It’s a Chamber Pop World
by Greg Rawlings
Over the last decade or so, concurrent with the rise of alt-country, a lush, complex school of rock music has arisen (or re-arisen, if you will). Based on precedents like "Pet Sounds," by the Beach Boys, "Revolver," by the Beatles and, just as important, if not nearly as well-known, "Odyssey and Oracle," by the Zombies (which is actually misspelled big time in the original), this is music for bright sad souls who probably did too many drugs when they were young, by bright sad souls who are probably doing too many drugs as we speak. So here goes my brief overview/list of the most gorgeously melancholic of these midnight-y works.
1. "The Soft Bulletin," Flaming Lips. Enigmatic, hopeful and never less than brilliant . . . this is the album that made the Wayne Coyne phenomenon possible (however improbable). A freakish number of music fans will be glad to regale you with how this one album changed their lives. Sometimes compared to "Sgt. Pepper"—which is unfortunate for that particular Beatles classic in that this is a far superior work. When they tour, cute girls dress in animal costumes and dance around the stage. Take that Beatlemania.
2. "Skylarking," XTC. The best album by the best British pop-rock band since the heyday of the Kinks. From Todd Rundgren’s seamless production to Andy Partridge’s finest array of songs, this album approaches perfection. An album so overwhelming that the infamous "Dear God" isn’t even the best track.
3. "Summerteeth," Wilco. My culturally encyclopedic youngest brother Matthew (a third-year at Cornell Law for all you hiring partners out there) disagrees, but this is Jeff Tweedy’s finest moment. The sonic gamesmanship never overawes the raw, unadulterated songwriting chops on this great album. To be honest, this is the record that most helped me navigate the dark waters of my divorce alive (if not exactly kicking).
4. "Deserter’s Songs," Mercury Rev. Buffalo’s most bizarre renegades check in with one of my favorite albums ever. With cameos by Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of the Band, this is opiated soul music for the darkly sensitive. There are more than a few moments on this disk that give me the chills—no matter how often I hear them.
5. "X/O," Elliot Smith. An icon for the world’s manic depressive junksters, Smith climbs out of the pity pond on this one and delivers a striking deconstruction of the smack life. Moments of complete beauty are juxtaposed with moments of absolute terror, often on the same track. Listen to "Bled White," and tell me I’m wrong. My bet is, he’ll never make another one this good; mainly because this one nearly killed him. [In the time between turning in the story and publication, Smith killed himself.]
6. "Key Lime Pie," Camper Van Beethoven. The beginning of the end for this beloved slacker combo, but the first precursor by an American band that avant-rock could (and would) rise beyond prog-rock tediousness and/or post-punk puerile irony. In retrospect, the elegant and melancholic "All Her Favorite Fruit," was the opening salvo in a veritable revolution. And no matter what the more cynical crits say, CVB’s version of "Pictures of Matchstick Men" is one of the most engaging covers in modern rock.
7. "The Bends," Radiohead. The world’s heaviest band’s best album, by far. The arch beauty of "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry" will last long beyond the imitation Pink Floyd of "OK Computer." Okay, maybe I’m wrong; maybe I just like this one better.
8. "Things We Lost in the Fire," Low. An album so intensely depressing that I can’t help but smile every time I hear it. I just know Brian Wilson would’ve loved this baby. Points for being the only avant-rock album by a Mormon couple from Duluth, Minn. If I’m wrong on that, I’ll jump in front of an RTD express.
9. "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One," Yo La Tengo. Where a small combo from Jersey sounds like a damn symphony. One of America’s liveliest live bands turns in its best studio work to date. The YLT version of the Beach Boys throwaway, "Little Honda" has to be heard to be believed. Plus, they’re all really friendly, and they sell cool understated t-shirts. I wear one. A lot. Probably too often. And it’s not even in my color palate. Then again, I’m color blind, so who knows?
10. "In Reverse," Matthew Sweet. The king of power pop hires as many of the Beach Boys’ old studio pros as he can find and attempts to update "Pet Sounds" for the new millennium. So he fails; who wouldn’t? Still, it’s a total blast from the very first track to the nearly ten-minute magnum opus, "Thunderstorm," that closes out this Quixotic experiment. A final Q: why can’t more albums have lots of theremin, like this one does? And I do mean lots—mucho theremin, folks. Okay let’s get down to brass tacks, theremin rules. And you thought it was just a weirdly played musical saw. Hah! Hah, I say!