by Noah Kucij
I watch a lot of cooking shows. And while I can appreciate the glamor and high technique of a five star dish gussied up for the camera, I like just as much to see great cooks take on simple pleasures. “Comfort food” brings us home, gives our palates just what they want when they want it most.
Rock has its towering masterworks too, its impossibly refined special-occasion meals, its records that ruin your whole week. And then there are those albums you know you can gorge on again and again and they’ll hit that spot. You’ve worn them out in multiple formats; they’ve seen you through good times and bad and you know them note for note. The following five are those kind of albums for me. They’re my musical mac and cheese, my tres leches cake, my poutine. Mine won’t be yours, but I guess that’s the point.
When I want to be moved and shaken, I put on Astral Weeks. But it’s one of those albums, like Blue or For Emma or Blood on the Tracks, that won’t let me off the ride when the needle hits the center spindle (or iTunes plays whatever’s next in the alphabet). It’s not an everyday listen, barely even a monthly indulgence. For a lot of listeners, Moondance is that less demanding, more stick-to-your-ribs Van Morrison, that favorite pair of jeans in the drawer. I prefer His Band and the Street Choir from the same year.
Some of the Street Choir material emerges from Astral Weeks and Moondance outtakes, either used as-is or revamped. This may be why there’s something a little more natural and fresh about this album than Moondance, which sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard – not to repeat Astral Weeks, for sure, but to be a worthy follow-up. With a little running start, and the pressure of going back into the mystic removed, this one sounds like Van and the boys are having fun. “Domino” is of course a romp from the opening licks, but there’s exuberance all over Street Choir: the James Brown homage “I’ve Been Working,” the truly sweet “Give Me A Kiss,” the porno-meets-Sesame-Street “Blue Money.” There are also slower gems, like the gorgeous gospel of “If I Ever Needed Someone,” and the story-song “Crazy Face,” which sounds like it could be at home on an early Springsteen album. The weight of those songs makes the levity of others all the sweeter, and Street Choir is Van’s most balanced work, the one I will listen to a thousand more times and probably never tire of.
2. The Roots, Organix (1993)
So much of the best hip hop is a confrontation, a challenge one way or another – it makes us wrestle with social unrest and personal darkness, and/or it gets that ass out on the floor. Organix does less of that than a lot of rap records, opting instead for a sound and a vibe you can kick back to. It’s not that The Roots’ self-released debut ignores the sharper edges of life or the further reaches of sound, or looks to sidestep them forever (Illadelph Halflife and Game Theory are sooner or later in store). But what the group had to offer in 1993 was important, too: a sprawling celebration of post-adolescent, low-rent pleasure, self-discovery and togetherness.
Black Thought is the MC here, and ?uestlove the ascending mastermind, but Organix is about inclusion and dialogue, not chest-thumping. To wit, “The Session” is a 12:43 ensemble piece in which each rapper ends his or her verse by urging on the next: “Get loose get loose [rapper’s name] get loose / And rock hard beats showin’ you got juice / And have fun, have fun, ha-ha-have fun!” Black Thought’s offbeat and undeniable lyrical gifts are on display in songs like “The Anti-Circle,” but just as vital to the album is when in that track’s last verse, bassist Leonard Hubbard suddenly plucks out the Inspector Gadget theme. And speaking of comfort food, it’s all over this record. “Pass the Popcorn” is the first full track and the phrase becomes a recurring motif, “Good Music” recounts a chicken-wing run, and the album’s standout track is “Grits,” a decadent double-entendre buffet of food and sex. It all adds up to a debut that makes you feel like you’re among friends.
It was probably 1994 when an astute coworker of my dad’s handed him a dubbed cassette of the Jayhawks’ third album and said, “Your kid likes the Black Crowes? Tell him to listen to this.” It would be years from then before I really heard Gram Parsons, the Band, the Byrds, or most of the other obvious influences that Hollywood Town Hall wears so well. For decades before and after this record, a certain idea of America would pervade pop music, one that drew its street cred from references to trains and whiskey and poker decks, from jangling guitars, moaning harmonicas, nasal twang. The problem with discussing “Americana”-branded music (or most rock, really) is that we are supposed to treat the inheritors of these tools and traditions as lesser than their forebears: It’s a cop-out to love the Crowes and the Jayhawks because the Stones and the Allmans came first. But lucky for me, I was ignorant of the linear historicity of it all when I first discovered this excellent record. And all these years later, it still sounds about as good as anything in the country-tinged rock oeuvre.
Gary Louris and Mark Olson’s two-part harmonies, and Louris’ fuzzy, fluent guitars, get their share of adoration in “alt-country” circles. But there’s also an alluringly hard-to-get quality to the songwriting, a next-diner-booth impressionism that endures hundreds of listens without getting old. “Clouds,” for instance, comes off an upbeat, amped guitar-and-organ intro with a triplet that’s long on detail if short on conventional logic: “God of the rich man ain’t the God for the poor / Autumn ending, the state hospital’s closed, and wouldn’t you know / Winos and office girls in the park.” And in the more mournful “Nevada, California,” Olson sings to whomever’s listening: “The station master is gone / And I’m your lovesick cousin who never wins / First you twist then you turn / You’re on life’s icy mountain, dear passenger.” Sure, there are Americana staples like trains and seasons and highways and cousins, but they’re all shaken up into something unexpected. Many Hollywood songs abandon predictable end-rhymes and narrative through-lines in favor of mountain-stream-of-consciousness blank-verse. But maybe that’s part of what makes this album so easy to keep in heavy rotation year after year: It treads a comfortably well-worn path, but it seems to goes someplace new every time.
I didn’t get into the Dead the way you’re supposed to, by doing two tabs of acid and taking a fourteen-minute safari through “China Cat Sunflower.” I grew up on classic rock radio, and thus I got to enjoy “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band” for what they are, which is tight, tasty pop songs that beg you to sing along. Then in tenth grade, I went to Strawberry Records and bought the $7.99 Nice Price cassette with American Beauty on one side and Workingman’s Dead on the other. There were a few months there when I just let the tape deck auto-reverse between the two albums. And from time to time I’ve enjoyed the spacier Dead, the band preserved on bootlegs who turned arenas into aquariums. But at heart I’m a song guy, and Workingman’s Dead is a great collection of songs.
Yes, the Grateful Dead are another one of those rock bands who, in times of creative need, appropriate a sound, language, and imagery that’s not entirely native to them. These are urban and suburban kids who discovered the banjo in a music store in Palo Alto. Seven years and several stylistic shifts later, they were back to that borrowed jugband sound on songs like “Cumberland Blues,” where they bellowed with very little irony: “Got to get down to the Cumberland miiiiiiiiiiine / That’s where I mainly spend my tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime / Make good money five dollars a daaaaaaaaaaaaaaay / Make any more I might move awaaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaa-aaay.” In “Dire Wolf,” in between runs on Jerry’s pedal steel, a backwoods protagonist grovels “Please don’t murder me!” to the folkloric beast that lurks in the shadows. And “New Speedway Boogie” shuffles along at the urging of handclaps and gospel cadences: “One way or another, this darkness got to give.” And then there’s the album’s title, which seems counter to the moment of “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” So why doesn’t a single note of Workingman’s sound cynical or forced? I think because everyone involved is genuinely in love with American sounds and American stories. They prove it by crafting track after track with yeomen’s effort: The playing is crisp and exuberant; Robert Hunter’s lyrics sound like they came from the dirt and the sky; Garcia’s voice is perfectly fit to sing them; the harmonies and the Pigpen vocals ice the cake. They may be playing dress-up here, but in listening to the songs, so are we. They’re not coal miners or antebellum teamsters, but neither are we. And in slipping into these songs, even forty-something years later, we find a bunch of great tunes to work and to live by.
5. Buffalo Tom, Let Me Come Over (1992)
So I know that Nirvana, the Pixies, and Jane’s Addiction supposedly “spoke for” my cohort in the very early nineties. I get that I’m not cool enough and that I missed the train. I didn’t cut myself enough as a young man. But sometimes I daydream a slightly parallel universe in which a slightly different blend of melody, noise, and angst is considered just as worth listening to. Buffalo Tom used three chords as well as any of their contemporaries, from the snarling and bouncy J. Mascis-produced Birdbrain (1990) to the Nike-commercial majesty of Big Red Letter Day (1993) and beyond. My favorite of their albums, 1992’s Let Me Come Over, achieves a certain sound that seems like it should be easier to achieve, or more ubiquitous, or more popular, or something. Whatever it is, I’m always glad to hear it again and I wish more music sounded like this.
Most of the songs layer several guitar tracks, ranging from rhythmic acoustics to feedback-drenched electrics, and with a solid rhythm section to boot, it’s a really inviting sonic nest. Because they know how to use the studio, Buffalo Tom make a lot more noise than a power-pop trio typically makes, but it’s a noise that successfully walks the tightrope between crunch and sweetness. I think they would be better regarded if either frontman Bill Janovitz or bassist and sometime singer Chris Colburn were more of a douche. But you know what? Instead of doing heroin or shooting themselves, they thought they’d just plug in the amps and play some songs. Twenty five years after forming, they still make decent tunes, and Janovitz has found a successful second act as a music journalist. It’s not the way a story about nineties rock is supposed to end, but it’s music to my ears.