It’s New to Elliot: as suggested by Dustin Harmsen

I’m not sure that a couple paragraphs can accurately describe Dustin Harmsen. He is a gentleman of exquisite taste and impeccable manners, who also goes about the world in an admittedly unaware way that causes him to act strangely and confuse people. I know Dustin would admit this. You maybe have met him and thought to yourself, “Surely this guy is full of shit. There’s no way he’s that nice and positive and excited to talk to me, right?” Well, he is. He is all of that and more.

I got to know him after Derek Muse Lambert asked both of us to be in his band, The Prairie Fires. A fast friendship developed from there, and we haven’t looked back since. Dustin asked me to be in his band, The Electrophones, and that has been an incredibly musically rewarding situation since 2012. And among our friend group that started having babies in the last couple years, Dustin and his wife Hannah were the first. They are the leaders we look to for everything. Dustin is my Dad Role Model, for better or worse (mostly better).

Dustin needed only 15 minutes after I contacted him for this to send me a full list of records to hear. I hope I don’t hurt his feelings. He’s such a tender man.

Beach Boys — Smiley Smile

Brian Wilson — Smile

Quick backstory: In ’67, Brian Wilson drove himself crazy trying to make a record equally as good as Sgt. Peppers, and the Beach Boys ultimately had to abandon the project. That was what over 30 years later got released as Smiley Smile. In 2004, Brian Wilson got his act together and put out a solo recording of what that album could have been, and that’s Smile. Because Dustin is a good friend, I went the extra mile for him and listened to six records this week instead of five. This especially was a sacrifice for me since it’s the damn Beach Boys I had to listen to twice. Ugh.

But I kid the Beach Boys! They’re fine. I talked about that a few months ago when I reviewed Surf’s Up. They’re totally okay, they’re just so easily mockable. They’re my favorite punching bag, because they have such punchable faces and punchable voices and punchable style. I think I just see them as being try-hards. The Beatles did try hard, but they made it sound so effortless — Sgt. Peppers is a mostly uncomplicated collection of excellent songs. But these Smiley Smile songs are convoluted mishmashes of oddball melodies and unconventional structures that add up to nothing. Yes, the vocal harmonies are outstanding and the band makes nice sounds, but that doesn’t hold up if nothing is really happening. “Good Vibrations” is the only time where it really works. That is a perfect example of what they wish they could have always done — an impeccable pop song that sounds normal on the surface, but secretly is doing a thousand things at once.

I think I actually prefer the 2004 Brian Wilson recording, if only because it is a complete vision of what the record was supposed to be, and because it has some beefed-up modern production. Wilson’s voice isn’t as perfect on it, but I would kill to sing anywhere close to as good as him when I’m in my 60's.

I still don’t love the Beach Boys, but yeah, they were alright.

My Opinion: 6/10

Parliament — Mothership Connection

Give me music like this all day, every day. How would I ever get sick of it? There’s no chance. This is too good. George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and bunch of whackjobs made up the spaced-out Parliament, quite literally spaced out on this record where the loose theme has to do with aliens coming to Earth because their planet is in dire need of FUNK.

Or maybe that’s not exactly the plot, but hey, it doesn’t truly matter. This is filled to the brim with irresistible bass lines from Collins and vocal hooks that you learn solid before the song is even done. It rarely even has lead vocals — it’s just big group vocals, like an actual party where everyone is on the same trip together. Dr. Dre sampled the title track for “Let Me Ride” — one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever, but I think this original version might be even better. Man, this is just so great. I even forgive the wacky 70’s keyboard solos because they’re bolstered by such excellent grooves. I listened to this while getting ready for work at 6am, and I was unironically dancing while brushing my teeth. Get on this groove with me, my brothers and sisters. Also, as George Clinton says on the record’s opener, “That’s the law around here — you got to wear your sunglasses, so you can feel cool.”

My Opinion: 9/10

Lou Reed — New York

Lou Reed, the personality, is one of my favorites in rock history. He was an unconscionable dick to music journalists for his entire career (look up his interviews with Lester Bangs — they’re almost unbearable). Reed’s approach to music is also an admirable one: he valued poetry and expression over making it big. James Hetfield said that when Metallica recorded the weird collaboration record Lulu with Reed, there was never more than one vocal take on each song. Reed said, “Why would I do it again? The way I did it the first time was how it’s supposed to be.”

So yes, Reed the Guy is great. But I just can’t lock in with Reed the Singer or Reed the Songwriter or Reed the Anything, really. New York is a record that musically takes zero chances — it is the most straightforward of rock’n’roll imaginable. It has no dynamics, no interesting song structure. I like a couple guitar lines because sometimes it’s impossible for me to not physically respond to electric guitar, but that’s it. And Lou’s vocals are…not for me. He doesn’t sing so much as semi-melodically mumble his rambling poetry that ranges from “dumb” to “amusing.” I assume he’s singing about the characters and sights of New York, but Reed loses the plot in his lyrics and then just relies on a droning repeating of the song’s chorus.

If it’s possible to have absolute respect for someone, and yet have zero desire to ever listen to them, then that’s how it is with Lou and I.

My Opinion: 5/10

Jack Nitzsche — Three Piece Suite: The Reprise Recordings, 1971–1973

A guy totally unknown to me, Nitzsche was a singer/composer who did awesome things like work on Neil Young’s Harvest, and not-so-awesome stuff like co-write “Up Where We Belong,” one of the lamest ballads ever. In the early 70’s, he recorded two albums, only one of which was even released, and even that one was immediately forgotten. This is a collection of those two records.

The first big chunk of this collection is all “classical” music, and I put that in quotes because it is classical in form, but not in practice. Nitzsche wrote some of the most terrifying orchestral pieces I’ve ever heard — low, quiet oncoming disasters made by shivering violins and throbbing drums that honestly made me uneasy. And then with almost no transition, it becomes pleasant oboe-laden classical, like the nice parts of Fantasia. It’s not really my style, but I got a kick out of imagining a real-life orchestra having to read this nonsensical music off their sheets and play it like it was just as legitimate as Beethoven.

The rest of the record is like a lesser Harry Nilsson with its piano-driven weirdo 70’s pop songs. Some of those are great, like “Lower California,” most of the others are okay. But I liked it better than that Lou Reed record. Again, sorry Dustin!

My Opinion: 6/10

Adam Green — Sixes & Sevens

I know Dustin loves Adam Green, and I’m pretty sure he’s the same guy Dustin showed me a video of where he was playing a song with his tiny daughter singing along with him. He seems like a real sweet guy, and he’s one of Dustin’s favorites, so I feel bad saying that he is not for me. It’s very easy to see how this could appeal to someone — Green has a wry sensibility and humor that takes the piss out of conventional indie rock by being lo-fi in scope, but not lo-fi in sound. Green’s songs are brightly recorded with fancy female backing vocals and big instrumentation. There is a lot to like here, but it’s just not the stuff I like. Green’s voice is too dopey and effortless, and I know that’s the point. I know he’s supposed to sound funny and unaffected, but I just don’t like to hear a guy basically talking and not trying. It’s just too cute. I also honestly didn’t find a lot of these songs to be very catchy, and even when they were, I was just kinda bored. Sorry to Mr. Green, who I’m sure is a great guy and a great dad. Dads gotta stick together, but I guess not on this one.

My Opinion: 5/10

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