If you had to go away for awhile and you could only take five of your favorite albums with you, which ones would you choose? Yes, we know it isn’t a fair question, but that hasn’t stopped us from asking music fans who happen to be recording artists in their own right. This edition of Desert Island Discs comes courtesy of Stephan Bayley of City Squirrel, whose latest album, defeat, is out now. Visit the band’s site for samples of their music — after reading Stephan’s Desert Island picks, of course!
John Cale – Paris 1919
Paris 1919 is the ultimate album by my favorite still-living singer-songwriter. As a founding member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is too often overshadowed by his former bandmate Lou Reed. In his career, Cale’s pretty much mastered every aspect of his craft. He started by introducing us to his unique style of viola playing, along with the punk bass parts he did on the first two V.U. albums, which, in a way, paved the way for everything else he did ever since.
In short, he’s done it all. Still, Paris 1919 isn’t for everyone. But for me this is his greatest moment. Sonically, the recordings–done in the early ’70s–are actually quite dull by today’s standards. But this album speaks to me like none other, as the songs sometimes have odd, yet brilliant, arrangements. I met John Cale after one of his shows a long while ago and had him sign my copy of this CD. He scribbled his name with a Sharpie on the front while sitting in the passenger seat of the van, waiting to leave. Brushes with greatness–life affirmed.
Radiohead – In Rainbows
I am, admittedly, a late bloomer when it comes to Radiohead. This was the first album of theirs I really got into. And maybe it’s just because it was my first real exposure to them, but I feel like it’s their most solid album from top to bottom. There are no extensive electronica meanderings that might let up on the intensity like on some of their other albums. Yet, this album is almost full of “Perfect 10s” to me. I’ve since gotten into their back catalog and think, “Man, how do they consistently put out so much great shit?!” Professional athletes who regularly, and easily, out-perform their peers are often accused of taking steroids. So, I am publicly accusing Radiohead of taking steroids–lots of ‘em. Or, at least, perhaps lots of something, if not steroids…
Elliot Smith – Either Or
I have done so many home recordings, so many demos, so many songs where I’ve done all the instruments and sang everything in my own little dark hole of songwriter’s solitude. All the while I feel I have gotten better over the years. But nothing done in my home even comes close to this Elliot Smith album in which he displays complete, singular mastery of the home demo variety.
Even after he bitch-slaps the genre out of the park, it still has my favorite collection of Elliot Smith songs on it. “Ballad of Big Nothing” is an all-time fave, and the guitar solo on “Cupid’s Trick” makes the hair on my arms stand on end whenever I hear it played. While I can appreciate the pristine production qualities of the later recordings, I find I’m most comfortable with this stage of his career and that this album has the perfect blend of his styles of songwriting–with an additional keen sense of arranging, since all the instruments were played by him. Elliot Smith kicked some serious ass and for me this album is my favorite example as to why, or how. Plus I’d like to think we would’ve gotten along swimmingly. I wish I had moved to Portland years earlier; I wish I had been his friend.
Grizzly Bear – Yellow House
While the follow-up release, Veckatamist, propelled Grizzly Bear beyond indie-only status and into national television performances and TV ad spots (“Two Weeks” was used in a Volkswagon commercial), it was their lesser known album, Yellow House, that sucked me into their world. I went ape over this album when it came out and listened to it religiously that year. This album introduced me to sonic possibilities I hadn’t thought of from an engineering standpoint. Their use of compression, reverb, room mic’ing and extreme treatments on certain instruments made this album sound pretty exotic to me. That, plus the fact that the songs were very intensely performed and the singing was great made me a believer in them. So, I willingly joined the throngs of indie dudes and drank from the Grizzly Bear punch bowl of a few years ago. For me, Yellow House was the appetizer I harkened back to long after the fancier main course, Veckatamist, was devoured.
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – Spanish Dance Troupe
Since Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci is one of my favorite bands ever, I felt the need to include something by them on this list. Not that this album is clearly their best, it just happens to be the one that means the most to me. Again–as is often the case–this was my first exposure to their music. Led by my second favorite living Welsh singer-songwriter, Euros Childs (see John Cale above for number one), this band to me is the perfect blending of anglo-folkiness, psychedelia, moodiness laced with spurts of amphetamine, sometimes sung in Welsh, and at other times in English. But regardless of the tongue, I was hooked by their overall charm and wanted to hear the end of every story.
Track one is very visual–I would guess written about Euros’ grandmother. “She ain’t walking down the hallway anymore, she’d been going down for 80 years or more, but now her memory lives on, in a children’s song, she ain’t walking down the hallway anymore.” The acoustic and pedal steel guitars drift off by song’s end into a Heaven that we hope exists. Track two then drags us back to Earth and into a dance party somewhere with their unique version of Welsh folk-punk in, “Poodle Rockin.”
I saw this band play at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis a long time ago. Then a few years later, after the band had broken up, Euros Childs played a show in Portland at a club called Holocene. We invited him over to our table to chat, and I mentioned to him that I saw him play several years ago, and that I got a photo taken with him, etc. I asked him if he remembered that night. He turned to me and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the t-shirt underneath which said “400 Bar.” Hells-to-the-Yeah! We then shared our bottle of wine with him before he went up on stage. Afterwards a friend of mine, who’s bolder than I, grabbed one of the set lists for me, and we had the band sign it. I love my friends. Again, brushes with greatness, with great friends–Affirming existence for me.
City Squirrel, “Free to Disappear”