Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

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

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ten Albums That Made Me A Musician, Part 1

I've always been fascinated by the process of art-making, and at the intersection between an artist's personality and his/her influences. How much of who I am as a musician has been created by the music I've happened across, and how many of the artists to whom I listen are favorites because of my personal wiring? I suspect it's a circular thing like acting; your external action affects your internal life, which affects your external action, etc.

Last week I gave a listen to one of my all-time favorite albums, Peter Gabriel's 1982 CD Security. It's one of those albums that affected me so profoundly that I remember the very first time I listened to it, where I was, how I got a copy of it, and how it made me feel. This memory led me to many other strong reactions I've had to music; weeping openly at the climax of Yes' "Awaken" on the way to visit my friend Rob Leary in high school, opening the car window and shouting at "The Howling" by Rich Mullins on a riverside highway between Albany and Manhattan in 1999, and other times. I started to examine the landmarks in my development as a musician: where are the moments that changed me the most, the albums that made me the musician I am? It also occurred to me that the people who introduced each of these albums, usually members of my family, were inextricably linked to my memories of discovery. It took me a few days to narrow it down to ten albums.

Today I'm beginning a series of pieces examining each of these discs in the order I discovered them. This is autobiographical music reviewing at its most esoteric, a map of my trajectory of musical influences. Enjoy, or ignore. Extra points for readers who can guess what some of the forthcoming nine are. Some will be obvious to anyone who know me, and some will surprise.

1. Dan Fogelberg - The Innocent Age
Released in 1981
Shared by my sister Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt in 1984

This was the first album that made me sit up and take notice of a specific musical artist and begin to care about their larger body of work. In a very real way, this is the album that made me notice music.

I vividly remember hearing this album on cassette in my sister Lisa's silver Mitsubishi Mirage on camping trips and drives to the Farm in the mid-1980s. I remember wanting to hear it over and over again but being shy about asking her to put it back in the stereo when we had just heard it a couple hours ago. If I had had my way, we would have listened to it on a loop for the entire trip.

Fogelberg is an artist I still revisit from time to time, and much of what originally attracted me to his music still captivates me. This, the first of his albums I heard, remains my favorite. I'm not sure I've ever heard another artist who puts such raw emotion into his music (Rich Mullins is a close second). Whether striving for the epic, the intimate, or the sentimental, Fogelberg always goes full-tilt, occasionally to the song's detriment. The Innocent Age has the best of what makes Fogelberg Fogelberg. It opens and closes with drama, starting with the driving sweep of "Nexus," highlighted by percussion that would do Peter Gabriel proud, and ending with the grand, eerie "Ghosts." The album's first disc features three of the artist's biggest commercial hits, "Leader of the Band," "Same Auld Lang Syne," and the way-too-schmaltzy "Run for the Roses," the one Fogelberg track I genuinely hate. Another highly sentimental, country-tinged song, "Only the Heart May Know," a duet with Emmylou Harris, avoids some of "Roses" 's faults. The first disc includes my favorite song in Fogelberg's entire catalog, the huge-scaled "In the Passage."

The Innocent Age was the first of many two-disc concept albums to catch my ear, setting my musical attention span to a long default. It's a song cycle loosely following the path from birth to death, foreshadowing the similarly-themed Blaze of Glory, Joe Jackson's underrated 1989 epic. Like Jackson, Fogelberg here utilizes the most eclectic songwriting of his career to mark points in the cycle. I've always been an admirer of musicians who can tackle a wide variety of styles to serve an album structure, and this disc may be the genesis of that attraction. "Nexus," "In the Passage," "The Lion's Share," and "Ghosts" are emotional high points that cast the more personal tracks in deep contrast. Hard rockers like "Times Like These" and "Empty Cages" set the acoustic songs apart. Throughout, Fogelberg is adept at creating songs based around the guitar and the piano with equal facility, eschewing his early-career backing-orchestra sound in favor of a more stripped-down but no less full production style that keeps the whole piece remarkably consistent. The Innocent Age is vast but never meanders or loses momentum for long; it's ambitious but never pompous.

I continue to be amazed at how successfully Fogelberg managed the enormous variety of musical ideas in this album. From The Innocent Age, I drew a number of elements that would become the backbone of my musical aesthetic. I learned to be ambitious, to love variety and dynamics, and to reject the idea that I should only like one kind of music. I learned to play whatever instrument I needed to play to make the song in my head work. And I learned to create music whole-heartedly and passionately. Fogelberg's eclecticism led me in all directions, priming me both for singer-songwriter craft and the bombast of arena and progressive rock.

NEXT: A hit single and innovative video lead me down the rabbit hole into a wonderland of sonic experimentation.


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