I used to work for this incredible old school record industry lifer, the kind of guy who was closer to a mob capo than an executive. There was no question he was involved in some dirty business, but he always walked away clean. His occasional stories about lawsuits in Texas and strongarming oldies stations used to leave me speechless in his office. He put out his first record when he was nineteen or twenty, the Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” and hasn’t strayed from the record business since.
He used to have this thing about sequencing LPs, he said you should put the best song first and the second best song last, and the rest didn’t really matter. He also said, playing live, you should reverse that, and save the best for last. Anyway, his energy was always so quietly menacing and untouchable that it didn’t even occur to me to contradict him, but even then I thought he was wrong. I always liked records that start a little slow and then rage for the last 2/3rds: Folk Roots New Routes, Purple Haze, Youth of America. What I like even better, though, is figuring out when artists use patterns. The best example of course is Metallica.
It basically broke my mind in eighth grade when my friend Matt explained that Justice, Master, and Ride the Lightning all follow the same basic pattern: rager up front, ballad halfway through, instrumental towards the end, and another rager as the finale. They didn’t quite figure it out at first, ending Ride the Lightning with “Call of Ktulu” instead of a beast like “Dyers Eve,” but it’s basically the same curve. For me, their dedication to this structure is strong evidence of the singular, destructive focus that made those three records so great.
The other example I always think of is Fred Thomas, who has been making records that peak in the middle since I met him in 1997. The red Lovesick LP, all the Saturday Looks Good To Me records, “Sink Like a Symphony”, they all hit super hard in the middle and then dissipate with this really thoughtful energy, that dawn/dusk transitional energy. Maybe one last burst towards the end (“Tiger’s Ghost” or “Ultimate Stars”). Part of the magic of seeing it happen again and again over the last fifteen years is the way that it kept me thinking forwards, instead of backwards. Not that there’s a storyline that runs from record to record, but the settling dust of a song like “When You Got To New York” would keep my eyes ahead on the next explosion of song instead of dwelling on the last one.
City Center’s new record, Redeemer, came out this week. The first Silk Flowers tour was with City Center, and we’ve played more shows with them than with any other band. When I first heard “Redeemer” I recognized a lot of the songs from these shows, and when it hit track 5, “Cookies,” I thought I recognized that familiar Fred Thomas pattern again. The first time I heard “Cookies” was at our record release show in 2009. It stood out to me then as a brilliant (in the sense of light), desperate and shaking song, i.e. the kind of song Fred would put at the center of an LP. I saw them a couple months later and it stood out to me so much I didn’t really catch the rest of their set. Which meant I didn’t consciously register “Teardrop Children.”
Toward the end of Redeemer there’s a song called “Soft Marauder” and that’s exactly what it is. A lot of rounded-off tones, almost underwater sounding, with that same dawn/dusk feeling I always want at this point in a record. When it ended, and the first notes of “Teardrop Children” began, I suddenly remembered the song with a sharpness that surprised me. By the halfway point of the song I felt insane, so stirred up and breathless. The song is now probably my favorite City Center song (maybe tied with “Young Diamond”) and the revelation of ending the record on this kind of note shocks me every time I listen to Redeemer. I’ve written here before about the concealed darkness in City Center songs, the direness lurking under the surface. For Redeemer, this all comes to the surface at the end, confrontational and comforting at the same time. It’s a weird new feeling, but I’m so happy for it, and excited to see what’s next in a totally new way.