For many people, Christmas With the Chipmunks represents fond holiday memories of fun gatherings and familial warmth. But for one artist, this album represents a career filled with emotional abuse by an ill-tempered Svengali, and cries for help that went unheeded. That artist is Alvin, and this album serves as evidence of his systematic abuse and suffering at the hands of David Seville.
Monday night, I chose to start working on this review rather than watching the Presidential debate. Why? For the same reason Plague Vendor appeals to me – the world is full of depressing shit with a few glimmers of happiness scattered here and there. When there are so many unavoidable things that suck all around us every day, why choose to intentionally subject yourself to something you know will make you mad or sad when instead you can enjoy something that fills you with joy and energy?
My musical taste was molded as much by my music-loving elder siblings as it was by Chicago radio station WXRT. The first time I heard most of the bands I love, it was on WXRT. That was especially true in the late 80s and early 90s when WXRT was at its best, wholeheartedly embracing the British alternative music that became my reason for being.
In the meantime, WXRT has stagnated a bit, aging with their listeners and moving away from anything too challenging to focus on inoffensive AOR, you know, like OAR. WXRT never played Pulp. They never played the Libertines. They didn’t even start playing Muse until 2012 or so, once they put out a single mellow enough to fit in.
After my last review of Primal Scream’s Chaosmosis with its handful of songs that reminded me of New Order, it’s only fitting that I take this opportunity to discuss New Order’s place in the Holy Trinity. You may recall I referred to the Holy Trinity in my review of the Cure’s The Head on the Door. These three albums, given as a gift when I was thirteen years old, went on to define my musical taste for the rest of my life.
As I believe I have stated in an earlier review, I seem to have gradually fallen out of love with music over the past twenty years or so. That’s why almost all of my previous reviews have been for very old albums, released back when listening to music was my reason for living. This time, I decided to try something new, literally, by reviewing an album that just came out recently and that I haven’t listened to before. Admittedly, it is a band that’s been around for about 30 years and a band I loved back when I loved music more than anything.
I’ve always had an affinity for debut albums, with the idea that one’s debut album is every good idea an artist has had their entire life up to that point, while their second album is only the best ideas they’ve had since the last one. But there is something to be said from learning from the mistakes of a debut album, maturing a bit, and coming out with a strong sophomore effort. The Charlatans’ Between 10th and 11th is one of my favorite second albums precisely because it builds on Some Friendly’s strengths and avoids its pitfalls.
The Christmas when I was 13, my elder siblings decided enough was enough. It was time for me to stop listening to Madonna and Whitney Houston and whatever else Top 40 radio was serving up in late 1986. It was time for me to start listening to “real music” like they did. And to that end, I was gifted with three cassettes that I’ve come to think of as the Holy Trinity, the albums that informed the musical taste I’d hone for the rest of my life. I spent all of eighth grade poring over these albums, memorizing every lyric, relishing how my burgeoning gothiness discomfited my Catholic school teachers and classmates.
I’ll probably get to the other members of the Holy Trinity in later reviews, but for now let’s talk about the one that was most important to me at the time – The Head on the Door by the Cure. Though I would have claimed back then that every song on this album was a flawless gem, each song perfect in its own way, the truth is that even back then there were songs I fast-forwarded through a lot more often than others. Assessing it now with old lady ears, the songs seem to fall into three categories: those I still adore with every ounce of my being, those that get a “meh” of varying magnitude, and those that make me want to slap my former self for being such a miserable little goth.
I wish everyone could spend a day as a teenage goth girl and feel the joy of swirling your long black skirt around yourself as you spin and twirl to “In Between Days.” Who cares if the lyrics are about lost love – who can resist those jangling guitars and calliope keyboards? Then you fast forward through “Kyoto Song” and keep on dancing to the flamenco guitar of “The Blood.”
Though you can’t necessarily dance to it, “Six Different Ways” is still cheerful and optimistic of tune if not lyrics. It sounds cut from the same cloth as “Close to Me” a bit later in the album. In giving it a studied listen for this review, I’m a little bummed it never occurred to me to place “Close to Me” in the running for first dance at my wedding. The pretty little flute lilt, the xylophone driven melody, the hand claps – all complement the nervous excitement of the lyrics.
These days the dance beat and big bass of “Screw” remind me a bit of Gang of Four, a band I’d not yet discovered back in the day when this album was my everything. Back then, I just giggled like the silly adolescent girl I was at a song titled “Screw.” “Push” has a huge, epic sound, all ringing guitars and shouted vocals, that’s almost U2-esque, and I don’t mean that as even a little bit of an insult. “A Night Like This” comes across a little INXS-ish, like a deep cut from side 2 of Listen Like Thieves, and I do mean that as a bit of an insult. Just a straight forward, guitar-driven rock song of the 80s that does nothing particularly interesting. If I’d never heard it, and today someone told me that the Cure had a song with a disco guitar riff and a drum machine, I’d strap on my dancing shoes and get ready to be impressed. If what I got was “The Baby Screams,” I’d be sorely disappointed.
I suppose I’ve always been kind of a lousy Cure fan since I am far more partial to their upbeat songs than the slow, moody dirges. “Kyoto Song’s” Japanese tinkle laid over a funereal beat is the perfect soundtrack for the world’s most boring opium den. The album ends not with a bang but a whimper in the form of “Sinking,” one of those songs best suited for driving home on a rainy night after something that was supposed to be fun but ended up depressing, like a hockey game where a guy gets Malarchuked by a skate, or a Rob Schneider movie.
Though I’ve always had a hallowed place in my memory for this album, I found it mostly unlistenable in my late teens and early twenties, as I scorned all that I thought was cool as an early teen. These days, I think I give it a pretty fair shake – that scorn tempered by middle-aged nostalgia. I’ve recaptured the joy of the truly joyful songs, while being willing to admit that the clunkers clunk. I probably wouldn’t have said so ten or fifteen years ago, the happiness this album has brought me over the course of 30 years of intense music fandom earns it a spot in my all-time top ten.