Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Double Albums

You have to really like a band to dig a double dose of their work. Until CDs LPs usually ran 45 minutes, so a double is anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. Of course the trick is to make it all good. Let's take a trip down memory lane (and my collection) and examine some double studio albums...

The Beatles, The Beatles (White Album)

You can't say the Beatles never made a bad album. Lots of folks don't like 'Magical Mystery Tour', and I've yet to meet someone who thought 'Beatles for Sale' was a great work. But the White Album?

I can only listen to this all the way through once in a long while. I mean, who hasn't wanted to skip past 'Piggies' and 'Revolution 9'. 'Wild Honey Pie'? It's certainly a ground-breaking work, an artistic work even, but the good is dragged down by a lot of junk. For every 'Helter Skelter' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' there's a 'Glass Onion'.


Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life

85 minutes of Stevie jamming. I like Stevie at his peak. 'Innervisions' may be my favorite album of that decade. 'Talking Book' is infectously singalongable. But this...this is too much.

Many of these tracks haven't aged too well. 'Superstition' is subtle and well-arranged. 'Visions' is a beautiful song. They both are wonderful statements about civil rights. But in 'Life' the subtlety and musicianship is lost in my least favorite track 'Black Man'. 'Village Ghetto Land' throws in a bunch of schmaltzy strings to underscore that Stevie's upset. But it's not his best on the subject by a long shot.

And then there's 'A Something Extra'. 'Saturn'? Really? Stevie - I don't need another 20 minutes tacked on.

Like 'The Beatles' there are definite classics, 'Isn't She Lovely', 'Sir Duke', and so forth. But, to take a phrase Rolling Stone coined for another album on this list, it's a "bloated beast".

Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything?

This album is a little less well-known. But it is a worthy feat. On sides 1-3 Rundgren plays all instruments and provides all vocals. Even a multi-instrumentalist like Stevie can't make those kinds of claims.

Unfortunately the album isn't well-known because it's pretty forgettable. His best known song is on the album: 'Hello, It's Me'. Do you know it? Albums don't need to be comprised just of stuff that's good for the radio, by any means, but the non-singles should be quality, and this album just doesn't have it. It's fine, but not so good that you feel the need to go recommend it to your friends.

You can fill 85 minutes, yeah, but they've got to be good if you want people to invest the time.

The Clash, London Calling

...So leave double albums to the masters, right? Few would claim that 'London Calling' isn't the Clash's best. The longest track is about five and a half minutes, which is just right for them. It's also sort of why I don't count it as a double.

The run-time is only 65 minutes. A single LP can run about 60 minutes if you squeeze, like Fleetwood Mac's 'Then Play On'. So I disqualify 'London Calling' because it's too short to be considered a double, even if spread on two LPs.

Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde

I just don't get it.

My Dylan collection isn't vast, but I like him enough to have seven albums. And I just don't get this one. I'm fine with his 'Desolation Row'-style poemsong things. Of this category 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' is my least favorite. So that's 12 minutes down, and all of side four.

'Rainy Day Women' is another least favorite, and frankly, lyrically, a lot of this album is junk. 'Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat' and 'Pledging My Time' are both pretty vapid. It's like all of the worst things of Dylan slushed together in a double album.

'Visions of Johanna' is nice, though.

(I also have 'Modern Times' but it's only 63 minutes.)

The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street

I'm going to say that you need, arbitrarily, to be at least 70 minutes long to be a real double. This doesn't quite make the cut, but I will say that it's a good album. The tracks slide a swell into one another - they're all so good that it takes a few listens to be able to distinguish them as individual works, because the work is the album itself.

Frank Zappa, Freak Out!

Along with 'Blonde' they were the first doubles. But this one just clocks 60 min. The most innovative parts are... difficult to listen to.

Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica

I've already said that this may be the best album ever. Certainly not a party album, though. It's like 'Astral Weeks' or 'DecksandDrumsandRockandRoll' - when you want that thing nothing else will do.

The songs are weird. A blend of delta blues, free jazz, acid rock and sea shanties. But it works. Someone once said it's music's closest answer to visual modern art, and that feeling is about right. You may not want to look only at modern art - but the appeal is there and sometimes a certain piece can grab you in just the right way that makes it seem like the culmination of art history, after all. I wouldn't say 'Replica' hasn't aged, for the production does give it away, but it still sounds fresh to me.

Pink Floyd, The Wall

The best-sellingest of them all.

Sure, some of the tracks are lame. But it's a concept album. You can't remove one without screwing up the story. Which can sort of be a nuisance.

But all said and done this has some of their best: 'Comfortably Numb' and 'Hey You', for example. There are some non-radio gems, too, such as 'Goodbye Blue Sky' and 'In the Flesh'. And, secretly or openly, we all like the spectacle of 'The Trial'.

As a concept album, though, it lacks some of the variation that we might look for. It's a certain type of treat, and well-prepared, but only for certain occasions.

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew

I never said only rock albums. But this will be the only jazz album.

The side-long jams are great. No Miles expert, I like this the most of his fusion stuff (that is, compared to the In a Silent Way sessions). I can listen to 'Pharaoh's Dance' and 'Bitches Brew' back to back just to look up and wonder where the time went while I was enjoying myself. The second LP is also winners, although not as enjoyable in my opinion.

None of the six tracks are bad, and the first two are great. When wanting a jazz double this is what I'd turn to (barring Jarrett's 'Koln Concert').

Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Ugh. Why do I have this?

Some of these songs are great. 'Layla', 'Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad'. 'Little Wing' is always good, but no one can touch Hendrix. But there's a bunch of junk. 'Thorn Tree in the Garden' has always struck me as the wrong way to end this album. I like the concept of 'Bell Bottom Blues' but not the execution.

Duane Allman has always appealed to me more than Clapton, I guess. The songs get his muscle on here, which is nice, but they're clearly Clapton songs. There's no getting around those lyrics.

Ella Fitzgerald, Sings the Cole Porter Song Book

It's too slow! Ella you're great. But you take far too long to sing these songs. Cole Porter is supposed to be upbeat, fast, and jazzy. You transform them into ballads. At least you make the 'double' appropriate, clocking in at two hours.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland

My favorite of Hendrix, even better than 'Experienced'. He's best when he gets a little space and time to expand. But the short tracks, admittedly, like 'Cross-town Traffic' aren't the hottest.

While the Byrds made a point of always covering one Dylan tune, 'All Along the Watchtower' has to be the best cover of his work ever. And it's not the best track ('Slight Return' and the march of '1983' are both better).

This is like the 'White Album' in that the gems are a bit scuffed up by some of the grit surrounding them, but even the dopey '...And the Gods Made Love' is superior to the worst of the Beatles' double.

Jane's Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual

50 minutes?

Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

No one wants this to be John's best. But it is.

It has the great tracks, like 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' and 'Candle in the Wind', and one of my favorites, the epic open 'Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding'.

The other tracks, though...'Jamaica Jerk-Off'. 'Sweet Painted Lady'. It's like 'Vienna' in the middle of Joel's 'The Stranger' - you just want him to keep playing tracks like 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant'. In this album's case the attempts at diversity just didn't hit home.

Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime

Mine is the 43 track version. With almost all clocking in around a minute and a half, and a few at under a minute, this album works hard to provide a lot of content. But most is forgettable. There are some nice tunes, but nothing gets developed enough to either go somewhere interesting, or if you like it, it's over too fast. On the plus side, if you don't like it, it'll be over in a minute.

Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

Not long enough, at 65 minutes. Good concept album, though.

Prince, Sign 'O' the Times

Here, diversity paid off. Prince's ability to glide between styles works. The first LP is better than the second, but it's all good. He tackles themes, creates good hooks paired with good songwriting, keeps the whole thing moving. Some of the slow ballads are a bit much, but after 'The Ballad of Dorothy Parker' there's 'It'.

For my money this is a better, more polished sound than 'Purple Rain'. Even though I listen to that more than 'Sign'. If  Prince was Tarantino 'Rain' would be 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Sign' would be 'Pulp Fiction'. It's also probably one of the best of the decade.

The Who, Tommy

Aha. Another concept album.

Even more than 'The Wall' this one suffers from some useless tracks, due to the storytelling. Maybe that's why 'Ziggy Stardust' is many people's favorite story-telling concept album. It doesn't waste tracks solely on narration, a bit at the expense of the "plot", but no one's minding.

Finally, after trying on 'Sell Out' and 'Live at Leeds', the 'Underture' comes into its own. It's as though, after they made this they could finally move on from the riff that had been stuck in their head for so long.  The resultant 'Who's Next' is their best album.

Still, 'Pinball Wizard' and the ending 'We're Not Gonna Take It' are classic. That ending may rank as the best alongside the end of 'Abbey Road' and 'Dark Side of the Moon'.

Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti

Finally, we reach the end of the collection, and my personal favorite.

It's not only my favorite double, it's my favorite Zeppelin. I listen to it more than any others, in both categories. Every track is good. There's a nice blend of long jams and short tracks, none of the blatant plagiarism that plagues some of Zeppelin's other work. It rocks, it has their trademark acoustic tracks, everything about it is good. My least favorite track is most people's favorite, 'Kashmir'.

Easy to commit to for 80 minutes, this is, for my money, the best example of a double album. Nothing slow to make the time feel like it's dragging, but enough care put into each track to make them if not stellar, solid, enjoyable, and distinct.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

My favorite is Tori Amos' To Venus and Back, although you might discount it for one half being live. (Then again, some songs, like Cooling, she only ever played live, and others, like Space Dog, end up being a different, um, animal than the recorded version.

The other one which leaps to mind is Mellon Collie, but, alas, not great end to end. Stadium Arcadium is good in fits and spurts.