38th Favorite Album

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Paranoid. Black Sabbath.
1970, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Rodger Bain.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: The inventors of Heavy Metal are more melodic, more virtuosic and less Satanic than their name and reputation would lead you to believe! Tony Iommi has an unmistakable sound, and rhythm section Geezer Butler and Bill Ward pull the songs in wonderful directions, getting almost funky at times. Singer Ozzy Osbourne’s unaffected voice is perfect for the band’s songs of warning and lament. Together, they create a relentlessly inventive soundscape.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I could have had it worse. Many kids did. I knew kids who were physically attacked by Them – heads held in toilets; red-bellies; sometimes, but usually not, beatings with fists. Some were shaken down for money by Them, preferring to go without lunch for a day and reorganize tomorrow’s school-day routine than to put up an argument and wind up with both toilet-water hair and no lunch. Having clothes ruined by Them in broad-daylight cafeteria food assaults was not unheard of.

I myself was only called names and intimidated by Them. I think because I was kind of big – tall and chubby – and most of Them (the boys, anyway) were small, I was a potentially more complicated target for assault than smaller kids. Also, by middle school I’d developed a quick wit and kept a quiver-full of self-deprecating jokes at the ready, barbs that always flew back to prick only myself, causing laughter – or at least distraction.

By my senior year in high school, I’d made friends with as many of Them as I could. Not friends in the way that we’d hang out together, but friends in the way that I could nod in the hallways and say, “‘sup Stew?” or “Hey, Hitzy” and they’d nod and offer a “Moore …” in return. I cultivated many of these relationships by initiating talks of earlier times, the elementary school years, when many of Them seemed angry or dirty1 but not particularly threatening. I’d offer reminiscences of class projects we’d shared, or youth sports and lousy teachers. Some of Their parents were friends with my parents, so I’d ask, “How’s your mom?” And I’d (frankly) try to seem as book-dumb as They were, since my membership in the “smart kid” classes, and its typically accompanying smugness, was a clear trigger for Them.

This was a chancy path, however. If They felt you were trying to ingratiate yourself with Them, They’d sense your fear and use it as a weapon against you. “Hey, I need a ride tonight. You have a car, right?” There was a clear threat in these two sentences, and it presented just the very tip of a string that would have only dubious consequences if pulled this one time. I had friends in high school who found themselves in precarious circumstances2, the type that I avoided by simply being friendly-but-not-too-friendly.

They were the Treads. They were a 70s/80s teenage Public School archetype, one that may still be extant, although I’m sure it’s evolved. They were most brilliantly portrayed as “The Freaks” of McKinley High School in the wonderful TV show Freaks and Geeks. Some schools called them “Druggies” or “Stoners,” some schools called them “Burnouts” or “Roaches.” The lore at my school was that “Tread” was adopted due to the big-treaded workboots (typically with red shoelaces, for some reason) They all seemed to wear.

Individually, most could be funny or charming, even kind, but in a group they were terrifying. When I was 12, my friends and I were waiting for our ride after Pop Warner football practice and found ourselves the last people in the twilit school yard, where pickup had been arranged. This was in the late 70s, a time when it was assumed by everyone that the coach had done his job properly when he asked us through a cloud of cigar smoke emanating from the rolled-down window of his idling car, “You kids got a ride?” then drove off after we nodded our replies. Cell phones didn’t exist, payphones weren’t installed at the school (and we didn’t have change in our practice unis, anyway), and so we just had to hope that a parent hadn’t forgotten us – or if they had, that one of the other parents in the carpool would remind them by calling to ask where the kids were. (And wouldn’t get a busy signal or no answer, as it was the pre-answering machine era, too.)

It got dark, so we moved under the dusk-to-dawn light near the school entrance to wait. It was then that a group of about five of Them came out of the darkness. We were much younger than these highschoolers, but They still stopped to call us fags and menacingly try on our football equipment while making crude jokes, then fling it around the parking lot. Then They recognized Richie in our group, whose older brother Steve was a Tread. They began to “jokingly” threaten him with sexual assault while the rest of my group just sat there trying to will a car to arrive. They were standing in a circle around the kneeling 11 year old, and he was firing F-bombs at Them while They chuckled and began unzipping Their flies.

A car pulled into the lot, and given the distance and dim light and quick-moving kids, nothing about the scene seemed out of the ordinary to the driver – just some older kids (who were probably known by the parent) hanging with us younger kids. We didn’t tell the driver, though we all agreed in low, muffled voices that those kids were jerks, and Richie stated for a fact that Steve was going to find out about this3 and those kids would be sorry.

I’m sure it is not an actual fact, I’m sure that if photographs of the incident existed they would demonstrate that it is a total fabrication, but in my mind’s eye all of the Treads that night were wearing Black Sabbath t-shirts. This is because I associated the band and its merchandise not with any music – I don’t know if I’d heard a Black Sabbath song until my freshman year of high school – but only as the uniform choice of hateful, angry teenagers. All the Treads wore rock t-shirts from a variety of bands, but the hateful-est, angriest seemed to always wear Black Sabbath.

I knew the name Black Sabbath as a band because I’d seen it on shirts that were clearly concert-related. During Middle School, when I was still heavy into The Village People, and just finding out about Cheap Trick and Devo, I learned the names of rock bands mostly from Treads’ t-shirts. Led Zeppelin, featuring a picture of some eunuch angel screaming over his lost genitalia (perhaps?). Bad Company, with a picture of cute dogs (it seemed). Deep Purple, which I figured probably wasn’t about the Donny & Marie song.

The Black Sabbath shirts were the grossest, most shocking shirts, with devil babies, scenes of demonic torture and clearly Satanic imagery. In those days I was a Christian, and those images inspired fear in me almost to the same degree the creepy bullies wearing the shirts did. And even as I grew to be a rock fan and learned to take such imagery with a grain of salt, I still assumed Black Sabbath was a band I’d never enjoy. I figured their music must be as bad as the people who’d worn their shirts.

Of course, leave it to Dr. Dave to set me straight, once again. Our band, JB & The So-Called Cells, was rehearsing and he kept playing this simple riff, five notes over and over. Then he’d break into a crunchy, longer melodic part and our drummer – a big Black Sabbath fan – would join in, clearly knowing the song in-depth. When I asked what it was, he was shocked to learn I had never listened to Black Sabbath or heard of “Fairies Wear Boots.”

It starts with that slow picking riff Dave played4 then at 0:14 bass and drums join in. This introduction5 really has everything that I love about the band – Tony Iommi’s thick guitar sound, Geezer Butler’s jumping, stretching bass lines, and drummer Bill Ward’s powerful and tricky fills (from 0:40 to 0:50 and 1:03 to 1:15). And then at about 1:15, the hidden beauty of the band is unleashed: they’re really a swinging, funky band! (This song’s more swing than funk – but we’ll get back to funk.) Singer Ozzy Osbourne joins in, and he could really sing! His sneering, unaffected voice suits the band’s lyrics, which are often dark, although in this case they’re about seeing fairies (in boots) after using too many drugs. “Fairies Wear Boots” also has the Black Sabbath calling card of several themes in a single song, jumping between rhythms and melodies, and eschewing the typical verse/chorus/verse/bridge song structure. I particularly like when the band hits 2:40, and Iommi plays a riff that sounds out of tune, briefly, then oozes into place. They jam for almost a minute, then at 3:30 effortlessly transition to a different part; then at 4:10, they do it again! It’s in sections like these that you can hear what talented musicians these guys are – something I never would have thought of “Black Sabbath” as a high school freshman, meekly carrying some Tread’s lunch tray for him, hating those words on his concert jersey. When I happened upon the used CD in the mid-90s, I couldn’t resist buying it.

You may still be scratching your head over my reference to “funk” above, but the example I give you is in the drums on the stellar “Hand of Doom.”

The song starts with a Butler bass groove, and drummer Ward immediately plays a funky drummer beat. By 0:45, the funk has disappeared, but it returns. Ozzy sings lyrics that are vehemently anti-drug, telling a tale of a path to death6. The band rips into a different section at about 2:05, which again swings, thanks to Ward’s foot. Iommi plays a cool solo at 4:25, then the band returns to the funky section. The song really packs so much into 7 minutes, taking the listener on quite a journey.

Regarding their lyrics, given their name and their Satanic imagery, you may find it surprising that many of their songs are warnings against the evil in humans’ hearts and deeds. Bassist Butler was the main lyricist, and he’s fond of shining light on humanity’s darkness – not celebrating it. This album came out in 1970, and many songs make reference to the war in Vietnam7, and it’s hard not to think it was on their minds in the terrific “War Pigs.”

One of the first things I notice about this song (and the entire album) is how great it sounds. Each instrument is crisp and clear, from Butler’s menacing bass line to Iommi’s growling guitar. (Iommi played with strings that were extra heavy to give his guitar sound, well, extra heaviness.) The song builds wonderfully, through Ward’s high-hat and Iommi’s squiggles and Ozzy’s sneering, angled voice. I love the bass through the riff starting at 2:06, before the second verse. Once again, Ward plays with a funkiness uncommon in heavy metal. And again – if the band is satanic, they sure do ask God to smite the evil quite a lot. The band again shows off their serious chops during Iommi’s solo beginning at 3:30. The solo features a common Iommi trick – two different solos played at the same time, similar but slightly different, giving a crazy feeling to the sound. It’s an incredible song – lyrics, sound, instruments – one of my favorites ever8. And it has a great finale, too, beginning at 5:45 (a section called “Luke’s Wall” on the US release). Iommi’s double guitar solo delivers all the way to the crazy speed-up ending.

Butler’s lyrics also take on the growing threat of nuclear war – a fear that, unfortunately, is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War – in the wild “Electric Funeral.” It features more double-tracked guitar, and furious bass work, and has an ominous fade-out.

“Electric Funeral” is a companion song to one of the band’s most famous: “Iron Man.”

The story told in “Iron Man” may be the result of the annihilation described in “Electric Funeral.” And musically, both songs feature simple, repetitive riffs. This was the first Black Sabbath song I ever heard, thanks to a tuba player during my freshman year of high school marching band, who played the riff nearly nonstop9. It’s now one of their most famous songs, and – not meaning to damn it with faint praise – it’s probably every 7 year old’s favorite heavy metal song. And it is, frankly, scary sounding – particularly the beginning. The song features another Sabbath trick – guitar/bass/vocals all playing the same melody. This leaves drummer Ward to stand out – for (just one) example, the fills beginning about 1:18. The song also again highlights the band’s ability to switch rhythms and styles – which speaks to Ward’s ability. At 3:10, they go into a furious Iommi solo, then switch back to the main riff at 3:40. Then they change again for the ending part beginning at 4:40 (more double-tracked Iommi soloing). I’m amazed by it every time – it’s powerful and impressive.

The musicians are so good, you may ask yourself “Do they even need a singer?” Well, you can find the answer on the instrumental “Rat Salad,” a song that shows off the instrumentalists. It’s a great song, but it is missing something: Ozzy.

Singer Ozzy Osbourne became the most famous member of the band, eventually becoming a caricature of himself in one of the first celebrity “reality” shows, The Osbournes. It played up his seemingly burned-out mental state and unintelligible speaking. But in Black Sabbath, in the early 70s, he was just a front man with his own unique style. It’s on display on the title track, a pop hit around the world.

Butler has said the song was written in about 3 minutes, and it isn’t throwing shade10 to say it sounds like it. It’s simple, with a revving engine guitar a driving beat and Ozzy’s syncopated, direct delivery. It’s got a great bass, and another great Iommi solo at about 1:23. The lyrics are actually quite sad, about the desperation of mental illness. But it’s a barn-burner of a song, nonetheless.

After all this Heavy Metal Rock, you may want to chill out a bit. I imagine even the Treads needed some time to decompress, meditate and think about all the havoc they’d wreak the next day on soft-spoken teens just trying to get through a day and get home to watch Mork & Mindy reruns. And for that, the band gives you “Planet Caravan.” I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ingested an illegal drug, but this song makes me think I should do it more often. Its “wow, man, far out” lyrics are sung through distorted effects, and Butler’s McCartney-esque bass line bounces along behind them. Iommi plays a jazzy, angular solo and subtle piano chords play in the distance. It’s a welcome break in an otherwise pounding album.

I have mixed feelings about The Treads. On the one hand, they caused me a significant amount of anxiety, creating the worst sense of fear a person can have: the fear of violence visited upon you simply for being yourself. On the other hand, they were clearly kids who were reflecting and diverting the shit they were receiving at home onto anyone and everyone to whom they could distribute it. There’s not much more to be said about them, except I hope they got the help they needed. And I hope they’re still listening to Black Sabbath. Maybe, like me, they learned a lesson from the band that’s applicable to many parts of life, even the Treads themselves, even dorky Village People fans, too: things that seem dark and scary can actually have a lot more facets than we first realize.

Track Listing:
“War Pigs/Luke’s Wall”
“Paranoid”
“Planet Caravan”
“Iron Man”
“Electric Funeral”
“Hand of Doom”
“Rat Salad”
“Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots”

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Filed under Albums 40 - 31

39th Favorite Album

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Are You Experienced. The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967, Track Records. Producer: Chas Chandler.
Purchased (MCA Records 1993 edition), 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Mr. James Marshall Hendrix is such a unique musical force that at times I swear he must be from a different planet. He can play any style of song, sings wonderfully and his playing resonates with me in a way that few others can emulate. It’s as if the words his guitar sing make more sense than those his voice sings. And Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are simply one of the greatest rhythm sections ever – able to match and support Jimi’s brilliance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“Just be yourself,” is advice that Americans are given all the time, and it is generally excellent advice, particularly when applied to the “big-picture” aspects of life: sexual orientation; finding true love; choosing a career. It’s advice given by both high school students and folks on their deathbeds. Big thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote brilliantly to persuade us. Funny guys like Bernie Mac said the same thing in fewer words.

In the 21st century, the advice has become so ingrained that it’s achieved two particularly American forms of cultural affirmation: advertising and backlash. “Just Be Yourself” is the rather contradictory pitch for selling such hugely popular, herd-endorsed products as Coca-Cola, Converse sneakers, and Subway11. High-end products advise you to, apparently, just be your very wealthy self. Teeny-bopper body-spray gives your self a pause to think before you stink12. Advertisers know that Americans relish their identity as unique individuals, and that we’re complex enough to buy the world’s most popular soda in order to express it. (To be fair, I doubt that anyone watches an ad and runs out to buy a product. And to be extra fair, it’s not just Americans.)

The backlash comes mostly from people who seem obtuse enough (or get paid to appear obtuse enough) to take a global, general idea and misapply it to specific instances where it clearly won’t apply. (Saying everything that pops into your head isn’t what being yourself means, it’s what being a dick means). Others set a strict definition for what “Be Yourself” means, then set out to show why that definition is bullshit.

In a country like America, with no true native identity except the bit that remained after European conquest, one would think that being yourself would have been encouraged and valued since the days of powdered wigs. But while a few quirky individuals were celebrated for their nonconformance – men like Ben Franklin and Andrew Jackson – most people felt the surest path to success was to identify the norm and hew to it closely.

But by the mid-1900s, the devastation of conformity was being explored in culture and media. Sci-fi novels like Brave New World; realist dramas like Death of a Salesman; non-fiction collections like Notes of a Native Son; and countless other sources explored questions of difference, human purpose and The Self.

By the end of the 60s, the Civil Rights movement, Feminism and the Hippie movement were all parts of a changing American landscape that encouraged people to break from established (and myth-based, it must be said) expectations. The 70s brought a wave of pop psychology movements, such as est and Primal Therapy, that further encouraged people to strive for their authentic self. By the 80s, celebrities from Bob Hope to Magic Johnson were singing songs to kids in public service messages around the idea.

Rock and roll music started as outsider music. As such, a large part of its purpose was to elevate the self, to push the theme of the “Us” of individuals vs. the “Them” of conformity. Early rock and roll songs, like “Yakety Yak” and “Summertime Blues,” flipped the bird at conformity; 60s girl groups sang songs about rebels. By the late 60s and early 70s, freak flags were flying and individuality was downright expected – at least in our artists and musicians.

Still, artists continued to encourage us all – because it probably can’t be said enough – to “just be yourself.” During my music listening years artists from British synth-poppers, to R&B funk bands, to heavy-metal growlers, to Irish folk-rockers, to alternative supergroups have continued to pound away on the message. Current superstar Frank Ocean even included a voicemail from his friend’s mom about it on his latest album.

Yet despite all this encouragement, and all the pressure placed on Americans from every cultural source, despite even the efforts of most American parents since the latter half of the 20th century, the journey to becoming one’s true self continues to be difficult. In my lifetime, I can think of only a few people who seemed entirely comfortable following the “Be Yourself” guidance at all times, and the first example I came across in my life – and perhaps still the best example – is my schoolboy friend Josh.

Josh has come up before in these pages – as one of the kids in high school who warned me the new Robert Plant/Jimmy Page collaboration would probably suck. I first met him in 6th grade, the year the three elementary schools in my hometown school district flowed together as tributaries to the main river of Cedar Crest Middle and High Schools. He was a friend of my fifth grade buddy, Bruce, and that’s how I met him. He was striking and unforgettable – even as a sixth grader.

He was taller than everyone – well over 6 feet by the time we graduated – with brown hair that sprouted from his head like a lawn left untouched during a two-week vacation. By 11th grade his unkempt hair had been groomed into a disciplined battalion of standing hair, giving him a look somewhere between Billy Idol and The Fonz. (His hair was dense and sturdy, allowing him to stand playing cards in it – a skill that I alerted Late Night with David Letterman about for their Stupid Human Tricks segment. They called me, but he was too young to appear on the show.) He mostly wore flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled severely, up past his elbows, and he tucked those shirts into old, worn-out jeans or slacks that he cinched tightly around his waist. He clearly was not attempting to fit into any popular fashion style, nor did he seem aware that such considerations existed among the rest of us. This has remained constant in the 40 years I’ve known him.

He talked slowly, walked slowly, moved slowly, belying the speed at which his brain worked. You see, he was also brilliant. (Something else that has remained constant.) His breadth of knowledge was astounding, its depth remarkable. By high school he could discuss the influence of Mao’s wives on Far East politics with the World Cultures teacher; quadratic equations on imaginary numbers with the Calculus teacher; Bundesliga soccer with the gym teacher; and Bugs Bunny and Mad Magazine with me – all within the space of an hour. And yet, because of his appearance, I still had friends in other grades who thought I was hanging out with someone from the Special Ed classes13. He read constantly, doodled incessantly, laughed frequently and told stories better than most professional speakers. He’s the kind of person that – 35 years later – if you today spoke to any student, teacher, staff or administrator from the school at that time, they’d immediately say, “Oh, Josh? Oh yeah, I remember him!” and then regale you with an improbable tale of either his brain, his stories or his style14. He was truly himself – more so than anyone I’ve personally ever known.

And the only music he listened to was Jimi Hendrix. This was unusual for a high schooler in the early 1980s. Back then, in my hometown, at my public high school, boys tended to listen to pre-hairband heavy metal – your Judas Priests, Iron Maidens, Scorpionses – or Top 40 – your Michael Jacksons, Madonnas, Huey Lewis & the Newses – or 70s Classic Rock – your Journeys, Led Zeppelins, Styxes15. And pretty much everyone who had it watched MTV.

But not Josh. He claimed Jimi was the only artist worth listening to, and he lived that ideal to a degree such that even though he knew everything about everything else, if asked about music videos or trending acts like The Police or Prince or Ratt he knew very little beyond the fact that they couldn’t hold a candle to Jimi. (The only other artist I heard him praise in high school was a then-little-known blues guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan, who Josh knew before anyone else heard the name.) I associate Josh with Jimi Hendrix not only because of his fervent fandom, but also because both are so much their own unique selves. Josh and Jimi were both like no one who I’d seen before.

Though he was a great friend, I didn’t go along with his fervor right away. In fact, I used to tease him quite a bit about his Jimi-thing – even though most people would agree that my taste was far more suspect. I bought Are You Experienced in the early 90s when it was re-released – an event that seems to happen every few years. And I eventually caught the Jimi bug myself. This is the third Jimi album on my list (he’s the second artist, after Elvis Costello, accorded such an internationally distinguished honor), and it hasn’t gotten any easier to write about what makes him so special to me.

Jimi’s playing and singing connects with me on a level that is not really intellectual. It’s a feeling I get from direct communication via his guitar. There are some artists – Bob Dylan comes to mind – that many fans love because the words are so meaningful, who’s music, these fans believe, is sometimes awesome, sometimes very good, but either way his words carry the weight. This is how Hendrix’s guitar is for me – not simply the playing, but what the playing is communicating. I love many guitar players, am astounded by their cool sounds and incredible talent, but Jimi’s playing truly speaks to me. Take, for example, “May This Be Love.”

This is a gentle song, one of my favorites on the record, that – as with every track – actually showcases drummer Mitch Mitchell; in this case, his subtle genius. (Other songs will demonstrate his bombastic genius!) But I am drawn to the guitar. After the initial squiggly scales, and within the first 35 seconds, the basic guitar pattern is set: descending runs and arpeggios supporting the waterfall lyrics. To me, however, it’s more like the lyrics were tagged on to support what the guitar is saying. It happens again at about 1:07, after he sings “lazy-minded fools,” and the guitar plays a looping run. What the guitar is saying seems far more direct than the lyrics. But the solo, beginning at 1:52 and supported by incredible rhythm guitar from himself, is where I really find myself aware of the connection.

The lyrics are dreamy in that one, but even in songs with a direct story line Jimi’s guitar is the main voice I hear. As in, for example, the old-school blues of “Red House.”

It’s the basic blues story of girl-done-left-me-but-I-got-a-backup, and Jimi sings it really well16. But his guitar sings it even better, with a tone that’s somehow both clean and distorted. The solo beginning at 2:13 is both cool and moving and, combined with all the fills throughout, lifts the song beyond “simple” blues.

But of course, it’s not just Jimi playing – it’s a band. And rhythm section Mitchell and Noel Redding are a dynamic pair that more than hold their own playing with the master. The song “Manic Depression,” another of my favorites, is a drum song that ended up on a guitar album.

It’s a riff-based song that Mitchell takes over. His driving rhythm and fills propel the song forward – what he does after 2:30 is fabulous. The guitar riff itself is cool, plus so long that it backs the entire verses. I have no idea how he sang (lyrics) and played this at the same time. (Which he did live, as this horrible-sounding recording shows.) I don’t know if Jimi had manic depression, but I feel like this song has helped me with whatever is going on in my head.

Another song that I’ve enjoyed hearing (and playing with Dr. Dave and our band JB & the So-Called Cells) is “Fire,” which is another hot one (sorry) from this album. It’s similar to “Manic Depression” in that it’s got incredible drums behind a riff-heavy song.

Of course The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a 60s pop act, and they always place their versions of 60s pop on every album. “Can You See Me” is one of these songs.

But their versions always sound heavier, weirder … better than what most others were doing with pop songs then. The lyrics hint at Jimi’s origins from outer space17. But once again, his guitar says more than the words.

His guitar really talks to me on the song “Love or Confusion,” where he uses it, plus all the effects available in a 1967 recording studio, to create something almost orchestral. There’s a symphony of guitars surrounding Noel Redding’s bouncing bass. Jimi solos behind his singing, and when the song modulates at 1:27 it sounds even more orchestral than before. The whole song is a burst of energy.

I Don’t Live Today” is similarly orchestral in its approach to guitars, with layers of droning and sustained chords. It also has a nice riff and a great drum freakout by Mitchell, after about 2:30. “Remember” is a great pop song in which Jimi astounds in what he plays while simultaneously singing.

There are a couple other terrific, famous songs on Are You Experienced. The first track is the sultry “Foxy Lady.”

With its shimmering opening, chugging pace and whispering “Foxy,” it’s become a song that immediately says “swingin’ 60s” to me. I love the guitar fill at the end of each chorus, for example about 0:58. The band sounds terrific, and once again Jimi’s swaggering voice is put to good use. It’s a great song, not too unusual. What is unusual is the lead track, “Are You Experienced?”18

This song is one I used to tease Josh about, for its unconventional, industrial sounds didn’t seem like music to my high school ears. It’s another song in which Mitch Mitchell’s subtle playing amazes as much as Jimi’s inventiveness. He plays a marshal beat while Jimi’s symphony of guitars rings and noodles over a droning guitar scratch. At 1:41 Hendrix offers to “prove” he’s experienced, and what he does with that guitar demonstrates an experience that seems to come from behind the stars. (More on that in a bit.) I used to tell Josh that I preferred Devo’s version of the song. It’s not true, but I do like the way they squeeze in the melody from “Third Stone From the Sun.”

With Jimi’s guitar saying so much, you may wonder why he even bothers to include lyrics19. In that case the perfect song for you – and simply a perfect song – is the beautiful “Third Stone From the Sun.”

From the opening chord, a wondrous soundscape is created, then at 0:33 Jimi plays a little riff that signals the beginning of the main melody. I highly encourage you to listen to this song in headphones and listen to the solo beginning at 1:25 and the otherworldly spoken words behind the guitar. Noises and sounds flow through much of the rest of the song, swirling and buzzing around your ears. There’s a program on TV about the “Ancient Alien” idea, in which the claim is made that aliens arrived hundreds of thousands of years ago to either start off the human race or speed along its technological development. I typically think it is bullshit, but if they had an episode exploring whether aliens deposited Jimi Hendrix on Earth, and they used this song as evidence, I think I’d believe them. Actually, they could use this entire album. And all of his others.

Maybe he does come from outer space. But if he does, then I think Josh did as well. But I strongly (strongly!) suspect neither did. I think they both had (have) the gift of an individual spirit, an understanding of themselves within the greater world, and that’s allowed them to do what so many of us strive for: to simply be Josh and be Jimi.

Track Listing:
Hey Joe“*
Stone Free“*
Purple Haze“*
51st Anniversary“*
The Wind Cries Mary“*
Highway Chile“*
“Foxy Lady”
“Manic Depression”
“Red House”
“Can You See Me”
“Love Or Confusion”
“I Don’t Live Today”
“May This Be Love”
“Fire”
“Third Stone From The Sun”
“Remember”
“Are You Experienced?”
* – Not on the original album, these are singles (A and B sides) that were added to the record for this MCA release. Although my rules state that I can’t include album extras in my judging, I’ve broken the rules before. And I probably did here, too!

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Filed under Albums 40 - 31

40th Favorite Album

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Two Shoes. The Cat Empire.
2007 (USA), Virgin/Velour Recordings. Producer: Jerry Boys, Felix Riebl, The Cat Empire.
Purchased, 2007.

IN A NUTSHELL: Is it ska? Is it jazz? Is it world music? Whatever it is, it doesn’t have a guitar – but I still can’t get enough of their joyous party sound! The Australian band features co-lead singers in mellow Felix Riebl and frantic Harry James Angus, and together with a tight-as-a-drum rhythm section and DJ the band bounces from style-to-style, always inviting the listener in to have a good time.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I was a kid, I thought The Golden Rule was the most important standard for humans to follow. I attended a Methodist Church when I was little, and church (Sunday School, more precisely) is where I first learned about it20. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes for kids (or just normal people who are like, “Why all the fancy language in all these old religious books?”) it’s stated as “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

I heard about it in my own church, but it’s a common tenet of most religions (often called “The Ethic of Reciprocity”) and has been around forever. In the Christian faith, it appears as part of Jesus’s famous “Sermon on the Mount,” which is sort of like His version of George Michael’s Faith album: it’s not a true “Greatest Hits” collection, but most of the stuff you remember from Him is in it. But regardless of where you heard The Golden Rule, and who first started the idea, it’s definitely a good way to get folks to consider those around them and to work on being less selfish.

I held onto the belief in the supremacy of the Golden Rule into my twenties, when – while working as a chemist at an aspirin factory – my buddy Weenie Bill laughed at me for saying it was the most important rule. When I asked why he laughed, he said he thought I was joking, then explained that he believed it was far more important to treat people the way THEY would like to be treated, not the way YOU would like to be treated. The Golden Rule was actually selfish, he said, unnecessarily putting yourself into the equation. “What does it even matter how you want to be treated?” he asked. Weenie Bill’s Golden Rule would state: Do unto others as they would like you to do unto them. More plainly: Treat others the way they want to be treated.

It turns out Weenie Bill isn’t the only one who ever found the Golden Rule problematic21. Way back in the 1700’s the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about his problem with it22. Next, well, there were a bunch of other critiques, and then, during World War II, Karl Popper suggested, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, what has come to be known as “The Platinum Rule,” or Weenie Bill’s Golden Rule, in which the other person’s desires are placed before one’s own23. Of course, Weenie Bill’s Golden Rule (WBGR) has problems of its own (e.g. if you’d like me to whack you in the face with a meat cleaver, I’m going to politely decline), but it is a guidance by which I’ve tried to live. I try to treat you the way you’d like to be treated.

The difference between The Golden Rule and The Platinum Rule is similar to the difference between being “nice” and being “kind,” a distinction I became very aware of when my kids reached school-age and they realized there’d be all kinds of misfits, assholes and dorks they’d have to interact with in life. When they complained about kids, my first instinct was to encourage them to “be nice.” However, this advice seemed superficial, an invitation to duplicity; akin to “say something positive to them, but when they’re gone say and do anything you like.” However, if I encouraged them to “be kind,” it implied that one’s responsibility to others didn’t end when they were out of sight. I felt like it encouraged respect for others, not simply an absence of hostility. When you are “nice,” the focus is on yourself and your actions. When you are “kind,” others get the spotlight.

One might assume that to abide by WBGR I’d have to divine all the intricacies of others’ beliefs and feelings; to delve and prod into strangers’ personal lives; to set aside all aspects of my own morality to be able to meet everyone else’s pleasures and demands. However, it’s not as impossible as all that. The first step, really – and perhaps the only step necessary – is to understand that others have perspectives and experiences that are as valid as your own. Everyone in the world says, “yes, yes, of course I know that!” But it actually IS a bit of work to set one’s self aside and listen to another’s perspective. “Stop complaining!” is often my first thought when confronted with another’s point of view. “We all have problems.”

In the moment, that work of setting one’s self aside is tough. However, on my own I can do such things as read books and articles about people different from me. I can watch movies that aren’t my usual type. I can attempt to move outside my comfort zone in social situations and talk to as many folks as I can. I can listen to others and resist my first impulse to scoff24, something that becomes easier to do the more I broaden my experiences. I suppose such activities would be derided as “politically correct.” (A term I find humorous, even ridiculous. I have yet to figure out how I’ve built any political capital by trying to enhance my kindness.) But I just chuckle at the notion, and try to understand the perspective of someone who finds kindness such a chore.

One of the byproducts of this effort to continue to live by the WBGR (which remains challenging and elusive, even after 25 years of living it) is that I’ll often look at aspects of my life and consider them in the context of the larger world. This is why, when I looked at the 60 albums already on my list in preparation for Album #40, I said to myself, “Wow! Not a whole lot of diversity in that group!” Sure, Jimi Hendrix is black, and Sleater-Kinney are women, but this doesn’t make my list very diverse. Both are guitar-based acts, and my list is mainly white guys with guitars. But while these observations can spur me to seek out new (to me) artists or styles, I can’t pretend to like what I don’t like. The fact is that if you’re not guitar-based rock, you’ll have a tough time cracking my list regardless of your ethnicity or gender. Johnny Cash, Pizzicato Five, Randy Newman, Fiona Apple, Cornershop … Other than these five acts, my list has been super-extra guitar-rock-heavy.

And now let me add to the “different” list Two Shoes, by Australia’s The Cat Empire. They’re a band that doesn’t even include a guitar!

I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard a song by the band. In 2007 I was riding in my car, probably taking a kid somewhere, not two blocks from my house, when the don’t-call-it-an-oldies-station-cuz-they-mix-in-new-tracks-among-the-80s-songs Radio Station played a bouncing, horn-fueled, dance-insistent song that stayed in my head the rest of the day. I looked up the song the minute I got home and ordered the CD on Amazon. That song, which was a Top-40 hit in their native country, was called “Sly.”

It opens with a simple, killer electric piano riff, thumping drums and a trumpet fanfare that introduces singer Felix Riebl’s fast-tongued yet self-possessed style. When the band shouts “Show us the money!!” at about 0:25 it’s clear that this is a fun group looking to show us a good time, and they succeed impressively. The lyrics are standard “I saw a beautiful woman” fare, with terrific dance-step allusions thrown in. At about 0:52 the full Cat Empire sound is introduced when Harry James Angus’s trumpet blows a counter melody, continuing to build the fun. After a quick breakdown at 1:03, the main melody re-enters, the band shows their jazz roots on an Ollie McGill piano solo about 2:00. Then it’s just a joyous celebration to the end. Whenever I hear this song I get a big smile. It’s fun and infectious, a sonic party25.

Indeed, The Cat Empire is a fun time, party band, and they’re proud to announce it on the song “Party Started,” which features another key aspect of the band’s music: dual lead singers, with both Riebl and Angus taking turns.

The band incorporates a multitude of musical styles into their sound, and on this song they include hip-hop, with scratching from the band’s DJ, Jamshid “DJ Jumps” Khadiwhala, and a sort-of rap from Angus. The lyrics are clever and require multiple listenings to catch all the funny lines about the fun parties the band throws, and at about 3 minutes the horns come in to help deliver a false ending (and I always love a false ending).

The two singers have distinct styles, with Felix Riebl’s voice deeper and melodic, while Harry James Angus sounds frantic and more out of control. But he’s an exceptional vocalist – his live scat breakdowns are brilliant – as evidenced on “Saltwater.”

It almost sounds like a novelty song from the 40s, a bit Spike Jones-y. But it turns into a fun ska song – with terrific scatting from Angus about 1:45 – about crying over a lost love. But at about 3:00, another common Cat Empire trick is pulled, in which the style of a song shifts in an instant. In this case the swinging ska becomes a smoky lounge vamp.

The band has its roots as a jazz act, so these switches feel organic, never forced. The band shows off their chops on songs like the Latin-jazz “Sol y Sombra,” where the players – particularly pianist McGill – solo over a fine salsa groove. The Latin style is heard on the title track, “Two Shoes,” as well. And given the album was recorded in Cuba, with some Cuban horn players, it makes sense that their jazzy ska would show the influence of the island’s sounds. Riebl and Angus blend well on a song full of creative internal rhymes about dancing your troubles away.

Those island sounds are also on full display on the terrific “In My Pocket.”

Angus has a unique voice, but it fits the band well26. It also fits the cool, nonsensical lyrics, as well. Drummer Will Hull-Brown is a master of all styles and rhythms, and introduces the chorus (about 1:18) with a terrific flurry. It’s a song that makes my feet want to move – especially as it builds through the 4:00 section to the final chorus.

Angus’s trumpet takes center stage on one of my favorite Riebl songs, “Lullaby.” It starts slowly but picks things up by the 28 second mark, DJ Jumps making his presence felt once again.

It takes the “Sly” blueprint, slows it down a bit to more of a groove, but leaves Riebl’s fast-talk rapping about a lady he loves in place. At 3:20, Angus plays a trumpet solo that makes me wish more contemporary artists used a trumpet. He’s a very talented guy, a multi-instrumentalist and leader of a 1930s-style traditional jazz band in Australia.

He’s also the writer, and singer, of the band’s funniest song, an uptempo reflection on lost potential and life perspective, “The Car Song.”

It’s a 60’s soul song, as close to straight-ahead rock as these guitar-less wonders get. And songs about high school, lost opportunities and long-held dreams are always favorites of mine, so I hold it closely in my heart! The chorus (about 1:15) sounds like classic Motown, with a sing-along “someday!” and fun “Woo-hoos.” At 3:00 it breaks into a section of solo trade-offs from turntable, piano, drums, and fuzz bass before the exultant final chorus comes around again. (There’s a funny video for the song that I didn’t post as the main video because it’s a shortened version of the album track. But I think it’s a great video.)

They’re a wonderful band, with a terrific message of love and peace within their bouncing rhythms. “Protons, Neutrons, Electrons” uses a Tin Pan Alley style to espouse the idea of letting go. Even their serious songs are fun. “The Chariot” demonstrates the band’s weapons of peace: its instruments. It’s a history of the band, and posits a world where love can triumph over hatred. It’s packed with a fiery ska beat, irrepressible dance rhythms, Riebl’s charming rap/sing and Angus’s blaring trumpet, and it’s one of my favorites.

The record ends with “The Night That Never Ends,” another multi-part, multi-style gem, and the perfect album closer.

It’s begins as a sultry lounge song, then turns to a quiet lullaby. Riebl and Angus harmonize, either on voice or on voice and trumpet. It’s another ode to fun and partying, and begins to build at about 3:00, then at 3:30 becomes a wild klezmer song like you’d hear at a Jewish wedding reception. It’s a song that invites everyone everywhere to come and join the fun.

And The Cat Empire is a band that invites everyone to come join the fun. (I highly, highly recommend seeing them live!) Their blend of styles and sounds from around the world, all of shaped by dancing and joyfulness, never sounds old or unexciting. They’re reaching out to everyone by understanding, and incorporating, the “other” around them. They’ll do unto you what YOU want to do – because you want to have a good time, right? That’s so kind of them.

Track Listing
“Sly”
“In My Pocket”
“Lullaby”
“The Car Song”
“Two Shoes”
“The Chariot”
“Sol y Sombra”
“Party Started”
“Protons, Neutrons, Electrons”
“Saltwater”
“The Night That Never Ends”

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Filed under Albums 40 - 31

41st Favorite Album

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… And Out Come The Wolves. Rancid.
1995, Epitaph. Producer: Jerry Finn, Rancid.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Nineteen powerful, hook-laden, short and fast songs come at you in rat-a-tat style that overwhelms – in a GOOD way. Bassist Matt Freeman is a master, and co-guitarists/vocalists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen put their limited vocal abilities to excellent use on melodies that will stick with you. Don’t hold it against them if they sound like some other bands that came before them: this is a record that stands on its own!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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In fifth grade, at Ebenezer Elementary School (yes, that was the name), my terrific teacher was Mr. Keesey. This was in 1977, ten years after the big splash made by the Summer-of-Love, and the ripples of the Hippie culture were still being broadly felt, even in my little PA town. His thick, round glasses, close-cropped brown hair and penchant for pull-over sweaters made Mr. Keesey look far more “straight” than “hippie.” And while I’m sure there were hippies of all shapes and sizes, Mr. Keesey’s short stature27 only intensified his outward appearance as a square. But he brought the Hippie message of peace and love to my classroom.

Mr. Keesey was Ebenezer’s “celebrity teacher,” a prize for certain lucky kids in their last year in elementary school, supposedly a cool, fun guy, (a reputation my older sister confirmed when she had him three years before me) with a place-your-desks-anywhere policy and a wooden tower in his room that allowed for activities both six feet off the ground, or in the secluded Underneath. On the first day of class I knew he was different than anybody who’d ever stood in front of my classrooms when he delivered a monologue stating he didn’t think of himself as the leader who made rules and yelled at kids for breaking them, and forced everyone to do whatever he wanted them to do; but instead thought of the classroom as a shared space for all of us, in which we all make the rules together and help each other to stay within them. He said he’d play guitar for us some days, we’d have class outside some days, and we could call him “Jim.” He invited anyone to challenge him to a game of chess on the chessboard on top of the tower, and pointed out the big, round signs hanging in the room, each with a single word: “IALAC.”

This stood for “I Am Lovable And Capable,” and Jim wanted us to say that phrase to ourselves whenever we saw the signs.

To put it mildly, this was NOT a teaching style that I, or any of my classmates, had ever seen before!! It was as if an egg-headed, rod-fingered alien had come to Ebenezer to speak to us from a beautiful future we could not comprehend. Either that, or a hippie. The level of unease felt by my classmates and me at this (for our school) radical style of pedagogy was such that, while we loved the tower and the chess and the signs and the rule-making, no one ever took him up on the invitation to call him “Jim.” He was always “Mr. Keesey.” We all respected him so much that we felt we HAD to call him that.

He put us into groups for math and reading, and I got put into the “smart-kids” group, with my buddies, Greg and Bruce, and a girl, Juli, who would later go on to graduate high school a year early to attend M.I.T.28 For Reading/Language Arts, our group used a cool workbook called The Dopple Gang, a hip, 70s, cartoony book that reminded me of a groovy paperback version of The Banana Splits TV show.

Mr. Keesey was big on reading. Together as a class we read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; The Hobbit; The Phantom Tollbooth; and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In our individual groups, we took part in a reading program called “SRA,” a color-coded system by Science Research Associates29 in which students read a group of ten or twelve individual non-fiction stories at their own pace, answered 20 questions after each story, and then, when a sufficient number of questions had been correctly answered, and all stories in a color were complete, moved to the next color. The readings and questions got progressively more advanced as you moved through the colors. If you made it through all the colors, you’d end up reading 100 to 150 stories. In our group, Juli flew through the colors. Greg, Bruce and I did not.

I’m sure there have been many times in my educational career when I bent the rules, sneaked a look at a classmate’s paper, or “borrowed” homework answers from a friend; but I generally didn’t cheat. School was one of the few things I felt really good at, so proving I could do well on my own was a point of pride. So to this day, as a 50 year old man, I remain ashamed of the enormity of the cheating scheme undertaken by my buddies and I on those damned SRA cards.

You see, kind and trusting cool-guy that he was, Mr. Keesey allowed us to sit anywhere to do our SRA reading, and – so we could grade our own work – gave us access to the SRA Teacher’s Box that contained individual answer-key cards for each story. So as Juli’s performance really started to outpace our own, and my two pals and I felt completely outclassed, we realized we could choose to read our SRA while sitting in corners, or underneath the tower, or even out in the hallway. And since the Answer Cards fit neatly against the pamphletized stories, it was not difficult to select a story, select an answer card and scuttle off to a dark place to cheat like hell. As Juli completed four or five stories in 30 minutes, we could complete three or four ourselves, instead of the one to three we could do on our own. (We never did the same number or more than Juli: we were smart enough to realize nobody would buy that.) We finished the entire SRA reading program in a few months, several days after Juli, while many kids never made it through one color on their own. We felt like stars, winners. I did for a brief time, anyway.

We’d answered Mr. Keesey’s love and kindness with – at least in this instance – cheating. It felt wrong to me then, and it feels wrong today. I’m sure many kids did the same; perhaps even Juli, that vaunted intellectual prodigy, was cheating as well. (After all: she was no dummy.) And maybe, ol’ Jim knew what was happening but figured the benefits of providing an opportunity for ten year olds to take on individualized reading projects with little oversight outweighed the risks of a few sulking, pride-wounded boys cheating. (After all, we weren’t graded on the SRA program.) Still, I wish I’d done the reading without cheating.

I don’t dwell on this episode much, but I was reminded of it while considering my #41 album … And Out Come The Wolves, by the band Rancid. This is because many people – whether they understand it this way or not – think of Rancid as cheaters. Nobody really uses that term when discussing the band, but it’s what they think. The band “cheats” because they sound, unapologetically, like The Clash. Some people are very anti-Rancid over their sound. And I wonder – as someone who’s felt guilty about cheating – if maybe some folks’ dislike for the band is driven by the guilt they feel over their own past indiscretions30. “These guys are cheating, and they don’t even care!!!”

When I heard the band’s hit “Time Bomb” on the radio in late 1995, I was immediately taken with the band. Singer Tim Armstrong’s slurring singing on lyrics about their music scene, the punky/ska beat, the fun video … I liked it. I liked the organ, and the catchy chorus and I went out and bought … And Out Come The Wolves.

As a big Clash fan, I was excited that someone was trying to carry on in their tradition. As I’ve written before, I tend to seek out artists who sound like my favorite artists. All music is loaded with the musical inspirations of those who write it; there are very few truly “original” artists out there. And the ones that do sound like no one else, I guarantee you’d hate. And while it’s true that any punk or punk-ish band since 1977 will bear some resemblance to The Clash (punk itself being a rather specific, sound-limited genre), Rancid’s double guitars, dueling singers and ska-influenced tracks made them particularly ripe for the comparison. Sure, the band’s mohawks and chains seemed a bit dated in 1995, but I didn’t care – the songs were great! But I found when I played the album for others my age who also loved The Clash, most were dismissive, at best; others were downright angry. “If I wanted to hear The Clash, I’d listen to The Clash!” “They’re totally ripping off another band!” “What’s this retro bullshit??” They thought the band was cheating.

But creativity is weird. It’s a personal experience that isn’t as simple as finding an answer key and secreting it away to a hidden spot. A band of young Clash fans in their basement writing songs inspired by their heroes haven’t cheated at all.

Actually, they’ve added their own twist to the sound they love. Consider the bass in “Maxwell Murder” (particularly beginning at 0:58) and compare it to any bass line by Paul Simonon on any Clash song. I think you will hear a difference.

It’s less than a minute and a half of energy and power, and Matt Freeman’s frenetic bass is the engine. His bass solo at about 0:59 is one of the coolest I’ve heard – and is unusual in a punk rock song, where the fast pace of songs relegates many bassists to simply bashing through the root notes of chords. As with most of the songs, the lyrics border on unintelligible, but in this case they seem to be about a hit-man.

Freeman’s bass is one of the defining features of the album (and the band) and powers such songs as their follow-up hit, “Ruby Soho,” and “Disorder and Disarray,” one of many songs about these punks’ discomfort with the big record labels who descended on them in the wake of the success of bands like Nirvana and Green Day.

But what really powers the album is – believe it or not – the sequencing of the songs and the very small space left between the songs. Nineteen short songs that are fun and catchy and powerful and that come at you in rat-a-tat fashion, each one a wave at the beach that smacks into you just as you groggily rise in the surf from the last one. It’s a relentless album, and it’s difficult to recreate that feeling in words, but if you have 50 minutes or so, try to listen all the way through.

After “Maxwell Murder” comes “11th Hour,” a D.I.Y. anthem calling fans to action. It features two other key aspects of the Rancid sound: squawking, somewhat-in-tune vocals and harmonies (that sound awesome, somehow) and guitars that play off each other, not unlike the two guitar sound of The Clash (it must be said.)

Guitarist/singers Tim Armstrong (the lefty) and Lars Frederiksen (the righty) also frequently trade off lead vocals, as in “Roots Radicals.”

It’s a hyper-catchy song, with a jumping bassline, and Armstrong and Frederiksen harmonize brilliantly, particularly given their limitations. The band wears their “if-we-can-do-it-you-can-do-it” ethos on their sleeves, and many of the lyrics (like those in this song) tell the band’s story. I think for many kids in the rock era, bands like Rancid31 were a key to coping. Songs like the excellent “Listed M.I.A.” (Which may be the most upbeat song about suicide ever!) talk about the hard times; songs like “The Wars End” tell you things can get better.

A terrific triumvirate of totally torrid tunes (sorry about that) begins with the excellent “take me away from the big city” lament of “Olympia, WA.”

The riff is killer from the beginning. Armstrong leads the snarling verse, then the excellent, singalong chorus begins at 0:45, with Freeman’s bass leading the charge. It’s one of the most-fun choruses to shout ever! It’s followed up by another shout-along classic, “Lock, Step & Gone.” It’s more of the same: awesome bass line (with another bass solo, about 1:22!), dueling guitars, sneering harmony vocals. But somehow it doesn’t sound the same.

That one is followed closely with another favorite of mine, “Junkie Man,” featuring lyrical help from poet/Basketball Diarist/”People Who Died” guy Jim Carroll.

I think it may actually be about Carroll, a well-known junkie who definitely could tell you what the story is, as the song asks. It’s got a neat scratchy breakdown, with spoken words written by Carroll.

There are 19, YES NINETEEN, songs on this album. Some are better than others, most are great, a few are merely very good. “Daly City Train” is another autobiographical gem. It’s a ska song, and it’s fun and rocks and makes me want to shout and dance along – as almost all of the songs do. At 2:40 it features a kind of rap that may be the most unintelligible rap I’ve ever heard. And I love it!

So many great songs. “Journey To The End Of The East Bay.” “She’s Automatic.” The super-excellent “Old Friend,” which I can’t believe I didn’t write about more! “As Wicked.” “You Don’t Care Nothin.” “The Way I Feel.” Any of these songs would be part of a great mix-tape, and when they’re placed end-to-end with hardly a break, they’re a battering ram. Just as the band states on the song “Avenues and Alleyways.”

So, listen. I’ve forgiven myself about that fifth grade cheating incident. I swear. But I understand if you were in that class with me and worked your ass off to get through the Blue cards, only to find out the “smart kids” were cheating their way all the way through Brown!!! It’s just not right. And it might trigger your senses of justice and vengeance. And that’s fine, take it out on a cheater like me. But don’t hold it against a band like Rancid. They didn’t cheat! They just wear their influences on their sleeve. And if you get past your resentment, you’ll find there’s an excellent record waiting for you to hear!

Track Listing:
“Maxwell Murder”
“The Eleventh Hour”
“Roots Radicals”
“Time Bomb”
“Olympia WA”
“Lock, Step & Gone”
“Junkie Man”
“Listed M.1.A.”
“Ruby Soho”
“Daly City Train”
“Journey To The End Of The East Bay”
“She’s Automatic”
“Old Friend”
“Disorder And Disarray”
“The Wars End”
“You Don’t Care Nothin”
“As Wicked”
“Avenues & Alleyways”
“The Way I Feel”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

42nd Favorite Album

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Making Movies. Dire Straits.
1980, Warner Brothers. Producer: Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Iovine.
Bootleg Cassette, 1985; Purchased, 2002.

IN A NUTSHELL: Nobody plays the guitar like Mark Knopfler – perhaps the most distinctive guitarist in the rock era. He writes grand, moving epics – six-minute movies in song. And though he’s not exactly a singer, he knows how to use his voice to imbue the songs with emotion. The band, particularly drummer Pick Withers, is excellent, and Bruce Springsteen’s keyboardist, Roy Bittan, helps to give the songs a certain majesty.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I like guitar players. I like baseball players. Is there a relationship between the two? Well, first a little32 background.

Since 1957, sociologists have modeled the way in which new technologies are adopted by the general public. The first model, upon which all others have been based, is the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. It was established by researchers Beal and Bohlen and was developed by observing how farmers integrated new ideas and products into their farming operations.

The model was of little general interest outside a few economists and researchers until the computer boom of the 80s brought increasingly technologically sophisticated products to all types of marketplaces. Marketing folks scoured and devoured the research, finding applications for it among consumer products from Teddy Ruxpin and home computers to hospital infusion pumps. Geoffery A. Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm became the bible for how to reach members of a population with differing orientations toward new ideas. And today, with major advancements in computerized technology seemingly creating obsolescence in mere weeks, most Americans have become familiar with some of the terms created by those obscure 1950s researchers: “Early Adopters” and “Laggards.”

I have never been an early adopter. Around 1981 my high school purchased a few computers, and kids like me in the “honors” program were given first crack at taking the school’s inaugural Computer Class. I was one of the very few to decline. Since then, I have been a Laggard in nearly all cultural and technological developments, catching onto the tail ends of everything from VCRs to DVD Players to Blu-Ray Players to streaming media. I don’t have anything against technology, it’s just that I don’t really pay attention to developments until my VCR or DVD Player breaks down and I need a new one.

This Laggard-ness should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog about rock music albums. That’s right, I maintain a dead website type (the blog) about a dead music genre (rock) as heard on a dead medium (the album). I’m three for three.

Oh, and I typically start my blog with a personal essay, which has also been declared dead.

So given my laggardness and my interest in things that everyone else has already apparently forgotten about, it should also be no surprise that I’ve decided to compare famous guitar players to famous baseball players: the best in the world at a dying instrument as compared to the best in the world at a dying game. Perhaps, as the march of progress continues to quicken its pace, and the interval required for nostalgia to suffuse into popular culture narrows from 20-plus years to 10, and 5, and etc., I’ll be lucky enough to catch the second wave of interest in baseball and electric guitar – ironic though it may be – like a Victorian gentleman awakening in the midst of a Brooklyn Steampunk festival. (Shit. I just realized that the game Guitar Hero debuted nearly 15 years ago. I already missed the second wave!! Maybe it’s time for me to go buy a Wii and get started playing.)

Besides sharing their apparent anachronistic nature in today’s society, guitar- and baseball players share other qualities that make them ripe for comparison. For one, both pursuits are singular actions: guitar playing and batting a ball33 And in both actions, there can be a wide difference between how you are taught to do it as a beginner and how you end up doing it as a professional. Plus, each individual has a unique style, such that fans can sometimes tell a guitar player from simply hearing a note or two just as they can identify a baseball batter just by seeing some guy impersonate the way he swings the bat. Beyond that, as the careers of guitarists and athletes progress, fans form ideas and opinions about them that become as much a part of their mystique as their actual performance on the stage or ball field.

So here’s what I’ll do: I will pick a famous guitar player and explain why, in my opinion, he is the equivalent of a famous baseball player. In my comparison, I’m only going to use baseball batters. I’ve ruled out pitchers, except in one necessary case, just to make the comparisons more uniform. One more thing: I have at times had readers from outside the United States, and even though the web has shrunk our world immensely, I doubt if these readers will know most, or any, of the names and attributes of American baseball players. So, I’ve asked my friend Mark B., originally from Costa Rica, and a big fan of both baseball and soccer, to identify soccer players who match the attributes I’ve ascribed to my baseball players.

Jimi Hendrix = Babe Ruth (Pelé): The best ever. Sure, sure, in an artistic arena the use of a superlative is quite subjective. And even in a sport with statistics out the hoo-ha, there can be some debate about calling a player “the best.” But in terms of recognition, iconography, history … there can be no one else to pair with Jimi; and no one else to pair with Babe. And my personal reason why Ruth is the undisputed best: he wasn’t only among the greatest hitters of his generation, he was also among the greatest pitchers!!

Eddie Van Halen = Willie Mays (Cristiano Ronaldo): Both of these players performed with a flair that was unseen before they hit the big time. And in both cases, this “flair” often overshadowed how great they really were. In some cases misguided folks have claimed that both were little more than that flair. This argument is laughable. Mays’s stats and Van Halen’s playing demonstrate brilliance born from years of hard work. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t have fun and be awesome at the same time!

Keith Richards = Mickey Mantle (Georgie Best): Two people who lived their lives in such a way that nobody expected them to live past 40 years old. Alcohol & drugs & amazing feats with a guitar and a bat. Both are widely acknowledged all-time greats; both are widely acknowledged high-functioning addicts. Given the money and free time afforded both ballplayers and rock stars, I’m sure some others could have been on this list instead – but these are the two greatest.

Eric Clapton = Stan Musial (Lionel Messi): Two guys who led their all-time-great careers and lives in a very understated, workmanlike manner. Sure, Clapton had the drugs and alcohol battles, but despite that, he always seemed like a decent guy who just happened to have developed an extraordinary ability – just like Stan the Man! Both of these guys were young phenoms who ended up being the sort of person who’d live on your street, and somebody’d have to tell you, “Hey, did you know old man Musial/Clapton used to be a ballplayer/guitarist?” They always let their ability speak for itself.

Steve Howe = Hank Aaron (Eusebio): Both of these guys are two of the best ever, with multi-faceted abilities, and yet they both seem to be overlooked when speaking about the best ever. Maybe it’s because they both played for rather unpopular bands/teams: Yes and the 50s-70s Braves. But when either is mentioned among rock guitar/baseball fans, everyone acknowledges their greatness.

The Edge = Barry Bonds (Diego Maradona): Two guys who get a lot of grief because of performance enhancers – chemicals, in Bonds’s case, and pedals/effects/sounds in Edge’s case. But the thing is, in the era they both played in, this was how it was done34. Most everyone else was doing the same thing, and they didn’t reach Edge/Bonds levels. You may personally downgrade either one, but both will have a huge legacy despite their accoutrements.

David Gilmour = Mike Schmidt (Francesco Totti): These two guys are inextricably linked via my friendship with Dr. Dave. Both remind me of him, as they’re two of his favorites. But also, they both have a complete game, play with power and minimal flashiness, and are undisputed greats. A Gilmour solo and a Schmidt swing are both displays of beautiful power.

George Harrison = Yogi Berra (Rivelino): These two can sometimes be overshadowed by the incredible teammates they had in their career: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Paul McCartney, John Lennon … But both are recognized greats in their own right, and would have been a success wherever, and with whomever, they played.

John Squire = Nomar Garciaparra (Marco Van Basten): “Who?” you may ask. And that’s the point. These two started their careers on an incredible trajectory, displaying once-in-a-generation talent, plus a special something that made them seem destined for greatness. However, drugs/injuries, etc, derailed their careers. But you can’t take away those first 6 or 7 years they had – they stack up against anybody’s.

Prince = Rickey Henderson (Ronaldinho): Both of these guys were such characters, almost caricatures of themselves – with Prince becoming an unpronounceable symbol, and Rickey always calling Rickey “Rickey” – that you could sometimes forget how awesome they really were. Both could do it all. Prince was more than a falsetto voice, Rickey was more than a bunch of steals.

Mike Campbell = Joe Morgan (Arjen Robben): These two are perhaps forgotten among guitar greats and baseball Hall of Famers, but they are instantly recognizable to any fan. Morgan’s arm-flap batting stance and hustle around the basepaths35, Campbell’s spare, haunting creativity. Their teams/groups wouldn’t have been the same without them, as any fan knows.

Mark Knopfler = Robin Yount (Zinedine Zidane): Guys who did things their own way, who toiled in relative obscurity for for Dire Straits/Milwaukee Brewers until they had massive success (Brothers in Arms/1982 World Series) and won a bit of fame. Knopfler plays jazz and rock without a pick, Yount won MVPs as shortstop and centerfielder, without an endorsement deal. They went about their business being incredible until everyone else finally realized it.

I was aware of Knopfler’s band, Dire Straits, from their very beginning, as their debut hit single “Sultans of Swing” was part of my 6th grade soundtrack, along with “Heart of Glass” and “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night).” I thought the song was okay, although I often got it confused with the song “Driver’s Seat,” by one-hit-wonder Sniff ‘n The Tears36, for some reason. Then MTV came along a couple years later, and it seemed like the band’s “Skateaway” was played every hour, almost as often as “Jessie’s Girl.” I found that song too mellow and grew to hate it. I preferred the energetic early-MTV fare, like The Producers and Saga.

As has happened so often in the music-appreciation realm of my life, I met Dr. Dave at college, and my opinions started to change. We both played on the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science baseball team, for a ridiculous coach that held practices early mornings in the gym. It was, February, 1987, and the previous evening the Grammy Awards were broadcast. As we ran our 5:30 am laps, I mentioned to Dave that Paul Simon’s Graceland had won Album of the Year. I remember Dave saying, in his distinctly Dave way, “Fuck the Grammys! Dire Straits lost to fucking Phil Collins last year. That award means shit!37” He was speaking of the band’s smash 1985 album, Brothers In Arms38. Thus began my formal introduction to the band. I eventually bought several of the band’s cassettes, but Making Movies is the one that’s always stood out the most to me.

One of the first songs I remember Dave playing me has become one of my favorite songs from Making Movies, “Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s a simple-sounding song that opens with Knopfler’s characteristic finger-picking on an old-timey resonator guitar. One of the key features of Knopfler’s guitar style is that he exclusively plays using his fingers on his strumming hand instead of a pick39. Not only is this song’s introduction finger-picked, but he uses fingers on everything else, as well. Knopfler’s voice doesn’t nearly match the giftedness of his guitar playing but it’s certainly distinctive, and his stylized singing conveys great emotion. In this case it’s the pain and anger (and even unfounded hopefulness) of heartbreak, telling a story of lost love based on his real-life relationship with American singer Holly Vincent40. It’s a rare Dire Straits song in that the guitar (though obviously excellent) takes a backseat to the vocals. The song effectively uses dynamics: quiet, matter-of-fact verses and emotional bursts in the chorus, with each chorus building in intensity. The drumming, by Pick Withers, is excellent, using rolls and accents in the choruses (i.e. 2:25 – 2:45) that make the song more than just a simple rock lament. It’s a beautiful song, and Knopfler’s mournful guitar does come to the forefront in the subtle guitar outro, beginning at 4:50. (By the way, listen for the little finger snaps from Knopfler, after the lyrics “hey, la, my boyfriend’s back” (0:57) and “band accompanies me” (3:31). I love little things like that.)

If you listen to this album and think, “Hey, it sort of sounds like a Bruce Springsteen album,” it may be because producer Jimmy Iovine had been an engineer on several Springsteen albums, and also because Iovine brought along E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan. Together they helped add a sweeping, majestic sound to the record, evident on the lead track “Tunnel of Love.”

Opening with a snippet of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz,” from the musical Carousel, Bittan’s piano enters with a fanfare to herald the epic song that follows. It’s about the intense feelings of young love set at an amusement parkin this case Spanish City, a seaside park from Knopfler’s youth – and the pull of memory as one ages. Once again Knopfler’s limited vocal abilities are put to fine use, imbuing the piece with emotion. But his guitar is the star of this song. He riffs and solos beautifully behind the lyrics throughout the song. The song pulls way back at about 5:00, filled with tasty guitar figures, setting the listener up for the ferocious solo to come, beginning about 5:55. This is a Robin-Yount-Hall-of-Fame caliber solo41 to end the piece, building from quiet spaciousness to furiously fast finger picking, and throughout reflecting the wistfulness of the lyrics. It’s a tremendous song.

As is another long one, a song I’d originally disliked though came to appreciate and love, the aforementioned MTV favorite “Skateaway.”

Pick Withers’s kick drum opens the piece and the song does one of those cool things where the drum beat sounds like the “1” is on a certain beat, but then when the organ enters you find the “1” is somewhere else. I love that. Knopfler’s squawky guitar enters, setting a mysterious mood, which is probably correct for me because 35 years on and I still don’t know what the lyrics mean – unless it is what it is: just a story about a young woman rollerskating. (Okay, I just read a theory that sounds accurate – that the song is about the movies we make in our heads to accompany the songs we hear. That sounds right!) Knopfler’s guitar fills take center stage once again behind his vocals, throwing in things like the run from 2:33 to 2:44 which is super cool. And by the way – he plays all those fills while singing when he plays live, which is rather astounding. It’s a mellow song that kicks into a slightly higher gear when the chorus comes around. Bittan’s organ fills out the song nicely, and bassist John Illsley does some really cool stuff during Knopfler’s outro solo, after 5:00.

Making Movies is not very long – only 7 songs. Of course, “Tunnel of Love” and “Skateaway” are both 6-plus minutes. But it’s an economical package, with most all of the fat stripped away. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity of sound on the record, but that’s not a knock: it is a concentrated dose of Knopfler guitar, unusual vocals and lyrical stories. “Expresso Love” follows the blueprint to a tee.

It’s a song about his love for a woman, and the concerns he has about it. I’ve wondered what “expresso love” is42, but it seems like it’s a love that is really intense, therefore only taken in small doses. The song has a cool girl-group drum beat going into the chorus, and that Knopfler guitar, of course. That guitar is featured on all of the songs, except for “Hand In Hand,” which is very piano-driven, and – to my ears – is the most Springsteen-y song on the album. The lyrics are a bit sad-sack, and while it has a nice melody, I miss the guitar. As for the song “Les Boys,” it has some guitar, but it’s a too oompah-sounding for me, and even though I’m a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the lyrics are too repetitive and pointless. (Okay, they’re glad to be gay – and?)

I prefer the solid rock sound of “Solid Rock,” Dire Straits’s version of hard rock.

This is the Dire Straits’ version of hard rock, with a driving pulse and Knopfler nearly shouting his lyrics. (He never really sings). It’s all chugging piano and guitars, and he throws in cool little guitar stuff – like the first time he sings “Long will live/Solid Rock” in each chorus, he does a little “blip” sound (first heard about 0:43), which I just love. Although its shouted title sounds like a fist-pumping salute to the longevity of rock and roll43, the Solid Rock in this song is actual rock: sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, albeit used as a metaphor for human relationships. Knopfler plays a deftly intricate solo, as usual, and the song seems to end too soon.

I love Mark Knopfler’s distinctive guitar playing. When I’m thinking about guitar players I love, his name doesn’t immediately pop into my head, but when I listen to Making Movies, I remember just how much I love his style. (And when I think about him doing it all without using a pick, I’m astonished!) It’s the same way with baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount – except for the part about using a pick. I love that different people can be so good at doing the the same thing, yet do that thing in a style they share with no one else. It speaks to both the individual and the communal nature of human beings. And it brings lots of joy to fans like me.

Track Listing:
“Tunnel of Love”
“Romeo and Juliet”
“Skateaway”
“Expresso Love”
“Hand In Hand”
“Solid Rock”
“Les Boys”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

43rd Favorite Album

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The Royal Scam. Steely Dan.
1976, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Purchased, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriters/maestros Walter Becker and Donald Fagen once again create jazz-influenced rock (or rock-influenced jazz?) and make it great by hiring the best studio musicians around. On this album, the pair turns loose several excellent guitarists who make the album a joy for a guitar fan like me. It’s sometimes funky, sometimes mellow, but always full of amazing drums, bass and guitar. And Fagen’s distinctive voice carries each song, making it a terrific listen time and time again.

NEW: Read some background next, below the line ↓ … Or skip right to the album review!
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I love to be impressed. When I see some amazing performance or incredible demonstration by some other human – whether it’s artistic or scientific or weird or silly – I get excited. I get a buzz, a vibration, and I’m happy all day. I tell my friends. A lot. Too much. In fact, I become that gushing, annoying, blathering friend who tells you so many times how amazing something is that you end up thinking “I never want to see that thing, just ’cause he was so annoying about it.”

Because I love the feeling of being impressed, I probably get impressed too easily. I have to be careful that I don’t fall for hype. (I may or may not have exclaimed in the early aughts that The Vines44 were going to be a household name.) But I try to be discerning – as much as I’m impressed by, say, the career of The Coen Brothers, I was able to recognize that Hail, Caesar! was crap. (But only after I saw it on opening weekend.)

Certain people and events and performances have impressed me so much that I carry that feeling of wonder at what I’ve seen around with me to this day. Even things I saw as a child have stuck with me. Here is a list of some of the people, events, performances that spring to mind when I think of what’s impressed me over the years.

Bo Jackson. Holy moley. He was an all star in two professional sports. And while he did strike out too much in his baseball career, that just means he was ahead of his time! (Or, possibly, that he was a better hitter than we thought!) He played during a time when I wasn’t following either MLB or the NFL very closely, but he was so supremely impressive that I still remember where I was when I heard he wouldn’t play football or baseball45 ever again; and I remember having a long conversation about it with another person who didn’t follow sports, who was also shocked by the news. Watch the ESPN 30 For 30 about him to get a sense of why he was so impressive. It wasn’t just his feats, it was also his humility46.

The Monty Python Long Name Sketch. Since I first saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS as an eleven year old I’ve been impressed by almost everything I’ve seen them do. But for the combination of humor and smarts and just sheer “Holy crap! How’d they do that??!” astonishment, there is little to compare with the feature on Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumble-meyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitzweimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönendanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm. As with many sketches, this one doesn’t finish as strongly as it begins, but seeing the boys repeat that name over and over – I thought my 13 year old head was gonna explode! And I still feel that way about it.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. This lengthy novel is by no means my favorite book47, however it was the most IMPRESSIVE book I’ve read. It combined history, future, science, engineering, politics, finance and the computer revolution into a generation-spanning story about … security. That’s right, he made the mundane details of security – codes, passwords, locks – fascinating by including them in a spellbinding mystery. The breadth and depth of Stephenson’s knowledge, and his ability to bring it all together into a fast-paced 1,000-page (gasp) novel was, well, impressive!

Julia (my wife). (Self-portrait, age 8.) I’ve known her for 24 years, and I’m still impressed almost every day. She can do anything – from planning, cooking food for and hosting a party for 100 people to winning every game we play. Mother, potter, gardener, environmental expert … there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s about the best athlete I’ve ever known, too. Played lacrosse with the men in college; and at her brother’s pre-wedding golf outing hit a straight drive down the fairway on the first golf swing she ever took, then beat half the guys there despite never playing the game before. (I did beat her by a couple strokes.)

Penn and Teller. Back in college in the late 80s I probably annoyed more people, and turned off more potential fans, over this duo than anyone else on this list. I know that because I was once told by a college roommate, “Shut the fuck up about Penn & Teller already, okay?!” They were funny, they were different, they were smart, they were amazing … I saw them first on David Letterman, saw them live in 1992, and continue to catch their act on TV and computer whenever I can.

Brittany Howard. It was my sister who first sent me a text asking if I’d heard Alabama Shakes yet. Then I found a link to their breakthrough song, “Hold On,” and I watched a radio station performance of it a million and a half times, and I was hooked. I saw the band in concert and they did not disappoint. Brittany plays guitar, she belts and wails, her band plays bluesy rock … The band’s second album, Sound and Color, is even better than the first.

Star Wars. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade when it was released, so I was even more easily impressed then than I am today. And even though I wasn’t really a space-kid, and I’d never been interested in shows like Star Trek or Space:1999, the fighting and effects and action of Star Wars blew me away. (Plus, it’s the only movie my dad ever took me to see, so that’s another reason I loved it.) The feeling was short-lived, though: by the time The Empire Strikes Back was released, I wasn’t even interested in seeing it.

Others Receiving Votes: 1) Live shows of Pearl Jam, Guided By Voices, Buffalo Tom, Elvis Costello and The Attractions (Fabulous Spinning Songbook). 2) Jackie Chan. 3) Gary Gulman. 4) Lady GaGa (because of Howard Stern performances and appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

Steely Dan. The first time I heard Steely Dan, I thought they were scary. Actually, let me rephrase that: the first time I heard a song written by Steely Dan, I thought they were scary48. In the 70s, those simpler times before ads for in-home catheters and new, weird pharmaceuticals filled the television airwaves, companies like K-Tel and Ronco sold compilation albums via TV commercials, just like Sham-Wow® and Flex Seal®. My sisters and I were big-time consumers of these records. We didn’t care that they were lousy compilations, featuring either a) the original songs cut down to two-and-a-half minutes to cram as many as possible onto one LP; or b) the songs “as recorded by” studio musicians. In both cases, the deal from the record company was this: “you give us a couple of bucks, we’ll give you crappy versions of your favorite songs.” My sisters and I thought it was a bargain.

Some of these albums had catchy names, like Get It On! or Sound Explosion. We bought those albums, and we also bought the more mundanely titled Today’s Greatest Hits49, which featured hit songs as performed by some dudes called “The Realistics,” and a mis-titled version of Steely Dan’s big hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” For some reason the 7 year old me found that song – with its minor key, lyrical warning and use of some instrument called a “Flapamba” – quite spooky.

As I’ve written before, I got into Steely Dan by finding the album Aja in my eldest sister’s record collection. The band seemed adult and mysterious and they played catchy tunes. I eventually listened more closely to the musicians and was blown away by their virtuosity. Songwriters/bandleaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hired the best studio musicians around and drove them mercilessly to achieve brilliance in their performance. I began buying Steely Dan albums, then went to college and met Dr. Dave, who was equally enamored with the musicianship on display – particularly the guitar work. They quickly became one more thing we bonded over.

The Royal Scam bowled me over right away, with a catchy song I’d heard on AOR radio a few times but hadn’t paid close attention to, “Kid Charlemagne.”

The opening drums and slightly dissonant electric piano opening the song provide a sense of anticipation. Then Fagen starts singing, and Chuck Rainey’s funky bass line begins. One aspect of Steely Dan music that’s often overlooked is the fact that they have many truly funky songs, and hiring musicians like Rainey is one of the reasons why. His bass line propels the song with just enough bounce and space; (check out the 6 seconds beginning at 0:40 to hear for yourself!) and together with drummer Bernard Purdie makes the song swing. Fagen himself was voted as the sixth most funkiest white boy in music, ahead of Justin Timberlake (!), in Complex magazine, and the touches he and two other keyboardists add – seemingly stray chords here and there – embellish the groove-fest. But the song kicks into top gear when Larry Carlton’s guitar enters the fray, at about 2:00. His solo that follows, beginning about 2:18, is angular and brilliant, sounding like it’s done only on the “black notes” of a keyboard (and given my lack of musical knowledge, maybe it is!). When the third verse begins, Carlton continues soloing behind the rest of the song, finishing with a fury beginning about 3:50. The funky drums and bass and the scorching guitar – if you’ve read any other posts of mine, you know these are the great triumvirate of musical excellence for me. Add in Fagen’s great phrasing on terrific lyrics about an aging LSD manufacturer, and it’s no wonder this is one of my favorite all-time songs.

Another exhibit in the Steely Dan Funk-orama is the terrific “Green Earrings,” a song so excellent the band needed TWO guitar players to perform the solos!

It’s another Chuck Rainey groove, with genius submerged but evident in its apparent simplicity. He and Purdie again work together perfectly. Where “Kid Charlemagne” had a sort of gritty feel, “Green Earrings” has more of a mellow groove, but the guitar work by Denny Dias and Elliott Randall is just as wonderful as Carlton’s. The song is more or less a jazz piece written to showcase the soloing of the pair. While many Steely Dan songs’ lyrics are spare or confusing, these seem like they were made up on the spot just to keep the song from being an instrumental. (The song “The Fez,” seemingly about condoms, also follows this path.) Two mellow solos, one around 2:06, and a second around 2:30 are jazzy but tough, giving a song a lift out of Yacht Rock territory. As does the outro solo, beginning about 3:19. The guitar touches throughout the song, such as the barely arpeggiated chords following the words “Greek” and “medallions,” at around 1:10, make me very happy.

There’s a groove to Steely Dan even in the songs that aren’t as upbeat. For example, “The Caves of Altamira,” a meditation on the role of art, and humankind’s innate desire to create. It’s a mellow song with sweet chord progressions that sound very much like jazz to my untrained ears, particularly the passage that links the chorus back to the verse, for example at 1:12. (Read more here to see what one trained person thinks.) Rainey and Purdie funk up the chorus quite nicely, but it’s very much a horn-based song, and I’m less interested in sax solos than I am in guitar solos.

Steely Dan bring the guitar for damn sure in the song “Don’t Take Me Alive,” another favorite of mine that once again features the fabulous Larry Carlton on guitar.

From the very beginning this song is all about the guitar, with a nasty opening chord and a dirty-sounding solo. It’s a song about a dangerous criminal on the run, sung from the perspective of the criminal who crossed his old man back in Oregon. The melody, rather perversely, is very much a catchy sing-along, inviting the listener to belt out about his “case of dynamite.” Carlton adds nice guitar touches throughout, and his snaky little solo at about 3 minutes signals a breakdown, the type Dan throws into many songs, and that always sound useful, not lazy50. Carlton subtly solos along to a satisfying end.

With so many excellent studio musicians on board, it’s not surprising that Becker and Fagen would want to feature them, and the perfect song for this showcasing is the odd and brilliant “Sign In Stranger.”

A major part of rock and jazz music is improvised soloing, and this piece features the late Paul Griffin on piano and Elliot Randall on guitar, dueling within verses in a song about a distant land (planet??) filled with gangsters51. It’s got a laid-back bounce, with plenty of space for cool fills and noodles by the pair. Griffin’s piano in verse 1 is nice, but I get a big smile every time I hear Randall enter on guitar at 0:45. Each verse adds background vocals, building to the “just another scurvy brother” line at 2:46 (a favorite of mine and Dr. Dave’s!), where Griffin throws in a terrific piano solo, only to be outdone again (in my opinion; I’m a guitar guy) by Randall beginning at 3:37. The way Griffin and Randall work together throughout the piece is amazing: conjuring a yo-yo; answering a reference to Turkish union dues – despite the fact that nobody knows what that means. It’s evident on “Sign In Stranger” why Fagen and Becker hired the best musicians.

Steely Dan’s lyrics are oftentimes inscrutable, but they are frequently funny, as well. The funniest lyrics on this album are from the excellent, reggae-ish, talk-box fueled “Haitian Divorce.”

The song tells the story of lovers “Babs and Clean Willie,” whose love burned hot, but faded quickly – sending Babs to the island where, well, let’s just say seeds are sewn. The feature solo this time is by Dean Parks, playing a squonky guitar that sounds terrific (even though some jazz purists don’t agree.) Fagen’s vocals are particularly good on this one, on a melody with quite a range. The song is kind of goofy, but it still hit the top 20 in the U.K. And I like it despite/because of the goofiness!

The Royal Scam ends with two mid-tempo songs. “Everything You Did,” is a bitter confrontation with a cheating lover. It has great guitar from Larry Carlton (of course!), and a sly reference to country-rockers The Eagles. The title track is a swirling, sinister lament about the difficulties of immigrants in a new land. It’s a lengthy piece, with solo trumpet and strong backing vocals, and it ends the album on a dark note: not negative, just dark.

I remain impressed by both Steely Dan and The Royal Scam. I don’t require that albums feature either excellent musicianship or jazz chops to make my list of favorites. But Steely Dan do have both, and they put them together in a funky, groovy style that I love. On top of it all, on The Royal Scam they set the bar high for guitar-based rock, with songs that feature both the power and the grace of the electric guitar. I will always love to be impressed, and I’ll find something new to impress the shit out of me tomorrow. But I’m sure I’ll always remain blown away by Becker and Fagen.

The Royal Scam
TRACK LISTING:
“Kid Charlemagne”
“The Caves of Altamira”
“Don’t Take Me Alive”
“Sign In Stranger”
“The Fez”
“Green Earrings”
“Haitian Divorce”
“Everything You Did”
“The Royal Scam”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

44th Favorite Album

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Learning To Crawl. The Pretenders.
1984, Sire Records. Producer: Chris Thomas.
Gift (cassette), 1984. Purchased CD, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: A record with driving, punk-spirited songs with strangely grown-up lyrics about aging, parenthood and loss. But Chrissie Hynde’s terrific voice and songwriting, and cool guitar from Robbie McIntosh and Billy Bremner, keep the record from being a downer. It’s a rarity – an album I still love, but now for different reasons.
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Big sisters get a bad rap in modern media. They’re generally portrayed as mean, conniving, dissatisfied, misunderstood, dangerous, violent … Well, I’m here today to say that in real life, big sisters are pretty frickin’ awesome. I have two terrific ones, and none of the words above describe them (typically). They’ve been important in many ways, including how they’ve helped inform my 100 Favorite Albums! They’ve both been responsible for several of the albums directly, and indirectly they’re responsible for all of them: for they’re the first two people whose musical tastes I tried to emulate and, later, influence.

I’m the youngest of three kids, and I have two older sisters. I’m five years younger than Anne and three years younger than Liz.

The author (in blue) begins his indoctrination into sibling dynamics.

The kids in every family52 have their own special dynamic, a mode of interaction passed on through the brood that sets boundaries on things like appropriate deference, teasing, displays of emotion, connectedness and play. The results of these dynamics are evident to all. Some families have raucous, screaming kids; some families have quiet, reserved kids; some hang out in a big bunch; some appear to be single children unaware of the siblings around them.

I’d venture to say that in all cases the rules of engagement among the kids are set by the eldest child. This is only fair, since the eldest child is the one who was so rudely stripped of her role as the lone sponge in an ever-widening, depthless pool of parental love; forced to not only share that ocean of affection with others but also to pretend that half an ocean – then a third, and a fourth, etc, depending on how many more damn smelly babies that formerly fawning, duplicitous duo called parents decides to keep bringing home – is just as good as a whole ocean, as if she can’t do simple arithmetic.

There was a trio of brothers in my neighborhood, The Poetzel boys, and they were on one extreme of this spectrum of sibling conduct, with an eldest son, Deaner, who clearly had never accepted the division of his ocean. Their parents both worked, which was still rather unusual in my mid-70s, rural Pennsylvania town, and sometimes after school they’d be locked out of their house for an hour or so. They’d spend the afternoon on their back patio screaming, shoving, fist-fighting, throwing rocks and slinging weaponized buckles at each other in bloody belt-fights. These melees frequently ended with Deaner crying frantic tears of regret as he attempted CPR learned from the TV show Emergency! on a younger brother who likely learned how to feign unconsciousness from watching the same show.

In my family the eldest child didn’t view us new ocean dwellers as combatants to be dominated and subdued, but as vulnerable neighbors in need of guidance and instruction. If this sounds like a euphemistic description for “bossiness,” I don’t mean it to be. I never thought she was bossy – I thought she was the coolest eldest sibling a kid could have – creative, fun, exciting and full of love. She still is!

My other sister and I often talk about how lucky we were to have such a big sister. Her creativity made playtime exciting! For example: the three of us often played Barbies, in which my job was to handle many of the leading male roles with my G.I. Joes. (As a hearty, red-blooded, five year-old boy, I insisted on calling the game “G.I. Joes,” not “Barbies.”) At some point my sisters got a Barbie-sized Supermarket, which included Barbie-sized packages of frozen foods and other products. My big sister, using cardboard and markers, designed and produced dozens of products for sale at the store, with individualized product names and brand names and packaging designs and advertising campaigns and jingles.

The fun of playtime was always what was going on inside our heads, and Anne would plunk real stuff into our imaginations every time we were together. Whether it was playing school in our basement “classroom” surrounded by individually hand-drawn class photos hung on the wall of each of the thirty students; or decorating an HO gauge train set at Christmas time, watching her deftly build Olmsted-quality backyards, farm pastures and a baseball field with colored, sprinkled dust; or walking our Barbies (I mean G.I. Joes!!!) into the 6′ x 6′ house she built on a slab of ply-wood my dad cut, onto which she had glued linoleum and carpet remnants, drew and shellacked hardwood floors, erected walls of cardboard that were painted and wallpapered and hung with lights and shelving, with doorways cut appropriately between rooms; a house that in the end seemed almost too beautifully museum-quality to actually tramp combat boots throughout.

When I got a little older, both of my sisters joined the Disco Revolution and went dancing on weekend nights instead of playing G.I. Joes with me. By then she was in high school, and even though we didn’t play anymore, she did have a crate of albums that had a huge impact on me. She continued to be cool and creative, and still did remarkable things as she got older, like move across the country to Yosemite National Park as a barely-in-her-20s young woman – the sort of move I’d never known anyone to ever do, except for people who’d joined the Army.

During her time in California (and before that, while she was away at college), in my teenaged brain, she seemed like an unknowable Goddess – a figure I’d worshiped since childhood and who sent me gifts and spoke to me sometimes, but who I figured I would never – could never – really know. Her gifts and communications were like blessings. For example, when the Preppy Look was in style in the 80s, and I was raging against it in my head – mainly because I knew I was too chubby and too self-conscious to try a new style, and those fashionable clothes were well out of my family’s price range, anyway – she sent me a modest yet stylish striped sweater that fit me and looked good, allowing me to experience a bit of modern fashion and, more importantly, a bit of self-esteem. When she visited during my season of JV basketball, she watched me play, then weeks later sent photos she’d taken of the game – proof that my dreamlike experience as a bonafide high school athlete who earned some playing time wasn’t just a dream.

We didn’t speak much, as long-distance phone calls were pricey back then53, but she sent us cards and letters. And she sent gifts. She sent the gift of music.

And just as she didn’t ask me if I wanted that sweater, she didn’t ask me what kind of music I liked. She’d just send me cassettes that she thought I should hear. The first one I remember getting was Speaking in Tongues, by Talking Heads. Their hit “Burning Down the House” was huge on MTV at the time, and I’d seen them perform on David Letterman, but I wasn’t really a fan. And even though I was probably bummed that she hadn’t sent me an old Rush cassette, I listened and found I really liked it. She later sent me a cassette of The Pretenders’ self-titled debut, which we’d listened to in her sweet ’64 Mustang before she moved away.

Another one I got from her around that time featured a song she’d told me about during a phone call or a visit, a song I’d never heard, but that she thought summed up her life as an aging 21-year-old quite nicely: “Watching the Clothes.” The album was Learning to Crawl, by The Pretenders, and even though I’d already heard a lot of the songs on the radio54 I couldn’t get enough of it. My Goddess sister had delivered once again.

I’d been a huge Pretenders fan since I started watching MTV. (Ok, more precisely, I was a huge Chrissie Hynde fan.) But by the time 1984 rolled around, those early MTV days of 1981 seemed like ages ago to me. And so much had happened to the band in the interim: in 1982 original bassist Pete Farndon was fired by the band over his drug use; two days later 25 year-old guitarist James Honeyman-Scott55 died of a heart attack from too much cocaine; then a few months later, Farndon himself died of a heroin overdose. Band leader Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were forced to start over amid all that emotional trauma, and Learning to Crawl was the introduction of the new band.

“Watching the Clothes” seemed strange to me as a teenager: a song about watching laundry? But even though the lyrics seemed odd, I liked the song.

I still do, particularly the solos guitarist Robbie McIntosh rips through. Beginning at 0:58 he plays a simple ascending chromatic scale that amps up the energy and builds the tension until the band re-enters. At about 1:46 he tears off a sort of rockabilly solo that carries the song to its riff-coda ending. Throughout the whole song, Chambers plays a beat that sounds very washing machine-esque. It’s a punk-y song, for sure, aggressive and intense, but it’s about … watching laundry? But maybe there’s a reason for that …

As a huge MTV watcher, the first song I ever heard from this album was the classic “Back On The Chain Gang.” The video was played constantly in the fall of 1982. (The song was released as a single before the entire album was finished recording.) It’s a touching song about the death of Honeyman-Scott, and it’s one of those rare songs that’s gotten better with age.

The song has a bit of a honky-tonk feel, and Tony Butler56 plays a bass line that conjures hard work the way the song “Working In A Coal Mine” did. Billy Bremner57 plays a countrified guitar riff that makes the song, and throws in nice harmonics (about 2:00) that I always listen for. Great song that it is musically, it’s the lyrics and subject-matter (a lost friend, and moving forward) that have made the song improve with age: the more people you meet in life, the more you cherish those for whom you can say “…a break in the battle was your part … in the wretched life of a lonely heart.”

It’s a great song, but what happened to the rockin’ band who sang “Stop snivelin’! You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man!?” Perhaps I can find that punk spirit on the driving, souped-up hit “Middle Of The Road.”

This song has one of the great openings in rock, Martin Chambers’s tumbling drums into those unmistakeable three chords. The guitar riff is busy but cool, and the backing hoots are sing-along fun. Hynde’s vocals are some of her gruff’n’sweet best, snapping out long strings of words about growing older, growing up. Chambers’s excellent, driving drums really command the song, which builds to a creative solo by McIntosh, at 1:42. The band sounds like they’re having fun, as Hynde counts them back into the final verse, through her harmonica-solo closing, which starts with a grunt and a sort of meow. It’s a terrific song, even though she sings “I ain’t the cat I used to be/ I got a kid, I’m thirty-three!” which doesn’t sound too punk. But hold on, I’m starting to recognize a pattern … So these lyrics on these songs … why … I believe they’re all about getting OLD!!! No wonder I’ve liked this record more and more as I’ve gotten older!

No song on the record is more obviously about aging than the fantastic “Time The Avenger,” which, even as a teenager, has always been my favorite song on the album.

Right away, the drums and riff give the feeling of time, constantly ticking. Hynde uses her sultry voice58 to tell the story of an aging Lothario who’s beginning to realize it’s all slipping away, who’s wondering whether it all had a point. I love the guitar harmony as the second verse starts, and I love the chorus, how Chambers deftly moves the band through the syncopation (at 1:48) of the “Time, time, hear the bells chime” vocals. And the guitar behind the chorus vocals is really cool, particularly the harmonics at about 2:13. Former Pretenders guitarist Honeyman-Scott had a style all his own, using chords, arpeggios and harmonics where others might play runs, and Robbie McIntosh does an amazing impression of him on this song.

On “Middle Of The Road,” Hynde briefly addressed parenthood, and on a couple other songs she dives deeply into the topic. “Show Me” is a song that sounds a bit soft at first, but that’s grown on me since the first listen way back when – and now that I’m a parent, it can at times weirdly cause me to get a bit verklempt.

Despite its rather casual, light pop sound, the bass line is really cool and Chambers’s distinctive drum fills are notable throughout. McIntosh’s guitar has a shimmery delay, and he plays with a very Pete Buck of R.E.M. style. Hynde’s voice is beautiful, but it’s the words that get me – particularly since I’ve been a parent. If you’re a parent, or an auntie, or have had a special baby/toddler in your life, this song presents all the wishes you have for that child – what you want for the child, and what you want FROM the child – in a world that, as we age through it, can very often feel like it’s gone down the shitter. And those wishes boil down to one word: Love.

The song Thumbelina also treads in this territory, describing a road trip with a child set against a sweet country swing. Even though I loved this record as a teenager, the wisdom of lyrics like “What’s important in this life?/ Ask the man who’s lost his wife” were lost on me. I didn’t care about the song meanings, I just liked the rock. And now, as a 50 year old, I can especially appreciate these reports from adulthood – even when they turn a bit curmudgeonly. Such as on the excellent groove, and growth-at-all-cost shaming, of “My City Was Gone.”

The bass line, again by Tony Butler, is a classic as is the bluesy soloing by Billy Bremner. The lyrics are once again about growing older, the frustration over the loss of childhood and its memories. Bremner uses harmonics beautifully and his solo at about 2:38 is classic.

There are a few songs on the album that I can take or leave. “I Hurt You” has some cool vocal tricks and a menacing tone, but doesn’t meet the standard of the rest of the album. “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” is a cover that is done well, much like a satisfactory bar-band can pull off a cover, but that I generally skip. The closing song, however, is one for the ages – if you don’t mind Christmas songs.

“2000 Miles” has a lovely guitar figure throughout, with a chiming effect that makes the quick run played before the verse (0:33) sound terrific. But the star of this song is Hynde’s amazing voice, pulling such feats as singing two words, “He’s gone,” and easily stretching them across 5 beats and about 10 syllables in a way that makes the song a challenge for other singers. From the very beginning, Chrissie Hynde has been an extremely talented vocalist, and this song, about a lover far away for the holidays, demonstrates she’s still got the chops.

Learning To Crawl is remarkable for tackling grown-up subject matter in its lyrics while retaining the band’s youthful, punk-y aesthetic59. I liked it as a teenager, and I like it today. I still like the way it rocks, but I also appreciate it for different, old-man-type reasons, too. It’s a rare record that can accomplish that trick!

I’ve gotten to know my sister much better over the years than I did as a child. We’ve grown closer – all three of us siblings have. She’s no longer unknowable – she’s now just totally lovable! When she sent me this cassette over 30 years ago, I don’t think she was sending a message about life. I expect she just knew a good record when she heard it. But who can truly know the ways of the Goddess?

The author's eldest sister, still cool after all these years.

TRACK LISTING:
“Middle Of The Road”
“Back On The Chain Gang”
“Time The Avenger”
“Watching The Clothes”
“Show Me”
“Thumbelina”
“My City Was Gone”
“Thin Line Between Love And Hate”
“I Hurt You”
“2000 Miles”

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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.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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 Limulus60, 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 shift61 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 beneath62. 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 luck63; 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 band64 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 faith65. 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 great66, 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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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!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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 legitimate67 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 genius68. 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 Beatles69” 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 it70. 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 him71. 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 opening72, 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 load73. 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!”74

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.75” 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 Asylum76.

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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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, Madness77, 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 acts78 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 fun79. 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 Berry80

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 tape81. 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” DLR82-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 genius83 of a song like “Dirty Movies,” allowing you to either laugh off or fully embrace the song’s juvenile reflection on pornography and its performers84.

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 album85, 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 director86 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