It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
"We believe that we can't be wrong," Paul and Linda McCartney sing over and over again at the Sgt. Pepper-y peak of the lone album jointly credited to them, 1971's critically trashed but artistically and commercially triumphant Ram. That declaration occurs on a disc that feels casual. Paul puts on some silly voices to sing about "Monkberry Moon Delight" and other alliterative nonsense because it sounds good, and he packages the results in a garish album cover seemingly by and for kiddies. But however wry or seemingly offhand the master musician is elsewhere, the album's climactic mission statement is dead earnest: Paul and Linda were liberated by love. They believed in it, and with it, they essentially invented what we now call indie rock.
McCartney knew what to do with non-singers: For years he'd written knockout songs like "With a Little Help from My Friends" for his vocally challenged bandmate Ringo Starr. So he features Linda in "Long Haired Lady" making a mess of the notes, but answers her with equally discordant horns, so that the effect is balanced, seemingly intentional, and they sing together in the background throughout Ram with nearly identical voices, like brother and sister. McCartney is doggedly determined here to make anything work. His resourceful, whimsical ability to run with the most ridiculous, seemingly random ideas is chiefly because he's trying to create a harmonious whole that's bigger than the sum of widely disparate parts — particularly on "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," the wackiest cut-and-paste chart-topping/million-selling single ever. In time, Ram became the benchmark of do-it-yourself, fuck-the-industry-and-the-consequences pop and rock. It's the spirit of love, and it's larger than any limitation, musical or otherwise.
The One-Man Beatle
Before he reached his 20s, Emitt Rhodes was already burned out on bands: The young Hawthorne, California, multi-instrumentalist had led the Merry-Go-Round, a Beatles/Byrds hybrid who scored a couple of Southern Cali hits in 1967, but couldn't crack the national market. So the resourceful teen built his own studio in his dad's garage, and in late 1970, while he was still 20, released an eponymous album on which he wrote, recorded, played and sang everything. It might be the first fully self-contained, home-recorded album to go Top 30; even his obvious inspiration, Paul McCartney, sometimes resorted to Abbey Road for his similarly crafted album earlier that year. Blessed with a clear tenor and superb songwriting and arrangement abilities, Rhodes here proves himself such a skilled Beatle student that his solo debut eclipses most everything on Paul's doodle-heavy McCartney. Unfortunately, he signed a contract that demanded an album every six months, and each of his meticulous efforts took much longer to make. His label slapped him with a lawsuit, held his royalties, and booted him off after three albums. This collection includes those albums, a non-LP single, and previously recorded set that satisfied his Merry-Go-Round obligations. Start with tracks 14 through 25, the Emitt Rhodes disc, and marvel at a kid who truly was too good for the world in which he found himself.
The Funky Family
Garish, Easter-hued, Magic Marker cover? Check. Ace musicianship mixed with maladroit vocal backing? Check. Goofy, childlike lyrics full of in-jokes? Check. Husband-and-wife team and possibly a lot of grass? Double-check. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz's side project may have been rooted in early-'80s club music and not early-'70s studio rock, but it nevertheless flaunts a you-and-me-against-the-world Ram vibe. As on that album, the reigning marital unit on this hit 1981 debut gets bolstered by super players — future King Crimson guitarist and recent Talking Heads guest Adrian Belew, Wailers keyboardist Tyrone Downie, and Black Uhuru percussionist Uziah Thompson. Weymouth flanks her unsteady childlike voice with her three similarly unskilled sisters to create a cooing choir of seemingly stoned librarians who float amongst the funk like ghosts in the dub machine. "Whatcha gonna do when you get outta jail?" from the classic block party starter "Genius of Love" remains one of the greatest opening lines ever; all of "Wordy Rappinghood" is that fly, and the rest decorates your head and feet like ambient psychedelic wallpaper.
The Space-Age Lovebirds
Paul McCartney and his pals recorded lots of weird shit, like their Native-American-via-Krautrock instrumental "Loup (1st Indian on the Moon)" on Wings' Red Rose Speedway, and the critics of the '70s thought it juvenile. Stereolab made a career out of similarly seemingly random combinations, and the critics of the '90s thought it Marxist. Like the McCartneys, Englishman Tim McCane and his French then-squeeze LÃ¦titia Sadier mixed the easy with the arcane; pleasant pop melodies sung by Sadier (often joined by fellow multi-instrumentalist Mary Hansen) waft over drones and beats seemingly beamed down from another galaxy. Although their consciousness was as DIY as indie gets, Stereolab steadily ramped up its studio craft to increasingly high-tech and exacting standards. On this 1996 disc, its fourth, the London-based international band finds the sweet spot between the Velvet Underground-eque drones of their early work and the jazz/exotica/prog of future explorations. Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas arranges the strings and plays keys and vibes; John McEntire of Tortoise presumably tackles the trickier bits. Organs, analogue synths, vintage guitars, and other instrumentation from Wings' era mass together like schooling fish, then drift apart. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is an impeccably curated and maintained aquarium of sound.
The Backlash Inheritors
Everything Paul McCartney has done for the last 42 years has been measured against nine years of Beatles records. People aren't so cruel about it now, but back when Ram was released in 1971, a year after the Fab Four breakup announcement, many former Beatlemaniacs hated on their heroes the way only freshly-jilted lovers can. These days, bands feel a different kind of pressure from new media, which can jump on young unknowns, hype them out of proportion, and then discard them when they don't live up to unreasonable expectations. That's exactly what happened to Black Kids, a spunky Jacksonville, Florida, quintet that self-released their 2007 debut EP Wizard of Ahhhs on MySpace and soon found themselves in a cyclone of blogger buzz that landed them on a Sony label. A year later, Pitchfork dismissed the full album Partie Traumatic with a 3.3 grade and a comically cute photo of a pair of pugs — one white, one black, an echo of the band's black/white/male/female lineup — with the caption "Sorry :-/" instead of an actual review. Other online publications followed suit with similar sniping, and four years later, Partie Traumatic remains Black Kids' only album.
Like Ram, it's ripe for reappraisal; everything charming about Wizard of Ahhhs is here with far tighter performances made even punchier via sympathetic production by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. The influences are obvious, yet choice; "I'm Making Eyes at You" is essentially the Cure's "Close to Me" with female backup, and the Smiths, New Order, Blondie, Junior Senior and Sam Cooke leave similar lipstick traces elsewhere. These Kids don't possess polished voices, but they interact enthusiastically, and the songwriting, although full of androgynous quirks and internationalist wit, is as pop-friendly as indie gets: Glee covered "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You," following the Twelves Remix version (included here as a bonus track) pretty much note for note. Like Ram-era McCartney, Black Kids are simultaneously clever and goofy; a combo still in short musical supply. It would be tragic if Partie Traumatic was the last from these serious jokers.
The Tricks Not Just For Kids
Wings' outrageously dippy 1972 version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" proved how far Paul McCartney could humiliate himself while putting his budding family first, but Ram and the best of his post-Beatles discs stay on the right side of the dividing line between what's childlike and childish. Since its beginnings in 1969, Sesame Street has similarly entertained kids while winking at their parents. As its cover suggests, this 1983 album (amended for compact disc in '93) features Muppets and Muppeteers spoofing pop styles from the doo-wop of "Count Up to Nine" and "The Ten Commandments of Health" to the classic rock of "(I Can't Get No) Co-Operation." The best tracks feature the most specific caricatures — "Barn in the U.S.A" and the title track of course spoof The Boss, but the most mischievous cut of all, "Me Going to Munch You, Munch You, Munch You," lampoons Barry White's 1973 smash "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby" with rascally precision. Given the original's romantic context, the libidinous qualities that have always lurked beneath Cookie Monster's furry blue surfaces here come to the fore. Like McCartney on Ram's "Eat at Home," there's the strong suggestion that Cookie's moaning about something besides snacking. (And don't overlook two volumes of Sesame Road, where delightfully silly send-ups of the Beatles, Billy Idol, Madonna, and other superstars await you.)