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Heard good things about an artist? Well the discount bin is one lousy way to acquaint yourself with the artist’s catalogue. You'll find the experiments that didn't work, and the "mature works" that were critically hailed by Rolling Stone, but which actually stink. Records made years after the artist’s prime, or before they knew what they were doing. People rejected these albums for a reason. You will also, however, find the problem albums that others don't like, but which speak in a special way, perhaps to just one listener. Are you that listener? Perhaps you'll get lucky, and the good album is sitting there amidst the dross. How will you know? Only with the help of me, and me alone.

Pete Townsend
Empty Glass
7879 out of 10,000

"This is the album most likely to be left playing while you run out to get milk." -- Steven Kilian, reviewer's brother.

My lifelong buddy Eppie (There is a cybercult that has latched onto all references in the Bargain Basement as prophecies of Armageddon. Seems odd, but it is remarkably common. The dynamics of the Internet are such that religious psychopaths have made totems of one in three sites. F. Sott Fitzgerald alone has triggered Five Armageddons for web zealots. For this reason, I have changed all names, for the people's protection and so as not to dilute my true prophesies of Ragnarok) really liked The Who. We'd lie out sunbathing in his backyard, listening to everything from "My Generation" to bootlegs of wretched end-of-career concerts (some of the first end-of-career concerts for The Who) as off-key harmonies of "Boris The Spider" howled out of the primitive box "Eppie" owned at the time. Through this process I came to learn a good deal about what you need and don't need from Pete Townsend and The Who. ("All of it!" Eppie screams)

I'm thinking newcomers will find Tommy a little long and thin, and it's this crypto-religious thing about a sensorially deprived kid. The whole album! Who's Next is really only if you like hearing songs that you've already heard on classic radio. Too many hits for my taste. It's a good record, spawned by one of the great failures of Rock and Roll, but when I hear that many hits on an album, it crushes the less commercial songs, however good they may be. Get one of the seventeen greatest hits albums out there, instead. Who Are You's got some good cuts, but the synthesizers will sound quaint, and Face Dances and It's Hard stink. I also think all Who albums should have "Who" in the title, so these should have been Who’s Face Dancing and Who's Hard. The one I'd recommend is Quadrophenia (Whosophrenia? Quadrowhonia?). It's really bombastic and pretentious, which is important to have with The Who, and it's a concept album, but there are the best songs they've got, and for a newcomer they won't be too familiar. I could listen to "The Punk Meets the Godfather” all day as my skin turns red and blister-ridden. I actually originally wrote “Slip Kids” in there. I always think “Slip Kids” is on Quadrophenia, but it’s on The Who By Numbers, so that must be good too.

Empty Glass is the Pete Townsend solo album to have. Fortunately, Eppie didn't push it too too far, so I can't make recommendations on any John Entwistle discs. Empty Glass can feel like two fully realized songs and filler, but either the filler turns out to be fine songs, or two songs and filler are all you need. It's the opposite of Who's Next; the hits ennoble the lesser songs.

The album begins with the first hit, "Rough Boys", which Townsend dedicates in the album notes to his children and the Sex Pistols, right above a quotation from Meher Baba (the Baba in Baba O'Reilly! His name is Baba!). How crazily conflicted Pete Townsend must have been at this point in his career. While enamored of Punk, he must have felt threatened by its challenge to The Who's hugeness (Whogness?). He was reeling in the fifteenth year of his official age obsession. The only one who asked, more than the press, whether he still wanted to "...die before I get old" was Townsend himself. In the midst of this age and music crisis, the angry schnoz of rock records what may be his most gently ornate albums, full of pseudo-classical piano trills and high, thinned voiced, emotive singing. "Rough Boys" is his one real salvo of aggression, and even it has those elaborate soft breakdowns that dot the album. He's still trying to make something classical, and he still digs that. Hear the synthesizers at the end. Totally dated, yet they wire in with Townsend’s guitars to great effect. They sound excited because Townsend is excited.

"Let My Love Open The Door", the other hit, is a perfect love song. It has cheesy, harplike synthesizers, as well as the Bach influenced chirping synth fugues that stand the test of time. Comical bass-dominated back up vocals chant "Let my love...” doo-wop style. The chorus borders on trite, without a twist, and the message is that "Love can cure your problems". Like most of the greatest love songs, it is an unabashed piece of schmaltz. It's shameless, because Townsend is shameless, because he's unafraid. Let the punks eat love.

This is a very confessional album, while at the same time it's very occluded. Why dedicate a song to your children and the Sex Pistols? Why not dedicate to the young men it's about? The ones he drunkenly tried to pick up in a bar? Then there's the line on "I Am An Animal" where he's "The Queen of the Fucking Universe". "And I Moved" is a far more direct tale of having sex with a man. Eppie told me the song was written for Bette Midler, which is why it was about a "him" instead of a "her". Where'd he get that story? Besides Townsend's ongoing sexual confusion and the Punk Rock issues, there are conflicts of Western versus Eastern philosophy, sentimentality versus hard-edgedness, and drug/drunkenness versus sobriety. (All the time he's making this album, Townsend's got a black cube attached to his brain that shoots electrical currents into his skull to keep his thirsty lips from sucking up the booze, and his enormous nostrils from snarfing up the cocaine) "Cat's in the cupboard...” he sings on the cut of the same name, in which he states "...you've got to set it free". Townsend is struggling with his cat, in full public view.

Talking Heads
Remain In Light
8,002 out of 10,000

“Lost my shape / Trying to act casual” – from “Crosseyed and Painless”

I forget where I read Tom Verlaine describe the Talking Heads as the first CBGB band that wasn’t one the original Punk-forming acts. They were the start of the second wave. But were they Punk or New Wave? These are issues that matter only to three Punk Rock stars living in a penthouse in Manhattan and thirty Punk Rock fans in dead-end jobs scattered all over America. Punk Rock is for hippies. The question is, did the T Heads make any good records?

The answer is yes. Unfortunately, the chirpy twitchy vocals of David Byrne, like Devo and their imitators, are so of a time that listening to them may prove hard. Likewise the thin, tinny sound of the Head’s first records, 1977 and More Songs About Buildings & Food could make the trip back in time difficult. “Psycho Killer” is the strongest, fullest song on the first and “Take Me To The River” is an anomaly on the second. If you like the funky jangle they featured, but don’t know if you can take a full discful, I recommend Fear Of Music, which shows the band evolving confidently and varying their styles more. That’s a fine album. So is this. Speaking in Tongues and Little Creatures have some good stuff, but the funk and country postures come off as a band trying on hats. I never heard true stories, but “Wild Wild Life” didn’t knock me out; it sounded life “an official Talking Heads song”. Naked is half fun, half depressing. Stop Making Sense is their most soulful offering, thanks to songs rearranged for the replacement musicians.

Speaking of replaced musicians, look at Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison on the album. Even while they play, they’re gone, and to be honest, good riddance. The cover art reveals as it covers up. The four members of the original band are shown, scratched over in digital red. Jerry Harrison, the supposed guitarist, is nearly all inked out. Drummer Chris Frantz looks moronic. Bassist Tina Weymouth is given red pixel lipstick, because she’s a girl, or rather, a childish computer drawing of a girl. Both of David Byrne’s oversized irises get to shine through. It’s his vision, see?

Of course, it should really be Byrne and producer Brian Eno who should be on the cover. They make the tape loops. They sing the backup vocals. They get the song credits along with the very unspecific “Talking Heads”. That way David Byrne gets even more credit. Songs by me, Brian, me and the other guys, he’s saying.

Poor Jerry Harrison. For years he’s directed to play a hyperclean guitar in defiance of the common distortion of the day. Now he’s supplanted by Adrian Belew, who pumps his solos through a mass of warped distortions. At least Harrison gets to play some bass. And Belew’s great. I think his guitar work on “The Great Curve” should go up there with the great guitar solos of all time. It’s not wankery; it’s an inspired maelstrom of noises.

So is the whole album. Eno’s technologies collide and coalesce with a Byrne at the height of his musical powers. Gospel, Techno, Funk, Roxy Music, African Rhythms, Punk, Spoken word, Soul crooning, and gothic chants spiral around in crazy tape loops. It’s one thing to hear a master of this technology crank out new sounds, and a good thing, but it’s really amazing to hear a collaboration discover and actually master the tech.

“The Great Curve” is the album’s tour de force. Belew’s guitar flows from some inspired computer bleeping, while pulses of horn propel the African percussion. Byrne’s chirpy singing now rasps. His staccato statements give way to a wide, yawning croon, layered like a choir of monks, while exclamations crossfire behind him.

“Once In A Lifetime” comes closest to the older, twitchy Byrne, with a strict division between his preacher pronouncements of alternate reality (or is it your own?) and the melody of the chorus. This is the least like the album, where the parts are more interwoven.

“Houses in Motion” starts the album’s slant toward ambient stasis and lesser song structure. The killer “I’m walking a line” chorus revives it, as does the slower singing on “The Listening Wind,” but the album is petering out. “Seen And Not Seen” is a static loop of synthesizer squirts, Funk bass plunks and handclaps loop around as Byrne does the spoken word thing. Fortunately, his speculative fantasy about the forming of the human face is quite clever. “The Overload” is not but drone and nonsense. It’s the clunker. It’s not irritating; it’s just over.

Remain In Light is David Byrne’s “Good Vibrations”. It’s a piece of work so compelling to him and so marginalizing to his other players that it can’t be duplicated. The band would quash any future Byrne/Eno/Talking Head projects, though there is the main duo’s follow-up side project, the highly influential My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. That’s all found sounds and preacherman snippets, this is the only one where those sounds met songs. I could be a little too forgiving of the twitchy chirping, but I think it’s a timeless, strange and brilliant album.

Leonard Cohen
The Best Of
9,103 out of 10,000

I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom, Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
and Bethlehem inflamed us both like the shy one at some orgy.
- From “Last Year’s Man”

My only understanding of Leonard Cohen for years was a tribute album with some really poor performances by bands I’ve forgotten except for the Pixies, for whom I’d bought it. The tribute album is the ultimate damnation of faint praise, the artists usually butcher the material, and the buyer should just buy the original artist’s work. A roommate had a copy of The Future lying around, with a later Cohen singing froggily on a batch of really slow, really long songs. Tom (Not his real name, freak zealots!) put an odd song on a mix tape. These poor introductions kept my interest low.

Thank God for the discount bin and the second chances it provides. I bought The Best Of a week ago, and I’ve already gone deeper into the catalogue with New Skin For The Old Ceremony. Usually a greatest hits package plays like a singing Frankenstein’s monster, with crowd-pleasing numbers cobbled together without continuity, the stitches showing. This sounds like an album that was meant to be. Here are the gentle Leonard Cohen ballads, without the weird stuff. They’re culled from what looks like as little as four albums, from 1967-1975, with only three different producers.

The feel is similar to an old Simon and Garfunkle album, soothing yet transporting in a way that ambient music can’t achieve. On first listen there doesn’t seem much there, just a pretty guitar plucking and poetic groaning. Soon enough the melodies and those sharply crafted words are stuck in my head. The singing is higher than I’d anticipated. He must have aged and enfroggened on his way to The Future. Ethereal women coo on the choruses, as ephemeral as the muses who populate Cohen’s songs.

I can make out the Dylan influence in the singing, and the interior rhymes, but Cohen’s writing in his own style about his own obsessions. “Bird On The Wire” is perfect in the simplicity of it’s images and melody. It’s strange to hear the original after hearing Johnny Cash’s version. There’s an undisguised poetry to the lyrics, which can be very linear and confessional or wild and symbolic. Major religious images disrupt the tales. “Suzanne” accomplishes the love song’s quest to make the object of the singer’s affections holy. Suzanne gets two verses, Jesus one, and in the end they are indistinguishable.

Whether she is Judeo-Christian, pagan, or both, the muse appears in almost every song. The Marianne of “So long Marianne” held on to our singer “like he was a crucifix / as we went kneeling through the dark.” He is scorned, then pursued by “...someone who had lines on her face” in the near allegory, “Lady Midnight”. “The Sisters of Mercy” of that song are clearly religious figures to Cohen, though he is not explicit on what kind of comfort they bring with their song.

And you won’t make me jealous
If I hear that they sweetened your night
We weren’t lovers like that
And besides it would still be alright


Mr. Cohen also captures a decadent sensuality, with a matter-of-fact freshness, in a dry flat humor. In “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” he recalls a woman “Giving me head on an unmade bed/while the limousines wait in the street”. Cohen’s home is in no one hotel or city, but in opulent lust. I imagine him hanging out the cafes of New York and Paris, seducing the mistresses of barons (who bought their titles) in the grand bedrooms of Europe, then after, smoking cigarettes on the balcony as rhymes speed through his head.

 

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