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Reviews: The Life and Times' The Life and Times
Reviews: Atoms and Void's And Nothing Else
Reviews: Survival Knife's "Traces of Me" and "Divine Mob" Singles
2013 (and 2012!) Year-End List Extravaganza
Reviews: Girls Against Boys' The Ghost List EP
Reviews: Bottomless Pit's Shade Perennial
Reviews: Carton / Alpha Cop Split Single
Reviews: Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus
Reviews: Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana
Reviews: Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother


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Record Collection Reconciliation 21-25

21. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run - CBS, 1975

Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run

Why I Bought It: Whenever I flip through dollar bins, there are almost always records like Born to Run that pop up: critically acclaimed, audience-beloved staples of American culture and classic rock radio. While I’ve never sat down and listened to Born to Run—or any other non-Nebraska Springsteen LP—it’s essentially already part of my musical fabric, so I don’t feel the need to include it in my collection. I usually flip by such records, noting their existence but preferring to grab something less familiar, but occasionally I’ll cave to whatever populist impulses exist deep within my being and pick up one of them.

Verdict: Only three songs were instantly recognizable—“Thunder Road,” Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and “Born to Run”—but the remaining five are so endowed with the Boss’s signature sound that they could have all been massive radio hits. Each song is essentially a journey between known points, whether it’s the building fire (“Thunder Road”), the heart-tugging climax (“Born to Run”), the quiet eye of the storm (“She’s the One”), or the saxophone-enabled glory of introducing caution to the wind (“Jungleland”). It’s easy to forget that at one time these various points weren’t immediately familiar, that their effect was not a cycle of remembrance but of connection.

Unlike a number of LPs I’ve listened to in the last week, I never strained to appreciate when Springsteen and his band were doing, never questioned whether a given song fit within the whole, never wondered what other people saw in the album. Born to Run is a great record, but I already knew that. But just like I approached it, I don’t feel the sudden need to hear it or Springsteen’s other classic albums again in the near future. I’m certain I’ll listen to them at some point, maybe even building a fondness for Springsteen’s small-town-goes-big storytelling down the line, but right now I’m more concerned with records that may not be certified classics.

22. Depeche Mode - Black Celebration - Sire, 1986

Depeche Mode's Black Celebration

Why I Bought It: “Enjoy the Silence” and “Policy of Truth” may be on Violator (which I pulled, sans-case, from the free bin at Rhino Records in high school), but they’re good enough to merit grabbing a cheap copy of Black Celebration.

Black Celebration, particularly side A, is weighed down by a number of less-than-impressive tracks. When Dave Gahan croons over melodic synth lines on “Black Celebration,” “A Question of Time,” and “Stripped,” it’s hard to argue with the band’s formula. The same cannot be said about “Sometimes” or “A Question of Lust,” which cut back on the synthesizers and end up sounding more like a lecherous version of 1950s pop. Thanks, but no thanks. The stripped-down production of those songs also takes away from the power struggle between the dour nihilism of their gothic tendencies (“Black Celebration” starts “Let’s have a black celebration / Black celebration / Tonight / To celebrate the fact / That we’ve seen the back / Of another black day”; sigh) and their leering sexual proclivities, embodied so well in Gahan’s rich voice. While I like parts of Black Celebration enough to check out their other non-Violator albums if I see cheap copies, I get the feeling that Depeche Mode will always be a singles/highlights band to me.

23. Hz Roundtable - Birdbath EP - Intonated, 1997

Hz Roundtable's Birdbath EP

Why I Bought It: Either the Parasol catalog or the Reckless database informed me that Hz Roundtable had a connection to Midwestern indie rockers Zoom, so I snapped it up. Zoom/Hz Roundtable singer/guitarist Mark Henning is now in The National Trust, whose soul/funk hybrid reminds far more of Prince than, say, Panel Donor, but I’m willing to bet that Hz Roundtable is closer in spirit to his earlier work.

Verdict: …and I would theoretically collect on that bet. Hz Roundtable’s quirky indie rock seems like a logical offshoot of Zoom, albeit stripped of that band’s urgency and heft. With ten contributors across the six songs, Hz Roundtable is more of a collective than a highly structured band. The resulting combination of relaxed songwriting and stray instrumentation rarely helps Birdbath, however, since the songs have a tendency to drift without strong hooks to buoy them. Henning sings on the even tracks, but his voice lacks the gravity present on Zoom’s Helium Octipede. Similarly, Zoom’s distinctive guitar leads—“Balboa’s Cannon” was a mix tape staple for years—only come up on the closing track, “The Jersey Lily,” which features just Henning and Liz Bustamante. I’m disappointed that this EP doesn’t compare to Zoom’s self-titled debut or Helium Octipede, but at this point I’ve largely given up blind-buying questionable offshoots like this one.

24. Kraftwerk - Autobahn - Vertigo, 1974

Kraftwerk's Autobahn

Why I Bought It: I downloaded Trans-Europe Express for an earlier iteration of iPod Chicanery and, as typically happens, I wasn’t able to find a cheap copy of that record but instead two of their earlier albums, Autobahn and Radio-Activity, and one post-Express album, The Man-Machine. I blame my late-comer status on Kraftwerk/Neu!/Tangerine Dream on the fact that my high school German textbooks only used Falco and Die Toten Hosen as examples of the country’s music. I wonder if American-penned German textbooks herald Richard Marx and Bryan Adams as the primary delegates of our cultural output.

Verdict: While this listening experience—sitting in my living room and flipping between Stuck on You and The Hunt for Red October on mute—doesn’t quite compare to hearing “Europe Endless” for the first time on an Italian train last summer, Autobahn certainly expands my idea of Kraftwerk’s range. Whereas Trans-Europe Express is defined by its cold, machine-like precision, Autobahn, like its cheery cover, is far less stoic, branching out in several unexpected directions. The title track blends the gleeful (well, as gleeful as German electronic pioneers are going to get) refrain of “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn” with a shifting melodic and rhythmic backing for a 23-minute voyage. “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Mitternacht” pull away from the sunny demeanor of “Autobahn” for some atmospheric wanderings closer to Tangerine Dream’s quiet moments. “Kometenmelodie 2” counters this drama with brighter, more insistent melodies and “Morgenspaziergang” closes the album on a particularly whimsical note. Whereas I appreciate Trans-Europe Express for its singular focus (and appropriateness for the robo-boogie), the range of Autobahn is equally appealing.

25. Cocteau Twins - Tiny Dynamite / Echoes in a Shallow Bay - 4AD, 1985

Cocteau Twins' Tiny Dynamite / Echoes in a Shallow Bay

Why I Bought It: When I first listened to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless after buying it blind around the age of seventeen, I thought, “This is the most rocking new age music I’ve ever heard!” Considering my record collection at the time consisted of indie rock, alternative rock, and the pop end of industrial, the glistening shoegaze of Loveless seemed overwhelmingly alien. I gradually checked out My Bloody Valentine’s contemporaries (Ride and Slowdive) and followers (M83, early Lassie Foundation, Ulrich Schnauss), but it wasn’t until the second round of iPod Chicanery that I finally heard one of MBV’s biggest influences. Perhaps some of the delay could due to my overall reticence in delving into 1980s indie, a reticence based largely on the presumably dated sonics and the era’s reliance on drum machines, but I have to wonder if the new age comment lingered in my memory banks. The direct lineage of Elizabeth Fraser’s glossolalic yodels to My Bloody Valentine’s blurred syllables almost prescribed a similar reaction the first time I heard Cocteau Twins. “I didn’t know Enya was in a proto-shoegaze dream pop band!”

All of this set-up takes away from my actual feelings on Cocteau Twins, based upon Treasure and Heaven or Las Vegas. Some songs (“Lorelei,” “Heaven or Las Vegas,” “I Wear Your Ring”) congeal the gossamer arrangements and Fraser’s cooing, nearly wordless* vocals with astonishing effect. Yet I rarely listen to more than five Cocteau Twins songs in a row before losing attention and moving on to something else. While I would have preferred finding either Treasure or Heaven or Las Vegas on vinyl, I’m admittedly excited about hearing their other work.

* It’s hard to explain how much amusement I get out of reading Cocteau Twins’ lyrics on SongMeanings and trying to match up the words with Fraser’s voice.

Verdict: According to Wikipedia, these two EPs were originally recorded together to test a new studio arrangement, not for popular consumption. The band decided that the material was good enough for release, so they dropped Tiny Dynamite and Echoes in a Shallow Bay just two weeks apart in November of 1984. Naturally, I get them paired together, so I essentially hear Tiny Dynamite and Echoes in a Shallow Bay as a single-album follow-up to Treasure, precisely what they wanted to avoid. Sorry, Cocteau Twins.

I can understand the band’s hesitance over designating this material as a full-length; while most of the songs are fine enough, few, if any, reach the heights of the finest material on Treasure. “Pink Orange Red” and “Pale Clouded White” are the most memorable tracks, pulling away from the drama of Treasure for a more relaxed style. The instrumental “Ribbed and Veined” seems particularly influential with regard to Slowdive, but going without Fraser’s vocals prevents me from remembering a note of the music. I’ll give the band credit for knowing exactly where this material stands: it’s certainly good enough for background or mood music, but it’s not making any statements about the band’s development. An interesting note: all of the song titles (and lyrics?) deal with Lepidoptera (the order of butterflies and moths), so if Vladimir Nabokov had still been alive in 1984, he probably would have appreciated the nod to his favorite hobby.