The Beatles – Hey Jude

heyjudeThere was absolutely no reason for me to purchase this album.

I mean, I’ve got all these songs already. They’re all on my computer. They’re all on my iPod. Buying this does nothing more than put more money in the pocket of a big music corporation that’s already received more than enough of my cash, really.

And yet, I bought it. Didn’t even think twice about it.

I think part of it is the album cover. That’s a great freakin’ cover, right there. Another part of it is nostalgia: I remember listening to this record in the living room with my dad, though his vinyl copy always had a skip right after the first verse of “Old Brown Shoe” and you had to gently nudge the needle further along to keep listening. For a long time, it was the only way I could hear the song “Hey Jude” unless it came on in the car on the radio, at which point you sat your ass in the car and you listened to it all the way through, regardless of where you were or where you needed to be. You didn’t turn it off in the middle of that song, ever.

So I was going to buy this album regardless of anything else. There was never a question about it. And it’s not a question of whether or not this is good music: I mean, it’s the freakin’ Beatles, of course it’s good. The question before me now is, does this thing hold together as an album?

Frankly, no. It’s not a well-conceived collection of songs in the vein of the Beatles’ latter-day works like Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road, it’s just a bunch of songs that were singles that all got thrown onto a single LP. You’ve got the really incongruous Hard Day’s Night-era “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better” to start off the album, but they just don’t fit at all with the aesthetic of the late-period Beatles. I mean, 1964 was a lot further away from 1970 than you’d think, stylistically-speaking, and those early pop masterpieces don’t sound like they’re even from the same band when you jump from that to “Paperback Writer” and the trippy “Rain.”

But looking at these ten tracks as individual songs written and recorded by one of the best bands in the existence of music, it’s a pretty damn good record. There is literally not a bad song on here, though I’ve never been crazy about “Rain.” Most of these are from a band at its creative peak. McCartney in particular comes out well here: “Paperback Writer,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Hey Jude” are some of the best damn songs he ever wrote, that last one in particular a tune that everyone sings along with (it helps that the lyrics to the coda are so easy). Lennon’s offerings are generally top-notch as well; my aforementioned distaste for “Rain” notwithstanding, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is playful, “Revolution” is cynical and world-weary and hopeful all at once, and “Don’t Let Me Down” is everything Let It Be was supposed to be. George gets his chance to shine, too, with “Old Brown Shoe,” which – while not in a top ten list of best Beatles songs by any stretch – has been one of my favorites for years.

Is this album necessary? No. All of these songs are easily available on other albums, and a good number of them are available through collections like Past Masters and 1. But hell, at this point, Beatles albums are at least partly about nostalgia, about capturing that moment when you first heard them, and for someone who grew up listening to the American albums released by Capital Records, Hey Jude is a welcome addition to my Beatles collection.

Bob Dylan – Dylan (1973)

Bob_Dylan_Dylan_1973_AlbumOkay, here we go: this is, according to popular opinion, the worst album Dylan ever recorded. It’s not even a proper album; rather, it’s a series of outtakes from Self Portrait, with which Dylan shares a particular vibe and aesthetic.

As the story goes, Dylan was leaving Columbia Records to join the newly-formed Asylum Records, run by David Geffen. He had a contractual obligation to put out another album with Columbia or something to that effect, so they scraped these songs from the bottom of the barrel and put it out, against Bob’s wishes. Not long after, Dylan actually came back to Columbia, and he’s been recording for them ever since.

But that’s hardly the point. The point is, are these nine songs as God awful as everyone claims? Is this, in fact, the worst album of Dylan’s long, varied career?

In a word, no. This is far from his best work, and probably not as good as the stuff on Self Portrait, but it ain’t his worst work by a long shot (hello, Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove). What this collection is, is whimsical. It’s goofy. It’s a pretty fair amount of fun, too, owing to the fact that Dylan seems more relaxed here than on pretty much any other album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard all of ’em at this point. Yeah, it’s a bunch of covers and has all the weight and substance of marshmallow fluff, but how often do we get to hear Dylan just having fun playing music? Almost never.

So, the nitty gritty. Dylan sings this in that nasally, twangy Nashville Skyline crooner voice. If you don’t like that, you’re not going to get anything out of this record. Second, the song selection is all over the place, as befits an “odds and sods” sort of collection like this. You’ve got everything from contemporary pop to traditional standards, and Dylan approaches them all with the same laid back nonchalance. There’s a certain charm to hearing him sing “Lily of the West” or “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The arrangements are loose and open, and he’s got those female backing vocalists from Self Portrait all over the album, but it’s all pretty breezy. His take on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” really isn’t all that worse than Johnny Cash’s, though it may lack some of the gravitas of the Man in Black’s rendition. Admittedly, Dylan’s take on “Mr. Bojangles” was something we could have all done without, but the guy straight up doesn’t seemed to have given a damn.

Ultimately, Dylan isn’t the travesty of music that it’s often made out to be. Sure, it’s not going to ever be anyone’s go-to Dylan album (as with most – if not all – of his output after John Wesley Harding and before Blood on the Tracks), but it’s hardly the worst of the bunch, even from that narrow window of late ’60s/early ’70s Dylan output (can we all agree New Morning wasn’t that great? And Planet Waves? Ugh). It’s slight and unassuming, slightly goofy and whimsical and just a little bit of fun, if you’re willing to laugh at the joke.

Top Ten Albums of 2013

I listen to a pretty fair amount of music. Not as much as when I was a young lad, back in high school or college or even graduate school, but I’ve still got my finger on the pulse of…well, not current trends in popular music, but something. I know what I like, and I usually find plenty of stuff to listen to each year.

This year, it was a little tricky to come up with ten albums that I actually really liked. There were lots of disappointments for me (hello, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor), but I still managed to find ten albums I really enjoyed.

the-national-trouble-will-find-me-608x608-136871505110. The National, Trouble Will Find Me: This album didn’t feel as strong as High Violet, and there were plenty of songs that I feel just fell flat, but the songs that are good (“I Should Live in Salt,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” and “I Need My Girl” all jump immediately to mind) are really, really good. And the album works really well in a live setting, I can attest. I hate to use the term, but Trouble Will Find Me is one of those albums that’s just a grower. It honestly just gets better with every listen. Even just in the few months this album has been out, I’ve already found a half dozen tracks on it that I absolutely love. In time, as with all other albums by the National, I’m sure it’ll be one of my favorites and something I put on all the time.

NEWWEST62729. Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway: This album mines the same vein of Americana Steve Earle’s dug in to for the past several albums, but I’m not complaining. I mean, why fix what ain’t broke? There’s still plenty of mileage left in what he’s doing here, if you ask me. I really wish more country musicians would go this route, mining not just country but folk and other branches of American music for their inspiration (because, seriously, the dudebro country that’s so popular right now really, really needs to go away and never come back. I don’t care how many parties you’ve been to down at the ol’ swimmin’ hole; country music can have way more depth than that, dudebros).

SheAndHimVolume3Details8. She & Him, Volume 3: This album finds M. Ward and Zoey Deschannel in fine form (actually, much better form than the mediocre Volume 2 from a few years ago), and Zoey’s vocals much stronger and more interesting than last time around. The songs are by turns bright, bouncy, and bittersweet, and the duo prove there’s still plenty of good stuff in the tank. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” is one of the most infectious slices of pop songcraft I’ve heard in absolute ages, and it’s just fun to listen to, and just about every single track is jam-packed with retro-style arrangements and good, old-fashioned pop songs that you can’t help but bop along to. The world needs more fun music, if you ask me.

billiejoenorah-13848753357. Billy Joe + Norah, Foreverly: Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones doing duet covers of old Everly Brothers tunes? Who thought this was a good idea? And where can I find them, so I can shake their hand and tell them they were right? Holy crap, I wouldn’t have given you ten to one odds this would’ve worked, but it totally does. The two of them have voices that meld together well, and the playing is understated but effective. These are simple songs from a bygone age (I’m not about to call it a simpler time, because that’s just stupid), and the duo give the songs a reverence, a sense of awe and beauty and wonder that you don’t get to hear all that often in contemporary music. It’s in sharp contrast to the bright bubblegum retro styling of She & Him, but coming from a similar love of the classics.

81MlMGCPEwL._SL1500_6. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: As Neko Case becomes harder and harder to classify musically, the more I find myself enjoying her work. Sure, there’s something to be said for those early hard-driving alt-country albums, but her last three records have become increasingly impossible to pin down, and she seems to revel in the violation of genre conventions. And damn, can that woman sing. “Man” is a fast-paced, exciting song that I find dangerous to drive to (unless you’re okay with doing 90 mph down the highway), while other tracks like “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” are slower, more-thoughtful ruminations on filial relations and how those can really screw us up. Like, really screw us up.

The-Flaming-Lips-THE-TERROR-1024x10245. The Flaming Lips, The Terror: This album lives up to its title. Full of jittery, nervous tunes, a dark sense of foreboding, and lyrics that are something like the sinister flipside to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Terror leaves you feeling ill at ease. But it’s also a damn good set of songs, which is to be expected from a group that’s been going for about thirty years and shows no sign of slowing down or settling into a rut. While I didn’t enjoy this album as much as Yoshimi or At War With the Mystics, it’s still a solid offering, and one that I’m likely to return to somewhere down the line, when I’m more comfortable with getting creeped out and unnerved by music. It, um, might be awhile, though.

b4b022387dd2106b3d93a5485957a599_large4. Toad the Wet Sprocket, New Constellation: Holy cow, a Toad the Wet Sprocket album? Is it the ’90s again? I wouldn’t have thought this would happen, but they did a Kickstarter campaign and funded their first new album in 16 years. What’s interesting is that they managed to sound like Toad without sounding like they were frozen in carbonite back in the late ’90s. Instead, they sound like they kept playing in those intervening years and kept growing and developing as a band, and this is the record they happened to put out. It’s pretty great. There are lots of achingly beautiful songs, Glen Phillips sounds just as good as he ever did, and the band sound like they never broke up. It’s really everything you could possibly want out of a Toad the Wet Sprocket album in 2013.

Paul-McCartney-NEW-Deluxe-Edition3. Paul McCartney, NEW: Seriously, is this just the year of guys you thought were done doing anything interesting surprising you? ‘Cause I wouldn’t have thought a latter-day McCartney album would be anything to write home about. Sure, some of his stuff in the past decade and a half has been good (I loved Run Devil Run, and Flaming Pie certainly had its moments, but Memory Almost Full? Driving Rain? Ugh), but to come across a McCartney album this good, this vital, this current, in 2013? If you’d told me about it ten years ago, I’d’ve called you a liar. And then asked you how you’d managed to time travel to 2003. But you get the point: the album’s title isn’t just laziness, it’s a declaration of artistic relevance as McCartney settles into his 70s. There are musicians out there in their 20s who aren’t being as creative as this guy is right now, and that’s damned impressive. McCartney always seemed to rely more on craft than anything else, but this album shows he’s willing to learn some new tricks and move with the times a bit, all while remaining resolutely Paul McCartney.

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F2. Josh Ritter, The Beast in its Tracks: I wasn’t so fond of So Runs the World Away when it came out. I thought it was overproduced and a little too thick with layered instrumentation. This album feels like a direct response to such criticism. It’s much more stripped-down, with a greater focus on guitar rather than piano, and a bunch of songs that apparently detail the collapse of Ritter’s marriage. None of that matters, though, because it’s probably his best overall set of songs in years, with its fair share of wit, warmth, sadness, and cleverness, all wrapped up in arrangements that aren’t too busy or too fussy. It’s exactly what I want out of a Josh Ritter album.

Unknown1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait: What do you get when you put together a few dozen outtakes and alternate versions of songs from one of Dylan’s most controversial (even reviled) albums? Um, a great freakin’ collection, that’s what. While Self Portrait is overwrought and undercooked, possibly purposefully so, this collection reveals the bones of the work, often just Dylan with a guitar, and it’s a fascinating look at what he was trying to accomplish in the early ’70s. That the collection also contains tracks from what became New Morning (a much better-received album that Self Portrait, though really of a kind with it in many ways) and some live stuff with the Band only makes this one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

Top 25 Most-Played Songs of 2013

Another year, another reset of the play count on my iPod.  Let’s see what songs I couldn’t get out of my head in 2013, shall we?

25. Iron & Wine, “Hard Times Come Again No More” (15 plays): One of the few songs I haven’t been able to find through legitimate means in many, many years, it’s a damn fine cover of an old tune from the Civil War era. If Iron & Wine were making whole albums as good as this one song, I wouldn’t have found Ghost on Ghost so boring.

24. R.E.M., “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” (16 plays): I will admit, I listened to this song about ten times last week when I drove to Rockville and bought a new guitar. Yes, I’m a nerd.

23. Tom Waits, “Long Way Home” (17 plays): It’s strange, but I first came to this song by way of the Norah Jones cover of it. I still have a particular fondness for that version, though Tom’s is pretty damn good, too.

22. The National, “You’ve Done it Again, Virginia” (19 plays): One of the few songs by the National I can almost sing (damn, his voice is low!) and actually play on the guitar.

21. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, “Southern Cross” (19 plays): I absolutely, 100% non-ironically love this song. It’s kind of the best.

20. The Rolling Stones, “Moonlight Mile” (20 plays): Because every playlist should include at least one song about heroin use? I dunno.

19. Owen Danoff, “Never Been Kissed” (20 plays): I backed this guy’s Kickstarter back in the summer, and I’m really excited for the full-length debut from him.

18. fun., “Some Nights (iTunes Session)” (20 plays): There are ways in which this version is superior to the original studio version, mostly because it hasn’t been autotuned to crap.

17. Placebo, “Every You Every Me” (21 Plays): You know what I didn’t listen to much in the ’90s? Nineties music. Know what I listen to quite a bit now? Nineties music. Go figure.

16. The National, “Afraid of Everyone” (21 plays): Even a few years after the fact, High Violet continues to surprise me and offer new, interesting things I missed the first time around. I dig this song a hell of a lot.

15. Colin Hay, “Beautiful World” (21 plays): I like acoustic songs about how life is, on the whole, kinda good. This one just makes me feel happy.

14. Alexi Murdoch, “All My Days” (21 plays): Yes, it’s that one song from that one commercial. Yes, that’s how I found the song. No, I don’t care how unhip that makes me. I enjoy what I enjoy, I guess.

13. XTC, “Stupidly Happy” (22 plays): As I mentioned on Twitter some time ago, if this song doesn’t make you feel that way, then I just don’t think we can be friends.

12. The Riveras, “California Sun” (22 plays): I happen to absolutely love surf music. And this song. Especially this song. It’s a great end-of-the-summer song.

11. The Clash, “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)” (22 plays): It’s the Clash. Do I really need to elaborate?

10. The Avett Brothers, “Shame” (23 plays): I figured this one out on the guitar and love singing it, even if that bridge is weird and kinda throws me off every time.

9. Wilco, “Summer Teeth” (25 plays): I’m half-convinced this song is about a serial killer, but I can’t prove it. Or a schizophrenic suffering from visual hallucinations. One of those two things is going on in this song, and it’s this huge slap of cognitive dissonance when it’s such a sunny, peppy tune.

8. Dave Edmunds, “I Hear You Knocking” (25 plays): I’m a sucker for this song and its guitar riff. English blues-rock at its best, I say.

7. Rilo Kiley, “Silver Lining” (27 plays): I know Under the Black Light wasn’t the greatest Rilo Kiley album, and I know the guitar riff is ripped almost note for note from “My Sweet Lord,” but I love this song.

6. Neil Young & the Stray Gators, “Bad Fog of Loneliness” (27 plays): Over the summer, I read the 33 1/3 book on the recording of Neil Young’s Harvest. In many ways, the book was awful, especially since the guy writing it didn’t even seem to like the album, but it did bring this song to my attention, so I guess the whole thing wasn’t so bad.

5. Young Dubliners, “Last House on the Street” (29 plays): A band my uncle used to be in played this song at gigs all the time when I was in college, and it took me years to track the damn thing down. Turns out, it’s not available digitally, but you can still find a used copy of the EP it was originally released on over at Amazon for, like, two bucks. Worth it.

4. Dan Auerbach, “Trouble Weighs a Ton” (29 plays): I think this song was on last year’s list, but I’m way too lazy to actually check. It’s still a damn fine song, regardless.

3. Churchill, “Ark in a Flood” (29 plays): My brother introduced me to this band. They feature a mandolin quite prominently in their otherwise fairly straightforward pop-rock songs.

2. Andrew Bird, “Orpheus Looks Back” (32 plays): Andrew Bird has quickly become one of my absolute favorite musicians. This song is a perfect example of why.

1. Golden Smog, “Until You Came Along” (36 plays): And here we arrive at the song I listened to more than any other in 2013. It’s a fun sing-along, and there’s nothing better than cruising down the highway with the windows open and the radio blaring a song like this at high volume.

So, what did you all listen to in 2013?

Fabricating Authenticity, or Faking It

I’ve been reading a book about Elliott Smith’s XO, one of my favorite albums ever, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing what makes an artist authentic.

Authenticity is a complex, strange idea. The author, Matthew LeMay, argues that Smith’s use of drug imagery and tales of depression and self-doubt are not exactly autobiographical, or at least not intended to be taken that way. Just because Smith himself had a history of drug use, LeMay says, does not mean the songs that make drug references are about him. But we assume they are, because cultural authorities have pegged Smith as the “drugged-up singer/songwriter” type.

Part of the reason for that, LeMay posits, is that listeners want to believe that Elliott Smith’s songs are somehow more “authentic” than someone else’s, that he has authenticity because he’s writing about things he himself has experienced. It raises the question, though: if Smith’s songs were not purely autobiographical (and LaMay makes a fairly compelling argument for why they’re not), are they somehow less authentic?

What even makes a song (or a musician) authentic? What makes a Bob Dylan song more authentic than, say, a Lady Gaga song? There are few who would argue Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” for instance, is less authentic than Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” But what makes that the case? The very act of creating a song, of putting emotional and mental concepts into a formal structure, of setting it to a melody, is inauthentic: there is nothing “real” about singing about your feelings rather than, say, any other form of expression. Expression itself is an artificial construct, an effort to put into words or pictures or sound or whatever something that cannot be truly defined. The act of attempting to contain a concept as big as “love” or “addition” in any sort of expressive form is to put the concept in a box, but the box can never fully contain the entirety of the concept.

So, why then do we consider some musicians more authentic than others? Why does an Elliott Smith or a Bob Dylan come across as more authentic than a Lady Gaga or a Celine Dione? Does it have to do with the nature of their music, with Smith and Dylan writing songs that are more direct and often more literary than their poppier counterparts? Is it that they often write the songs themselves? Or that singers like Dione and Lady Gaga have an army of producers and engineers crafting their music, whereas a guy like Elliott Smith did it almost entirely by himself?

It’s difficult to say. I think it has a lot to do with verisimilitude. An Elliott Smith song feels real, feels lived in, and that lends it its air of authenticity. The songs feel believable, whereas Celine Dione’s “I Will Always Love You” just feels like it’s all soaring high notes and doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight of truth to it (or truthiness, even). Promising to always love some unnamed figure up on a pedestal feels artificial to us, even if you happen to love the song, while a stark ballad like Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” feels very human. It seems like something that could happen, and that is what gives the song the authenticity.

All music is artifice. When I was younger, I dismissed music from the ’80s as being “style over substance,” and felt pretty smug in my assessment. While I still don’t particularly care for ’80s music today, I can see how false the dichotomy I’d created was: there’s no song that hasn’t taken style into consideration, even if the decision is a lo-fi Mountain Goats “single voice and guitar recorded straight into a boombox” style. “Substance” is a pretty ephemeral thing, really, and it’s absolutely possible to craft a catchy, poppy song that has tremendous substance.

Ultimately, authenticity is a tricky concept. I think a lot of it has to do with how an artist carries his or herself. While a guy like Elliott Smith was always very concerned with the style of his songs and their arrangement, his meticulous approach to the sound and the lyrics carried a great deal of conceptual weight that granted him an air of authenticity, even when standing onstage next to Celine Dione at the Oscars. But authenticity isn’t about being a confessional singer/songwriter, it’s about holding true to your inner self, writing and performing what you want to, the way you want to, regardless of its style or substance.

Why Glen Phillips is Responsible for me Liking Good Music

Remember the band Toad the Wet Sprocket? Damn, did I love those guys in high school. And college. And graduate school. And even still today, if we’re being totally honest. In fact, I recently backed their Kickstarter campaign for the new album they recorded (got the digital download just the other day. It’s quite good, in fact).

But this isn’t really about them.

After they broke up, the lead singer, Glen Phillips, embarked on a quiet, stripped down solo career. He released a string of subtle, beautiful albums that I still listen to even today.

And he’s the reason I listen to Wilco and Greg Brown.

See, on his first solo album, Abulum, he had a song that featured the line, “And it’s sadly sweet/Like a Wilco song.” I’m highly susceptible to musical suggestion, it turns out, so I decided to give these Wilco guys a listen. I started with the (then) most-recent album they’d put out, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

So yeah, I was sorta hooked from that point forward.

Wilco led me to Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. Those led me to other alt-country bands, like the Jayhawks and Whiskeytown. That led to Ryan Adams (maybe we shouldn’t pursue that thread too far). So it’s fair to say that a good chunk of the music I love can be directly traced to that one line in that one Glen Phillips song.

As for the Greg Brown connection, Phillips did a cover of “Small Dark Movies” on his Live at Largo album, and that song got its hooks into me deep. The Greg Brown album that song came from originally, Further In, still cracks my head open and pours my brains on the sidewalk every time I hear it. It’s just so damn perfect.

So I guess the point is this: you never know where a lyric might take you. You never know how you’ll gain access to a new band or a new album. If you stay open to it, you might find yourself falling down a pretty deep rabbit hole, and it can be a great trip.

Delayed Reaction: Reconsidering Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away

so-runs-the-world-awayWhen it first came out a few years ago, I was less than impressed with Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away. It felt like a disappointment, a comedown after the heartfelt, joyful tone of The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. It felt too well-mannered, too measured, too considered. I missed the Josh Ritter who’d cram way too many syllables into a line and then tumble into the chorus of “To the Dogs or Whoever,” the guy who played a chiming, almost clanging acoustic guitar with a grin you could hear in his voice. So Runs the World Away just seemed so…serious all the time.

So I gave up on the record for awhile. Wouldn’t listen to it. Spent most of my time with the EP he followed it up with, Bringing in the Darlings, which I absolutely adored.

But listening to that EP made me think that maybe I’d been a little too hard on So Runs the World Away, so I gave it another chance. And it started to grow on me. Now, every couple of months, I put the album on again, listen through it, and find a renewed appreciation for the growth in craft and songwriting that it represents. While it may not be as exciting or as energetic as his previous outings, and it may lack some a good chunk of the humor he’s presented before, So Runs the World Away is actually a pretty fantastic album.

The opening instrumental track, “Curtains,” feels like it belongs on a Britpop Pink Floyd record with its fade in and swirls of keyboards. It’s a pretty weak start to the album, but the second track, “Change of Time,” more than makes up for it. Ritter has played with layering instruments before, but he does it with aplomb here, adding guitars and keyboards and a backing vocal chorus to his basic finger-picked guitar figure. By the end, it feels every bit as epic as a U2 song, just without the overwrought hand wringing.

Things slow way down for the waltzy “The Curse,” a track I love more each time I hear it. Ritter is an excellent storyteller, and this the subject of the song – a mummy that comes back to life, falls in love with the woman who found his tomb, and becomes a media sensation when he reveals himself to the world, all while she slowly becomes the one who is shriveled up and unable to feel anything – is strange but oddly touching. It’s a truly beautiful song, and one that features only piano, keyboard flourishes, and a trumpet. After the bombast of the previous track, it’s a considerable shift, but the juxtaposition works well.

“Southern Pacifica” feels like the most traditionally-Josh Ritter-y song here, in terms of structure and instrumentation, though even here the horns and swirling keyboards that have marked this album thusfar are front and center. “Rattling Locks” is a jarring, jittery song with a palpable sense of paranoia, distrust, and betrayal seeping through the lyrics.

The story song “Folk Bloodbath” is probably the most predictable sort of song Ritter has ever written. It makes explicit the sort of influences he’s always worked subtly into his songs, referencing Stackalee, Little Delia, and a host of other folk music figures to tell a story of death, betrayal, and gunslingers. It’s a little too obvious, though, a little too much like songs we’ve heard before done better. It doesn’t bring anything new to this type of song, which is rather disappointing.

Things pick back up with “Lock” and “Lantern,” two songs that could have appeared on Historical Conquests and not felt out of place. They’re followed, though, by a string of songs that just drag, offering nothing new or interesting. Things are salvaged at the end, though, by “Long Shadows,” a stripped-down, acoustic-led number with a bounce in its step and self-assured tone that’s hard not to like. It’s a good, somewhat low-key way to end the album, and it points the way to the mostly-acoustic Bringing in the Darlings EP, which shares a tone and style with this track.

Ultimately, So Runs the World Away is a fairly solid album. There are some clunkers in the second half, and “Folk Bloodbath” could have been far more interesting than it ended up being, but when Ritter hits his mark, he nails it.

Time and Again: Phil Collins, No Jacket Required

20130219-103021.jpgCan we be honest with ourselves, for just a minute, and admit how ballsy it is to put your pasty British face with your (very obviously) thinning hair front-and-center on the cover of your album? Is there a measurement for the number of fucks Phil Collins simply does not give for how pop superstardom was supposed to work in the 1980s?

No Jacket Required, released in 1985, was a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood (along with George Harrison’s Cloud 9, it was one of the two tapes that I actually wore out from listening to over and over again). I have the album memorized and can break into virtually any song from the set, be it “Sussudio” or “Take Me Home,” with the slightest provocation. I am, I admit, an unabashed fan of Phil Collins, and it’s all because of this album.

It’s kind of funny to think that this record won a Grammy for Album of the Year back then. Looking back on it from 2013, the record sounds horribly, horribly dated. Synthesized horns, processed and programmed drums everywhere, vocoders…you don’t think it could get more ’80s on you, then you hear the sax solo in “Who Said I Would,” and realize that there’s always a way to add more ’80s to a song.

Things start off strong if nonsensical with “Sussudio,” which Collins claims is a word (I’m still a bit dubious). It’s a punchy, upbeat number, and I remember the video for it being very self-effacing and funny as hell. You have to give Collins credit for that, if nothing else: he didn’t ever take himself too seriously.

“Only You Know and I Know” continues the trend of up-tempo, horn-and-drum machine-driven tunes, adding a guitar solo straight out of Miami Vice for good measure. Things slow down with “Long Long Way To Go,” an Asian-tinged track with lots of atmosphere and backing vocals from Sting. Things pick back up with “I Don’t Wanna Know,” a mid-tempo adult-contemporary rocker with a chugging guitar line and layered vocals that has one of the best sing-along choruses about moving on that the ’80s could offer. The first side of the album (I still remember it from the tape) is the ballad “One More Night,” which is exactly what you’d expect from a Phil Collins mid-80s ballad: mannered, just enough emotion in the chorus to really get the sense of pleading across to the audience.

Side two opens with the drum machine-driven “Don’t Lose My Number,” one of those ambiguously dangerous-sounding songs (like “In the Air Tonight” or “Just a Job to Do,” owing more to the latter than the former in this case) that Collins pops out every album or two. “Who Said I Would” features the aforementioned sax solo and vocoder backing vocals, and is probably the most ’80s-sounding song I’ve ever heard (and, oddly enough, I love it). “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” features Collins doing his famous polyrhythmic drumming. “Inside Out” was always my favorite song when I was a kid, largely because of the guitar part (especially in the chorus, with that great delay effect. As an adult, though, my favorite song is “Take Me Home,” which I’m pretty sure was the last song on the cassette I had as a child (but isn’t the last song on the CD version I bought a few years ago). “Take Me Home” is a beautiful song with unique percussion and gorgeous keyboards, not to mention the soaring vocals in the chorus (with backing vocals provided by the likes of Sting again and Peter Gabriel, among others). I always thought it was the perfect song to close the album, and it’s usually where I stop listening now.

The final track, “We Said Hello, Goodbye,” is a piano-based clunker of a ballad, and it feels very out of place with the rest of the album. It’s a very straightforward lost love song, the sort that Collins usually does with much more aplomb and effort, and the sort of thing he did much better on tracks like “One More Night.” It feels…unfinished, compared to everything else, and I’d swear it was just a bonus track added to the CD of a demo from the same time period as the rest of the stuff on the album, but I can’t be sure. Like I said, it wasn’t on the tape I had of the album when I was a kid.

Regardless of the last-track blunder, No Jacket Required is still a consistently great album from start to (almost) finish. It’s a stronger album overall than Face Value, and on-par with just about anything else released by any other band at the time. Collins knew exactly who and what he was – a pop singer with a knack for catchy songcraft – and never loses sight of creating engaging, memorable tunes with sing-along choruses. Here it is, almost thirty years later, and I still can’t stop listening to this album. What more could you want from a pop record?