Friday, April 18, 2014

3 New Beginnings

I wanted to do an Easter-themed blog for Good Friday, but what exactly does an Easter-themed blog about albums look like? Easter doesn't have nearly as much good music as Christmas does - once you've listened to Jesus Christ Superstar, you've pretty much exhausted this holiday's repertoire.

I considered 'songs about chocolate' as a topic (Chocolate Jesus by Tom Waits, Chocolate by Tindersticks...that could have been quite a fun one actually), but since Easter is all about fresh starts and the arrival of springtime and fluffy bunnies and newly-hatched chicks and that sort of thing, I thought I'd do this one instead.

Here are three albums that marked bold new beginnings for the artists who made them. Each one represented a press of the reset button, a departure from the ditches that had previously been dug, or a shift onto new shores at the very least. Happy Easter!

Embryonic by The Flaming Lips
At War with the Mystics and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots weren't exactly anodyne AOR unit-shifters, but compared to 2009's Embryonic (and everything that The Flaming Lips have released since), those albums look like bubblegum. This album demonstrated just how weird Wayne Coyne and his merry men could be when they cut loose; out went the whimsical songs about autumn birds and karate girls, and in came a faintly nightmarish collection about goodness knows what. Pressing 'play' on this one and hearing Convinced of the Hex for the first time must have been quite an experience for anyone who expected another Yoshimi.

Embryonic's greatest trick, of course, was convincing the world that it didn't exist (or at least that it wasn't the big scary monster it actually was). I Can Be a Frog served as a sort of trailer for the album, and while it did sound somewhat scratchier than previous singles like Do You Realize?? and The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, the simple lyrics and Karen O's giggly animal noises weren't especially representative of the song's parent album. If you close your eyes and ignore the bikini-clad woman in the video, you could almost believe that this track was pulled from a CD of songs for preschoolers:

And you'd be so, so wrong. Embryonic was the point at which The Flaming Lips started to sound as druggy as they had always seemed to be. The double album (or very long single album, depending on which version you bought) is made up of grooves, not songs, and the sounds are frequently harsh and hellish where they used to be soft and fluffy. It sure ain't easy listening, but Embryonic was the first move of the mad, mad band that is the present-day Flaming Lips. Y'know, the band who specialise in edible skulls and songs that last for twenty-four hours.


Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev
Now here's a band who got less weird with age. Mercury Rev's early releases - Boces and Yerself is Steam are the ones I've got - were practically beyond description, packed with noisy, fuzzy, off-the-wall madness like this:

But Deserter's Songs, their 1998 comeback album, was a far more refined affair. It's a real thing of beauty, and it's barely recognisable as the same band's work. Compare the psychedelic stomp of Syringe Mouth (above) to the swooning strings and singing saws of Holes:

Sadly, the work they did after Deserter's Songs was somewhat less inspired; I don't dislike The Secret Migration as much as some fans seem to, but I certainly don't think it holds a candle to their magnum opus. For the duration of one short, shining CD, Mercury Rev found that gorgeous sweet spot between their old, hallucinogenic selves and the orchestra-backed grown-ups they were already morphing into. Listen to Opus 40 and marvel at its bruised, beautiful, and slightly weird soul:

Now listen to First-Time Mother's Joy (Flying) from the aforementioned Secret Migration album and feel slightly sad because, beautiful though it undeniably is, it's just too ordinary to scrape the same crazy heights as Opus 40:


The Winter of Mixed Drinks by Frightened Rabbit
This list's third and final entry is a slightly different sort of sea change. Mixed Drinks didn't reinvent the Frightened Rabbit sound like Deserter's Songs did for Mercury Rev, but it did find them on very different shores lyrically. This album's predecessor, The Midnight Organ Fight, was mostly about the ends of relationships; this one was about new beginnings, and that's why it belongs in this blog post.

The first two tracks - Things and Swim Until You Can't See Land (above) - urge listeners to throw away life's unnecessary detritus and run towards a new morning. I'm struggling to think of an opening gambit that more obviously screams "let's start fresh" - Begin the Begin by R.E.M., perhaps.

The difference between Organ Fight and Mixed Drinks is even more clear on Nothing Like You. This song is about the start of a new relationship, although lines like "there's nothing like someone new, and this girl, she was nothing like you" seem to be aimed right at the heart of the old squeeze. Have a listen:

One of my favourite songs from The Midnight Organ Fight is My Backwards Walk, which is sung by someone who's desperately trying to break out of his relationship but always finds himself unable to leave. I'd like to think that the narrator of Nothing Like You is that same man, finally over his old partner and thrilled to be falling for somebody new.

Postscript: I considered including a Leonard Cohen album in this list, but I'm not sure that I'm Your Man really was a 'new start' album. It's often positioned as his first foray into synth-led stuff, but Various Positions had its share of synthesisers, even if they weren't quite as dominant as they would be on I'm Your Man. In the end, I couldn't pinpoint the moment at which Cohen went electronic (even Wikipedia is uncertain - its entry for Various Positions mentions his "turn to the modern sound", while the I'm Your Man page claims that the 1988 album "marked Cohen's further move to a more modern sound"), and so I decided to write about Frightened Rabbit instead.

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