Thursday, January 1, 2009

Two CDs I Would Take With Me (a.k.a. The Stuck-on-a-Desert-Island Question)

It amazes me that the general public continues to have such poor taste in music. Gosh, that sounds extremely pompous and snobbish, doesn't it? Sorry. I can't seem to help it. I'm not saying that I've never sung along to Rihanna or even that I don't own a Kelly Clarkson CD... I have and I do. However, for the most part, the music that radio deejays spin fifty plus times a day are often, quite simply, terrible excuses for music. "Popular" music - in general - is dumbed down, beat heavy, and lyric weak.

Ironically, if an underground artist or band who I have liked for some time becomes popular, I have a terrible attitude about it. I whine about how other people don't have a "right" to like them, how they only like their "stream-lined" songs, and how they don't really know anything about the music they're listening to. Again, that music snobbery rearing its ugly head. This feeling does hold some merit, though (at least in my humble opinion).

Take, for example, David Gray. A few years ago he became popular to the point of radio fame with his single "Babylon." I overheard numerous people discussing David Gray's music shortly after the success of this song, and people seemed to think that they could label themselves as David Gray fans as a result of hearing and liking that song. In my opinion, the song did not even come close to much of Gray's other music. And those new "fans" didn't like the rest of Gray's music. It "sounded different," they would say. Well, yes, was my answer. Of course it does. "Babylon" was only one example of David Gray's multi-faceted talent as a musician. The rest of Gray's amazing body of music will continue to be ignored, because it doesn't meet the (admittedly low) standards of popular music.

I say all that to get to my main point, which is this: so much excellent music goes to waste by never being heard. The general public likes bad music. Thoughtful, beautifully written and played music often doesn't stand a chance. And so I would like to introduce the world (or the small percentage of the world who might read this) to two of my all-time favorite CDs, both by artists who receive much critical acclaim, but little popularity or radio play.

The first CD is Lucinda Williams' 1998 Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I must admit that this is sort of a sellout choice on my part. I say this because this is actually Williams' first "popular" album. It won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and went gold as a result. So, in fact, my underground choice is Williams' most popular album to date. However, I would bet money on the results of a survey: ask a thousand people who Lucinda Williams is and the vast majority of them will not be able to answer correctly. This is sad, since this album in particular is a compilation of Williams' best work. Williams' whiskey-and-cigarette voice is at its most winning, and the music that accompanies each lyric is played to its utmost. According to Wikipedia's article on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams worked diligently to give each track a flawless finish. Wikipedia states that:

Williams actually recorded the 13 songs on 'Car Wheels' from start to finish twice before she recorded the versions that would ultimately be released. In 1995, after previewing the material from the first sessions to rapt audiences in Austin, Texas, Williams went into the studio. . . . The results, she felt, were flat, lifeless, not up to par so she shelved the tapes. A year later, Williams fired [her longtime guitarist and producer] and went back into the studio, this time in Nashville with the legendary songwriter Steve Earle as a producer. . . . [They] worked with vintage recording equipment from the 1950s that produces a raw, scratchy sound Williams loves. But the notoriously dissatisfied Williams and the notoriously difficult Earle (who had just been released from prison for cocaine possession) couldn't sustain their collaboration, either. In the fall of 1996, Williams dumped Earle and took her tapes to L.A., where she hired the eminently laid-back Roy Bittan, . . . the longtime keyboardist for Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band.
In short, Williams' perfectionism pays off, and the result is a CD which I can listen to all day long, over and over again. I would recommend this album to anyone who likes country music. I think that despite her lack of commercial success, anyone who is truly a country music fan will appreciate this album in particular. Like David Gray, however, liking this album does not necessarily mean that a listener will be a general Williams fan. As many artists who don't enjoy popular and radio success, Williams likes to change her style and experiment with sound. This means that her body of work is varied and exciting. Try this as your first taste, then move on to Williams' more adventurous work later in your own Lucinda Williams fandom.

You can't go wrong with this album, though. Both Ryan Adams (who will be discussed further in this posting) and Emmylou Harris contributed to the awesomeness that is Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. From the first haunting song "Drunken Angel" to the get-down-hard-and-heavy-country title song, Williams hits it exactly right.

Next, but no less entertaining, is Ryan Adams' album Gold. This has been Adams' most successful album to date, and like the Williams' album discussed above, this is probably because it is his most user-friendly album. Again, like Williams' before-mentioned album, Adams won wide critical acclaim for this album. He won two Grammy awards for the album, both for Best Male Rock Vocal for the song "New York, New York" and Best Rock Album. In spite of this, Adams is still not a mainstream artist, even when it comes to this album.

Case in point: When the CW's One Tree Hill played Adams' song "When the Stars Go Blue" as part of character Haley James' and character/ actual artist Tyler Hilton's musical success on the show, no one had ever heard the song. Country music superstar Tim McGraw even went on to cover the song, which I overheard people refer to as "that song from One Tree Hill." Even though Adams won a Grammy for this very album, it remains little-known, and no one knew that the original song was written by and originally recorded by Ryan Adams.

Perhaps the most memorable story I have about Ryan Adams (besides the fact that many people hear his name and mistake him for 1990s singer Bryan Adams, of much popular success and radio play) is the story of his first performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. I was not present for that moment back in October 2002, but that December at a New Year's Eve party, I heard the tale secondhand.

So it goes, Adams gave a stellar musical performance accompanied by Tegan & Sara and acclaimed vocalist Gillian Welch. He was obviously nervous about performing for the first time on such a legendary stage as the Ryman's, and stumbled along, playing rapt performances of his song set, but awkwardly screwing things up otherwise. For example, he reportedly did a Cookie Monster impression, sang along with a recorded version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and smoked like a chimney in violation of the esteemed venue's no-smoking policy. According to, when a poor review of the the concert appeared in the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean, Adams responded with a voicemail full of expletives and insults.

According to the version I was given by a concert attendee, Adams was rude to the point of bordering on obnoxious. Many concert-goers left early, tired of waiting for Adams to get down to business. My own private concert reviewer told me that the last straw was Adams "throwing a cigarette down on the stage of the Ryman and grinding it out with his foot." At that point, she and her crew left. Adams also reportedly "yelled at a guy in the audience" who asked him to play popular singer Bryan Adams' song "Summer of '69." Apparently he's heard this comparison/ mix-up more than once, and it wears on his nerves.

Regardless of all this hoopla surrounding Adams performance at the Ryman, the Gold album remains one that I can listen to endlessly. In fact (this is terrible), it kind of made me like him more because it proved he really doesn't care who likes or dislikes him. He's in music because he can't not be. A musician is who he is not because he earns millions doing it (although I'm sure he's not starving or homeless), but because it is what he loves. He's not Miley Cyrus, appealing to as many fans as possible and selling himself on Wal-Mart shelves; he's the real deal. An artist. And with "artist" comes... well, grinding cigarettes out onstage at the Ryman. Yelling at people who paid to come see you. Because you just don't care.

Much more upbeat than Williams' Car Wheels, this is the perfect CD to listen to while going on a road trip. I know -- I did it! On a trip to the Smoky Mountains a couple of years ago, I listened to it over and over... all the way to Gatlinburg, then winding through the park to North Carolina, and back. It's a perfect roll-down-the-windows, open-the-sunroof kind of album. From the bittersweet "New York, New York" which always reminds me of 9/11 (not that Adams intended that -- it's just that it was released as a single right around that time) to the flippant "Answering Bell," Gold is Ryan Adams at his best.

Both albums are definite chill-out CDs to listen to; I can put either in my computer at work and set them to auto replay without becoming irritated or bored. And yes. Both would make it on my list for CDs to take with you to a desert island. Now books, on the other hand... That's a much more difficult question, and an entirely different post!

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