Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Time is Golden, the debut--and only--LP from Australian rock band Big Smoke.
When you start out in music writing school (lol) they tell you you’re supposed to remove the art from the artist; no context should ever come in to the reviews you write. The music should be separate from everything and considered on its own terms, some writers and commenters still claim, despite that being insane and refusing to acknowledge that people are not robots. Everything is context when you’re a human being on earth.
Which is to say the Album of the Week this week is Big Smoke’s Time is Golden, and there’s basically no way it could be anything else. I’ve been obsessed with this album, and this band, since June when I first got the unmastered version of the album in preparation for us doing a big story on the band, partially to promote our exclusive pressing (only 30-ish copies are left, get on it) and partially because the story of the band was too tragic, too powerful, too beautiful that we felt we needed to tell it. If you don’t know the story, go to that link. But in case you want the CliffsNotes: Adrian Slattery, the lead singer of Big Smoke was a Zelig of the Melbourne music scene, who played in some beloved bands that never quite broke big. He started Big Smoke, and in early 2015 they got signed and seemed ready to break through. Then he got diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer, and his band had to record Time is Golden around his treatments and on an obviously rushed timeline. They finished the album, asked a big name producer to master it, and then Adrian died before he could see the project cross the finish line. The producer--Shawn Everett, he of the Grammy awards for Alabama Shakes--and the rest of the band--who quit their jobs to help Adrian finish the album when he was alive--finished it in August, and the album is here, now. It’s a story of a man leaving his artistic legacy the way he wanted to, despite the longest of odds.
So, I can’t remove this context from the album. But I don’t think you should want to even if you could. “Lay Thy Hand,” a tender ballad on the back half of Time is Golden is super beautiful and affecting, but knowing that Adrian wrote that as one of the last songs for the album makes lines like, “Lay thy hand upon my own, let it trace all the memory” extra devastating. The message of a “Best of You”--with its lyrics about making the most of the short time you have going around the sun--is amplified when its author did just that for real. It wasn’t just a songwriting platitude to Adrian; he lived these lyrics. It’s for this reason that I have yet to make it through the whole album without tearing up a little.
I could write a mini essay on the power and greatness of “Wrong,” for my money the best capital R Rock song released this year. It’s like Bruce Springsteen fronting Big Star in a Richard Linklater movie. It sounds like the cover of Time is Golden, and it also sounds like a rejected cut from the Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack. I speak from experience that there is no greater song to grill a hamburger to out in 2016.
I could also write another mini essay on how the guitar solo crests like a tsunami at the 4-minute mark of “When You Dance,” and how that song feels like a funeral processional as booked and programmed by Slash in the “November Rain” video. And how that sax solo at the end leaves me staring into the middle distance pondering all of life’s mysteries each time I hear it. I could also write a short novella on what it’s like to listen to “Honey I” when you’re driving on 94 between Madison and Minneapolis and you’re hungover after a weekend spent drinking your BMI with old friends, and how it can wake you up with more vigor than any energy drink that’s commercially available.
But I won’t. Because now this album is out in the world, and it’s time for you to add your own context to it. I can’t say if this will end up being one of your favorite LPs this year. All I know is that no other album this year made me feel more alive than this one.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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