Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time, Part 2 - A Dark Elf File 1st Anniversary Special

One year ago yesterday (July 11, 2010), I unleashed the Dark Elf File on the unsuspecting wired world of the Internet. In that year, I have managed to piss off any number of dim-witted disco bloggers, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sycophants and brown-nosers, and even an overzealous prog-rock aficionado with a failing memory. I hope to do more of the same in the years to come; it is what we old-school curmudgeons do - in a most unapologetic and offensive, but highly literate manner, I might add.

In regards to the creation of this list, the specific caveats and qualifiers for the acoustic rock albums I chose can be found here: The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time, Part 1 - A Dark Elf File 1st Anniversary Special, as there was definitely a method to my obsessive madness.

And so, without further ado, here is the second half of The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time. Below, please find an additional 30 albums for you perusal which, with the 20 recordings that were reviewed in the first part of this article, make a full 50 albums in all for your aural edification:

Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell
Not as groundbreaking as Mitchell's confessional Blue album, perhaps, but two albums removed from that landmark release, Court and Spark offers more accessible songs and the album itself was her biggest seller. And for good reason. Buoyed by the hit single Help Me, Mitchell's jazzy and brilliant dialogues and monologues are enhanced by stellar backing musicians: Free Man in Paris (David Crosby and Graham Nash), "Raised on Robbery" (Robbie Robertson), and even Cheech & Chong on Twisted. Interior miniatures like Car on the Hill and Down to You make Court and Spark a fascinating album, and certainly my favorite from her folk-rock period.

John Wesley Harding - Bob Dylan
Dylan dragged the folk establishment kicking and screaming into the 20th century with his use of electric guitar on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and just when everyone got settled in with the amplified status quo, what does Dylan do for an encore in 1967? He goes back to Woody Guthrie-style acoustics on John Wesley Harding. This took a lot of balls for Dylan at a time when Are You Experienced, Sgt Pepper, Strange Days and After Bathing at Baxter's revelled in the electric psychedelia of the era. Dylan would go into a funk after this album, and not produce any further masterpieces until 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Here are the few songs I could cull from YouTube from this album (I am sure they'll be deleted soon): All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I saw St. Augustine and I Pity The Poor Immigrant.

Déjà Vu - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The addition of "Y" to "CSN" not only added a sometime vowel to a series of consonants, but a different voice and compositional style to an already immensely talented group. Of course, along with immense talent comes immense egos, and the fistfights backstage at CSN&Y concerts were legendary (at least according to Frank Zappa), but that didn't stop them from recording the great Déjà Vu before they ended up killing each other. Each artist made wonderful acoustic contributions to the album: Déjà Vu (Crosby), 4+20 (Stills), Teach Your Children and Our House (Nash), and Helpless and Country Girl (Young).

Teaser and the Firecat - Cat Stevens
How did Cat Stevens follow-up his masterpiece Tea for the Tillerman? By releasing another masterpiece, of course. Teaser and the Firecat offers memorable hits like Peace Train, Moonshadow, and Morning Has Broken, but it's the other songs on the album that leave an indelible mark: The Wind, Tuesday's Dead, Changes IV, and the infinitely sad How Can I Tell You. The height of the singer/songwriter movement in the 1970s, and an amazing artifact of a time when one could write beautifully sensitive songs of social import and inner meaning and still have a mega-hit.

Moondance - Van Morrison
Like Cat Stevens, Van Morrison followed-up a masterpiece with another and even bigger hit. After Morrison released the critically acclaimed Astral Weeks, his next album in 1970, Moondance (the title song, mystifyingly, was not released as a single until 1977), continued Morrison's unique compositional style, albeit with a more pastoral flair. The rustic appeal of And It Stoned Me, the rousing Caravan, and the timeless Into the Mystic all reflect a gypsy-like return to the land. Other notable tracks are Crazy Love and These Dreams of You.

Songs from the Wood - Jethro Tull
The last truly superb Tull album, Songs from the Wood is the cumulative apex of electrified British folk-rock pioneered by Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. The acoustic compositions are outstanding, particularly the thinly-veiled sexual escapades of Velvet Green and the rousing The Whistler. There is also the sentimental Fire at Midnight, the pastoral paean to the English Pan Jack-in-the-Green, and a stunning baroque acoustic instrumental passage in the long metallic composition Pibroch (Cap in Hand). The next two albums Heavy Horses and Stormwatch would complete a folk-rock trilogy that marked the end of Tull's brilliantly eccentric classic period.

The Master and the Musician - Phil Keaggy
Phil Keaggy is criminally overlooked and undervalued due to his Christian beliefs. Had he decided to take a secular road during his career, he would be hailed as one of the greatest guitarists ever; but since the media absolutely abhors anyone even mentioning their faith, they pigeon-hole the artist, or worse, ignore them altogether. The Master and the Musician is strictly instrumental (so as not to offend any one's avowed separation of church and Strat), and is one of the most beautiful and contemplative acoustic albums ever recorded. Listen to Pilgrim's Flight, Medley: Evensong/Twighlight/Forever Joy, The High and Exalted One, The Castle's Call, or Wedding in the Country Manor, and you will find that words are not necessary when Keaggy's compositions speak for his soul.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo - The Byrds
A landmark country rock album that influenced every band in the genre from the Eagles to Wilco. The addition of the great Gram Parsons to the Byrds line-up was so pronounced an effect, that the band completely deviated from the psychedelia and Dylan covers that marked their earlier albums for a completely countrified release that few actual "country" artists could ever come close to performing. Y'all just sit yer be-hinds on that there front porch and give a listen to Pretty Boy Floyd (with cinematic embellishments), I Am A Pilgrim, You Don't Miss Your Water, Life in Prison, and Hickory Wind. Y'all come back now, here?

Rust Never Sleeps - Neil Young
A decade that began with the death of the Beatles ended with Neil's brilliant reinvention of himself. Rust Never Sleeps walks the knife's edge between electric guitar-driven savagery and beautifully rendered acoustic imagery, and the dualistic paean to Johnny Rotten My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/"Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black)" mirrors the schizophrenic song selection to a tee. But as a subtext to Rotten's meteoric rise and fall, there is an autobiographical allusion to Young's career, with the lush lyrical imagery of such songs like Thrasher, "Ride My Llama" (a personal favorite not available on YouTube), Sail Away, and Pocahontas at odds with the albums more brutal pyrotechnics.

Unhalfbricking - Fairport Convention
This Fairport album marks the transition point from the bands earlier albums influenced primarily by the American folk movement to a decidely more British take on folk rock, eventually culminating in the masterpiece of electrified British folk Liege and Lief. Unlike Liege and Lief, Unhalfbricking is primarily acoustic in delivery. The album is notable for the incredible Sandy Denny composition Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Richard Thompson's Genesis Hall, and some remarkable takes on Dylan: Percy's Song and Si Tu Dois Partir. The first inkling of a Liege and Lief-style turn towards British folklore is on the epic A Sailor's Life.

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme - Simon & Garfunkel
Simon & Garfunkel could rattle off stunningly beautiful compositions with netherworldy regularity, and nowhere is this more discernible than on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme: the great war protest/medieval love song Scarborough Fair/Canticle rises skyward like a prayer, while Homeward Bound is grounded along the long, dreary road; The Dangling Conversation records the emptiness of a dying relationship, yet For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her exults in the first blush of love; The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) is a bright bit of 60s pop, but 7 O'Clock News/Silent Night juxtaposes a beautiful and calm Christmas Carol with grim reminders of the turbulent world as it truly is.

Cruel Sister - Pentangle
Overshadowed by Fairport Convention's electrified British folk masterpiece Liege and Lief (1969), guitarist extraordinaire Bert Jansch and Pentangle released Cruel Sister - and it was a huge flop (I'm not sure if even Jansch's mum bought the album). But flops in one generation can be a masterpiece in another, and this is certainly the case for Cruel Sister, with the sublime vocals of Jacqui McShee and the medieval lilt that pervades the album. Lord Franklin details a disastrous expedition to find the Northwest Passage, Jack Orion features Jansch's beautiful picking, and When I Was In My Prime is a beautiful a cappella highlight by McShee.

Fisherman's Blues - The Waterboys
Many folks consider This is the Sea to be the Waterboys' best album. I would cordially disagree. Fisherman's Blues represents a watershed moment in 1980's Rock, much like the Pogue's If I Should Fall From Grace With God (save without the overt whiskey and heroin abuse). Fisherman's Blues is a heady concoction of Irish folk, American country and roots rock, that is diverse in influences (Beatles, Van Morrison, Hank Williams Sr., and even William Butler Yeats), but cohesive in its delivery. Of particular note are And a Bang on the Ear (one of the best reminiscences of different lovers ever written), Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?, Sweet Thing and The Stolen Child (a beautiful reworking of W.B. Yeats' poem, and the best use of the spoken word in a rock album since the 1960s heyday of the Moody Blues).

Led Zeppelin III
"Unledded" Zeppelin. Both Plant and Page shake their heads to this day over the critical attacks on this album. It seems the critics expected "Whole Lotta Love, Part II" and when they got an acoustic album instead, they attacked Zeppelin as "imitating the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young". So much for creativity and eschewing formulaic hit-making. In any case, there is a wide range of great acoustic material here: Gallow's Pole, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, Friends, That's the Way, Tangerine, and Hats Off to Roy Harper. The infuriating thing is that the great Hey What Can I Do, which was recorded during the same sessions, only appears as a single and not on the album itself.

The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists
A folk-rock opera that is as dark, daring and in the end, deathly, as Bizet's Carmen or Mozart's Don Giovanni, but Colin Meloy injects a bit of poignancy and sardonic wit into the grand and grave album to lighten the proceedings a bit. Of special note are the two female vocalists, Shara Worden (the malignantly jealous Fairy Queen) and Becky Starks (the innocent heroine, Margaret), who sing their parts brilliantly. The gallows humor pervades The Rake's Song (the evil antagonist who kills his children, played by Meloy with wicked zeal). Worden is revelatory in The Wanting Comes in Waves (an eerie reincarnation of 60s-era Grace Slick), and Starks is beautiful in Isn't It a Lovely Night. The best acoustic passages are Annan Water and The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned). One of the best albums of the last ten years.

Henry the Human Fly - Richard Thompson
Thompson has always been a bit of an anomoly. After radically altering the British folk rock landscape with the landmarks Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief, he set out on an inconoclastic solo career that never quite fit comfortably in any specific genre. His first solo effort, Henry the Human Fly is a blueprint for any number of albums he recorded with then wife Linda Thompson, a hybrid recording integrating British folk, rock and bits of American roots music. There is the Poor Ditching Boy, the savagely witty attack on British government The New St. George, and several other songs that showcase his brand of acoustic picking and sly lyricism, such as The Old Changing Way, The Angels Took My Racehorse Away, and Nobody's Wedding (live radio version).

Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
Being from Detroit, I have an emotional attachment to Sufjan's ethereal and reverent album Michigan, but I have to admit he did a superior job on Illinois (the bastard!). Sufjan's second state-themed album (god, I hope the next one isn't Ohio), Illinois is a sprawling and epic release that is both weird and wonderful. Songs like John Wayne Gacy Jr. (a beautifully warped song about the clown mass-murderer) and Casimir Pulaski Day (about a girlfriend who died of bone cancer) are not the usual faire for a baroque pop album (or indie folk or folk rock or whatever the proper tag is). The titles are hilarious and as outrageous as the lyrics: The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us! and Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!, but this is one magnificent album.

In Search of the Lost Chord - The Moody Blues
I preface this by saying that I am reviewing the 2006 In Search of the Lost Chord (Deluxe Edition) with bonus tracks. What was one of the truly superlative and unforgettable psychedelic albums of the 1960s, with such great acoustic songs as Visions of Paradise, The Actor, The Word/Om and Legend of a Mind, becomes a revelation with beautiful additional tracks like What Am I Doing Here?, King and Queen, and A Simple Game (which isn't an acoustic song, but I thought you'd enjoy it if you've never heard it). Extraordinary.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash - The Pogues
The title comes from a Churchill quote: "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash." The album picks up where the quote left off, starting with epic drinking ballad The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground/But you'll stick your head back out and shout "we'll have another round"). There's a bit of everything for your various drinking moods, from the somber semi-hit Dirty Old Town, to the unintelligible Billy Bones, to a bit of Southern hospitality on Jesse James, to a traditional Irish piss Sally MacLennane, and a breathless, boozy turn by Cait O'Riordan on the traditional I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day. As Brendan Brehan would say, "Guinness makes you drunk." So do The Pogues.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane over the Sea is a wonderfully warped bit of 1960s psychedelic folk transplanted into the jaded and cynical 1990s. Throw together some Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Syd Barrett, shake well, and drop a hit of acid. Or not. It is an intriguing album nonetheless. There is a growing bit of insanity and tension on Oh, Comely that is genuinely disturbing. The lyrics are to-the-point yet surreal in their depiction of dysfunctional American home life in King of Carrot Flowers (Parts 1-3). Love the distortion juxtaposed against the acoustics on Ghost, and where would a self-respecting psych-folk album be without a ballad about a two-headed boy? Well, thank god that Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeff Magnum, really) includes one: Two-Headed Boy (Pt 2).

Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison - Harmonium
Progressive Quebecois elevator muzak? Au contraire, mon frère! This progressive folk release is a pastoral water color of seasonal changes. Mellifluous and enchanting, "If We Needed a Fifth Season" (a translation of the title) has some beautiful acoustic music, such as Histoire sans paroles (Part I), Vert, and En Pleine Face. If you enjoyed this album, then definitely peruse L'Heptade, the double album follow-up, which expands on the sound of this release.

Mermaid Avenue - Billy Bragg & Wilco
Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora allowed Billy Bragg and Wilco the unprecedented use of Guthrie's unscored lyrics (literally thousands of poems without any music, stretching from Pre-WWII to the time of his death in 1967), and the resultant contemporary adaptation, Mermaid Avenue, is a brilliant homage to Guthrie without merely mimicking the great folk artist's style. California Stars, Walt Whitman's Niece, At My Window, Sad and Lonely, and the hilarious Christ for President are relevant to when Mermaid Avenue was released in 1998, even though the lyrics go back nearly 70 years. They are also a testament to the sly and immensely talented Woody Guthrie.

Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws - Bruce Cockburn
Poor, ignored Bruce Cockburn. The underappreciated Canadian songwriter has toiled in anonymity for decades and never achieved stardom. Some performers are just too damn good for their own good. Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws is, in my estimation, Cockburn's best album, and a reflection of Cockburn's Christian mysticism, with allusions to another Christian mystic, the British fantasist Charles William, noted Inkling and companion of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Cockburn's greatest "hit" was Wondering Where the Lions Are, but other songs like "Northern Lights", After the Rain ( great live version - there is a dearth of his songs on YouTube), Incandescent Blue, and No Footprints reflect Cockburn's spirit and rich acoustic stylings.

Songs of Leonard Cohen
Confessional singing was a novel idea in the folk rock movement for 1967, but along came this Canadian poet and writer Leonard Cohen gifted with a "golden voice" (a jest Cohen made himself on a later tune "Tower of Song"), with a handful of melancholy compositions that were highly literate, decidely not psychedelic, and lacking in social import (not a protest song in the bunch). Cohen was never a hitmaker, but his influence among songwriters is tremendous, as is his poetic powers of perception: Winter Lady, Suzanne, So Long, Marianne, Sisters of Mercy, and Master Song

The Secret Language Of Birds - Ian Anderson
Definitely not a Tull Album (much quieter and introspective). It was a toss-up, really, between this Anderson solo album and the superb follow-up Rupi's Dance, but I think The Secret Language of Birds offers a better introduction into Anderson's intricate acoustic stylings (his guitar playing is grossly underappreciated). The compositions are tempered at times with Middle-eastern influences like on The Water Carrier, at others suffused with classical strings Sanctuary, a bit of jazzy Gaelic Stormont Shuffle, or spicy themes from South of the border, such as Habanero Reel and Panama Freighter.

All Things Must Pass - George Harrison
George Harrison released what could possibly be the best post-Beatle solo album of them all (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band would be the other contender). And All Things Must Pass is chockfull of great acoustic compositions, such as My Sweet Lord (the hit lifted from the Chiffon's He's So Fine), Apple Scruffs (a personal favorite), Isn't It a Pity, Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp and Dylan's If Not For You. The "Quiet Beatle" exploded from the immense shadow of the "Fab Four" with a glorious recording.

The Voyage of the Acolyte - Steve Hackett
Ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett's first and best solo album. The album is a rich tapestry of progressive and classical themes (with a bit of hard rock thrown in). The pastoral Hands Of The Priestess, Part 1 & 2, the netherwordly quaver of The Hermit, the ethereal Shadows of the Hierophant, the spectral The Star of Sirius, and the haunting The Lovers have caused me to run out of apt synonyms for this album. Where is that cursed Roget when one needs the fellow?

Our Endless Numbered Days - Iron & Wine
One of those tranquil albums made for drinking coffee out on the patio on an early summer Sunday morning. The songs are reminiscent of several different aritsts: Sunset Soon Forgotten (Nick Drake), Each Coming Night (Simon & Garfunkel), and Sodom, South Georgia (Nick Drake accompanied by Neil Young on guitar). But some songs bear more of a direct inspiration: Teeth in the Grass and Free Until They Cut Me Down. Stress relief, thy name is Iron & Wine.

First Utterance - Comus
A progressive-folk cult classic and certainly an album for acquired tastes (like eating monkey brains or Rocky Mountain oysters). The lyrics are as violent and disturbing as the contorted album cover illustration. But for all the weirdness (and the utterly psychedelic and in places downright irritating vocals), the underlying medieval/Baroque acoustic compositions are remarkable. For instance, deduct the satanic chipmunks on LSD singing from Song to Comus and you have a compelling song. Dark Age rapine, ritual murder and Luciferian apostasy runs through the album like malignant shit from an evil goose: The Herald (the album's best song, featuring the ethereal Bobbie Watson), The Prisoner (about the travails of shock therapy), Drip, Drip, and Diana are all songs to play loudly to annoy your neighbors...or your in-laws if they happen to be visiting.

Living in the Past - Jethro Tull
A most curious relic of progressive-folk paleontology. It's not a greatest hits package, not a live album (except for three songs), not wholly a rock album, and not even a career compilation. Imagine being able to release a record of cast-offs, B-sides, and EP tracks this magnificent, but only having been a band for merely four studio albums up to that point (1968-72). Amazing. And although it's not an all-acoustic album either, there is an album-worth of great acoustic tracks: The Witches Promise, Life is a Long Song, Nursie, Up the Pool, Christmas Song, Just Trying to Be, Dr. Bogenbroom, and Wondr'ing Again. There is nothing else like it.


I wish to give a heartfelt thanks to all the kind folks who commented, collaborated and offered timely suggestions during the first year of this blog. Hell, I'll even thank the dolts with rude or disparaging editorial comments (and decidedly poor taste in music, obviously) who enlivened the site with their inane bits of buffoonery. It takes all kinds, and a passion for music, which I will readily agree is highly subjective, oft leads us all astray. Besides, I'll argue with just about anyone.



James said...

I recently read your review of peter gabriel's 'Melt' / III on the web. Nice. It's always nice to see Mr. Gabriel get the props he deserves, and it was well-written, to boot. I enjoyed your list. Perhaps one day you'll create a list of the greatest 50 (oh hell, why not Greatest 100) ROCK albums of all time. But then, that would entail enveloping yourself in the great struggle that has plagued all of mankind since the Fall of 1982: is peter gabriel IV a better recording than peter gabriel III, or are they both equal masterpieces in their own right? Cheers, James.

Georg said...

You have just enrichened my life by about 120%, my gratefulness is beyond expression. Thanks anyway! :)