16th Favorite: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams

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Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Lucinda Williams.
1998, Mercury Records. Producers: Roy Bittan, Steve Earle, Ray Kennedy, Lucinda Williams.
Purchased, 1998.

IN A NUTSHELL: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams, is 13 songs about love and life sung by a voice with the heart and soul to match the emotional depth of its lyrics. I call it a country record, as it has the twang and pedal steel and world-weariness one expects of the genre, but I got into it because of its rock ‘n roll heart. Williams paints pictures of the jubilance of life, even when it’s found in heartache and loss.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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So I guess by this point, 84 albums into my list of my 100 favorite, plus a handful of others I somehow missed, it’s pretty easy to see where my tastes in music lie. There’s not a whole heckuva lot of variety. A tiny bit of soul, a hard rock album or two, a bit of retro garage rock, a dash of prog rock, some Rush, some Steely Dan and an odd jazz/dance hybrid. Besides those records, the list has pretty much been pop/rock 101: guitar/drums/bass with catchy melodies, the basic template set down, then expanded upon, by The Beatles.

I decided early on that my list was going to be confined to the rock/pop genre. The reason for this is pretty simple: I don’t listen to a whole lot else. Well, that’s not exactly true. What’s true is that I’m not invested in other types of music like I am with rock/pop. I like some stuff from other musical genres, but I’ve never felt the urge to dive in deeply, to compare artists and albums, and really consider the creativity and drive that goes into other musical types. Other than rock, I’m quite sure I couldn’t even name 100 albums in any genre.

But I do have favorites! So why don’t I do a little rundown of some of my favorite albums in non-rock categories? I’m by no means an expert in any of these categories – these are just albums I like.

JAZZ
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis. From talking to some folks who are jazz aficionados – at a couple parties, at a record store1, at a concert or two – I understand that this album has been a victim of its own success, an obvious selection akin to picking “Yesterday” as your favorite Beatles song. But damn, “Yesterday” is a fine song! I’ve listened to Kind of Blue a million times and I still love it.

Criss-Cross, Thelonious Monk. This record floored me with its oddly beautiful piano sounds coupled with driving, complex rhythms. I haven’t heard the Thelonious Monk recording yet that I haven’t enjoyed. I found his sound so unique and inspiring that I named my kid after him!

CLASSICAL
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and “Posthorn” Serenade. Sir Charles Makkeras Prague Chamber Orchestra. There is no genre of music on which I am a less-credible source of appreciation and information than Classical Music. It can sound boring to me, and even when I try to concentrate on it, I find that invariably it somehow morphs into background music for my asinine thoughts about baseball players, funny 80s movies, Columbo plots and The Beatles. However, I do own a few classical records, and this is the one I usually pull out if I’m going to play something. I like Mozart. I don’t think he has too many notes. A relative who has classical music bone fides told me this version by the Prague Chamber Orchestra is the best version, so I took his word for it and bought it.

HIP-HOP
Three Feet High and Rising. De La Soul. Other than Classical, there is no genre of music on which I am a less-credible source of appreciation and information than Hip-Hop. My Hip-Hop appreciation was a bloom on the Century Plant of popular music, briefly appearing, only to go dormant for generations to come. De La Soul’s clever, twisted Three Feet High and Rising sounded like 60s hippies took over a recording studio, which meant song after song that I could hum along to.

The Low End Theory, by A Tribe Called Quest, was similar to Three Feet High and Rising in that it sounded like nothing else that I’d heard to that point – except for the jazz that it sampled. These samples created a smooth yet funky sound that warranted repeated listenings. I liked the three personalities in the act. Plus, they introduced the world to Busta Rhymes.

FOLK MUSIC
Landscape of Ghosts. Rob Siegel. It was Louis Armstrong himself who said, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” I find folk music hard to categorize, it can cover so much. Plus I don’t listen to it much on record – I much prefer to see it performed live, as it’s such a personal style of music. And my favorite performer is Rob Siegel, whose recent Landscape of Ghosts is the rare folk record I’ll sit and listen to.

REGGAE
Funky Kingston. Toots and the Maytals. I saw Toots and the Maytals live about 8 years ago, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen. He was about 70 years old, and he danced and sang and had the crowd in a frenzy. He was like the James Brown of Reggae. So I bought a bunch of his records, and this is the one I like the best. It includes the title track, “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop,” and my favorite, “Sailin’ On.”

GHANA HIGHLIFE
Ghana Special: Modern Highlife & Ghanian Blues 1968-81. Okay, okay, I know even less about Ghana Highlife music than I do Classical or Hip-Hop. I heard a song by Nigerian musician Sir Victor Uwaifo on a Sirius XM Radio show hosted by Julian Casablancas. This sent me down a rabbit hole of African guitar pop music from the 60s and 70s, and I found this compilation album. I know compilation albums are ineligible, but songs like Kai Wawa and Sei Nazo are so good, I had to include it.

KIDS MUSIC
Here Come the ABC’s and Here Come the 123’s. They Might Be Giants. Kids music can be really, really annoying, but when you’re a parent and you see your kid so happy listening and dancing to, say The Wiggles, you let it slide. TMBG, though, released kids’ albums that adults could love. Songs about letters and numbers (and more numbers!) that sounded a lot like the songs they always made for adults.

COMEDY
Comedy isn’t music (usually), I understand that, but it’s a type of album I love! Here are a few tied for #1 favorite all time: Shame-Based Man, by Bruce McCulloch. Class Clown, by George Carlin. Strategic Grill Locations, by Mitch Hedberg. Rant in E Minor, by Bill Hicks. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart.

So, what do you notice about all those records? (Besides the fact that for someone who likes music enough to write about it, I sure do have a limited appreciation of the subject.) Do you notice there are no Country & Western albums? This may appear to be an oversight, until you notice that I’m now writing about the fact that there aren’t any Country & Western records on the list, proving it’s not an oversight. The simple reason for its exclusion is this: I dislike Country & Western music.

Okay, okay, that’s a pretty broad statement. The fact is, one of the albums on my list, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison2, is a straight-up Country & Western album. But unlike the white guy at a Trump rally who offers proof of his lack of bigotry by pointing out he works “with a Latin guy,” I’m aware of my biases. And I’m biased against Country music.

I’ve been called an idiot, obstinate, pointed out as a hypocrite for holding uninformed opinions while at the same time chastising others who are willfully ignorant. And I plead guilty to all of these charges. I am well-aware of the fact that my dislike of Country & Western music has nothing to do with the music itself, and everything to do with me and my perceptions.

Sure, I admit, I enjoyed Hee-Haw as a boy in the 70s. Hee-Haw was sort of the dumb cousin to the hip, smart Laugh-In that made my parents laugh so much. I didn’t always “get” Laugh-In back then, but the simple jokes, silly songs and scantily-clad women of Hee-Haw were easily understood by an 8 year-old boy like me. By the time I was about 10, I couldn’t stand its formulaic, obvious yuk-yuks anymore.

The show really played up the “down-home” nature of the Country-Western lifestyle, which I read (and continue to read) as “stupid.” “Down-home”-ness is characterized by a willingness to be willfully obtuse, to cling to the past in a way that seems childish, and to reject learning and education. It values the “simple wisdom” of lessons learned from family, from church and in the field – as opposed to, you know, from research and study. “It was below 0 for two days. What happened to ‘Global Warming’?” is an example of “simple wisdom.” Or “stupidity.”

What I failed to realize about Hee-Haw, however, was that its hosts, Buck Owens and – particularly – Roy Clark, were terrific musicians! Buck Owens wrote songs for Ray Charles and others, was name-checked by John Fogerty, and had 21 no. 1 Country hits3. And Roy Clark … well, just watch the following link: Roy Clark is friggin’ amazing. Spend time finding Roy clark guitar videos; you won’t be disappointed. (By the way, Clark passed away just a couple weeks ago.)

The point is that the music is separate from whatever “down home,” and other objectionable culture surrounds the music. I should really be able to de-link my appreciation of the music from all the other bullshit. And I keep trying. I’ve been listening to the Outlaw Country station on Sirius/XM radio sometimes. I continue to love Johnny Cash. I thought I was making progress. I was challenged a few years ago by a friend on my lack of appreciation of Country music, and I brought up the fact that I love Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

I was informed that “That’s not Country!!” And the truth is, I first heard a song from the album on a San Francisco rock radio4 station in 1998. At that point I’d have immediately rejected anything I thought was “Country.” I was around 30, feeling old, and trying to stay connected to rock music. I bought great albums by Radiohead and Cornershop around that time, and when I heard “Can’t Let Go,” from Lucinda Williams, I went out and bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, too.

The thing is, “Can’t Let Go” sounds “Country-Rock,” but not really “Country.” It’s in the vein of some songs by Linda Ronstadt or early-era Eagles.

It’s got a finger-picking intro with a strong backbeat, then a second guitar enters. In all, three guitars end up bouncing between the speakers as Williams’ sultry voice stings of a love she can’t leave behind. Throughout the album, Williams voice – its phrasing, its many colors – is the star. I love her little subtleties, like in the second verse where she hangs onto the “sh” sound in “feel like I been shot and didn’t fall down.” And I love the guitars. Around 1:44, there’s a slide guitar solo that becomes a slide guitar duet, and it’s terrific.

There’s a bit of swamp-rock to that song, like a Creedence Clearwater Revival kind of vibe. Another in this vein is the slow grind of “Joy,” a song that wants its joy back!

The song once again features great guitar. This time four guitarists appear, including Steve Earle (on Resonator Guitar), Gurf Morlix, Johnny Lee Schell and Bo Ramsay. The four guitars are a reflection of Williams’s reported perfectionism, her desire to achieve a final product that meets her high standards – characteristics not appreciated by everyone. But spending time and money on a song as simple as “Joy” (I think there’s only one chord in the entire song?) to achieve this final product is okay by me. The fabulous solos after the choruses (1:20, 2:09, 3:02) are alone worth all the studio heartache!

In addition to the guitars, I really love Lucinda’s lyrics. She has a gift of conjuring in the listener’s mind a time and place, and many of these scenes are familiar to me. She grew up in Southern U.S. college towns in the 60s; I grew up in rural PA in the 70s; but there are experiences that we seem to have shared, as heard on the title track.

It’s a song whose lyrics evoke memories of my childhood – we even had a sort-of-gravel road adjacent to our home. When you’re a child, events have little context so the memories are purely experiential. Breakfast cooking, going for a car ride to some other town, views from car windows, crying in the backseat. There’s no reason why, it all just happened. The melody is catchy and cries out to be sung by the listener, which has the effect of instilling those lyrics in one’s brain, which makes them all the more like ingrained childhood memories.

As with the childhood memories of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten” brings forth thoughts of warm nights of young adulthood, meeting folks at a bar with no place to be.

Williams used words from real signs she saw in real bars to create a mood, and the subtle dual guitars beautifully help to set the scene. It’s got a relaxed groove, and the slight guitar solo around 2:40 sounds nice. The guitars throughout the album are deliciously subtle. On “Drunken Angel,” a tribute to Country artist Blaze Foley (and other lost-soul musicians) they chime like R.E.M. On “Lake Charles,” a song about long-held desires, guitars twang and twirl and mix with accordion sweetly. The harmonies on this song tug at one’s heart, as well.

It sounds like Country music to me. Take the song “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” a valentine to a loved one in prison.

This is a song that could make me love Country and Western music. Williams’s voice is made for this type of sad lament. And the song is built so that with each verse a new instrument is added. It begins with a simple acoustic guitar and voice. Electric slide guitar is added, drums enter with bass, then accordion, and pretty soon the song’s sadness has somehow become uplifting. It lets me know why folks might love a Country Western song – that melding of emotions. The song “Greenville,” on which country superstar Emmylou Harris sings harmony, is another sad country song, this time about a man that done her wrong, that inspires. It’s a song about a place, as many songs on the album are. “Jackson” is in the same vein, this time about the many places she hopes to go to escape her heartache. It’s also sad and beautiful.

Lyrically, Williams usually laments the lost loves. But she does take time to honor the good love in the warm, celebratory “Right In Time.”

Her voice is sensual, expressive and the twangy acoustic and ringing 12-string guitars behind it provide a reverberating light that keeps the song from getting mushy. The lyrics are a bit risqué, perhaps, but more Leo-Sayer-ish than Prince-like. But in “Still I Long for Your Kiss” she’s back to missing what she used to have.

But even though she’s often sad about the past, she never sounds particularly regretful. In the terrific “Metal Firecracker,” on top of more great guitar, she knows things have changed but she just wants to know her secrets are safe. And in “I Lost It,” she’s confused and hurt, but doesn’t seem to have regrets.

This is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love how the instruments blend, and the harmony vocal, by Jim Lauderdale, is great. It’s a fun song to belt along to in the car, and lots of fun to play in a band. There’s a lilting accordion providing a bit of sadness, but Williams’s voice and spirit make the song’s demand seem strong, not weak.

So is this a Country and Western album? Strangely enough, it won a Grammy in 1998 – for BEST FOLK ALBUM! Really? Who’d’ve thought? I don’t know what genre it is. I’m going to keep calling it Country because it sounds Country to me. But what does it matter what any genre an album falls into? I love the music that I love, so I’ve decided I won’t ever say “I hate Country and Western” again. I love music. I love Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Track Listing:
“Right in Time”
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
“2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten”
“Drunken Angel”
“Concrete and Barbed Wire”
“Lake Charles”
“Can’t Let Go”
“I Lost It”
“Metal Firecracker”
“Greenville”
“Still I Long for Your Kiss”
“Joy”
“Jackson”

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17th Favorite: Flood, by The April Skies

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Flood. The April Skies.
2005, WiaB Records. Producer: Jeff Feltenberger.
Purchased, 2005.

IN A NUTSHELL: Flood, by The April Skies, is a collection of ten infectious tunes with a terrific sound and an Alternative Rock feel. Bandleader Jake Crawford writes great melodies, and delivers them with a weary, yet determined, style. His guitar lines are always interesting and the band behind him always delivers. Drummer Mark Tritico is a highlight throughout, playing subtly intricate beats and rhythms that always serve the song. It’s a little band on a little label, but the results are very big!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve mentioned before that way back in the 80s I played the trombone in high school. I was really good at it, good enough to be in some honors bands and a trombone ensemble with little-to-no practicing. However, I never really liked it so after high school I rarely played it, and by about 25 I was done for good5. At some point in my late 20s, my mom told me she was sad that I’d stopped playing. “I always imagined seeing you as a big, famous trombone player on TV,” she told me.

It’s sweetly charming that my mom, by the mid 90s, figured that, among the rappers, boy bands, girl groups and other oddities in the United States’ cultural consciousness, some space still remained for a celebrity trombone player. The wave of the celebrity trombonists surely crested in the 1940s with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. There’s been nary a ripple since until, perhaps, Trombone Shorty today, whose TV appearances would only just barely, perhaps, qualify him as a “big, famous trombone player.” But still – I know what she meant. She meant the talent I displayed early on portended a larger role for that talent in my life than eventually materialized – a role she’d hoped would land me a spot on TV, I guess.

When I had kids of my own, I got some perspective on the child-activity-based forecasting done by most parents – including my mom. As my kids grew up, I realized that my predictions were based too much on the physical abilities of children. “That kid’s really fast! I’ll bet she’ll go to the Olympics!” “That kid built a Lego bridge! I’ll bet he’ll be an architect!” “That kid plays trombone really well! I’ll bet he’ll be a big, famous trombone player on TV!” However, I learned that those physical traits, even if they continue to develop and bring joy to kids and those around them, don’t account for all that is required to reach the equivalent status of “a big, famous trombone player on TV.” A larger necessity than physical traits is an innate DESIRE TO BE a big, famous trombone player on TV. The fast kid won’t go to the Olympics, but the fast kid who WANTS TO go to the Olympics might.

As a teenaged trombone player, I made lots of friends, I had fun times and laughed a whole lot. I didn’t love the music that we played in band, and I hated to practice. I was happy to be complimented as a talented trombone player, but had it been a talent that never revealed itself, I don’t think my life would’ve been much different.

Eventually I learned to play the bass guitar, and this was an instrument that I actually considered playing professionally – sort of. I was part of a band that wrote and performed songs and played wherever we could and tried to grow an audience and get a recording contract. Had things worked out the way we hoped, I’d have been a professional musician. Had things worked really well, I’d have been a big, famous bass player on TV. (This wasn’t as far removed from reality as one may think. We knew lots of people whose bands had videos on MTV. “Big, Famous” may have been a stretch; “on TV,” not so much.)

However, I myself wasn’t really trying to be a professional musician. I was trying to be a professional rock band member. There’s a difference. The other three members wanted to play their instruments. I just wanted to have some fun.

I’ve read dozens of rock and roll autobiographies. What I’ve learned from reading books by big names like Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Chrissy Hynde; and less-celebrated names like Andy Summers, Dave Davies and Tony Iommi, is that everyone who “makes it big6” loves doing what they do. You get the idea that if these people hadn’t become wildly popular and (for the most part) wealthy musicians, they’d still be in their little hometowns, old and gray, picking up the guitar every day, writing songs and playing music, making themselves happy.

It wasn’t really my deep ambition to create music, so after my band, The April Skies, broke up, I didn’t pursue music with much devotion. I continued getting together with Dr. Dave in our excellent band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, and I joined with friends to form other cover bands, such as Tequila Mockingbird and Two Legs Bad. But I didn’t have the drive to make music my life. The other three guys from my time in The April Skies did.

The April Skies, ca. 1992. (l to r) Cary Brown, Author, Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico. 3/4 of this band appear on Flood.

As of November, 2018, Drummer Mark Tritico is a professional drummer. Singer Cary Brown performs all over Europe with his band Ill River. And Jake Crawford, who led the band long before I joined, continues to put out music nearly 30 years later with The April Skies. He loves what he’s doing, and I love what he does.

So of course, I’ve heard of the band for years and years, ever since Cary, this kid I knew from high school, stopped me in the street while I was delivering pizzas in early 1990, to invite me to come see his band, The April Skies. About fifteen years later, long after I’d joined the band and left the band, I was still listening to everything the band put out. By the early 2000s, Jake had assembled his latest version of the band, and they were hitting the studio with Jeff Feltenberger, member of the roots-rock outfit The Badlees, who’d had some chart success in the 90s. Why don’t I let Jake take it from here:

Flood was the first record where we had a pre-production phase. We rehearsed most of the songs, and worked really hard for 2-3 months while gigging up and down the east coast. There was so much enthusiasm…” I myself LOVE that a bunch of guys with day jobs speak of enthusiasm to create art. “The studio was state-of-the-art. Big sound rooms. Every guitar and amp style you could want. Even a baby grand in the main room. It didn’t take long to see we were putting together something special. We just worked a lot harder at this group of songs than any previous effort. The tempo, the arrangement, the melody, the lyrics and the vocal delivery. All of that was (producer) Jeff (Feltenberger). This record would’ve never happened if not for Jeff.”

As I’ve said, I’ve continued listening to The April Skies since I left the band, and I’ve enjoyed all their music. But something about Flood clicked with me from the first listen. At the time it was released, in 2005, I was working in a lab, and I’d play it on my portable CD player all the time. The album opener, “322,” is an atmospheric, slow-burner that builds powerfully.

All permutations of The April Skies have been able to take a page from the U2 playbook and build an exciting, terrific songs around just 2 chords – as is the case with “322.” The sound swirls between both speakers as Jake’s signature, trebley guitar repeats a simple riff. I think Jake’s always been more comfortable leaving vocal duties to other singers, but I like his voice, and on this album it’s quite strong. “When I heard my voice [on that song], it was life changing. I never sounded that powerful,” he told me. Mark Tritico, who drummed when I was in the band, plays on this record. He’s one of the most creative, yet powerful, drummers I’ve played with. I really like the syncopated rhythm he plays beginning at 1:10. At about 1:50 the song becomes a driving force, with Matt Mazick’s bass and Matt Higgins’s keyboards moving to the forefront. By 2:35, there’s a satisfying resolution, and the song fades quickly. Rte. 322 is a main thoroughfare in the band’s Hershey, Pa., town. Regarding lyrics, Jake says “some tornados had just cut thru this area. The fear and destruction it caused…felt like a great comparison to a few relationships I was privy to at the time.”

Next up is “Crutch,” a song that’s one of my favorites, and that sounds stylistically similar to an act that I couldn’t name. Then Jake told me recently that it was “My attempt at copying Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’.” I myself have always disliked that song. But I love this one.

I’ll be gushing about Tritico’s drums the entire album, and I love them in this song particularly. His snare sound is really great, as are his inventive fills, and his bass drum beat propels it all forward. It’s a catchy mid-tempo number, and the harmonies in the chorus are really strong. I love Jake’s guitar at 1:46 during the bridge, and the harmonies after 3:00. I especially love Tritico’s drums after 3:20 to his final, bubbling drum fill, which is one of my favorites in any song. Both Jake and Mark Tritico were in the band when I was, so maybe it’s because I know them, but I’m a fan of both. Their guitar, vocals and drums help make “You Are The One” a solid song that I would have released as a single.

Jake plays a terrific guitar. I can always pick out his trebley, pinched (in a good way) sound. His playing has always reminded me of James Honeyman-Scott, from The Pretenders. In “You Are the One” it’s less distinctive. But you can hear the typical “Jake” sound on the next piece, the fun, danceable “Long Way Down.”

This song is awesome! To my ears, it’s the lead single – fun, bouncy and danceable. The intro guitar solo sets the stage, and it drives. Regarding the lyrics, “I was lashing out a bit a people who took themselves too serious,” Crawford says. This song also features another member of the band from my years: singer/guitarist Cary Brown sings the high-pitched “Long Way Down” backing vocals. I could listen to this one all day. Jake’s guitar sound is also featured on “A Game,” giving the song a Middle-Eastern feel. His vocals are strong, and the harmonies in the chorus really make it. I love the little organ in the chorus, as well.

I think the melodies this band writes are tremendous. Every song is sing-along catchy. Even the songs Jake doesn’t write, like the lovely “Still,” written and sung by keyboardist Mark Higgins.

It opens with a simple drum beat, with the keyboards and bass, by Mark Mazick, driving the song forward. Higgins’s voice is a strong tenor, and the ranging melody is fabulous – particularly in the second verse. It’s a sweet love song, and Jake adds some nice guitar throughout. Higgins’s keyboards add atmosphere and depth to many of the songs, for example on “Shaking the Tree.” The ethereal organ, along with Jake’s pinched guitar, gives this rocker an 80s British Invasion sound. Tritico again shines here, giving the song a bit of a dance beat while Crawford sings, obliquely, about addiction.

Jake’s lyrics are great. They’re indirect, but clearly purposeful. On the lovely, rather epic, “In the Mirror,” a long-term relationship has ended.

Jake says, “I wanted to paint the not-so-great periods in a relationship so that they’d go away forever. I wanted to isolate those moments where maybe I made a joke I shouldn’t have, or said the wrong thing.” The transition to the chorus is lovely, and Higgins’s harmony vocals are terrific. My favorite parts are Crawford’s guitar solo, about 3:08, and the wonderful bridge, beginning at 4:40, which always gives me chills.

Quick story: when I was in the band, Jake would always play a particular acoustic piece he’d written that was just stunning and powerful, a slow ballad that was clearly personal and that always connected with whomever was listening. We always tried to get him to record it, but he wouldn’t do it. Flash forward 15 years, and the song, “Something to Shine About,” has been transformed into a rocker.

I love the little bass note at 0:13, and the piano. The transition, at 1:07, to the chorus is great, as are the harmony vocals. I also love how the band pulls back, around 3:30, with Tritico’s rimshots carrying the load. Jake plays a cool solo (that could be louder in the mix!) On re-working this old gem, Crawford says, “The band worked up this music. And somehow, the lyrics re-appeared and it seemed to work. Our original intent was for it to be more Pixies/Radiohead with the verses being quiet and the chorus very loud. It sounds kinda Springsteen to me.”

Obviously, my connection to the people who made this record enhances my esteem for it. But I’m sure I’d love this record whether or not I had a friendship and history with Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico and Cary Brown. Would it be #17? I don’t know, or care. What I do know is that the final song, “I Will Surround You,” is one of my all-time favorite album closers.

Mark Tritico has always been able to set a mood with a drumbeat, and the echoes added to his intro deepen the mood here. Jake’s subtle, unmistakeable guitar sound is featured in the introductory solo, at about 0:48. He expands on the solo theme at the end of the song, 4:24. It’s another song that does a lot with only a few chords. It also features Cary Brown on backing vocals again. The lyrics are about a relationship coming to an end. “I had a recurring dream about this song,” Jake told me. “Long before we recorded it, we would jam it out at rehearsals. It would go on and on. My dream, we were playing somewhere out west, at Coachella or some outside event in front of 60,000 people. It was sunny and it starts raining lightly. While we play this song on and on. When I finally wrote the lyrics (long after the music was recorded), it only made sense to plead to keep the life we created together. Didn’t work. But at least I got this beautiful song.”

This last quote, to me, explains why some folks keep hammering away at their art. It says everything you need to know about creative people, and what it means to be “successful” as an artist. To an artist, there are dreams of your art bringing fame and fortune, and there are dreams of your art making a difference on people around you. But in the end, you do it because you could end up with something beautiful – an outcome that’s even better than being big, famous and on TV. The April Skies succeeded with Flood.

Track Listing:
“322”
“Crutch”
“You Are the One”
“Long Way Down”
“Something to Shine About”
“A Game”
“Still”
“In the Mirror”
“Shaking the Day”
“I Will Surround You”

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18th Favorite: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Get Happy!! Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
1980, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, 1998. (Rykodisc Reissue.)

IN A NUTSHELL: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, is jam-packed with 20 songs that sound like 60s Motown and Stax records filtered through white British punks. The band is superheated, its muscular rhythms pumping behind Costello’s deft wordplay. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a standout, but everyone contributes to the party vibe. And even when the lyrics get downhearted, you’ll still Get Happy!!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

My dad (r.) and me (l.) ca. 1969.

My dad died earlier this month. He was 78. He hadn’t been well for several years, and his last few years he spent trapped: confined, physically, to a wheelchair; and wandering, mentally, through the labyrinthine horrors of dementia. His death was seen by all of my family members as a blessing, as something that I thought should have rightfully taken place years earlier, something he should have been able to choose for himself at the onset of his afflictions. However, this was not to be the case.

He was a man from a bygone era. He was a child of the 40s, even though he came of age in the American Rock ‘n Roll 50s. He would have been a contemporary of Richie and Fonzie and the rest of the gang down at Arnold’s Drive-In, but he was not a Rock ‘n Roll guy. Sure, he loved fixing up old cars, the classic American 50s teen boy pastime, but his music was the swingin’ Big Band sounds of his youth: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. (Similarly, I clung to the 70s Classic Rock sounds when I was a teen, ignoring the new stuff around me.) Even in his formative years, he didn’t necessarily go along with the crowd.

The 1950s and 60s were some times of incredible industrial and technological advancements. It was a time of “better living through chemistry,” when science was going to save the “free world” from the commies, JFK promised a “New Frontier,” and the country was still unaware of some of the unintended consequences of such advancements: thalidomide babies, dioxin poisoning, lung cancer7.

But despite the advancements of the day, my dad wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends. He didn’t need the best Hi-Fi technology, or the latest in automotive trends to be satisfied with his life. He had a self-directed outlook, a type of self-possession that allowed him to make decisions with few external influences. Of course, this led to some wrong decisions, and it didn’t diminish the anxiety and guilt he felt over his decisions after the fact (he was the king of the land of “I Should’ve”). But there was something to be said for a man who recognized the inherent bullshit of the marketer’s “New and Improved!” sloganeering, and recognized, too, that so many people around him easily allowed that messaging to permeate all aspects of their lives. He was a skeptic of “New and Improved,” whether it was technological, cultural, societal or commercial.

But he was not a thickheaded dope who would cling to his beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. He was a smart guy. Also, he was very attuned to the people around him. The well-being of his loved ones and the feelings of those around him – whether he knew them or not – were very important. So while he may have been nostalgic for the old ways, he didn’t value the past over knowledge or humanity.

Sure, he may have griped in the 70s and 80s about the pointlessness of these new computers and computerized machines, but as a tool and die maker, when he got to use his first computer-aided machine (the one with the instruction course in Chicago, for which he had to take his first airplane ride ever, as a 37 year old) he recognized its value and acknowledged its advantages over the old machines. And even though he’d expressed the typical late-20th-century, straight, middle-American homophobia into his adulthood, when he saw his own loved ones fall in love he warmly welcomed their sweethearts into his home and life regardless of their gender and orientation. He was more comfortable opening his heart by reassessing his beliefs than using them to build a fortress around it.

Over the years I heard him reassess his thinking on little things, like Thai food, and big things, like race and gender. But at no time was I more aware of his ability to re-examine his beliefs and consider a different perspective than when my wife was expecting our first child, my dad’s first grandchild. I lived far away from my parents at the time, but when I’d call and tell him about all the late-90s preparations we were making – attending birth classes, hiring a doula, getting a gliding rocking chair with a gliding footrest – he seemed interested in all of it; this despite the fact that he’d matured in the Mad Men era of American men, when there were many, many issues about which a man was not expected to care, one of those being childbirth.

My dad got phone calls at work to let him know his kids had been delivered, just as he might have been notified that a new bathtub and sink had arrived at home. The difference would be that he’d be expected to work hard to remodel the bathroom when he got home, whereas the kids were to be almost entirely his wife’s concern, at least until they went to school. But when I discussed my own activities around the upcoming birth, he never mocked me, never said I was foolish, and never expressed a wish for a bygone era of indifference and inaction to return. When I told him about the experience of watching my child being born, he did say he was glad he didn’t see his own kids’ births, but also questioned why he didn’t choose to be at the hospital.

After my baby’s arrival, when my parents took a cross-country flight to visit their new grandson – something I was a little surprised they’d done – and he saw me changing diapers, giving bottles, and fussing over the baby’s cries and temperature and diet and routine, and when he heard and saw me exchanging smiles and baby talk and laughter with my infant, he said8 “Boy, things sure are different for dads nowadays.”

Happy Grandpa, happy grandson, 1999.

I said, “I’ll bet you’re glad you didn’t have to do all this stuff with your kids.”

To which he replied, with a bit of a sad smile, “It would have been okay. I’d have done it.”

He didn’t have to say more – we both knew what he meant. It was classic dad. If he saw the “new ways” were valuable and useful, he’d admit it – in very few words.

I’m thinking of my dad these days because his body recently left us9. And during my experience as a new dad, from preparing for my first child through childbirth and into my new kid’s first year of life, the soundtrack to it all was Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. I’m sure my dad heard it when he came to visit. I’ve written before, a time or two, about my love of Elvis Costello. I spent the 90s diving into his entire catalogue, and by 1998 Get Happy!! was cued up.

Elvis is one of the most perfect songwriters for my taste in music. He’s close to (but obviously well-behind) Lennon & McCartney, on a par with XTC’s Andy Partridge, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Steely Dan’s Becker & Fagan, and a few others10. They’re all artists who write catchy melodies, have terrific lyrics and can pull it off while getting super-energetic. (Well, except for Becker & Fagan, who tend to get super-jazzy instead of super-energetic.)

And his work with his most famous backing band, The Attractions, is some of my favorite recorded music. Each of The Attractions brings a style and vigor to the songs that suit Costello’s twitchy melodies and head-cold singing style perfectly. By the late 90s I was devouring Elvis, and while my wife was pregnant the songs on this record resonated with me. First of all, the album title provided a good reminder to me whenever the situation felt overwhelming or worrisome or scary that the biggest feeling I held was one of happiness. Secondly, the songs themselves are almost entirely upbeat, danceable, energetic songs that are hard to hear without smiling. Thirdly, the lyrical content often connected with me, even when the songs clearly were not meant to be about new families and future dads.

For example, “Opportunity” is clearly not about the opportunity inherent in starting a family, but the first word is “born,” and the first verse does speak of family …

As with many EC lyrics, I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they stick with me nonetheless. His clever wordplay and economy of words (“The chairman of the boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”) are striking, even when they’re obtuse. Musically, the song encapsulates what Get Happy!! is all about: organ and bass and drums. Keyboardist Steve Nieve boops and beeps while bassist Bruce Thomas plays a clean, bouncing line throughout. Along with drummer Pete Thomas, The Attractions really carry the load on this record, with Costello’s guitar only making cameo appearances – some nice strumming in the choruses, a little twist during the fade out.

I love “Opportunity” for its melody, its sound, Costello’s voice – and also my reminiscences of impending fatherhood. But it’s one of the more mellow tracks on this album of 20 tracks, (which Elvis promoted in America with a pretty funny TV commercial.) The record in full is an upbeat salute to 60s Motown and Stax records, with the band speeding ahead, full-tilt on catchy, danceable numbers like the opening track, “Love For Tender.”

Bruce Thomas is a phenomenal bassist, and as a bass-playing hack myself, I find him astonishing. He pumps these songs full of life, like at 0:40, his fast walking bass line in the pre-chorus. This song uses Costello’s considerable metaphorical skills to position himself as the banker of love to someone who won’t make a withdraw. I love the backing vocals, which Elvis provides himself, behind the chorus, and I love the energy of the entire song, up through the four-note finale. It’s clearly an homage to 60s soul, and songs like “5ive Gears in Reverse,” and “I Stand Accused” also carry the Stax/Motown torch. (The latter is actually a 60s British Invasion song that the band perks up, with Elvis coolly spelling out the title at the very end.)

Another soul-sounding treat is the wonderful “Temptation,” whirling organ and all.

This song actually features some of Elvis’s subtle guitar work, but once again the star is the backing band. Nieve’s organ, Bruce Thomas’s Duck Dunn-esque bass, Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drumming … The lyrics are straightforward temptation-based. It’s a dance-fest of a song, just like the band’s furious reworking of an old Sam & Dave slow number, “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down).” The album is chock-full of hyper energy, found in songs like the straight ahead stomp of numbers like “Beaten to the Punch,” and “The Imposter.” (The band could definitely pull off these numbers live, too!)

Elvis and the band do slow things down now and then, and my favorite of these mellower pieces is the atmospheric one-man-band piece “New Amsterdam.”

Elvis plays all the instruments on this fine waltz, keenly strumming his acoustic guitar and adding some sturdy bass lines, and displays some clever wordplay as well. It’s another song about his difficult love life, in which he wonders if he can “step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.” His inventive wordsmithing is also on display in the ballad “Motel Matches,” in which Elvis’s lady friend’s duplicity, and presumably, affections are given away “like motel matches.” “Secondary Modern” has perhaps Elvis’s strongest vocal performance. And in the album closer “Riot Act,” Elvis defends himself against an unwarranted onslaught from what he claims was a slip of the tongue.

These slow songs are all terrific, but it’s the energetic, upbeat ones I’m drawn to, particularly those featuring Bruce Thomas’s bass, such as “B Movie.”

The song has a weird, echoing drum sound, has a little out of time piece just after each verse, and one can actually hear a little guitar throughout. Bruce’s bass line keeps the song bouncing along, and the lyrics are standard Elvis complaints. This is one of a few songs that stretch out the album’s musical theme, straying from the 60s R&B template. Another is the ska song11Human Touch,” a plea to escape the modern world that “looks like luxury and feels like a disease.” “Possession“, with its clever couplet “You lack lust/ you’re so lackluster,” and “Black & White World,” which the band played on the BBC, where pianist Steve Nieve was forced to pretend to play guitar, are a couple super-catchy mid-tempo songs.

But it’s the upbeat, 60s stuff I really, really love – even when I don’t know what they mean. For example, “King Horse.”

It opens with a regal piano riff, then features Elvis singing along to Bruce’s bass. There are terrific harmony vocals, provided by Elvis himself, throughout. The tension builds through each verse, then is released with each chorus by Pete’s introductory snare roll. The lyrics are a pastiche of phrases around relationships that, to be honest, sound great but make no sense to me. But he clearly knows we’re all King Horse. At least the lyrics to “Clowntime Is Over” make sense, even if the tempo change throughout the song doesn’t.

“Men Called Uncle” has a looping melody, with a plea to a woman to give up the older men in her life.

It opens with a great piano, and Bruce’s bass again keeps the song pumping along. The songs on this album just make me want to dance and sing along. I often listen to the SiriusXM 60s soul station, listening for great numbers that I’ve never heard before. That’s what this album is like: it’s one catchy, bouncing, soulful song after the next.

My favorite song on Get Happy!! is “High Fidelity,” a song I was SHOCKED was not included in the soundtrack to the 2000 film of the same name12.

Elvis’s voice is scratchy and torn, sounding like the end of a long night spent on stage, howling out hit after hit. The chorus has great harmony vocals, the lyrics

Me and my dad. September 2018.

are again about a woman who done him wrong; he’s wondering if her new lover expects High Fidelity, as he once did. It’s fun and catchy and epitomizes everything I love about the record.

Get Happy!! is an album in which Elvis Costello and The Attractions tried something new, moved away from the new wave, post-punk sound and embraced a different way of making songs. It worked perfectly. Humans are at their best when they learn to reconsider their beliefs and actions, to peek into what else is out there and incorporate it. This is what my dad did, and it’s one of the things I’ll miss about him. But Get Happy!! will always remind me of him.

Track Listing:
“Love for Tender”
“Opportunity”
“The Imposter”
“Secondary Modern”
“King Horse”
“Possession”
“Men Called Uncle”
“Clowntime Is Over”
“New Amsterdam”
“High Fidelity”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Black & White World”
“5ive Gears in Reverse”
“B Movie”
“Motel Matches”
“Human Touch”
“Beaten to the Punch”
“Temptation”
“I Stand Accused”
“Riot Act”

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19th Favorite: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield

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Hey Babe. Juliana Hatfield.
1992, Mammoth Records. Producer: Gary Smith.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield, is a straightforward 90s guitar-pop gem. Hatfield writes infectious melodies and the band behind her makes them sound alive and urgent. Her voice can strain at times, but it always suits the song, so I don’t mind. The lyrics are sharp, and offer a new perspective on relationships and culture. Get out your cardigan sweater and retro-Bobby Brady shirt, and re-live the early 90s with Juliana!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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As I begin to discuss album number 19 in my list of 100 favorite albums, and considering the pace with which I am completing each post, I’ve realized I should be at Number 1 sometime around 2022. Since this process is dragging out so long, I thought it might be a good time to review the process and discuss how I got here.

It has also dawned on me that as we reach the Top Twenty, there could be some rather upset readers who begin to notice that A) their favorite record won’t be on my list; and B) their second-favorite record is ranked far lower than some lousy record by some dumb artist they never even heard of. This could cause the feeling among readers that “I just wasted 15 years reading this blog to find out this dude has shitty taste in music!!” (I will refund all the fees I’ve collected from any reader who makes this claim.)

Sometimes I reach an album and even I think to myself: “Really?? This record is this good???” But invariably, after I begin listening again, I realize: “Yes! This album IS THIS GOOD!!” Only once have I had a moment of doubt.

So once again, let’s review the process:

1) I listened to all* my CDs. This probably sounds more impressive than it really is. I know folks who have thousands, even tens-of-thousands, of all types of records. I only own a few hundred. I listened to them mainly in the car as I commuted to work. I only listened to CDs, so albums I have as computer files, or old cassettes, aren’t part of the pool. Sadly, I haven’t owned a turntable in a long time, in particular I don’t have one in my car, so all my vinyl records are ineligible, too.

* – I decided that Compilation Albums and Beatles Albums were ineligible. Compilation albums because these typically cherry-pick an artist’s best songs, which would be unfair; Beatles Albums because it’s me cherry-picking the 10 Best Albums in history ever, and so wouldn’t be fair.

2) I took notes and rated the albums 1 to 5 stars. This rating was based on my feelings after listening to the album. It wasn’t based on a considered, in-depth, song-by-song critique that analysed both the artist’s place in history and the importance of the release in the ever-expanding network of contemporary artistic expression; nor was it based on a fixed list of characteristics that excellent records must possess. It was simply based on how much I felt the old “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!” feeling while I listened.

3) I sorted by number of stars. Five stars on top, one-to-less-than-one-stars on the bottom. This provided what one would think was an objective-as-possible list of records ranked by “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness. However …

4) I accounted for my own self-knowledge. You see, the point of this endeavor was NOT to have an objective list of “best” albums, but to have a subjective list of “favorite” albums. So I had to balance out the “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness with some “I-have-a-soft-spot-for-this-record”-ness and some “Yeah-it’s-great-but-it-doesn’t-really-speak-to-me”-ness. This meant that some truly amazing records that I’d rarely listened to, like Sticky Fingers, ranked lower than some, well, less-excellent records to which I had strong historical attachments. Like Yes’s 90125.

This is because I wanted to write about why I love the records I love. I couldn’t say much about Sticky Fingers beyond, “Wow, I should’ve listened to this record more often!” But I could discuss 90125 for hours. (Sadly). (There was one record, though, that I hadn’t listened to much that catapulted into the Top 20 because of just how amazing it is, and that record is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX13.)

5) The list was set and could not change. This post explains why.

I don’t look at the list, except during a very specific time period: after I publish a post. When Number 20 went up a while back14, I pulled out my list, crossed Ghost in the Machine off, and looked to see what was Number 19: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield.

I can’t say I was shocked, as I’ve raved about this record ever since it came out, and I knew it was on my list. But when I considered some of the hugely popular records, important artists and highly critically-praised albums that I’ve already had on my list, I wasn’t sure this little indie release by this rather-unknown, never-hugely-popular singer/songwriter would really hold up as a Top Twenty Pick. But the thing is: I love all the records on this list so much that at any given moment in time, the 98th record might be number 4 and the 20th record might be too low to make the list. In my mind, there isn’t really a whole lot to separate any of the records on my list. Instead of calling them numbers 100 to 1, I should really count them down as numbers 1.099 to number 1. That would be a more accurate appraisal of my relative consideration for all these records. So if you’re truly aghast that, say, Axis: Bold as Love and OK Computer are ranked so much lower than Hey, Babe, think of them as record numbers 1.049, 1.057 and 1.018, respectively, instead of 50, 58 and 1915.

But numbers-schmumbers … I am NOT aghast by the state of my list! Hey, Babe is an excellent record! I first heard about Juliana Hatfield when her band The Blake Babies had a song or two playing on the old MTV show 120 Minutes. I thought they were ‘eh.’ I was living alone in a little cabin in the woods when 120 Minutes played the first single from Hey Babe, and I was hooked immediately. Kurt Loder did a little MTV News segment on her, and I went out and got the record. I’ve loved it ever since. It was never a huge hit, but it’s gotten some critical love upon its recent re-release.

The single that got me hooked is the first song on the album, “Everybody Loves Me But You.”

I have a history of liking acts with unusual vocalists. The Hold Steady, Sleater-Kinney, Rush … all these bands have somewhat divisive singers. Juliana Hatfield has a girlish, soft voice that strains to hit some notes, but I appreciate the punk spirit of singing the songs regardless. Her voice doesn’t at all hinder the terrific melodies she writes. This song starts with a cool guitar riff, and a descending bass line at about 5 seconds, then the main riff starts. She spits out the lyrics quickly. I’ve heard people criticize her lyrics as having too much “poor-little-girl-won’t-a-boy-save-me” emphasis. But I think this criticism unfair (and perhaps a bit sexist) – I’m a man, and I very-much relate to the first-person narrator that tells most of her stories. For me, most of the lyrics aren’t gendered. Anyone who’s ever felt the heartache of knowing one’s targeted “right person” never feels the same way for you can understand “Everybody Loves Me But You.” And her voice does some really cool things, like at 1:48 when she puts a flourish on the word “tired.” It’s a cool, catchy pop song with a cowbell breakdown at 2:30.

The album has a definite 90s, alternative sound, with distortion and furious strumming carrying the bulk of the guitar sounds. There is very little “soloing.” And the Pixies-ish loud-quiet-loud sound pervades. It’s all put to good use on “No Outlet.”

I like the guitar doodles behind the soft part, around 0:30, and how the song deftly transitions between loud and quiet. Around 1:40 there is a solo of sorts, just some long, held notes, until the song drags to a near stop at 2:40, then moves to a really nice bridge. It’s a really cool song with different parts and lyrics describing (I think) the frustration and regret (which men feel too) of physical connections made without the emotions that make them worthwhile. The riff heavy “Quit” is another dip into 90s motifs, including suicidal lyrics, that doesn’t work as well for me.

The acoustic song “Ugly” was ahead of its time, an introspective, woman-centered song a few years before Lilith Fair. It got a lot of publicity back in the day for its direct approach to the topic of women’s self-image. Then it got a little backlash for being too meek. To me, its just an expression by an artist of one thing she’s felt. And these expressions of self are part of what I love about the record.

For example, “Lost and Saved,” one of my favorite tracks for its music and for its lyrics that capture the craziness of falling for someone you shouldn’t.

It’s got cool dueling rhythm guitar coming from each speaker, and the drums, by Todd Phillips, really move the song ahead. Hatfield’s thin voice strains, but fits perfectly. What’s best about the song, though, is the chorus that swoops in (1:19), features great “ooo’s” and then falls into a creative guitar solo at 1:38 from guitarist Mike Leahy. It’s a catchy, 90s guitar pop song that I sing along with every time. In my mind the song is always paired with its follow-up on the record, “I See You.” It’s a song about obsession, and – like “Lost and Saved” – also features 90s folk-rocker John Wesley Harding on backing vocals.

It has another catchy melody that I find myself singing throughout the day when I hear it. I like the lyrics of this song: “I’m not a loser, I’m just lonely” is a phrase that many people knocked around by their heart’s status can relate to. Most of the songs on the record discuss non-existent, or really bad, relationships. The song “Forever Baby” tells the story of a woman who has settled for a way-less-than-ideal man. The lyrics are Elvis Costello-esque, with lines like “I hold him like a loaded gun/I know he might go off with anyone,” and “I see a long lost home in his eyes/He sees a nice hotel in mine.”

The relationship songs are good, but my favorites on the album are less direct, or, in the case of “Nirvana,” directly about a different kind of relationship.

It’s about Hatfield’s love of the band Nirvana, and it brilliantly expresses the effect that music can have on a listener. The song begins, appropriately enough, with feedback, and continues with crunchy chords from guitarist Clay Tarver. It’s an aggressive song that has a sweetly melodic chorus (1:13) much in the vein of many Nirvana songs. The harmonies are terrific, and I’ve always loved the lyrics “Here comes the song I love so much/makes me wanna go fuck shit up.” It’s the feeling I had when I heard Nirvana. And the bridge lyrics (2:20), about the effect of music, are also just right: “When the sound goes around/and goes in your ear/You can do anything/you have no fear!” It’s a favorite song of mine, and apparently Kurt Cobain liked it, too.

It’s a 90s album full of 90s sounds, 90s themes and 90s guest artists. Head Lemonhead, and fellow New Englander, Evan Dando appears on many songs, including The Lights, a slow meditation on lost love. But the best guest appearance is by Minutemen bassist, fIREHOSE leader, and all around terrific guy, Mike Watt on the song “Get Off Your Knees.”

Hatfield plays bass on all the songs except this one, which she turned over to Watt. And the bass really makes the song. It’s another of my favorites on the record, almost entirely because of the bass. It’s a fine, quick song, about something, obviously, but it’s all about the bass. Plus it serves as a nice introduction to the closing song on the album, the ambitious “No Answer.”

It starts off a bit searching, and unsure, but by 0:45 the sweet guitar by Mike Leahy brings it all back to a nice “doo-doo-doo” chorus. There’s a lingering guitar interlude which is allowed to build slowly to the second verse. At 2:25 Hatfield again salutes the effect a good song can have, singing “I jump in the car/turn the music on/I’m gonna be gone/Don’t know how long.” It’s another lost-love song, that after another sweet chorus breaks into an extended outro that cries out for a long car ride. It’s a terrific album closer.

Hey Babe is a totally early-90s record. In the early 90s I was unsure, changing … a young adult figuring things out and never thinking I’d one day be consumed with counting down favorite records and sharing my connections to them. I didn’t know what I was doing back then, and I don’t really know much more nowadays. I do know I have a list of records I’m counting down, and this one’s on the list. And now that I’m done writing about it I wonder: Shouldn’t it really have been higher on my list??

Track Listing:
“Everybody Loves Me But You”
“Lost and Saved”
“I See You”
“The Lights”
“Nirvana”
“Forever Baby”
“Ugly”
“No Outlet”
“Quit”
“Get Off Your Knees”
“No Answer”

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20th Favorite: Ghost in the Machine, by The Police

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Ghost in the Machine. The Police.
1981, A&M Records. Producer: The Police and Hugh Padgham.
Bootleg Cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Ghost in the Machine, by The Police, is a fun record full of infectious rhythms and catchy melodies played by three musicians who are among the best. Stewart Copeland’s drums shine, as always, Sting’s bass and vocals are top-notch, and Andy Summers’s guitar is subtle and joyful. The songs are repetitive but never tiresome, creating a bouncing, hypnotic feeling that makes them enjoyable again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
There was a time when teens enthusiastically used the telephone, so much so that they would call each other up and sing songs about the day’s events, as the following documentary from the 1950s shows.

After World War II, the percentage of US households with a telephone finally reached above 50%, and from that time until the end of the 20th century it is hard to conjure an image in one’s mind of the daily life of a typical American teen-ager that does not include the use of the telephone.

Whether it was to call to make definite plans, or just to shoot the shit, speaking on the telephone was a teenage necessity. Up until the mid-80s, most families only had one phone in their home; a few families had “an extension,” a second phone typically in the master bedroom, but multiple phones, even on the same phone number, was seen as a luxury. This meant anyone could answer the phone when you called, so teenagers who wished to speak to their friends on the phone had to be comfortable with the phrase, “Hello, Mrs. (Name), is Johnny there?” They also had to be prepared for the dreaded “chatty mom16” who would ask you questions about your day, your family, or your schoolwork, when you just wanted to find out if Johnny knew where the party was. And what girls were going.

Of course there was something more than mere camaraderie and friendship that made phones super-duper important to teens: sex. Or, more likely for most teens, not sex but just dating. Or, more likely for dorky teens like, well, some folks I know, calling people with whom you hoped to go on a date. Or, actually, most likely for – again – some people I know who, there’s no reason to name names, or to comment on hobbies they may have nowadays as 50+-year-olds, like writing blogs about records they like – but anyway … for some people, just thinking about the possibility of maybe calling somebody with whom they hoped to go on a date was an important reason to have a phone.

But teens in the 21st century have a much different relationship with phones than past generations. Teens of the past dreamed of having their own telephone line in their room. Teens in the 80s loved phone conversations so much that they’d call party lines just to talk to strangers. But teens today rarely talk on the phone. In fact, many say they dread talking on the phone. This is despite the fact that most teens carry a telephone17 with them so frequently that it’s become a national health crisis.

Some people look on this drop off in phone use as a bad thing, but let me tell you: teens aren’t missing out on anything by abandoning the telephone. Phone conversations as a teen were horrible, particularly conversations with someone you wished to date. Most people were not as cool as The Fonz on the phone.

First of all, there was the issue of who was going to answer the number you’d called. As mentioned above, moms could be a minefield of questions, but even worse – if you were a boy calling a girl18 – would be the brother, who, depending on whether he was older or younger, could hassle you either by intimidation or mockery. (My sole high school girlfriend had both an older and younger brother, so I was very accustomed to the brother situation.) There was also the issue of possibly getting an answering machine. How much information would you leave for random family members to hear? If you’d never spoken with the girl before (often times you didn’t have to ask girls for phone numbers, as their friends could be the conduit for phone numbers), how much information would be enough for them to know who you were? Answering machines had great potential for snipping the stem of any budding romance.

But believe it or not, worse than all that was the actual conversation! Once you say “hello,” what do you say? Do you go right in for the date-ask? Or do you suavely make small-talk first? If so, what do you ask? What if she gives one-word answers – do you have follow-up questions prepared? Some people would actually write out a script, or at least a bulleted list, before making a phone call. I recall in all my teenage phone calls with girls (granted, again, a small sample size) that there was typically a lot of breathing, throat-clearing, “um”s, and repetition of meaningless, mild interjections uttered purely to break the silence: “Okay …” “So …” “Well, anyway …” It was a situation fraught with anxiety, and I can’t think of a reason why phones were any better than using text, Snap-Chat, Kik or InstaGram to blunder through adolescence.

There have been phone call songs for nearly as long as there have been phones, with the first such song thought to be “Hello! Ma Baby,” made famous for most Americans by a high-stepping cartoon frog. In the 40s, through the 50s, the 60s, from both Motown and the British Invasion, through 70s mellow men and superstars and punks, and 80s MTV hits and boy bands and college bands and fake bands, through the 90s and 00s and even through the 2010s, phone songs have been produced. And even though phone usage among young people is fading, songs about the phone continue to be popular.

A song that most people may not associate with phones, but that I consider a “phone song” because it always makes me think of my trepidation and anxiety about phone calls, is the hit song from Ghost in the Machine, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

This album came out right around the time I was first starting to think seriously about going on dates with girls, and as a kid with little self-confidence the following lyrics pretty much summed up my thoughts about possibly calling a girl: “I resolve to call her up/A thousand times a day/And ask her if she’ll marry me/In some old-fashioned way/But my silent fears have gripped me/Long before I reach the phone/Long before my tongue has tripped me/Must I always be alone.” The song seemed to play on MTV just about every hour in 1981-82, and I identified with it immediately. Stewart Copeland’s drums are always fantastic on any Police song, and this one is no different. The piano and synthesizer is used to great effect, and Sting’s bass provides a bit of a reggae feel that makes the song bounce along.

My sister had this record in her Big Bin of Albums, where I found several records I grew to love. It was one of the first albums I put onto cassette, and was one of the first albums I bought on CD. I’ve always liked The Police, and Ghost in the Machine has been in heavy rotation since I started listening to albums.

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” was the song that first caught my ear, but it’s not representative of the album as a whole. While “Every Little Thing…” is a typically constructed (i.e. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge) rock song, with the vocals carrying the song and the instrumentation supporting it, most of the rest of the album’s songs are riff-heavy, grooving, meditative, pieces that, while they retain a strong melody, can be rather hypnotic. They’re repetitive without being monotonous, as with the second single on the album, “Spirits in the Material World.”

It opens with a flourish of drums from the incomparable Stewart Copeland, then Sting begins a bass line that is slinky and mechanical and that never seems to fit the 4/4 time signature of the song. Synths warble and whiz and Sting sings a catchy melody of philosophical lyrics backed by his own harmonies. Copeland’s drumming is fantastic. I find myself just listening to his cymbal playing when I listen. It always makes me wonder how many arms he has. At about 1:40 a simple Casio-esque synth enters, repeating an 11-note riff. The song doesn’t change much throughout, apart from the chorus, but it has enough of a hook that I don’t find myself getting tired of the song. (Unless, that is, it’s on in the background – if I’m not focusing on it, it can be a distraction, like a distant car alarm.)

Andy Summers, guitarist for the band, doesn’t show up on that song – his guitar parts were all replaced by synthesizer for the final mix of the song, which may be why he brought along a ukulele when the band “played” the song on BBC TV in ’82. And he didn’t have much to do on “Every Little Thing…,” either. On the closing song “Darkness,” a slow meditation on depression featuring Sting’s self-harmonized vocals, his guitar also seems to be missing. On the track “Too Much Information,” another hypnotic groove about modern (ca. 1981) media, this time with Sting playing honking saxophones throughout, Summers’s guitar is really cool, but you have to strain to hear the weird chords and choppy figures he plays.

Summers does get a chance to shine, however, on “Demolition Man.”

The song begins with more Copeland flair, then the bass-guitar riff and background saxophones enter. Copeland’s drums are fantastic as always, and Sting sings first-person lyrics from a superhero of sorts. It’s a song that always makes me want to dance, even though it’s got a weird time-signature – or, more likely, just a measure of weird time-signature that I can’t place, and that gives the song an enjoyable off-kilter feeling. But the star of this song, one of my favorite Police songs ever, is Summers’s squeaking, squonking guitar solo throughout. He accents each line of the verses, and keeps of the work for the full 6-minutes of the song. Like most of the songs on the record, it’s repetitive, hypnotic, and enthralling.

Summers also wrote the song “Omegaman,” which has one of my favorite openings on the record. I like that opening riff, and I really like Sting’s vocals on this song, sung from the point of view of the last human on earth. It’s a quick song, with a nifty Summers solo at about 1:15. It was also going to be a single, but Sting refused to allow it, since it wasn’t one of his own songs. Another song that features Summers is the downbeat-yet-hopeful “Invisible Sun.”

It’s a song reflecting on desperate people keeping hope alive. The intro is really cool, with the vocals arising out of the background, and Sting’s vocals in the chorus, including harmonies, are great. Summers has some cool riffs and solos, which is always a treat. As good as the individual players are, Police songs rarely sound extravagant or self-indulgent (except for, at times, Copeland’s drumming, which I don’t mind!) For example “Secret Journey,” is a song about spiritual growth that on its surface sounds simple, but when you concentrate on what each player is doing, you hear how talented they really are.

And they can be extremely fun, too! One of their most infectious songs is the anti-White Power gem “Rehumanize Yourself.”

My mom used to love this song. When my sister would play it, my mom loved to hear her sing along. I don’t know how loudly my sister sang the line calling the Nazi a c**t, but I doubt if my mom noticed it if she did. It is definitely a fun sing-along song! The bass is fun, and all the weird sax sounds are cool, too. But I love listening to Summers’s odd chords played throughout the verses. Another fun one is the similarly-themed reggae number “One World (Not Three).” Earlier Police albums had more reggae songs than Ghost in the Machine, so this is a bit of a return to form. Copeland’s drums are the star in this one.

“Hungry For You” is a song that’s sung in French.

For years I’d heard that it was sung in French because the lyrics were so incredibly filthy that Sting didn’t want to sing them in English. They’re not really so filthy after all. It’s got a simple (single notes!), catchy guitar line, and it has the repetitive, hypnotic thing going on once again.

But the “filthiness” of the lyrics was overblown – just like the concern people have about telephone communication dying. The decline of telephone calls between teens is nothing to lament. The calls were stressful, often unproductive. Sting understood that. A better use of time than calling each other on the phone is to take some time and listen to Ghost in the Machine. Be entranced by the rhythms of Stewart Copeland, get caught up in Sting’s bass and vocals, listen closely for the strange chords and subtle phrasing of Andy Summers. Then text that girl or boy you’re thinking of – it’s so much easier than the phone.

Track Listing:
“Spirits in the Material World”
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
“Invisible Sun”
“Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)”
“Demolition Man”
“Too Much Information”
“Rehumanize Yourself”
“One World (Not Three)”
“Omegaman”
“Secret Journey”
“Darkness”

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21st Favorite: War, by U2

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War. U2.
1983, Island Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite.
Bootleg Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: War, by U2, is when the band put it all together, melding their signature sound with terrific songs up to the task of delivering their message. The guitar work by The Edge is like no other – furious, dive-bombing, alarming sounds; and the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., give it support with enough space for it to shine. Bono sings distinctive melodies and leads the charge on an album that keeps me coming back again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I am a repeat customer when it comes to entertainment. If there’s a book/movie/TV show/album that I like, I have no problem reading/watching/listening again. And again. And again.

As with most everything in my life, this characteristic ties to my love of, and immersion into, television in the 1970s and 1980s. It goes without saying that media was far different back then. Obviously, there was no internet, but there were also no DVDs or VHS tapes. Actually, by the late 70s some schools and some very wealthy people had VCRs to play videotapes, and by the early 80s some households had them, but they weren’t common. If you wanted to reread a book, it was easy. If you wanted to re-hear a record, you’d play it again. But if you wanted to see a TV show or movie, you were at the mercy of the TV schedulers and movie distributors.

Reruns and televised movies were my saving grace as a 70s TV fan. (That dancing guy is Fred Berry.) “Rerun” is a quaint term in today’s age of watch-whenever-you-want Netflix and Hulu and On-Demand, all of them appearing on TVs and computers and tablets and phones, on buses, at campsites, and even – sometimes – in livingrooms. It’s hard to tell if TV shows even “run” anymore, let alone whether they are “re-run.” The idea of a TV schedule is as antiquated as a butter churn. But in the 70s, dammit, there was a TV schedule, see, and what was scheduled was what you could watch, and you couldn’t watch anything that wasn’t scheduled, see, so there was a weekly magazine called TV Guide, and schedules were published by newspapers each week, and these told you when you could watch a show and dammit, that’s the way we liked it19!

There were three basic types of TV reruns: daytime reruns, summer reruns, and random reruns. Daytime reruns were old shows from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, like Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy and The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart! and The Brady Bunch and Dennis the Menace and Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. They played all afternoon and into the early evening on UHF stations, which were non-network stations20 that didn’t play Soap Operas all day. You’d only get to watch during summer, or if you were home from school sick. If you were like my family, and didn’t have a TV remote control, on a day you were home from school sick you’d scan the TV Guide in the morning to determine which station had the best lineup of shows, turn to that channel and leave it. You may have to suffer through a dumb Petticoat Junction episode, but the rest of the day’s fare made up for it.

Summer reruns were a different sort of rerun. These were all the shows you loved to watch at night from September to May, but repeated during the summer months, while new episode production took a break. Did you miss that Mork & Mindy episode back in November, where Mork becomes a cheerleader for the Denver Broncos? Well, keep checking the TV Guide, because some August Thursday night, you’ll get to see it!

There were also random reruns, which were simply repeat episodes shown during the regular TV year. You’d generally have no idea a rerun was coming until your family sat down together (which was how people did it back then, believe it or not!) to see what Mary, Ted, Mr. Grant and the rest of gang at WJM-TV were up to this week, and after a line or two of dialogue, someone would blurt out, “This is a rerun!” It was so disappointing, like your grandma getting the same gift for you on Christmas that she got you on your birthday.

As for movies, before VHS there was – essentially – no way to see a movie you wanted to see, unless it was in the theaters or being shown on TV. (One exception was that high schools and middle schools would sometimes rent movies – I mean actual movies on 6 or 7 reels – and show them on a Friday night in the auditorium for students as an alternative to a dance.) Those UHF stations that showed old TV shows during the day often showed old movies at night. This is how I saw Tora! Tora! Tora! and Kelly’s Heroes and Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Seven Year Itch and The Odd Couple, and so many others. Those stations also showed old horror movies on Saturday afternoons, which is how I saw Scream and Scream Again and I, Monster and Psycho. To see more recent movies, you’d wait for Network TV to show one on their regularly-scheduled movie time slot.

This all changed when subscription cable TV services, like HBO, came around, and when cable blossomed and suddenly 70 channels required “content,” and when VCRs came down in price and video rental stores became ubiquitous. This became the Golden Age of Reruns, when a chubby teen in a little PA town could watch Stripes 15 times a month, or watch 10 episodes of All In the Family in a week. Just as I could with books and music, I could now dive deeply into my favorite movies and TV shows. And dive again, and again. And I did.

So, anyway21, here is a brief list of books, movies, TV shows and album that I am pretty sure are the most-consumed all-time by me.

Books:The Yogi Berra Story. I read this four times in three years (6th through 8th grade) for book reports for four different English teachers, then I read it several more times for fun.

Loop’s Progress, by Chuck Rosenthal. In the 90s I used to read this at least once a year. It’s funny and weird and somehow reminded me of my family, even though we’re completely different from Loop’s wacky family.

TV Shows: M*A*S*H. It’s not that this was my favorite show, although I did like it a lot. It’s that reruns played for two hours every night in high school – one hour’s worth from a Philly station, one hour from a Harrisburg station – and so now I can quote lots of dialog from the show, even the lame later episodes where Hawkeye is Christ, Buddha and Groucho Marx all at the same time.

Columbo. I had VHS recordings I made, I have the DVDs, I watch them on COZI … my all-time favorite TV show.

Movies: Caddyshack. I think we finally got “Prism,” a Philadelphia-area pay-cable channel, like HBO’s little brother, in 1982, and it seemed like Caddyshack was on four times a week. And I watched it four times a week. It’s still hard to say this isn’t my favorite movie.

The Shawshank Redemption. I think this movie still plays four times a week on channels across America, and I almost always watch it when I see it.

Album: Hands down, no doubt, absolutely, positively the album I’ve listened to more than any other album, even more than all those Beatles albums I love so much; even more than albums by Rush, the band with whom I most identified; even more than albums by Yes, the band that most impressed me; even more than albums by R.E.M. and The Replacements, bands I got way into later on … The album I’ve heard most often in my life is War, by U2.

My introduction to the record coincided with a Christmas gift I received in 1983, a small stereo with a turntable and two cassette players, for easy music pirating. I know it was 1983 because I had chemistry in 1983, as a junior in high school, and I distinctly remember my friend Rick (who helped spark my love of The Beatles, and who also warned me that the new Honeydrippers record would suck) sitting next to me in chemistry and asking if I’d ever heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He was so incredulous when I said I hadn’t that he took a poll of the hip, young chemistry students around us22 to find out who’d heard the song, just so he could be sure that I was the one failing at being hip. I was. Everyone else knew the song. “I’m bringing you a tape,” Rick said, and the next day he brought in a home-recorded cassette of War for me.

That evening I took it home to my family’s basement stereo, placed there so my dad could listen to big band and Canadian Brass records while he made fishing lures and built muzzleloader rifles, and I listened. I was hooked immediately. When I got my own stereo for Christmas, I listened to that cassette every night, at least twice, sometimes more. I was obsessed by its sounds and words, the guitar the melodies. It rocked, but it was unusual, it sounded like helicopters landing in my ears – but in a good way. At this time, U2 was not well-known, just an MTV band from overseas, like XTC or The Boomtown Rats. They’d had an MTV hit in “Gloria,” but the names Bono and The Edge were were mostly unknown. After several months, I probably backed off to a point where I listened to the album only 4 or 5 times a week.

The songs on War have an intensity that has defined U2’s career, but the album sounds quaint to me today. The sounds I hear in the album gives me a feeling similar to when I listen to early Beatles hits, like “Please Please Me” or “She Loves You,” like I’m hearing the beginning of a movement, the beginning of greatness.

And it all starts with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

The song opens with Larry Mullen Jr.’s unmistakable martial drum beat and backing violin. As is typical in a U2 song, Edge’s guitar riff, beginning at 10 seconds, is simple yet contagious. And by 40 seconds, he’s just scraping his strings along with the drums as Bono carries the melody. Like Edge, bassist Adam Clayton is very adept at playing a simple line and making it sound great – I particularly like his descending run during the “how long must we sing this song” line. Throughout the song, Irish violinist Steve Wickham offers counter-melody and aural highlights that give the song a poignant, haunting feel. The Edge offers great background harmony vocals and plays a solo at 2:42 that is, again, simple but effective. What really gives the song its power are the lyrics, using The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with which the Irish band was very familiar, as a call for an end to violence. They’re timeless lyrics, and the line “When fact is fiction/And TV reality” is particularly resonant in 2018 America. The drum beat, the insistent guitars, the violin, the vocals … it’s a terrific song, and I knew immediately why Rick had insisted I hear it, and why the live version of the song became an MTV smash.

I listened to this album so often that the song sequence is burned into my brain. When one song ends, the next song is immediately cued up in my brain. After “Sunday Bloody Sunday” comes another marching anthem, this one addressing nuclear war, “Seconds.”

The martial drums, the scraping guitar (this time acoustic), the simple-yet-effective bassline, the electric guitar noises, the human rights-oriented lyricsin many ways this is “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Junior.” Mullen’s drums are particularly cool-sounding from about 1:05 to 1:15, as he pounds that high-hat. The moaning background vocals always sounded a bit spooky to me, and when I heard Bono and Edge sing “Say goodbye,” at about 2:00, and the TV snippet that sounded like kids training to be soldiers (actually it was women soldiers from the documentary Soldier Girls), well, I always got a bit creeped-out over adults’ fears forced onto willing kids. This album was probably the first “serious” record I’d ever enjoyed.

The one song I definitely had heard before I got the record is the classic hit “New Year’s Day.” A video of the song, featuring U2 on horses in the snow (?), was played regularly on MTV.

This song is The Edge at his best, slashing, squealing, chopping, just wringing unusual sounds out of his guitar. After this album, Edge’s sound would sometimes feel redundant, less revolutionary than it did on “New Year’s Day.” He crashes into the song at 1:10, then his guitar continues a conversation with the rest of the instruments throughout. The section from 2:40 until the end of the song contains some of my favorite guitar-work ever. At the time I was hearing this, it sounded so different to me – and that guitar, together with the song’s pounding urgency and Bono’s powerful vocals (and Edge’s backing vocals), made the song particularly inspiring. The lyrics are about (as I found out through research) the Polish Solidarity movement of the early 80s. Let’s also not forget bassist Clayton, who once again plays a minimalist bass line that propels everything else.

And let’s say a word, too, about drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. Like Ringo in the Beatles, he’s often thought of as the weak link in U2. But even though he’s not flashy, he definitely has his on style, and it always fits the song. He gets to open “Like a Song …,” and his toms and snares in the opening and continues through the song in a tribal manner. It’s another soaring guitar, ripping song – fast and driving. Bono’s lyrics are a cry for peace. This song shows hints of their punk-rock beginnings. Which isn’t the case for “Drowning Man,” a love song that is a nice break from all the ruckus, but doesn’t do a lot for me. Although I do like The Edge playing an acoustic guitar.

The band mixes things up a bit here, going from a slow number to a vaguely Caribbean-sounding song, and one of my favorites, “Refugee.”

It’s another song that is buoyed by Mullen’s distinctive drumming. The Edge once again dive-bombs into the song, around 0:25, landing on top of Clayton’s bouncing bass. Bono’s lyrics harken to a time when American administrations welcomed refugees, a time that will return.

Up next is a song with a bass line that is almost funky, “Two Hearts Beat As One.” I’ve always loved Bono’s vocals on the verses of this song, how the melody he sings is not really a sing-along tune, but he makes it catchy nonetheless. The lyrics are a bit oblique, mixing angst and love. It’s sort of a dance song (“Can’t stop the dance/Maybe this is our last chance”), thanks to the rhythm section.

Red Light” starts out sounding like a Bananarama song, thanks in part to backing vocals by The Coconuts (!), backing singers from 80s zoot-suited pop oddity, and Island Records label-mates, Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Edge’s guitar is angular and weird, and at 1:48 he plays a one-note solo behind a trumpet, played by Kid Creole’s trumpet player, Kenny Fradley. Then at 2:18, there’s a cool little breakdown part. The lyrics might be about prostitution? Hard to say.

The Coconuts also appear on another favorite track of mine, “Surrender.”

This song is tied with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” for my album favorite. I love the opening harmonics from The Edge. It’s a very simple track with a terrific vocal melody and great Edge-work throughout. It’s a rather ethereal track, with odd guitar noises swooping in throughout, including a recurring bass guitar “boing,” as at 1:52. After 2:40, Edge plays a very creative guitar solo, definitely indicating that his future was going to include more pedals, more effects, more computers. Bono’s lyrics are about the desperation of everyday life, and The Coconuts provide great backing vocals, particularly after 4:40.

The album ends with one of the great album closers, “40.”

It opens with a cool distorted tape sound and Bono counting off the opening. The cool bass line is actually played by The Edge, as Adam Clayton had left the studio for the day. (It’s a bass line that Jane’s Addiction creatively nicked for their song “Summertime Rolls.”) The lyrics are taken directly from The Book of Psalms, Chapter 40. Where “Sunday Bloody Sunday” angrily asked “how long must we sing this song?” at the beginning of War, as the album closes the question is asked again in earnest. The band vows to “sing a new song,” further repeating Psalm 40, with a hopefulness that as human misery is relieved those old songs will be unnecessary.

When this album ends, I have the natural inclination to listen again from the start. It’s how I did it for years. The power and sounds of the guitar, the band, the lyrics and vocals … it all takes me back. And even though I’ve listened a million times, I still have some more listens in me for War.

TRACK LISTING:
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“Seconds”
“New Years Day”
“Like a Song …”
“Drowning Man”
“The Refugee”
“Two Hearts Beat As One”
“Red Light”
“Surrender”
“40”

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22nd Favorite: Tim, by The Replacements

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Tim. The Replacements.
1985, Sire Records. Producer: Tommy Ramone.
CD, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Tim, by The Replacements, is raucous, funny, sad, and sloppy. But most of all, it’s full of amazing songs. Songwriter/singer Paul Westerberg’s lyrics are some of the best around, and his gruff delivery lends weight to them. Guitarist Bob Stinson plays a million riffs and terrifically odd solos, and his bassist brother Tommy plays bouncy lines with drummer Chris Mars. It’s a collection of songs that are both fun and heartfelt, rock music done right.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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This is the 79th album I’ve written about (not counting the 12 or so extras I did in the middle) over the past 100 years, and if you’ve been aware of this blog for a while, and you’re a somewhat normal human, you’ve read 1 or 2 of those posts in detail and then kind of skimmed or skipped all the others.

At least that’s what I’m counting on, since I tend to repeat all the same themes and stories in all of these posts. Instead of writing thousands of words, it would have been easier (and faster!) over 79 records to simply say at the beginning of each post, “I grew up in a small town in the 70s, used to drink too much, was nerdy and played bass in a band and liked MTV,” and then just start talking about the record.

So forgive me if I guide us all, once again, to small-town life in early 70s America. It’s one of only 5 topics I know. But anyway … in the 70s, in my little Pennsylvania town23, people didn’t really talk much about what would nowadays be thought of as important things. The grown-up men I knew talked about cars and hunting, the grown-up women talked about soap operas and grocery prices, the kids talked about TV and school and sports. Any other topics were “serious,” and so had very limited space available to them in the common scope of interpersonal discourse. You could discuss health at the doctor’s office and religion at church, you could tackle sex and money and drugs and other emotional topics in oblique, humorous ways, but other than that, “important” topics were taboo. Thank goodness for MAD Magazine, or I’d have learned nothing about real life back then!

Open discussion of difficult topics was something you only saw, at times, on TV shows, like All In the Family or M-A-S-H; or even The Waltons. My first recollection of “real” topics being discussed openly was sometime in the 70s, when Phil Donahue started talking on TV about “controversial” topics. But my family, and most people I knew, thought this was just trashy, inappropriate TV, its viewers no better than rubberneckers slowing down at a rollover, and it had no impact on the conversations taking place around me, except for the people now calling Phil Donahue a “faggot.”

As a kid, I took my conversational cues from the adults around me, learning what types of “serious” questions to avoid. So I never asked my folks why they thought my classmate, the painfully shy M., often had bruises or a black eye in elementary school. I knew the answer myself, and didn’t have to ask. When a friend in 5th grade described an incident of inappropriate sexual touching he’d observed between the weird kid, J., and J.’s dad, I chuckled along through my discomfort, knowing better than to tell an adult and make them uncomfortable too. When older teens tried to sexually assault my little friend after a Pop Warner football practice, I, like everyone else in the carpool, just talked about Happy Days on the ride home, and never said one word to any parents. There were clearly events happening around me that I understood weren’t right, but whose impropriety I understood ran too deep, and touched too many too-sensitive nerves, to bother the grown-ups around me for confirmation.

The within-family improprieties were the most confusing, submerged so far below the norms of everyday life that there was not even a way to tangentially discuss them. While I could have brought up that post-practice attack on my friend by saying, “some older kids were really mean to R.,” entirely avoiding the brief sexual aspect of the incident, there was no way to say, “a bunch of people saw J. and his dad grab each other’s weenies a bunch of times” without venturing into a dark cavern of indiscernible conversational paths leading who-knows-where, but each likely to put most of the blame on me for bringing it up. The typical message back then was “each family does their own thing, and it’s nobody else’s business,” and if kids were showing up to school with black eyes, or crapping in their pants in class once a week because they refused to go to the lavatory, well, so be it. It was nobody’s business but the family’s.

The good news is that this reluctance to address many formerly taboo topics, including child abuse, appears to have lifted over time. In my life, TV in the 70s and 80s was a big change agent for this openness. Shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were indirect, while others, like Webster and Diff’rent Strokes, and a shocking-for-its-time (1985) ABC’s After School Special titled “Don’t Touch,” were very direct. By the time I was a teenager and into my 20s, the anything-goes attitudes about child-rearing, and the community silence that held them in place, felt like a thing of the past. And statistics24 seem to bear out that this openness may have played a role in improving the lives of children.

Of course more improvements must be made, and all threatened children still need to be protected. But the fact is that efforts to improve the lives of American children begun in the late 60s and 70s did have a positive impact on human lives. Children and families are getting help. For the children who don’t get help, many turn to the arts, and always have. British Victorian-era writer Rudyard Kipling was a survivor of abuse at the hands of his caretaker and said in his autobiography that (to paraphrase) the lies abused kids must make up to survive become the seeds of creativity.

I’m thinking about this because The Replacements are a band of guys a bit older than me (and my age, in the case of bassist Tommy Stinson, who joined the band when he was 12!) who, as children, had lives that could have used some serious intervention; and who, when they didn’t get it, turned to rock and roll. I wish for their sake they’d have gotten help. But I’m glad they turned their pain into such amazing music! Their story is told brilliantly in Bob Mehr’s 2016 book Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements. I’ve read it three times. It’s excellent.

One of the book’s chapters is titled “Jail, Death or Janitor,” which was lead Replacement Paul Westerberg’s answer for where the guys would’ve been if music hadn’t worked out. And they sing and play every song – whether it’s a rave-up rocker, a sweetly sad ballad, or a straight-up punk rock slap in the face – like their lives depend on it. That’s what I love about them. I’ve written before about how I got into them through the guitar player in my old band, The April Skies, and ever since the band got a hold of me, I’ve never lost any enthusiasm for them.

The endearing desperation that permeates their sound is heard right off the bat on Tim on the opener “Hold My Life.”

It’s a straight-ahead rocker, with a bouncing, catchy bass line from Tommy Stinson. Tommy’s brother Bob handles the guitar, which is somewhat buried in the mix. But as with most all Bob Stinson guitar, it’s always doing something interesting – little runs (like about 0:40), or hitting great chords (like behind the “Razzle-Dazzle” chorus), or playing vaguely Eastern-sounding solo (about 2:35). What carries most of the songs, however, are singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg’s lyrics and delivery. He’s an out-of-control guy in an out-of-control band, and here he’s asking for help – so he can keep up his self-destruction. In just a handful of lines his performance conveys a regret over life decisions, a reluctance to do anything about it and a disdain for anyone who’d tell him to do it differently.

Paul’s “F-you” attitude permeates all Replacements records, nearly every song, and that attitude led to one of the all-time great videos of an all-time great song: “Bastards of Young.”

The band came of age before the video-music revolution, and one reason they never reached the mass popularity of some of their peers, like R.E.M., was their reluctance to embrace the MTV era. The video’s realization of the band’s “F-you” ideals is great, but what makes it even better is that it allows the listener to really hear the words. It’s an anthem about growing up with little guidance or communication from parents, and the hollow legacy of misunderstanding it leaves. But it’s not a complaint, it’s full of pride. Plus it’s singalong-catchy as hell. Drummer Chris Mars pounds his kick drum through the chorus, Bob slashes throughout and plays a weird solo. The band played this song on their infamous 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance, which got the band “banned for life” when a drunken Westerberg shouted “Play it, fucker!” to Bob before his solo. (At 2:22 he also gives a hilarious stage-wink to Al Franken, who was apparently freaking out off-camera.)

Westerberg’s lyrics are nearly always thoughtful, always clever. He likes wordplay and uses it effectively to give depth to his songs. For example, “Swingin’ Party,” a term that means not only a fun gathering, but also an execution by hanging.

It’s a slow-tempo song, with a touch of 60s lounge style. Bob plays nice arpeggios, and Tommy throws in cool bass touches, particularly in the chorus. But again, Westerberg’s lyrics and voice make the song, as he appeals to a love interest by touching on their mutual apprehension. He’s got a way with words (“If being alone’s a crime/I’m serving forever/If being strong’s your kind/Then I need help here with this feather”) that belies his drunken-maniac personality, which probably has enhanced the “cult of Westerberg” that has built over the years. (By the way, this song was also covered by pop superstar Lorde a few years back.)

Another aspect of Westerberg’s lyrics that I appreciate is that you never feel like he’s bullshitting you – it always feels like he means what he sings. He’s not afraid to be vulnerable or goofy, but is always honest, and the directness in a song like my album favorite, maybe co-favorite, “Kiss Me On the Bus,” deepens one’s appreciation.

It’s a fun, bouncy number about wanting a little affection, and the descending three chords that come in right at 17 seconds are the sort of musical touch that draws me into a song. Mars’s drums drive it forward, and Tommy’s bass behind the chorus is great. The way the band builds to “Kiss me on the bus,” with a little guitar run (1:27), can give me chills. Bob plays a nice little Country-Western solo (1:47) then throws in cool chords as sleigh bells chime along. The song is a quick burst of pop perfection. (The band also played this song on SNL after changing clothes with each other.)

The band began their career as a full-on punk band, and that energy and excitement carries through all of their songs. On “Lay it Down Clown,” a song about a drug deal, I think, they enhance that punkiness with a piano (by Westerberg) and slide guitar. On “Dose of Thunder,” a clearly pro-drug piece, the punk takes on a classic-rock outtake feel, albeit with a terrific sloppy-noise guitar from Bob. The uber-catchy “I’ll Buy,” sort of a love song, is almost a punk/50s rock-n-roll number, and features Bob’s best guitar on the album. The frankly mean “Waitress In the Sky,” which was written as a mean joke for Paul’s sister, a stewardess, doesn’t sound punk but certainly retains its snotty attitude.

My favorite song on the album – or maybe co-favorite – is the salute to the radio stations who played all those punk songs; and all the DIY’ers; and all the weird and cool stuff that big-time radio wouldn’t touch: College Radio. The college radio stations were typically found way down in the FM stations around 88, 89, 90 MHz, where the big time stations never were. These numbers were found on the far left side of any radio dial, whether a car, boom box or clock-radio. So if you wanted to hear cool music, you knew to look way over to that side: “Left of the Dial.”

The song opens with charging, clarion guitars that back off about 0:20 to allow Westerberg to sing while Tommy plays ping-pong bass notes and Mars clicks his sticks. Then the full band pours in, and the song continues this soft/loud approach throughout. It’s a stop and start sound that beautifully calls to mind a distant radio station found in a traveling car, late at night, fading in and out. The lyrics are actually about a woman with whom Paul was smitten, Lynn Blakey, who toured with another “college radio” band, Let’s Active, just like him, and who he heard talking on college radio late at night. There’s a wistfulness to the song, a feeling of the loneliness of being on the road, but – rather brilliantly – the words address the feeling indirectly, and it seeps through in the performance. Bob plays a great guitar throughout, and there’s also a cool, weird dueling-guitar sort of thing with Paul and Bob at 1:40 that builds into another take on those opening guitar chords, at 2:04, and it ALWAYS gives me the chills. “If I don’t see you / In a long, long while / I’ll try to find you / Left of the Dial.”

There is much to love about The Replacements, but what really grabs me are Westerberg’s lyrics. His clever wordplay, and his ability to turn a phrase are Elvis Costello-esque. He doesn’t always tell others’ stories with his songs, but in “Little Mascara,” he shows off this ability, too.

It’s a story of a woman who’s been left behind by her no-good man, and her new guy is telling her she’s better off without him. All she’s lost is “a little mascara” by crying over him. Paul’s rough voice sounds great on it. The song’s got a Classic-Rock opening, and at 2:08 Bob plays a really cool, very “Bob solo.” Bob was a punk guitarist who worshiped prog-rock virtuoso Steve Howe, from Yes, so on that basis alone he’s one of my favorite guitar players. He was later kicked out of the band, and died at 35 of organ failure from long-term drug use. His childhood abuse at the hands of a stepfather, as described in Trouble Boys, was heartbreaking.

The band sounds like they know heartbreak, and not just the lost-love type of heartbreak, either. And Paul can place that feeling in the center of any song, and he often did. On the album closer, “Here Comes a Regular,” he describes the lifetime of loneliness and pain that accompanies such heartbreak.

It’s a song about a life spent in a bar, the attachments with others one makes there, and the knowledge that – like you – those other folks are really attached to the bar, not the other regulars. Phrases like “I used to live at home / now I stay in the house,” and “Am I the only one that feels ashamed?” are terrific. But Westerberg pulls a neat trick by adding a sing-along chorus that gives the song a feeling of connection and warmth and keeps it from being purely heavy and dark. He’s a songwriter who seems to naturally understand the complexity of humans, and incorporates it into almost every song. I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites.

It’s 2018, and there is still child abuse and there are still topics some parents or communities will keep hidden from children. But I think the situation is improving. And for everyone who’s been hurt or had their spirits trampled, in large ways and small, there will always be music to help you through it. And for those folks who turn to creating music to help themselves through it all, and thereby help millions of others, I’d like to say Thank You. I’ll try to do my part by keeping the conversations public and loud.

Track Listing:
“Hold My Life”
“I’ll Buy”
“Kiss Me On the Bus”
“Dose of Thunder”
“Waitress In the Sky”
“Swingin’ Party”
“Bastards of Young”
“Lay It Down Clown”
“Left Of the Dial”
“Little Mascara”
“Here Comes a Regular”

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23rd Favorite: We Love the City, by Hefner

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We Love the City. Hefner.
2000, Too Pure. Producer: Hefner.
CD, 2000.

IN A NUTSHELL: We Love the City, by relatively unknown British band Hefner, is a record of brilliant melodies that provide enough cover for leader Darren Hayman’s soul-baring lyrics that the listener doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Whether singing about sadness and loss or giddiness and love, or even politics or sex, the band will have you singing along with gusto, so you won’t be able to cry. And that’s what keeps me listening again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I was young, elementary school through high school, and even into college, I was a big fan of Charlie Brown. At Ebenezer Elementary School, I regularly bought Peanuts books (basically comic strips in paperback format) from the Scholastic Book Club to supplement the pile of Peanuts books my sisters and I had received as hand-me-downs from older cousins. In addition to these books that compiled daily strips, such as Thompson Is In Trouble, Charlie Brown, and You’re a Pal, Snoopy, we owned a slim, square book called Happiness is a Sad Song, featuring Linus on the cover, a radio by his side, looking anything but happy. It confused me.

The book contained several single-sentence declarations of happiness, such as “Happiness is having something to look forward to,” and “Happiness is waking up, looking at the clock and finding you have two hours left to sleep,” accompanied by drawings of the classic Peanuts crew: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, etc. Most of the statements described happiness very well to me, and made sense. But a Sad Song? It says right there, it’s “sad,” not “happy!” How can a sad song be happy? It was one of those weird, grown-up, inexplicable things that made no sense to young me, like my grandma’s claim that Coke was “too sweet.”

And now, as a weird grown-up, I have to say that I completely understand what Linus meant. (I also understand now that my grandma was a diabetic, which is why she drank that disgusting TaB cola.) Sad songs do make me – and many other people – happy. And it turns out that it’s not just because I’ve been clinically depressed at various times in my life, and it’s not because I’m generally unhappy or a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. I may be all those things, but the reason sad songs make me happy, it turns out, is, well, complicated. But it’s been shown to be more than a weird, grown-up contradiction.

There have been sad songs everywhere for as long as there have been songs, I’m sure, but I’m not going to get into requiem music or folk songs or songs from other cultures. I deal in pop/rock, and sad pop/rock songs are typically – but not always – about lost love. The Adele mega-hit “Someone Like You,” scientifically proven to provoke tears, may be the best example of a lost-love sad-song. It’s extra-sad because not only is the music sad, but also its lyrics are not just “I’m sad ’cause you left,” but “I’m sad ’cause you left, and I’m trying to be happy for you,” which increases the sad-factor by at least 3.7x, if scientific studies are to be believed25. People love lost-love/breakup songs.

The 70s light-rock band Bread made a career out of sad break-up songs: “Diary,” “Everything I Own,” “If,” “Lost Without Your Love.” Each was a top-15 hit between 1971 and 1976. Their brand of mopey, depressive Loser-abilia landed in the sad-song sweet-spot – the early 70s, an era which must be the apex (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of sad pop songs. The charts were filled with maudlin odes to all kinds of woe. In addition to break-up songs, like “Alone Again (Naturally),” “All By Myself,” and “Without You,” were scores of songs about tragic death. There were tragic deaths of young husbands (“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia“), tragic deaths of young wives (“Rocky“), young fiancees (“Billy Don’t Be a Hero“), young apparent fiancees (“Run, Joey, Run“), the young singer himself by his own hand (“Seasons in the Sun“), young sailors by the dozens (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“) and an Irish Setter (“Shannon“). By 1976 the music world was so depressed, it NEEDED punk rock and disco!!

Songwriters know the world loves to cry along to music, and they do their best to oblige. In the early 60s, songs about the death of young lovers, such as “Last Kiss26and “Leader of the Pack,” filled the airwaves. Known to record executives as “sickies,” these songs were churned out by people who thought young death was a hit-song formula. Although death is an easy way to jerk some tears, the formula for sad songs doesn’t have to include it. Country-Western songwriters probably understand the formula (if there is one) best; on Malcolm Gladwell’s terrific podcast “Revisionist History,” he makes the case that it’s because they write with a specificity that their pop/rock counterparts can’t match. He also posits that the 1980 George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which (spoiler-alert) IS about death, is the saddest song ever written. I heard it for the first time on that podcast in 2017, and I think he may be right. (Here is Alan Jackson singing the song at Jones’s funeral in 2013. Bring a tissue.)

Sad songs aren’t always due to the careful planning of the songwriter. Songs can be sad because of the time and place you experience them. For example, the Wings song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” while a bit wistful and downbeat at first, isn’t a particularly emotionally devastating song. However, I experienced it as a boy along with a significant accident in my family, and to this day I find it too sad, and I always turn it off. Similarly, and probably more bizarrely, I remember the fun Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations” playing on the car radio one summer day while driving to a Little League baseball game that was supposed to be the first game in which I’d play – and a sudden rainstorm washed out the game. I still have a tinge of sadness whenever I hear it. Also, songwriters’ lyrics aren’t always what gets you: one of my favorite sad songs, “Nwahulwana,” by Wazimba & Orchestra Marrabenta Star De Mocambique, is sung in a language I don’t even understand.

The thing is, aside from “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” I’ll listen to, and enjoy, sad songs as much as any other songs – even though they can evoke chills and tingles and regretful memories, and sometimes bring tears to my eyes. Two of my favorite Beatles songs are “For No Oneand “I’m So Tired,” two of their perhaps lesser-known sad breakup songs. Elton John’s 80s period wasn’t as interesting to me as his 70s stuff, but I’ll always stop to listen to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” I love The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg’s knack for tugging heartstrings, whether it’s over unrequited love (“Within Your Reach“) or being a misfit (“Here Comes a Regular“). When Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell killed himself, his song “Seasons” revealed new depths of sadness, yet I’ll still listen to it regularly.

That being said, I certainly don’t set out to buy records that are sad. I like melody, guitar and drums. When those parts are there, I’m happy, and if some emotion can come along as well? That’s just icing on the cake. And Hefner checks all the boxes. They’re an indie band active in the UK around the turn of the millennium who never hit it big, but who did catch the ear of influential BBC DJ, John Peel. They never had any hits, but you don’t need hits to make my list – or to be well-loved by your fans. I still remember the first time I heard a Hefner song. In 2000, I was a new dad in a new city, and I met another new dad/new city guy named Jon. He’s an amazing guy who, apart from being a PhD in some kind of linguistics/robots/speech stuff, also publishes novels, plays in an original rock band, and has an amazing breadth of musical knowledge and appreciation. When I met him, he was also a DJ at a local radio station, and he gave me a cassette of one of his shows.

I listened in my car, driving to work, and the first song was this catchy, sunny melody that somehow seemed dark and desperate. It sounded like something from the late 70s, and the obviously British singer, despite a definite warble to his voice, had a confidence and earnestness that stood out. I thought it must be some established rock act that I’d always heard about yet never listened to, the type of artist that sells few records but has all the critics’ ears – like Nick Cave or The Soft Boys. By the time the singer was screaming at the end of the song, I had to know who it was! The band was Hefner. I fell hard for the band – as hard as bandleader Darren Hayman seems to fall for every woman in every song. I fell so hard that I eventually spent more on a single Hefner record than I’ve ever spend before or since, $40 for an import-only live album called Kick, Snare, Hats, Ride.

And that song I’d heard was “We Love the City.”

Up front I wrote about sad songs, but “We Love the City” isn’t sad in a “somebody died” kind of way, or with a “Someone Like You” directness. The sadness is revealed slowly, with singer/songwriter Darren Hayman first singing lyrics lamenting the London subways and his girlfriend’s distance. As a subtle guitar line begins to accompany him, he describes a love/hate relationship with London, then turns rather suddenly to a series of comparative adjectives (“I am intrigued, not merely curious,” etc.) before the source his despair is revealed – his realization that his girlfriend doesn’t really love him. The song has what I think of as a “classic Hefner buildup,” the band’s, and more specifically Hayman’s, specialty: slowly ramping up the intensity, verse-by-verse, until his emotions are laid bare. What saves it from being pathetic and embarrassing are the clever lyrics and – more importantly – the excellent melodies he writes. Every song is singalong catchy.

Take for example the song “Good Fruit.” I sang along to this song happily for a long time before I really listened closely and realized its lyrics describe a situation most any human can relate to: someone breaking up with you just when you thought the relationship was reaching a deeper level.

The song features Amelia Fletcher from another band I love, Heavenly, on vocals. It’s a simple song, using a subtle melodica, and it gets to its hooky verse quickly. Hayman has the look and sound of an unlucky-in-love schlub, careless with his heart, too eager to fall in love, and never embarrassed by his declarations. He imbues all these songs with such emotion, and when he sings “you should stick around/ to hear me hit the ground,” it’s clear that he’s not actually considering jumping off a building, but that his heart has been pushed off the ledge. I really connect with this song, maybe because I’ve felt this way in my life but always kept it to myself, so it’s good to hear somebody singing it and making it real.

But Hayman and the band aren’t depressive and mopey. They’re actually rather funny, as that video above shows, and as this video, featuring fake nudity (always funny), for a song from a different album shows. But what Malcolm Gladwell noted about Country & Western songs is true of Hefner: the songs’ lyrics have a specificity – details, observations – that provide an emotional impact. Take, for example, “Painting and Kissing,” which describes (in a very catchy, bouncy melody, of course) the typical fizzling of a short, intense relationship.

The song basically has two chords, and the opening scratchy guitar plays both of them. Hayman gets specific with his vocals immediately, stating her name (Linda), where she lives (Holloway Rd.), where they met (The Wig and Gown)… There’s an organ break between verses, and as he builds intensity with each verse, he throws in terrific phrases that present a clear image of him and the relationship. “After a week or two … she was my girlfriend/but I couldn’t call her my girlfriend.” “The first time she came to my house/she brought Chardonnay/ Now I buy Chardonnay.” All the while the exasperation in his voice increases, until “On March the 23rd” she dumps him. At 3:45 the song stops for Hayman to plead for her return, and then those damn two chords continue, mimicking the rut one’s emotions can fall into. It’s a simple, terrific song, and for anyone who’s ever been on the wrong side of an unbalanced love equation (i.e., the person who cares too much) the song is right on target.

It’s not a sad song per se, it’s just one with emotion and feeling presented baldly in a way that’s not often heard in rock. And although most of the songs are from Hayman’s perspective, he can sing from a different perspective, as he does in “She Can’t Sleep No More,” a jaunty, country-sounding song with interesting guitar behind the vocals, that tells the story of a woman who let the right man get away.

Hayman also uses his clever lyrics and untethered feelings on songs about being in love – ostensibly with someone who loves him back, although as a listener I do wonder if his partner might be a bit overwhelmed at times. “From Your Head to Your Toes” describes the entirety of his feelings for his love in a kind of lullaby. In “Hold Me Closer,” a piano based song with terrific vocals from Amelia Fletcher, he sounds fine, until he admits he owes her his eyes and lips and hands… In “Don’t Go,” he sounds more concerned than is typical about his love possibly leaving – and doesn’t seem to notice how bossy he sounds. On “As Soon As You’re Ready” he tries to dial back his intensity, but ends up sounding desperate all the same.

He also uses his lyrical gifts to harshly, and quite humorously, skewer former British PM and foe of the common people Margaret Thatcher in “The Day That Thatcher Dies.”

It’s almost funky, for Hefner, with a kind of dance beat and horns. Children gleefully sing “Ding-Dong! The witch is dead!” as Hayman discusses his political growth. As with love or sadness or sex, Hayman is direct and emotional about his politics.

Hayman’s voice and singing style make him sound like he’s baring his soul on every single note. But if Hefner’s songs were simply needy, emotional exsanguinations, We Love the City would be horrible. What makes it work are the terrific melodies behind the words. Words are always secondary for me27. But when they work well with the melody and the performance, it’s magic. Take, for example, “The Greedy Ugly People,” which bounces along just like a heart under new love’s spell.

Hayman sets himself and his new girlfriend apart, from those horrible folks who don’t understand love. It’s a lyrical us-against-the-world motif that draws the listener in, too: “I’m not a greedy, ugly person,” the listener says. “I know just what you mean!” A simple scratchy guitar opens the song. The verses and the chorus have a great melody, then a counter melody enters “Love don’t stop no wars …” which also sounds great. I also like guitar, and most of the songs have something interesting happening on guitar – like the little bit behind the vocals here, about one minute.

In the terrific “The Greater London Radio,” the music really supports Hayman’s words, creating a feeling of a chilly winter night, and adding horn flourishes at the end to signal his return to his love.

It’s regal and warm and the swirling organs create a symphony behind the vocals. It may be my favorite song on the album. Or perhaps my favorite song is the multi-part, Broadway-esque (and I can be a sucker for show tune-type songs) “The Cure For Evil.”

To be honest, whatever song I listen to is my favorite on this record – I love them all. But this song seems a step beyond the others. It eventually becomes a duet between Hayman and Fletcher, and this time it’s not just Hayman’s anxieties set to music, but also their impact on someone else. It starts with a simple piano phrase, and – as is typical – builds with each verse. He tries to explain that he’s a bit emotionally unwound, but that he’s growing and trying and at least aware of his own issues. There’s nice subtle guitar work, then at about 1:22, the song begins to bounce a bit and by 1:58 it hits its full stride. About 2:30 Fletcher (and a banjo!) enters. It marches along, horns enter, end then by 4:00 the big finale (with flute!) hits.

The band has an understanding of the emotional impact of music. I wasn’t really up on pop music taxonomy by the time this record came out, but perhaps they were an “Emo Band?” They don’t scream much, or wear makeup and black trench coats, but Hayman puts his feelings right out there, and I can empathize with all of them. Since they’re wrapped up in interesting sounds and great melodies, I can listen time after time. Linus was right: Happiness is a Sad Song. Or a Love Song. Or an Angry Song. As long as the melody’s catchy and the words are sincere.

Track Listing:
“We Love the City”
“The Greedy Ugly People”
“Good Fruit”
“Painting and Kissing”
“Hold Me Closer”
“Don’t Go”
“The Greater London Radio”
“As Soon As You’re Ready”
“She Can’t Sleep No More”
“The Cure For Evil”
“The Day That Thatcher Dies”
“Your Head to Your Toes”

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24th Favorite: Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin

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Houses of the Holy. Led Zeppelin.
1973, Atlantic. Producer: Jimmy Page.
Bootleg cassette, 1986.

IN A NUTSHELL: Houses of the Holy, the fifth album by the mighty Led Zeppelin, is eight different songs, eight different genres, and all kinds of cool. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham are in fine form whether playing famous riffs, supporting lush orchestral works, or taking on funk and reggae. It doesn’t sound like other Zep records – and that might be why I love it!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I generally modify all sentences I write so that I don’t make grand pronouncements stating “Everyone who …” I do this to avoid making generalizations that are easily challenged by an example or two that therefore render my statement false. However, I stand by this grand pronouncement: Every artist abhors plagiarism.

I mean any kind of artist, anyone who creates. Creativity – all creativity, whether drawing stuff, building stuff, writing songs, writing stories, it doesn’t matter what – is at its very core about personal ideas. It’s about having an idea in your head or your heart or your soul or wherever they come from, and shaping and building that thing into something that people around you can experience. It’s about allowing others to experience something within you; it’s about sharing your self with others.

However, creativity is a weird thing. The raw materials of creativity are pulled from the surrounding world, and most people experience that world – at least in part – via the art around them. Books, movies, songs, visual art … it all becomes – along with everything else in the artist’s life – another input to creation.

And although, when compared to painters or composers, some may consider their output culturally flimsy, rock/pop musicians are creative people. The list of musicians who graduated from, or attended, art school is a who’s who of pop music28, from Pete Townshend and Keith Richards through A$AP Ferg. Musician/novelists include country-rocker Steve Earle and John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats. Musician/painters include John Mellencamp, Joni Mitchell and The Replacements’ Chris Mars. Musician/Actors include almost every musician who ever had a hit record.

So, being creative types, musicians bring in all sorts of inspiration into their work, and some of that inspiration is bound to be the music they are listening to. And there can be a fine line between “inspiration” and “borrowing.” Sometimes the borrowing is intentional. Clearly John Lennon knew the Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me” when he wrote “Come Together.” I don’t know why he didn’t credit Berry, but he ended up recording an album of Rock ‘n Roll covers as part of his settlement with the publisher of Berry’s songs. (And backed Berry on an episode of The Mike Douglas Show, a very 70s moment.) And many artists have reworked classical works to generate hit songs. The practice of sampling songs is just another form of this process.

And that process is not just part of crafting modern pop music. Such borrowing is part of the fabric and history of classical music. And “borrowing” in other arts is routine. Authors like John Updike and others are fond of updating classics.

But sometimes (or often, some would argue) you don’t realize you’ve borrowed something. This (apparently) happened to George Harrison in the 70s. It happened to Rolling Stones Keith and Mick in the 90s, but they realized it and gave k.d. lang a writing credit, even though they’d never met her. And sometimes the difference between conscious and unconscious borrowing creates some Blurred Lines. (Ha! Get it?)

Giving proper credit is what separates “borrowing” from flat-out stealing, to my mind. If you don’t credit the source, you’re a thief. Sting, in a very Sting-like way, on the album notes for Dream of the Blue Turtles, carefully pointed out his own copying of the romance theme from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for the song “Russians.” Credits (and therefore royalties) have been given to sampled records since at least the early 90s.

I say all this because this post is about Led Zeppelin, and if I thought no one would know – or if I was a good enough writer to disguise it – I would completely steal four pages from Chuck Klosterman’s 2005 book Killing Yourself to Live right here. On pages 197 to 201 of that book, he explains the popularity of Led Zeppelin with men, and posits that “every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” In a resonant few hundred words he concludes “Led Zeppelin sounds like a certain kind of cool guy; they sound like the kind of cool guy every man vaguely thinks he has the potential to be, if just a few things about the world were somehow different … For whatever the reason, there is a point in the male maturation process when the music of Led Zeppelin sounds like the perfect actualization of the perfectly cool you.”

I understand this phase, I’ve gone through this phase, I’ve watched others go through this phase. (And as a big fan of the amazing “all-girl” tribute band Lez Zeppelin, I think some women go through this phase as well!) My freshman year roommate at college listened to nearly nothing else, had a collection29 of Led Zeppelin posters and pounded John-Bonham-Air-Drums nearly constantly, accompanying all the mighty Zep that silently roared through his drug-fuzzed brain. About that time I caught the bug, too, and I began listening, near constantly, to all the LZ tapes I’d made in high school.

I’d go in cycles regarding which one was my favorite. Dr. Dave gave me a cassette of their debut, Led Zeppelin, with the editorial comment “Their first. And their best!” And I agreed sometimes. Then I’d switch to those deemed “the best” by most fans, Led Zeppelin IV30 or Physical Graffiti. Even the widely disparaged In Through the Out Door would bubble to the surface. My Led Zeppelin Phase lasted several months, and all along I thought they were the perfect band. Fragments of that phase remain with me.

I can’t explain why Led Zeppelin main songwriters, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, were so reluctant to credit the sources of many of their songs. (If you don’t know, some of “their” songs, like “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Lemon Song,” were actually adapted by them, with credit only given to the original writers after lawsuits.) They were young, sure, but both had been around the music business for years before Led Zeppelin began, so they knew their way around contracts and rights. They either thought no one would know, or they thought they’d changed it enough to disguise it.

And this sort of ties into why I love Houses of the Holy. While many Zeppelin albums are filled with reworked blues, lifted from old African American blues artists, or acoustic folk pieces, closely “inspired” by obscure folk artists, this album has eight songs that are unique, independent and demonstrate a variety that many Zep albums (and I love them all, still) lack. I guess you could say “the song doesn’t remain the same.”

Ha! That’s a (very funny) reference to the romping opener on the album, “The Song Remains the Same.”

It’s a galloping opener that immediately grabs you with its buzzsaw guitar and suspenseful fanfare until the main riff enters, about 0:22. Led Zeppelin is a collection of four talents unsurpassed by any other rock band, and bassist John Paul Jones (who is my favorite member, although I play bass and so have a special fondness for bassists) starts showing his skills immediately, bouncing behind Page’s guitar. Page has a nifty solo, and then the song slows to allow the mighty Robert Plant to start singing. My only complaint about this song is Plant’s voice, which is slightly speeded up, giving his already high-tenor sound a kind of mosquito-esque timbre. His lyrics are about the joy of experiencing music. I love Jones’s descending bass line behind his verses. I also like the shifting tempos, which drummer John Bonham directs with ease. Page has a couple brilliant solos left in his bag of tricks, and at times sounds to be playing four or five other guitars in the background. From Page’s solo at 3:47 until Plant enters again at about 4:50 is one of my favorite 60-seconds-worth of rock music. It’s a fantastic opening track.

The next song is more fantastic, and completely different. I didn’t like the effects on Plant’s voice on “The Song Remains The Same,” but his unaffected vocals on “The Rain Song” steal the show.

It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. The acoustic guitar opening the song sets a mellow, mellow vibe, and the two-note hook, at about 30 seconds, is simple and classic, and calls to mind The Ventures’ classic instrumental “Sleepwalk.” Plant enters, soulfully reviewing the seasons of his love, and after each verse Page beautifully calls to mind rainfall on a series of descending runs (1:08). The band has never been shy about putting orchestral arrangements in their songs, and they revel in the lushness on this song, taking time to let the music swell and ebb, nearly 3 full minutes without vocals. So much happens in those three minutes – Jones plays lovely piano, Page deftly supports it all, and John Bonham finally enters, with some soft triplets. It’s a lovely piece, and Plant has barely sung at all, but the last half is his. His melody lags behind the music, helping give the entire piece a hypnotic, drowsy feeling. Behind the second verse, the Bonham’s drums are gradually building the song’s momentum until, just about 4:55, Page’s acoustic sets up the crash of drums to transition the song into Full Power Mode. It pulls back for the final verse, and resolves with a last acoustic coda. This song is wonderful and should not be blamed for any bullshit 80s hair-band faux-metal cheesy-asspower ballad” that DJs of the era may have tried to characterize as “Zeppelin-esque.” Puh-leeze.

We’ve heard Heavy and Soft, so why not combine the two? Zeppelin have always been the masters at mixing hard rock with acoustic, and they may have perfected it on the radio hit “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

This is the blueprint for Zeppelin, perhaps the most Led Zeppelin song Led Zeppelin ever played. The first minute and a half is country-folk, almost CSN&Y-sounding, but Bonham crashes in at 1:26, and Plant uses his signature wail on a series of koan-like snippets that, what the hell, at least sound good when he sings them. Page/Jones/Bonham pound through the verses, then transition at 2:20 into a sort of funky break with a great Page solo. The three sound like they’re having so much fun playing together, and their transitions across all Zeppelin songs are unequalled, moving songs between time signatures, keys, tempos with ease. In this song it’s done with an ascending run at 3:00. They can do anything.

Even funk! Although it’s their own brand, probably the only funk song ever played in a 9/8 time signature, “The Crunge.” It’s the least-danceable dance song ever recorded, basically four guys jamming in the studio with Jones overdubbing some curlicue organ. It’s a fun and funny song, one that many Zep fans don’t like. But I appreciate it, even if Plant’s lyrics are afterthought-like. The song has no bridge – a section in many pop songs that is different from the verse or chorus. In a nod to James Brown, the creator of funk, who often directed his band live in the studio to “take me to the bridge,” Plant asks for the bridge many times, to no avail. It’s a bit of humor from a band that can sometimes seem very serious.

Is there anything else this band can do? Well, if they can put their stamp on funk, why not try it on reggae, as well?

The title, “D’yer Mak’er,” is not pronounced “Die-uhr Make-uhr,” as me and a million other teen music fans thought for years31, but instead is a phonetic spelling of the country Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae. It’s another song some Zep fans hate, but I love the big drums, the clear Jones bass, and the sound of Page’s guitar, especially the picking behind the vocals. Plant avoids the temptation to affect an island patois in standard “girl, you hurt me” lyrics.

After showing its fun side, Zeppelin gets dark and dreary and psychedelic (and still friggin’ awesome!) on the chilling “No Quarter,” a song that I used to dislike but grew to love – maybe due to hearing it while inebriated so often. One of the amazing things about Bonham’s drumming is that he sometimes seems to be drumming in a different time signature than the rest of the band. At 1:00, when the main riff starts, Bonham plays on the “two,” but skips the “four” in every other measure. It’s a melodic piece of drumming, just like when he mimics Plant’s rhythm, at 2:28. He’s both deft and powerful, great attributes for a rock drummer. Plant’s voice sounds underwater, telling of knights journeying in bad weather to deliver a message. At 3:00, the band goes into a prog-rock jam that sounds like something off a Yes album, before Plant re-enters. More Bonham fun: listen to his drums from 5:20 to 5:35. He’s brilliant.

We’ve heard so many different styles, but how about straight-up pop rock song? Well, I give you one of their most popular songs, “Dancing Days.”

But of course it’s not so straight-up – just listen to that weird, dissonant chord 5 seconds in! The wailing guitar by Page sounds cool, and Jones plays a strange synthesizer that isn’t noticeable at first, but by the second verse is peeking through. Plant relives his teenage years (which may have included a lion with a tadpole in a jar?) with a voice as controlled yet muscular as ever.

The band still hasn’t played a typical arena-rock, riff-centered, macho song yet. But they finish the album with an all-time great, one of the most distinctive riffs in rock history, on “The Ocean.”

It’s another classic Bonham song, who introduces the song with a little rhyme, then powers ahead with a 4/4 beat, with 3/4 thrown in every fourth measure. I imagine Page coming up with this riff, and whereas most drummers would ask him to hold the last note an extra beat to keep the entire thing 4/4, Bonham instead rose to the challenge and just incorporated it. Plant is at his upper register, wailing in his best blues style about heading out of town. Page’s solo at 1:35 is subtly cool. I wrote about transitions earlier, and check out what the band does just before 2:13, throwing in a measure to ease into Plant’s “na na.” Later, at 3:17 they transition into a sort of 50s rock-and-roll style coda to bring the song and album to a close. It’s a great ending, in the show-biz tradition of big bands or stage extravaganzas, and I have to agree with Plant when he exclaims, “Oh, it’s so good!”

Led Zeppelin were so good indeed. They had a sound of their own that could be applied to any style, I’d say. I don’t dislike their blues, and I love their folk-rock, but I love when they’re borrowing entire styles from elsewhere instead of borrowing songs. Houses of the Holy has everything I love about the band.

Track Listing:
“The Song Remains the Same”
“The Rain Song”
“Over the Hills and Far Away”
“The Crunge”
“Dancing Days”
“D’yer Mak’er”
“No Quarter”
“The Ocean”

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25th Favorite: The Fine Art of Surfacing, by The Boomtown Rats

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The Fine Art of Surfacing. The Boomtown Rats.
1979, Columbia. Producer: “Mutt” Lang and Phil Wainman.
Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Fine Art of Surfacing, the third album by Ireland’s The Boomtown Rats, is at times cool, skinny-tie new wave and at times theatrical, Broadway bombast. It’s all tied together by terrific guitar and organ work. Bob Geldolf’s warbling voice on clever, insightful lyrics is the constant throughout all the songs. He pulls no punches, whether his topic is violence, suicide or humans’ indifference to suffering, but it never feels heavy, and it always makes you want to dance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve enthused and reminisced and admitted embarrassing facts about the early days of MTV several times in this little project of mine. I try not to overdo it, but the channel had an impact on me. The launch of MTV in late summer, 1981, coincided with my first semester of high school, and due to the combination of my love of music, my age and the marketing geniuses at the channel, it left a mark on me. I think music fans of all ages have a time in their life when they first realized the importance of music in their lives, and the events and experiences of that realization remain a part of them as a music fan, and as a person, for the rest of their lives.

My friend’s dad was a young man in New York City in the 1950s, and he went to all the little jazz joints and saw all the big jazz names – Miles, Bird, Monk, ‘Trane – in tiny clubs with a handful of other folks. He speaks of those days – of seeing Monk drive off to get ice cream with friends just before a brilliant set at The Five Spot – with intensity and reverence, in details as if they happened a few days ago. One can tell that all other musical experiences in his life are measured against those days. He may have heard things he’s liked better, maybe he hasn’t pulled out a jazz record in several years, but those days and nights in Manhattan jazz clubs set the bar.

I worked with a guy who saw The Beatles live in San Francisco twice and had an 8mm home movie of his family black-and-white TV showing their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I know folks who got into The Grateful Dead in the early 70s, have seen dozens of their concerts and traveled along with them. I know a guy who was bored by rock music until he heard The Ramones in ’76; I know people from New York City who experienced the Hip Hop and Rap revolution in the early 80s right in their own neighborhoods. Music fans often have a time in their life, be it one night or an era, that sets the stage for everything else. For me, it was MTV in the early 80s.

Before MTV, my knowledge of music was directly related to whatever came out of my radio, and whatever my two sisters played. My eldest sister had some classic rock albums. My other sister was a huge Top 40 fan, bought a lot of cassettes, and was the No. 1 Fan32 of Central PA’s nearly-went-bigtime 80s band The Sharks. I listened to all of it with them, but I didn’t really have my own music.

Before MTV, music was really a mostly-aural experience. You figured there were humans behind those sounds you heard, and you guessed they were playing instruments and singing, but as for what they looked like, well, if you didn’t get music magazines (and nobody in our house did, really) all you had to go by were album covers. If you wanted to see them perform (and you didn’t have a concert venue close by), you had to wait for them to appear on TV, on a talk-show or variety show, or music shows like American Bandstand or Solid Gold.

MTV changed that, by letting you see the bands behind the music. For many folks, this was when music all went south, when “image” – which had always been a considerable component of the pop music biz – became, to many, more important than the songs. But as a 14 year old kid, I wasn’t so impressed by the image of the acts; I noticed them, and I’m sure image helped suck me in. But the coolest part of MTV (for me) was all the music by artists that I’d never heard of before, particularly UK artists.

MTV was the entry point into the US for many UK and Irish bands, sparking what became known as “The Second British Invasion,” the first having been during the early/mid-60s, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and a million lesser acts crossed the Atlantic to give the kids here a thrill. There were plenty of great US bands back around 198133, but the British bands were on the music video bandwagon early, and when a channel came on that needed 24 hours of programming per day, well, those UK videos were ready for the taking. By July 16, 1983, 20 of the top 40 singles in the U.S., including 7 of the top 10 singles, were by UK artists.

And it’s true, the acts did usually have an image. But I was already a fan of image, even before MTV. I loved Cheap Trick, and their zany guitarist Rick Neilsen. I was already a fan of the weird and catchy American band Devo. The Brits just seemed to have thousands more artists in that vein: bands who had a look that they incorporated into the music. Devo was nerdy, jittery, and futuristic in both style and sound. A Flock of Seagulls changed “nerdy” to “peculiar” but did the same thing. Adam and The Ants were pirates with a tribal beat. Madness were retro ragamuffins playing catchy ska songs with horns. JoBoxers and Dexy’s Midnight Runners did something similar without the horns and ska.

But I didn’t like the music because of the image, I liked it because the songs were catchy and fun. If it was all about image, I’d have never liked all the androgynous and cross-dressing British bands. After all, I was a 14 year old, rural 80s boy, unprepared for that level of tolerance and acceptance. But still I liked songs by The Human League and Eurythmics and even Culture Club, although I didn’t admit it to many. Other acts with an image I didn’t care for included Duran Duran, The Cure, Billy Idol … but still I liked some of their songs.

If so many of those acts seemed to be purely successful marketing achievements, well there were also plenty of British and Irish acts on MTV that were serious musicians, whose image just seemed to be about making music. XTC, U2, Peter Gabriel, Squeeze, The Fixx and The Jam. There were one-hit wonders, no-hit wonders, ska bands, more ska bands, and even a few acts I’d heard before MTV who were also part of this whole revolution.

As much as I loved many of these artists’ songs, I never really considered getting albums by them. I was buying albums by AC/DC and Rush and Yes. To me, as catchy and fun as the British Invasion songs could be, the bands didn’t seem foundationally sound enough to support an entire album’s worth of music. My sister, Liz, however, did have some cassettes by some of these bands. One of her best friends, a cool, funny girl named Leeanne, worked the best of all possible early-80s teen dream jobs: clerk at the Mall record store. She seemed to know everything about music, and if I saw her working at the mall I’d try to ask her about what was good. She seemed to know about bands before they even hit MTV.

I knew The Boomtown Rats, an established Irish band that, to me, seemed to be part of the Second British Invasion, solely from one song that played on MTV, and sometimes on AOR radio. That song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” the lead single from The Fine Art of Surfacing, was a piano song, with an orchestral arrangement. It seemed cute at first, with its Garfield-esque sentiments. Actually, the song’s lyrics are about one of the first of, sadly, many gun massacres at schools in The United States, the only country where, apparently coincidentally (?) random public shooting massacres are routine and civilians can own battlefield weapons. It’s a terrific song, with great vocals and harmonies, and a showcase for the band’s keyboardist, Johnnie Fingers. But with its epic, earnest arrangement, it’s not something I’d want an album’s worth of. As much as I liked the song on MTV, I never thought about buying The Fine Art of Surfacing. But Leeanne told me the band was good, and then I saw the cassette in my sister’s collection. I listened to her copy a lot, then finally bought my own. The energetic songs and interesting arrangements had me hooked. The band seemed to be more than a marketing exercise, and there was more to The Fine Art of Surfacing than a sad, epic piano song.

The album’s first track, “Someone’s Looking At You,” had me hooked right away.

I like the simple acoustic guitar that opens the song and sets the stage, and the way this introduction builds through the addition of voices, organ, drums, until it kicks in at 0:30 with electric guitar and singer Bob Geldof’s warbling voice stating “On a night like this/ I deserve to get kissed/ at least once or twice.” There’s cool electric guitar cutting through the verses, and a desperation to the group vocals beginning at 1:15. The vocals’ urgency increases through the second verse, on lyrics about paranoia and anxiety, until the chorus bursts at 2:08, with a bouncing bass from Pete Briquette behind it. Bob Geldolf’s voice is unusual and shaky; during the breakdown at 3:00 he sounds almost like a cartoon character. But his voice delivers emotion and connects those emotions to the lyrics.

An example is the song “Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby),” written by keyboardist Johnnie Fingers, who wore pajamas onstage, and so perhaps was inclined to write a song titled “Sleep.”

Geldolf’s voice sounds perfectly exhausted and distraught on lyrics about insomnia. The band was fond of including sounds and noises in the background of their songs, and “Sleep” features this, with moaning groans at 1:00 behind “sick and tired” lyrics, and a rhythmic “shushing” in the background at 1:20 while Geldolf’s voice spirals into dejection. It’s a very theatrical song that keeps enough of a foot in the rock door to keep me satisfied.

The song “Having My Picture Taken” includes sound effects and a photographer’s voice. Simon Crow’s drums propel a vaguely caribbean beat, and a rockabilly-ish guitar strums along. The chorus is sing-along great, and there’s a nifty guitar solo about 1:55. It’s a cool song about taking pictures with a sound that’s hard to define.

There’s much theatricality in the Boomtown Rats and Bob Geldolf. Geldolf did some acting, famously playing the lead character “Pink” in Alan Parker’s film adaptation Pink Floyd – The Wall. And his efforts mounting Live Aid certainly demonstrate a willingness to think on a grand scale. This theatricality is present on “Nothing Happened Today.”

With it’s workday whistle and call-and-response vocals, it sounds like it could be part of a Broadway show. As the title suggests, the song’s about nothing happening, apart from Harry Hooper buying a toupee. The song has some cool timbale drums and some (frankly, dated sounding) hooting synth sounds. But there’s nifty guitar guitar riffs in the background. It’s a short, peppy song – which is another type of song the band favors. “Nice N Neat” is three minutes of energy, guitar, drums and questioning religion. “Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)” is a bit longer, but retains the new wave keyboard sound.

My favorite of the New Wave, skinny-tie, keyboard songs is the frantic “Keep It Up.”

I think it’s about sex? “Snap me in your breach/ I wanna be your bullet.” Could be. It reminds me of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions composition, with words spit out fast, a whirly organ, and drums & bass propelling it all forward, forward. The backing harmonies are cool, and the chorus (0:47) is catchy as hell. Plus, it has a false ending (not shown on the video) which I almost always love.

The Fine Art of Surfacing is a great album, with great tracks, but my two favorites combine the new-wave energy with Big-Arena-Rock theatricality, and blend them with Bob Geldolf’s fine storyteller lyrics. I haven’t talked much about his lyrics, but he can turn a phrase and conjure an image with the best.

“Diamond Smiles” tells the story of a beautiful socialite’s suicide at a glamorous party, an act remembered by the society crowd as having been done with “grace and style.”

It starts with a subtle electric guitar and Geldolf’s pinched voice. The song has those Phil Spector-Girl Group drums that I love, which helps the build up of the song. Nice harmony vocals are added the second time through the verse, then the energy backs off for another round of verses. This builds to the chorus: “They said she did it with grace/They said she did it with style,” and Diamond eventually goes out “kicking at the perfumed air.” The lyrics say so much about a type of person, a type of social stratum, in such a clever, acerbic way. The song next goes into a long “la la” fade out. The song is singalong catchy and fun, yet dark and pointed.

Another song that comments on society, this time the office-job stiffs trying to stay sane until the end of the day, is the wonderful album-closer “When the Night Comes.”

This is one of my favorite songs of all time. I love the instrumentation, the acoustic guitar mixed with electric, even the swooping organ, and I love the spirit of the song, and Geldolf’s vocal performance. It’s bouncy, fun to sing, and I could listen to it every day. There’s an acoustic guitar solo at about 0:17 that sets the stage, then the bass takes over to support Geldolf’s barrage of words. They’re all about the drudgery of the working life, and the freedom most everyone is striving for. Meanwhile there are terrific oohs and ahhs, harmonies, whirling organ, piano … it’s a celebration in song! At 2:31, when Frankie decides to call the woman from work, there’s an ascending stop/start section that builds to a dual electric/acoustic guitar solo at 3:00, which slows at 3:28, then builds again, and it all just sounds like the ecstatic feelings you get when the one you asked on a date says yes! Of course, they wouldn’t be Geldolf lyrics if he didn’t remind you at the end of the song that you’re still chained to your desk …

I Want My MTV!” they said, and I understood. It was new and exciting, just like the best parts of being a teenager. And like being a teen, some of it was bullshit, some of it was uncomfortable, and some of it leaves you thinking nowadays, “what were we thinking?” But it left an impact on me, and without it I might not have discovered some favorite records – like The Fine Art of Surfacing.

Track Listing:
“Someone’s Looking At You”
“Diamond Smiles”
“Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)”
“Having My Picture Taken”
“Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby)”
“I Don’t Like Monday”
“Nothing Happened Today”
“Keep It Up”
“Nice N Neat”
“When the Night Comes”

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