18 September 2013

PERFECT ALBUM: Fleetwood Mac - "Rumours"

On one typically sunny, crystal-blue persuas-, er, sky morning in Los Angeles I decided to throw on an album I hadn't listened to all the way through in a number of years: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

I turned the record on, started driving, blinked and then about 39 minutes and 3 seconds later I was sitting in my car at the parking lot marveling to myself, "This just might be a perfect album."

Revisiting Rumours was sort of a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment for me. I mean, I get it. Rumours is a fantastic album. It's a critically acclaimed album that regularly finds itself on top-whatever lists. It sold a zillion records. Your mom and dad love it. You love it. Pretty much all of your friends young and old love it. Seriously, we get it.

But when was the last time you sat down and just really listened to that album? Uninterrupted? Give it a go and check back with me in about forty minutes.

Done? Okay. See? Perfect.

And going by my rough criteria established in my introductory post about what makes a so-called perfect album, Rumours ticks all the boxes.
  • Album length/Track length: Rumours weighs in at a spry 39 minutes and 3 seconds over 11 tracks. The longest track is the closer - "Gold Dust Woman" - at just a shade over 5 minutes and at a glance the average track length is about three and a half minutes.
  • Track sequence/Pace: Track sequencing is where Rumours shines.

    Bear with me while I go briefly run through the track list.

    You start with the upbeat opener of "Second Hand News" (Get it? It's called Rumours). Then there's the simmering sexiness of "Dreams," followed by the light, bouncy Lindsey Buckingham track "Never Going Back Again." Then comes another hit "Don't Stop" and then yet another "Go Your Own Way." The album slows down with Christine McVie's "Songbird." The first introduction of a piano on this record. And if you're listening on vinyl - the way Fleetwood Mac intended - "Songbird" is the close of the first side of the record.

    Now pause for a second, pretend you're walking over to your record player and flip the album and start with the roadhouse-blues-style of "Chains" which slowly builds and erupts into a furious guitar solo. A fantastic start to the second side.

    Shift to another ethereal McVie track "You Make Loving Fun" followed by the flirty guitar riffs and the carefree tones of "I Don't Want To Know." McVie takes the lead again on the plaintive "Oh Daddy."

    Rumours closes with the epic "Gold Dust Woman" of which Stevie Nicks remarked in an October 1997 Spin magazine interview (Trivia: Courtney Love interviewed Nicks):
    I don't really know what "Gold Dust Woman" is about. I know there was cocaine there and that I fancied it gold dust, somehow. I'm going to have to go back to my journals and see if I can pull something out about "Gold Dust Woman". Because I don't really know. It's weird that I'm not quite sure. It can't be all about cocaine.
    In a VH1 interview Nicks stated:
    "Gold Dust Woman" was my kind of symbolic look at somebody going through a bad relationship, doing a lot of drugs, and trying to make it. Trying to live. Trying to get through it.
    And with "Gold Dust Woman" you have that epic closer that I think is a crucial part of the criteria for a perfect album.

    There you have it. Perfect sequencing. Perfect pace. Upbeat songs followed by slow, lush production followed by sparse. Zero filler. And even if you're thinking about skipping ahead to the next track (though, why would you?), the next song comes on before you can even complete that thought. Just perfect all-around.
  • Hits/Accessibility: Did you listen to the album? No problems in this department.
  • Cohesion: One can't under-estimate the influence of a good producer/engineer to pull an album together. Engineer-cum-producer Ken Caillat - about 30-years-old when he recorded Rumours - stated in an interview in the July/August 2013 issue of Tape Op magazine:
    I told [Fleetwood Mac] on the third day [of tracking Rumours] that we were going to get a Grammy for this record. They went, "Sure." So I was intent on doing that, but then they threw me a curve. On the second or third day in the studio they said, "You can't just sit there, turning knobs. You have to participate and listen to what's going on. We want you to be our eyes and ears." [...] They basically wanted me to learn to be a producer, like, "Here's how you do it."
    Recording in 1976 was a completely different process. There wasn't the ease (or crutch?) of using digital recording software like Pro Tools. Caillat mentions:
    I think [Pro Tools] is great. [I]t makes my job a lot easier in some ways. But after writing [Making Rumours: The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album], and talking about it enough, I've realized that one of the blessings about analog was that it was a slower process [...] When you're running analog tape you had to rewind [...] While I'm rewinding I have to fill time, so it's like, "Hey, Lindsey, that was a great part. On that second verse, you started doing this syncopated thing. I don't what it was, but it was really cool." He'd say, "Really, could you play that for me?" I'd stop and play him back the part. And he'd say, "Wow, that was cool. I didn't realize that." So I'd say, "Do that some more." You have all this talking. But in Pro Tools it's just, "Boom, boom, boom. Start again." [...] I want to slow the process down and bring talking and creativity back into it. With Fleetwood Mac, they were all sitting in a room with us and they had no place to go.
    Take the strong individual musicianship and songwriting talent of each member of Fleetwood Mac, combine it with the thematic and technical aspects of the recording sessions and the result is a beautiful, unique, cohesive, and perfect record.

    I discovered that Caillat pretty much agrees with me. In a CNN interview back in 2012 Caillat says Rumours is the "perfect album because it had this really great combination of lyrics and ... well-thought-out musical components. It's the perfect ride for the perfect time."

So, basically, you can thank/blame Rumours for sparking this whole discussion about the so-called perfect album. And after taking my "perfect" album criteria into consideration, Rumours sets the tone and stands as a benchmark for other potentially perfect albums. (Spoiler: A lot of my other perfect albums never seem to be quite as good as Rumours. Just saying.)

More perfect album dissection coming on PetBearSounds.com. Stay tuned!

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