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. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells
Personal Favorite: “The Union Forever”
Summarizing Lyric: “My left brain knows that/All love is fleeting” (“Fell In Love With A Girl”)
This record is a brawler. It walks away with knuckles smeared in the red ooze inside of you.It left me feeling more beat up than the most brutal of metal records because metal gets silly after awhile, all that screaming, but this record is balanced, strategic in its musical beating, and that’s what makes it so deliciously, sometimes disturbingly, violent. “Hotel Yorba,” to me, represents all of White Blood Cells. It has its folky vibe with cutesy lyrics about going to someplace nice, but Meg White’s crashing cymbals and stomping rhythm provide Jack White with the shadow of a giant with blood red eyes who threatens to transcend its shadow form and become a physical being, a shadow who’ll knock Hotel Yorba and it’s promise of peace right down.We see the beginning of this destruction on the next track where we hear Jack’s character slowly turn from a guy ready to settle into that red-eyed shadow as he finds it harder to be a gentleman. We then hear how murderously loony he can get after he realizes he was a fling for a girl (“Fell In Love With A Girl”), and finally the transformation is complete with the near literal beating of a woman at the end of “Expecting” (shuts her up with a distorted chord). Like I said, it can get disturbing, especially after seeing this guy was capable of a love as innocent as the one heard on “We’re Gonna Be Friends.” But even that sweet little diddy ends with the boy already planning the next day, already expecting her to be by his side always. The references to Charles Foster Kane are fitting, considering White Blood Cells depicts men turned monsters through excess, whether it be of love or fame.
Why #3?: The record had a little too many "Run For Your Life"–type songs for my taste. Lennon had the rest of The Beatles to filter his occasional hyper-masculinity while Jack didn't have three other personalities to counter his. I could also do without a couple songs that would get the record down to 30 minutes, a more sensible amount of time to maintain the raw intensity of garage rock.
2. Talking Heads: Fear of Music
Personal Favorite: “Cities”
Summarizing Lyric: “”It’s hard to imagine/That nothing at all/could be so exciting”
After hearing the Dada gibberish that glazes “I Zimbra,” I was left wondering: Why avoid making sense? “Everything seems to be up in the air at this point,” answers David Byrne with the warble of a ghost on the very next track, “Mind.” This sentiment can stir hope in some, strike fear in others. Everything being up in the air means everything we thought was important wasn’t. Money, time, drugs, religion, science, none of it mattered, none of it fixed anyone, so what do we do?Some people are able to dance their night away with a smile made possible by a harbored hope in everything turning out just fine; others might find themselves shivering in their dancing shoes with lips brought to a quiver by the fear of everything falling apart, the fear of the dance floor caving in and the hell underneath eating them up. Fear of Music is a soundtrack for all those fear-stricken dancers, including the Talking Heads themselves. The band would move away from whatever solace they found in pop song structure on Remain in Light, but this record was the first step to that alien record. Its repetitive rhythms kept their feet from making any unexpected moves while Byrne’s jolting delivery gave a voice to the frustration that comes with knowing one has to step into the future, but is too freaked out by the unknown to leave the stability repetition provides, the comfort the pillows that are money, time, drugs, religion, and science provide. Like a college student leaving home, this record glistens with the sweat emitted when nervous excitement and fear of what the future holds are mixed. Unlike a college student (or at least the one writing this), the record sounds like it knows what it’s doing. It builds up its courage with more traditionally structured (“Heaven,” “Cities”), it gets bored of those songs, bids farewell to it’s home with “Heaven,” and is then driven to overcome its fear and take that unexpected step, ready to embrace the hell they might fall into because at least that hell is different from home (“Animals,” “Electric Guitar,” “Drugs”). So why avoid making sense? Because sense is boring, useless, too easy–Why not go crazy?
Why #2?: Other than the fact that it had to compete with Abbey Road, well, I guess I could say "Drugs" didn't feel like the best closer. It was weird, but too much Eno and not enough Talking Heads, but that is representative of the steps they would be taking in their career. Less Talking Heads, more weird.
1. The Beatles: Abbey Road
Personal Favorite: “Something”
Summarizing Lyric: “I wanna tell her that I love her a lot/But I gotta get a belly full of wine” (“Her Majesty”)
What I’ve always loved about The Beatles is how each band member’s distinct perspective on life allows for a dialogue to happen between the songs, even if that dialogue was not the intention. For example, listening to Lennon’s bluesy contribution, “Come Together,” always makes me feel like I am as cool looking as Frank Sinatra on the In The Wee Small Hours cover, only a hairier version of Sinatra. But then Harrison comes in with his third eye and looks inside this man who “do just as he please,” who has the gall to think the world will come gather round him, and he undercuts his ego with the reminder that he is not immune to pangs of love, not able to hide how weak at the knees he can be: “Somewhere in her smile she knows/That I don't need no other lover.” And out of nowhere jumps in McCartney with his vicious take on the aforementioned too cool for school persona. McCartney sees Lennon’s character and thinks he’s just the annoying kid who grew up thinking being a criminal was cool after getting support for his actions from two girls, “Rosie and Valerie,” the only two girls that will probably come gather around him. It’s been pointed out before, but I couldn’t help but think of Charles Manson by the end of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” especially since it comes so closely after “Come Together” and it’s guru-like protagonist.
After this lyrically dark lyrical stint, however, McCartney can’t help but stand in solidarity with Harrison and say that even guys like Maxwell find themselves begging for love (“Oh! Darling”). Then the record shoots you into the strange head of Ringo Starr whose interpretation of Lennon’s character is a kid looking for a safe place with a hint of whimsy and the possibility of love, just like you and me (“Octopus’s Garden”). I could continue knitting this thin piece of string that holds these songs together in my head, but the true thread is how sonically related each song is. The near barebones craft makes each track a brother to the ones surrounding it. Even the most jarring change of tone between “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Here Comes The Sun” works because the tonal change is supported lyrically with the clearing of the growling clouds that punctuate “I Want You” by Harrison’s sweet singing and capo on the 7th fret guitar playing (another obliteration of a Lennon character’s ego). There’s so much more to say, so much to dissect from the line “the love you take is equal to the love you make,” so much to wonder about after the smirk that is “Her Majesty,” but it will all end with me saying this: Abbey Road had me wondering why there isn’t more hype around The Beatles.
Why #3?: Side one is singles city, the experimentation on side two with the medleys still manages to be fantastic pop music, and it sounds sounds as crisp as the wind.