Sound Selections

TRML’s Sound Selections #12

Elvis Costello - King of America

The Costello Show – King of America

Over his career, Elvis Costello has released 32 albums ranging in style, making it hard to pick one to feature first for TRML’s Sound Selections. Ultimately, after some deep soul searching, I went with King of America. Elvis’ 1986 outing is a country album distilled through the eyes of a kid from England (with the help of the legendary T Bone Burnett). It’s an album that ranges from folk to rock and uses the country “twang” like bit of spice, flavoring the songs here and there to give them a bit of added character. Some songs are “spicier” than others (Glitter Gulch, anyone), but no matter how flavorful the songs get, it always sounds like an Elvis Costello album and never Elvis Costello emulating others. Even the Nina Simone cover, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” is made his own and doesn’t sound like a simple cover. It’s an album that shows Elvis’ range as a songwriter and a musician and is a shining example of his artistic capabilities.

King of America is by far my favorite Elvis Costello album. He has many great albums, some of which are probably more accessible and a better introduction to his music than King of America, but for me this album is where it’s at. Besides the interesting country infusion, the songs are all very well written, with some of the best wordplay you’ll ever hear. My personal favorite track is “Indoor Fireworks,” which deliciously alludes to the various parts of a fireworks display to describe a struggling relationship. The wordplay in that song is a masterclass in molding one concept around the skeleton of another to create a whole piece. Really this whole album can be seen as a masterclass in songwriting. Elvis has always had a knack for writing interesting lyrics that, when heard, you know are his. This album is an excellent example of that skill and well worth a listen.

TRML’s Sound Selections #11

The Faint - Danse Macabre

The Faint – Danse Macabre

The Faint’s third outing, Danse Macabre, came out at a time when it seemed like the Saddle Creek record label could do no wrong; where everything it released was gold. This album, possibly The Faint’s best known album, has an interesting dichotomy between the sound of the songs versus the lyrical content. As the album title implies, the songs are largely dancey, with lots of driving beats and synth breaks throughout. However, these songs are DARK and not your typical dance floor fodder. Right off the bat, the album opens with Agenda Suicide, a song about people working themselves to death to maintain a certain lifestyle. Blaring synths, beats that could get any crowd jumping, and possibly the best whispered screaming recorded, all set the tone for the next eight tracks. It’s dire, but not to make you depressed or offer console because your mom took your Switch away. No. Instead you’ll find yourself thinking about society, how we are treated, and how others different from us are treated. It’s not “my life sucks,” but rather “life sucks and we all need to understand each other to survive.”

I find this album wanders onto my turntable more than any other by The Faint. Their other albums are also excellent in their own ways, but Danse Macabre, for me, is a solid dark wave album that is both easily digestible sonically, but gives you something to chew on lyrically. It’s not an album one can just “throw on” and have in the background – at least not for me. When I decide I’m going to listen to this album, I’m looking for something that’ll rock but also really engage the ol’ noggin and make me think. And while there are a lot of albums that match that criteria, this one is one of my favorites and I’d reckon it’ll be one of yours too when you hear it.  

TRML’s Sound Selections #10

Jonathan Coulton - Artificial Heart

Jonathan Coulton – Artificial Heart

Artificial Heart was Jonathan Coulton’s first official studio album. Previously he had released his “Thing-A-Week” compilation and a live album, but this was his first LP written as a cohesive entity. Produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, Artificial Heart maintains some of the humor Jonathan was known for in his previous works, but shows a definite maturity in his songwriting. Sure, you have the humor of “The Stache” and “Je Suis Rick Springfield”, but you also have songs like the darkly beautiful “Now I’m an Arsonist” and the regretful word of warning that is “Today With Your Wife” to balance out the tone. I’d even go as far as to say the “silly” songs that appear humorous on the surface hide a knot of complex emotions underneath.

I have listened to this album so many times I practically have it memorized. It’s one of those albums that really shaped my early foray into writing music. I’d sit there and pick it apart to try and figure out the secret sauce of WHY it’s so good. There are a lot of little things that one can attribute to its success, but ultimately I feel it’s so good because it’s RELATABLE. I believe that everyone can find a little something of their own experiences in these 18 songs. Whether it’s grappling with adulthood, navigating the grind of the 9-5, or hoping to be noticed, everyone has a little Artificial Heart in them. Even murderous computers…  

TRML’s Sound Selections #9

Beck – One Foot in the Grave

Recorded before his mainstream breakout Mellow Gold but released AFTER, One Foot in the Grave is, to me, peak anti-folk Beck. It’s far less experimental than Stereopathetic Soulmanure and is a bit more “down-to-earth” and folksy than Mellow Gold. It feels like it’s Beck and his friends sitting around in a basement studio having fun recording takes. It doesn’t include many (if ANY) overdubs and is clearly an example of  “this is the best take, move on” style of production, which I feel this gives the album its charm. 

This is by far my favorite Beck album, which is saying something since I am quite the Beck fan. To me this album shows that perfection isn’t required when your heart is in it and you’re HAVING FUN. It’s made even better in the expanded edition Beck released on his own label a few years ago. It includes 16 MORE tracks (including an early version of “It’s All in Your Mind” and a studio version of the foot-stompin’ “One Foot in the Grave.” It further exemplifies that Beck was quickly evolving at this time and wore his influences on his sleeve as he grew into the icon he is today.

TRML’s Sound Selections #8

Lou Reed - New Sansations

Lou Reed – New Sensations

Lou’s 1984 outing is deceptively peppy. Sure, it has that 80s sheen, but once you unwrap the shiny plastic it’s everything we’d expect from Lou: thoughtfully gritty lyrics and killer guitar work. It feels like it is just commercial enough to sell (and sell it did, being one of his best selling albums to date) but Lou doesn’t compromise his artistic integrity for the numbers. The sound of this album has an arena rock feel and could stand up with peers like the Boss or Mellencamp, but has an intimacy that brings it right back to the living room. You have your big drums and chorus of backup singers, but you also have Lou’s delicate guitar work bringing the sound in close and tying everything together.

It’s absolutely no secret that I’m a huge Lou Reed fan. It was difficult for me to pick which album of his I’d feature first. I went with New Sensations because it would be one that’s least expected and possibly new territory for some. Hell, pretty much anything between Street Hassle and New York could qualify. Lou’s 80s output is often overshadowed by everything that came before and after. It’s not the experimental or glam of the seventies, and it’s not the bluesy grit of New York onward. It’s just Lou being Lou in a neon soundscape, adding that bit of that grimy character that a lot of the mainstream music of the 80s seemed to lack.

TRML’s Sound Selections #7

south of reality

The Claypool Lennon Delirium – South of Reality

I feel South of Reality is one of those albums that few people know exist. I’m not sure WHY I feel that, but I do. It might not be true (probably isn’t), but I never hear anybody mention this band when talking about either frontman’s work. It was released to (what felt like) limited fanfare in 2019 but it’s an album that any jam/psych/prog fan should hear. The second outing from their collaboration, Les Claypool and Sean Lennon bring a deep dive into a mind-bending world where both songwriters take turns guiding you through nine tracks that are both sonically twisted and surprisingly grounded at the same time. All of the songs are rockers, for sure, with Sean’s powerful solos slicing and dicing over Wes’s signature bass stylings. Mix in smooth-yet-driving drums and some well-placed keyboards, and you have the recipe for a truly solid psychedelic romp.

I first heard of The Claypool Lennon Delirium when I saw the Flaming Lips were coming to town and TCLD was opening. Before the show I binged their albums and was totally digging it all. When it came time to see them live, I found they really like to jam, which is awesome, and Sean and Wes have a great rapport that often had the audience in stitches. It was a great set (full of South of Reality numbers, as well as one Primus jam and one John Lennon cover/jam) and solidified me as a fan. True story: after their set, while the Lips were setting up, TCLD’s keyboardist came down to the backstage gate (it was at a small outdoor amphitheater) and did a casual meet and greet. I shook his hand and complimented him on his choice of hat… I felt it was the right thing to say. 

TRML’s Sound Selections #6

Paul Simon - Paul Simon

Paul Simon – Paul Simon

Paul Simon’s second solo outing (and his first post-Garfunkel) is one of the most solid folk albums ever. Yes, it’s largely acoustic, but it’s not completely acoustic AND varies folk styles to make it so much more than just a dude and a guitar. And the songwriting… Talk about a masterclass in song structure and storytelling. I mean, Simon WAS a songwriting teacher at NYU in the early 70s, so I’d say he knows a BIT about good songwriting. This album contains a few of his greatest hits that are still on radio rotation to this day: “Mother and Child Reunion” opens side one with a world feel that’s rounded out with an americana sound. Side two opens with the supremely catchy “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” which besides being an extremely FUN song, is a killer guitar jam. Beyond the radio hits, you’ll find gems like “Duncan,” which is a quieter number (yes, dude with guitar) that really flexes Paul’s songwriting chops. I also recommend “Paranoia Blues,” which (as the name implies) is a bluesy number that’ll really have you tapping your toes.

This album is definitely my go-to album for when I have a hankering for some Paul Simon tunes. “Me and Julio…” is one of my favorite songs of all time and is definitely one of my top picks for an acoustic guitar jam song (Bowie’s “Andy Warhol” being another). It’s also a good album for me to throw on when I just want SOMETHING playing and can’t really decide what. It’s like an old pair of jeans: well worn but it fits PERFECTLY.

TRML’s Sound Selections #5

The Sugarcubes - Life's Too Good

The Sugarcubes – Life’s Too Good

Did you know that before being well-known as a solo artist, Bjork was in a rock band? If you’re a regular reader of this then the answer is very likely “yes.” (I assume my audience supports their Bjork.) But, if you are new to the TRML scene (yes, it’s totally a scene now because I say it is) you might be wondering what, possibly, could Bjork in a band sound like? Well, think if the B-52s took acid, cranked up their amps, and really let their hair down. Then you’d be close. The Sugarcubes first album, Life’s Too Good, is an avant-garde power pop romp with songs that range from fun and witty to heartfelt, with song compositions that keep one’s attention and never lets the listener get bored. And yes, as with her solo career, Bjork’s amazing voice is very much on display as a key instrument, clearly helping to define the sound of the band.

It will surprise no one when I say I’m an avid Bjork fan. However, it might surprise you to know I didn’t discover The SugarCubes until a good while after I had made a deep dive into her solo work. To me that is a good thing because this album, while excellent, is not what I’d call a gateway into her solo works. Why? Because it’s too rock oriented and not nearly experimental enough. While yes, there are some bits of experimentation in the music, you’re not going to find things like a mic’d-up tray of salt here. But that’s fine. The pop world wasn’t quite ready for that yet. But what they WERE ready for is a collection of quirky rock songs that look back while at the same time push forward into what would be a VERY interesting decade of music. 

TRML’s Sound Selections #4

Neil Young – Trans

Trans is an album that answers the burning question: “What if someone gave Neil Young a vocoder?” Sure, the opening track is light country jam that’s par for the course for Neil’s output thus far (i.e. up until 1983). However, that track is nothing more than a ruse to lull the unsuspecting listener into comfort before the rug is pulled out from under them. “Ah yes, good ol’ Neil. This sounds right.” You might think. But NO! The Second track comes in and leads the listener on a weird techno journey through Neil’s neon world. Now it’s synth and vocoder everywhere. EVERYWHERE (also rockin’ guitars). He’s using more vocoders than Kraftwerk even. In fact, it’s almost like he heard Kraftwerk’s Computer World (which came out two years prior in ’81) and said “I wanna do THAT.” Now, track one on side two is also a “safe” song in the form of a quasi-retro rocker, but once that’s out of the way it’s back to the vocoder, baby! Ok, MOSTLY back to the vocoder as side B contains two non-vocoder songs, but we can let it slide because the third non-vocoder song is quite solid. This is an album that was WAY ahead of its time. I’m sure many Neil fans were shocked to hear this when it first came out. Nowadays stuff like this is pretty common and you can hear the influence of this album in acts like The Faint, who have taken this sound and updated it for a new era.   

I was first turned onto this album by my buddy Jeff Soule, whom I worked with on my Synthetic Man single. He mentioned my song reminded him of this album. I hadn’t known this album existed and, upon seeking it out and hearing it for the first time, was blown away. It’s strange and it’s rockin’ and it’s a fun listen from start to finish. Kudos to Neil for really breaking from genre conventions and putting together this weird experiment for the world. 

Other acts around this time were also experimenting with synth, but leave it to Neil to go whole hog and make an album like Trans. It’s an oddity for sure, especially considering all his other works, but it’s an oddity that arguably broke ground and paved the way for synth rock as we know it today.  

TRML’s Sound Selections #3

AM/FM – Getting Into Sinking

Getting Into Sinking is an album of perfectly crafted folk-ish emo-ish tunes. I say “ish” because it never goes full-on folk or emo but pulls itself back just before it crosses that line. The songs are acoustic-centric, but also incorporate loads of electric to create a moody yet hopeful feel. Lyrically the songs are quite often about love or relationships, but aren’t all crying-in-your-blueberry-muffin sad. They’re more “awkward youth” emo versus “I’m sad. Everything is sad” emo. “It’s also an album with something of a mellow vibe, almost chill, which is hinted at in the album artwork of the band hanging out on a beach. Oh! I also have to point out the neat album “looping” feature which, if allowed to restart automatically, segues the end of the last track into the beginning of the first track. This obviously doesn’t work on vinyl, but instead the segue parts act more like the ends of a bow, tying the whole album up into a neat little package.

I’m not sure when exactly I learned about AM/FM. I believe -and don’t quote me on this- that I saw them at a show opening for Atom and His Package (Brian Sokel is Adam’s good friend and now bandmate and is 1/2 of AM/FM). However, my memory of that concert is a bit hazy so I’m not sure exactly who all I saw that night. I do know that I learned about them via Atom in the early 00s, so there’s that. The vinyl version you see in the image is actually the second copy of the album I’ve purchased. Back in the day I had a CD copy, but that got scratched too badly and is now full of skips. I then stumbled upon the then-unknown-to-me vinyl copy tucked away in the punk section at a local record store. I was thrilled to have it again, especially on vinyl!

For me, this album is one I love to throw on when I want a nice relaxing album in my ears. I used to listen to it on snowy mornings while riding the train into the city to my college. It just pairs really well with falling snow. Maybe it’s the sleigh bells? I dunno. It just works, though. Definitely give it a listen and see for yourself.