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. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted
Fifties rock n’ roll was about having fun, but the fun of gyrating eventually became as fake as the fun that was painting picket fences white, so punk, brutally honest in its execution, happened. From the loins of punk came indie rockers like Pavement who didn’t say, “Forget your parents, have fun!” they said, “Tell your parents to fuck off, but don’t forget that it won’t fulfill you in the end.” This tumor of disillusionment is what propels listeners of Slanted and Enchanted through scenes of Stephen Malkmus’s characters waiting around for a girl and realizing that waiting only gets them shot, maybe by the girl’s inevitable descent from worth waiting for to normal (“Summer Babe [Winter Version]”); constantly dressing for success, seducing it with a “painted portrait of minion slaves" and some "crotch mavens and one night plays,” but never being embraced by success' translucent arms (“Here”); dreaming of seeing the sun come up and finding that its light blisters their soul (“Our Singer”). Having aspirations backfires on the characters in Slanted and Enchanted, and you get the feeling Pavement was afraid of becoming their characters. This fear is evident in the production, or lack thereof. The record’s so undercooked it would probably bloody your record player if you cut into the vinyl. However, a lot of the songs are catchy, and that’s where the band's struggle shined through for me. Pavement seemed to know how futile it would be to try. Fame or failure, trying doesn’t keep morticians from making money, but neither does not trying. Pavement pulled a Pavement on themselves and said “Who gives a shit if trying leads to nothing, let’s try a little bit.” The truckload of “it doesn’t matter” mentality on the record is what slants it, but the bits of trying, the flashes of rock n’ roll fun, is what makes the record so of its time and timeless, punk and produced, slanted and enchanted.
2. Sly and the Family Stone: There's A Riot Goin' On
By the 1970s, Sly was in the clutches of drug addiction's skeletal, clawed, chalky hands, only Sly might not have described addiction as coldly as I just did. Drugs spray graffiti over unbearable realities, maybe helped Sly forget that the progressive hippies praising his psychedelic tastes had an Easy Rider ending, forget the growing tensions in the band, forget the possibility of never making a hit like “Everyday People” again. But the reality police always comes along with a hose and makes you wash the graffiti away to face the ugly, ruptured wall you were hiding from. There's A Riot Goin' On looks, sounds, and feels like a documentation of that in-between place where the wall’s been hosed down, but the paint is still there, crawling down the gray like dyed tears. Plenty of colorful grooves exist on the album, but they are often overtaken by Sly’s overdubbed wailing (especially on “Just Like A Baby”) and thick layers of coke-fueled rambling. The most haunting mixture of fun and despair on the album (never thought I’d use haunting to describe a funk album) is Sly’s yodeling on “Space Cowboy.” Hearing the yodeling is hearing the sounds of a man desperate to keep having fun, keep the wall graffitied and not see the terrors of his life. But the yodeling is defeated by Rose Stone, Sly’s reality police, who reveals and mocks the things he’s hiding from on the next track, “Runnin’ Away”, with lyrics like “The shorter cut is quicker, ha ha ha ha, but time is here to say. Look at you foolin’ you.” I didn’t expect such a troubled record from the band that made “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” but unmet expectations have rarely satisfied me as much as There's A Riot Goin' On, the troubled record that ends on a decelerated, barely breathing version of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa,” where Sly and the Family Stone thank listeners for letting them explore and record their funky hell.
1. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights
High school was where I learned how flammable bridges are, how easy it is to hide in the school’s library where shelves of books and hoodies, worn even when the cement is boiling, fulfill social anxiety’s wishes for the body it had consumed to disappear. Interpol often provided the score to the scenes of me in the library, specifically songs off of Turn on the Bright Lights, and, after finally hearing the album as a whole instead of on shuffle, it makes sense why I never skipped a song off of TOBL. Interpol’s debut not only contains themes related to the hidden darkness of relationships and individual minds, it also sounds like it’s hiding. From the get-go, there’s Daniel Kessler’s guitar introducing “Untitled”, the notes dripping off its neck, making the electric pond underneath ripple, the electric pond being Paul Bank’s guitar hidden in the murk of the mix, constantly being blanketed by the rhythm section, new riffs, and, eventually, his own voice. As if the arrangement wasn’t enough, Banks hits the listener with the eerie promise to surprise somebody sometime, surprise them when they're down, but the song and the album, consistent in sound, is ultimately as unsurprising as superhero movie plots. The album lurks in its own shadow and it’s difficult to pull that off without drowning the listener in a tub full of minor chords and tears, but Interpol pulled it off by matching their sound with lyrics that explore the underbelly of underbellies, not just the surface level, “she said no,” stuff. They described the psychological violence contained in decaying relationships (“you’re so cute when you’re frustrated… when you’re sedated” off of “PDA”), showed how easy it is for a Polish serial killer to grow on you when no one else talked to you (“Roland”), put the urge to heal a broken heart with blind sex under a red spotlight (“Say Hello To The Angels”). Turn on the Bright Lights told the the teen hiding in the library he wasn’t alone in trying to force nihilism down his own throat (“I’m sick of spending these lonely nights pretending not to care” off of “NYC”), but, more importantly, it didn’t try to fix him with “Just love yourself” choruses. Interpol let me live and hide with what I had going on just like they had to live and hide with what they had going on to one day reflect on it and make the record.
One Sentence Lesson: Hiding is easier than putting a suit on, working on your demons, and existing with the world, but nobody cares about people they can't see.