The Ache in Spades

There’s a quality in certain music that I like to call the Ache. Those who have a gift for it can express all the delicious complexity of human life — the love, the loss, the longing, and all those things starting with “L” — in a three- or four-minute song. Sinatra had it. Billie Holliday had it, and Hank Williams, just off the top of my head.

I’m in the mood for the Ache these days, so it’s a damn good thing I recently acquired the 4-CD boxed set called The Immortal Soul of Al Green. Al has the Ache in spades. It’s only one of his modes, of course, alongside the preacher and the swaggering sex god. But when Al really reaches for the Ache on a song like “Simply Beautiful”…well, time stops, space disappears. It’s magic.

I can’t think of any other singer in whom the different kinds of love are so intermingled. Romantic love, sexual love, love of God, love of life — with Al there’s no strict line between them, they’re all coming from the same wellspring. The Reverend is just so full of love that if he didn’t express it he would explode, showering everyone in the vicinity with viscous, sticky love juice.

But I did not sit down today to write about Al Green’s love juice. Resuming my belated discussion of some of the best albums of 2004,* I’d like to look at three modern-day practitioners of the Ache.

*(That’s not a typo. I’m a year behind. So sue me.)

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Beulah
Yoko

I first learned about Beulah when I worked with one of the guys in the band a few years back. I picked up their 2001 album The Coast Is Never Clear just to hear what they sounded like, expecting it to be lame, which is what happens 95% of the time when you meet people in bands. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that I didn’t just like it, I loved it. (Please read that last phrase to yourself in a Gene Shalit voice.) In fact it’s become an all-time favorite.

Yoko is the follow-up, and also by design their last release before breaking up (hence the title). It’s a smaller album than The Coast Is Never Clear — only 10 songs, but each one is a highly polished little gem, making this a nearly perfect listening experience. Beulah are (were) masters at deploying sunny melodies, noisy guitars, and ingenious arrangements in service of a melancholy agenda, and the Ache factor here is amplified by the foreknowledge of the band’s demise. Which seems a bit premature, in all honesty. This is a great swan song, but I think I speak for all the listeners when I say: Boys, we’re willing to forget that the whole thing ever happened and buy your next album.

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Air
Talkie Walkie

Times sure do change. I never thought I’d find myself heaping praise on a mostly electronic album by a couple of stubble-wearing Frenchies, but I cannot tell a lie — this is great stuff. The French as a people have a special affinity for the Ache, and Talkie Walkie is dripping with it from the opening notes.

I have to deduct a couple of points for spotty accents, but at least they do have the Courtesy to Sing in English most of the time. The best song might be the instrumental “Alpha Beta Gaga,” which combines banjo, whistling, and synthesizers into something almost ridiculously catchy. Then again it might be “Surfing on a Rocket,” which is so damn good that I’m going to go into the other room and put it on right now.

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Martina Topley-Bird
Anything

This album by Tricky’s ex-muse/collaborator/babymama is way better than anything the Trickster himself has done in the last nine years. In fact it’s quite possibly the best album of 2004, one of those that grows on you every time you hear it, just keeps getting better and better.

Anything opens with the title track, an epic, swoony, Aching love ballad that’s worth the price of admission by itself. From there Martina jumps around to numerous styles, and is never less than completely successful at any of them. “Need One” is an honest-to-God rock song with electric guitars and a soaring chorus, and “Soul Food” is neo-soul worthy of Macy Gray at her most coherent. “Ilya” and “Sandpaper Kisses” are good old-fashioned trip-hop circa 1995 — and I say, what’s wrong with 1995?

Speaking of which, Tricky makes an appearance on a skittery drum’n’bass number called “Ragga.” The redoubtable David Holmes also turns up, lending his production talents to the swaggering “Too Tough to Die.” And then the album closes out with another heartbreaker, the bittersweet “Lullaby.”

So what are unifying elements to all this? Well, excellent songwriting — and I’m talking actual, musical songwriting here, not just cut’n’paste stuff — crafty instrumentation, and razor-sharp production. And of course Martina’s voice, which is a true wonderment, matching the Ache of Billie Holliday to the raw power of Aretha Franklin. Is that possible? Am I nuts? Have a listen for yourself and find out.

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