I’ve got most of my compact-disc collection digitized now and I’m in the nerdy process of rating every track on Winamp. Turns out it comes to about 375 hours of music (with several box sets still outstanding), ranging from stuff I loved when I was 13 to CDs included with music magazines to discs I inherited from a deadbeat roommate and couldn’t sell. It gives you that satisfaction you get from buying a really big block of cheese. At some point I may want to stop eating this but it WON’T be because there is no goddamn cheese in the house. The shuffle function turns out to be great for rediscovering hidden gems that were long buried in otherwise bad albums (or otherwise distractingly great ones), and people like it when I write about music (probably because it allows them to feel justifiably superior), so join me, won’t you, in listening to a few tracks selected entirely at random?
“Speed Is The Key”, The Sugarcubes (from Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week, 1989)
True story: a friend of mine went to a Björk show in Vancouver this summer, and when I asked her how she liked it, she said she’d had a great time but she couldn’t stand the awful opening act, which was described as being fronted by “some guy who mostly ran around shouting and moaning.” I can’t remember if off-key trumpet playing was mentioned, but as any Cubes fan would, I understood immediately that the culprit had to be the notorious Einar Örn, Björk’s old bandmate and the man whose bleating was chiefly responsible for the poor reception that greeted Here Today. Turns out Einar’s new act Ghostigital followed Björk around the world this summer. Even a passionate Sugarcubes adherent would have trouble greeting this as wholly positive news, and most of the alien elfling’s present-day fans probably have only the vaguest idea that she was in a celebrated indie group of the ‘80s that popped up on MTV pretty regularly.
Here Today was the group’s Difficult Second Album, which was followed by a third before the tight-knit little Icelandic cabal went its separate ways—though not before guitarist Þor Eldon Jónsson begot children with both female members, the jammy bastard. As you might expect, Einar was mixed a lot lower on that third record. As a band the Cubes actually got stronger and tighter as their recording career went along, but their notices got steadily worse, as if music critics had been deliberately assigned by the record industry to pry Björk loose from her old drinking buddies and set her on the fast track to individual stardom. “Speed Is The Key”, in which Björk portrays “a future woman in an irresistible world,” is a bit generic. But it’s got two saving virtues: a nice jangly guitar part from the philoprogenitive Þor, and Einar bellowing the immortal line “DOES NO ONE RESPECT SPACE RULES?” Rating: ** (of 5)
“Farewell, Farewell”, Fairport Convention (from Liege and Lief, 1969)
I’ve been handing out five-star ratings for the pre-1970 Fairport stuff like a lottery winner in the champagne room. My inability to resist the eerie tag-team of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny (and tarted-up Childe ballads) is possibly sort of embarrassing, but then again, let’s recap what we’ve got here: it’s the best English folk-rock group ever, indeed the inventors of English folk-rock, playing at their absolute peak on an album that is pretty much undisputed as the best record in the history of English folk-rock. Not only that, it was their comeback record after a terrible van crash that killed their young drummer, Martin Lamble. In short, it’s the Back in Black of hey-nonny-nonny music. So the bidding pretty much has to start at four stars. Rating: **** with a corner on *****
“In the Back Seat”, The Arcade Fire (from Funeral, 2003)
Anything left to say about this bunch? Against all odds they came out of Montreal and gave us something new that wasn’t “world music” bongo-diddling or droning techno for the tight-pants set. I think a lot of groups are probably capable of this kind of thing but for some reason the revolution in cheap recording hasn’t given us many acts that are willing to experiment with instrumentation, arrangement, and harmony while obeying the First Commandment (YOU’RE A ROCKER, SO ROCK OUT). I realize this is rampant old-fartism but when you listen to The Arcade Fire you can tell those guys have, collectively, heard and absorbed a whole universe of music ranging from disco to punk to glam to prog. It just seems like there are an awful lot of shitty bands around who complain about how “corporate” radio is these days but show absolutely no sign of having gone to the used-record shop and done their own homework. And nowadays it’s not like you really even have to leave the house. Now get off my lawn! Rating: *** (which is pretty good for, like, the eighth best song on the album)
“1985”, Robert Fripp (from Let the Power Fall: An Album of Frippertronics, 1981)
Honestly I just keep looking at the subtitle of the CD and thinking about how the record company probably insisted on it so they wouldn’t be ploughed under by returns from angry buyers still expecting “Fracture”. I also get distracted by the long list of concert dates listed in the liner notes (they include a show at what is today the Royal Alberta Museum). Isn’t the defining characteristic of Frippertronics that most of the notes are played by means of a delay pedal? This track is eleven minutes long and it couldn’t have required Bob to touch a guitar string more than about 40 times. What was that like to watch in person? The recorded track kind of speaks to my classicist side, though I tend to like the similar-sounding Fripp and Eno stuff slightly better, but in my pre-dotage I can’t envision going to the live show. What for? To see what skinny tie Fripp was going to wear that night? Or maybe to hover around the scene in the bloodthirsty spirit of an autoracing fan, hoping for some kind of catastrophe with the Frippertronics?
Maybe that’s the secret—they were hoping a chip in the delay pedal would short out and Fripp would be forced to announce an impromptu live performance of the complete Lark’s Tongues in Aspic with audience members as his sidemen. “You play percussion? Marvelous. Here are your chains, and I’ll need to you change into this loincloth.”¹ Rating: *
“Baby You’re a Rich Man”, the Beatles (B-side of “All You Need Is Love”, 1967)
Since Ian MacDonald has pretty much permanently settled all the arguments and squared away all the technological and musicological details when it comes to the Beatles², I’ll confine my comment on this track to something much more valuable: a crazy (yet true!) piece of trivia. You know the squawky drunken-woodwind sound that pops up between the vocals on this song? That was played (by Lennon) on the wonderful Clavioline, a proto-synthesizer invented by Michel Gondry’s grandfather. Rating: ****
¹ Yeah, I made a Jamie Muir joke. It's what you signed up for.
² And what MacDonald didn't cover, this guy has.