Skull Orchard Revisited
By Jon Langford With David Langford/Verse Chorus Press/2011
Skull Orchard isn't one of the most memorable albums of Jon Langford's indefatigable career as a Mekon, a Waco Brother, a Pine Valley Cosmonaut, a Wee Hairy Beastie, a Killer Shrew, a "solo artist," a painter, a cartoonist, an illustrator, and please let me stop. But it's well in the upper half of a prolific output I don't want to call "distinguished" because that's not Langford's kind of concept‑-or mine either, which is one reason I love him. So if he wants to add an impressive remix, three-and-a-half new songs, the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, and I don't know what-all to the 1998 edition, then stick the CD in the back of a book comprising a long fish story of his own devising, a "South Wales alphabet" by his brother David, assorted lyrics, and profuse illustrative matter, well, that's another reason I love him. That the package sells for barely more than what a CD costs is yet another.
As writing, Skull Orchard Revisited is a hoot beginning to end. It's laid out to tempt you to read its two parts simultaneously, which is tricky but a good idea, because the A-to-Zed bits camouflage whatever holes there may be in the fish story. Langford's account of the seafaring adventures of what are actually two mammals‑-our narrator, the great white ancient mariner Moby Dick, and his genius guide Flipper‑-includes impolite accounts of Captain Morgan, John Huston, and such genuine sea monsters as the hagfish ("It has teeth on its tongue and palate and no sense of humor or poetry"). The story is as sardonically political as any Mekons fan would expect, but half a notch more absurdist, and not always in a dark way. A bigger surprise is that brother Dave, a Hugo-winning science fiction writer who seems to specialize in criticism and parody, is even funnier than Jon. Recounting the Langfords' childhood alphabetically, he had me laughing out loud from "adders" to "zampogna"‑-Wales's "largish Italian community," we learn, "live mostly on zabaglione, ziti, zucchini and Heinz Tomato Zuppe."
What should have been crystal clear in 1998 and certainly is now is that Skull Orchard had to be a solo album because it was all about Langford's roots in Wales. Returning to Whales to die, Moby Dick introduces the Whelsh word "hiraeth," which like other ways of saying nostalgia‑-compare the Portuguese saudade‑-has no direct English translation: "a longing, a yearning, a primitive and almost sexual ache for home." Call Skull Orchard Revisited an attempt to embody hiraeth. And be grateful that Jon Langford's hiraeth, and David's too, is very much unlike saudade because it has so many jokes in it.
Any list of artists with great runs should also include the Grateful Dead whose Warner albums from 1967 debut thru Bob Weir's Ace 1972 (a Dead album in all but name) was all A-listed. And I wouldn't be surprised if Xgau himself would also include Europe 72 which got a B+ at the time but is probably considered Aminus today looking back with historical context. A classic live triple LP.
Public Enemy had an amazing run.
Steve Wonder -- one of the great runs of all time, no?
How can no one have mentioned (unless I missed it) the Clash?
Eminem's first four albums, except for the very good third one, are all classics.
How many great albums did Franco record in a row? We'll probably never know.
Marcus - I'm in complete agreement with your grades on Otis and Aretha below, and I'm sure Xgau would concur as well. I want to mention that this thread started out talking about artists whose first 4 albums rated full "A" or better, and then evolved into artists who had a good run of Aminus or better albums which is a whole other ball of wax.
Did someone mentioned CCR? From Bayou Country on I think it would look something like: A-, A, A+, A, A-
The thing about CCR is that for Bayou Country, Green River, Willie and the Poorboys and Cosmo's Factory I would argue there isn't even a bad song. And if you take the dopey experimental bit out of Pendulum (and even that has a beautiful beginning before it turns to muck), you've got five albums without a bad song and more great songs than you can shake a stick at. And I like Mardi Gras, but it's not a great record.
On the Beatles, I'm the outlier and I think that Let It Be is their best album. It stands up to more repeat listenings than anything else they did, except maybe the earliest albums. So from Rubber Soul on all A/A+ except maybe Magical Mystery Tour, which sort of doesn't count because it's a movie soundtrack. Oh and maybe Yellow Submarine, which doesn't count either for the same reason (but is "It's All Too Much" George's peak? Well the first 90 seconds are anyway.)
Gang of Four had a good run too.
Good call Patrick. Apparently, Bright Lights was not released in the U.S. and yes, it was covered in the Live (More or Less) review. My mistake. That said I do think it is Richard and Linda's best work.
I'm curious about I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Wonder why Xgau missed that one, or did he?Yeah, that was a truly baffling omission. To my knowledge, he hasn't said a word about it even in retrospect. Was it only available as an import at the time?
EDIT: oh wait, apparently he reviewed it as part of Live (More or Less) - an A-
. . . would have to be the greatest album that Xgau hasn't commented uponI'm curious about I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Wonder why Xgau missed that one, or did he?
Anyway, she does have a Facebook page -- burraburrahttp://www.facebook.com/cory.dayecheckher out.
Do others have this album? If you love Dr. Buzzard or Kid Creole it's definitely worth seeking out.
Consider: 3 pop top 10 songs, another pop top 20, covers of other songs originally done by Ray Charles, James "Smokin'" Brown, the Rascals, and the Impressions. (I heard Aretha's cover of "People Get Ready" before I heard the Impressions' version - I never used to the Impressions' version.) And, even, more, Clapton plays on another song.
If on the one hand Born This Way suggests the possibility that workaholism has blurred her distance vision or compromised her quality controls
See, I dunno so much now. On the one hand, he admits he had to work on at least her first release, which to these [Ryan's] ears now sounds absolutley like her best. So he might be allowing it to sink in for a while. On the other hand, I think it's fair to say that those other two records (Remix excluded) really are at least a little better. So much of The Fame Monster really does push the kitsch factor, particularly lyrically ("Bad Romance" the exception) and yet it hits the pleasurezone right away and never leaves. You have to meet too many of Born This Way's songs halfway; the energy and vision and gall too often exceeds the hook appeal, and too much is too obvious. Even her least craftwise moments have had somewhat stronger melodies ("Speechless", a big personal favorite right down to that wondrous vocal), and there's a sort of, I dunno, nuance to sleepier stuff like "So Happy I Could Die" and the Xg-favored "Paper Gangsta" that a lot of Born This Way seems to pretend couldn't exist. On a hand that nobody mentioned was here, it's loud and incessant and pulls few of the punches it deigns to deliver. These have always seemed to be traits Christgau admire, so in the context of the many deserving compliments he applies to Gaga in the article that might equal less-enthusiastic-A-minus-than-Fame-Monster. And of course I'm talking about you in the third person, Xgau, because these are questions you tend to let us know you're not clearing even remotely up beforehand. And good for you, maintaining the integrity of a system we're all quite fond of. But still, I'm gonna keep wondering, and playing a record I'm not all that interested in hearing much further as a result of too many previous experiences where a more focused sense of expertise has pointed out things I couldn't've lived without, and wouldn't've ever discovered without that kind of authoritative hint.
Also I will mention Lynyrd Skynyrd. Of the five studio albums they made before the crash, only "Gimme Back My Bullets" doesn't make the A mark. The first two get all the fanfare but 'Nuthin Fancy" and "Street Survivors" are both excellent, particularly the former.
Did someone mentioned CCR? From Bayou Country on I think it would look something like: A-, A, A+, A, A-. Rod Stewart's first four are all A-/A according to Xgau. Also Talking Heads & Van Morrison had very good runs.
Being a bit of a soul/r&b freak I can drop my humble two cents on the early Otis/Atlantic-Aretha stuff.
Pain in My Heart: A
Sings Soul Ballads: A-
Otis Blue: A
Soul Album: A & one of my favs with killer cuts Just One More Day, Cigarettes & Coffee, Scratch My Back, Everybody Makes a Mistake. Covers of Eddie Floyd, Temps, Cooke all work for me.
And just for fun . . .
Dictionary of Soul: A+
King & Queen: A
Dock of the Bay: A- (Recycles Tramp & Ole Man Trouble)
Love Man: A
Tell the Truth: Bish
I Never Loved A Man: A
Aretha Arrives: B+/A-
Lady Soul: A
Aretha Now: A-
Soul 69: B
This Girls In Love: B+
Spirit in the Dark: A+
Young, Gifted & Black: A
New Gaga article on B&N site. FYI. Gonna read it now. More later.
UPDATE- I read the article and your guess on the soon to come grade is as good as mine. Note the date on the article is listed as two days from now??
I await the great Gaga debate to follow.
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.