This Exit: Matthew Sweet is the Jackson Browne of grunge-era, “Alternative” power-pop. Based on one’s opinion of Jackson Browne and/or Matthew Sweet, this claim invites various interpretations. To me, Jackson Browne is a master of sensitive, confessional songwriting whose only artistic weakness might be his penchant for and desire to top the charts. It’s ironic, because creating chart-topping FM hits might be what he is most known for, the reason his music was heard in the first place, and why his songs are still played on the radio today, but I don’t think he was ever as good at being commercially relevant as he is at writing songs. Lyrically, Jackson Browne’s forty-plus-years of writing has produced hardly a dud, but two-thirds of this recorded catalog are wrapped up in albums that few new to his music might discover or celebrate, due largely to the fact that they seem dated. Two of Browne’s most recent releases, 2005’s Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 and 2008’s Solo Acoustic Vol. 2, dually demonstrate what a masterful writer and performer he actually is, and how easily he could have derided his FM career were he to ever create an entire studio album as sparsely produced as these two collections. The only times Browne’s albums seem as concerned with framing the songs as simply and respectfully as they deserve to be treated was in the 1970’s, when the sounds of an acoustic guitar and piano were still fashionable.
Sweet’s 1990’s discography doesn’t boast as impressive a string of classics as enduring as Browne’s 1970’s, and little on the poetic level to match near what Browne offers on the trilogy of masterpieces spanning 1974’s Late For The Sky, 1976’s The Pretender, and 1977’s Running On Empty, but 1991’s Girlfriend, 1993’s Altered Beast, and 1995’s 100% Fun certainly qualifies him among the most talented, sensitive, and accomplished singer-songwriters to emerge during that Nirvana era. Songs like “Someone To Pull The Trigger,” “You Don’t Love Me,” and “Until You Break,” (from 1997’s Blue Sky On Mars) will be there for fans of the craft of self-reflexive, confessional song poetry to discover for generations without disappointing. If Matthew Sweet ever decides to present a solo-acoustic career retrospective, it will be obvious that his more significant role and contribution comes as a singer and a songwriter, and less as a hit-making purveyor of “Alternative” power-pop.
This Exit: ”People get too famous too fast these days and it destroys them,” said Bob Dylan to Cameron Crowe in the exhaustive and generous liner note interview accompanying the release of the songwriting icon’s 1985 Biograph boxed-set. ”Some guys got it down—Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed, secret heroes—John Prine, David Allen Coe, Tom Waits, I listen more to that kind of stuff than whatever is popular at the moment. It’s embarrassing to reveal that it took myself sixteen years to become exposed to Bob Dylan and his music. Of course, I’d heard his name, and it was as familiar and historically important as Abraham Lincoln’s, but I couldn’t say I knew any of his songs, and I hadn’t heard his music. It’s not the kind of thing my parents were listening to around the house, and it was the furthest thing from anything in which my peers were interested. But, like the story of millions of other self-discovering post-Kerouac youths since his emergence in the early 60’s, finding his music and persona represented the end of one part of my life and the development of the beginning of another—two sides of a white-picket fence in the suburbs.
The first one of Dylan’s songs that made me tilt my head toward the speakers like the RCA Victor dog was 1964’s “All I Really Want To Do.” Raised on American Pop Standards, Billy Joel, and the rest of the commercial FM radio hit-making machine, this song was simply the oddest, funniest, saddest, worst, and most brilliant composition I’d heard in my life up to that point. Because of the way my parents reacted to the acceptance speech Dylan delivered at the 1991 Grammy Awards after Jack Nicholson presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, I was curious to purchase (for five-dollars in a bargain bin at Nobody Beats The Wiz in Carle Place, Long Island) a Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits cassette. ”He’s drunk!” my parents howled disapprovingly at the television. ”Andrew,” they conceded, “you can’t understand how sad it is, a man who was so smart! Look at what drinking and drugs and the 60’s did to him!” I was enthralled, loved every word, and especially the long pauses. It was the first time I’d seen him in action, heard him speak, or heard him do anything, for that matter, and from my perspective there couldn’t have been a more perfect introduction. He was strange, pulsing at the podium with something I never yet witnessed from a person, and there began the study. Shortly after reading the liner notes of his Biograph boxed-set, which I owned just a few weeks later, I began rummaging through the bargain bins for Leonard Cohen, John Prine, David Allen Coe, Lou Reed, and Tom Waits cassettes, too—all of the “secret heroes.”
Sinatra At The Sands With Count Basie And The Orchestra
This Exit: Songs from The American Popular Songbook are certainly what I’ve been listening to for the longest period of my life thus far, dating back as far as I can remember, and undoubtedly before that. My father, a singer who earned his degree in vocal studies from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in 1970, always had Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Diane Schuur records playing in the house, among others, but Frank Sinatra was our favorite. On weekends, we’d listen to Jonathan Schwartz’s “Saturday With Sinatra” radio program—first on WNEW in New York, and then when it moved to WQEW—like it was a sporting event. (Mr. Schwartz still broadcasts every weekend from the studios in WNYC in New York City, and it hits everywhere else on XM satellite radio. I still listen to every show. Without Jonathan Schwartz telling me what the weather feels and looks like during the weekdays, the weather in New York City really doesn’t seem to be happening at all.) Sinatra’s most profound vocal contribution, according to my father, was in his phrasing. ”He sangs in a conversational tone,” he told me, “and that broke all the rules!” During Sinatra’s lifetime, he released a prolific sixty-six original albums, ten of them live recordings. Of all, and if we were forced to select only one, my father proclaims that Sinatra At The Sands With Count Basie And The Orchestra is the one to go into a cultural time capsule, and the best example of Sinatra the singer, the persona, the entertainer, and the myth. I second the selection, and it must be a testament to the artistry, cool, and permanence of this singer (and the singers of the American Popular Songbook, in general) that a son could span four decades (and counting) without once rejecting an interest in a music experience shared with his father since childhood. An additional note: Disc 2 of 2006’s 4-CD + 1 DVD “Sinatra: Vegas” boxed set contains the ornery, inebriated late show from this very same classic evening with the Count Basie Orchestra at The Sands.
This Exit: The eccentric, artful current that Leo Kottke employs to inform his somewhat odd and intellectual approach to playing Delta and Piedmont influenced six- and twelve-string acoustic guitar comes to a head in “Buzzby,” a half-boogie-slide-guitar-spoken-song-poem from his 1990 album, That’s What. Kottke, who began his recording career in 1969 with the live album 12-String Blues (recorded at a Minneapolis folk club called The Scholar), was embraced early on by the even more eccentric and artful (albeit lesser known) fingerstyle master John Fahey, who released its follow up the next year, the classic Six & Twelve String Guitar, on his Takoma record label. Primarily known as an instrumentalist throughout a long career since then, the few times where Kottke actually does sing—from the tongue-in-cheek Tom T. Hall gem “Pamela Brown“on 1974’s Ice Water, to “Buzzby,” which sounds like Primus’s “Tommy The Cat” dragging itself along the shoulder of the Interstate after being hit by Tom Wait’s “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today“—Kottke’s baritone always brings with it a satisfying glimpse deeper into the self-taught virtuoso’s inner-oddball. On the other end of the spectrum, Kottke supplied textbook gorgeous slide-guitar playing and sensitive backing vocals sprinkled throughout Rickie Lee Jones’ 1993 album, Traffic From Paradise, and then invited Jones to produce his 1994 album,Peculiaroso.
This Exit: Since the inception of the nine-piece jazz-rock fusion band in 1967, Blood, Sweat & Tears have endured a staggering amount of personnel changes (as of 2008, there have been 130 official members on record), playing out more like a modern-day baseball roster than a rock outfit. The band’s most well-known lead singer was its first, Al Kooper, whose legend is arguably more celebrated for crashing Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited studio sessions in 1965 and offering his lack of familiarity for the organ, most notably on the groundbreaking hit “Like A Rolling Stone” (whose eerie excitement is characterized and driven by Kooper’s unsure riff), but the pipes most inexorably linked to the legacy of the band were lent by David Clayton-Thomas, who replaced Kooper in 1968. Blood, Sweat & Tears are less known for easygoing, contemplative ballads like “Cowboys And Indians,” and celebrated more for the dynamic, brassy arrangements treated chart-toppers like Clayton-Thomas’s own “Spinning Wheel,” Berry Gordy and Brenda Holloway’s ”You’ve Make Me So Very Happy,” and Laura Nyro’s ”And When I Die,” but like the vocal stylings of the tragic Terry Kath during the early 1970’s incarnation of Chicago—arguably the more famous jazz-rock fusion band of its day, and perhaps the Yankees to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Mets—I find the subdued, honey-gospel purr of Clayton Thomas’s ballads more exciting, driven, inviting, and less predictable than the obvious power contained in his soul-joy exaltations, however impressive his singing on those tracks may be. Refer to Clayton-Thomas’s masterful interpretation of Richard Manuel’s “Lonesome Suzie” for another example his genius for restraint.
This Exit: In the suburbs on Long Island, Billy Joel is the working-class bard. He is what Springsteen is to New Jersey and Woody Guthrie to the rest of America—a hero and a heritage. His legacy will likely select 1977’s The Stranger as his best. In my opinion, his best is 1983’s An Innocent Man, while his “coolest” is 1980’s Glass Houses (“If Johnny Cash is ‘The Man In Black,’” wrote Chuck Klosterman in Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, “then Billy Joel is ‘The Man In Burnt Orange’”), with 1986’s The Bridgehis most mature. None of these albums, however, are brilliant. The least known Billy Joel album is his first, Cold Spring Harbor, released in 1971 to minimal fanfare and a now famous mastering error that slowed everything down, altering the sound of Joel’s voice and nearly doubling the length of each song. Listen It contains the original version of the classic “She’s Got A Way,” a subsequent live recording of which topped the charts in 1981 when it was reintroduced on Songs In The Attic, a collection of live material. I’ve outgrown my dependency for his melodramatic pop ballads, and my connection with his vast songbook has been reduced to nostalgia, but there are moments on Cold Spring Harbor (like “Turn Around,” “Got To Begin Again,” and the instrumental “Nocturne”) when the twenty-two-year-old songwriter accompanying himself on piano (the overdubs were introduced along with the corrected speed when the album was remastered in 1983 for Columbia Records) displays a bleakness and apparent lack of concern for FM radio hit-making and pop idolatry that is perennial, and like nothing he ever recorded again.
The Drive: While Blue Light Red Light certainly doesn’t compare with the masterful swagger Frank Sinatra treated 1957’s Come Fly With Me, or the sophistication Ella Fitzgerald offered her Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson album (for which she received a Best Solo Vocal Performance GRAMMY in 1962), it is an ambitious and worthwhile achievement, especially given the fact that the twenty-four-year-old wrote or co-wrote all of the tunes, played piano throughout, and arranged and orchestrated the entirety of the album. The obvious comparison, Randy Newman, was a year older when he penned, played piano, arranged, and orchestrated the songs on his debut record in 1968, Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun. If Blue Light doesn’t deliver the headiness of that or any other Newman album, it’s because it doesn’t strive to, but “Jill” can just about hold its own against a Newman classic like “Living Without You” and “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” just in terms of its fragility and the utter grip it keeps on the listener.