It was a gorgeous, beautiful day, but a day so oddly quiet–no planes in the air, and an almost comical lack of traffic to be found anywhere. I drove home back down Cermak, too despairing to listen to the news anymore. I put Mobilize, a CD I’d picked up just a few days earlier (it came out a month before that, I was just a bit late) and popped it into the player…and my most vivid memory of that day took place. As I drove through Broadview, an economically blighted village in the western suburbs of Chicago (not the sort of place you’d want to be walking alone at night, in other words), Grant Lee Phillips’s gorgeous, yearning, lilting “See America” came pouring out of the speakers as I noticed that someone at a thoroughly decrepit Popeye’s Chicken had changed their marquee sign to say “God Bless America”….and I was in tears all over again.
For years and years, any discussion of this record, Phillips second solo outing (but let’s call it the first proper solo album, since the first was the oddly slapdash Ladies Love Oracle) after dissolving the final incarnation of Grant Lee Buffalo was dominated by that experience. Oh, there were other GLP albums I liked more than Mobilize, I figured, perhaps the folky, rustic country turn on Virginia Creeper, or his return to the more familiar musical landscapes of his Buffalo days on his Strangelet disc. And so a few months ago, anticipating compiling this list, I thought to myself “Self, there should probably be a Grant Lee Phillips disc in your countdown.” I figured I’d give ‘em all one listen and then probably go with something else…but then I kept coming back to Mobilize.
Even at the time, as “See America” (the first track on the record) dominated this record almost to the point of exclusion of other songs on it, I still remember thinking songs like “Spring Released” (which starts with Bowie’s “Young Americans” riff and takes it to eleven on an amazing chorus) or gorgeous, should’ve-been-a-hit “Beautiful Dreamers” (which if I remember got a neat acoustic treatment by Grant the Troubador on an episode of Gilmore Girls) were pretty awesome. Revisiting it, I came to not only appreciate how terrific those tracks are, but also came to love songs like the evocative “Lazily Drowning” and “Sleepless Lake” more than I ever remembered back in the day.
Mobilize is an odd album in the GLP canon. The record is shot through with acoustic guitars…but also fully-powered by what surely sounds like a one-man electronica sound throughout the record. Electronic beats, drums, synth washes and flourishes work organically with “real” instruments, and usually very, very well. (If you called this Grant’s homage to The Magnetic Fields, you wouldn’t be missing it by much, in other words.)
Of the four or five GLP solo albums to come out this decade, this is the one that makes the list for one very simple reason: the songs. Grant Lee Phillips has recorded some amazing songs over the last ten years, but nowhere in that catalog has he stacked up so many of his best songs back-to-back as he did on Mobilize.
Songs to sample:
Pity The Cobbs. Brothers Paul and Ryan Cobb started their career off recording as Ty Cobb which drew just enough notice from two albums to get them a cease & desist from the late ballplayer’s estate. After trying out life under the name Mad Action, the band finally settled on the nom de rock The Cobbs, a natual name that unfortunately evokes thoughts of them being one of a thousand half-assed No Depression bands making the rounds.
The Cobbs are not a bluegrass band. They’re part of the rich Philadelphia psych-pop scene that produced great artists like The Asteroid #4 and Lilys/Kurt Heasley. Most folks on an early listen will hone right in on a similarity to the BRMC on Deathcapades, but to my mind they outdo the more-famous band in almost every way here. The Cobbs have an unerring songwriting crafstman’s sense, which gives songs like “Lo Chey” and “Meia” a feel not unlike what you’d get if The Beatles had recorded Revolver at the far end of a desperate tether. The album turns a very nifty trick of stacking piles of melodic hooks and catchy melodies atop one another without ever resorting to guitar-pop cliches. As the title suggests, this is an album shot through with darkness and a sort of crazy-at-the-edges malevolence that comes searing through on the slide-from-hell song “Say You Never Knew Me” or the devastating leer of “Climb On Top”, which starts off sounding like the evillest song the Gun Club never recorded before exploding into a chorus you’ll be humming all day.
As good as these songs are–and they’re utterly tremendous, nary a weak number among the bunch–what makes this record one of the best of the decade is the incredible production. Belying its rather humble origins, Deathcapades is one of the most-expensive-sounding and interesting production jobs in my entire record collection. In fact, if you crank your stereo headphones to unhealthily loud levels and listen to “Don’t Walk”, you’ll hear one of the most amazing, over-the-top, spine-tingling music bridges recorded during the decade, and what sends it into the stratosphere is the amazing production–chiming guitars swirl over buzzing, snorting, bass…while the drums sound as if drummer Chris Coello is smashing his kit to absolute flinders. Don’t miss this album, folks.
“Climb On Top”
(Also, you could once hear the whole album and order it from Apollo Audio right here, but that link has been broken for a little while now. I know the guy from AA occasionally reads this, and hopefully it might be fixed (and Apollo is a *treee-mendous place to order and discover new music from, btw.)
49. The Cobbs, Sing The Deathcapades (2006)
50. The Bangles, Doll Revolution (2003)
Chances are that if you mention The Bangles to 99% of the music listeners on the planet, they’ll roll their eyes, thinking of overplayed novelties like “Walk Like An Egyptian”, or overproduced pap like “Manic Monday” or (shudder) “Eternal Flame”….and that’s a shame. Songs like that describe what The Bangles were about almost as well as “Silly Love Songs” describes what Paul McCartney was all about.
The Bangles were a psych-pop band who knew their way around the Nuggets comp (the original, Lenny Kaye version, natch) better than almost any of their more vaunted peers in the Paisley Underground. Playing live, they’d tear the joint down on sizzling covers of “Little Red Book” or “7 & 7 Is”. In fact, one of the greatest attributes these four ladies ever had was knowing their own limitations as songwriters and cherry-picking tunes from folks like Prince and The Soft Boys’ Kimberley Rew.
Scariano and I went to see The Bangles on their first, House Of Blues reunion tour in 2000, and it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. The band was great, and the biggest surprise was the strength of the new material they were debuting. Doll Revolution came out three years later, the band amazingly finally recapturing their natural energy and raison d’etre in the studio for the first time in over 20 years. Fittingly, the rollicking opener (“Tear Off Your Own Head”) is an Elvis Costello tune, but elsewhere Vicki Peterson lays down the law on a self-penned scorching rocker like “Between The Two” and the declaration of girl-independence “Single By Choice”. The band that scored a worldwide hit with their cover of “Hazy Shade Of Winter” manages to do themselves proud with their own version and nearly out-minor-keys Mr. Simon with “Stealing Rosemary”.
Doll Revolution remains the band’s studio swansong, and what seemed like an fascinating way for the band to expand upon a rebuilt legacy now plays second fiddle to Susie Hoffs’ “Between The Covers” projects. Even as a final one-off statement, the record gracefully redeems the legacy of The Bangles from the elevator music hell to which it had been consigned, and stands as one of the most joyous record spins of the last decade.
Songs to listen to: (Right click, “save as”)
So over the last few weeks various online publications have come forward with “Best Of The Decade” lists.
Go ahead and skim. I own a lot of records that show up on both those lists. Fair enough. Thing is, both those lists are annoyingly similar, as if the same publication came up with the entire mess and then sort of copy-and-pasted it around. Now, I’m not sure how many folks compiled the lists for both those online sites, and how many people wrote the review text up for them…but I’m betting it was a few more reviewers than write Popnarcotic.com. I’m guaranteeing it, in fact.
And here’s the thing: those are the two most vanilla, disappointing lists I’ve ever read. Those lists are utterly safe, extra-vanilla chops of shallow rock-critic doublespeak. You can almost hear the wheels turning: “Dudes, we’ve gotta put something by Modest Mouse in there somewhere…” (No, you don’t.)
At any rate, inspired by how dull and predictable those two lists are, my hobby for the next month or so is going to be to count down the Popnarcotic 50 Favorite Records Of The Decade. A couple of things to know going in:
1. That’s 50 favorite records of the decade, not 50 best. I would be able to argue vehemently that perhaps this Radiohead album or that Roots disc is one of the best of the last ten years or one of the ten most important…but not that either would be my choice to listen to recreationally, push-to shove. Stuff I love passionately makes the list, so going in…apologies to Cat Power, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Outkast, Kanye, and Radiohead. Those folks all made amazing, must-own records during the last 10 years which no collection is complete without. Buy them…
…and read about ‘em somewhere else. What can I say? I’m feeling irascible and idiosyncratic.
2. I aim to try to post two or three albums every day, with links to previous picks in each post to make the navigation easy. Goal is to be done by New Year’s Eve.
3. Yes, there will be plenty of music to sample. If you hear something you like and want to investigate, buy some music.
4. I’ll try to go roughly in order, but c’mon. One day I’ll listen to a record by Jim Noir or The People Under the Stairs and think “This is one of the best albums of the last ten years, easily.” Then two days later, I’ll come to my senses. Today’s record I list in the mid-40′s I could end up wishing I’d put in the top ten instead. It happens.
5. This is a chance for reassessment of the Year-End Best Records lists I do annually. Some of my picks absolutely hold up, some…don’t. (Did I really have When I Pretend To Fall as the best disc of 2003? Really?) Sometimes I missed a record during a year, heard it a few years later….and oops. Perhaps I can do some atonement for that here.
So there’s the background. We’ll see you in a bit to start things off.