Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Five Albums I've Been Listening To

The cast of As You Like It and I have been talking about (and singing) 80s love songs at rehearsal. What is it about love songs from that decade, as opposed to the years since, that makes them seem more comfortable? My theory is that the rise of alternative and grunge music circa 1990 did something funny to love songs. After REM and Nirvana, you couldn't have love without misery, loss, and irony (real irony, not the Alanis Morrissette kind). The 80s were really the last era where unapologetically goofy love songs were shamelessly prevalent.

This realization has a lot to do with why I have tons of 80s music on my Juke playlist right now.

It's been a while since I've written this theme; so long, in fact, that I'm not at all certain I can count to five any more.

Joe Jackson - Laughter and Lust. Okay, I'm pretty much always listening to at least one album by Joe Jackson. Fair enough. But hear me out: this 1991 pop masterpiece was beautifully written, carefully recorded, perfectly delivered, and promptly ignored by the record industry because grunge had just arrived and changed everything. This album always breaks my heart a bit to listen to, because it could have and should have been huge. It has some of my favorite Jackson songs, like "The Other Me," "Obvious Song," and "Stranger than Fiction," none of which got jack for radio play. The experience of having this disc tossed overboard by the industry threw Jackson onto a depression that made him quit pop music for the next decade. Our gain, I suppose, since the intimate Night Music, the magnificent Heaven and Hell and the Grammy-winning Symphony #1 were the result. this album is a gem; if you like Jackson's hits from the 70s and 80s you should pick it up somewhere.

Huey Lewis and the News - Greatest Hits. Sure, the production values (listen to that snare drum, for crying out loud) are totally rooted in their source years, but man is this some great songwriting. These songs transcend the limits of their era, not to mention just how squeaky-clean the lyrics are. Come on, The Power of Love" is just a great song by any definition, and the rock-roots orchestrations and inspiration are timeless. On those mornings when you look in the mirror, frown at those wrinkles, and curse those last seven pounds that won't come off, listen to a little Huey Lewis and be thankful that you're over 30. You got to be there when this was pop.

Donald Fagen - The Nightfly. I've been trying to learn a couple of these songs on piano ("New Frontier" in particular), and Fagen just baffles me. The voicings and interval choices end up being so easy once I've got them, but so hard to figure out that it would make me pull my hair out, had I hair. The Nightfly Lacks the bite Walter Becker brings to their Steely Dan collaborations, but it does make your head bob the same way the Dan does, and it's just immaculately produced. How someone as cynical as Fagen can create an album that sounds so sweet and bouncy is a mystery. That object on the table in the cover photo is called a "record player," boys and girls. It's what old people used to listen to music on before iPods. And here's a little secret: sometimes music still sounds better on that antique device than on CD...

Sam Phillips - A Boot and a Shoe. I haven't been able to take this CD out of my car for over two years. The more I listen to Sam Phillips' last two albums, Fan Dance and this one, the more I want to pick up a guitar, find some oddball seventh bar chords, and just strum with my fingers. She has an almost supernatural ability to take a lyric and melody that sound like they're going nowhere, then resolve them in a phrase so perfect you just sigh, "That line couldn't have ended any other way." Sparse arrangements, that incredibly sexy voice, and some of the best lyrics about heartbreak make this collection of postmodern-retro torch songs one of my top five favorite albums of all time. Just go get it. Never heard of Sam Phillips? Doesn't matter. It's worth it just for her voice and Jay Bellerose's bass drum. Turn the subwoofer on and secure the china. Warning: this album may cause you to develop an irresistible urge to write songs.

Steve Hackett - Till We Have Faces. I'm in a big Hackett kick right now, and this 1983 album features some really bold, experimental work married to huge Brazilian drums. Hackett has an odd way of taking a neat musical idea and marrying it to another that completely contradicts it and somehow making it work for twice as long as it has any business working. Case in point, the epic "Matilda Smith-Williams Home for the Aged," an incredibly weird beginning about a strict retirement community that finishes with six minutes of instrumental drums and dramatic guitar melodies. The song doesn't really have enough ideas to justify its length, but I keep listening to it over and over. It's followed by the sexy-as-hell blues ballad "Let Me Count the Ways," as sharp a turn as I've ever heard between two songs on the same album. Till we Have Faces is a must-hear if for no other reason than the instrumental "When You Wish Upon a Star" at the end, with it's singing-saw-synth. Anyone who can explain the structure of this album to me gets a gold star.



  • At 3/04/2008 2:36 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Hey Sam just announced a new album for this summer. Ha!

    I've been enjoying the prog overload I got from you on LP records. Also, the other day at Costco I got a three-CD set for $15.99 by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Wow, they are fantastic. I know it's tough to turn off "Gimme Three Steps" and "That Smell" on the radio, and "Freebird" has become a parody of a parody; but wow, what a bunch of great songs. Just good ol' southern rock. And what an epic story of tragedy and perserverance they are.

  • At 3/04/2008 11:03 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Speaking of prog overload, Dream Theatre is playing the newly-reopened National Theatre in Richmond in May.

  • At 3/05/2008 8:08 AM , Anonymous Philip Hamm said...

    Hey Andrew, do you have "Kamakiriad" by Donald Fagan? I have a spare copy I can give you. It's not as good as "Nightfly", but it has its moments.

  • At 3/05/2008 9:25 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    That's the one of th Fagen albums I don't have.

    Morph the Cat is also not as good as The Nightfly, but it's still fun to listen to. The bass line for the title track is classic.

  • At 3/05/2008 2:38 PM , Anonymous Philip Hamm said...

    I'll save my Kamakiriad for you. Funny thing about Kamakiriad, it's produced by Walter Becker and he is credited for plays bass and solo guitar on the whole record. Becker only co-wrote one of the songs. It's practically a Steely Dan record as far as I'm concerned.


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