Kris Kristofferson – Jesus Was A Capricorn

Kris Kristofferson is one of the originators of what is now known as outlaw country. All that really means was that his music, in many ways, eschews traditional country music and at times, crosses over with rock and roll. Kristofferson has a DIY, singer songwriter style that both meshed with and cut across the grain of what was popular in country and rock. He wrote, sung, and played songs that were deep-rooted and highly personal. Much in the way Hank Williams changed the sound of country and influenced rock music in the ’50s, Kristofferson, along with a few other “outlaws” from the ’60s and ’70s, redefined country music for a new generation, opening the door for southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and Charlie Daniels.

Quite often, Kris Kristofferson’s songs shared as much in common with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as with Merle Haggard and George Jones. Like his other albums, “Jesus was a Capricorn” isn’t an album filled with fiddles and twangy guitars (although there is lap-steel and dobro). It’s an album that focusses on roots and emotion, dedication and defiance.

“Jesus Was a Capricorn”, like the rest of Kristofferson’s catalog, is not really country or rock and roll. He is of that rare breed of performers that fits somewhere in between definitions and outside genres. In a true DIY style, with albums like “Jesus Was a Capricorn”, Kris Kristofferson defined something new with his music; something called outlaw country.

Laurie Anderson – Mister Heartbreak

Perhaps one of the most unusual artists to gain popular success in the eighties was Laurie Anderson. “Mr. Heartbreak” is her second album. Like its predecessor, “Mister Heartbreak” is a combination of musical experimentation spun together with a combination of spoken word and sung lyrics.

It may take some people a couple listens to fully appreciate “Mister Heartbreak”, or any of Laurie Anderson’s music for that matter. The interplay of the words and sounds is unlike any album that had come before it.

With as different as “Mister Heartbreak” is, I am actually surprised the album did as well as it did, hitting number 60 on the Billboard top 200 album chart in 1984. Certainly, Adrian Belew (King Crimson) on guitar and Peter Gabriel (Genesis) appearing on a couple of songs didn’t hurt it having a broader appeal to some people, making them want to give it a listen. I am glad I was one of them.

Porcupine Tree – Deadwing

“Deadwing” is essentially the soundtrack to a film that has yet to be made. Whether it ever is, remains to be seen. Steven Wilson wrote most of the songs on it as music meant to accompany a screenplay he had written with director David Bennion. Although they were unable to get funding for the film, Wilson decided to record and release the songs in 2005 as part of Porcupine Tree’s eighth album, “Deadwing”. Because he still hopes to have the film made, Wilson has never released all the details of the storyline or the concept behind the songs.

From the songs on “Deadwing”, it’s easy to deduce that the story has a somewhat dark theme to it. The album artwork was also created around the story and has that kind of feel to it and Steven Wilson has confirmed that the songs on “Deadwing” tell a ghost story of sorts. Both Wilson and Bennion have remained fairly tight-lipped about the “Deadwing” storyline, although they did make the first fifteen pages of the screenplay available on the Internet:

Reading experience part one: DEADWING script by Steven Wilson & Mike Bennion (first 15 pages)

I don’t know a lot about the movie making process, but I have to guess that as more time passes, the likelihood of the film “Deadwing” ever being made becomes slimmer and slimmer. Even if the movie never happens, I’m glad Steven Wilson decided to release “Deadwing” as an album. It would have been a tragedy to leave music this good unheard.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Sometimes I wonder if I got it all wrong….

Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Arcade Fire  when they first came onto the music scene in 2004. Maybe my expectations were too high after hearing raves about their debut, “Funeral”. To me, it was good…but…meh.  I figured they were a one or two album band destined to mediocrity. I was wrong.

I mostly use word of mouth and the Internet to check out new bands (I’m not a big fan of the  local commercial radio stations today). Thirteen years later, I was still hearing a lot of talk about Arcade Fire. So I went online and listened to them again and found a lot of songs really hit home with me, especially from their 2010 album “The Suburbs”. So much so, that I figured I’d pick up a copy of “The Suburbs” to listen to the album as a whole. It was one of the best musical decisions I have ever made.

Listening to the songs on “The Suburbs” mixed with tracks from other albums, I could tell it was going to be a good album. But the whole is so much better than its parts. This album is a creative masterpiece. The songs are themed around living in the suburbs – the good, the bad, and the mediocre, offering up the lyrics with diverse but uniquely identifiable arrangements.

After listening to “The Suburbs”, I will definitely be giving other Arcade Fire a closer listen. I wouldn’t be surprised if another album from them ends up in my collection. Maybe I should give “Funeral” another listen. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Arcade Fire’s originality when I first heard it.

Maybe I got it all wrong.

The Kickstand Band – Puppy Love

My sister-in-law is an artist. She teaches sculpture at Wayne State University in Detroit. There are cities in Michigan that have her sculptures on permanent display. She has done exhibitions at art galleries across the United States. I am very proud of her. I am also thankful to her for being responsible for my discovering The Kickstand Band – in a roundabout way.

A little over a year ago, my sister-in-law was doing an exhibit at the opening of the 333 Midland gallery in Highland Park, near Detroit (you should Google it, it is really cool). They had bands playing there. And while I do appreciate visual art, I am by my nature, drawn to music. And there were local bands there. One of the bands was The Kickstand Band. I loved their stage presence and more importantly, their sound. So I went up to meet them afterwards and support them by buying some of their music. I was astonished to find they had their debut album, “Puppy Love”, on CD and vinyl. Of course, I had to buy the vinyl record – it’s always my first choice.

Having just seen The Kickstand Band play live, I already knew their sound. DIY/indie pop and power chords with great boy/girl vocal harmonies. Listening more closely, once I had the record playing at home, I could also hear influences of doo-wop, surf music, punk, and of course, Motown – they are from Detroit after all.

And then there’s the album cover. As if to flaunt the DIY attitude, the cover of “Puppy Love” is a picture that would feel right at home on the “Awkward Family Photos” website (you should Google that too)

I can’t help but hope The Kickstand Band get a break somewhere down the line. They deserve it. Their music is a joy to listen to. It’s as unique as it is addicting. Not overly abrasive but still rebellious. I will be keeping eye and ear out for them.

Cocteau Twins – The Pink Opaque

“The Pink Opaque” is a compilation album released in 1986 that was meant to introduce the music of the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish band that had released three LPs and five EPs in the UK since 1982, to American audiences. Despite having never released an album in America, the band had gained a cult following from airplay on college and alternative radio stations. The album consisted of material culled from all of their previous releases.

With swirling, effect laden guitars, a drifting, occasionally heavy bass minimalistic drums, and Elizabeth Fraser’s distinct dipping and soaring soprano voice, the band had a dreamscape quality to their music. But there was also a heavy goth influence, reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure. This is music that swirls around inside your head. Although not technically complicated, it’s music that’s intriguing and thought-provoking. It’s all about how the pieces all fit together.

I first discovered Cocteau Twins after picking up another somewhat obscure album by a band called Felt. That album, “Gold Mine Trash”, was recommended to me by the clerk of a local record store, who had come to know me fairly well. Elizabeth¬†Fraser sang backing vocals a song called “Primitive Painters”. Her voice immediately grabbed me.

“The Pink Opaque” has special meaning to me as it was an album I purchased while going through a difficult time in my life. I could relate to the dark, somber mood of the music, yet at the same time found it oddly uplifting. It was an album that, with its layers of sound swirling in my head, helped me disconnect from what was bothering me, allowing me to reconnect with what I appreciated in life. Consequently, “The Pink Opaque” is one of my go-to albums when I’m feeling down or need to deeply ponder some subject. But sometimes, like now, I listen to it just because it’s a really good record.

Restless Variations

Long before Record Store Day, there was a time when indie record labels released compilation albums promoting the cool-ass bands signed to them because…well, just because. A lot of the collections were crap, with only one or two good songs on them, if that. But what the hell, they were cheap, so you gave ’em a shot whenever you had a few extra bucks. One compilation that really hit the mark was Restless Variations.

Restless records was a post-punk extension of Enigma records which had made its name by being the starting label for a number of bands that later signed to major labels. I don’t think any of the bands on Restless ever signed a major label deal. Then again, I’d be willing to bet none of them gave a f*ck if they did. It was that moxy that makes this a kick-ass collection of songs by bands that almost nobody has heard of – Electric Peace, Get Smart!, Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, Fear, and The Lazy Cowgirls were a few of the bands on this album that never went anywhere beyond maybe a cult following. And I’d be remiss if I left out The Dead Milkmen. Hell, Bitchin’ Camaro is the staple track of this album.

Restless Variations was the epic sound of struggling bands trying to make it, doing it their way. Yeah, for the most part, they all failed miserably. But they had fun trying…and they left at least one great song in their wake. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

Released in 2011, Ceremonials was the second album for Florence and the Machine. It debuted at number one on the UK charts and was nominated for two Grammys that same year. 

Although the production is fuller and more soulful than their first album, the lyrics delivered by Florence Welch’s distinct and powerful voice still feel intimate and personal. She sings with such a sense of urgency, you can’t help but feel these are songs that she needs to get out from inside her.

Almost all the songs on Ceremonials contains multiple layers, making it one of those albums that you can hear something new on even after numerous listenings. Many of the songs on the album incorporate the use of a full choir and harp, at times giving them a lush feeling, while others feel heavier and slightly darker. I can’t help but think of Kate Bush with a touch of Siouxsie And The Banshees mixed in for good measure.

Florence And The Machine – Lungs

The distinct and powerful voice of Florence Welch helped propel Florence And The Machine’s 2009 debut, Lungs, to number 2 on the UK album charts.  But it’s that voice combined with complex musical arrangements that make this album really grab your ear.  Not to mention, it is one of the best stereo mixes I have heard in recent years.

Some of the songs have sharp contrasts between the music and lyrics, drawing the listener in with upbeat chords and melodies and then slamming them in the face with lyrics about darker topics, like domestic violence.  

Absolutely brilliant!