Recordings | March 2016

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, March 2016 Issue.

Sam Means | Ten Songs | Hello Records | 5stars

No doubt you’ve heard the voice of Nate Ruess of fun. blasting out of your audio delivery method of choice, whether on one of his SamMeans10SONGS_1024x1024band’s trillion-selling hits, on his solo album Grand Romantic or on his equally huge duets with artists such as P!nk. But before he made any of that music, he was right here in the Valley as one half of one of the finest pop combos of the past 25 years, The Format. Tuneful and brilliant, Ruess and musical wunderkind Sam Means put out two instant-classic albums before calling it quits in 2008. The tears flowed mightily in my home, friends. Screams of “first Jellyfish and now this?!” echoed through many a heartsick canyon and crevasse.

Means has kept a (relatively) low profile these past few years, but his talent has only grown, and he’s back with a truly extraordinary set of tunes with the unassuming title Ten Songs. Ten Gems, maybe, should’ve been the title, because these are treasures right here in a very real sense.

And secret treasures, a bit. If you don’t know The Format and only know Ruess from fun., you might be expecting that band’s signature bombast and sing-for-the-bleachers roar. The glory of Means (and the thing that brought balance to the Force, er, The Format) is his gift for crafting and singing intimate, gorgeous shadow-box tales and haunting, seductive melodies that work their way into your sonic DNA.

There is no word but “Nilsson-esque” for the album’s opener, “How To Sing,” a perfect chamber-pop miniature that would put a smile on Harry’s face from here to eternity. “We’re Alone” manages to sound totally contemporary and yet also a bit like “Sunflower” -era Beach Boys. “Other Side Of You” breaks out the fuzz pedal for some catchy, punchy melody that can’t miss. I mean, okay, if you hate melody and catchiness you won’t like it.

Ten Songs reunites most of the team responsible for The Format’s great final album, Dog Problems, including producer Steven McDonald (who, um, yeah, is also in a teensy little legendary band called Redd Kross); Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (of the aforementioned late, lamented Jellyfish) provides the brilliant arrangements. And Means brings the best songs, warm and winning and intimate and honest and beautiful. Welcome back, Sir.

Game Theory | Lolita Nation | Omnivore Records | 5stars

Ah, the Recording Industry, how we love it! Oh, all hail the many treasures it has given us, merely by stealing the life’s work of gametheorylolitanationbrilliant creative artists, lashing them to a hideous meat-grinding monstrosity right out of H.R. Giger and forcing them to feed their own souls to the beast! Usury-based contracts! Bloated, clueless executives! Mountains of drugs, private jets, payola! Treachery, bigotry, megalomania! No wonder true artists all go insane and change their name to unpronounceable symbols.

So, um, how was your week?

The diatribe actually applies not to your humble reviewer, but to the sad story of Game Theory, the brilliant, singular 1980s rock band whose work has been kept from public view for decades due to … well, you understand, kid, it’s just business. In their prime, for a brief moment they threatened to break out as big as contemporaries REM, U2 et al. Founded in 1982, the band essentially invented the thing we sometimes call “nerd rock” – catchy melodies, highly literate references to deep culture (say, Finnegan’s Wake) and pop culture (say, Star Trek).

But Scott Miller, the founder and leader of Game Theory, was no chipper, quirky pop-rock Steve Urkel, wearing us down with his big heart and gorgeous, longing vocals. John Nash almost comes to mind—the late mathematician who was the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind. Miller didn’t share Nash’s affliction, but each man’s work and life’s struggle grew out of the kind of complexities that are almost impossible for anyone not similarly afflicted to comprehend. Maybe that’s true of all of us, but Miller’s masterpiece, Lolita Nation, is back after too long away, to remind us of the staggering power and terror of unrestrained genius. All this from a band generally filed under “Power Pop.”

This is a daring record, originally a 2-vinyl LP set in an era when double albums were dismissed as a throwback to bloaty ‘70s prog-rock days. But over the staggering 27 songs on Lolita Nation, Miller and the band combines heartbreakingly powerful melody with an intellect like none seen in rock before or since. The sheer volume of musical, mathematical, and literary references could keep researchers busy for weeks, and though they exist in all his work, they were never thrown down quite so fiercely, mercilessly as they are here: he dares you to “get it” and could care less if you don’t. Or so he wants you to think.

Like many who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Miller seemed to find the idea of success – of actually communicating and reaching someone, let alone “career” success – a hopeless cause. The music tries to hold you at arm’s length, too, but it’s an intensely rewarding listen to peel away the layers and find yourself in Game Theory’s world. There are easier ways in – try their earlier LPs for a more accessible, melodic starter – but this is the pinnacle of what the art of pop music could be at the time.

The legend has grown thanks to Omnivore records; the original 27 tracks are joined by an amazing 21 more, ranging from hilarious and bizarre covers (Joy Division, Bowie, The Smiths, the Stoogers) to highly tasty “lost” rarities.

We lost Scott Miller in 2013. He was a beautiful soul, and he shines his brightest on Lolita Nation. Go on, jump in, I dare you.

David Bowie | Recordings_Blackstar_Image (pronounced “backstair”) | ISO | ten billion trillion stars

By now, the death of David Bowie will be old news. So too, his astonishing final curtain: releasing his last, and arguably best, Blackstar-vinylartistic statement on his 69th birthday – and then vanishing into death a mere 48 hours later, from a disease his closest friends didn’t even know he had. If you care, you’ve probably already heard the record, or at least dived into his grand, unequalled catalog of music and movies and art. And if you don’t care, you won’t care. It’s old news.

And here we put in legal force those words Arthur Miller wrote so long ago on “Death Of A Salesman – attention. must. be. payed.”

Our art and our media tells a great deal about what we value as a culture. What that is, mostly, is youth – or the illusion, the lie of youth. Youth as propaganda. Youth as control. Youth as an aspirational identity, a thing you never had and can never get. A thing made up and sold by middle-aged people in a room, ruefully looking back on a never-was and saying “ah, the olden days were such simpler times.” If you’re young, or you’re awake enough to still remember, you know that nothing about youth is simple and easy. It’s not boppy and strong and full of money and fun and good looks. But we’re sold that. From 8 to 80, we’re sold the lie that all that matters is being, or pretending to be, 15.

David Bowie discovered he had a terminal illness. After a career in which he achieved everything an artist and performer could want, hundreds of times over. He could have simply retired, spent his last days with family and gone to his rest. He could have gone public and been wrapped in the admiration and love we’ve all given him since he’s been gone. Instead he went to work. He did what he always did: he poured his experiences, his perspective, his hopes and fears into an album that literally is a primer on how to face death. It is brave, selfless, daring. It was a gift. A thank you to those who walked this road with him. A handbook for what lies ahead for all of us. Only one other artist in memory, the late Warren Zevon, faced his death while still openly and willingly giving himself and his work to the world. Bowie’s courage here is enormous, but so is the haunting, exhilarating, terrifying and irresistible music. Bowie’s life was like that. He taught us all to dare to go in unexpected directions, to follow our own star. Maybe you don’t need this album today. Maybe it’s just too hard to say goodbye to someone whose example helped liberate LGBTQ people and helped liberate all people from the straitjacket of life’s expectations. But maybe a time will come when it will be a tremendous help and comfort. As always, Bowie’s just gone on ahead of us to scout the way. Seek out Blackstar.