction of rock and roll that removed many of the corporate influences of the music in the late ’70s. New wave had a DIY attitude – similar to punk – that intentionally cut against the grain of convention while still incorporating more pop hooks. It would itself eventually be commercialized in the ’80s and re-branded as “alternative” rock.

“Armed Forces” followed in the wake of Elvis Costello’s debut “My Aim is True” and his sophomore record, “This Year’s Model”, which helped bring Costello, and New Wave, into the mainstream. Record buyers who rushed out to get “Armed Forces” were rewarded by an unexpected bonus – a promotional three song record slipped inside the cover with album. The songs on the bonus record were recorded live in 1978 at Hollywood High School in California.

All three of Elvis Costello’s first albums are considered ground-breaking classics today. All appear in Rolling Stones list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The magazine also ranked Elvis Costello one of the 100 greatest musical artists of all time. Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Every now and then, an album comes along that is so different from anything before it, you can’t decide if you really like it, or really don’t.
Forty years later, it still sits in my record collection, so I guess there’s no need to say where I eventually opined.

Since Devo’s debut album was produced by Brian Eno and David Bowie, with both of them saying, in essence, that this was the band of the future, I would have been a fool to not expect something different from the mainstream. I just had no idea how different.

Although their popularity lasted for only a few albums, Devo’s music, and most especially this album, changed popular music forever, ushering in “New Wave” music which, because of how distinctly different it was from mainstream rock, became a musical genre in and of itself – “Alternative”.

Like it or loath it, the influence “Are We Not Men” had on music can’t be denied.

Hooters – One Way Home

When I think of underrated bands from the eighties, I think of first and foremost, the Hooters. Hailing from Philadelphia, the first two albums by the Hooters were pop/rock gems with a slick production that dripped of the ’80s. But anyone who had the good fortune to see them in concert knew this was not the true sound the Hooters represented. On “One Way Home” the Hooters captured a more rootsy, organic sound reminiscent of how they sounded live.

“One Way Home” still made use of synthesizers to create great pop hooks in a style that made their sophomore effort “Nervous Night” so successful, but they were mixed in with a wider array of other instruments. The guitar playing was grittier, especially with the solos, and there was more of a folk-rock/Americana feel to the songs. The lyrics are mostly meaningful and thought-provoking.

For reasons that elude me, “One way Home” did not fare as well in America as “Nervous Night” although it did still earn the Hooters another gold record. The album had better success in Europe, where The Hooters remain more popular today.

The Alarm – Declaration

The Alarm gained popularity in the ’80s around the same time as U2. Both bands had a distinctly different, yet similar sounds. The two bands also shared a common thread in their politically charged and passionately sung lyrics. Unfortunately, U2 became successful before The Alarm and the band from Wales became destined to stay in the Irish band’s shadow. Some critics even refered to The Alarm as U2 wannabes, which I felt was an unfair assessment.

Personally, I liked The Alarm’s music better than U2’s. It had a little more of a punk edge to it, similar to The Clash. I think their first full length album, “Declaration” was every bit as powerful as U2’s “War”. Sadly, they never attained the level of success they so undeniably deserved.

One of the performers that The Alarm looked up to and took inspiration from was Bob Dylan. His politically charged words have always been present in The Alarm’s songs. I had the pleasure of seeing The Alarm open for Dylan in 1988 at Meadowbrook Music Theater in Michigan. As you would expect, almost all the people there came to see Bob Dylan. The Alarm obviously knew this would be the case and made sure that everyone there would remember them that night as well. A couple of songs into their set, front man Mike Peters charged into the crowd to get them fired up. Everyone jumped to and stayed on their feet until The Alarm left the stage. Their performance that night remains in my memories as one of the most powerfully moving performances I have seen by any opening band. I wish I would have had a chance to see them headlining a show before they broke up in 1991.

Mike Peters reformed The Alarm in 2004, but without original members Dave Sharp, Eddie MacDonald, and Nigel Twist, it just wasn’t the same.

Muse – Drones

Muse has never been a band that has been afraid of trying something new. On “Drones” they showed they’re not worried about returning to familiar territory either. For their seventh studio album, Muse teamed up with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lang, best known for his work with Def Leppard, to make a more straightforward, hard rocking record.

The one thing that has always been consistent with all of Muse’s albums is its combination of hard rock, pop, and progressive rock. As they gained popularity, the band experimented heavily with orchestration on “The Resistance” and electronic music on its follow-up, “The 2nd Law”.  For “Drones”, Muse chose to keep things simple…well, simple in the terms of Muse. Although the music on “Drones” is noticeably stripped back compared to the two albums that came before it, it’s still as complex, innovative, and powerful as anything Muse has done before.

“Drones” has probably the most binding underlying concept of any Muse album, even venturing into rock opera territory. The songs on the album revolve around a story that in many ways parallels Queensrÿche’s “Operation: Mindcrime” – the attempt of a government or organization to brainwash or program someone into becoming a killing machine for them.  The one big difference is “Drones” definitely has a happier ending, with the protagonist defecting.

Howard Jones – Dream Into Action

Synth pop was at the height of its popularity in the mid ’80s. It was a music style that could easily provide addictive hooks and innovative sounds, but it could also be ruined if an artist was overly dependent on the musical technology they used and less confident in their musical ability. Howard Jones knows how to find the perfect balance between composition, musicianship, and innovation. His second album “Dream Into Action” is a perfect example.

Howard Jones had a knack of knowing when to keep the arrangement of song sweet and simple or make it densely complex. That intuition helped him create a trend-setting album tha is complexly powerful and beautifully simple in all the right places.

“Dream Into Action” was the second album by Howard Jones. Other than some background vocals and a few bass lines Jones had his brother lay down, he plays and sings every note on this album.

Often overlooked and underrated by music critics, Howard Jones’ music often didn’t receive the radio airplay his contemporaries, but that never deterred him and he continues to write, record, and perform his music today.

“Dream Into Action” remains one of my favorite albums from the ’80s. It includes the hits “Things Can Only Get Better” and “No One is To Blame”. But like with many great albums, it’s the collection of songs that weren’t hits that truly define it. That’s where “Dream Into Action” is at its best.