Interview - Polyphonic: Part II
Further discussion on album closers and more
A few weeks ago, I saw the latest video from Nebula and YouTube’s Polyphonic appear in my algorithms, and it was on a subject close to my heart. I found myself nodding in agreement as many of the featured tracks are ones we’ve looked at, or I hope to one day (Our index shows you what we have featured so far). So, I contacted Noah and below is the second part of the discussion in which we talked about album closers and other musical topics.
You can find Part I here;
The Run Out Grooves: We discussed Brian Wilson earlier, and one of my favourite albums, despite its messy middle section, is The Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up. It's interesting how the end, especially with Brian Wilson's return, makes it feel like a much better album than it is.
Noah: Absolutely; how an album concludes significantly impacts our perception of the whole album. It's intriguing to note how the album’s second side features excellent tracks like ‘Feel Flows’ and ‘Surf's Up’, which could have been the perfect bookend to their career.
The Run Out Grooves: They transformed into a different band after that album.
Noah: ‘Surf's Up’ represents the culmination of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks' work since songs like ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’. Among all their psychedelic suites, ‘Surf's Up’ stands out with some of the most beautiful vocal harmonies you'll ever hear. There might have been a genuinely great album, but they didn’t quite find it.
The Run Out Grooves: It's fascinating how elements like sequencing and artwork can influence our overall impression of an album. In this case, that ending makes us think it's better than it might be when we consider each song individually. Surf’s Up is a 1971 record…
Noah: A great year.
The Run Out Grooves: The one year I’ve written about the most so far. I think I have more records on vinyl and CD from 1971 than 2018. It's a crazy year with so much going on; I’ve already written about Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and many other fantastic album closers. 1971 is well-documented, with books and documentaries highlighting its significance.
Noah: There are specific years in music, like 1977 for punk and new wave and 1959 in jazz, where everything seems to click, and everyone is working at a completely different level.
The Run Out Grooves: Landmark albums are released so frequently in those years, sometimes even on the same day. It's incredible how these moments in history coincide.
Noah: One of my favourite examples is when Carole King's Tapestry and Joni Mitchell's Blue were simultaneously recorded in the same studio. They had similar themes and sound palettes but took different approaches, but King was sneaking into Mitchell’s room when she wasn’t there to utilise that room's better piano.
The Run Out Grooves: It's amazing how certain places and times, like Vienna in the 1930s, simultaneously have so many things happening in different areas of culture. Though in the here and now, it's intriguing how the music scene will develop, especially after COVID-19. We're now seeing new band showcases return in the UK, and it's exciting to consider what the next 12 months will bring.
Noah: I agree; we're in a post-COVID musical renaissance, with many great albums coming out. This year and next will likely be significant for music, as artists can tour reliably. Some artists even waited to release their work until they could plan big tours.
The Run Out Grooves: We can never truly know the history when we're in it. Although we might believe this will be a significant period in music, it's hard to predict how people will view the art of this era in the future. There will likely be some artists that rise in prominence years later, similar to the way Nick Drake did.
Noah: The nostalgia element influences how we perceive the music scene. It will be interesting to see how our understanding of this time in music evolves over the years.
The Run Out Grooves: Reflecting on being 16 and navigating the early days of the internet, the accessibility of music has changed. Back then, you would get music recommendations from magazines like NME but had limited ways to listen to the songs. Nowadays, it's easy to listen to a song from any week in history. As a teenager, it was challenging to find the music you wanted to listen to amidst the pop songs dominating the radio and cable channels. However, some of those pop songs now evoke nostalgia and appreciation. Time is a sieve, allowing us to remember and appreciate the best songs of a particular era.
Noah: You can highlight this by looking at the success of ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by The Archies in 1969, a year that is known for its monumental musical history, but the biggest-selling recordis a bubblegum pop song that doesn’t hold up a mirror to society or culture, at all. There’s likely more great music now than ever due to the ease of creating and distributing music. However, it's still worth considering that specific periods, like 1966 to 1973, may have had more exciting developments compared to others, like 1996 to 2003. Ultimately, great music always exists, but our perception of it can vary depending on the era and personal experiences.
The Run Out Grooves: Guitar music may not be better than 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, possibly because a lot has been done before. This phenomenon can also be observed in other art forms, such as novels. It might take time for a genre to come back and offer something new. When considering bands that were popular and critically acclaimed in the past, many were just rehashes of what had been done in the '60s or late '70s. The UK music scene 15-16 years ago had bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Kaiser Chiefs, but record labels could only sustain that New Rock Revolution for a short time. Even by the late 1990s, you’d have a fallow year when a few big tent acts took a year off. Contrasting this with years like 1971, when something happened weekly, there are entire years in specific subgenres where nothing significant occurs. This may result from genres becoming repetitive, needing time to reinvent themselves, or waiting for new, groundbreaking acts to emerge.
Noah: Years are arbitrary regarding creativity, and though release cycles and tour profitability may impact the timing, creative waves don't always follow a yearly cycle. Discussing through years can be a great framework, but creativity often stems from local scenes. Historically, movements gather steam from regional backgrounds with talented people attending each other's shows and exchanging ideas, such as hip hop in the Bronx, the CBGBs scene, grunge in Seattle, or what we see in the Meet Me in the Bathroom. These geographical areas produce creative surges. When artists from these movements become successful, they often stop engaging with their original community due to new priorities, wealth, or family responsibilities. This change can cause the creative wave to subside, emphasising the unpredictable nature of creativity and its relationship to time.
The Run Out Grooves: In the UK, there's a tendency for the music scene to produce more bands than solo artists, which may be attributed to the size of the country, the weekly nature of music magazines, and the education system. The music press facilitated connections between musicians through wanted ads, forming bands like Suede. The art college system allowed people to explore their creativity, resulting in bands with multiple talented members. In contrast, America's larger size and monthly music press cycles may have encouraged more solo artists. The UK's education system previously allowed musicians like Morrissey, Marr, Butler, Anderson, Albarn, and Coxon to come together with a peer in the same band, but that has changed.
Nowadays, young people in England can't rely on financial support while attending art colleges, which has impacted the formation of bands. From a cultural standpoint, the UK's music scene may be poorer for this loss, as it could have been interesting to see some solo artists join bands and create unique dynamics. Bands like Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and Roxy Music, formed around more traditional universities, again showcase the potential for diverse talent in a single group. Unfortunately, this aspect of band formation in the UK has diminished in recent decades, leaving a noticeable void in the cultural landscape.
Noah: It's fascinating to consider the disparity between the number of great British and American bands considering the relative sizes. Britain has many options like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Oasis, and The Rolling Stones. In contrast, America has fewer choices; bands like The Beach Boys, Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band come to mind. However, many American bands have a singular figurehead guiding their vision.
The Run Out Grooves: Other American bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and R.E.M. could be considered, but they still share that singular vision quality.
Noah: The Velvet Underground is another option, but it's debatable whether they represent the American spirit in the same way as Springsteen. Although they embody some significant aspects of America, they also have a Welsh member, which complicates things.
The Run Out Grooves: It's telling how different countries treat iconic bands, like ABBA in Sweden and The Beatles in England. However, despite their status as a creative force, it's hard to imagine a Velvet Underground museum becoming a must-see tourist attraction in New York in the way Liverpool and Stockholm hail their most acknowledged musical exports.
Noah: Velvet Underground's self-titled album ends uniquely with ‘The Murder Mystery’ and ‘After Hours’, which creates a new category of album closers: small yet huge. This style is also evident in The White Stripes' work, like ‘Effect and Cause’ on Icky Thump or ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’. These small, cutesy closers are pretty appealing.
The Run Out Grooves: ‘After Hours’ might have been among the first of its kind, with its twee tone. It's reminiscent of ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ by Belle & Sebastian, which has a similar end-of-album feeling.
Noah: This style eventually evolved into what could be called the "Juno soundtrack" genre, characterised by 2000s artists like The Moldy Peaches. It's incredible to think that ‘After Hours’, sung by Mo Tucker in 1969, could easily be mistaken for a song written by a girl with a ukulele on TikTok today.
The Run Out Grooves: Which closing tracks almost made the cut for the video?
Noah: We spoke about Joni Mitchell, and her ‘Both Sides Now' and ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ were two excellent ones that came close to making the video cut. It's so profound, and it's so. Thematically appropriate for, you know, the end of an album. I did mention this one in the video, but I think it kind of bears mentioning again. Is Gorillaz's ‘Demon Days’. It doesn't seem to get enough credit, as people often focus on the strong singles from the same album, like ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘Feel Good Inc.’
The Run Out Grooves: 2005 was a banner year for memorable album closers. Some examples include Kate Bush's ‘Aerial’, ‘Road to Joy,’ ‘Mr November’, ‘Last Orders’ by Richard Hawley, and ‘Dondante’ from Z by My Morning Jacket. There is an abundance of great closers from that year.
Noah: Another one is ‘Pale Green Things’ from Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats, a heartbreaker of an album closer. The most noteworthy thing about all these closers is that the concept of the album is relatively modern, taking off in the 1950s. Before that, music was mostly just a collection of individual songs.
The Run Out Grooves: Frank Sinatra's ‘One More for My Baby…’ might be considered one of the first attempts to create a cohesive album closer. At that time, the concept of an album was still relatively new.
Noah: Albums are often taken for granted, but they are a product of their time and technology, like vinyl records. Even though we don't necessarily need vinyl anymore, albums are still strongest when they respect and emulate that format.
Once again, a huge thank you to Noah for his time and I hope you have enjoyed the write-up of our conversation. Later in the week we are back with an album from 2003.
Likewise, in 1971 the UK’s biggest-selling single was ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ by Middle of The Road.
1998 was noticeable in this sense as Blur, Oasis, and Radiohead released records in 1997 and sat out the following year.
We will get to all of these at some point.