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The March Rotation

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March is the time to shake off the rust, stretch out the limbs, and find out how much fuel the old cagey veterans have left in the tank. One of my starting five won't be breaking camp with the rest in April, I'm afraid.

Wilco, Star Wars (2015)

A few years ago, writing about previous Wilco work, I argued that track one, side one still mattered. It's the opening statement for an entire album (for those of us who still listened to entire albums). Wilco has done it again with last year's Star Wars. The opening track "EKG" is like the tiny unexpected appetizer placed in front of you as you take your seat at the restaurant you've been anticipating for months. It's also weird, as rock music goes: It's instrumental, for one, it's extremely short, and it's packed with odd time signatures, off-kilter chords, wobbly rhythms, then resolution into a muscular engine-revving chorus. Total ear candy.

The rest of Star Wars isn't far behind. The voiced cousin of "EKG" is "Pickled Ginger," with delicious fuzzed-out power chords that build tension without percussion. The drums snap in soon enough, and then crackling guitar that trades chops with Jeff Tweedy's terse lines. Star Wars isn't all fist-pumping rock. Layered across many of its songs is a sliding swooping guitar sound, more wistful than blue -- what I think of as the George Harrison sound. Tweedy often sings of the pain of relationships, inseparable from love, which Harrison perhaps expressed better than anyone ever has ever done in a rock song. Listen to this and tell me Tweedy hasn't been soaking in Harrison's bath all his life.

Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (2013)

This is the finishing touch on the sonic palace Case had been meticulously building for years. It has flashes of her older works: the high-desert guitar reverb, the power propulsion of the New Pornographers ("Man" could slot right into Mass Romantic), and the stubborn short form of most of her solo work, rarely topping four minutes. It's pop music centered around her unmistakable voice, but it quickly deepens, as do all her records; Case's lyrics sometimes start out disorienting, but with more listening they jell into sense, stories where wry observation, sadness, and anger all comingle. Certain songs don't need to make sense. The soundscapes are enough, like the underwater pings and clicks that feed into "Where Did I Leave That Fire."

Yo La Tengo, Fade (2013)


Fade came out 21 years after May I Sing With Me, which turned me into a YTL fan for life, although I'd nearly forgotten that I was a YTL fan for life until I heard "Ohm," the lead cut. It sent me back to the shivers and tingles touched off by "Detouring America With Horns," the lead cut on May I Sing With Me. It took everything I was learning to love in my late teen years about grunge and garage and guitar noise and added acoustic warmth and mysterious vocal harmonies. The ring of its opening chords still raises the hairs on my arms. "Ohm" now does the same thing, locking into the pleasure center of rhythm and repetition and stretching past the six-minute mark. The rest of the album benefits from the glow; their near-whispered intimacies, which can lapse into somnolent dullness in some of YTL's work, sound fresh and hard-earned on Fade. Check out "I'll Be Around," with its delicate finger-picked guitar backed by a thin, dirty line of electric buzz from a keyboard.

Rolling Stones, Tattoo You, side two (1981)

The last listenable Stones album was a mishmash of older unreleased songs and ideas freshened up to give the band new material for a world tour. You all know "Start Me Up" -- and if you don't, it's much better when Mick is lip-synching badly and wearing a Jazzercise outfit -- so let's skip it and the rest of the rockers on side one. They're fun but no match for the uptempo best on the albums Some Girls, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Let's head instead to side two. (Hat tip here to this guy, who brought up "Heaven" recently in conversation.)

"Waiting on a Friend" was the hit from this side -- very deservedly so (Sonny Rollins sax solo!) -- but the rest of the songs highlight all that was right about the Stones: Mick working the white-boy soul falsetto, Charlie's minimalist kit holding everything together, the rhythm guitar work at slower tempos. I suspect the bits of it that don't work, like a couple overbearing guitar solos, were later overdubs. But like an old house with a couple badly painted rooms, the solid bones of the work can't be denied.

PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love (1995)

I pulled this off the virtual shelf last year, which was the album's 20-year anniversary. Upon release, it drew raves and several album of the year votes. Total drool fest. I never got it. It was musical tourism gone terribly wrong. Until then, I was a big Polly Jane fan: The sinewy, explosive noise of her first two albums thrilled me. Then Love veered into swampy Americana and Southern goth through a British punk lens. The history of music is one of borrowing, sampling, tasting, and making something new. By all means, if you want to try on someone else's sound, give it a go. But the album was larded with clich├ęd, cringe-worthy moments and lyrics that were awkward then and have fared worse over time. I liked some of the low sounds Harvey came up with: The slow unspooling guitar line that kicks off the title track (and the album), or Harvey at the bottom range of her vocals at various times. But in total, the album hits my ears with a thud. I still don't get it. 



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