By Joel Francis
Remember, the best way to stay safe from the coronavirus is to stay home. And while you’re there, you may as well play some records. Here are some of mine.
The Temptations – Wish It Would Rain (1968) The seventh album by Motown’s soul stalwarts is groundbreaking in several ways. It was their final album with David Ruffin on vocals and Smokey Robinson producing. It’s also their last album to contain the classic Motown sound before producer Norman Whitfield (who is behind the boards for several tracks here) starting taking the Tempts down a more psychedelic path. The heartbreaking ballads “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another” were based on a real-life relationship that cut so deeply Robert Penzabene, who helped write both numbers, killed himself. The rest of the album stays along these themes of heartache and loss, but the Funk Brothers keep punching away, keeping the album from getting too somber. With Wish it Would Rain, the Temptations ended their classic lineup era on a high note and carried that momentum into the next psychedelic chapter.
Priests – The Seduction of Kansas (2019) The Washington D.C.-based punk trio named their second album after Thomas Frank’s book of the same name, an examination of why people – mainly conservatives in his thesis – vote against their own interests. The songs are more empathetic than angry, written as an attempt to bridge and understand the divide that has split America. Texturally, the album moves from a spacey, early Cure vibe on the paranoid “Not Percieved,” to the post-punk thump of revenge on “I’m Clean.” The final song, “Texas Instruments,” is my favorite cut. It discusses the whitewashing of history by looking at the story of the Lone Star state. Sample lyrics: “The hubris of propriety/Macy’s Day Parade history/Puff your chest up so we can see/Who brought the books you read?” Heady stuff to be sure, but the music keeps the feet entertained while the brain is engaged. Sadly, Priests went on an indefinite hiatus shortly after their tour behind this album wrapped. I hope this isn’t the last we hear from them.
Hearts of Darkness – self-titled (2010) Man, you could hardly go anywhere around Kansas City without bumping into either a member of Hearts of Darkness, someone talking about Hearts of Darkness or seeing a flier for an upcoming Hearts of Darkness. They won a spot at Farm Aid in 2011 and blew Snoop Dogg off the stage as an opening act that same year. Watching the 15-piece Afrobeat group perform was like standing on the launch pad as a rocket takes off. The band’s energy was matched only by the amount of smiles generated. Hearts of Darkness released another album in 2012 and then gradually tapered off. According to their ReverbNation site the group’s most recent show was in 2017. High time for a comeback.
White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007) After expanding their sound on Get Behind Me Satan, the White Stripes’ previous album, Icky Thump was the sound of the duo getting back to a straightforward rock sound. This isn’t the garage rock they perfected on early albums, however, but a more spacious arena-ready sound reflecting the larger venues they were now commanding. A cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” remains a divisive song among fans, but other singles like the title track and the stomp of “Rag and Bone” make up for this misstep. It would have been interesting to see where Jack and Meg White would have taken their sound after this album. Icky Thump sounds like pair were getting back to basics and regrouping before deciding where to go next. Unfortunately, Meg White called it quits after the tour wrapped. We’ll never know what the next chapter may have held.
Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977) Put the iconic title track that opens this album and the magnificent medley of “The Load Out/Stay” that closes the record. There’s some pretty weird stuff happening in the other 30 minutes of this album. Cocaine shows up in nearly a third of the songs. “Rosie” is a tribute to a groupie. (Sample lyric: “She was sniffing all around/like a half-grown female pup.” Classy, Jackson.) There are a couple songs about the loneliness and desolation on the road, one of which was actually recorded on Browne’s tour bus as it hummed toward the next gig. Its like Browne decided to turn Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” into a concept album. I won’t say it doesn’t work, but take away the first and last cut and there’s not much to make Running on Empty into more than a one-night stand.
Radiohead – The Bends (1995) If this is your first time encountering The Bends, you are in store for a tremendous experience. If it is not, feel free to use this as an excuse to play it again. So much has been written about Radiohead and The Bends, I don’t know that I have much to add. I will say that The Bends was gripping the first time I heard it and continues to reveal new layers a generation later.
Death Cab for Cutie – Plans (2005) One of the best moments at a Death Cab for Cutie concert is when the band exits the stage, leading singer Ben Gibbard alone to sing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” with his acoustic guitar. This heartfelt, darkly romantic ballad has been a staple on mixes and playlists by the angst-filled and lovelorn from the day Plans was released. There are several other great songs to be found here as well. “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” are perfect slices of indie rock and the rest isn’t far behind. Plans isn’t Death Cab’s best album, but it has definitely earned a place on the medal platform.
The New Pornographers – Together (2010) Together was the first New Pornographers album that didn’t excite me when it was released. It felt like the band was having to work too hard to develop the delightful power pop that made the group’s first three albums so wonderful. That their sound was becoming a crutch. In retrospect, I think I was too hard on the album. Granted, the band isn’t breaking any new ground but there are several genuinely great songs here, such as the delicate “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” (How’s that for title?) “Crash Years” and Dan Bejar’s always-skewed songwriting on “Jenny Silver Dollar.” Together may be a holding pattern, but if this is what it took to get to Brill Bruisers, their next release, a classic on par with the Pornographer’s early material, then it was worth the stop.
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (2012) The third album after Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion is cut from the same cloth as their previous release, Farm. More of the same isn’t a bad thing, though. Not when you’ve got J. Mascis’s guitar ripping through the speaker with bass player Lou Barlow and drummer Murph right behind him, chasing Mascis like he owes them money. You’ll know within the first 30 seconds if you like this album. If you do, the full listen won’t be enough. Fortunately, the Boston-based trio has left us several more platters, just like this one.