45th Favorite Album

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Stay Positive. The Hold Steady.
2008, Vagrant/Rough Trade. Producer: John Agnello.
Purchased, 2008.

IN A NUTSHELL: A rocking, energetic record that rates so highly because of Craig Finn’s lyrics and delivery. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler shine on songs that are Springsteen-y and Ramones-y, but it’s Finn’s oblique stories of small town sadness, love gone wrong, and reflections on how we treat one another that make it tick.
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By 1993 I was 25 years old and still living in the small Pennsylvania town where I’d grown up. I was working at a good-paying but soul-crushing job at a local aspirin factory and feeling pretty depressed. The only reason I lived in that lousy place was that a) I’d grown up there; and b) my cool band was based nearby. But now my band had broken up; and having traveled up and down the East Coast playing music in big cities, I’d come to realize that the activities and people that cities had to offer were much more compelling to me than staying near family and friends. This was a sad thought, and so I felt depressed.

I’d always loved my hometown and its surroundings, felt pride in my culture and its idiosyncrasies, and extolled the virtues of rural life to anyone who cared to hear. But now I was thinking, “Of all the places to live in the world, what am I doing HERE?!” I wanted to make music, make jokes, make plays … I wanted to meet new people, hear new ideas … I wanted to go out for a goddamned cheeseburger at two in the morning without driving to the single, disgusting 24-hour diner within a 30 mile radius of my home.

I worked in the chemistry lab at the aspirin factory, putting to use the chem minor I’d gotten on a whim. It was one of the few pharmaceutical plants in the area, so many of the lab’s scientists commuted an hour or more from big cities like Lancaster and Harrisburg and Reading. One of these Big City scientists, Weenie Bill, aka Limulus1, owned a house outside of San Francisco that needed a tenant, and after deciding that a vacant house in sunny CA was better than finding a place in windy Chicago, I agreed to move there in the spring.

About 70% of the workers at the aspirin plant were high school graduates who worked an 8-hour shift2 standing near big medicine-making machines and helping them as they mixed, formed, pressed and finally spat out pills. (Well, tablets, technically speaking.) Others helped machines that packaged materials or labeled bottles or readied products for shipping. Some drove forklifts, carrying ingredients and other materials to be loaded into the machines.

The rest of us were college graduates (mostly) who worked in the lab (mostly) in nominal 8-hour shifts, although science experiments aren’t as reliable as all that machinery, and so the hours varied.

There was a bit of a divide between the factory machinery helpers and the laboratory experiment runners, and it essentially boiled down to this: neither group really understood what the other was doing, nor could either group appreciate the day-to-day challenges the other faced. The company endeavored to maintain a Corporate esprit-de-corps; but everyone just feigned solidarity, in the way kids at church pretend to pray so they don’t get scolded. Beneath the irritating, glossy film of compulsory harmony, a struggle of “unskilled, machine-watching louts” vs. “snobby, clean-handed nerds” prevailed.

I was friendly with a couple of the forklift drivers. As a kid I’d played little league baseball against one of them, and during breaks the three of us sometimes talked about sports, and I’d politely laugh when they made fun of my rock and roll hairdo, since it was invariably a prelude to effusive compliments on the perceived success of my band. They’d call me “rock star” or “college boy,” gentle knocks on my pursuits and my prospects. (It never occurred to me to in kind call them “bar-fly” or “dead-end.”) When I told them the band was kaput and I was moving to California in a few months, their gentle knocks turned a bit more pointed.

The ribbing remained all-in-good-fun ball-busting, of the type most men have to learn to either join in or crumple beneath3. However there was now a tinge of true ridicule for my failed band, an I-told-you-so air that mocked not only its demise, but also whatever personal beliefs and interests I’d held that had ever led me to think that playing in a rock band was a worthwhile endeavor. “I guess you won’t go on tour with Poison after all!” My impending move to California was belittled as an attempt to be a movie star, or to “[have sex with] those hot California chicks.” As faux-nasty as they got, however, the burns usually included a put-down of themselves, as well, along the lines of “You’ll be back here with the rest of us losers in no time!”

As my last day at the factory approached, I tried to say goodbye to as many people I knew as possible. I could find only one of the forklift guys when I made my rounds, the less abrasive of the two, so we chatted a little bit and he shook my hand and wished me good luck. “I hope it works out for you out there,” he said. “Good for you for getting out of this shit hole.”

“Well, I guess I have to chase my dreams,” I said.

He scoffed, quite audibly. I braced for a barbed reply, but this time it wasn’t me he was disparaging. “At least you have some dreams,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t know why I stay here.”

Small town life presents a conundrum, particularly to those folks who have generations of roots in the ground. You love it, but you loathe it. It feels like an everything that’s full of nothing. You want to escape but you don’t know how or where to go. And anyway, from a practical viewpoint, if you don’t have a skill or an education that is portable or broadly useful; if you don’t have the means to coast for a while on a little bit of savings; if all you’ve ever known outside a bus trip or two to the nearest Big City is the little place you’ve woken up in for as long as you can remember, among folks who’ve always been there … well, no matter how urgent that feeling is to “get out of this shit hole,” you probably can’t even conjure an idea of a life somewhere else that isn’t built on a foundation of fantasies including a PowerBall ticket, an unknown rich aunt, or a not-catastrophic-but-bad-enough accidental injury.

The world you see every day tells you that the dreams in your heart are no more substantial than those in your brain while you sleep. But still you hold onto them for as long as you can, no matter how frustrated or angry they make you. “I could really do something special,” your heart says. “You’re a dipshit,” says your head. These are probably universal feelings, but in a small, rural town your head has a lot more evidence on its side of the argument. Look around and you just don’t find many examples of folks who’ve actually chased dreams and caught them. You’ll have very few neighbors with kids writing for magazines in Manhattan; few relatives starting biotech companies in strip malls; few friends traveling to Italy to get an MFA in painting.

In this setting, as your own aspirations are ground down to a tiny, pointless stub, it becomes easy to reflexively respond to others’ dreams with a joke or a dig, both at the other’s dreams (“You’ll be back …”) and at your own perceived failure (“… with us losers”). If someone does set off on a chase, you might graciously wish them luck4; but a part of you hopes they come back defeated, as most of them do, to help validate your decision to leave the dreams behind and just adapt to the shit-hole. After all, the shit-hole has bars and Turkey Hill stores and all those assholes you’ve known since kindergarten who you call friends. And to be clear, it wasn’t only the machine-watchers who felt this way; the experiment-runners did, as well. They just weren’t as overt with their opinions.

The band The Hold Steady captures this conundrum of small town life in their songs and lyrics better than any rock band5 I’ve heard. But while some songs and artists may come down firmly on one side of the “escape/adapt” question or the other, The Hold Steady presents slice-of-life vignettes without judgment. And the album Stay Positive presents them brilliantly. The opening track, “Constructive Summer,” says all this better in less than three minutes than I just did in a few hundred words.

The opening guitar is a clarion call to music fans who like their rock music equal parts Punk- and Arena-. The drums join in, as does Franz Nicolay’s piano. Nicolay may be the star of the entire album, with his keyboards giving all the songs a sort of E Street Band texture that sounds terrific. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I recognize the sound and I like it behind Craig Finn’s voice. Of course, it’s Finn’s voice and lyrics that carry the song, right off the bat beautifully comparing his posse to a song: “Me and my friends are like/ The drums in “Lust for Life.” If you know the song, you know what he means – even though I can’t describe it. The lyrics evoke with frightening precision my small town, pre-move feelings: the imagery of drinking on water towers to escape working the mill until you die; the admonition to “Let this be my annual reminder/ That we could all be something bigger;” the knowledge that “Getting older makes it harder to remember/ We are our only saviors…” It’s a sing-along, drunk-inspiring song that sounds happy, but is actually quite sad. The listener knows right away that these guys ain’t building ANYTHING this summer, that it’s just another dream to squash before it disappoints you. The music behind the lyrics kicks ass, too, driving and fast, with really cool, squealing guitar harmonics throughout from Tad Kubler, for example at 0:26.

Way back at the beginning of this list I discussed how I found out about The Hold Steady, through a sister-in-law’s generous music dump. By 2008 I was a big fan of the band, in particular the two albums Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday. When their new album, Stay Positive, was announced I was ready – I think I bought it the first week it was out. I always liked the band’s guitar-based sound and Craig Finn’s shouting singing style. And I especially liked his lyrics.

I’ve been a big fan of Steely Dan for a long time, and many of Finn’s lyrics are reminiscent of that band’s oblique lyrical approach, in which the listener isn’t privy to all the details, yet is left with an unmistakable story of something that went down. “Sequestered in Memphis” has such a story.

It’s an upbeat song with dense guitars and pianos, and more cool organ from Nicolay just as Finn’s voice starts. It’s a story of … well, something happened, the authorities got involved, and now he’s telling the story to the cops. Kubler tosses in a few cool riffs, and the band imports some trumpets to bolster the sound. It’s a fun song to belt, as even Muppet band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem know!

A song with similarly inscrutable, yet kind of familiar, lyrics is “Navy Sheets,” which opens with a great riff and swirly, Head East-style synth.

While The Hold Steady is definitely a guitar band, the guitars are typically more riff-y and rhythmic than lead, guitar-hero style. But this song has a cool solo from Kubler at about 3:00. Finn shouts the words, as usual, but there are some nice harmonies throughout.

Another song with Steely Dan lyrics is “Slapped Actress,” a heavy, mid-tempo song that references an old 70s film, Opening Night, to reflect on … a desperate addict? Life on the road? I don’t think the specific story is what’s key – it’s more about the feelings the story gives you.

Throughout the band’s history, Finn’s lyrics have had strong references to his Catholic upbringing and faith6. The mystical sounding “Both Crosses” is such a song.

It’s a gentle, spooky song, with distant Theremin and terrific, subtle drums from Bobby Drake. Finn nearly sings on this song, with lyrics, again, that are indirect, inviting multiple listenings. I’m not well-versed in Catholic spiritual practices and terminology, but it seems to be about a girl who’s witnessed something horrible, and her faith both helps and hinders her recovery from it. I like the descending chords, around 2:08, so faint you almost miss them. It’s moody and nonchalantly intense (to coin an oxymoron), and one of my favorite songs on the album.

I also like another slow, countrified song on the album, this one, too, with spiritual undertones, “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

Nicolay’s piano is sweet and fills in nicely. It’s lyrically straightforward this time, about the girl who got away, and whether the boy, or God, could’ve done more to help her with her problems. The centerpiece is Kubler’s solo, at about 3:00. It’s a powerful song, performed brilliantly.

However, the songs that connect most with me are the poignant descriptions of small-town life, and what it can do to people – those who’ve lived there forever, and those new to the environs. Such a song is the wonderful “One For The Cutters,” about the relationship between transient college students and the “invisible” townie lifers who share their space.

It’s a true ballad, as defined for me by Mrs. Petrey in ninth grade Language Arts. Nicolay’s harpsichord is the dominant instrument in this waltz behind Finn’s tale of a college girl “slumming” it among the townies. (The cutters of the title references the terrific film Breaking Away.) I won’t give the whole story away, but the sad finale is that the young woman who seemed to feel so at home among the townies she’d secretly befriended was actually just using them to briefly remedy her boredom.

“Joke About Jamaica” is a witty reference to a Led Zeppelin song that’s used as a jumping off point for a woman’s feelings about growing older in a small town. It captures perfectly the yin and yang of the happiness of nostalgia and the sadness of aging, particularly if you grew up as a classic rock fan.

The title track is another sing-along song with cool shouting from Finn once again. (For you Hold Steady fans, it also references the famous “Holly,” who still maintains she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest.) “Yeah Sapphire” has a great opening riff, and turns into a decent Springsteen ripoff.

When the album was released, three “bonus tracks” were included. Even though I stated in my rules that I wouldn’t use bonus tracks as a means of rating albums, I broke the rules once again. I just love the bonus song “Ask Her For Adderall,” and if I were in The Hold Steady, I’d have included it on the main album over some of the others.

There are Steely Dan lyrics. (Who’s he talking to? Who’s bringing the medicine? What happened?) There’s a rocking, straightforward punk tempo. There’s more guitar cranking. There’s another reference to Holly. All three bonus tracks are great7, but this one particularly shines.

We’ve all gotta come from somewhere, right? From the very beginning we have no say in the matter of where we live; and when we finally reach an age when we can decide, for many of us it’s long after years of indoctrination in an established community, so we really have little choice at all. Some of us may be right where we started out, happier than ever; hometown life has its charms and its benefits, after all. But for certain people, with certain dreams – or maybe especially UN-certain dreams – a hometown is a place designed to escape from. The Hold Steady understand that – and Stay Positive puts that happy sadness into song.

TRACK LISTING
“Constructive Summer”
“Sequestered In Memphis”
“One For The Cutters”
“Navy Sheets”
“Lord, I’m Discouraged”
“Yeah, Sapphire”
“Both Crosses”
“Stay Positive”
“Magazines”
“Joke About Jamaica”
“Slapped Actress”

plus (included together as one “Bonus Track” on the CD)

“Ask Her For Adderall”
“Cheyenne Sunrise”
“Two-Handed Handshake”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

46th Favorite Album

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This Year’s Model. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1978, Radar Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, ca. 1997. (Rykodisk)

IN A NUTSHELL: A record all the critics love – but don’t let that stop you from listening! It’s the first appearance by The Attractions, a wonderfully talented rhythm section, and they do not disappoint. Elvis spits out his cleverly crafted lyrics (mainly about his troubles of the heart) with disdain – and a bit of self-conscious humor – and never stops the party. I won’t tell you it’s awesome – I’m no authority, after all – I’ll just tell you I love it!
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In 1974 I was in second grade and my teacher was Mrs. Miller. She was approaching retirement when I had her, which means she had been teaching second graders since before World War II. She was chubby and severe-looking, with gray hair pulled into a bun and little granny glasses perched on her nose, looking not unlike Calvin’s nemesis, Miss Wormwood, from Calvin & Hobbes. Sometime early in the school year she made a statement to the class that I knew to be incorrect. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know that I raised my hand and pointed out her error. She replied, “Do not correct me. I am the teacher, and the teacher is never wrong.” My little seven year old self fumed and thought: “Bullshit!”

For a long time I’ve had a bit of a problem with Authority Figures. It’s nothing that’s very radical. I’m not an Anarchist, I don’t have a manifesto. I’ve never been fired or reprimanded at a job because I couldn’t get along with my boss. I’ve never been thrown out of a sporting event for yelling at referees. I never got detention in school or arrested for mouthing off to a cop. I’m aware of how society works, faults and all, and I’m fortunate to be a member of a group for whom it is easiest to remain polite and smiling while I feign deference.

But I still don’t buy into all that “Authority” bullshit.

My questions regarding authority always boil down to these: “Who gave you Authority?” and “What is supposed to be encompassed within that Authority?” Assholes who abuse their authority generally don’t understand the correct answer to one of those two questions.

Let’s take the second question first: “What is supposed to be encompassed within that authority?” People who believe their authority allows them to act like a dick are some of my least favorite people. In 2001, I went to the Brookline, MA, building permit department to ask a question about renovating my garage. I waited twenty minutes to finally get to the front of the line. Then, the short, chubby building-permit guy, who wore a gaudy pinky ring and a hairdo from 1975, halted my question after 3 seconds by turning his back on me to turn to his secretary and ask, “Did I tell you I found another dead squirrel in my pool this morning?” He then began a five-minute conversation with her about wildlife and aquatics, while I waited patiently – sure that if I interrupted, he’d answer my question in the way that most negatively impacted me. It was a completely asshole move, and if I remembered that dick’s name I’d tell you right now. He knew he had some “authority,” and felt it allowed him to be a lousy human being to others. (And not to sound too superior, but the dude was a building-permit guy in a small town. It’s not like he was saving lives or acting heroically. The dick.) But his authority really wasn’t supposed to encompass assholishness.

The question of “Who gave you Authority?” is trickier. It may imply that as long as I get an answer that is accurate (i.e. “There’s a law in our town about building permits and how they’re attained;” “I was hired by the principal to be your second-grade teacher.”) I’ll be satisfied and accept the person’s role. However, there have been times I’ve had issues with those who’ve been given legitimate authority. For example, I was summoned for jury duty in San Francisco many years ago, and during the process of jury selection a question that was asked of every candidate was this: “Is there any reason you’d be unable to follow the judge’s instructions?” The jury was selected before I was ever questioned, so I never got a chance to answer: “If the judge instructs me to do something I think is inappropriate or incorrect, I won’t follow the instructions.” (Is that Contempt of Court? I probably have a lot of contempt for many U.S. courts – even the highest.)

That being said, in most cases I’ll initially extend extra benefit of the doubt to someone who’s been duly granted authority in some official way. However, I tend not to extend it to those who have “authority” for no other reason than they clicked on an Indeed.com link. For example, Music Critics.

According to my deep, deep research, including watching historical documentaries, arts criticism has been around since the time of Aristotle, Plato and ancient India – proving that humans have always gotten off on talking shit about each other. In its most serious and legitimate8 form, arts criticism can be an academic pursuit undertaken by curious researchers seeking answers to larger questions; or an intellectual pursuit by writers seeking to investigate and understand the arts and artists. I have no problem with these functions, as I’m probably not sophisticated or patient enough to unravel most of these writings, and I’m way past being interested in pretending to be interested.

AN ASIDE: I will, however, sometimes read the art reviews by the celebrated New Yorker writer Peter Scheldahl just so I can meditate over poetic prose that is, to me, as inscrutable as a foreign menu. For example, a review of a recent retrospective at The Guggenheim of the abstract artist Agnes Martin states: “The cumulative effect is that of intellectual and emotional repletion, concerning a woman who synthesized the essences of two world-changing movements—Abstract Expressionism and minimalism—and who, from a tortured life, beset by schizophrenia, managed to derive a philosophy, amounting almost to a gospel, of happiness.” To me, that’s a lot of blabberty-flabber-jabber to describe a blue square full of little black squares, but it sure sounds good. And I certainly don’t know enough to challenge his assertions.

However, from these high-minded pursuits by hyper-focused and, perhaps, hyper-intelligent minds it is a short and slippery slope to writing about arts in a manner that is pedantic, condescending and self-important. Or put more plainly – these critics can easily come off as assholes. They can be not unlike those hipster bullies I met 25 years ago in San Francisco, timid individuals shat upon throughout life who banded together to shit upon others over their culturo-artistic ideas. They can be like the record store gang in the film High Fidelity, extolling arts and artists from a position on high to other people, many of whom are eager to reflect some of that superiority onto friends and acquaintances. This desire to be an expert leads folks to, for example, assume that a record that is unlistenable must have been, based on a few words by some “authority,” misapprehended by themselves and the public at large, and so must, despite what their ears tell them, be, in fact, a work of genius9. Some folks even think rock critics of the past leveraged this blind obedience by some to perpetrate ingenious hoaxes.

Sometimes, as I’ve written before, the cause of the assholery is pure, unmitigated jealousy toward someone artistically more successful than the critic. Sometimes it may just be hidden biases, such as the critic Byron Coley, who states in the really cool, funny film Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, that the (largely unknown) band Half Japanese were better than The Beatles. I’m aware of my pro-Beatle bias, but I don’t know that Coley – who stated in an interview that he never liked The Beatles because girls liked them – is aware of his own biases. And while I have no problem with the artistic pursuits of a band like Half Japanese, I can’t really take Coley seriously when he states that the first time he heard HJ he recognized a “burst of genius unrivaled … since Coltrane …” Listen to that genius right here.

My issue with the statement “better than The Beatles10” isn’t that Coley believes it. After all, the reason there’s all kinds of music is because there’s all kinds of taste. My issue is that he didn’t state “I think” before the words. Instead, he stated it as if it’s a fact, as if liking The Beatles more than Half Japanese would be akin to believing that the Earth is flat. In reality, Half Japanese isn’t better than The Beatles, and The Beatles are not better than Half Japanese. The truth is some folks like one band better, a few billion more like the other band better. That’s it.

Critics are just people, after all, and will admit they get it wrong sometimes. And as people, they may simply have different tastes than me (and some other critics.) And I don’t deny there is a place for criticism, even in the modern world of free samples everywhere. But still, I tend to not trust music critics – even (especially?) the most-respected ones. I rarely know why they’re considered authorities; and wherever that authority comes from, I don’t believe it entitles anyone to say anything more than “This is what I think is good/bad …”

What do I do, then, when I find I really like a really highly critically acclaimed record?!

This isn’t the first critically-acclaimed record on my list. But Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists who was a critical darling before he was a big star (at least in America), causing David Lee Roth, of Van Halen, to famously quip: “Of course the rock critics all love Elvis Costello. They all look like him!!” And this record, This Year’s Model, was particularly well-received, with practically every single music magazine of the day effusively gushing over it11. So I have to be careful: am I just buying into the critical hype of an artist? Has my judgement been clouded by my own desire to appear sophisticated to friends and family?

I’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. And the fact is that I’ve always liked him. He was a big part of early MTV, which I watched as close to round-the-clock as school/activities allowed. Songs like “Oliver’s Army,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” were regularly shown, and I liked them all. At this time, in the early 80s, I was also a big fan of AOR radio, and Elvis songs were played there, as well. “Alison,” “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” “Watching the Detectives.” I liked all the songs I heard – yet I didn’t start diving into his albums until the late 90s.

This Year’s Model is Costello’s second album, but the first with The Attractions backing him12. And in my opinion, Elvis always sounds best when he’s backed by The Attractions: Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. They play with a great energy, and they’re also technically really good. Right off the bat on this album, drummer Pete Thomas gets to shine on the opener “No Action.”

It starts with a vocals-only opening13, a technique Elvis used frequently, then the band bursts in in a clamor. Actually, everyone is playing simple chords and notes, except drummer Thomas, who is flailing away, giving the song great urgency. Costello writes catchy melodies, which is undoubtedly a big reason why I – who grew up on 70s AM radio pop – like his songs so much. The chorus features nice harmony vocals, and after 2 quick minutes, in which Elvis claims not to miss his ex, yet sounds unconvincing, the whole thing ends. It’s very compact, and features the clever wordplay for which Costello became famous: “Everytime I phone you/I just wanna put you down.” It’s a bracing opener, which serves to heighten the poppy bounce of the next song, “This Year’s Girl.”

This song is bassist Bruce Thomas’s chance to shine. He’s one of my favorite rock bassists for his inventive lines and his use of the entire neck. After a few measures of drums and guitar, at about 22 seconds, bassist Thomas ventures way up the neck – signaling how he’ll travel throughout the song. His bouncing bass line really carries the song. This song also has another catchy melody, and keyboardist Nieve fills in some cool sounds in the background, like at around 1:20. In the chorus there are nice harmony vocals, that Elvis supplies himself via double-tracking. (No one but EC is credited with vocals on the record.) The lyrics describe the fantasy created by pin-ups, the disconnect between the reality and the effect of them. At 3 minutes, bassist Thomas gets to play a little lead bass on the fadeout.

Elvis Costello and The Attractions are a high-energy band, and they keep This Year’s Model cranking along with the next song, a 60s-inspired, organ-driven “The Beat.” The melody isn’t as strong as some of the other Costello songs, and the lyrics are typical Elvis-freaked-out-by-women (which he tends to deliver with a tinge of self-conscious humor), but the performance of the rhythm section is nonpareil, especially Bruce Thomas’s bass in the slow section, after 2:10. He really gets to shine on the next cut, too, a track that’s become a favorite “Jock Jam,” featured at US sporting events to get the crowds, well, pumped up: “Pump It Up.”

The video captures perfectly the odd, twitchy persona that Elvis and his band brought to MTV fans of the early 80s. Ill-fitting suits, crooked teeth, herky-jerky movements … they didn’t look, or sound, like Triumph or .38 Special, or other AOR bands of the day. But “Pump It Up” is irresistible, with – once again – Bruce Thomas’s bass carrying the load14. Elvis has a few nifty bent chords in the beginning, and then on top of the ping-pong bass and Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drums he spits out lyrics that I once read were about masturbation, but that seem to me more of Elvis’s standard “what’s the deal with me and the ladies?” frustration. Keyboardist Nieve (who never played in a rock band, and didn’t listen to rock music, until he joined The Attractions at age 19) is the master of the little background fills that help drive a song. I like how the last verse modulates up a step, and “Jock Jam”-y as it may be, I still find it satisfying the way the song builds, then hangs on a note, before the tension is released with Costello’s shouted “Hey!”15

Those may be (without giving it much extra thought) my four favorite songs to kick off an album. (Then again, considering this is only #46, that’s probably not true. But I do love them!) But the band settles things down with the next song, the New Wave country of “Little Triggers,” featuring some of Costello’s best wordplay about another woman who done him wrong.

I typically find Elvis’s slower songs less interesting than his upbeat ones, but this song – with the rhythm section’s disdain for typical country swing, Nieve’s piano fills and Elvis’s expressive voice – is one that I enjoy. He also slows things down later on with “Night Rally,” a type of march about (I think) the unrecognized influence of pop culture. Costello has a number of different styles on the record, but they all have that New Wave influence. “Living In Paradise” is almost a calypso song, with more outstanding B. Thomas work. “You Belong to Me” sounds almost like a 60s Motown record, with a nifty guitar riff and ringing organ. “Hand In Hand” opens strangely, and features Elvis’s tremolo guitar and Nieve’s cool doodles, then turns into a 60s girl-group style pop song.

Another favorite of mine on the album is the driving word barrage and rhythmic gem “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.”

It opens with a drum fill that Pete Thomas admits he lifted from Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell’s performance on “Fire.16” This song really drives home the fact that The Attractions are simply a rhythm section: drums, bass, keys. Costello also plays mainly rhythm guitar, although in “Chelsea” he throws in a cool riff, but the band is basically Elvis singing to a rhythm section. Again, B. and P. shine (Bruce’s slide at the beginning of each chorus a particular favorite of mine!), but Elvis’s mush-mouthed, frantic delivery is what steals the show. The song’s about his disdain for London’s high-end fashion scene, in the Chelsea district, but includes a double meaning (as many of his lyrics do), as England also has the famous Chelsea Asylum17.

The Attractions make every song energetic, whether it’s the frantic, borderline falling-apart “Lipstick Vogue” (including more clever lyrics about a woman who done him wrong) or the 60s-inspired pop masterpiece, “Lip Service.”

I like the structure of this song, the chord change in the pre-chorus (“Everybody is going through the motions”) and the riff the bass and guitar play in the chorus. Once again, Elvis is lamenting his love life. It’s a cool-sounding, sing-along song.

Every now and then I have to admit that someone in authority is correct. My mom was right: I should’ve worn a hat. That professor was right: I should’ve gone to the recitation. And while I still question the “authority” of music critics, I also have to agree that This Year’s Model is an incredible work. It’s The Attractions’ first and they play like they really want to keep the job. It’s Elvis at his fiery best. It’s a lot of what I look for in a record, even if I might not admit it to you if you’re a music critic!

Track Listing
“No Action”
“This Year’s Girl”
“The Beat”
“Pump It Up”
“Little Triggers”
“You Belong To Me”
“Hand In Hand”
“(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”
“Lip Service”
“Living In Paradise”
“Lipstick Vogue”
“Night Rally”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

47th Favorite Album

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Fair Warning. Van Halen.
1981, Warner Brothers. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1983. Purchased, ca. 1998.

IN A NUTSHELL: A record by a band that I describe in one word: “fun!” Eddie Van Halen’s guitar heroics are all over the place on this album, and he always plays with a sense of enjoyment and laughter. David Lee Roth is the clown prince of cock rock, and the band’s rhythm section is second to none. This album has all the hallmarks of a VH classic. It might not be for everyone, but if it’s you get it, you’ll want to get it!
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Everyone likes to have fun, right? At least a little bit? I’m sure there are a few people you can think of who seem completely disinclined to have fun. I myself have a relative or two who seem to need a lesson in fun. But I’d venture to say even those dour folks you know who seem to have gone to some weird face gymnasium to build up their Zygomaticus muscles (major and minor) to ensure their lips can never curl into a smile have some little thing in their lives that they consider fun: weather-stripping the house, perhaps, or looking at their Commemorative Spoon collection. Fun means different things to different people, but it’s a universal feeling, known across cultures, throughout history.

Popular music has often celebrated fun, as well. Hit songs from the past 60 years that extoll its virtues include those by Cyndi Lauper, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, Sly & The Family Stone, Madness18, Wang Chung and Tom Tom Club. (Less popular musical artists, such as Bruce Willis and Charles Manson, have also cut tracks about fun). Plenty of other songs describe such fun activities as jumping around, driving around, going on vacation, going to parties, playing basketball, playing baseball, playing cards … even cosplay (sort of). Throw in fun activities like dancing and sex, and it becomes damn difficult to think of a song that isn’t about fun. (Songs by 70s-sad-sack-sap-spewers Bread notwithstanding.)

Despite the universal appeal of fun, and despite the fact that it’s a standard topic of song, musical artists devoted to fun are not typically held in the same regard by critics as those artists with a more serious worldview. The most-admired rock and roll artists from the Turbulent 60s® had at a bare minimum at least one phase, or important work, that touched on universal human and political themes. Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan did, of course, as did The Beatles, James Brown and Marvin Gaye … even good time party-boys The Rolling Stones had their “Street Fighting Man” era. Through the 70s, gravity reigned: The Who wrote operas; Led Zeppelin wrote serious-sounding songs about serious-sounding subjects; prog rockers like Yes and Genesis and Rush demonstrated a serious devotion to virtuosity and Grand Ideas; and earnest dudes with acoustic guitars became unlikely pop stars. Then punk came – and while its pogo-ing fans were having fun, what The Critics™ responded to was the bands’ anger and passion. Fun was certainly a big part of the 70s Disco Movement, but the music itself wasn’t taken very seriously.

The 80s were a heyday for fun-themed music, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to the scourge of Hair Metal. MJ was always a critics’ favorite, and Madonna eventually got there, but the music of the 80s that The Critics tended to love – more serious artists like Tom Waits, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü – weren’t really all that popular in the U.S. in the 80s; they were niche acts. Popular, fun acts like Huey Lewis and The News and Bon Jovi and all the other Hair Metal acts19 were already starting to sound tiresome to critics (and record buyers) by the time the 90s dawned. The lasting 80s rock bands – U2, R.E.M. – were serious bands with some (at times embarrassing) fun thrown in.

Fun mostly took a backseat in 90s pop music. Sure you had some goofballs out there, and the decade’s “Swing Revival” tried to encourage us that fun could be had for a mere 2 years of dance lessons and a few $500 Zoot Suits. But from Gangsta Rap to Grunge to College Music, the 90s were not really an era of much musical fun. Just ask Cher, from Clueless. (Although, to be fair, inter-genre pairings in the decade did produce a pretty fun soundtrack album for Judgment Night.) The music of the 2000s may have had some fun – I was having my own fun with a couple of young kids, so I kind of missed a lot of what happened in that decade. But I’m going to take it for granted that once again, fun was an afterthought for most of what was considered critically-acclaimed music.

I sort of understand why Fun wouldn’t be more critically-appreciated as a musical topic. The fact is, nobody experiences fun the same way, and what’s Fun for one person probably isn’t for another. For example, statutory rape, mass murder and poorly-conceived-and-unsubtly-executed-double-entendres aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, so it might be difficult for some folks to just accept “hey, it’s fun!” as a reason for finding redeeming qualities about the music. Also, part of what is expected from the arts – any of the arts – is a reflection of the human condition by an artist. The more complete that reflection is, the more deeply a listener will respond to an artist. So, if only the sunny, fun side of life is being reflected by an artist’s work, it may make the listener feel like the artist is either disingenuous or lazy.

However … some musical artists have been celebrated for their achievements in Fun. The recent death of Rock and Roll architect and future only-Rock-and-Roll-name-in-Music-History (according to Chuck Klosterman) Chuck Berry elicited heaping mounds of rightfully-deserved praise on the man.

 

And something that stood out to me in all of the obituaries, memorials and tributes to the man was how much FUN his music was. Of course, there was a lot of talk about his impact on the sound of Rock and Roll, and about his lyrics, which were the first in rock and roll to express stories poetically about people. But the fact is that his music was always FUN, as well!

He wrote about driving around, about school being boring, rock and roll, the USA, and cars – both fast and not so fast. He had a few serious songs, like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” but even they sounded fun20. He had a signature guitar sound and performance style that wowed audiences, and nobody expected him to get very philosophical with his songs. Nobody clamored for “a different side of Chuck Berry,” in which he plumbed the depths of his mind and soul for multi-layered reflections on life’s true meaning. Listeners wanted Chuck Berry to kick ass, and ass is what he kicked.

It’s in this ass-kickin’, fun-havin’, let’s-just-rock-and-roll, Chuck Berry spirit that I love the band Van Halen. They can be as goofy as that duck-walk, and as dumb as a song about playing guitar, but they have a signature sound and performance style I love, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen is an innovator and sound-generator who stands apart even in a crowded field of rock guitar virtuosos. They are my Chuck Berry21

I remember hearing and seeing Van Halen as a middle schooler in the late 70s. There was a pair of brothers who lived up the street, the Starrs, and they LOVED Van Halen. I was still in my disco/pop phase, so I thought the band – with its scarves and poofy hair and loud guitars and tight pants – were just silly. (Somehow, grown men dressed as a Cowboy, Indian, Biker, Construction Worker, Cop and Army Man didn’t seem all that silly to me. Go figure.) As I moved through high school, Van Halen videos would turn up on MTV, and I sort of shrugged. They weren’t really my thing. But that changed when they released their 1984 album in my junior year of high school, and – pop music fan that I was – I bought in. My good friend and high school music guru Rick immediately told me that 1984 was lame, and brought to school the Van Halen Canon to that point, all on cassette tape22. I bought in big-time, and was just becoming a super-fan when lead singer David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth left the band in 1985. Neither his new schtick nor the band’s new direction interested me much, so I kept delving into those cassettes.

Being a fan of the “classic” DLR23-era Van Halen is a bit like being a fan of The Three Stooges, an act I also greatly enjoy. With both acts, you’re just going to have to accept that a) much of the stuff they do is ridiculous; b) some of the stuff they do is going to miss the mark; and c) you’ll meet as many people who hate the act, and judge you for your love, as you will those who understand. But fuck them. An interesting thing about being human is that you can’t really control what it is that’ll make you laugh or tickle your music-receptors. Both tastes, all tastes, evolve, for sure, but I find that certain stimuli abide, and never lose their power to excite. And the opening of the Fair Warning album, the song “Mean Street,” excites me every time.

It opens with some weird, fabulous guitar nonsense from Eddie. This album was the band’s fourth in four years, and fans were expecting guitar histrionics and brand new sounds from Eddie every time out, and it sounds like he wanted to get some of it out of the way right off the bat. Then its a simple, driving riff that propels the entire song. I’m not going to get into D.L. Roth’s lyrics just yet, but I will say that I doubt that this son of a wealthy ophthalmologist, from a long line of wealthy doctors, has really only ever known the Mean Streets, as claimed. One of the finest, and least-appreciated, aspects of Van Halen albums has always been bassist Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals. They are perhaps the “Larry Fine” of the band, if we’re going with a Three Stooges analogy; always providing a small, key piece to lift group performances to a higher level. At about 2:20, above, Eddie begins a really cool guitar solo that almost sounds Arabic in places. He’s known for playing very fast, but it’s not just the speed that’s amazing: it’s the style and the sound, as well. His brother, Alex, pounds a great drum track throughout, especially during the nice little breakdown part, at about 3:15, and then it’s on to the end of the song. Just as The Three Stooges were smart enough to make short films, Van Halen knows that it’s in their interest to keep songs compact, and I rarely hear a song of their’s that I think “Okay, time to end it, boys.”

Van Halen appreciation is easiest if – regardless of gender – you are at peace with your inner 13-year-old-boy. You’ll need that comfort to fully comprehend the genius24 of a song like “Dirty Movies,” allowing you to either laugh off or fully embrace the song’s juvenile reflection on pornography and its performers25.

But as with every goddamned song Van Halen ever made, the focus should be squarely on Eddie and what he says with his guitar, instead of what any lyrics might say. (And I’ll get into lyrics soon … I swear.) This song opens with a nice, gentle swing beat courtesy of the terrific Alex Van Halen, and cool bass harmonics by Anthony. Eddie’s guitar squawks give way to a fluid solo, about 0:40, and the entire thing builds to a very strong intro riff about 0:49. The band often throws interesting little song-structure things into songs, like, for instance, at 1:18, when they end the verse with a little syncopated run, or the syncopation behind the pre-chorus, heard about 1:29. It’s things like this that elevate them above other “flashy guitar” bands of the 80s. Anthony’s bass line is particularly nice in the chorus, where – once again – his strong harmonies help lift the song. We Van Halen fans awaiting a scorching solo actually have to look elsewhere, as Eddie confines his histrionics to background wails and runs.

I remember reading a quote from David Lee Roth – who, during those wild and woolly early MTV days was always good for a hilarious quote – regarding his lyrics. I scoured the internet looking for it, but I couldn’t come up with it. But I recall him stating words to this effect: “nobody comes to Van Halen because of the lyrics. I write them during time-outs watching football on TV.” However, this lack of effort hasn’t left him as a lyricist without personal style. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could pull off such lyrics as “Who’s that babe with the fab-oo-lus (sic) shadow?/It’s only one scene but to me it don’t matter.” Just as some people will never find Moe poking Curly in the eyeballs funny, some people will never appreciate the ridiculous humor of Roth’s lyrics. But I still find myself laughing when I hear lyrics like those in “Sinner’s Swing.”

Couplets such as “She looked so fucking good so sexy and so frail/Something’s got the bite on me I’m going straight to hell” crack me up. And Roth can perform the lyrics well, too; I won’t use the term “sing,” as his delivery varies between singing, speaking, barking and laughing. He doesn’t try to be earnest about thrown-together lyrics such as “No one is above suspicion, no one’s got it wired/I’ll eat it with my fingers want my iron in that fire,” but unleashes them with an implied wink, as if to say, “come on, we’re just having fun!” Alex again shows he’s one of the more inventive drummers in rock, even in the first few seconds as he doubles the main guitar riff on drums. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, even though – once again – Eddie’s role is mostly left to background runs, although at 1:40 he unleashes a seemingly Galaga-inspired solo that is both impressive and typical. The signature vocal harmonies on the chorus’s “G- g- g- g- g-/Get out and push!” (I do believe Roth when he says he doesn’t spend much time refining the lyrics) are also terrific.

But goofiness aside, just as you’ll find that The Three Stooges are actually far more clever in their wordplay than one would expect given all the slapstick, Van Halen songs are often more interesting musically than expected. A great example of that is the song “Hear About It Later,” a piece that begins with a cool, subtle build-up to a Dave scream. But at the end of the verse, at about 1:18, the band throws in some nifty triplets as Roth sings “tried and convicted, it’s winner take all.” It’s little things like this that elevate their songs beyond the standard hard-rock, guitar-wanking BS.

Similarly, about 2:25, the song smoothly transitions to a nice minor chord in the bridge – again unexpectedly. Then there’s a breakdown at 2:40, and Eddie begins his solo, which sounds like it could be part of a different song. But that’s not a knock – it’s a fantastic bit of playing, and it makes the song interesting, especially when he leaves the solo and the band enters the bridge again. Also, for all I’ve said about Roth and singing and lyrics, he really does have a knack for writing catchy melodies. The song’s got a really great ending, with Eddie playing quintuplets as it draws to a close. Look, it’s not The Brandenburg Concerto, but it is a step or two beyond what one expects from a Guitar God band. And I love it.

Another song I love is the (sort-of) “hit” from the album26, the fun, propulsive “Unchained.” It’s classic VH, with excellent guitar, cool harmonies, great drumming, unexpected musical nuggets, and silly-terrific lyrics by Diamond Dave.

This is a song that I think I could listen to just as the isolated Eddie Van Halen guitar track, and I’d be happy. The entire time he’s making simple stuff sound cool with squawks and flanges and other inventive sounds. Musically, the syncopated rhythms during the pre-chorus – about 0:40 to the descending syncopation around 0:53 – once again show there’s more to the songs than just “4/4, play chords.” At 1:49, Eddie unleashes a weird, noisy solo. Lyrics such as “blue-eyed murder in a satisfied dress” are classics. Plus – as with the entire album – there’s a depth of sound on this (and every DLR-era) Van Halen album. My high school chorus director27 loved the sound of Van Halen albums, and credited their richness to producer Ted Templeman, who gets a vocal credit on this song during the breakdown section, beginning about 2:15. Whatever the case, the entire production is perfectly suited to hold and feature Eddie’s guitar heroics.

The band does a few other things on the album. “Push Comes to Shove” is a subtle, nifty guitar feature, with a disco beat and DL Roth’s crooning about the vagaries of love, while Eddie creates some excellent, angular, reggae-inflected gems and blasts off a terrific, guitar-hero solo. “So This Is Love?” is a shuffling, good-time boogie with – you guessed it – phenomenal guitar. “Sunday Afternoon In The Park/One Foot Out the Door” is a punk song (the latter) with a weird, blobby, guitar-generated introduction (the former). Alex kicks some double-bass drum ass on it, but overall it’s a pretty weak song on which to end a great album.

So, anyway, listen: these are some pretty scary, lousy times in the USA. Your life could use a little more fun, so why not get some from the music you’re listening to? I find it fun being impressed by Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drums, and enjoying Michael’s harmony vocals and “Diamond” Dave’s ridiculousness … Maybe you’ll find fun somewhere else. But try to make a place for it in your music listening: life’s really too short not to!! In the immortal words of Diamond Dave: “Don’t waste time/g-g-g-g-g get out and push!”

Track Listing
“Mean Street”
“Dirty Movies”
“Sinner’s Swing”
“Hear About It Later”
“Unchained”
“Push Comes To Shove”
“So This Is Love?”
“Sunday Afternoon In The Park”
“One Foot Out The Door”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

48th Favorite Album

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Animals. Pink Floyd.
1977, Harvest/Columbia. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1984. Purchased, ca. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album that takes the listener on quite a journey through society, this record has so much incredible David Gilmour guitar that I almost lose my mind!! Roger Waters’s voice is as effective as ever, and the whole band sounds great – even through the druggy interludes. I could do with fewer of these slow spots, but the songs and the playing more than make up for it. It’s an album designed for a listen in one sitting.
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I’ve seen fewer than one episode of that wildly popular old 90s TV show Friends. This is weird because, as a 49 year old, I am firmly and completely a part of that limiting descriptor called “Generation X,” and Friends is supposed to be one of our generation’s “touchstones28.” And I’m not ashamed to say29 that I’m a big fan of almost all of our touchstones.

I devoured 70s Saturday morning cartoons, can recite entire Bugs Bunny Show scripts, and know most of the words to most of the Schoolhouse Rock episodes. I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was first released, and I watched the Quincy, M.E., punk rock episode when it first aired. I played Pac Man in the arcade for a quarter a game. I wished I could afford an Alligator shirt, but still never stooped to wearing the Sears “Braggin’ Dragon” brand instead. I watched Late Night with David Letterman when it was still “A Melman Production,” and watched MTV when it only showed music videos. I raved over Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, bought Nevermind the month it came out and had tickets to Lollapalooza #130. I read (most of) Infinite Jest, saw Pulp Fiction in the theater several times, chuckled about the Y2K bug panic, and I felt old about MP3s and iPods and most everything else after 2002.

But I only ever saw part of one single Friends episode, the one where Nana dies twice, which was cutely titled – in that annoying Friends way – “The One Where Nana Dies Twice.” I remember there was a funny bit about someone’s grandma having a bunch of packets of Sweet ‘N Low. Despite the show’s apparent touchstone-dom, I never connected with it. I was never part of a big, close-knit group of friends, so I think the premise never resonated with me31. I’ve always been more inclined to have one or two close friends, who may or may not know one another. Maybe this is part of the reason that I was more drawn to The X-Files during the Friends era. (And why I was one of the fans who DID NOT want Scully and Mulder to get romantic.)

When I think of “friends,” I don’t think of Friends: it’s not a large group, it’s a small group – maybe one other person. On TV and movies, they’re commonly called “buddies,” and there are examples galore out there. Scully and Mulder are of the “opposites attract” variety – she is skeptical, detached, reserved; he is high-strung and borders on gullibility. The most famous example is a pair whose friendship was created specifically to mine the deep vein of humor found in such an attraction: Oscar and Felix, from The Odd Couple – a success as a stage play, a movie, and multiple TV shows. From the manly/nerdy Martin and Lewis to man-hungry/good girl Laverne & Shirley to sunny/cranky Ernie and Bert, and in countless cop movies, Opposites has been a tried and true basis for fictional friendships.

Some fictional friendships are based on shared childhoods – people who connected in school and remained close. The Geeks, in Freaks and Geeks, fit the bill for me as a threesome – the maximum number allowed to meet my “buddy” standard. This means the Freaks don’t work for me because they’re a larger group. Raj, Dwayne and Rerun, from What’s Happening! are definite examples. Grown examples of childhood friends include Jerry and George, from Seinfeld, and Patsy and Eddy, from Absolutely Fabulous. Sadly, neither pair makes a good case for the mental health of individuals who remain close friends with childhood pals.

Some fictional friends are thrown together by circumstance, for better (as is the case with Red and Andy in The Shawshank Redemption) or for worse (as with Barton and Charlie in Barton Fink.) Some are friends for no apparent reason, like The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, or Ren and Stimpy. Still others just seem meant for each other, like Rhoda and Mary, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, John Winger and Russell Ziskey, Spongebob and Patrick.

Whatever the source of the friendship, these one-to-one (or at times three-person) relationships have been more typical in my life than the large-group Friends model. This has changed somewhat as I’ve gotten older and my wife32 and I have made friends with our kids’ friends’ parents, and we’ve developed friendships with groups of couples. But despite these changes, the single “buddy” remains my Platonic Ideal33 of the term “friend.” And the buddy I’ve remained closest to the longest is Dr. Dave.

We’re not exactly opposites, although we are quite different. We didn’t meet as kids, although having met as freshmen in college, we pretty much did. We were kinda thrown together by circumstance, being two of about nine folks majoring in Toxicology when we got to college – not as stressful as Shawshank Prison, but probably weirder. More than anything, we just sort of connected over The Beatles, music, Mel Brooks movies, Bugs Bunny, the Phillies, Columbo, and so many other little things.

As you, dear reader, will likely understand if you’ve had a close friend for thirty-some years, it’s difficult to adequately cover all the big ways in which Dr. Dave has been important to me. Instead, I’ll just list a few concrete examples of the little things he’s done, such as: 1) getting me to try asparagus for the first time; 2) teaching me how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs on the bass; 3) telling me I should give Pink Floyd’s Animals another shot after my initial rejection of it. Another friend in high school, Rick, had duped his copy of the album onto cassette for me as part of a pre-digital-music data-dump of multiple Pink Floyd albums. I’d listened to it once, then never really went back to it. My initial assessment was that it was too depressing, and as a seventeen year-old, rural Pennsyltukian in 1984, I had Van Halen albums to consume and couldn’t be bothered with depressing stuff. (Which today sounds a bit depressing, in and of itself34.)

At some point in college I’d transferred to a school a couple hours’ drive from Philadelphia, where Dr. Dave lived. He’d sometimes visit, and I have a vivid memory of him walking up the stairs to my crappy college apartment, having just arrived from a two-hour drive, and announcing, “Dude, what a ride!! I listened to Animals, the whole time!” I expressed doubt about his choice, but he made an excellent case for the album’s merits, countered my suspect assessment of it, and I soon found myself listening to my cassette version, instead of just rewinding it each time I listened to Dark Side of the Moon, on Side A.

Like most (all?) Pink Floyd albums from the 70s to early 80s, Animals is a Concept Album, with its (few) songs unified on the themes of class politics, Capitalism and societal decay. So, sure, my initial assessment of “depressing” may have some basis in fact. But the album’s soaring guitars, earnest vocals, and the fact that the sheep defeat the dogs, make it far from a negative experience.

And as depressing as some of the themes may be, the record actually opens (and closes) with a sweet, folky song, “Pigs on the Wing 1,” about the value of love (or friendship!) among the indignities in life.

These indignities are symbolized by Flying Pigs, and, one can infer, the waste products discharged therefrom. As one might expect from a Concept Album titled Animals, and confronting class politics, this begins the continuing metaphor of the album of human types as animals.

First up are humans as those shaggy, friendly best friends of humanity, “Dogs35.”

Writing about 17-plus minute long songs can be challenging. In the past, I’ve gone deep into the weeds to write about such songs, using hundreds of words to comment on parts played and sung by all the members of the band. For “Dogs,” two words may be sufficient: David Gilmour.

He opens the song, which he wrote with bassist Roger Waters, strumming difficult chords on acoustic guitar and singing a cynical take on how to succeed in the modern world. The lyrics are quite bitter in that fist-raising, indignant, beautiful way that young idealists have – and that old fogies like me tend to dismiss as “immature” and “out of touch with the real world,” mainly because we realize we had a chance to make a difference and that chance passed us by. Lines like “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to / So that when they turn their backs on you / You’ll get the chance to put the knife in” leave little doubt about young Gilmour’s perspective.

These lines also lead in, about 1:48, to the first of his many brilliant guitar solos in this song. I love listening to the song, a slight difference from merely loving the song, to hear where Gilmour takes me – his solos seem to carry the listener along. They’re filled with great sounds and subtle intricacies, movement and emotion. Often times on this album I think of the band as merely platform onto which the lyrics and Gilmour’s guitar have been placed for careful consideration. The next solo is truly epic: beginning at 3:40, the song takes a turn to a commanding, pomp-filled tone, and Gilmour plays a double-tracked solo, with added touches layered underneath (listen closely from 4:30 to 4:45), that swirls into the type of section heard in many Pink Floyd songs, and of which, frankly, I could do with less.

I’ve barely ever used any marijuana in my life, so I may be way off base, but I associate these moody, open spaces in Floyd songs, oftentimes containing non musical, natural sounds (in this case dogs barking), with stoned teenagers exploring their minds while keyboardist Rick Wright holds a note for several minutes, and Gilmour gently strums the same two chords repeatedly. Of course, as boring as they can be, these long interludes do provide the framework for such wonderful beauties as Gilmour’s next solo, at about 5:32. I love this entire solo, especially the sort of “laughing” notes, around 6:20. Roger Waters’s bass during this solo is actually pretty cool (Gilmour himself has mocked Waters’s bass-playing ability), with nice, bouncy chords.

The song could easily end at about eight minutes, just after the really cool chicken-scratch guitar Gilmour plays during the vocals at 7:30, but this being Floyd, there are about 9 minutes left. And they’re a terrific nine minutes. And of course, this being Floyd, before we get to the terrific part, bongs gurgle everywhere as we sit through three-and-a-half minutes of Gilmour’s voice echoing while Wright holds a few notes, drummer Nick Mason taps a cymbal and those damned dogs bark some more36. At 11:40, Waters takes over the vocals, and the song becomes his – sort of a jaunty melody. Although Gilmour is probably the better pure singer, I sort of like Waters’s voice better. It has more of an edge, a sneer.

But holy shit, if Gilmour’s guitar doesn’t take over and steal back the glory!! The solo beginning at about 13:27 is his fourth of the song, and each one has been different and spectacular. This one is a trip up and down the neck, until it falls into a sort of Galaga insect-esque descent at 13:55. The finale (because such an impressive song requires a finale!) starts about 14:10, with more soloing and finally Waters putting the finishing touches on the song, singing a list of characteristics of the everyman in the song – the dog? The victim of the dog? both? – and Mason shows off his drumming chops.

Besides the fact that Dr. Dave introduced me to it, another reason Animals reminds me of friendship is that it’s so much a Gilmour/Waters-sounding record (despite the fact that only “Dogs” is credited to both of them, and the rest are Waters songs). I like to imagine the two friends playing and laughing together, like Dr. Dave and I would if we were Gilmour and Waters. However, this is pure fantasy. The two seem to really have a shared distaste, if not outright hostility, for one another. They’ve shared a stage once since 1981 (okay, fact-check: three times), and seem unlikely to do it again. But while they were together, they sure recorded some great stuff! For example, “Pigs (Three Different Ones).”

In this song, we meet three humans of the “Pig” variety, those at the top of the Social Ladder, according to Mr. Waters. This song is carried by Waters’s vocal performance; sneering, growling, falsetto, talking … Waters uses several techniques effectively throughout. The fretless bass on this song is tremendous, starting right at about 0:10, and I thought I’d be complimenting Waters for it; however, it was Mr. Gilmour who took over bass duties for this song, and he nailed it. This is a good song for paying attention to the stuff going on in the background. For example, the guitar is really cool-sounding and echo-y during the verses, and Nick Mason breaks out the cowbell just before 2:00. There’s nice piano work (actual piano, not synthesizer) around there, as well, and nifty little guitar doodles, too.

The lyrics are quite harsh, once again full of righteous indignation at the powerful class. And as someone who grew up far, far from power and wealth, it feels good to hear Waters spew these lines, I must say. And one little tidbit that many Americans may not realize: the “Whitehouse” in the third verse IS NOT the U.S. presidency! It’s in fact a woman named Mary Whitehouse who was a moralistic crusader against sex and violence in 1970s Britain.

As you may expect, I’ll again fawn over Gilmour’s guitar playing in this song. Even during the repetitive, extended “bong section” of this song, from about 4:00 to 8:00, he does some little string bends on his chords that lift up the playing. Then comes a “talk box” solo, at 5:10, that brilliantly mimics a wah-wah trumpet. The mid-to-late 70s were huge for the Talk Box. Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Rufus … it was everywhere, and it’s interesting to see an “artsy” band like Pink Floyd use it. The song does sag a bit during this part (although be sure to listen to that bass during it!!), and this 11 minute song likely could have been five minutes. But they finish with a flourish, ramping up the energy on a final solo and an almost-disco bass line!

The last of the animal types we’ll meet are those from the big herd, the massive group of folks who aren’t the dangerous dogs or the gluttonous pigs. The you and the me, even if we’d rather not admit it: “Sheep.”

This song, both lyrically and sonically, is actually quite uplifting. Sonically, it has a driving urgency and a satisfying guitar ending that sounds like release. Lyrically, although the sheep at first seem meek and hopeless, they do set upon the dogs and defeat them in the end. The Rick Wright electric piano at the beginning sounds a little too Al Jarreau for my liking, but it ends soon enough, with a growing bass that signals more of Waters’s sneering voice. And sure, at this point in my post I should just say “Gilmour, Gilmour, Gilmour.” But I mean, come on. The stuff he does from 2:26 to about 2:50 is just insanely good. And he does stuff like that throughout the whole song (3:30 – 3:50, for example)!

It builds to a near frenzy by about 4 minutes, but then … spark one up. We’ve got another 3 minutes of mellow to enjoy the drugs’ effects. After swirling synths and burbling bass, there’s a distorted 23rd Psalm to occupy your mind. The song builds to a very effective guitar fanfare at about 8:07 to signal the death of the dogs and the sheep’s success. On an album with three very long songs, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but the guitar in Sheep may place it atop that list.

To end the album, we again revisit those dreaded flying pigs, in “Pigs on the Wing 2.”

Same song37, slightly different words, a recapitulation of the original point: it’s good to have someone else to help you avoid the pigs’ shit (and the dogs’ teeth, for that matter). That’s the point of friends in a nutshell right there, isn’t it?

So thanks, Dr. Dave. And Julia, of course. And Dan and Josh and Rick. And Josh S. and Adam and Ximena. And Mitch and Kim and Ed and Tiger and … holy cow! Weird, I’ve always felt like it’s been one buddy, one friend, for me. But when you start to actually name them and count them up, it turns out I’ve been lucky to have more buddies than I can really even comfortably list! Thanks to all of you, named and un-named!! Because of you, I’ve never worried very much about those flying pigs.

Track Listing
“Pigs On The Wing 1”
“Dogs”
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
“Sheep”
“Pigs On The Wing 2”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

49th Favorite Album

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Godspeed The Shazam. The Shazam.
1999, Not Lame Records. Producer: Brad Jones.
Purchased, 2001.

IN A NUTSHELL: Hans Rotenberry has a gift for catchy melodies, terrific harmonies and all the things I love about guitar pop songs. I hear influences such as The Who, Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Raspberries, but most of all I hear his fantastic songs. The band can rock, it can mellow out, it can get weird and silly, but they always hit their mark. This record is definitely a success – even if it’s only you and I who know about it!
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When I was young, I knew I would be famous, respected and, dare I say, consequential in my career as a … well … er, uh … something. Musician, maybe. Or comedian. Or actor. Or novelist. Or playwright. Whatever, the point is that WHAT I was going to be wasn’t important. What was important was HOW I would be that thing. Whatever that thing was, I was bound to be consequential. I would be important. It’s just a feeling I’ve always had.

I still have it.

The Author, center, surrounded by other Consequential Creative People from history, clockwise from top left: John Lennon; Jane Austen; James Baldwin; Frida Kahlo; Leonardo Da Vinci; Billie Holiday; William Shakespeare; Barbra Streisand.

My genius was perfect and indisputable, and what’s more, it was tantalizing because of its latency; how it coiled in a hidden corner in the attic of humanity’s consciousness, tightly compressed beneath an old flag, or a princess’s forgotten wedding gown, waiting for the perfect moment to be revealed, to spring forth and burst into full display on humanity’s front lawn where it could be properly celebrated. Whether it would be revealed in my first novel, or my first acting job, or my first standup TV special, or my first music album, or my blog about my favorite records … well, these were mere details. The point, to my mind, was that it would, of course, be revealed.

The inevitability of my deep consequentiality, and its approaching impact on society at large, is so apparent that I’ve never felt compelled to work particularly hard to ensure that it would be, in fact, uncovered. It’s seemed like a waste of time and energy to, say, attend college for creative arts; unnecessary to deprive myself by working low-paying, menial jobs so I could focus on my creative endeavors. Attending Writers’ Camps, relocating to LA or New York, practicing my bass guitar … none of these things have been part of my path to success. I’ve simply relied on my gift: no, not that coiled genius, for that type of gift is unremarkable, common. My gift is Destiny. I can just sit back, relax, and let the glory make its way to me.

The glory has been held up, apparently, and slow to arrive thus far.

I’m not scared by this delay on the part of my preordained glory of consequentiality, for I’m aware that it’s silly to think something so eminently inevitable would somehow not occur. It’s like fretting about today’s sunset being the last. But there are times when I allow myself to consider what it would mean if I were to suddenly die before my prestige was revealed38. Would my life have then been a failure?

The first place to start in my pursuit of an answer to this hypothetical is this question: What does the word “failure” mean? Merriam-Webster is pretty straightforward on the concept, and despite the best efforts of Lifehacker, its definition leaves little wiggle room: the omission of an occurrence; falling short; lack of success; ONE THAT HAS FAILED. So if you want to get technical about it, the answer is “Yes. My life would have been a failure.” That pretty much answers that.

But thinking of myself as a failure is very unsettling, so I’m going to continue to delve into the question until I’ve obliterated the idea through sheer reasoning, re-contextualization and self-delusional flim-flammery. And let me start by saying that if my life were to surprisingly end with little or no established “consequentiality” from my artistic endeavors, the failure will not have been mine but will instead have been that of Destiny. For it was Destiny that wrote the ending, not me. Destiny labeled me as “Consequential;” I’ve simply enjoyed my creative pursuits. My only culpability was in trusting in Destiny.

So if it’s true that I was merely creating stuff because it’s fun, then the simple fact that I DID CREATE, and had fun doing so, means that I was not a failure. The occurrence wasn’t omitted, I didn’t fall short, I did succeed, I am NOT one who has failed39! Then perhaps a better question than “Am I a failure?” for me (or any artist) to answer is this: “Why do artists create?” There are probably as many answers to that question as there are artists to answer it40. Some folks say they do it to avoid a day job, or to learn about others. Others just let the audience continue to wonder, “Now, why did he do that?”

One of the best places to go to explore the “why?” of creativity is Baltimore, Maryland’s, American Visionary Arts Museum, a museum that “emphasizes intuitive creative invention and grassroots genius.” You won’t find a Picasso or a Rembrandt in the permanent collection at AVAM, but you will find DeVon Smith’s First Family of Robots. There will be no exhibitions on The Impressionists, but there will be one on the History, Fantasy and Future of Food. It is pure creativity for creativity’s sake, and when you linger long enough looking at the bizarre space worlds and childish portraits, the answer to the question “Why do they create?” becomes perfectly clear: Because They Create.

Another great place to find answers to “why create?” is within the pages of artists’ autobiographies. I am a sucker for Rock Musician autobiographies in particular. (Only “auto-;” I’m not interested in biographies [unless the artist participated in writing the book].) I’ve read dozens, such as Keith Richards’, Pete Townshend’s, Eric Clapton’s, etc., etc., and those of less luminous stars, such as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, The Police’s Andy Summers and The Kinks’ Dave Davies. After reading so many of these books41 the answer to the question is as clear as it was at AVAM: Because They Create.

One gets the impression from reading rock autobiographies that whether or not “success,” in the form of money and record sales and radio airplay, had visited these musicians, they’d have been making music their entire lives all the same. When you read the words he uses to describe his passion for music, it is easy to conjure an image of Keith Richards in the 60s on an alternate path, pumping petrol for a National Benzole station along the motorway, picking out the blues on his guitar between servicing lorries. And it’s quite the same for all of them: making music for them is like having fingernails: it’s just, like, part of who they are.

So, then – if you are just doing what it is you do, creating art like other people maintain fingernails, is there any way you possibly can FAIL at it42? I suppose you could create a piece that you yourself don’t like; or you could have the feeling that you never properly put down on paper, or in notes, or in marble or clay, what it was you truly wanted to create. These situations might make you feel like a failure, but I believe if you earnestly continue to work to improve and move your art closer to whatever vision is in your head, then it’s difficult for anyone else to make the case that you, as an artist, failed. Even if nobody buys your albums. (Or reads your blog.) This isn’t to say that any creative effort is good; it just means it wasn’t a FAILURE.

Another way an artist could feel like a failure is if few people ever see/hear/read the artwork that’s been produced. While it’s true that artists create because they create, I’d say greater than 99% of them also seek out an audience for their work. This means it’s not just the ACT of creating that’s driving them, but also the satisfaction of sharing the fruits of their labors. Keith Richards’ band continues to release albums and plan concert tours. If he’d be pumping petrol instead, I’d expect he’d spend his off days and free evenings recording songs and playing in a club somewhere all the same – opportunities to share his art with others. It’s no different than your aunt inviting you to the local library for the exhibition from her pottery class. You create because you create; you share because you take pride in your creations. (And, possibly, like Keith Richards, because you make a little money.)

The point is this: you may not have heard of The Shazam, and their fantastic album Godspeed The Shazam, but it doesn’t mean they’ve failed. It means our country’s musical-art-delivery-systems (i.e. radio, record labels, Spotify, live venues, etc.) have failed. It’s the same reason bands like Marah, Heavenly, The Shys and The Redwalls were largely unheard.

I first heard The Shazam back in the early 00’s, in the days of Napster and LimeWire and KaZaa and other fancy forms of thievery. Also gaining in popularity at this time were new garage-rock bands whose sound harkened back to the punkish, new-wave guitar music I loved from the late 70s. Bands like The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, The White Stripes, The Mooney Suzuki … these were bands unafraid to showcase catchy guitar lines, and happy to have a definite article before their names, like the good old days. A friend in the comedy scene43 mentioned The Shazam, and I bought the CD after stealing a song from KaZaa.

That song was the catchy, pop marvel “Sunshine Tonight.”

The crunchy, brassy guitar sound immediately reminded me of early-70s glam rock, like T-Rex. The wide ranging melody and harmonies were reminiscent of The Raspberries and Big Star. I played the song a lot. I love the drums, which sound a bit sloppy, but in a good way (ala Keith Moon?). The song is simple, but builds nicely until the second time through the chorus, about 2:03, where the band really sounds like they’re having fun. I could’ve used more of the outro guitar solo, from 2:33 on, but there’s plenty of guitar left on the record.

Most of the guitar, as well as most of the vocals and all of the songwriting, is courtesy of the Head Shazam Man, Hans Rotenberry. He’s got obvious influences (as stated above), but they’re excellent influences and he never sounds like he’s simply ripping off old songs. Or maybe he does, but I like it so much I don’t notice. A terrific song, with influences front and center, is track one, perhaps my favorite, “Super Tuesday.”

I love the drum entrance, at about 0:50, played by Scott Ballew, who isn’t as wild and flamboyant as Keith Moon, but who plays with a style that gives many of the songs a “Who” feel. And the harmonies on the chorus “This is it!” (about 1:20) sound great. Rotenberry has a vocal-fry style of singing that he uses to great effect, particularly on the bridge – about 1:48. In the final verse, beginning about 2:07, the band mixes up the harmonies and Mick Wilson’s bass line, which helps to increase the urgency of the song.

I’m a huge fan of melody and harmony vocals – probably due to years of immersing myself in The Beatles – and Rotenberry and The Shazam do these perfectly. Consider the song “Calling Sydney,” for example.

This is one of my favorites on the album, a song that seems to get better as it progresses. For instance, at 0:30, the verse gets a second melody, with great drumming and a cool bass line and harmonies that I like even more than those opening the song. Then about 0:39, the band adds some vocal hoots, and THEN – at 0:45 – the chorus adds a third melody, another soaring piece. (And of course I must mention the fantastic, pompous kettle drums!) There is a guitar solo that doubles the verse. Such is the limited renown of this band that I couldn’t find any lyrics online. But I will say this: whatever they’re saying, they sound pretty cool saying it!

The band had a bit of success in 2003, when Coors launched their “Guys’ Night Out” advertising campaign, which, viewed generously, reduced young men to drunken boobs; less generously to would-be date-rapists. A song called “Goodbye American Man,” from their 2003 album Tomorrow the World, was used, and it seemed like maybe good things were in store for the band44. But they didn’t catch fire, waited 6 years to put out Meteor, and have been on hiatus since.

But those of us who followed them haven’t forgotten. We remember gems like “The Stranded Stars.”

With its boppity-bop drum fills, far-ranging vocals and soaring harmonies, and nifty guitar lines, it’s got a lot of what interested us in the first place. And it shows that Hans Rotenberry has a way with the mellower songs, too, not just the rockers. Another example of his sensitive side is the sad, acoustic lament to lost love, “A Better World.”

It’s a nice, sad piece. The cheap-sounding piano solo is a bit reminiscent of the sound of The Replacements’ “Androgynous,” and while there are some subtle strings added, it’s mostly just Hans and his guitar. The oddly-named “Sweet Bitch” is another sadly melodic gem that sounds remarkably like it could be a Cheap Trick song. But Hans doesn’t stay sad for long, as the frantic “Sparkelroom” demonstrates.

It’s got a beat and bongoes that remind me of the dance on the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s stranded on a desert island. It’s a high energy song with surfer girls and moonscreen and swirly space sounds. It’s one of a number of songs on the record that have a sort of updated, anything-goes 60s feel. Others include “RU Receiving,” which references Spinal Tap with a shouted “Goodnight Cleveland!” “City Smasher,” which is almost a novelty song.

Another of these is the strange “Chipper Cherry Daylily.”

It sounds like a late 60s garage band trying to capitalize on the “psychedelic sound” … but in a good way! This used to be one of my favorites on the record, and now I don’t know why that was. They also dabble in riff-rock on “Gonna Miss Yer Train,” the most guitar-oriented song on the album, giving Rotenberry a chance to show off his fretboard skills.

So what does it all mean? What is the point when a great band releases a terrific album and the world collectively yawns? The fact is, a great band45 being ignored is far more common than a great one being noticed. But being noticed is only a small part of why creators create. I’d venture to say that Hans and his bandmates have to look back at Godspeed the Shazam and consider it a success, even if it’s only unknown-though-Destiny-bound-49-year-old-guys-with-album-countdown-blogs who realize what a gem it is. In the song “Some Other Time,” probably my favorite on the album, the singer tells an ex that the timing just wasn’t right for them. But if you imagine Hans Rotenberry talking to his bandmates, instead of an old lover, the lyrics describe a resignation that reflective artists everywhere understand. Even those of us with Destiny on our side.

Maybe in a dream/Maybe in my mind
There’s a place where you and me could really be something
Somehow, some other time.

I know/It was nothing that was ever meant to be
Except for the moment there/When I could plainly see
But it’s too late for it to hurt/Your name is just another word
Coulda been years ago/If I hadn’t been so shy
Who’s to say that you and me couldn’t really be something
Somehow some other time

Might’ve once ago/But the world just passed us by
Maybe in a fantasy/Or memory
You and me coulda really been something
Somehow, some other time

Track Listing
“Super Tuesday”
“Sunshine Tonight”
“The Stranded Stars”
“Sparkleroom”
“Some Other Time”
“RU Receiving”
“Chipper Cherry Daylily”
“Calling Sydney”
“City Smasher”
“Sweet Bitch”
“A Better World”
“Gonna Miss Yer Train”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

50th Favorite Album

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Axis: Bold as Love. The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967, Track Records. Producer: Chas Chandler.
Purchased, 1997.

IN A NUTSHELL: Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are in fine form on songs both heavy and light, each song bursting with the unmistakeable virtuosity of Hendrix’s guitar – sometimes subtle, sometimes bombastic. He plays a few pop songs, too, and always makes them sound like Jimi. He also displays an under-appreciated, soulful singing voice that particularly stands out on the lighter, slower songs.
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Everyone wants to be a VIP. All over the internet, folks are using the allure of VIP status to entice you to buy yoga apparel, car washes, cameras, and sporting goods; access to restaurants, zoos, muscle-car clubs, pinball museums and places that aren’t even real. And while it’s probably true that nobody really thinks their longterm commitment to buying quality socks online actually makes them more important than they were when they were simply buying Kirkland socks at Costco, it’s also true that if the letters “VIP” didn’t actually help sell things then vendors wouldn’t use them.

It is well-established that people want to feel important46. But we also like to acknowledge those people who are important in our own lives. Many of us, it seems, need a little help letting those people know how special they are to us, but we all (mostly) recognize those important people are out there. (If you don’t know who they are, there are several online quizzes to help you figure it out!)

Of particular interest to humans seems to be those people we think are “most important.” Schoolchildren of all ages have likely written at least one essay on the topic “The Most Important Person in My Life.” And if they can’t think of someone, there are plenty of example essays for sale on the topic! It’s not just teachers who like a good “Most Important Person Essay,” either. Many websites post such features for all their readers to enjoy. It’s also a popular topic on websites devoted to particular religions.

These essays and stories and blog posts all tend to focus on longtime relationships that are obviously important. The singular fact that your mother carried you inside her for nine-plus months immediately renders her important, whether or not her laugh is all that great. If you’re a big-time athlete, you’re bound to have a coach or two with whom you’ve developed a special bond. Most of us probably have several of these types in our lives making it quite difficult to pare a list of important people down to one single “most important47.” (And remember: when thinking about those “most important people” in one’s life, always keep in mind – as we children of the 70s learned on TV – that the most important person is YOU!)

Parents, coaches, teachers, mentors, friends, grandparents … these are all obvious types of important people. People in your life who fall into these categories have earned a claim to the title of Most Important Person, I am sure. “For fifty years, my sister has been there for me.” “I learned so much more than World History from Mrs. Meyer in 10th grade.” However, there is a type of Important Person that I find far more interesting. It’s a type of Important Person who perhaps hasn’t had such a broad or philosophical influence on your life, but who had a direct, specific, turning-point-facilitating impact. When you ask yourself “How did I get here?” and follow the thread of your actions and decisions back through the twisting maze of your past, you will come across a person or two without whose words or deeds a significant turn in your path would have been missed – even though you Don’t Remember Their Name! This is The Forgotten Person in Passing. Better-known as The ForPerInPass. Or maybe the Forg-Pip. Or F-PIP. Whatever, I suck at nicknames and acronyms.

FPIPs are often only recognizable if you allow your memory to step back through the stages of your life and consider how each link between stages was made. For example: I’ve had a 25-plus year career in the biotech/pharma industry. How did I get there? Well, I can easily walk back through the various jobs I’ve had at different companies in New England and California … and before arriving in California, I can go back in my mind to Pennsyltucky… where I can remember getting my very first pharma job at a Bayer Aspirin factory … a job I got because I had a minor in Chemistry … which was a degree I took only because of … Some Guy. An FPIP.

In 1989 I was days away from graduating college with a degree in Biology Education. As with everything pre-internet, the administrative process of graduation involved filling out a lot of forms and getting a bunch of signatures on these forms. One of these forms was to be signed by the Department Chair (a terribly Important Person, no doubt), who, having reviewed the paper copy of my college transcripts would, by signature, assert that indeed I had fulfilled the requirements to receive a Bachelor’s degree.

My transcript included grades from two years spent at PCPS, a college of science whose hefty, science-packed course-load included about 23 credits of Chemistry in my two years of study48 – which is a shit-load of chemistry. As I walked through a science building on my way to get a signature, some FPIP took a look at my transcript and said, “Holy crap! You have enough Chemistry credits to get a minor!” (or words to that effect.) “Why should I do that?” I asked. “Why not?” he replied. “It couldn’t hurt!” So, on my way to get the Biology chair’s signature, I stopped in at the Chemistry chair’s office for his signature, and voila!! I had a Chemistry Minor! If I hadn’t gotten that Chemistry minor, I probably wouldn’t have gotten my first pharmaceutical job. And since I wasn’t looking for a career in pharmaceuticals, but only took the job (which was supposed to be temporary) so that I’d have some flexibility to tour with my band, I probably wouldn’t have had a successful career in what has turned out to be my field if I hadn’t bumped into that FPIP.

In terms of my life’s path, that dude who gave me the tip about obtaining a minor was WAY more important than any advice-giving coach or hand-holding aunt could ever be! And he’s just one of several such FPIPs.

Other FPIPs in my life include this wacky, effervescent, middle-aged dancer/actress/singer I met in San Rafael, CA, soon after I moved there in 1993. She was a friend of a friend, and I met her once, at a lunch with our mutual friend during a break in rehearsal for some cabaret show she was hoping to mount, and during that one meeting she told me that of all the acting programs in San Francisco, the only one worth attending was the Jean Shelton Acting School. On that advice I started taking classes, and one of the first friends I made there introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. If not for the wacky FPIP, I might still be single.

Another FPIP – who I definitely can picture, and who I knew pretty well at the time, but whose name I can’t recall – was the guy who said “Axis: Bold as Love was a life-changing album for me.” He was an improv teacher at Sue Walden & Co., (now ImprovWorks) a school in San Francisco where I trained and performed for years. He played guitar, and in the mid 90s he was in his 40s. As a teen-aged guitar player living in the Bay Area in the 60s, he was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix, and as I recall, he told me that Axis: Bold as Love had been released just as he was starting to get really good at guitar. But, he explained, when he heard that album he realized just how hard he was going to have to work to become the type of guitarist he wanted to be. I don’t remember the details of what he said, but I recall the reverence with which he spoke, the deep connection he had with the work, not just as an album of rock songs but as a true work of artistic expression that had left an impression still palpable some 30 years later. It was like hearing a Catholic priest speak of seeing St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time.

I was already a fan of The Jimi Hendrix Experience album Are You Experienced?, so I knew immediately that I had to get Axis: Bold as Love. In this case, the chances are likely that I would have purchased this album at some point – so maybe he doesn’t precisely fit the FPIP definition. But I still can’t hear this record without thinking of that guy, and feeling lucky to have met him, and in a way I still consider him responsible for my love of this album, and deepening my appreciation of Jimi.

I was already familiar with this album’s cover because my high school buddy, Josh, had used it to decorate our room in 11th grade World Cultures class when we had “India Day.” The story goes that Jimi didn’t particularly care for the artwork, as nobody in the band had any Indian heritage (apart from Jimi’s Native American “Indian” lineage). And although depicting the band members as gods of the third largest religion on Earth is undoubtedly offensive to many49, it’s still a pretty cool-looking album.

Cool-looking though it may be, Axis: Bold as Love starts off rather cornily with a sort of amusing, kind of pointless, though maybe sort of wild-for-its-time skit, called “EXP,” about aliens that allows Hendrix to make some futuristic sounds with his guitar. But more importantly, it serves as a prelude to the cool groove of “Up from the Skies.”

It starts with a jazzy, brush-stick intro from fabulous drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Jimi begins singing right away. This is perfect because it allows me to state immediately that Hendrix’s acknowledged guitar virtuosity has overshadowed the fact that he’s actually a terrific singer! On this song he’s expressive and controlled as he takes the voice of the alien in “EXP” to ask us all about our life here on Earth, and why it’s so degraded since the last time he visited. Behind the outer-space words is some fantastic wah-wah guitar that subtly distorts the sound of the entire song – giving me a feeling of bobbing in water. The drumming – I can’t say enough about Mitchell. Hear for yourself just 15 seconds of brilliance, between 0:30 and 0:45. Jimi’s solo beginning at 2:25 – I need better words to describe his playing. Those who think Hendrix was only about guitars lit on fire and playing with his teeth must listen to this solo: restrained and lovely, incorporating both the wah pedal and studio panning to achieve its full effect.

Next up is a song in a heavier vein, the type for which Hendrix is perhaps more well-known: “Spanish Castle Magic.”

It sounds like early heavy metal, based around one chunky riff doubled by bassist Noel Redding. The lyrics are purported to be about an old rock club on the outskirts of Seattle, called The Spanish Castle, where Hendrix played as a high schooler, but I’m thinking they might also have to do with Jimi’s use of LSD. Regardless of their content, I’m always amazed at how Jimi can sing and play guitar so well at the same time50. In this and many songs, the melody he sings is a different rhythm than what his hands are playing – and sometimes his hands are doing additionally crazy things. I recognize that in a studio overdubs are used to make this task easier, but Jimi pulled off this shit live, too!

These two songs are examples of the two main styles in which The Jimi Hendrix Experience traffics: 1) gentle, subtle grooves; and 2) heavy riffs; both based in the blues and both with brilliant guitar. One of the most well-known Type 1 songs is the beautiful “Little Wing.”

It’s a song loved by guitar players, with a sound lifted by many artists over the years. When I listen closely to what Hendrix is playing, I understand why my FPIP was so overwhelmed. At first listen, it sounds rather simple. But when you focus in on his subtle bends and arpeggiated strumming you recognize how advanced the playing is. For example, the 20 seconds before the solo – at about 1:20 to 1:40. His playing doesn’t even sound like fingers and a pick on strings – it sounds like it’s just emanating from him. (By the way, he also played the glockenspiel on the piece51!) The lyrics were apparently inspired by “… a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it,” Hendrix stated. “And me with my crazy ass couldn’t get it together.” As with many Hendrix lyrics, the meaning isn’t immediately apparent from the actual words … but who cares? It still sounds beautiful.

I love “Little Wing,” and am in fact drawn to all the mellower songs on the album. Perhaps my favorite is the evocative “One Rainy Wish.”

The guitar in this song is wonderful. Much has been made of Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and his ability to make his guitar sound like rockets and bombs. In “One Rainy Wish,” his guitar doesn’t sound like rainfall, but it conjures rainfall imagery, with its cascading descending runs and wavy bends, giving the listener the feeling of standing in the rain. The mellow 3/4 time of the verse kicks into a more raucous 4/4 in the chorus (at about 1:13), and Jimi solos through the whole thing. Drummer Mitch Mitchell plays a distant-thunder roll on his tom at about 1:57 to bring it back to the drizzly verse, a seamless transition of the type the band makes easily throughout the songs on the album. I get chills at the guitar in this song, and it makes me wonder if I have ASMR. It’s another Jimi-style, dreamy love song, with lyrical content (“you were under the tree of song / Sleeping so peacefully / In your hand a flower played”) that could only be written by one man.

Another magical piece – and the more I think about it, “magical” is a great way to describe this album. It seems to get better and better and reveal more and more with every listen! – is the spiritual “Castles Made of Sand,” with its slice of life lyrics that together urge the listener to seize the day – for it all could wash away tomorrow. This song features some backwards guitar, and once again Mitchell’s drumming is tight. But come on: just go back and listen to his guitar playing during the “castles made of sand” sections – 0:47, 1:25, 2:13 – tell me that’s not just otherworldly brilliance? I get carried away – I almost forgot to post the song.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience only had one Billboard Top 40 song, but it is useful to remember that the band WAS a POP BAND, writing songs contemporaneously to artists like The Grass Roots and The Cowsills, and some of the songs on Axis: Bold as Love clearly seem to be Jimi’s attempts at writing a pop song. Of course, being Jimi Hendrix, the result isn’t exactly “Sugar Sugar.” “You Got Me Floatin’” has too much Jimi vocal style and overdriven guitar, wild Mitch Mitchell drumming and a Noel Redding bass solo to ever be mistaken for Neil Diamond. “Ain’t No Tellin’” is a radio-friendly one-minute-fifty, but it has those triplets the kids can’t dance to, and a section (beginning about 0:46) of jazzy chord changes, and so much smoking guitar that Cousin Brucie would’ve blown out his headphones. The weakest of these pop songs is the one written by bassist Noel Redding, “She’s So Fine,” which actually sort of sounds like a 60s pop song. Mitch and Jimi do what they can on it, including Jimi’s soloing (about 1:30 and 2:12), in which he seems to be saying, “Fuck that shit, Noel, let me take over.”

One song I find really interesting on Axis: Bold as Love is the rather humorous offering, “Wait Until Tomorrow.” It tells the tale of our hero wooing the lovely Dolly Mae, who continues to ask him to wait … until Dolly Mae’s dad’s gun finally puts an end to the relationship.

It’s got a terrific riff, some excellent Mitchell fills toward the end, and is one in a long line of songs (“Hey Joe,” “Machine Gun”) Hendrix played that featured gun violence, and they each approached the topic differently. “Little Miss Lover” at first seems like a throwaway song, until about 1:07, when he plays a killer riff and a solo that – frankly – deserves a better song behind it!

The only songs left to discuss are two serious songs, key in the Hendrix Canon (in my humble opinion.) First there’s the trippy journey of “If 6 Was 9,” not one of Hendrix’s best lyrical outputs, but I couldn’t give a hoot about that.

This entire album is very “headphone worthy,” offering more sonic tidbits with every listen. But “If 6 Was 9” is particularly great on headphones, with a guitar that almost sounds like it’s inside a tin can – but in a really cool, positive way. Right around 1:40 the guitar builds, and then Noel Redding gets to play some scales on the bass that whirl and expand, and provide a kind of tether for Jimi’s guitar atmospherics. Jimi gives a little chuckle at about 2:52 that – coupled with all the guitar on this record – always makes me think he knows a lot more about everything than I’ll ever know … That’s the best I can explain it. Even Mitchell’s drum solo afterwards can’t beat that feeling out of me. At 3:56 Hendrix begins to bring it all home, creating flutes, industrial sounds, outer space chirps … it’s the kind of song I’d have HATED as a Middle Schooler, because it would’ve scared the shit out of me. But I love it now.

The album closes with “Bold as Love” – a sort of poetic salute to rainbows, whose lyrics I don’t try to understand – I just sit back and enjoy them because they create something beautiful.

“They’re all bold as love,” he sings – and who can argue with that? I’m glad this is the last song to write about because I don’t know how many different ways I can say “Boy, he’s a really excellent, moving guitarist!” Listen at 1:46 how he approaches the solo with a run, and how the solo seems to end the song at 2:40, until a coda begins that takes the song to a new level. It’s one of the most perfect album-ending tracks I know. Satisfying, it somehow says “goodbye,” not so much in words, but just as plainly as the alien in “EXP” said “hello.” As the track fades, I’m always left feeling like The Jimi Hendrix Experience may have actually been from outer space, and may have arrived here for the sole purpose of guiding us listeners to a very, very happy place.

It’s not unlike those FPIPs in your life, who seem like they were visiting you and only you to direct things, to set you on your course. You don’t need to know their names, you don’t need to know how they knew to give you that important information. All you need to do is hold them in your memory, and hope you can be as helpful to others as they were to you. If you can get someone to become a fan of Axis: Bold as Love, you’ve done something wonderful.

Track Listing:
“EXP”
“Up From the Skies”
“Spanish Castle Magic”
“Wait Until Tomorrow”
“Ain’t No Telling”
“Little Wing”
“If 6 Was 9”
“You Got Me Floatin'”
“Castles Made of Sand”
“She’s So Fine”
“One Rainy Wish”
“Little Miss Lover”
“Bold as Love”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

Intermission … 50 More to Go

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Now that I’ve listed my favorite albums, from 100 to 51, it’s time for me to stop and consider just how much time I’ve actually wasted on a project that few will read and even fewer will care about. While considering how ridiculous this project has been, it’s also useful to compound my negative feelings by recognizing that the length of time it’s taken me to complete the rollout of the list has rendered it inaccurate, as well. You see, I have a static list in a dynamic world.

Way back in the last millennium, the exits on Pennsylvania highways were numbered from 1 to X, with X being however many exits a highway happened to have52. This seemed like a reasonable arrangement at the time the highways were being planned and developed, however – like Phlogiston or Spontaneous Generation – a little more thought on the subject revealed what a bad idea it was.

You see, if exits are numbered sequentially there is no way to easily add new exits. You could call a new exit between, say, Exit Numbers 7 and 8, “Exit 8,” and then renumber all subsequent Exits accordingly. However, this will give new numbers to Exits 8 through X, and will require lots of road sign changes53. But more importantly, it will confuse the shit out of motorists who used to know that Aunt Judy lived off Exit 26, but now she’s off 27. And next year, when the new Exit 19 opens, she’ll be off Exit 28!!

The alternative – and the path DOTs have used – is to add letters. The old Exit 7 is now Exit 7A! And the new exit is Exit 7B! This isn’t as bad as changing all the Exit Numbers, but you’ll still have to replace a bunch of signs54. And it isn’t as clear to motorists as simply having numbers. For example … “I just passed Exit 7B, so I guess 7C is next? SHIT!! I just drove past Exit 8 because Exit 7C doesn’t exist!”

The easiest Exit numbering scheme for motorists, for signage, and for everyone involved is to have unchanging numbers, and the only way to ensure that is to number the exits by mileage. The mileage won’t change, unless some state does something crazy, like burrow an underground Mobius strip of highway into the earth. (Here is a list of states dumb enough to do something like that. Actually, there are plenty of others.)

So, back in about 2000, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) decided to renumber the exits of its 1250 miles of state highways. I recall many Pennsylvanians were unhappy with the new arrangement, quick to assign the renumbering to nefarious liberals or crooked politicians. (I’ll never again be shocked by the low mental aptitude of collective Pennsylvanians.) However, nearly 20 years later, the system seems to be working fine, and new projects don’t have as big of an effect on the entire system.

This talk of Exit Numbering is relevant to my list because – much like highway Exit numbers of the 20th century – I can’t add new albums to my list without affecting the entire list. In the time it’s taken for me to post these first 50 records, I’ve heard some records that I might like better than some that are already on my list!!! HOWEVER – it’s the nature of my list, which was compiled beginning some 4 years ago (it is now February, 2017), that it can’t be amended without throwing things truly out of whack. Albums 100 – 51 have all been revealed, so if I add albums to my list, I now either have to bump a top-50 record completely off the list55 or shoe-horn more than 100 records into it by calling something “49a” or “Bonus Album!” Neither situation appeals to me.

So, I’ve decided to have an “INTERMISSION UPDATE” and list a few albums that I’ve bought over the past 5 years (or in one case, an album I’d somehow overlooked) that – were I to do this project again – might (I say MIGHT) crack the Top 100 and bump a few others off the list. So here they are, in no particular order, except for the order in which I remembered them.

Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel aka 3; aka Melt. (1980). This has been a favorite record of mine since high school, but somehow I overlooked it when I listened to all my albums. Would likely be top-50 – I love Gabriel’s voice and style. Cool guitar from Robert Fripp, David Rhodes, Dave Gregory and Paul Weller; cool drums from Phil Collins56; and terrific, diverse sounds and styles. It’s got “Games Without Frontiers,” “I Don’t Remember,” “No Self Control,” and my favorite: “Biko.”

Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power. (1973). I was really late to the party on Iggy Pop, pushed in the last couple years to listen by a friend who claimed that if I loved The New York Dolls, I’d love the Stooges. He was absolutely correct. Iggy’s Punk/Morrison hybrid vocals on top of driving, fun and aggressive songs with great guitar work by James Williamson. Includes “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” “I Need Somebody,” “Shake Appeal,” and the classic “Search and Destroy.”

New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers. (2014). I’d been hearing about The New Pornographers for several years, but I’d had the impression they were sort of a bunch of weenies. But when this album came out I randomly happened to see them on David Letterman, and I rushed out and got the album! It’s dance-y and pop-y, but sorta punk-y and guitar-y … and lavish-y, too. Songs include “Dancehall Domine,” “War on the East Coast,” “Champions of Red Wine,” and my favorite “Born With a Sound.”

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. (2015). I was at a party and two friends were talking about this excellent new record that “everyone [was] talking about.” The host put it on, and I began talking about it, too! Courtney Barnett has it all. Poppy punk, cool lyrics, great guitar and attitude from this Aussie artist! Includes “Elevator Operator,” “Dead Fox,” the epic, bluesy “Small Poppies,” and my favorite “Nobody Really Cares if you Don’t Go to the Party.”

White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade. (2013). I happened to catch a set by these guys at the 2014 Boston Calling Festival. Their dual-guitar, classic-rock sound immediately won me over. Bandleader James Petralli is a virtuoso guitarist, and he hires other virtuosos to play with him. They pack a lot of guitar into their songs, and continue to impress me. Includes “At Night in Dreams,” “Let It Feel Good (My Eagles),” “Cheer Up/Blues Ending” and my favorite, “Come Back.”

Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run. (1973). It’s hard to believe, as much as I like The Beatles, I only got this album in the last few years. I’ve had lots of Lennon, but not much Paul in my collection. My kids both loved the title song as youngsters, and they didn’t even know that Paul played bass, lead guitar, keyboards and drums (!!) on the whole album!! Probably a Top-50 record if I started the list today. Includes “Let Me Roll It,” “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” “Helen Wheels,” and my favorite, “Jet.”

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love. (2015). I was one of the many happy people in 2015 excited by news that Sleater-Kinney was reuniting for a new album. We weren’t disappointed, even though it’s a relatively short 32 minutes. Corin Tucker’s screech is as cool as ever, the dual guitars are cool and interesting, and the drumming is sharp. It’s a reminder of how great a band they are. Includes “Price Tag,” “No Cities To Love,” “Bury Our Friends,” and my favorite “A New Wave.”

Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold. (2012) This album is one that my friends told me was an immediate classic. I wasn’t so sure, and for some reason I resisted. Then I saw them live, and they were so powerful and fun and kind of weird, really, that I bought the record. It immediately became a favorite. Short fast songs, singing that’s sort of not singing, angular guitars, energy … I love it. “Tears O Plenty,” “Stoned and Starving,” “Careers in Combat,” and my favorite “Master of my Craft.”

Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways. (2014). This soundtrack to Dave Grohl’s HBO series of the same name was released to rather middling reviews, but I’ve liked it a lot from day 1! (I’m not afraid to love the albums others hate!) I think there’s a lot of power and energy, cool guitars, and at a quick 8 songs, much of the fat has been removed. Includes “Something From Nothing,” “What Did I Do?/God as my Witness,” “Subterranean,” and my favorite, “Congregation.”

DIIV – Oshin. (2012). I’ve been a subscriber to Sirius/XM for almost 10 years now, having been lured by my enthusiasm for Howard Stern, and it was on the XMU channel, featuring new indie rock, that I originally heard the band DIIV (pronounced “Dive.”) As an early MTV adopter, I’m a fan of the sort of 80s-ish, dreamy, alternative sounds, and these guys fit the bill. Ringing guitars, tribal drums, a bit of synth. Includes “How Long Have You Known?,” “Druun (part 2),” “Follow,” and my favorite, “Doused.”

St. Vincent – St. Vincent. (2014). I’d heard St. Vincent’s name for a while, but I really took notice when she performed with Nirvana at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. I listened to her album thinking it would be grungy, but it wasn’t – but I loved it! It’s got interesting sounds, cool beats, great guitar … I only bought the record in the past few months – so I haven’t listened a ton – but it’s already possibly-list-worthy. Includes “Bring Me Your Loves,” “Prince Johnny,” “Psychopath,” and my favorite “Rattlesnake.”

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color. (2015). I am happy to say I was in on the ground floor on Alabama Shakes, my sister having called specifically to say “You have to hear this song!” when their first single was released. I saw them in concert, and singer/guitarist Brittany Howard and the band really impressed. This sophomore effort expanded their sound, deepened the soul and kept the dual guitars I so love! Includes the soulful “Gimme All Your Love,” “Shoegaze,” “Miss You,” and my favorite, the hit “Don’t Wanna Fight.”

Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. (1998). I often have an impulse to reject art that is widely acclaimed, particularly when it’s acclaimed by jerks at a snooty SF record store. I ignored this album for more than 15 years, but I saw them reunite at 2014’s Boston Calling, and they were so good I had to get this record! Folky, smart, beautifully arranged (including a saw!) and moving57. Includes “Holland, 1945,” “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “Ghost,” and my favorite, “King of Carrot Flowers, part 1.”

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love! (2016).This album is probably too new, and still-too-rarely-listened-to, to earn a spot here, but whenever I do listen, I love it! A friend texted to say it’s “like Parliament/Funkadelic,” and it’s definitely got that 70s funk vibe! I always thought Childish Gambino was sort of a Weird Al Yankovic of hip-hop, but my teenagers set me straight. Includes “Redbone,” “California,” “Me and Your Mama,” and my favorite, “Boogieman.”

So, there you have it! A few possible new Exits on my Highway of Favorite Albums. I still have 50 more albums to reveal, which – unless something very unlikely happens – should take about three years, I guess. I’m sure I’ll have new Exits to build after I reach Number 1, so I’ll have another intermission.

Or MAYBE I’ll listen to all my albums AGAIN, and start a NEW list!!! What’s another ten years, right?

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51st Favorite Album

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If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry. Marah.
2005, Yep Roc Records. Producer: Marah.
Purchased, 2006.

IN A NUTSHELL: An under-appreciated, little-known band with a history of nearly going big-time, but sadly missing, presents an album of songs that mirror the band’s story: what might have been? It’s a bluesy, Americana, country-rock tour-de-force, and the star is the songwriting of the Bielenko brothers, Dave and Serge. The sound is great, and Dave’s voice is noteworthy and unique, centering the songs right in the heart.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ahh, the drunken sadness of unfulfilled dreams…

I’ve had a bit of a problem with alcohol in my past. I haven’t gotten dangerously drunk in a long, long time, but way back in my past it was a rather regular occurrence. Luckily, I never hurt myself or anyone else (physically) while it was all happening. I made a lot of bad decisions under the influence of booze, and pulled lots of stupid stunts and I came through pretty much unscathed – so it must have involved some luck. As a parent of teenagers, my antics particularly frighten me – because I can’t say they weren’t fun58.

My folks drank alcohol so rarely that it’s honest to say – though technically untrue – that they didn’t drink at all. My dad drank about two beers in a year – the two remaining beers from the case of Miller High Life bought for our annual family Christmas party and drank by my uncles and cousins. He’d finish both cans off by the end of February, then go dry for another 10 months. My mom frequently alluded to her dad, who died the year I was born, having difficulties with alcohol, and this fact clearly influenced her own tee-totaling ways. I recall her and my grandma making banana daiquiris one New Year’s Eve, each drinking one, and have no other recollection of her imbibing during my youth. My parents weren’t drinkers – one of many ways in which they hewed to the straight-and-narrow.

I followed in my parents’ footsteps all through high school, traveling along the trail they blazed of clearly-defined Right through a wilderness of Wrong. That wilderness was described for youth like me in Parables of Poor Choices: teens trespassing after midnight in public pools, paralyzed in shallow-end dives; boys blowing off hands while playing with shotgun shells; girls getting so drunk they were now unsure of who the daddy is. Among these Wrongs, the path I traveled kept me safe from teen drinking59. But it wasn’t so much that wilderness of immorality that frightened me as it was my parents’ potential reaction if I got off the path.

That concern was removed on a late-August afternoon in 1985, as I waved goodbye to them from the curb in West Philadelphia as they drove off in their ’78 Ford LTD wagon, beginning their two-hour drive back home from my new college. That night I went to a bar with my new friends.

And I had lots of fun.

That initial feeling of being buzzed has always been a pleasant one for me, from the first couple beers I ever drank. I’ve always felt like an extrovert – someone who enjoys other people and is energized by interactions with them. However I’d learned that the righteous path of my youth was best traveled with minimal social interactions, the better to avoid both temptations of the wilderness and beatings by its denizens, who could become agitated by the inferences they drew about my own self-regard as I viewed them from my elevated path through their surroundings. As a result, I assumed the role of “shy guy.” But the initial lightheaded feeling of a hastily-drank beer opened a doorway on the path that I could step through to engage anyone I wished. I felt like the self I always knew I was.

Alcohol was the formula that unleashed a superpower within me, my own radioactive spider bite or gamma radiation, and it took many years for me to realize that a) the superpower existed without the booze as trigger; and b) more booze did not equal stronger superpowers. There were some regrettable moments in the meantime … but there was a lot of fun, too!

I find being a little bit drunk quite enjoyable. I get a gentle swirly feeling, a sense of subtly floating and a belief that those around me are subtly floating, too. Conversation flows, jokes are funny, a bit of physical contact is affably shared. Of course, all of these characteristics are unhappily stretched, unpleasantly engorged and distorted with further drinking: swirling floatiness becomes shambling stumbles; conversation becomes assholes who won’t shut up; jokes become provocations and physical contact becomes worthy of filing charges. That boundary separating the goodnatured warmth from the ugly derangement of alcohol use is as delicate as a soap bubble. But when one is capable of properly monitoring what is being ingested, and how it is affecting one’s actions, it is possible for some folks (particularly those without a genetic predisposition to alcoholism) to maintain a happy, healthy use of alcohol.

Just as hostility in the ugly drunk is an attenuation of the charming authenticity of the floating drunk, I find the blubbering sorrow of a melancholy drunk to be simply a distortion of something positive about drinking: that wistful sadness of the gentle blues. Maybe it’s because, as an American man raised in the 70s & 80s, I have difficulty expressing emotion without alcohol’s little nudge; maybe it’s because I’m mildly clinically depressed all the time; but whatever the reason, there’s something I like about feeling a little blue with a little booze.

This gentle blue feeling – like most positive aspects of mild alcoholism – is best shared with a friend. To sit together and reminisce while sipping a bourbon or beer; to consider past glories as roundabouts on life’s highway that could have sent you in three different directions; to allow speculative wonder to navigate an alternate trajectory; to burnish memories with little fibs, like splicing explosive bits of blockbuster films into the humdrum documentary of your life, and therefore arrive at the destination of your dreams; and to finally assert that, for all the possible unchosen avenues, you’ve got to admit you’re happy with how life’s turned out so far … these are the steps to a happy sadness, the gentle blues60.

This feeling pervades the Marah album If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry. The first phrase I wrote down when I started this post was “The drunken sadness of unfulfilled dreams,” and for so many reasons this is the feeling I get from this band. I first heard of Marah around 2005, when I was still performing stand-up comedy. I would frequent an online Comedians Message Board, and someone whose taste I trust recommended the band and its latest album. I bought it blindly, and I became a fan of the band. Not only is their music tinged with sadness, but their story is, as well. A Philadelphia band, touted by giants like Stephen King and Nick Hornby, they were the darling of the critics, but never able to push through, despite some national TV exposure; and then a final splintering provided lots of questions of what might-have-been. A band named Marah still exists, but its Bruce Springsteen dreams are now a DIY reality of Americana pickin’ – and they seem okay with it. They seem gently blue.

If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry opens with a brief, jaunty slide guitar melody that is revisited throughout the album, then flies right into “The Closer,” a flying, bar-band stomper with a nifty riff, a sing-along chorus and a recorded phone message …

Singer Dave Bielenko writes the songs with his brother, Serge, who also takes lead vocal on a few songs. Dave has a distinctive, nearly-out-of-tune voice that carries a whiff of drunken abandon with it on nearly every song he sings. Or – in the case of this song that’s all about wild intoxication – far more than just a whiff.

The band also shows a fondness for cramming lots of words into their lyrics, in a Bruce Springsteen/Bob Dylan manner, which sounds really good when done right. It’s a feature of the next song, “The Hustle61,” and the coming-apart-at-the-seams feel is enhanced by the sloppy/cool guitar throughout and the lyrics’ working-artist content.

It’s another straight-ahead rocker, although the bridge at about 2:05 changes things up and deposits the song back again at about 2:30 with a different guitar riff and a disco bass line, demonstrating the band’s dexterity and playfulness. The song ends, then a clip of sad music follows – some interstitial sound linking the pieces together.

Next up is one of those gently blue, bittersweet songs, “City of Dreams.”

It’s a lovely acoustic song, with a mournful lap steel and mellotron accompanying. Dave holds back a bit on his voice’s drunken affectation as he sings about being a dreamer in the big city. His voice can be very expressive, despite its scruffy nature, particularly on these slower songs. One of my favorites is the us-against-the-world love song, “Out of Tune.” It builds from a voice and guitar, adding brother Serge on banjo and harmonies, finally adding handclaps around 1:54 as the initial sadness turns to the pride and unity of shared love. And I love the message, and chorus, of the song: “So what if we’re out of tune with the rest of the world?”

The songwriting is what carries this album. The Brothers Bielenko are excellent composers, and their arrangements – full of slide guitar and banjo – fit the tunes perfectly. The band sounds like an excellent bar band, all rough edges and passion, and I regret that I’ve never seen them live. There are many videos on YouTube of their live shows, and they seem like they put on a terrific show. A song that I think captures their fun energy, and that I’m sure is great live, is “Poor People.”

It’s got a different beat, again uses a simple guitar riff to drive it and includes a banjo in the background to pull things together. It builds to a point at 2:30 where the entire band fills in with background vocals – which is where I’d be screaming lyrics back to the band, if I heard it live. It’s about the indignities of living poor, where “The mice are crazy from paint chip crumbs/As the iron lung of the icebox hums/There’s cool ranch dust on our lunchtime thumbs.” And the lyrics again have a certain drunken pride – though they suggest a lousy life, the singer celebrates it, almost daring the listener to criticize. Marah is a Philly band, and this deep-seated pride is a characteristic I associate with Philadelphia and its citizens. In the 1970s the Philadelphia Phillies had a player named Mike Schmidt, one of the best players ever in the game. But Phillies fans booed Schmidt frequently, and griped about his play constantly. HOWEVER – if a fan of a different team put Schmidt down, he could expect an earful in support of Schmidt, and perhaps a punch in the face. There’s an Older Brother quality to Philadelphia that Marah’s music captures: I can talk shit about my little brother, but nobody else better do it!

Philadelphia, pride, sadness – they all play a big role in “Walt Whitman Bridge,” a song set on the Philadelphia landmark, where the singer contemplates a lost love and life itself, with great imagery of celebrating life’s miseries with memorials such as shoes on phone lines and words strewn like bread crumbs.

It’s a folksy, blue number with a nice acoustic guitar and some Dylan-y harmonica. Some lap steel and tinkling piano provide nice color, and the harmonies in the chorus, first heard about 1:17, give me chills every time.

The Bob Dylan influence is particularly noticeable on the gem “The Dishwasher’s Dreams,” a song with a constant stream of words set to an Americana stomp. Similar to “Poor People,” it’s a tale of the desperate poor making bad decisions, and fearing the future so badly that they dream of killing themselves. The only saving grace to their grim life is the love they share for one another. It’s a well-told tale, and lines such as “I fell in love with Monique/ on a Yanks winning streak/ and we danced to the popping of corks” are brilliantly evocative. This is another favorite of mine.

There isn’t a bad song on the album. The jaunty, interstitial melody heard at the album opening is finally given its due in the country sing-along “Sooner or Later,” with the lovely dobro riff carrying it along. That riff ends the album, as well, then turns into the hidden track, “The Sooner or Later Interlude,” a straight-ahead rocker featuring more great Serge/Dave harmonies. “Fat Boy” is a honky-tonk stomper, and “Demon of White Sadness” is a sadly bouncing number with a nice guitar riff, and lyrics about depression described not as the typical blackness, but as something turned white with medication.

Brother Serge takes lead vocals on another tear-jerker, the miss-you-while-I’m-on-the-road, country-tinged “The Apartment.”

I love the lyrics of this song, the form and structure. I love how few of the lines rhyme (except for some great internal rhymes) – it’s really an essay about missing one’s love. Mundane facts of life on the road – truck stop bananas, pumping gas – are interspersed with little expressions of yearning love: souvenir keychains, drunken phone calls. Vaguely mariachi trumpets provide a wistful backdrop to the song.

“Wistful” is defined by Google as “having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing.” Merriam-Webster calls it “yearning or desire tinged with melancholy; musingly sad.” It’s the feeling I associate with mild drunkenness, a sense of being “gently blue.” If you wanted to describe wistfulness in a simple sentence, you might say this: “If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.” If you wanted to feel it for yourself, you might listen to “If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry.” You’ll be happy you did.

Track Listing:
“The Closer”
“The Hustle”
“City of Dreams”
“Fat Boy”
“Sooner or Later”
“Out of Tune”
“Demon of White Sadness”
“The Dishwasher’s Dreams”
“Poor People”
“Walt Whitman Bridge”
“The Apartment”
“Sooner or Later Interlude (Hidden Track)”

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Filed under Albums 60 - 51

52nd Favorite Album

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Superunknown. Soundgarden.
1994, A&M. Producer: Michael Beinhorn and Soundgarden.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is complex yet direct, mathematical yet artsy, loud and quiet and always compelling. I can’t say enough about drummer Matt Cameron, who keeps the changing beats steady and accessible. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd bring the crunch and bounce, but the handsome singer Chris Cornell often steals the show with his wide-ranging voice – maybe the best in rock in the past thirty years.
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I’ve played music for a long time. Like many kids I banged on toy guitars and toy drums, blew through toy trumpets, and pounded on my family’s upright piano.

The author playing guitar in his first band, ca. 1970, with sisters on tambourine and horn-ette and cousin on drums. As is typical, the band broke up due to squabbles over use of the drum chair and incompatible bedtimes.

But then shit got real beginning in second grade, when I started going to Mrs. Bombgardner’s house on Canal St. for weekly piano lessons. This lasted until the summer of 1976, when I began learning the trombone through my school district’s band program before entering 4th grade.

In these beginner lessons in piano and trombone – after we figured out how to make a sound on the trombone – most time was spent learning to read and understand the written music that was placed in front of us. All those numbers and letters and circles and dots and lines and Italian words … it all meant something and someone had to teach us what.

Learning to read music progresses exactly the same way as learning to read words does. Just as books for beginning readers have large letters, few words and cute pictures, beginner music has large notes, short songs and cute pictures. Easy concepts are introduced; repetition is stressed. Beginning word readers spend a lot of time on words that rhyme and opposites62; beginning music readers spend a lot of time on “Hot Cross Buns.”

As you read musical notes, you develop muscle memory. Your fingers63 learn to move across the piano keys based on what your eyes see. On the trombone, your arm learns where to slide, and your lips and jaw learn how to buzz and adjust, respectively. With practice and repetition you learn what the numbers and symbols and Italian words mean, and you start to play increasingly complex music while spending less time thinking about the notes, or what your fingers (and feet), or arm and mouth are doing. Eventually, you can look at a new piece of music and play it pretty well the first time you try without really thinking much at all – a skill known as “sight-reading64.” This is, again, similar to learning to read words: capable readers no longer drag a finger along the text and sound out letter combinations – the decoding and comprehension are immediate.

This is about the level of musicianship I reached on the trombone when I stopped playing in high school – sight-reading well with a good-sounding tone. The muscle-memory I developed over 8 years was ingrained to a degree that to this day if I see certain bass clef notes, my arm still wants to move along; my jaw still stiffens or relaxes.

After high school I started learning to play the bass, but I didn’t start at my local fourth grade band room (which would have been really creepy), and I didn’t look at any notes. I learned from friends, like Dr. Dave, and he didn’t write anything down for me, he just showed me where my fingers should go, and I just sort of figured out what sounded good by playing along to Beatles and Tom Petty songs for several months. Eventually I became able to play along by ear with most any rock song, and to jam along on the blues with strangers at local dive bar open mikes. On the trombone, I could never play anything by ear, I always needed music. However, I could play some pretty complex trombone pieces by sheet music65, and I can’t do that on the bass. I became proficient on both instruments, but in much different ways. The trombone playing, from written music, feels “in my head.” The bass playing, by ear, feels “in my heart and bones.”

But whether playing by ear or by reading music, my level of musical understanding has remained very basic. I learned to transform dots and lines and Italian words into sounds on a trombone, and only on a trombone. I learned to hear and mimic rock and blues on the electric bass, and only the bass. But there are dozens of instruments66, capable of making a multitude of sounds across a seemingly unending range of pitches. All of these sounds can be organized together by pitch and tone and rhythm and timing in myriad pleasant-sounding ways. And that organization is based on – and can be described and communicated in – precise, mathematical terms that are concrete and anchored in physics; and these terms are then translated into musical symbols. I know nothing about all of that. I am fluent in trombone like an American high school Spanish student is fluent in Spanish; I am fluent in bass guitar like an intelligent, yet illiterate, Spanish speaker is fluent in Spanish. However, people who truly understand music are like linguists who are not only fluent in Spanish and all the other Romance languages, but can also explain the relationships between them. There are orders of magnitude in difference between my musical knowledge and that of, say, a music theory major. Yet I’ve helped write some really good songs.

The fact is, all those connections and relationships, and all those explanations of why notes sound good together based on physics and mathematics, are extremely UNNECESSARY in creating a great song. A great song exists in an artist’s brain, or a band’s collective brain67, and it can be transmitted via sounds whether an artist is aware of chordal relationships and time signatures or not. And the ability to WRITE IT DOWN is certainly unnecessary – just as a story can be told aloud without writing it down. In fact, I’d wager that among all the musicians on all the albums I’ve covered, fewer than 10% can even read – let alone write – music. I’d further wager that if we don’t count session musicians who may have played on some of these records, the percentage of musicians on the list who can read music would plummet to below 1%.

Written music is unnecessary in rock music. Even if one member of a band writes a song and brings it to the rest of the band to play, it’s very unlikely that any written music is involved. There may be some chords written down, but these are likely to be represented by letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, plus assorted sharps and flats and minors, as necessary) instead of dots, lines, Italian words, etc. The fact is, just as you don’t need to understand those dots and lines to appreciate a song, an artist doesn’t need to understand those dots and lines to write a song. Artists such as Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton … none of them could read music68, and they wrote thousands of songs. (Paul McCartney’s even written classical pieces, relying on arrangers to transliterate the instruments’ parts to notes on the page.) If you have the music inside of you, if you have that feeling, you will get it out of you and into an instrument some way, somehow, and others will feel it, too.

The point is this69: it matters little whether a musician can read or write music. All that matters is that it sounds good when it gets to your ears. And the reason I like Superunknown so much is that it touches the music-reader in me and it touches the music-feeler in me. It has unusual time signatures throughout that would seem to be challenging to read or write, but it’s got that straight-ahead driving rock sound, the guitar/bass/drums, the power that I love. The band has stated that they didn’t even think about, or concern themselves with, time signatures when they wrote the songs. They just played what sounded good and let the Music Majors figure out the math. And that process led to a masterpiece.

One of the most well-known examples of an unusual time signature is in the hit song “Spoonman.”

That first riff, right off the top, has seven beats to it – which is unusual in rock music. Rock and roll started as dance music, and since humans have two feet, dance music works best when there’s an even number of beats to a measure. So seven beats can feel awkward – and I mean “feel,” not “sound.” But drummer Matt Cameron, who’s responsible for keeping the rhythm flowing, is able to stay steady, constant, to a degree that you may not even notice there’s anything particularly different about the beat – but there is. That main riff is simply one of the best ever in rock, powerful and memorable, and I love the riff in the chorus, as well (which switches from seven to a regular four/four beat, just for kicks). The lyrics are actually about a man named Artis the Spoonman who played the spoons on the streets of Seattle, and who also played them on this track. I love the sound of this song, from Ben Shepherd’s rumbly, chunky bass at 2:00, and again at 2:50, to Kim Thayil’s slashing guitar throughout. Also, Chris Cornell has one of my favorite all-time voices in rock, and it’s on beautiful display on this one. This was a big song from the album, and it got a lot of airplay, and it deserved it.

Another song I love despite (because of??) its odd-feeling time-signature is the powerful “My Wave.”

Count along with Cameron’s snare drum, which goes BAP … BAP-BAP/ … BAP … BAP-BAP. If you count such that the first “BAP” is on two, and the “BAP-BAP” is on four-five, and start over immediately, you’ll be counting in 5/470. Despite this unusual beat, the song drives forward relentlessly. What catches my ear next are the strong vocals from Cornell. His melody is sparse but catchy, but it’s very rhythmic and sounds terrific with the 5/4 time signature. Guitarist Kim Thayil plays that simple, catchy riff, but throws in some neat sounds, particularly in the “My Wave” chorus, first at about 1:48, then he and bassist Ben Shepherd have some cool interplay around 2:15. The lyrics are sort of a “live and let live” manifesto, but the song is really about the sound and power. At about 3:40, an outro starts that changes to 4/4, sounds Eastern and then gets almost nursery-rhyme-ish. It’s probably my favorite song on the album.

But the craziest time signature on the record is unquestionably “Fresh Tendrils.” I’m not even sure how to count out a beat on this one …

It’s in 6/4, then 4/4, then 6/4, then at about 1:24 it goes all haywire and I can’t figure it out. Cornell’s voice is once again front-and-center, on inscrutable lyrics, but Thayil’s riff is really cool, too – he gets an unusual, trebley sound out of his guitar. Bassist Ben Shepherd shines, too. And for every song, just take it “as read” that I love what Matt Cameron’s doing on the drums. This band can really play, and I love this album!

I didn’t get into the band or the record because of its strange time signatures. I had heard of them way back in the late 80s, when my friend Eric used to go see them when they’d come on tour. They, and singer Chris Cornell, were featured on the very cool Singles soundtrack, and I liked a couple songs from their 1991 album Badmotorfinger. I heard the first single from this album, “Black Hole Sun,” and I hated it. But then I heard “Fell On Black Days,” and I loved it. I went out and bought the CD.

Of course, given my history, I notice right away that the song’s in 6/471, but I also notice the cool little bend that Chris Cornell, playing rhythm guitar on this one, adds to the main riff, and Matt Cameron’s terrific kick-drum introduction at about 15 seconds. I haven’t mentioned much about bassist Ben Shepherd yet, but I love his rolling bass line on this chorus of this song, heard first at about 55 seconds. Cornell’s lyrics are a little more direct this time, about life with depression, and his delivery at times gives me chills. Lead guitarist Thayil again has that trebley, trembling guitar sound on his solo, beginning about 2:20.

It’s probably time for me to say a few words about Chris Cornell. First of all, I find him quite handsome – to a degree that I almost wrote about being heterosexual but sometimes seeing a man and thinking, “wow – he’s attractive.” But more than that I think he has one of the best voices in rock. He can sing sweetly and soft and he can shout and scream with the best of them. One of the first times I listened to him was on his solo song from that Singles soundtrack: “Seasons.” It’s just him on guitar and singing, and it’s excellent. And he’s also excellent when he belts it out – as in the title track from Superunknown.

It’s got a great Kim Thayil riff to open it up, and Ben Shepherd plays a cool bouncy bass line. But it’s Cornell’s show, howling and shouting lyrics about … geez, I don’t know, being yourself? I guess maybe. I really love these types of rockers, and Thayil’s Eastern-sounding guitar solo, at 3:52. (Speaking of Eastern-sounding, check out Ben Shepherd’s track, “Half.” Sheesh!) Another great rocker is the opening track, “Let Me Drown,” which has a cool, grinding riff and features Cameron’s inventive drumming and Shepherd’s bubbling bass (plus some authentic 90s-era scratching thrown into the chorus!). They also go all-in on the punk sound on the short, peppy “Kickstand.”The band sounds powerful on these driving rockers, but they also sound powerful – and plenty heavy – when they sling the slow, sludgy sounds of Seattle despair.

A good example is “Limo Wreck,” in which the band demonstrates it can do odd time signatures at a slow pace, too. It’s got cool guitar harmonics, a bass line that sounds like it doesn’t fit and lyrics about something. Another sludgy song is the excellent, but probably too-long, “Head Down.” And “Mailman” is definitely the sludgiest of the bunch. “4th of July” is also a good one in this style, although the beginning of the song makes me want to turn it off – but keep listening, ’cause it gets really good.

The album’s final song, “Like Suicide,” is my favorite of the slow ones.

Fittingly, given my love of his drumming, it starts with a martial beat by Cameron. Cornell shows off the full range of his voice on the song, singing lyrics that came to him when he saw a bird fly into his window and die. I like how his melody at times doesn’t seem like it fits the song, but it does. At 3:30, it starts to kick in, and Cameron plays some excellent fills. At about 4:31 Thayil plays another Eastern-inflected riff, a prelude to his cool solo at 5:15. It’s a great album-closing song, featuring everything I love about the album – except for the fact that the time signature is straight 4/4 the whole way!!

When I began learning to play instruments, I had no idea that the specific musical knowledge I picked up would affect my appreciation of all music. However, this doesn’t mean I immediately try to tear apart all the songs I like. I do not take such a logical approach to music, like a physicist attempting to reverse-engineer a product by pulling it apart and seeing what’s inside and how it works. I simply listen and like what I hear, which I believe is the spirit in which artists create. The underlying math can describe and communicate, it can enhance understanding, but that’s all in one part of the head. The artistry comes from a different part, the part that feels like the heart and the bones, the part that’s called the “soul.” This is how music connects with me, how Superunknown connects with me. Everything else is just lines and dots and Italian words.

Track Listing
“Let Me Drown”
“My Wave”
“Fell On Black Days”
“Mailman”
“Superunknown”
“Head Down”
“Black Hole Sun”
“Spoonman”
“Limo Wreck”
“The Day I Tried To Live”
“Kickstand”
“Fresh Tendrils”
“4th of July”
“Half”
“Like Suicide”

A reminder: RESIST THE TURD IN THE WHITE HOUSE AND HIS BIGOTED, HATEFUL, UNAMERICAN POLICIES! TAKE ACTION!

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53rd Favorite Album

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Riot Act. Pearl Jam.
2002, Epic. Producer: Adam Kasper, Pearl Jam.
Gift, 2003.

IN A NUTSHELL: A complex album that grows more interesting with repeated listenings, and that best works – for me – as a complete unit instead of individual songs. The playing is excellent, particularly drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready, but it’s Eddie Vedder’s stirring baritone voice that really carries most of the songs. There are rave-ups, some slow jams, and even a bit of the blues, and together it all sounds great.
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There was a delicatessen in West Philadelphia in 1985, somewhere around the corner of 42nd and Chester. Google Streetview makes me think it must have been right on the southeast corner, as the other buildings in the vicinity clearly have never housed a business like a deli. It wasn’t a deli as one might imagine, with a display case of cold cuts and cheeses, side dishes and salads, and chalky salamis in slender nets hanging from the ceiling like catawba tree cigars. It was really just a convenience store that had a small sandwich station inside, but they did have a sign outside that featured the word “deli,” and that sign caught my eye when I arrived in the neighborhood that fall for my freshman year of college.

There were no delicatessens, as such72, where I grew up, but I’d seen enough TV shows set in big cities, John Belushi skits and Woody Allen movies to know what they were73. From these entertainment touchstones, I was familiar with terms like “pastrami on rye,” and “grilled Reuben,” and “potato knish,” but they were exotic to me, akin to lions on the Serengeti, or Dutch wooden shoes. I knew neither my parents, family members nor friends had ever experienced a delicatessen, or if they did it had been as part of a trip to somewhere else, a captivating detail that would help to clinch a successful story about a journey taken: “… and on the way to The Empire State Building, we rode in a taxi and ate a sandwich from a real delicatessen!” I walked past that West Philly deli on my way to class every day, and at a certain point that fall it dawned on me: Hey, right there’s a delicatessen, and I’ve never been to one!

I tend to overstate my meager upbringings in 1970s steel-town Pennsylvania. My family didn’t have a lot, and there were struggles at times, but there were plenty of folks whose families were worse off than mine. But when I got to college, I was really broke – as were most college students. Sure, there were a few people with weekly allowances from well-to-do parents, but for the most part everyone at college was forever near-penniless. I had a work/study job at the gym refereeing intramural sports and keeping score at school basketball games, and after socking away what I could to help pay for school, and spending the odd couple of bucks each week on coin-op washing machines, or blue test booklets at the bookstore, this left me – like most of my classmates – with a few bucks for the weekend to meet the $3 admission74 to the all-you-can-drink frat parties. I still can recall the joy at finding a random dollar bill somewhere – in a pocket, on the street – and adding it to the short stack of one dollar bills that I kept in my desk drawer for spending money!

I didn’t have much money to spend on food, and in fact I knew my folks had purchased the college’s full-time meal plan for me so that I WOULDN’T spend money on food. But there was that damned delicatessen that I walked past every day, and I became fascinated with the idea of going in there and getting myself a sandwich. I couldn’t shake my enchantment of being a big-city guy and going to a big-city deli; or better yet becoming – among my friends and family – THE big-city guy who GOES to the big-city deli, not just someone who breathlessly tells his friends about the one time he ate a pastrami on rye.

It seemed like a decadent idea. First, the fact that I would spend money that I knew I shouldn’t on a sandwich; but also the idea that someone behind a counter would prepare it for me. A sandwich! Simply bread, cheese and meat, yet I’ll have someone else make it for me? Decadence! And when I finally overcame my niggling morals and entered the deli, rationalizations having scrubbed away images of slathering my hard-earned money with brown mustard and greedily shoving it into my mouth while at the same time I flushed down the commode a nicely prepared, pre-paid, multi-course meal from the cafeteria; that’s when I realized just how decadent this sandwich would be: FOUR DOLLARS AND TWENTY-FIVE CENTS!!!! Why, I could buy two loaves of bread and a pound of pastrami for that amount!! And another thing – what the hell even IS pastrami??!! Or rye bread, for that matter?!? I had no idea. I was a lunatic for doing this thing. It was madness.

I left the deli with a heavy, taped-up, wax paper ball containing a sliced turkey and provolone on rye. At the last second, the word pastrami had lodged in my throat, enmeshed in a wad of shameful dread at the thought of realizing I hated the stuff and being forced to toss it in the trash, and so “turkey” sprung forth instead75. The deli man was amused, or confused, by my denial of all the amenities he offered: no lettuce, no tomato, no onions, no mayo, no brown mustard, only yellow. No cole slaw. I was excited by the realization that the two pickle spears were free. And I was further encouraged by the later realization that, in fact, I was not further impoverished by this sandwich purchase – I still had some money the following week. Also, my parents didn’t know about it and they didn’t need to know – I’d bought the thing with money I’d earned, after all. Decadent or not, it was my decision and I had no regrets, felt no remorse. Instead I felt good, relieved, proud; like I’d arrived at some station toward which I hoped I’d been traveling on a train I wasn’t sure made the stop. All things considered, it was the most satisfying sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

I’ve been surprised, as I approach 50, that this sense of arrival, of finally finding yourself on-course and situated when you never even felt off-course and restless, recurs regularly with age, over events and actions both large and small. The birth of children, helping with a small home repair, navigating the rough seas of elderly parents, starting a daily exercise routine – each of these have provided me a version of that “First Decadent Sandwich Decision” feeling, a sense that I’ve joined a group that I was unaware existed.

As a music fan, I felt this sensation in my early 20s when I realized the artists I was hearing and enjoying were no longer older than me but were now my age and had lived my life. Until my early twenties, the music I’d enjoyed my whole life was made by people older than me76. But with the introduction of “grunge” and “alternative” music, I began listening to songs that I enjoyed by people my own age.

Much has been written and produced over the years about the impact of Nirvana’s Nevermind album77. I’ve already written about how much I love the record, but something I didn’t include in that post is the impact of the band members’ ages on their success. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Nirvana, and in fact of all of the grunge and alternative acts of the early 90s, were, like me, about the same age as the bands78, and we felt that this “new” sound (with apologies to The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Pixies, etc, etc) could be “our sound,” and fuck you if you don’t like it!

Each “new” music form of the rock/post-rock era79 has held a special resonance for many of the people of the same age of those producing it. If you were 20 to 25 when Dylan emerged, or The Beatles, or The Grateful Dead, or Led Zeppelin, or The Clash, or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five … if you were about that age, then the new music you were enjoying wasn’t just something else that sounded good, your enjoyment also incorporated a sense of pride in being a part of the “new generation.” It included a rejection of what had come before; or if not flat-out rejection, then it certainly held a bit of condescension: “Pete Seeger is fine, I guess,” you said, “but he’s nothing compared to Dylan!” This special resonance is that “First Decadent Sandwich Decision” feeling of having arrived.

When grunge80 broke big in 1991, the two towers of the genre were Nirvana and Pearl Jam81. Bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains had their day, and others, like Screaming Trees and Gumball, gave it a good shot. And sure, Mudhoney remained the choice of those music fans “in the know,” but Nirvana and Pearl Jam were anointed, somehow, and in certain circles (mine, for instance) this meant a choice was to be made.

This choice wasn’t a Sharks vs. Jets situation – very little impressionistic group dancing was involved – but there was a general sense that if you liked Nirvana, Pearl Jam were kind of classic-rock pussies, and if you liked Pearl Jam, Nirvana were kind of screaming babies. At the time, I threw in with the babies of Nirvana. I liked some Pearl Jam songs, and they certainly touched that 70s Classic Rock spot in my heart, but – despite the obvious passion with which they performed (particularly singer Eddie Vedder) – I preferred the mayhem and noise of Nirvana. For me, the feat of Nirvana’s $600 album Bleach, on Sub Pop, was more impressive than PJ’s story of Seattle Industry Darlings/Supergroup Debut on Epic.

I grew to appreciate Pearl Jam, and I bought some of their records, but by 2002 I wasn’t really following them or their career much anymore. They were almost starting to feel like “oldies,” left behind with Smashing Pumpkins and Bush. Sometime in 2003, my hip, young sister-in-law visited my family from New York City and brought with her a slew of albums for me. Among them was the most recent Pearl Jam offering, Riot Act. “Wow,” I said, “these guys are still putting out records?” She made me listen to that one first, and it eventually became one of my favorites. I didn’t love it right away, but I did keep finding myself listening to it and remembering it, until it finally burrowed into my Top 100.

Riot Act, for me, is an album of the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” variety. I like the individual songs, but I most appreciate the album when I have the time to listen from start to finish. It begins very subtly, with “Can’t Keep.”

Drummer Matt Cameron provides a martial beat behind a clangy acoustic guitar, and singer Eddie Vedder starts in with three swirling electric guitars building behind him. Vedder is an expressive singer, and his voice lends itself well to the classic Pearl Jam touch of hang-on-note-during-crescendo-until-big-release, as in 1:47 to 1:56 of “Can’t Keep.” It’s an interesting song in that it sounds somber and brooding, yet the lyrics and Vedder’s voice are uplifting and celebratory. It’s the type of opening track that doesn’t blow me away, but that gets my attention and makes me want to listen again.

The second song, “Save You,” is a lot more direct, and quite memorable as a big-riff rock song82.

There’s a great article on Billboard that gives the band’s reflections on Riot Act. There I found out that guitarist Mike McCready came to the band with the big, opening riff, and the rest of the group just ran with it. It’s driving rock and roll, with a really nice little break-down section at about 2:07 that keeps it from getting monotonous. The lyrics speak of the frustration felt by friends of addicts, of trying to offer help but being rejected, yet still believing there must be some way to help the person. It could’ve been a hit song, but having a chorus with the words “Fuck me if I say something you don’t wanna hear” repeatedly probably kept it out of the mainstream83.

By the end of that song, I really feel the album building nicely, and it leads into what may be my favorite song on the album, “Love Boat Captain.”

The song opens with a quiet organ, played by touring-Pearl Jam keyboardist Boom Gaspar, who also co-wrote the song with Vedder. This is really a showcase for Vedder, his voice ranging in tone but always consistent in its intensity. It has another Pearl Jam crescendo, building to the 2:12 mark, where I always get chills, and continues building to bigger chills at 3:02. The lyrics are a call for humans to love one another, referencing The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” “It’s already been sung/but it can’t be said enough/all you need is love.” They may sound like light and fluffy sentiments, but in Vedder’s stirring voice, they come across as imperatives. The lyrics also refer to a Pearl Jam concert tragedy in Denmark in 2000, where 9 fans were crushed to death. Guitarists McCready and Stone Gossard play some nice lines behind the vocals, but this one is all about the vocals and lyrics.

The next song is all about rhythm and time signature, so it makes sense that it was written by the band’s drummer, Matt Cameron.

“Cropduster” rides along nicely in its 7/4 time signature, with a nifty, descending arpeggiated guitar. During the verses, the band shifts easily between 4/4 and 2/484, driving forward to a cool little McCready solo at 1:19, and a breakdown at 1:32. All the while, Vedder sings some mystical words (“I was a fool because I thought I thought the world/Turns out the world thought me”) and bassist Jeff Ament plays a rolling countermelody. It’s not quite a 4 minute song, but with its multiple parts and time signatures, it’s reminiscent of my beloved prog rock. Bassist Ament contributes the next song, the rocker “Ghost,” which contains some of McCready’s best soloing on the album.

The band puts together a couple slower pieces next, and together they may be the highlight of the album. As I said, this is one of those records that I appreciate as a single unit – not really the same as a concept album, but the flow of songs does appeal greatly to me. The first of this pair is the uplifting “I Am Mine.” It’s got the feel of a sing-along Sea Shanty, but with humanist lyrics instead of those of toiling and death on the vast ocean. A Pearl Jam crescendo is included, of course, to a great closing solo by McCready. The band follows it up with the tear-jerker “Thumbing My Way.”

Vedder’s baritone vocals again steal the show on this one, put to great use on a song about loss and regret. For someone like me, who tends to be overly-self-reflective85, lines like “All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives/Choosing the shiny ones instead/I turned my back/Now there’s no turning back” echo thoughts and feelings of my own. Musically, there’s nice stuff happening behind the vocals and acoustic guitar, and a cool little extra “hesitation measure” about 2 minutes. This band knows how to do emotion – or maybe that’s too Gen-X cynical. Maybe this band is just in touch with emotions.

You Are” is up next, and it’s got some terrific guitar sounds all over it. The instruments have an early grunge feel, and this is one of the few songs where I’d like to hear less of Vedder and more of the sounds of the band. Drummer Cameron wrote this one, and the next one as well – the powerful, aggressive “Get Right.” I love the song’s interplay between he and Ament, and also McCready’s guitar-hero solo at 1:26. “Green Disease” is a rave up with a super catchy chorus that I love. “Help Help” is okay – but weak compared to the others, I think.

Bu$hleaguer” is the song that – in the frenzied, America-fever days of the early 00’s, when people were still claiming Iraq had nuclear weapons, and still claiming the entire Iraq war wasn’t just a means for Dick Cheney to get filthy (in more ways than one) rich – caused some controversy by having the audacity to point out the truth about G.W. Bush (and, actually, every Republican presidential candidate after Ronald Reagan): “Born on third base/Thought he hit a triple.” I don’t love the song, but I love that it’s here.

The band picks things up with the bluesy, classic-rock groove of “1/2 Full.”

I really love the 3/4 swing to the song, and Matt Cameron is the engine driving it. The guitars are great, featuring a classic Stratocaster sound, as are Vedder’s vocals on lyrics that belie the suggested optimism of the title. There’s a sense of finality to the song; maybe it’s because of the way the song builds to a close, maybe it’s just because I’ve listened to the album so much, but it feels like an ending. The next song, the short piece “Arc,” is almost an interlude, which makes the final song, “All or None,” feel like exit music.

I really like the bass guitar in this one, and the understated guitar solo beginning at about 2:00. But once again, Vedder’s vocals and lyrics steal the show. On the third verse he sings in a higher register, and none of the strength of his voice is lost. And for someone who has a reputation for over-the-top performances, he remains understated throughout the song. It ends with another great guitar solo, and as it ends I’m reminded of the first song, “Can’t Keep.” Both have a mix of sadness yet hopefulness, perfect bookends to a powerful album.

Riot Act, is a mature record that reveals itself with repeated listenings, and at the close of the final song I once again feel as if I’ve arrived. When I first heard Pearl Jam, and other bands of this era, I also felt like I’d arrived – but it didn’t mean I’d stopped moving. We all keep arriving, throughout our lives, but our travels aren’t complete. More Decadent Sandwich Decisions await us, and we’ll only understand when we get there.

Track Listing:
“Can’t Keep”
“Save You”
“Love Boat Captain”
“Cropduster”
“Ghost”
“I Am Mine”
“Thumbing My Way”
“You Are”
“Get Right”
“Green Disease”
“Help Help”
“Bu$hleaguer”
“1/2 Full”
“Arc”
“All or None”

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Filed under Albums 60 - 51