Songs of Anarchy, Volume 1 and 2

Jacket.aspxRarely do I leave a CD in my player for more than a month straight. It’s been two months now, and aside for taking two weeks off at the holidays, it’s still in there, and I listen to it every day. Songs of Anarchy is the soundtrack to the FX television show Sons of Anarchy.
You do not need to be a devotee or even know of the television show to adore the soundtrack to the series. Sons of Anarchy is an ultra-violent soap opera following a fictional biker gang in California. You know the characters are despicable, but they are written so well and to such depth that you cannot help but feel sympathy for them – while you call them names for being that stubborn. All that violence is offset by a soundtrack that is both entertaining and breathtakingly poignant. There is no set tone – the albums contain a mix of popular, rock, country, folk, alternative – whatever fits the moment. Many of these are covers of old greats by the series’ incredible house band, The Forest Rangers – a driving version of Gimmee Shelter (in which you can understand the lyrics), an achingly beautiful instrumental version of Fortunate Son, a gorgeous tweaking of House of the Rising Son with lyrics to fit the show. It was the deep blues rhythms of John the Revelator that first caught my attention watching the series (who else works an entire song into a drama series every week, like a prize in a Cracker Jack box?), and it made purchasing the album inevitable. The song wouldn’t leave my head, and I needed to hear it again.
Katey Sagal, lead actress in the show as Gemma Teller, is also a singer in her own right with albums to her name. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire puts the original to shame, and Strange Fruit will give you the shivers.
Volume 2 of Songs of Anarchy is a must if you listen to the first. There is just too much good vol 2.aspxmusic. Coal War, the season opener to year four, is a foot stomping ballad that crosses the line between country and pop much the way The Eagles did. The Lost Boy is a tragic ballad on its own, but if you know the series, it is played out in its entirety as one of the lead characters makes his sacrifice for his best friend, and it will bring you to tears. No Milk Today was originally a fluffy pop piece done by Herman’s Hermit’s in 1966; slowed down, it takes on a haunting new meaning when you consider it accompanies the kidnapping of a nine-month-old baby by the IRA.
Kurt Sutter, the creator/producer/writer of the show (he also stars in it as Otto, and he’s married to Katey Sagal), wanted music to be an integral part of the show, setting tones, carrying themes, underscoring the action. What he managed is beyond brilliance, touching the stories and the viewers/listeners alike and playing with their emotions. Because of the varied styles of music, you might not like every track on the albums (the version of Slip Kid is too metal for me), but these albums are certain to please almost everyone.



Music Review: Scratch My Back/ And I’ll Scratch Yours by Peter Gabriel

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Are you more loyal to a particular song, or to the artist who sings it? Does one artist “own” a song, is it destroyed when someone else sings it? Or can a different interpretation make it better – maybe worse – or just ‘different.’

                That’s the question put forth by Peter Gabriel’s pair of albums, Scratch My Back (which was originally released in 2010) and And I’ll Scratch Yours, the just-released companion. In the first release, Gabriel sings the songs of other artists, putting an often-times melancholy spin on popular songs. In the second release, other artists sing songs Gabriel made popular.

                I must say, while I have several collections of a single song done by many artists (I have at least five different major artists singing the Mama’s & the Papa’s California Dreaming, and I love all of them), I’m of the artist-loyal group. Sometimes an artist can really rock a song (can you really say who sings Proud Mary better – Tina Turner or Creedence Clearwater?), other times they destroy it so painfully you want to cry (Willie Nelson, I love you, but please, for the love of Arlo, don’t – just don’t – sing City of New Orleans ever again). Yet, on the two albums combined, there was only one song I did not care for.

                Do not expect this to be an album you will get up and dance to, unless it’s a slow, hypnotic pas de deux. Gabriel’s songs are backed up by full orchestration, with chirping violins beautiful in tone, making the album slide back and forth between the sounds of symphonic Pink Floyd and soft Dire Straits a la Brothers in Arms. The songs are slow, aching, haunting, jazzy, and gorgeous, as if Gabriel had stopped by, started playing around with your piano, and tapped out some random torch songs from the top of his head, and you caught them on tape. No shocking monkeys here. While I still prefer Springsteen, Philadelphia would seem to have been written for this album, this style, and this singer.

                In the second half, And You Scratch Mine, the songs are a bit more upbeat, but still in that somewhat aching, torch-lounge style, while each artist still twists the songs to fit themselves. Arcade Fire’s Games Without Frontiers remains strong, if not particularly inventive. Randy Newman leaves his mark on Big Time, so much that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. Paul Simon cannot be anything but mellifluous on Biko. The only song I did not care for was Lou Reed singing Solsbury Hill. I’m all for twisting things up, but it’s a light, sweet bouncy melody; Reed seems to unroll the song, pound it flat, and leave it wounded in the gutter. I tried twice, but could not finish listening to the end of it. If you really like Reed’s style, you may love it, but to me it was a bad fit.

                This was planned and released as a concept album pair; it is a type of experiment, and in all experiments, some things will hit the mark and some won’t. Is it the song that propels a singer to fame, or does a singer pull a particular song into the history books? Would we love Stairway to Heaven as much if it were sung by Britney Spears? Would we even remember Love Me Tender if it were sung by anyone but Elvis? What would The Scream look like if it had been painted by Rembrandt? That’s the question to ponder as you explore this fascinating piece of musical concept art.