Through A Note Darkly: Low, At Folsom Prison, The Low End Theory

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. David Bowie: Low

Personal Favorite: “Sound and Vision”

Summarizing Lyric: “You’re such a wonderful person, but you got problems” (“Breaking Glass”)

A Low-inspired drawing

Bowie saw the Berlin Wall, but instead of creating an album that outright commented on the situation, Bowie internalized it and made a record that puts you in the mind of the people that were stuck on both sides.

The album itself is divided by the wall that is flipping a record over with side one being the songs of the “free” and side two being the songs of the physically oppressed. On side one we see Bowie struggling to stop being “Bowie.” He’s a good guy, in fact “a wonderful person,” but his angry bottle breaking and manic floor drawings are too daunting of a task to take on in a relationship (“Breaking Glass”). And not just a romantic relationship, but a relationship with himself. Bowie’s Berlin years were spent cleansing himself of the personas and the drugs (well, most of them) to find the human in him again, the human who cried at the prospect of love (“What In The World”). The images of a glass breaking artist isolating himself in hopes of hearing the sounds, getting back the vision; a man gone insane ramming his car into the same psychological wall; a man desperate to be a husband–they’re depressing, but being on the western side of the wall means being able to play some music that distracts from the turmoil. Maybe Bowie got tired of distracting himself, so he turned to Eno to make soundscapes that forced you to sit and think. The people on the eastern side did not have the luxury of distraction from their situation. All they could do was wonder how to get out, and that’s what side two does. It tells you to stop distracting yourself with loud guitars and synthesizers, and start meditating on how to tear down the walls. As amazing as side one of Low is, it’s just an avoidance of true emotions, emotions only expressible through rambling moans on digital mountains.

Why #3?: I love the divide between the experimental rock and outright alien sounds, but I was left wanting more of side one. Leaving them wanting more is a good thing, but I wanted too much more, and when Bowie's on the cover of the record I want Bowie. However, my need for more of him was probably the exact thing he was trying to extinguish with this record. 

2. A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory

Personal Favorite: “Excursions”

Summarizing Lyric: “You see, my aura's positive I don't promote no junk/See, I'm far from a bully and I ain't a punk” (“Check The Rhime”)

To my dad, rap is a genre for egotistical kids with no respect for music, kids who just want to brag about all the women that “want” them with curse words that sound the same, but just like country and rock and mariachi, every genre of music has its pitfalls. It just so happens that my dad (and I for awhile) has only been introduced to the ickier parts of rap music. Although I think those parts of rap have their merits just like some 80s hair metal has its merits, I prefer the smooth and minimalist ATCQ-kind rap. 

A The Low End Theory-inspired drawing

Much like The Clash and Television challenged the three chords over and over again songs of punk, The Low End Theory, if heard today heard today challenges the braggadocious rhymes over and over again songs of rap. Instead of bragging about all the women chasing after them, ATCQ look at rap in disgust for becoming something that made women in the scene think they needed to recreate their faces to fit in, women who thought no man would respect their “No,” so they’d instinctively scream, “Rape!” at the end of a date (“Butter,” “The Infamous Date Rape”). ATCQ also goes after themselves and how their fame warped their perception of women (“I once had a fetish for booty”) and love (“Is this really love/then again how would I know/After all this time trying to be a Super Ho”). It is to our ears’ benefit that the group grew out of that booty fetish and started “getting funky” with their rap, perfecting their craft the way artists do. “What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere/The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare,” claims Q-Tip on the first track, and at first I thought, “Here comes another 50 minute long brag,” but with the help of jazz and poetic turns of phrase, ATCQ backs up Q-Tip’s claim, and how many rap groups ever really back up their claims? I don’t know much about hip hop so maybe a lot of them do, but this is one record I’m excited to show my dad so he can see some rap groups are as great as they claim to be. 

Why #2?: From the first bass line you feel the gruffness of this record and that gruffness is maintained throughout. You can feel the grain of the jazz that influenced ATCQ move through your ears with each "smooth as butter" track. However, each track is almost too smooth. There are no peaks and no valleys, just a clean record through and through. Nothing wrong with that, but a little explosion at the center of the record might've really made the album stand out. 

1. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison

Personal Favorite: “Cocaine Blues”

Summarizing Lyric: “Don’t you know it’s recorded?” (“Dark as the Dungeon”)

He cocked the gun with “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and shot the brains out of music with all the notes that followed, or maybe just my brain’s ideas about music. After watching Walk the Line for the first time a couple years ago, “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues,” and “25 Minutes To Go” found their way into my metal/Arcade Fire-cluttered playlist. I’d find myself skipping every song just to get to those three, and eventually those skipped songs were replaced with tracks off of Dylan’s Time They Are A Changin', The Band’s Music From Big Pink, The Dresden Doll’s A Is For Accident, etc. The songs essentially ruined meticulously produced music for me for a few months, and now that I’ve heard the whole record I find myself leaning in that direction again.

An At Folsom Prison-inspired drawing

My favorite thing about this record is the mutual respect felt between Cash and his audience, a respect that can only be created and nourished in a live setting. He may be the one onstage, but that doesn’t mean he’s in control. The music is in control, and the way the audience feels like receiving it is just as important as the way the artist wants to deliver it, and Cash understood this. On “Dark as the Dungeon” Cash bellows those gut wrenching lyrics of imprisonment with a sincerity he realizes is not going to work with the crowd. The song rings too true, and truths are often too ridiculous not to laugh at, so the prisoners laugh and Cash laughs right along with them, but not without sacrificing his belief in the song. Instead of shying away from the mic, Cash persists and we hear the magic moment where the chuckles turn into a sound impossible to create in a studio, the sound of a crowd on your side. He may not have done it, but Cash sure did have the balls of someone who would've shoot a man in Reno just to watch them die, and his unflinching, sweaty, borderline punk rock performance at Folsom proved it. It’s these kinds of albums that make me wonder, If music is made for the people, why is it made so faraway from them?

Why #1?: The Legacy Edition of this record sort of shows how manufactured some of the record was, but momentum can't really be manufactured. Even the slower songs have a sense of urgency, a feeling that this experience truly is temporary and must be enjoyed at the fullest before it disappears and your back in the cell, so by the end of the record your sweating right along with Cash and the prisoners.