By Joel Francis
The journey through my record collection continues.
Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987) The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is the strongest in their still-growing catalog (Behaviour is a close second). Come for the hit singles and stick around for the album cuts, like the Kraftwerk-inspired “Shopping” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the moody track based on an Ennio Morricone melody that opens the second side. Still not convinced? This is the album with the glorious Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” That alone makes Actually worth owning. While the other nine songs aren’t as strong (how could they?), Actually is filler-free dance/pop perfection.
Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (2016) As a producer, Daniel Lanois has worked on some of my all-time favorite albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. (We talked about his work on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon back on Day 9.) The sound on Goodbye to Language is closer to Lanois’ ambient work with Brian Eno than his commercial endeavors. The premise is simple. Lanois’ pedal steel playing is recorded and treated by Rocco DeLuca. The result is an ethereal dream guaranteed to release stress. Put this on and let yourself go.
The Decemberists – The King is Dead (2011) I jumped on the Decemberists bandwagon with their video for “Sixteen Military Wives,” which reminded me of Rushmore. Two albums later, I feared they got lost in their own mythology for the ponderous concept album The Hazards of Love. Fortunately, I was wrong. The King is Dead is everything Hazards wasn’t: succinct, buoyant, humorous, fun. That a few songs sounded like peak-era R.E.M. (“Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”) or Tom Petty circa Wildflowers (“Don’t Carry It All”) doesn’t help. It may be easier to play spot-the-influence with The King is Dead than on the band’s other releases, but the sound is still filtered through singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s grad school tweed and spectacles, making it distinctly the Decemberists.
Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine (1965)
Miles Davis – Four and More (1966) Both of these albums draw from the same 1964 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The ballads went on Valentine and the uptempo numbers were relegated to Four and More. By the time Four and More was released, Miles had moved on from his modal sound and was about to reinvent jazz once again. Less progressive fans probably enjoyed this look back at the time. Pianist Herbie Hancock was only 23 and drummer Tony Williams just 18 at the time of this performance, but both play with a confidence and ambition beyond their years. These are probably the best performances of saxophone player George Coleman in Miles’ band. He tends to get overlooked between tenures of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The quartet lingers on the ballads, drawing out every note, particularly on the 15-minute title cut. Conversely, they blast through the chords on “So What” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with almost careless speed. FYI, the entire concert was finally released as originally performed on CD in 1992.
James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) Five years after the first Live at the Apollo album propelled James Brown off the chitlin circuit, Brown returned to the same venue but in a different place musically. The R&B that defined the first Apollo album was giving way to funk on the sequel. Songs like a hard-driving “Kansas City” and “Think” (with Kansas City, Kan. native Marva Whitney) showed Brown’s roots, while “Cold Sweat” and “Bring It Up” point the way forward. The 11-minute version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is one-third as long as the original half-hour Apollo release. So the sequel isn’t as concise, but it captures the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in prime form.
Alejandro Escovedo – With These Hands (1996) Alejandro Escovedo is an undiscovered treasure. His songwriting deftly slides between different settings, from string quartet to country, Latin American to raw rock. For his third album, Escovedo enlists Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, cousin Shelia E and singer Jennifer Warnes. Despite these high-profile guests, the spotlight remains firmly on Escovedo and his masterful songs. From the moody opener of rocker “Put You Down” through “Tugboat,” a dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison that ends the record, there isn’t a bad song to be found.
Pearl Jam – Yield (1998) “Wishlist,” the next-to-last song on the first side of Yield, is my favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s simple, quiet and understated with none of the bombast of “Alive” or even “Given to Fly,” the song that precedes “Wishlist” on Yield. This album marks the first time the Seattle quintet returned to the meat-and-potatoes hard rock without any artistic detours. Although 2009’s Backspacer produced better results mining this same vein, Yield is still a good, direct hard rock album.