If you're like me, when you were a kid you obsessed about music charts (present and, even more importantly, past) and wondered why albums such as the South Pacific soundtrack and The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart ruled the roost in the late 50s and early 60s.
Okay, you're probably not like me, and most likely you never wondered about any such thing (in case you did, however, it turns out that both of those albums are pretty outstanding examples of their genres and fully deserved their massive popularity). But I often wondered how it was that Little Richard or Chuck Berry never scored a big album. Even Elvis's albums didn't do much, chartwise.
The plain fact is that the 33 1/3 long-player was a format without form when it was introduced commercially in the late 40s. Before the LP, "albums" were collections of 78s housed in cumbersome book-like bindings. My grandma had a bunch of those (and I have them now). The LP condensed a five-piece set into one convenient package, but pop artists weren't used to recording that way. Pop artists recorded one song at a time, and they lived and died on singles sales.
I had a simple system: If the b-side sucked, I didn't buy the album. This rule had one iron-clad corollary: If the b-side was a second version of the a-side, I definitely didn't buy the album. Although such singles sometimes illustrated how invaluable a skilled singles mixer was. If you ever heard the album versions of T'Pau's "Heart and Soul" or Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance," you'll know exactly what I mean.
I loved Sly Fox's "Let's Go All the Way." Okay, the song sounds horribly dated today, but as a 16-year-old boy I was the ultimate target audience for the song. Quality (or lack thereof) was no bar to my devotion. I LOVED that song. So I bought the single with a serious eye toward buying the album. I played the song I loved a few times, and then, with some trepidation, I played the flip. The song was titled "Como Tu Te Llama," whose title told me everything I needed to know. I mean, I went to high school in New Mexico and had four-plus years of Spanish under my belt. I knew that was just wrong. But listen I did, and my ears still bear the scars. Here's the chorus:
Como tu te llama?/Tell me what's your name
Good God almighty! Awful awful awful awful awful. I felt like Chekov after Khan slides in the Ceti eel. A few weeks later, I was at a party and someone was playing the Sly Fox tape. It was terrible. It's a miracle that the follow up, "Stay True," actually reached #94 (I told you I paid attention to the charts; in true dork fashion, I even subscribed to Billboard for a few years). Anyway, the Sly Fox album is the perfect example of album-length filler. And filler goes back to the beginning of the album format itself.
Like I said (way up at the top), pop artists of all types were singles-driven. Frank Sinatra didn't record albums. He recorded songs, often one at a time. After enough songs had been released to popular acclaim, the label might collect a few of the good ones and throw in a generous helping of the not-so-good. There wasn't much in the way of sequencing, other than to stick the best songs up top and hope no one flipped the disc. This is why South Pacific sold loads more than any Elvis album. There's also the fact that the songs on South Pacific are loads better than just about anything Elvis--oh, wait, you probably don't want to hear that. Sorry.
There were a few artists who recorded albums as albums, even back in the 40s, but most of those were vanity projects. Labels were singles-driven and treated albums as bastard stepchildren. It took the British invasion to really establish the album as an important format in pop music. The Beatles, Stones and the Who set the table, and then everyone from the Beach Boys to the entire Haight-Ashbury scene followed. By the end of the 60s, singles were merely marketing tools for album sales. Led Zeppelin famously never authorized the release of any singles, even though pop radio played plenty of Led Zep hits.
The demise of the album (or CD, or whatever) as a format has pretty much destroyed any reason for filler, but that hasn't stopped the practice. Sometimes the results can be jarring, as with the recent Emperors of Wyoming album.
There are four great songs (and one good one) on the album. And there are five bad to terrible songs as well. I haven't heard an album with this much disparity of quality among the songs in ages.
I will start by saying that "The Pinery Boy" might well be the best song I've heard during the past year. It's one of those creepy Romeo and Juliet-themed ballads about a girl who sets off in search of her love and ends up drowning herself in order to be with him. Yerg. But the lyrics are exceptionally skillful and the song has a propulsive rootsy churn that drives everything to the inevitable end. Here's the start of the song:
Oh Father, Father/She said/Build me a boat/Down the Wisconsin River so/I may float
The inverted syntax is a wonderful device, and I really love the way "She said" is just dropped in there. It immediately brings the listener into the song. Also, ending one line with "so" is positively brilliant. Anyway, I've heard this song more than a hundred times, and it still gives me the chills. It's awesome.
More interesting is that this song dates back more than a century and has been recorded many times. Nick Cave did a version a few years back. But the Emperors have a completely new arrangement (and more importantly, a fresh lyrical edit which added the syntactical flair I love so much) that gives the song some real punch. In every way, this version really brings out the best in the song. It's a great example of how a fresh approach can turn an old object into something shiny and new.
"Avalanche Girl" and "Brand New Heart of Stone" are wonderful Tom Petty-ish rockers, and "The Bittersweet Sound of Goodbye" is a cool, Byrdsy roller (differentiating the Hearbreakers and the Byrds can be difficult, but that's why I'm here). The final track, "Bless the Weather," is a solid, if not spectacular, acoustic bluesy country love song.
Then there's the rest of the album, which is largely mid-tempo or slower and completely devoid of the punch that the good songs have. The production is generally just as solid and inventive, but the songs themselves aren't nearly as good. Perhaps the Emperors of Wyoming were simply trying to mix things up. The bad songs sound as if they were recorded by a different band. But these songs have too much of a by-the-numbers feel to make me believe that they were simply changes of pace.
Of course, five pieces of filler would have been completely acceptable to the high school version of me. Three good songs on an album were enough to make me feel justified in a purchase. Ratt's Invasion of Your Privacy has maybe three good songs (more like one-and-a-half, if I'm really being honest with myself), but I thought it was great way back when. These days, however, there's a higher bar.
As it is, this is still one of the better albums of the last year. There are a handful of truly great songs here. I just wish the rest of the album came even slightly close to matching that excellence. Oh well. I guess I can program my own EP. The digital age has its advantages.
Now we get to our Paul Harvey moment. The Emperors of Wyoming consists of Phil Davis, Frank Anderson, Peter Anderson and Butch Vig. Davis and Vig have worked together off and on for decades, and the Anderson brothers and Davis also have a long history. These aren't starry-eyed kids hoping to make it big. They're seasoned pros (and yes, their name does come from the Neil Young song) who know good from bad. These are largely old, unfinished songs that Davis came across while cleaning out his attic. He decided to get his friends to help him shine them up. Thus the wide discrepancy in quality and style.
So maybe my rant about filler is a bit off topic. Sue me. But first, listen to "The Pinery Boy." Once you've heard that, you'll be in no mood to sue anyone.
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