Paul Heinz

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The Last Eleven Albums I Can't Live Without

Fifty down with another eleven below, capping off my list of albums I can’t live without at sixty-one. As a reminder, this list is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen.

Rush – Permanent Waves (1980). I’ve written extensively about Rush’s catalog before, but I’ll quickly say that Permanent Waves is their best album.  It’s such a fresh and positive collection of songs, with just enough prog-rock elements to keep things from getting stale. 

Sting – Mercury Falling (1996).  One of the best-sounding albums ever, Sting was at his peak here, creating sonic moods, telling compelling stories (“I Hung My Head” and “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) and deftly encapsulating feelings (“Let your Soul Be Your Pilot” and “All Four Seasons”).  The album preceding and succeeding this release are good too, but this is Sting’s best solo recording, and while I could certainly make an argument for the Police’s second and last albums, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I rarely turn to those aside from the title track of the former and the title tracks of the latter.

Genesis – Duke (1980).  It came down to this or the following year’s Abacab, but ultimately I can’t say no to the thrilling bookends to the album and “Turn it on Again,” among my favorite tracks ever.  Once again, Tony Banks contributes a few killer tracks in “Heathaze” and “Cul-de-Sac,” and Rutherford even adds a terrific “Man of our Times.”  Collins disrupts the genius with “Please Don’t Ask,” but oh well.  It’s still a fantastic album, and at 55 minutes in length, you can skip that one track and still have a ton of Genesis leftover to enjoy!

Yes – Tales from Topographic Albums (Sides 1 and 2).  Look, I know that The Yes Album, Fragile, Going for the One, Drama and 90125 are all great, but in the context of the other albums I’m selecting, having the first few sides of Tales is a really satisfying addition, a set of rich and mysterious tracks that still mesmerize me after all these years, having purchased the album used in Milwaukee back in 1981.  If I made a top 100 albums, I’d probably include many of the aforementioned albums.

Toto – Toto (1978).  This is another one I might get crap for, but doggone it, it’s such a solid album from front to back, with terrific hooks, crafty musicianship, and a killer lead-off track, it’s hard to resist.  Employing not one, not two, not three, but four lead singers, the album alternates between solid rock and jazz-tinged pop, and with Jeff Porcaro on the drums, it’s as tight as can be.  It you like some of the later hits off of Toto IV, check this album out and be amazed.

Indigo Girls – All That We Let In (2004).  This duo is so fricking good I could have chosen another three albums, but this one made the cut, an extremely solid album from start to finish.  The Indigo Girls is another band that really benefits from having two singers with two distinct voices and two distinct writing styles, Emily Saliers’s sweet and Amy Ray’s edgy, and the way they intertwine these voices gives them a distinctive sound. Ray’s songs on this effort are particularly strong, which isn’t always the case, and songs like “Perfect World” and “Tether” work perfectly alongside “Fill it Up Again” and “Come on Home.”  Just beautiful.

The Beatles – The Beatles, sides 1 and 3 (1968).  You knew the Fab-Four would have to be represented somewhere on this list.  It’s not easy to stay excited about songs you’ve heard a thousand times, but The White Album still grabs me, particularly side one.  I love the rising guitar motif at the end of “Dear Prudence,” the juxtaposition of “Glass Onion” and the quirky “Wild Honey Pie” surrounding “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” and Harrison’s best composition, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but its Lennon who really shines on this album throughout.  Sides two and three are tossups, with Lennon’s beautiful “Julia” almost giving the former the edge, but I love how the band rocks on side three in sharp contrast to the rest of the album (also, “Don’t Pass Me By” is on side two – which is unfortunate).  The band’s next album, Abbey Road, is probably the most complete Beatles release, and it’s second side is among the best album sides ever recorded, but I’m no longer intrigued with “Come Together” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  With the White Album, it’s not the individual tracks that lead to greatness, but the collective whole.

Pat McCurdy – The Big, Bright, Beautiful World of Pat McCurdy (1997).  Some may categorize this Milwaukee artist as a novelty act, but I argue that there’s a lot more going on here than cheap laughs.  McCurdy, whose songwriting prowess is apparent, has a penchant for memorable melodies, social commentary and satire, with an occasional touching moment.  The song “Thankless Bastard” was a regular sing-along song for my children (which tells you something about their father), but the whole album is well-done, with a few live numbers to heighten the energy and give it jovial feel.  Yes, this album harkens me back to my nights watching McCurdy at The Celebrity Club in Milwaukee when I was young, poor, drunk and obnoxious, but I think it holds up on its own merits.

Utopia – Utopia, sides 1 and 2 (1982).  When I saw the Todd Rundgren-led Utopia open up for the Tubes on my eighteenth birthday, they didn’t leave much of an impression on me except that they were really, really weird.  I didn’t pay them any attention for the next thirty-one years, but then a record-collection friend of mine encouraged me to check out their self-titled 1982 release, and my oh my, what a superb power-pop album.  Funny and witty, melodic and complicated, mixed moods, tight harmonies.  This collection has it all.  It’s not unlike some of XTC’s best stuff, but whereas I have trouble digesting more than twenty minutes of the latter’s music, this album goes down nice and easy.

U2 –The Joshua Tree (1987). U2’s seminal release took place during my freshman year in college and the album was everywhere.  Hard-core U2 fans prefer one of their first four releases, but I’m not really a hard-core U2 fan.  The album does lose steam on the final two tracks, but it would have been a lot to ask that the heightened ecstasy be sustained beyond the album’s first nine songs.  “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the perfect opener and was quite the splash at the Super Bowl in 2002, and “Red Hill Mining Town” has always been a favorite of mine.   I’ve sadly never seen them in concert because their ticket prices are usually ridiculous.

Sarah McLachlan – Surfacing (1997).  I recall purchasing this album and 10,000 Maniacs’ Love Among the Ruins in Allentown, PA with my friends Scott and Todd.  I wavered holding Surfacing in my hands, and Scott said, “You should get it.”  I did, and happily absorbed this album as part of soundtrack to my first year of parenthood.  What I dig about this album is the alternating between darkness and heartbreakingly beautiful, with neither side winning.  The song “I Love You,” is pretty terrible, but it’s the only song I consistently skip on this release.  The opening track packs a punch, as does “Sweet Surrender,” and then we get to probably the most forgiving and empathetic breakup songs ever, “Adia,” with beautiful vocals skating on top of a tasteful guitar and piano arrangement.  A lovely album.

So there you have it! Sixty-one albums. There are undoubtedly another thirty or forty that I might have chosen at a different time, but this collection would serve me quite nicely if I were forced to downsize my collection to a paltry sixty-one. In a week or two I’ll do a recap, with a graph of years represented and some of the albums I considered that didn’t quite make the cut. Happy New Year!

Ben Folds Five reunite: an album review

There’s no rule that says lyrics have to make sense, rhyme or be singable.  But it sure doesn’t hurt.  On the first Ben Folds Five album in thirteen years, Folds pursues the lyrical trend he telegraphed in a 2008 Time Magazine interview:

I always want to push the barrier a little bit with lyrics. In songs we're supposed to say, "Girl, uh huh, you done me wrong, you did." But you've got to break out of that.

Break out of that he did, first with Nick Hornby providing the lyrical content for 2010’s Lonely Avenue, and now in The Sound of the Life of the Mind.  Although it’s the first album since 2005’s Songs for Silverman that sounds like it was recorded by a live band, the lack of lyrical flow and hooks keeps the long-awaited reunion from being a more celebrated event. 

When I see Ben Folds perform this Sunday night in Chicago, will anyone in the audience sing along to “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”:

Good morning, mirror
Break the change to me
I tried to stay too close to see
That there's a pattern in the tiles
And a fool who marks the miles
It was long hair
And this time it was no hair

Poetic?  Debatable, I suppose, but not good lyric writing.  Even drummer Darren Jessee’s lyrical contribution to the album, “Sky High” has lines that are too complex for their own good.  This is rock and roll, after all. 

As for the music, by the time the last Ben Folds Five album was released in 1999, they’d already begun to abandon the sound of their first two releases: the slightly out-of-tune harmonies, the raw energy and edginess – these were smoothed out on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner in a more finely-produced collection, so much so that I thought it would be their break-through album, the radio-friendly release that finally finds mass appeal.  It didn’t, but the smoother production remains thirteen years later, making this collaboration sound more like another Ben Folds solo album than a reunion of an old band.  I suspect that live performances of these tracks will invite an edginess on stage that wasn’t captured in the studio.

All three musicians are highly skilled, and Ben Folds is still an insanely talented and smart guy, so the album has its moments.  The opening track, “Erase Me” offers tight Queen-like harmonies (and a line that Folds’s four ex-wives must find either amusing or infuriating: New bio, you’ve gone solo, drawing mustaches on our wedding photo), the distorted bass of Robert Sledge is great to hear again, and Sara without an H is back (on the title track penned by Nick Hornby), this time fleeing her pedestrian friends in favor of going to school to pursue knowledge and beauty.  Coming closest to the signature Ben Fold Five sound is “Draw a Crowd,” which offers one of the few hooks on the album:

Oh, if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall

The best tune on the album, “Do it anyway,” finally has a lyric that makes sense along with a tight rockabilly pattern reminiscent of the Old 97s. 

So tell me what I said I’d never do
Tell me what I said I’d never say
Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are OK

On “Away When You Were Here,” Folds sings about a father who died when the narrator was still a boy, and imagines what life would be like had he lived:

You’d have lost that weight
You’d have gone so straight
You’d have made my wedding day
You’d have saved my youth from that point of truth
You’d have kept those wolves at bay

It’s a well-executed lyric.  I wish there were more of these on the album.

Simplicity to a Fault: Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

Some of the greatest rock and roll songs ever have also been the simplest.  Whether you’re a fan of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, The Clash and The Ramones or Green Day and Nirvana, sometimes the simplest songs capture emotions with a charge unattainable by more complex arrangements.  Are you telling me that “Baba O’Riley” doesn’t still give you chills?  Come on.

In two weeks, I’m attending my first Bruce Springsteen show in thirteen years, this time with my fifteen year-old daughter.  In preparation, I thought it made sense to purchase The Boss’s latest effort, Wrecking Ball, but while digesting the material over the past few months, I keep coming to the same conclusion: the album is simplistic to a fault.  There isn’t a chord or a note on the entire album that surprises me, that gives me pause or a reason to take notice.  By track six, I’m so bored, I inevitably turn it off and wait to digest the final five songs at a later listening session.

To confirm my instincts, I tracked the chord changes of each song on the eleven-track album.  Here are the results:

  • Every song is in a major key.
  • Not one song changes key.
  • Every song but one is in 4/4, with an occasional 2/4 measure thrown in.
  • On the entire album, there are a total of five chords, with an occasional altered root note: I, IV, V, vi minor and ii minor.  That’s it.   And the ii minor chord only appears on one song, so 10 songs have at most four chords in them.

Now, I’m not dissing simplicity.  Give me a good Johnny Cash album or Green Day album or classic Stones album, and I’m a happy guy.  But Springsteen’s latest album is nothing short of a bore.  Just as Yes and Genesis became too complex for their own good in the 1970s, Springsteen has become so simple that there isn’t any reason for listeners to care.

One could counter my conclusion by saying that Springsteen has always been simple, so why start complaining now?

But it wasn’t always this way.

Take a song like “Hungry Heart.”  Simple?  Yes.  But what really makes the song work is the unexpected key change leading into the organ solo, and then changing keys again for the final verse.  Nothing fancy, but just enough alteration to make the listener take notice.  The song “Born to Run” is also a relatively simply song (though the chorus alone contains more chords than the entire Wrecking Ball album), but what really lifts the song from good to great is the interlude that contains an odd key change, a chromatic descension and a four measure pause before resolving back to the one chord in an achingly satisfying way.

So much of Springsteen’s new album could have benefitted from a bridge with a different chord, a key change, a pause, a tempo or meter change, a something.  Tracks like “Wrecking Ball,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “We Take Care of our Own” are fine for a while, but listen to them successively and sleepiness sets in.

I’ve no doubt that hearing “Death to my Hometown” or “Easy Money” will be great fun when shared with 40,000 fans come September 8th, but I’m afraid that after the Wrigley Field concert, Wrecking Ball will no longer make it into my regular rotation. 

(I should note that “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which appears in studio form for the first time on this album, is on par with Springsteen’s greatest songs ever.  As I said, sometimes simple is good.)

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