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Album Rumble: U2 – The Joshua Tree

u2 the joshua treeI last wrote about U2 after attending the 2011 concert at Heinz Field. I decided it was time to check back in with The Joshua Tree during this, the 30th Anniversary of its release. A version of this review first appeared on The Spill Magazine.

Music feeds nostalgia, it places moments in time, and for a certain generation, few records documented a time and place more precisely than U2’s fifth record, The Joshua Tree, in March of 1987. Impossible details remain vivid, imprinted forever.

Where were you when you first heard the opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Can you remember how you felt when the Edge’s guitar first broke through that wall of synthesizer? Maybe you don’t quite remember the feeling, but you know where you were the first time you heard U2’s The Joshua Tree. Something as mundane as a placing a cassette in a car radio becomes epic poetry. The color of the car. The passengers. Maybe there were none. The smell of the Spring air, the type of flowers blooming… and you don’t even like flowers.

For someone born into an era of digital music, a sonic grab bag of unlimited potential, it’s perhaps difficult to comprehend the way a specific record release could freeze time, if only for a short while. Movies retain the power to unite a movement around an individual work of art, but by and large, those days in music have passed. Unlimited availability, fractured attentions, and the ways in which we consume and download music have eroded the event record.

It’s no longer my favorite U2 record, but the imprint of that moment of discovery remains; The Joshua Tree has positioned itself outside traditional criticism. The band has existed long enough to survive multiple shifts in tone and ideology. They’ve turned fans into naysayers (and vice versa), but the one constant remains that one record in the middle of their discography.

The Joshua Tree Track Listing:

Tinged with gospel, blues, and folk influences, The Joshua Tree would become U2’s greatest success, selling more than 25 million copies, but also the record they desperately longed to escape. Bono famously described Achtung Baby as “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.” Bestowing further accolades upon the record seems futile. Instead I’d like to track back and take a slightly different perspective on the record.

The trio of songs that open the record reek of perfection – their omnipresence might diminish their luster to the point that they’ve become background music, easily tuned out. 30 years of constant airplay tends to turn even the greatest songs into Roger Williams.

Check back in with these songs one more time. Listen to “With or Without You” with your eyes closed. Tune into Larry Mullen’s subtle changes in cadence and Adam Clayton’s heartbeat bassline. The synth fills in the blank spaces followed by Bono’s lovesick vocals. “See the stone set in your eyes / see the thorn twist in your side.”  The swell before the damn breaks at the three-minute mark. Try to recapture that virgin listen, embrace the way that all the pieces of U2 fit together. Embrace the bothersome, overplayed perfection.

Too Much Respect?

Focus on the so-called B-sides of this record. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” don’t make this record a paradigm on their own, but it’s often difficult to see the lesser successes beyond those 800 pound gorillas.

The Edge’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” guitar solos over the years:

As The Edge channels Jimi Hendrix on “Bullet The Blue Sky,” it might seem as if the album takes a left turn, but in the context of the band’s discography, “Bullet” points toward the future, toward Rattle and Hum and eventually Achtung Baby, where guitar-forward became the rallying cry. After the slow-burn symbiosis of the album’s opening volley, “Bullet The Blue Sky” pulls the rug out, shifting and undermining expectations, just when the listener slips into complacency.

In my opinion, the album’s most important song doesn’t even reside on the overworked first side. “Red Hill Mining Town” was meant to be the album’s second single after “With or Without You,” but the band was unhappy with Neil Jordan’s video, and Bono had trouble performing the song during rehearsals. Recently he said about the song “I used to write songs that I couldn’t sing. And sometimes that was okay because the strains of the notes I couldn’t reach was part of the drama, but occasionally they would really just wreck the next show.”

U2’s first performance EVER of Red Hill Mining Town in 2017:

“Red Hill Mining Town” proved to be such a problem that U2 never played it live until May of 2017 in Vancouver for the 30th Anniversary Tour of The Joshua Tree. The politically potent track introduces the B-side with a jolt of melancholic energy that rises to a hopeful crescendo. Bono’s strained vocals included, “Red Hill” stands as a fascinating blemish on the record that shows Bono’s struggles as a songwriter reaching beyond his comfort zone – a comfort zone that had already made U2 one of the biggest acts on the planet.

Place in the U2 Discography?

Say what you will about the latter half of the band’s career, but no one could ever say that U2 became satisfied or complacent. Constant re-invention has been the only consistency. The band may never again reach the resplendent creative heights of this period in their career, but U2 remains relevant and perhaps undervalued – now thirty years removed from the album that made time stand still.

The 30th Anniversary Edition of The Joshua Tree is available in a number of different formats including a 4-CD Super Deluxe Edition, 2-CD Deluxe, and 7 LP Super Deluxe. All Deluxe Editions include the band’s live performance at Madison Square Garden on September 28th, 1987.

The Joshua Tree Verdict in 2017

You’d be hard pressed to find a U2 fan who claims The Joshua Tree to be their favorite record or even favorite U2 record. And I don’t believe this is a case of merely proving fandom through deep cuts, which is a legitimate nuclear hazard in music writing and appreciation. Denying value as a result of popularity turns discographies on their heads. In this case, maybe, because the band has released three career’s worth of records. That said, a U2 fan who denies the value of The Joshua Tree has just become embittered, jaded, perhaps senile. The Joshua Tree remains a vital classic that may have lost some of its luster over 30 years due to omnipresence. Time, however, has eroded none of its visceral ability to invoke some piece of you in 1987… or whenever it was that you first heard the slow build of that opening track.

 

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Album Rumbles Music

Album Review: Jen Gloeckner – Vine

I don’t often post contemporary album reviews on the Rumble, but when I get offers of review copies of Jen Gloeckner records on vinyl I must reconsider. If you’re confident enough to splurge for the vinyl shipping costs, this is something that deserves a listen. Now that I’m spinning vinyl, it fits my page’s modus. So let’s continue.

jen gloeckner vine

Iowa’s Jen Gloeckner understands something that most artists can’t quite grasp. Pace and patience. Beware the record that opens with its best offering and follows with a steadily declining parade of grandstanders. For whatever reason, album construction hasn’t fully freed the shackles of the listening post. Ahh, yes. Recall the days when a music stores stuck towers or walls of headphones at the front of the store, ensnaring passersby with the allure of fantastic new music? Before the days of Spotify and streaming and unlimited access, listening posts were just about the only way to indiscriminately sample a new album. I also had a love affair with Blockbuster Music, who allowed you to sample any record in the store, but that is a reminiscence for another bl-g post.

Vine opens without fireworks, the album’s titular track lays downtempo groundwork with an electronic landscape. Digital seagulls, a sea breeze, Gloeckner’s sultry vocal bandwidth. It’s a perfect tease, something more than an intro but less than those listening post thumpers that hoped you didn’t listen beyond three songs. Gloeckner brought me back to the late 1990’s when trip-hop, breakbeat, and acid jazz ruled my 25-disc CD changer. We could also discuss the patently absurd “post-trip hop” categorization, but I’ll refrain from that micro-genre nonsense.

Sample Morcheeba’s “Big Calm” for a reminder of what 1998 sounded like:

The music of Massive Attack, Morcheeba, Lamb, and Tricky didn’t disappear; like most other sneakily-influential genre movements it become assimilated into pop music as prominent artists like Madonna, Janet Jackson and U2 claimed it in the name of progress. Radiohead perfected the merger. With the exception of perhaps Massive Attack, original artists slipped further into the underground. Albums like Doprah’s otherworldly Wasting from 2016 prove a receptive audience remains for downtempo music featuring scattered bpms, sampling, electronic layers and ethereal vocals.

On Vine, Gloeckner’s third full-length LP, she severs her already tenuous ties to the traditional singer-songwriter genre. 2010’s Mouth of Mars experimented with jazz and layered production. A standout track on that album, “Trip,” takes on all the elements of trip-hop without the otherworldly sheen that comes part and parcel with the inorganic roots of the electronics and sampling.

But back to pace and patience. Vine fully asserts its on “Firefly (War Dance)” — the trance instrumental second track on the album — by barging through the door with a tribal soundscape that would have slipped nicely into the backdrop Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. It’s not until the following cut, “Breathe,” that Gloeckner drops Vine‘s thesis statement. Muffled female orgasm, uneven drum machine cadence, synth, and droning guitar that tests the shoegaze temperature before scaling back to white noise.

Gloeckner seems less confident in the dream-pop entries “Ginger Ale” and “The Last Thought” that anchor the middle of the record. Amiable confections that fail to rise to the weight or evoke the same emotional resonance. This segment requires some pace and patience from the listenerVine‘s pendulum begins its return on “Blowing Through,” a loopy woodwind and string-laden waltz that foregrounds some “Enchantment Under the Sea” romanticism.

Vine finishes as strong as it opens. Starting with “Counting Sheep” the second half of the record ebbs and flows, successfully weaving what the press release calls a “Twin Peaks vibe” with ambience, progressive guitar work, electronics, and even the strains of Americana that dominated Gloeckner’s early work. The wonderfully trippy “Prayers” and the AM radio “Sold” stand out as B-side highlights.

Either this is an artist that finally tapped into her wavelength or she’s placed her trust in muse-like producers with clarity of vision. Perhaps both. Producer Brian McTear has worked with Sharon Van Etten, Marissa Nadler and War on Drugs, and a certain relative retrospective throughline can be heard in all of these acts. Contemporary fans will hear Lana Del Rey (with a slightly less bombastic, more controlled vocal range) while others, like me, will be transported back to a time when trip-hop soundtracked our lives.

jen gloeckner

Perfecting the atmosphere of a record is a tricky thing. Jen Gloeckner may not have quite defibrillated the genre of Mazzy Star, Morcheeba or Lamb on Vine, but she did the next thing. She reminded us that the threads of their music remain vibrant and relevant. She also reminded us that proper pace and patience require attention and that that investment amply rewards.

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Michael Jackson – Thriller

Michael Jackson - Thriller
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