The way Adam Marsland sees it, the hallmarks of a great double album are “a spirit of adventure, creating a larger world of the imagination that you can retreat to again and again, and knowing when to reel it in, so you don’t try the listener’s patience.”
With that in mind, the California-based singer and multi-instrumentalist recorded a double disc of his own, the diverse, 23-track Go West, which was released during the summer. He recently took some time to discuss the half-dozen double albums that were the most influential to him making Go West. His tastes skewed toward the ‘70s, he says, because the concept of the double album is “rooted in vinyl, and the sounds that resonate with me are layered, pop-based compositions recorded by real musicians on real instruments.”
* 1. and 2. Elton John‘s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) and Blue Moves (1976)
“Elton John made two double albums in his ’70s heyday, and they’re very
different. Brick Road is Elton at his zenith; Moves is where it all went South.
“Brick Road is the only original double album I can think of that’s simply a wall of great pop songs, one after another. There’s no filler and only one big long experimental track on the whole thing. Where Elton was adventurous was in going all over the place genre-wise and exploring all his influences, but you always know it’s Elton, and each song stands on its own as a great pop song. You never get bored and you never get lost, either. I wanted to try to match that approach.
“That said, I’ve always preferred Blue Moves, even though there’s maybe three really good songs on it, because of its overall vibe and sheer balls. There are seven-minute long orchestral ballads, long, dissonant instrumental passages that sound more like Weather Report than pop music, all the tracks go on too long (except for the ones that are too short) and there’s a mad, depressive quality to the lyrics. It’s the antithesis of Brick Road, but it has this impenetrable vibe that sucks me in every time. The pop hooks are just present enough to provide a touchstone, unlike some of Todd Rundgren‘s albums, where he’ll give you a sugary pop song and then an interminable space jam.
“Also, the [musicians] on Blue Moves are monster players who can cover every instrument under the sun but totally stay out of each others’ way. The density, groove, and clarity of the tracks is unbelievable. So Brick Road has the songwriting goods, whereas Blue Moves has the bravery and the atmosphere.”
* 3. Todd Rundgren‘s Something/Anything (1972)
“This was Todd’s breakthrough album. For the first time, he shows us the breadth of his abilities, but he hasn’t yet gotten bored with the pop idiom and begun a career of testing the patience of his audience. For the first three sides, Todd plays all the instruments himself, not to mention engineering, and you can hear the sheer joy of “Hey! I can do this!” in every song.
“The fourth side is a live-in-the-studio about a different way; it’s like opening the window and letting in some fresh air.
“I felt the same way doing Go West. I’d learned to sing, play all these instruments, arrange, record and mix, and do them all pretty well. It dawned on me that there was nothing holding me back — the music just
poured out with no filter or delay. I could also alternate between doing the tracks myself and with the band, so you mixed both approaches and gave a little variety to the work process to keep the juices flowing.
“That’s how Something/Anything is to me — just this great voyage of self-discovery, varying your approach a little with each song, throwing things at the wall to see if they would work, and they do. Go West had the same thing happening.”
* 4. Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk (1979)
“I put this in the same category as Blue Moves because if you break this down track by track, a lot of the songs don’t hold up, but you can’t beat Tusk for atmosphere and sheer balls. You had a band coming off the biggest selling album of all time releasing a single that sounded like it might have been — and in fact was — recorded at the bottom of a football field by a bunch of random people doing a jungle chant.
“You had Lindsey Buckingham replacing one of rock’s most intuitive drummers on some tracks with a shambling snare drum recorded in a toilet. But most of all, you had a great band with an awesome rhythm section, three distinct singer/songwriters and unlimited cash turning over the keys to somebody bursting with imagination and inspiration and who was ready to bust out of the box and break the mold. Even when Tusk‘s flaws show, it’s always interesting.
“The production on [my] ‘December 24,’ with all the gauzy guitars and vocals and weird keyboards, was a deliberate tip of the hat to this album. In my mind, Buckingham is the one true inheritor to Brian Wilson because instead of getting caught up in trying to duplicate Pet Sounds or Smile, he applied the same principles of sound to his own unique talents (particularly his approach to the guitar), and in so doing found his own voice (and sold a ton of records, too).
* 5. The Rolling Stones‘ Exile on Main Street (1972)
“I wasn’t weaned on this album as I was with the others, but the idea and basic sound of it were helpful in getting over the fear of doing my own recording after having had a sound engineer to hold my hand.
“A few times I did something really [screwed] up and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, this is going to sound like [crap],’ and then I’d think, ‘Well Exile was messy and muddy and sometimes incompetent, but it was also a bunch of guys just recording stuff on their own time without much forethought that just felt good,’ and it totally worked and became a classic even if the first impression in ’72 might have been ‘What’s up with this mix?’
“On [my song] ‘Burn Down the World,’ I had a throat infection when I did the vocal, and I recorded it a little too hot, so it sounds like an old blues guy in spots. Technically, it wasn’t in spec and it caused some problems in the
mixdown, but the feel was great, so I just went with it.
“On ‘Trains,’ I was in my garage and dead drunk when I did the vocal. There were four different takes and compression settings, and you can hear crickets chirping on the track, but the emotion was the real thing, so I kept the performance and just adjusted it in the mix enough to go by.
“Exile gave me the permission to just hurry up and set up the mike and record it when I was on fire to do something, and worry about the technical problems later. As it happens, it’s the first album I’ve done where there was a Stones influence musically.
“Also, the cover of Go West was chosen partly because it suggested Exile‘s with more of a pop vibe.”
* 6. Stevie Wonder‘s Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
“Great double albums, to me, are ultimately triumphs of imagination, and very few musicians had the breadth of vision, nor the idiosyncratic musical chops, that Stevie Wonder had in the ’70s.
“Songs in the Key of Life isn’t Stevie’s best album — Innervisions is one of the best albums ever made by anybody — but it is the one where Stevie let it all hang out and stretched his mind as far as it would go, and that is way beyond the horizon of us mere mortals. He never reached this high again. Not every track works, and a few go on too long (though I wouldn’t miss a second of “Joy Inside My Tears”), but for the sheer joy of creativity and purity of expression, this is about as good as it gets.
“Stevie directly influenced a few songs on Go West, most obviously ‘Two Children in a Bed,’ but ultimately his ’70s work is, to paraphrase Kanye West, simply a goalpost to strive toward even though you’ll never get there because why try to match anything but the very best?”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Adam Marsland on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Sept. 24: Lucky’s – Cortland, N.Y.
* Sept. 25: Pearly Baker’s Ale House – Easton, Pa.
* Sept. 26: homegrownradionj.com concert – Blairstown, N.J.
* Sept. 27: Stage on Herr – Harrisburg, Pa.
* Sept. 28: The Galaxy Hut – Arlington, Va.
* Sept. 29: The Funhouse – Bethlehem, Pa.
* Sept. 30: Cyber West Café – Binghamton, N.Y.
* Oct. 1: Fat Baby – New York
* Oct. 3: The Treehouse – Columbus, Ohio
* Oct. 4: The Barking Spider – Cleveland
* Oct. 7: Wooley Bully’s – New Brighton, Pa.