The Deep Racks Report: “A.M.”

By Chris Moore:

We’ve all heard the term “deep track,” used to refer to songs that do not receive much (or any) commercial radio airplay.  This series is dedicated to going deep into the CD racks to bring you brief but focused reports on ALBUMS that have not received as much commercial or critical attention as they should.

RELATED LAPTOP SESSIONS:  Chris – “Box Full of Letters”

A.M. by Wilco

This is an album that seems to get universally hated on.  It is Wilco’s first album, released in 1995 following the breakup of the band Uncle Tupelo.  All of Tupelo’s members except Jay Farrar became Wilco and proceeded to record an album of songs that sound very similar to Tupelo’s work with one significant difference — they sound somewhat more together, less raw than your average Uncle Tupelo tracks.

Reception?  Well, fans and critics alike appear to have agreed that Jay Farrar’s new band, Son Volt, released a superior debut album.  To be fair, I have only heard selected tracks from the Son Volt release and I do understand the inevitability of comparisons between Son Volt and Wilco.  Still, I haven’t been overly impressed with what I’ve heard from Son Volt.  (Please, send your letters and complaints care of Chris at Laptop Sessions!)  Yes, A.M. is a pretty simple rock record.  No, songs like “I Must Be High” and “Passenger Side” aren’t going to win any lyrical accolades with lines like “You’re pissed that you missed the very last kiss” and “You’re gonna make me spill my beer if you don’t learn how to steer,” respectively.  Even Jeff Tweedy expressed disatisfaction with the straightforwardness of the record, and he was among the first to suggest that this was Wilco “treading some water with a perceived audience.”

Okay, but it’s a fun record!  Anyone who is familiar with Wilco’s catalog now knows that, from the second album on, the band became progressively more experimental and interested in making great records.  A.M. is breath of fresh rock’n roll air!  Not until 2007’s Sky Blue Sky would their sound be as compositionally straightforward again, and as much as I love all the albums in between, isn’t the cliche “variety is the spice of life”?  I never skip these tracks when they come up on random and I continue to be drawn in by tracks like the catchy “Box Full of Letters,” the heart-breaking “Should’ve Been in Love,” and the haunting “Dash 7.”  (I’m excited that I finally figured out that “Dash 7” refers to, as Wikipedia states, “The de Havilland Canada DHC-7 [airplane], popularly known as the Dash 7.”)

So, contrary to the press it received, I would highly recommend you pick up a copy of A.M. today.  It’s not their best album, but who cares?  And please, for crying out loud, ignore the genre nonsense altogether —, country rock, rock’n roll, alternative rock??? — and just enjoy the music!

The Deep Racks Report: “Binaural”

By Chris Moore:

I think we’ve all heard the term “deep track,” used to refer to songs that do not receive much (or any) commercial radio airplay.  This series is dedicated to brief but focused reports on ALBUMS that do not receive as much commercial or critical attention as they should.

RELATED LAPTOP SESSIONS: Chris – “Thin Air” (chords included!)

When Pearl Jam released Binaural in 2000, they were met with solid sales — #2 on Billboard in the first week of its release — and decent critical reception — Rolling Stone gave it the 3.5 out of 5 stars nod.  For any other band, this may have been exciting.  However, for Pearl Jam, #2 on the Billboard 200 could be considered a minimum expectation, as even their debut album had hit that position.  As for the critical reception, Rolling Stone had rated all of their previous albums (except their first two, which had not been rated) a full four stars.  This may seem a minor change from 4 to 3.5, but it is a significant one.  The subtext?  Binaural is somehow inferior to Pearl Jam’s previous releases.

Fast forward to 2009, and let’s talk dollar signs.  I’m not referring to album sales — although Binaural is infamously the first Pearl Jam album to fail to reach platinum status, never mind the 7x and 5x platinum statistics of Vs. and Vitalogy respectively or the 12x platinum(!) heights of Ten.  I’m referring to the sticker price.  The average retail value in stores like Best Buy and Circuit City — stores at which the average for CDs is largely in the $12.99 – $14.99 range — is $5.99.  Even on, the price is higher (albeit a measly $1) at $6.99.  What does that say about this album, a fully studio-produced main catalog Pearl Jam release, that its retail value is less than half of the average price one would expect?

While I can’t tell you why it is valued for so low, I can report that this is an excellent album!  Admittedly, I purchased it during Circuit City’s store closing sale for only $4.  I didn’t expect to like it.  Rather, I wanted to get my feet wet with a Pearl Jam record before listening to their debut Ten when it is remastered and re-released later this month.  After a couple listens — and contrary to my expectations — I’ve become hooked on this album.  Right out of the plastic, the packaging is a positive sign — a three-fold digipack with full lyrics reproduced as images of typewritten and handwritten notes.  From the breakneck pace of the first track “Breakerfall” to the sad, soothing sound of the final track “Parting Ways,” the sequence of this album is just right.  The first three tracks are among my favorites on the album (“Evacuation” is possibly the best, most rocking track on the album) and make me reconsider every time I want to take it out of my CD player after a full rotation.  “Light Years” slows it all down and (contrary to Rolling Stone‘s criticisms) unwinds into an excellent ballad of sorts.  The single “Nothing As It Seems” comes next, which I do like, although I couldn’t tell you why this particular track was chosen as the single when there were so many other excellent choices.

For three more tracks, the pace is heavy and slower, but these are some excellent tracks — “Thin Air” (see above for the link to the Laptop Session version), the show-stopping “Insignificance,” and “Of The Girl.”  Truth be told, the next trio of songs are the only sequence on the album that I could do without.  The energy of “Grievance” and “Rival” are undeniable — the latter won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance — and “Sleight of Hand” is a nice lead-up to the final two songs on the album, but I can see why one might have seen Pearl Jam treading water with these tracks.  Then again, taking the Grammy into consideration, perhaps my opinion is simply the opposite of all paid critics.

The album ends slowly with “Parting Ways,” but the final highlight of the album — the song that first made me perk up and pay attention lyrically — is the penultimate track “Soon Forget.”  It’s just Eddie Vedder and a ukulele, but it’s so much more.  The arrangement fits the song perfectly, as Vedder sings about a man who “trades his soul for a Corvette,” “trades his love for hi-rise rent,” and is ultimately “living a day he’ll soon forget.”  As the song concludes with his funeral scene, Vedder sings, “He’s stiffening.  We’re all whistling, a man we’ll soon forget…”

Granted this is my first Pearl Jam album experience, but if the other albums are so much better, then I can’t wait to hear them!  There’s nothing wrong with this album, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drastically reduced retail price or ho-hum reviews (Rolling Stone was so distracted that the review is largely a commentary on late 90s pop music, framed by a comparison between Matchbox Twenty and Pearl Jam).  Based on the quality of individual tracks and on the thoughtful sequencing of the album as a whole, Binaural is more than worth your time!

The Deep Racks Report: “Carl and the Passions – ‘So Tough'”

By Chris Moore:

I think we’ve all heard the term “deep track,” used to refer to songs that do not receive much (or any) commercial radio airplay.  This series is dedicated to brief but focused reports on ALBUMS that do not receive as much commercial or critical attention as they should.

Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” by the Beach Boys

After a series of unfortunate career moves in the late sixties, not the least of which involved Brian’s last-minute withdrawal from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and the release of Smiley Smile in lieu of SMiLE, the Beach Boys’ reputation — particularly in the rock press — was lackluster at best.  By the early seventies, the band was experimenting with new sounds and recording what are arguably among the best albums of their career.

Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” arrived just as their re-established stardom was fading again.

While some may argue that the album is more a compilation of songs from four different, disconnected sets of writers, the end result must be weighed without placing too much emphasis on the drama that surrounded the sessions.  And there was certainly no shortage of drama.  During the sessions for Carl and the Passions, Brian Wilson drew further away from his brothers and the band, disappointing record executives and fans alike.  Dennis Wilson put his hand through a window and was unable to play drums either in the studio or in concert.  And, to top it off, Bruce Johnston had a falling out with Beach Boys collaborator Jack Rieley and subsequently left — either of his own free will or after being fired.

For any fan of the band, the history surrounding these sessions can only serve to affect one’s expectations of the album itself.

And that simply isn’t fair.

Granted, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” may not be a masterpiece like Pet Sounds and Sunflower were (even though it was packaged with Pet Sounds, further increasing the probability that it would pale in comparison).  Yet, from the first piano notes of “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” to the final fadeout of Wilson’s tremendously moving “Cuddle Up,” Carl and the Passions makes good on all that could ever be hoped for on any Beach Boys album — namely, by delivering superb vocals,  fantastic instrumental arrangements, and a combination of upbeat tracks and more introspective ballads.

There is something intriguing about seeing the band fight to hold its own and truly redefine itself without Brian Wilson at the helm.  In a sense, they went back to the drawing board, inviting new members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar to join the band, naming the album after an early incarnation of the Beach Boys that performed at a Hawthorne High School talent show, and returning if only momentarily to the endearing directness of their early liner notes with the inclusion of “Thanks to Alan’s Mom for renting the Bass Fiddle on the first session.”

“You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” is a great opening track, offering an interesting groove and somehow straddling the line between raw and perfectly honed.  “Here She Comes” boasts catchy bass and piano parts and properly introduces the influences of Fataar and Chaplin.  In their book Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: The Complete Guide to their Music, Andrew G. Doe and John Tobler label this song as well as Fataar and Chaplin’s previous band and self-titled effort The Flame as “boring, overlong, and self-indulgent.”  Why they make this assessment, I cannot justify.

Look for a “Deep Racks Report” on The Flame in the not-so-distant future…

“He Come Down” is gospel rock that borders on the cheesy, but is still fun and convincingly felt.  Still, it is all but forgotten by the time track four kicks off.  “Marcella” is certainly a standout here and continues to prove why the powers-that-be were at least somewhat justified in endlessly seeking after new material from Brian Wilson.

“Hold on Dear Brother” and “Make it Good” are solid, enjoyable tracks, if perhaps overshadowed by the other Fataar/Chaplin and Wilson/Dragon tracks (respectively) also on this album.

“All This is That” is another perfectly rendered performance on the album, taking Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and adding a pleasant transcendental twist in a manner that only the Beach Boys ever could.

“Cuddle Up” is easily one of the great Dennis Wilson tracks of all time.  Its simple, beautiful lyrics are delivered in this heartbreaking vocal performance with haunting yet pretty background vocals, always knowing when to build up and when to back off, fading out the album on a subdued orchestral note.

At the end of the day, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” is an essential Beach Boys album for any fan who acknowledges their presence post-1966.  And if you’re a rock music enthusiast that doesn’t own a seventies Beach Boys album, then by all means go out and get Sunflower.

If you like that one, then you’d be missing out if you didn’t pick up Carl and the Passions, too!