Bill Frisell confused the hell out of me when I first encountered him.
With Naked City, he was thrashing out, whiplashing from country twang to headbanging metal at the flick of the wrist. My cohorts in high school worshiped at the altar of Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I thought Frisell could mop the floor with them.
But he had a subtle touch as well, if his work on the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb was any indication.
Surely with all these bona fides, I could really dig Frisell’s own music, right?
Well, not quite.
The lightning picking and aggressive dissonance were nowhere to be found on Is That You?, Frisell’s second album for Nonesuch released around the time of Naked City and Robin Holcomb. As it turned out, Frisell’s writing occupied a strange intersection of avant-garde classical, jazz improvisation and American folk.
And it was quiet.
A cover of “Chain of Fools” is the closest Frisell would get to being raucous. Instead, he favored sparse, introspective textures. Although the album featured 3/5 of Naked City — Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (who also produced) and drummer Joey Baron — it had none of Naked City’s fire but certainly all of its intensity.
For an 18-year-old listener hyped up by Naked City, I felt let-down by Is That You?, an impression that would unjustly persist for 25 years.
In fact, Is That You? fell into the category of albums I was too young to understand at the time. I’ve been on the hunt for Frisell’s preceding album, Before We Were Born, when I spotted Is That You? Having discovered how wrong I was about other albums in the past, I gave this one another chance.
For a noisy band, Naked City was pretty tuneful, and while I loved its rowdy parts, the hooks allowed me to latch onto the band’s weirder diversions. Is That You? provided few such latches.
“Rag” is a lovely solo piece on acoustic guitar, and another cover of “The Days of Wine and Roses” provides some melodicism, but for the rest of the album, Frisell demands attention as he ties two or more disparate styles of music and sets them in opposing directions.
The title track starts off quietly with some pretty woodwinds, but as it progresses, Baron’s tribal rhythms give way to a hesitant backbeat while Frisell strangles his fretboard. Horvitz throws in his arsenal of weird effects to complicate matters. Many of the album’s tracks proceed in this manner.
I didn’t have the patience or the exposure to Frisell’s influences to understand what he was doing. Two decades and a lot of country music listening later, I get it now. More importantly, I enjoy it.
Along with Yano Akiko, this recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 was one of five cassette tapes I held onto after giving up on the format more than 15 years ago. The CD reissue pictured adds a few pieces not included on my cassette.
It had been years since I listened to Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony by the time I was deciding whether to toss or to keep it. I remember enjoying the piece when I listened to it, but I wasn’t too swayed to upgrade it to a CD.
So it disappeared into a closet, then I forgot I even owned it.
I haven’t listened to anything else by Vaughan Williams. The only reason this album is even in my collection is because of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Michael Walsh’s biography, Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works, name-checked the London Symphony, stating the famous descending hook in The Phantom of the Opera was ripped off from Vaughan Williams.
Sure enough, the idyllic introduction of the first movement builds to an ominous descending chromatic line full of brass. The movement then turns into a Dvorakian meditation on British folk melodies. I probably wouldn’t be the first to say the symphony could also be nicknamed the Old World Symphony.
When I unearthed the Yano Akiko cassette from storage, I also revisited this piece, wondering if my opinion of it would change over time. Surprisingly enough, it hadn’t.
A London Symphony is a beautiful work — melodic, sumptuous. Thinking back, my precocious college music student self would have scoffed at a work with this much appeal, but it makes its argument to be heard and to be appreciated.
Lloyd Webber larceny aside, that chromatic line in the first movement is really a punch in the ear. The third movement scherzo ratchets up the folk dances of the English countryside to a dizzying pace, and with the big gestures of the final movement, Vaughan Williams shows Aaron Copland how it’s done in the motherland.
While I really like A London Symphony, it hasn’t quite spurred me to explore more of Vaughan Williams’ work. Sorry to say, A London Symphony is kind of like my Back in Black — the one piece I need from Vaughan Williams at the expense of everything else.
I eventually did upgrade the cassette to CD, finding a used copy in a serendipitous stroke alongside Yano Akiko.
I wouldn’t have started listening to country music if it weren’t for Emmylou Harris. Wrecking Ball was my gateway drug, and I wanted more.
But I knew it was the anomaly. Harris said as much, calling it her “weird album.”
Even though I loved Harris, I was wary about how to approach this newfound appreciation for a genre that speaks nothing at all to my experience. You can’t get any whiter than country music.
Luckily, Harris’ former label Warner Bros. made that exploration easier by releasing a three-CD, career-spanning boxed set titled Portraits. I determined Pieces of the Sky would be my next purchase, followed by Bluebird.
The boxed set left out Cowgirl’s Prayer, the first album Harris recorded for her then-new label Asylum before following up with Wrecking Ball. With so many great albums under her belt, surely Cowgirl’s Prayer would be a safe investment.
So I bought it, and while I could recognize it wasn’t bad, I wasn’t swayed enough to call it good. At the same time, I knew I didn’t have enough context. Harris had released a dozen and a half albums by the time I encountered her, and I had only five points of data up till then.
Cowgirl’s Prayer, unfortunately, did not survive the next crush for cash, and I sold it. But not without backing it up on a CD-R of MP3s.
Since falling down the black hole of vinyl collecting in 2013, I’ve made sure my analog acquisitions have digital counterparts, which meant my Emmylou Harris collection expanded greatly over the last two years.
I revisited Cowgirl’s Prayer for the first time in 14 years, and my more mature ears — educated extensively in Harris’ oeuvre — finally understood that context.
As stated by other writers many times over, Harris doesn’t really record bad albums. Cowgirl’s Prayer isn’t Pieces of the Sky, Trio, or Luxury Liner, but it’s not Ballad of Sally Rose, or Hard Bargain either. If Harris’ albums were ranked, Cowgirl’s Prayer would inhabit the upper half of that list.
She sounds reinvigorated after a lackluster turn on Brand New Dance. The eclectic song choice and pristine production could have been a product of her early days with producer Brian Ahern, while the sparser arrangements hinted at the introspective direction her music would go.
What I didn’t understand about Cowgirl’s Prayer was the fact it was a pivot. It was the last album Harris would record aimed at a mainstream country audience, but it set the template for Wrecking Ball and everything that came after.
An unlikely comparison would be Sade’s Love Deluxe. I thought the album was a dud because I wanted more of Stronger Than Pride. I didn’t realize Love Deluxe was the starting point for Lovers Rock and Soldier of Love. Of course, it took Sade eight years to clarify that point.
Wrecking Ball is definitely the album on which Harris transformed her career, but before it could happen, Cowgirl’s Prayer needed to set up the shift.
I had completely forgotten I owned this album till I spotted a 12-inch single of “The Dream Team Is in the House” while flipping through the new vinyl arrivals at Everyday Music.
L.A. Dream Team’s Kings of the West Coast signified a time in my life where I tried to get into what was cool instead of what I liked. That’s not to say I didn’t like the album at the time, but I wouldn’t have sought it out if I weren’t guided.
It was 1986, and I was graduating from 8th grade. My classmates made sure I knew how low I stood in the social order, and I was getting sick of being out of sync. So I asked my older sister, who was a lot more skilled in navigating the social minefield of school, what to do. She told me what I should be wearing, how I should be wearing it, what I should listen to and what I should avoid.
So I did what she advised, and during my freshman year in high school, I put in enough effort to appear less clueless than I was. Along with the L.A. Dream Team, my burgeoning music collection made room for Janet Jackson’s Control, Club Nouveau’s Life, Love and Pain and the first two albums by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. It worked for a time, but eventually, I got tired of radio hits and my individuality eventually won out.
In junior year, I stopped listening to radio altogether, seeking out classical music and Broadway musicals instead. By senior year, I was deep into college radio. I was forging my own sense of cool, which pretty much meant disregarding the social order of school entirely. You can’t be an outcast if you’re not even trying to be accepted.
My cassette copy of Kings of the West Coast eventually got sold for cash. The sophomore slump hit L.A. Dream Team, and by the end of the decade, they would be eclipsed by Public Enemy and N.W.A.
But the party swagger of Kings of the West Coast felt optimistic and innocent compared to what came after. No calls to fuck the police, no mentions of bitches and hos, no aggrandizing of wealth. Just a lot of great beats and a joke quote thrown in for comic relief. “Pop goes the Dream Team!”
I spotted a vinyl copy of the album at Everyday Music, and my reaction surprised me — it was fondness. My intentions for owning this album were purely calculated, but I ended up enjoying it anyway.
Automatic for the People marked the decline of my interest in R.E.M.
I’d been peripherally aware of the band since at least 1985, but it wasn’t until the local classic rock station put “Stand” on rotation that I was formally introduced.
I had recently become acquainted with 10,000 Maniacs at around the same time, and the music press made quite a deal of the relationship between Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe.
Green wasn’t the best introduction to the band, but Side A of the album set me on a course to play catch-up with R.E.M.’s indie work. By the time Out of Time arrived three years later, I was already well acquainted with Murmur, Document and Lifes Rich Pageant.
Out of Time was the soundtrack to my morning bus commute to the University of Hawaii, monopolizing my Walkman for months on end. At the time, I considered the album perfection. Everything seemed to be in balance — bright tracks (“Shiny Happy People”) offsetting darker tracks (“Country Feedback”), Mike Mills’ voice contrasting with Michael Stipe’s, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s adding a feminine touch the band was sorely lacking.
I was hopeful R.E.M. would always record albums this great.
Automatic for the People followed immediately afterward, and Rolling Stone magazine gave it a five-star review. The press leading up to the album’s release was breathless, and I bought into the hype.
I headed to the record store on release day and snagged my copy. I gave it every chance to burrow deep into my consciousness the way its predecessor did. It didn’t.
Months later, Bill Frisell and Duran Duran each released albums that fulfilled the jones I had hoped Automatic for the People would fill. I eventually concluded I was duped. It’s not a bad album, but it wasn’t five-star material.
Automatic for the People would not survive a purge for cash, and it went on my list overrated albums alongside Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinéad O’Connor.
The first pressing of the CD was housed in a jewel case with a translucent yellow tray. Back in November 2014, I ran across a used copy of Automatic for the People in excellent condition with the yellow tray. And it was selling for $1.
So I picked it up and gave it another spin. Would age and wisdom alter my opinion of the album?
It’s not as awful as I thought it was, and taking a 20-year break from the ubiquity of “Everybody Hurts” certainly helps soften my previously sharp opinion.
It still hasn’t been dislodged from the overrated list, but it was a good first lesson in skepticism. Being a fan of a band doesn’t mean blind worship for everything they do.
Before the Internet allowed listeners to try before they buy on a massive scale, music stores would set up listening kiosks for shoppers to sample a few select albums.
Of course, spots on these kiosks were available to labels who could pay for them, but I didn’t know that at the time. Given the quality of some of these selections, I could very well intuit they weren’t there solely on their merits.
100 Broken Windows by Idlewild was such a purchase. I had been living in Austin for three years at that point, and I hadn’t quite weaned myself off of Tower Records yet.
I gave a few tracks on the album a quick slice test — no more than 15 seconds for the first few tracks — to see if it would appeal to me, and luckily enough, it survived scrutiny. So I brought it home.
The album grew on me the more I listened to it, but part of me couldn’t quite picture myself being an Idlewild devotee. The band hit all the right points for me — lots of guitars, a singer with British brogue, a set of catchy songs — but I could sense I wouldn’t need more than one or two albums from them.
I had semi-consciously decided that if money got tight, 100 Broken Windows would be destined for a used CD bin. In 2002, money did get tight — I got laid off when the dot-com bubble burst, and the few bucks I got for the CD went toward petty cash.
At the same time, I knew the album wasn’t so bad that I never wanted to hear it again. So I ripped it before I let it go, then shelved the CD-ROM in the closet.
Fast forward 12 years later …
My rediscovery of vinyl spurred me to re-evaluate those decisions to let items in my collection wander off. I pulled out the CD-ROMs housing albums I sold for cash — 100 Broken Windows included — and gave them another play.
Yeah, I was dumb.
I may have never been destined to be an Idlewild fan, but I couldn’t deny being a fan of 100 Broken Windows. The album lost none of the appeal in the years since I first encountered it. To be honest, I’d find myself craving to hear “A Little Discourage” from time to time.
The album even got a reissue in the UK, supplemented with b-sides and extra tracks. I just settled to find a used copy for fewer than $5.
100 Broken Windows wasn’t the only victim of my short-sightedness. Maná’s MTV Unplugged, John & Mary’s The Weedkiller’s Daughter and Sugababes’ One Touch were albums that I liked more than I realized at the time.
At the time I sold them, I tried to picture whether ambivalence would set in years down the line. I gambled that my feelings for them would change for the worse and used that supposition to justify culling them from my collection.
John Zorn’s Naked City set me on an expedition to find as many degrees of separation from the band as I could. Tower Records published a magazine that one year included a supplement about a festival in New York City spotlighting the downtown New York scene.
From there, I learned about Robin Holcomb, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte, Marc Ribot — too many names to explore and not enough cash to get them all. And the Honolulu stores wouldn’t have carried these esoteric albums anyway.
When I learned about Last Exit, I thought, “Will this band give me a fix till whenever Naked City make a new album?” All that I read about the band — guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, saxophone player Peter Brötzman and bassist Bill Laswell — led me to believe that they would rock you the fuck out much like Naked City did.
So I picked up a cassette of Iron Path, the only studio album the quartet would record and the only album released by a major label. I might have played through it a few times, but Iron Path lacked the thing that my unsophisticated teenage ears required — hooks.
For all its chaos, Naked City was a pretty melodic band. That’s not the case with Last Exit. These guys are intense, and they can bring on a mighty mean noise that never flies completely into anarchy. But hummable, they are not.
Iron Path didn’t survive one of the regular purges I made to fund other music. That would have been some time in the early ’90s.
The next time I encountered Iron Path was in 2003. A customer at Waterloo Records asked me whether the store carried it. I had actually heard of the album, which surprised both of us.
I wouldn’t think about Iron Path till recently, when I ran across an album titled Strange Meeting by a band called Power Tools. This trio consisted of Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson. I had never heard of Power Tools, and seeing Jackson’s name in the credits reminded me of Last Exit.
Many, many months later, I would find a sealed copy of Iron Path on vinyl for what could be considered an obscene bargain. Of course, I snatched it.
The problem with precocity is sometimes premature development can be mistakenly conflated with complete development. Yes, I was the audience for an album like Iron Path, but no, not at the age of 17. 29, perhaps. 35, maybe. But not 17.
The album is playing on the turntable as I write this sentence, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it — far, far more than I did approximately a quarter of a century ago. I wanted the wrong thing out of Iron Path the first time around, and I wrongly let it go.
It’s back in my life again, and it’s a pity that it can’t be in yours without a hefty outlay of cash. Used copies for the CD go for exorbitant prices, and the streaming services don’t have it. That pretty much leaves us with YouTube.
Around 2002, I got rid of my cassette collection. I had moved into a smaller apartment, and the cassettes hadn’t been played in years. In fact, I donated the boombox with a cassette deck to Goodwill to make room.
So now I had no convenient means to play these cassettes, and most of them had made the upgrade to CD anyway. The ones that hadn’t were on their way to the cutout bin, if they weren’t already there.
I brought the cassettes to Half-Priced Books down on South Lamar and Manchaca in Austin, Texas and bid all but five farewell.
Why five? Well, I wanted to upgrade those select titles to CD eventually, but I didn’t want to relinquish ownership of them. So I kept them on cassette as a reminder to one day make that transition.
A self-titled compilation from Yano Akiko was one of them.
At the time I bought the Yano cassette, I fell down a rabbit hole of anime pop music. Megazone 23, Macross: Do You Remember Love? and Bubblegum Crisis sent me on a spending spree that introduced me to Hamada Mari, Nakamori Akina and Nagai Mariko.
Japanese imports weren’t cheap, so I gave any US-released Japanese artist a shot.
Akiko Yano, the compilation, had the unique distinction of intersecting two of my teen-aged interests — Japanese pop and downtown New York improvisation.
John Zorn and Nonesuch Records president Robert Hurwitz put together the compilation, and Yano went on to release two additional albums on the label.
My 18-year-old ears could recognize a maturity and depth to Yano’s music that maybe those anime soundtracks didn’t quite possess, but at that age, I wanted ear candy. So I listened to the cassette a few times, then headed back to Miyasato Kumi and Iijima Mari.
The cassette ended up in box, which ended up in the closet. Out of sight, out of mind. But somehow it survived two interstate moves.
Another cassette that survived the purge was Oranges and Lemons by XTC. Finding it on vinyl spurred me to seek out the remaining survivors. I fished out a 4-track recorder I bought in the early ’90s — my first piece of recording gear — and transferred them to digital files.
It had been nearly 25 years since I first listened to Akiko Yano, and now I had a decade worth of listening to Shiina Ringo, NUMBER GIRL, Cocco and Utada Hikaru under my belt.
Yano was the proto-Ringo, perhaps even the proto-UA. She took the J-pop template and embellished it with traditional Japanese music, Latin music and even some classical.
She doesn’t have the powerhouse vocals of Shiina or UA, but she predated their inventiveness. For all I know, she could have influenced them.
And being a child of the ’80s, I find something reassuring about all the analog synths that wind their way through Yano’s more conventional tracks.
I’m glad I possessed enough of my wits back in 2002 to spare Akiko Yano from the cassette purge, and it’s luck that allowed me to make that upgrade many, many years later. The CD version is out of print, and it’s not even available through the digital services. Thank you, Silver Platters, for having a used copy on hand.