Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In praise of rock's double albums

(1,281 words)

I have a theory about the way our greatest rock bands used to gauge artistic superiority among themselves.

And it’s not groupies. For now.

No, I’m thinking it was the old double album.

Of course, the very term is sure to cause confusion among the tasteless or those with the historic misfortune of having been born in the digital age.

I love my iPod. Who doesn’t like being able to carry 7,715 songs around in their pocket?

But other than compact portability, there’s nothing satisfying about digital music. The on-line purchase is sterile, the once lavish art microscopic, interesting liner notes non-existent and the cohesive song flow rendered moot by our tendency to set playlists on random.

The best listening experiences of my life came with vinyl records.

And I’d have to say the very best of those happened in Nashville in a great apartment I shared with my old buddy Lance. We worked at the Nashville Banner together and he and his buddies were outstanding guitar pickers and songwriters.

I learned a lot about writing listening to him and the Hal Bass Group sit around in my living room crafting songs.

I loved living in Nashville (1985-’88) where I was as poor then as I am now, but with the difference being then I was poor and employed, which can be stressful, unlike being poor and unemployed which can at times be splendid.

Both Lance and I had extensive vinyl record collections. Many nights we’d snag a case of beer, order a pizza and sit there and crank the tunes until we were both good and bleary.

The beauty of vinyl records was that a really good one like, say, Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” from 1980 is just 40 minutes and 24 seconds.

That means one of us could select a single side from that and settle in to enjoy 20 minutes of beer and blabbermouthing and he record finished at about the same time as our beers did. So then it was the other guy’s turn grab beers and choose a side.

It was perfectly democratic.

Maybe it’d be Stevie Nicks’s “Bella Donna,” some Stones “Some Girls,” or maybe some Joe Ely, Creedence or some of the obscure country that thanks to Lance I’ll forever love.

The songs all progressed with a logic and integrity that is lost with our reliance on random play.

To this day, every time I hear Tom Petty sing “Refugee,” I feel out of sorts when it’s not followed up in order by “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even The Losers,” and “Shadow of Doubt (Complex Kid).

That’s what makes the great double album such an artistic achievement.

Even many great bands found it impossible to stretch 20 or so songs together in a compelling and coherent manner.

Since the late ’80’s advent of CDs, every release became in effect a double album. For instance: “Exile on Main Street,” the 1971 double many believe is the greatest Stones album and the greatest double album has 18 songs that clock in at 1 hour and 10 minutes.

I’ll argue “A Bigger Bang” from 2005 is an under-rated classic, among Stones fans even. It features 16 songs and is 59 minutes long. Toss out six songs and you have something with real impact. Same goes for their “Voodoo Lounge” from 1994.

This musical bloat has been the ruin of many marginal bands who don’t have the creativity fill so much musical bandwidth.

As mentioned last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about music because three of my favorites -- Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler -- all have new albums coming out that I’ll download the instant they’re available.

But I wish I could time travel back to Nashville and spend a weekend with Lance. We’d drive to the old record store together, pick up a case or two and settle in for a good long listen.

Because Knopfler’s release is a now rare double album, I thought I’d list some of my favorites, ones I still often savor in the order they were intended.

I think Lance would approve.

• “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John, 1973 -- More and more this, the first piece of music I ever purchased, is looking like a signature achievement of my life (that and never having dropped my phone in the toilet). Oh, if I’d have applied the wisdom this sage purchase represents to other aspects in my life! It was at the height of a streak of creative productivity that’s not been equaled since. From 1970-’76, EJ and lyricist Bernie Taupin combined to release eight albums -- two of them double albums -- with some of the most enduring pop hits in music history. If you check here on this Wikipedia story about “GYBR,” you’ll see the lyrics were written over four weeks and the music over just three days. Incredible. That EJ was likely goofed on cocaine the entire time only adds to the feat.

• “Exile on Main Street,” Rolling Stones, 1972 -- Move even one song from the track listing to another position and it would be like re-ordering the alphabet so it went, “A B C D Q F G...” Some songs -- “Torn and Frayed,” “Just Want to See his Face -- are forgettable by themselves. But in the context of the whole album they provide tremendous mortar to all the great rock. It’s close to perfect. And who didn’t read the liner notes and check out the offbeat cover art each time they picked up the gave a side a spin?

• “Quadrophenia,” The Who, 1973 -- As highly regarded as The Who are, I always feel like they’re overlooked (Kinks, too). It’s always Beatles and Stones. But so much Who music casts a shadow over even those two titans. “Quadrophenia” bestows an ever-fresh ass-kicking with each listen. I much prefer this to “Tommy” (1969), which features 24 songs, seven of them under two minutes long. I’ve never fallen for the Mods vs. Rockers theme. I just love the songs and the sensible sequence.

• “Blonde on Blonde,” Bob Dylan, 1966 -- I’ve seen many lists that say this is the best double album of all time. I’m not buying it. I’m sorry to impose fractions on you, but if anything it’s the best 3/4 album of all-time. The entire fourth side is the insufferable “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Clocking in at 11 minutes, 20 seconds, I’ll wager this is the side that never got scratched or scuffed because no one ever played it. I love Dylan’s longer songs (“Highlands,” “Desolation Row,” “Brownsville Girl”), but this is a dreadful dirge. The first three sides have some of Dylan’s best, including “Visions of Johanna,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”

• “The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980 -- I tend not to think of this thematically, just a haphazard collection of really strong songs. In fact, some of the songs -- “Independence Day,” “Sherry Darling,” “The Ties That Bind” -- were leftovers from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” So was one of my favorites, “Point Blank.” It’s been noted as his most diverse mix of songs that range between the solemn and the silly. The result is I get no visceral feelings when I think about “The River,” certainly not the way I do with most everything else he’s ever released.

• Some other favorites of mine: “Rattle & Hum,” U2, 1988; “Out of the Blue,” ELO, 1977; “Hymns to the Silence,” Van Morrison, 1991; “A Southern Rock Opera,” Drive-By Truckers, 2001; “The Basement Tapes,” Bob Dylan & The Band, 1975.

Missing any? Here’s a rather comprehensive list that might refresh you.

Related . . .

My top 25 most played songs

Bruce Springsteen: an album-by-album retrospective


Tom Bedell said...

Pleasure in the reading and general agreement. Except for the misguided dismissal of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

By the way, you might want to check the link to your 25 tops songs. Heads to an Apple promo.

Chris Rodell said...

Thanks for the head's up on the mis-link, Tom. Much appreciated.

I'll try "Sad Eyed Lady" with fresh ears next time. Maybe I'll reconsider.

Three songs into Tempest and love it! Hope you'll check it out.