Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.
Another month, another collection of cheap, yet excellent music from Amazon. This time around, we’ll be looking at a soul legend, some of the earliest efforts of some hip-hop superstars, and a power pop album given a new lease on life. (All of these albums were on sale as of the week of September 2, 2012.)
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Buy Now)
In 1970, Marvin Gaye was reeling from the death of his longtime singing partner Tammi Terrell and growing disillusioned with the state of pop music in light of current world events, specifically the Vietnam War. He wanted to record music that reflected the tumultuous times and caused people to sit down and really think about, well, what’s going on. The result of this desire would be one of the most acclaimed, celebrated, and beloved albums of all time.
What’s Going On deals with such heavy topics as environmental abuse, drug addiction, social unrest and upheaval, and of course, the Vietnam War, but it’s not a gloomy album. Gaye sings like a man reborn, regardless of whether he’s begging for respect in an increasingly divisive society, lamenting the ravages of unemployment and heroin, or singing of God’s love. Musically, What’s Going On is as graceful as can be, blending elaborate and soaring string arrangements with the deep groove of Motown’s Funk Brothers.
I rarely call albums “perfect,” but What’s Going On is about as perfect as can be. This is especially true with the first six songs, which cohere into a musical odyssey that chronicles the darkest aspects of 70’s-era America and becomes a stunning, soulful plea for love, peace, and healing that has lost none of its impact in 40 years.
OutKast – ATLiens (Buy Now)
Long before “Ms. Jackson”, “B.O.B”, and “Hey Ya!”, the duo of André 3000 and Big Boi broke through with ATLiens, and though it was only their second album, it revealed OutKast as something truly unique and inimitable. Far from exhibiting the normal type of machismo and swagger that, for better or worse, has often been associated with hip-hop music, ATLiens found OutKast getting, well, out there.
The album’s songs are slow, deep, and psychedelic, full of fascinating production and an eclectic mix of samples ranging from Dutch progressive rock bands to Super Mario Bros. And though the lyrics, delivered with considerable flow by the duo, often seem more stream of consciousness than anything else, there are moments that really cut to the quick. “Jazzy Bells” criticizes women who sleep around and try to get with the duo and their friends, even as André 3000 and Big Boi admit that they might be part of the problem, and need to make sure they raise their own daughters right. “Mainstream” criticizes those who do everything to get ahead in life, only to find their lives are empty and meaningless.
In all, it’s a fascinating listening experience that reveals new layers, sonically and lyrically, with each listen.
Sugar – File Under: Easy Listening (Buy Now)
If you listened to college rock in the early 1990s, then you were likely well-acquainted with Sugar. The band, led by former Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould, played aggressive-yet-catchy guitar rock that was marked by incredible melodies, interesting atmospherics, and Mould’s intense vocals and heart-on-sleeve lyrics. File Under: Easy Listening was the band’s final album, and by far it’s most accessible and immediate album.
Songs like “Your Favorite Thing” and “Gee Angel” seem almost overly simple, but there’s something refreshing about how straightforward they are. They reveal the truth that sometimes all you really need is guitar, bass, and drums to make great pop music. But Mould’s songwriting is such that even these songs contain hidden aspects — an unforeseen melodic hook here, a vocal phrase there — that push them in exciting directions. (Mould has admitted to being a My Bloody Valentine fan, and you can detect an MBV-esque influence in how Mould layers his guitars and vocals.) It all leads up to “Explode and Make Up”, an anti-ballad ballad that drips with anger and regret as Mould rages against a relationship gone horribly awry.
The version currently on sale is the two-disc reissue from earlier this year that includes The Joke Is Always on Us, Sometimes, a live recording from November 2, 1994.