58th Favorite Album

OK Computer. Radiohead.
1997, Capitol. Producer: Radiohead and Nigel Godrich.
Purchased 1997.


58nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: One of the strongest, most interesting 2/3 of an album I’ve ever heard! The sounds are cool, and the songs range from soaring epics to soft lullabies. Singer Thom Yorke has a knack for melodies, the rhythm section is top-notch, and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood is one of the most creative minds in rock. Halfway into this album, I’m sure it’s destined for top-10, but the last few songs don’t deliver on the promise.
The people who today know me as the debonair, charming,clooney some-would-say-George-Clooney-esque bon-vivant and social butterfly, might find it hard to believe I didn’t have a lot of dates in high school. But it’s true – I didn’t. Believe it or not, I was awkward as a teen-ager, both in looks and actions. Chubby, with bad hair and little knowledge of style, my unease among people and lack of self-esteem didn’t provide the necessary components for a personality that could easily overcome my appearance. However, mine was a classic “ugly-duckling” story: I am now a beautiful swan.

As this recent photo demonstrates, given the proper angle, the term 'George-Clooney-esque' describes the author perfectly. 'Beautiful Swan' is also apt.

Because of my lack of success with girls, including multiple invgffailed attempts across many years of teen-ager-dom at trying to get girls to like me, I don’t think I was ever happier in my first 18 years of life than when I got my first real girlfriend. I say “real girlfriend” to rule out a brief romance with, and planned marriage to, a girl, “Debbie,” in kindergarten; I don’t mean to imply that I had a series of fake girlfriends, or even one fake girlfriend. I didn’t even know how to get the fake girls to like me.

When I say “like me,” I mean “like me-like me,” the friendzonefirst-person version of “Of course she likes you! But she doesn’t really like you-like you.” I was generally well-liked by boys and girls through Middle School and High School – a nerd, sure, but not so strange that I endured beatings or significant bullying. But this likability kept me within the “Friend Zone” with basically every single girl I ever liked. I was a perpetual Duckie.

But in the late summer before my senior year of high school, my three years of toiling in the marching band remarkably and unexpectedly paid ACTUAL social status dividends when, during rehearsals for our football halftime show, a cute patrickbandbaton-twirler in my grade named Jenny called me over and introduced me to another cute baton-twirler, a sophomore (not) named Bonnie. Jenny said, “You stand near Bonnie when you play your solo, so I thought I should introduce you to her.” Now, my lack of success with girls during high school was in part due to my inability to recognize when a girl liked me. But in this case, Jenny practically slapped me across the face and shouted, “Hey!! This girl likes you! I MEAN LIKES YOU-LIKES YOU, DUMMY!” This time I got the message.

Bonnie was cute and funny and smart, and best of all, she seemed to think the same of me. At first we would talk at band practice, and then I got her phone number. This meant I could call and offer her a ride to band practice. This meant I’d have an opportunity to say goodnight when I dropped her off. This meant I firstkisswould have to a) figure out if I should kiss her goodnight, and then, depending on the outcome, b) ACTUALLY DO IT! This meant the first time I drove her home from band practice I was sweating and woozy and fearing how I might screw things up when we got to her driveway. When I stopped the car, she said thank you and leaned over and gave me a long kiss on the lips!!! This meant I drove home happier than I had ever been.

I don’t remember any declaration of going steady, nothing formal like the “pinning” I’d seen on Happy Days and other shows about the 50s. In the 80s, we just sort of started walking in the halls together and holding hands and answering “yes” when asked, “Are you going with Bonnie?” It was understood that we’d go to the Homecoming Dance together, that we’d go meet at The Mall on weekends, that we’d make arrangements to go to movies or to each others’ homes.

handholdingWe made out some, which was fun, although rather stressful. So many questions: “Should I do something different with my hands?” “Should I tell her my neck hurts and ask to switch seats?” “This has been fun, but would it ruin things to say I want to go back to watching the movie now?” We didn’t do anything physical besides kiss, which was fine by me. After we broke up, Bonnie called me in tears because some girl I didn’t know told her that she heard we’d broken up because Bonnie didn’t “put out.” I told her it wasn’t true, but I didn’t admit that I had been terrified the whole time that she’d WANT TO do more than kiss. I mean, I’d think about it, sure, but it was sort of like thinking about driving on the PA Turnpike: I’d only recently learned how to start a car; I’d need to learn way more about its buttons and dials, not to mention yielding and merging, before I even considered heading up an on-ramp.

If it sounds like it was boring … well, it was – after a while. It was amazing at first,telephone the kissing, the hanging out, the knowledge that someone liked you. Those happy feelings carried on for several weeks, maybe a few months. But after a while, I got bored. A good example of why were our phone conversations. It was apparent to both of us that, as part of “going with” each other, we should talk on the phone regularly. But what to discuss was really unclear. After a quick rundown of the day (“I have math homework.”), the friends (“Josh made a joke in American Lit.”), and the possible future plans (“Lori is having a party on Saturday.”) we both were at a loss. It was awkward – we’d sit there and just sort of breathe at each other, both of us with nothing to say, and unable to figure an appropriately conversational and gentle version of “Look, I like you and all, but this call is really boring now so I’mcostanza hanging up.” Then, when a decision to hang up did arrive, the insipid, nauseating exchanges of “You hang up, no you hang up” were excruciating. The phone calls began to feel pointless, much like the entire “going with” experience.

Of course, being 17 and having very little experience relating with other humans apart from my two best friends, I had no idea what to do. My friends weren’t good comparators: I had never (and still haven’t) made out with either of them, and we’d never stayed on the phone breathing at each other. I was at a loss. I thought Bonnie was nice and I really liked her, but I just didn’t want to spend my time with her anymore. I finally called her up and said some version of “It’s not you, it’s me.” In retrospect, I should have told her in person, and I shouldn’t have told her an hour before the Big Game – a basketball game against our rival high school that was one of the social highlights of the year. I rationalize it by thinking, “Well, I was clueless, and there’s never a good way to break up with someone,” but it was a really lousy way to do it.

Some experiences in life start off amazing, and the fact thatsall2that they don’t maintain that ability to amaze shouldn’t diminish one’s appreciation for the entirety of the experience. I look back fondly at my time with Bonnie; I can still feel the excitement of that first kiss, (and all those kisses); the happiness that someone was waiting by the cafeteria stairway just for me; the joy in sharing private laughs; the fantasy of driving on the turnpike … Some things fizzle out, and it’s just the way it goes.

And this brings me to Radiohead’s album OK Computer.

As with (probably) most people my age, creepmy first introduction to Radiohead was through the video for their song “Creep,” which was played nearly round-the-clock on MTV in 1992. The 90s turned out to be an era for one-hit-wonders that rivaled any other. In 1992, the song “Creep” seemed to ensure that Radiohead was destined to share “Wait, what’s that band again?” status with acts like The Lightning Seeds and Urban Dance Squad. At a party around 1996, a friend tried to convince me that the band’s latest record, The Bends, was excellent, but I scoffed – no way were the “Creep” creeps making decent music, I was sure.

Then sometime around the summer of 1997, I was home sick from work. I was on the couch flipping through TV stations, and figured I’d check MTV to see if “Pop Up Video” was on. It wasn’t. But I did see one of the weirdest, coolest videos for one of the oddest, coolest songs I’d ever seen: Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” I couldn’t believe this song was by the “Creep” creeps.

I’ve often heard one song from a record, then rushed out to buy it and found myself greatly disappointed by most everything else on it. (I’m looking at you, New Miserable Experience.) But OK Computer grabbed me right from the first twenty seconds of the album opener, “Airbag.”

Phil Selway’s drum beat is funky and odd and propels the song, colingand when Colin Greenwood’s bass pops in about 32 seconds in, a unique rhythmic table is set for the rest of the song to build on. Singer Thom Yorke’s simple melody draws in the listener, and the guitar lines and assorted noises create a spooky and powerful backdrop for his sneering vocals and inscrutable lyrics to swim through. I love how Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s guitars work together, and also Jonny’s solo at 2:25. But what makes the song extra-cool to me is the false ending at 3:28. Strange squeaks arise, and Selway and Colin fit tightly played rhythms into them, but then at around four minutes the band re-enters and runs out the song, revising the main guitar riff. Clearly, as a Beatles fan, I can’t say this is the most mind-blowing song I’ve ever heard, but it left an immediate, long-lasting impression. This song is like that first kiss by a first girl/boyfriend, those first moments when you realize, “Wow. This may be the best thing ever.”

thomBut things get even better by song two! Just like your new, first Significant Other will randomly spring a flower on you, or unexpectedly put an arm around you, and make you fall even harder, “Paranoid Android” pops up to surprise and amaze the listener. The video, above, can be distracting because it’s so weird – but the song is epic. It opens with a quiet acoustic guitar surrounded by wiggly electric guitars, haunting electric noises, and Yorke’s unique vocal style again singing hard-to-grasp lyrics about modern life’s futile pursuits. At 1:57, the second part begins, and by 2:09 the song quickly moves into a 7/8 time signature for a few bars, then back to 4/4, proof that Selway and Colin G. are a top-notch rhythm section. The song gets aggressive quickly, starting with Yorke’s increasing venom and a cacophony of rock starting at 2:42. The next minute is a frenzy, as selwayJonny screeches one of my favorite guitar solos ever starting at 3:00, and by 3:17 is back in 7/8 time. It all ends suddenly when Part 3 begins, around 3:27. It’s a choral section, really, with multiple voices – soft and gentle, yet building to a splatter of further aggression at 5:37, and a reintroduction of the main theme, with another excellent solo. The entire song is brilliant.

So here you sit, young lover. A week or two into your first real relationship, and I’ll tell you what will happen: it will stay excellent, and maybe even get a bit better. Something will happen – maybe you’ll find out that like you, he also has an older sister in college, or that both of your moms go to the same hair salon and probably know each other. Somehow, by some small token, your belief that this is “for real” will be cemented in the same way “Subterranean Homesick Alien” cements OK Computer as a record for the ages.

This may be my favorite Radiohead song ever. It’s moving – one of their few songs in which the lyrics actually resonate with me. As a kid who usually felt out of place in his jonnysmall hometown, the idea of getting away was always on my mind – even when I didn’t realize it. Selway’s drumming is once again remarkable, but its the guitar that makes this song – Jonny’s leads throughout and the atmospheric touches. He’s not afraid of pedals and computers and anything he can find to make a cool sound, and even though I tend to favor straight-ahead, blues/rock guitar, I love Jonny Greenwood. But what I love most about the song is simply the feeling of it. It gives me chills. It’s unexplainable – much like first love.

And the next experience to plunge you deeper into love that first time around, now that you’ve been dating for 3 weeks, will be something breathtaking and deep that gives a clear indication that you were meant to be together. He admits he cried when the team lost that playoff game; she reveals she cheated on that math test, and you’re the only one who knows. Something will happen to tell you “It’s really real now – not kid stuff.” It will feel much like the breathtaking power of “Exit Music (For a Film)”

It’s a cinematic song, obviously, given the title, the lyrics telling the hopeful end of what appears to have been a sad story. It’s just Yorke and an acoustic guitar, with keyboards that sound like human voices. Sounds of children playing add to the feeling, and the band breaks in at 2:48 and – as with most songs on the album – builds to an emotional release at 3:20, a powerful, rolling synth bass carrying the weight behind Yorke’s belting. edoIt subsides to quiet guitar and voice, leaving a memory behind. It’s not that every song is getting better, but with every song the album is building a case for being one of the all-time greats in my book.

In a first love, the unexpected will happen, and sometimes it will be wonderful. It doesn’t have to be huge – for me, I always remember Bonnie’s house as the first place I ever had microwave popcorn. That sounds unimportant and funny, but my family had only recently bought a microwave by 1984 when I was going with Bonnie – they still seemed sort of fancy to me, and I was skeptical of them. But Bonnie’s popcorn changed my views. A little thing, but a lasting memory. To this point in OK Computer, Radiohead has been mostly about power and weirdness, so the lovely song “Let Down” is a bit of a surprise. It again has really cool guitar work, this time dueling guitars of Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood – subtle, intricate figures that at times sound like they’re playing a different song than the rest of the band. Yorke weaves a nice melody throughout, and in a gentler voice sings a song that again speaks to frustrations with the modern world.

Once again, Radiohead pulls their trick of seeming to end a song, around 2:31 this time. radiohead1But once again they build it up, this time to a thrilling last verse, from 3:40, with great harmony vocals. If this album is your first girl/boyfriend, at this point in the relationship you are feeling quite certain that you will be married for life. And the next song, “Karma Police,” does nothing to diminish the good feelings.

This is the “hit” from the album, hitting #14 on the US “Hot Modern Rock Tracks” list. I don’t think it’s a great song, but it is a fine addition to such an outstanding album. Piano-driven, with wry lyrics about how annoying others around us can be, it also has a pretty great guitar part – as most all the songs have so far.

In many relationships, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where everything goes wrong; in others, there is no doubt. Maybe you find your new boyfriend going through your purse, and he plays it off cool, like “I really needed a paper clip, and I thought you might have one,” radiohead2 … but still, you have no idea how long he was rooting around in there, and wonder why he didn’t just ask. Maybe you find a note in your car that fell out of your girlfriend’s backpack, in which a friend asks “does he know anything?” and references a party that you didn’t attend. Or maybe you have a huge fight about some random detail, and what’s revealed in that fight – whether words or actions – causes you to rethink your entire appreciation of what has come before.

Song #7, “Fitter, Happier” is that fight.

The song is just a stream of words from a voice synthesizer. The Beatles surrounded “Revolution 9,” John Lennon’s avant garde sound collage, with 29 other songs on “The White Album,” and even with all that cover people still question the band’s decision to release it. On OK Computer, even with 6 amazing tracks preceding it, “Fitter, Happier” makes me feel angry, cheated; annoyed that I have to skip over it every time I listen. It makes me think the band thinks I’m a chump.

But then – song 8. “Electioneering.” We are rocking again, and I can try to put the previous song out of my mind.

“Electioneering” has a raucous guitar, and radiohead3a ramshackle feel (accented by a cowbell!) that allows me to grant forgiveness to the band for the previous song. It’s as straightforward a rock song as I’ve heard from the band. It’s a protest song of sorts, lyrically challenging the idea that democratic elections can actually work in individuals’ best interests. Relationship-wise, it’s like a small gift after the big fight: it doesn’t make everything all right, but at least there’s an acknowledgment of the difficulty. There is hope that the ship can be righted.

“Climbing Up the Walls” fails to right the ship.

It’s a slow dirge, with customary squiggles radiohead4and beeps and a pretty great guitar solo. But there’s a lack of urgency, a certain somberness with a tinge of drudgery – which is far different than what has come before. Many of the previous songs were mid-tempo, or slow, but they just felt different than this. It’s the type of song that makes me reflect on how great all the previous songs were; except for that one. For the first time in this relationship, you are questioning whether your initial instincts were accurate.

No Surprises” simply raises further questions. It’s a lovely song, reminiscent of an old Claudine Longet Christmas song called “Snow” that my parents used to play. But as pretty as it is, it sounds repetitive, and when the band tries to do a customary “Radiohead build up,” at around 3 minutes, it just feels flat. In relationship terms, you’re now starting to wonder if you were duped earlier: maybe it was all a lie, and THIS is the real person.


How did it all go so wrong? You are hurt, angry. The little things that used to mean so much – there’s a false ending in the next song, “Lucky,” which once again morphs into a terrific guitar solo restating the main theme, the type of thing I used to rave about – now just seem tiresome, like imitations of the good that came before. Those quirks you put up with that used to say “unique” – like incomprehensible lyrics – now simply say “weirdo,” radiohead6calling into question your own ability to make good decisions. Has the other person changed? Have you? At this point, does it matter?

Fitting, then, that the album’s closing track, “The Tourist,” sounds so much like a breakup set to music. Sad, repetitive, almost funereal, the fact that it has some beautiful harmony vocals simply makes it more poignant. I listen to the song and imagine a slideshow of happier times: me, excitedly listening to “Airbag;” me and “Paranoid Android” being weird and goofy together; “Subterranean Homesick Alien” picking me up off my feet and spinning me around … “The Tourist” ends with a single tone struck on a bell, leaving a sense of cold finality. “Yep,” it seems to say, “that really happened. And now you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what it all meant.”

But try and remember: the good was very, very good. The bad wasn’t awful, and could have been worse. Life is strange and we never know where events will take us. But if we can move through life and try to focus on the positive, and try to forgive ourselves and those around us for the negative, we’ll be happier with the memories we’ve made. On the whole, OK Computer makes me very, VERY happy!! I don’t regret the relationship at all. Despite its ups and downs, it was exactly as it should have been. And I’m a better person for having gone through it.

Track Listing
“Paranoid Android”
“Subterranean Homesick Alien”
“Exit Music (For A Film)”
“Let Down”
“Karma Police”
“Fitter Happier”
“Climbing Up The Walls”
“No Surprises”
“The Tourist”

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Filed under Albums 60 - 51

59th Favorite Record

Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin.
1969, Atlantic. Producer: Jimmy Page.
Home bootleg, 1988. Purchased 1997.

album led zeppelin

59 nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Debut album from one of the most iconic bands of the rock era. It’s a record of heavy guitar blues, quite different stylistically from the sound that would come to define them later. The musicianship is incredible on both the slow, thick, oozing songs and the upbeat, hard-charging ones, and they all serve as a basis for laments about Robert Plant’s love-life. This record is one of the seeds of Heavy Metal.
dalailamaOne would think there are very few “once in a lifetime” situations in life. The very name – Once In A Lifetime – seems to imply there would be very few. It seems unreasonable to expect that someone would, say, return from space on a Monday, catch and land a 350-pound tuna on Tuesday, stumble upon a new dinosaur species on Wednesday and finish off the week experiencing all that goes into the first few days of being identified as the 15th Dalai Lama. No, Once-In-A-Lifetime events are special and rare!

However, a different perspective reveals that you likely experience handshakeseveral Once-In-A-Lifetime situations each week, and possibly (depending what kind of job you have) dozens per day! Every time you meet another person for the first time, you have had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll never meet that person for the first time again.

As that old shampoo commercial used to say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” anxietyThe value of a good first impression is understood by most everyone; the fear of making a bad first impression is part of what is reportedly the third most common psychological problem in the country, Social Anxiety Disorder. There are thousands of tips out there for overcoming fear of first meetings; for making good first impressions at work, during a job interview, and on your first day at a job; for making good first impressions on dates, both for women and for men; even for making good first impressions on a new pet!! It is clear, we as humans – social animals that we are – value first impressions.

First Impressions cut two ways. On the one hand, you want to make sure the other person thinks positively of you. But you also want to be sure you’re accurately assessing the other person. I’ve fumbled both of these objectives at various times. There were the innumerable times, for example, that others’ first experience with me included some kind of drunken, ridiculous, perhaps-borderline-illegal actions on my buffalopart, characteristics that are hard to forget. I’ve also completely discounted people upon meeting them, only to find out later that I was completely misguided.

It wasn’t just the booze that kept me from making a good first impression. I used to be really unsure of myself while sober, and lack of confidence is a real first-impression-killer. First dates were very difficult – but I had very few because it was even harder to ask women out! Typically, I’d ask someone out while I was inebriated – probably not wasted-drunk, as it’s unlikely a woman would’ve said yes to someone in that state. But I’d be a little tipsy, a little more charming than usual, and the invitee would usually also be a little tipsy, a little more amenable than usual, and somehow we’d agree to go somewhere together. Then I’d get to the restaurant, for example, and I’d … eat!

boo-radleyYou see, I was a nervous, quiet, shivering mess at first meetings. I often chose not to say anything. I’d just smile and nod in response to even the most innocuous direct questions. I barely asked others questions and I avoided eye-contact. Meeting me was like meeting Boo Radley: unless some “Scout” figure vouched for me, you were left rattled and bewildered and shooed me off your porch. Worst of all, I clung to those first-meeting symptoms for second, third, etc, meetings as well. Such were the depths of my affliction, the family of my good friend Dr. Dave thought I was a Selective Mute for the first three years I knew them!

I eventually overcame my problem by becoming a professional standup comic. ermSee, the booze had tricked me into thinking I had a certain … “something.” I didn’t, but that certain “something” would magically develop within me after just a few years of grimly trying to get the attention of strangers in the sad cafes and empty bars of entry-level comedy work. That “something” is this: a high baseline comfort level among people I don’t know. The excellent comedian Tim McIntire has spoken of the “Jedi mind-trick” that comedians develop to convince a room full of strangers that they should listen. And although I learned the trick, I can’t explain the trick; but it definitely has something to do with confidence. And it is probably the only real transferable skill from stand-up comedy to the real world.

wingmanAs a child of the 70s and a teen of the 80s, I can’t remember when I wasn’t aware of Led Zeppelin. Before I ever knew any of their songs, I saw their posters at carnivals as prizes for games of chance – typically featuring a flying man or a creepy old dude in a cape holding a lantern. When I reached middle school, I saw their t-shirts on the tough, scary 8th graders who looked like they’d beat me up. By my teen years, each school year began in Zep-tember, and they were one of my “most important bands.” The writer Chuck Klosterman, posterin his book Killing Yourself to Live, opines 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.” He then goes on to hilariously, and believably, make the case that they are the only band for which this is true. For me, it was as a high-schooler, when I listened to Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin “IV,” … Nearly all the Led Zeppelin. About the only Zep I didn’t pay attention to was the first one, which many of my like-minded friends had assured me was not rockin’ enough. I took them at their word – I never explored.

Sometime in 1988, my friend Dr. Dave sent me a cassette tape in the mail. I was learning to play bass, and was making plans to travel to Dr. Dave’s house to play music with him and his brother, the beginnings of the world-famous band JB and The So-Called Cells. On one side of cassettethe tape were a few songs that he, on guitar, and our drummer friend, Chris, had recorded in hopes I could learn the bass parts: Heart’s “Barracuda;” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting;” perhaps AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” He had recorded the songs on a cassette that was blank on Side 2. But the cassette case indicated, in Dr. Dave’s unmistakeable handwriting, that Side 1 contained “Led Zeppelin: Their First. (And their best.)” I ended up listening to Side 1 far more than Side 2. It immediately hooked me. The first song was like nothing I’d heard before.

I was explaining earlier that feigned confidence, the ability to “act like you know,” has been a valuable life lesson. When you are in a new situation, just act like it’s part of your regular routine, and you’ll place yourself ahead of the game. For example, if you’re a rock band and you’re going to release a debut rock record, you’d do well to start off with a song that assures every listener that, indeed, you are fully in command of the situation. Maybe a song like “Good Times, Bad Times.”

zep-poster“Good Times, Bad Times” is the first song off of the first album by Rock behemoths Led Zeppelin, and it is likely my favorite “Side 1, Track 1” from any debut album, and certainly Top-5 for all albums. It presents the type of First Impression that everyone strives for, announcing the band as confident, able and interesting – someone I’d definitely like to hear again soon. What makes it so special for me is the fact that the individual players – drummer John Bonham, bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant – display such astounding gifts on the song, but their virtuosity doesn’t overshadow it. The song is a powerful statement, and it retains its direct, visceral feeling throughout: I noticed its power long before I considered the individual components. And the individual parts are stunning.

bonhamLet’s first consider John Bonham’s drums. Run the googles on “good times bad times drum lesson” and you’ll get pages of people trying to explain how he did what he did. The song begins with two simple notes repeated a few times, with musical tension built by his cymbals and cowbell. Then, at 15 seconds, Bonham throws in a really cool fill to herald Plant’s first verse, going directly into a pulverizing back beat, with an astonishing kick drum pattern. The drumming is solid and heavy and awesome throughout, and that kick drum pattern is so astonishing that there are several web videos devoted simply to it, and even the wikipedia page for the song mentions it. I defy you to name another bass drum part from a debut album first track with which Wikipedia concerns itself.

I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that to make a really great first impression in life, you need to have a terrific rhythm section.jpjones And he was absolutely correct. If you don’t want to be known as the new band with the drummer who’s too good for it, you need a bassist who’s just as sparkling. And John Paul Jones is that. He gets to show his cool, savvy playing in breaks after the chorus – such as 0:58 and 2:04. And if you focus your ears on his bouncing, fluid playing through the entire song, you’ll hear how he anchors Bonham’s playing to the guitar work of Jimmy Page while never sounding boring. As a bass player myself, this is the kind of playing I love – something that isn’t too flashy, but isn’t simple, either. It makes listening enjoyable, but holds the song together, as well.

pageJimmy Page is by most accounts the mastermind behind the band Led Zeppelin, having founded the band, written most of the music and produced all the albums. “Good Times, Bad Times” introduces everyone to Page’s main style: Riff Rock, in which he plays a melodic phrase (a “riff“) over and over while the singer sings. What’s cool about Page, is that he changes things up. There’s one riff for the first verse, beginning at 0:20. But for the second verse, at 1:00, he plays a completely different riff, keeping the song from getting boring, and also better supporting singer Robert Plant’s lower register. This change is the kind of subtlety you’ll find throughout Page’s songwriting and playing. Plus, his solos, at 1:29, atop the furious attack of Bonham and Jones, and after 2:06, answering each of Plant’s verses, are excellent and interesting and air-guitar-inducing.

plantRegarding singer Robert Plant, there’s little to be stated. If there’s ever been a better voice in rock, I’m unaware of it. His ability to both scream and purr effectively are top-notch, but equally impressive is the fact that he can carry a melody while doing either, AND do so expressively. He’s an emotional, interesting singer: his half-speaking, half-shouting, half-singing (which I’m aware is three halves, but Plant is that good!) through the last verse is excellent. His lyrics tend to lean heavily on the “my woman done left me” theme on this album, but he’s singing the blues so I guess it makes sense. It’s true he became the blueprint for every screeching, girly-haired, hyper-sexualized hard-rock belter for the next 20 years, but he did it first: it was HIS first impression. And I think he nailed it.

Plant gets his chance to really shine immediately after, on the quiet/loud heavy blues of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”

The song opens with a sweet acoustic guitar – a frequent stylistic choice for Led Zeppelin’s entire 10-year recording career, and one that would be hijacked by every goofy hair-metal band throughout the 80s.page-acoustic The song is a showcase for Plant, whose indecisive lyrics explain that he has to leave, but that he’s never going to leave … The band shines as well. For example, I love that Bonham comes in strong at 1:02, and 2:02, but that he holds back a little bit, so that he has a little extra explosiveness remaining at 2:27 when the band comes in with full power. The ending of the song is nice, too. Page is not just a screamer on guitar, and songs like this one and – obviously – “Black Mountain Side” show off his subtle and moving acoustic work, as well. (By the way, that’s Viram Jasani playing tabla on “Black Mountain Side.”)

John Paul Jones’s versatility is on display alongside Page’s acoustic guitar on the terrific “Your Time Is Gonna Come.”

Jones plays the organ, along with bass pedals, and immediately creates a dark, chilling atmosphere. Page strums away on acoustic guitar, while Bonham kind of pounds away on the drums, almost like he’s playing a different song. However, it works fabulously, and Bonhamjpjones-organ knows when to ease back and allow Plant the space he needs to lament about one more woman who’s bringing him down. For a guy who supposedly got laid a bunch, Plant sure seems to have been predisposed to choose ladies who treat him badly. The sing-along chorus is great fun, especially during the outro, where Page wails away to the end.

Jones shows off his organ skills on the traditional blues cover of Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me,” too. Plant displays a talent for harmonica on it, as well, as the band trades solos between the verses about an unforgettable woman. The song ends concert1with Plant and Page mimicking each other after 5:37 in what was surely one of their most popular on-stage routines. The slow blues also carry the day on “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Like all of the songs on this album, this one is perfectly suited to Plant’s vocal talents – even though, once again, he’s chosen a woman bound to break his heart. It’s also perfectly suited to Page’s soulful blues guitar. At 1:52 he begins a two-minute solo that must be one of the all-time greats in recorded rock music. It includes furious runs, long-held notes, wide-open spaces, and continues behind Plant on the final verse, in which he throws in great licks, such as the one at 4:19 that sounds like he’s laughing. Note also that during the solo, Bonham tosses in some more of those kick-drum triplets.

My friends told me back in the day that this album wasn’t rockin’, and that’s probably due to all the slow blues jams on it. concert2But the song “Communication Breakdown” is a crunching rocker, which totally stands up alongside the band’s Heavy Metal output in later years. By the way: Plant again is having problems with his lady. The band is on fire throughout, and even gets to contribute backing vocals en masse at the end. But what’s awesome about Led Zeppelin, and this album in particular, is that fact that they don’t have to play fast in order to sound metal and bad-ass. The song “Dazed and Confused,” probably my favorite track, is as slow as any they’ve cut, but the power of Bonham’s drums, Jones’s bass, Page’s guitar and Plant’s vocals create a sound that is the essence of Heavy. Just listen to the first minute.

I love the extended, controlled rolls that Bonham fills in throughout, for example at about 1:22. It must be pointed out that for most of his career, Bonham played mostly four- and five-piece drum kits, bonham1 meaning that he didn’t have scores of finely-tuned equipment encircling him, creating a fortress of batterie within which he sat. He limited himself, and this limitation elicited creativity and interesting performances. For example, listen carefully, and you’ll hear his toms repeating Jones’s bass line throughout the song. Plant sings about … what else, this time claiming it may be the devil’s fault for his women-problems. Page takes an extended solo, beginning with a spooky section at 2:09, in which he uses a violin bow to create his demon sounds, and then crashing into something else at 3:31. Bonham goes nuts, about 4:58, calling the band to transition back to the main riff, about 5:07, and that change is where I tend to get chills. This song is amazing.

The closing track on Led Zeppelin is a close second for favorite on the album. It starts with a simple, memorable exceedingly cool bass line from Jones – perhaps the coolest bass line in Classic Rock.

It’s a strange, multi-part song that starts off as a straightforward blues riff rocker, and Plant again lamenting yet ANOTHER woman who done him wrong. But then, about 2:09, Page plays a sort of fanfare solo that seems to end the song. But Plant has more to say about his problems … At 3:39, against another spooky violin bow section, Plant blames his women problems on his immaturity – although it’s hard to see how immaturity alone could lead to eleven children. zep-band-1He seems to state that all those kids give him a lot of joy, but then reveals, after another break in the song at 5:30, that his joy is actually due to a schoolgirl(!) named Rosie who he’s going off to see!! Bonham plays a shuffling beat, and at 6:09 the song shifts again as Plant proclaims that he is going to get Rosie because he is, after all, “the hunter,” and his wail at 6:57, celebrating his “gun,” is among the most fabulous screams in rock history. I think the fact that he views himself as hunter, implying these women are his prey, really sheds some light on his love-life problems: perhaps when these women find out he’s still out hunting, they’re prone to leave? Or to do a little hunting of their own? Just a thought. As the band returns to the main riff, I believe his final yearning for his woman to come home (I don’t think he means Rosie, by the way, I think it’s the woman he was singing to in the first verse) is likely to fall on deaf ears. But that could lead to another terrific song on Led Zeppelin II about her leaving him!

zep-band-2By the end of Led Zeppelin, the listener is fully comfortable with this new acquaintance and ready to deepen the relationship. It wasn’t weird or objectionable, there were no awkward silences or boorish actions. The new visitor just let you know that it knew what it was doing and that you could look forward to more interactions in the future. Sure, Robert Plant may have dwelled a bit too much on his problems with women, but he was charming enough that it wasn’t an issue. This was a perfectly executed First Impression.

Track Listing:
“Good Times, Bad Times”
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
“You Shook Me”
“Dazed and Confused”
“Your Time Is Gonna Come”
“Black Mountain Side”
“Communication Breakdown”
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”
“How Many More Times”

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Filed under Albums 60 - 51

60th Favorite Album

Z. My Morning Jacket.
2005, ATO. Producer: John Leckie, Jim James.
Purchased 2006.

z album

nutshell60IN A NUTSHELL: Straight-ahead rock, with just enough bends to satisfy. Leader Jim James has a distinctive voice that soars and floats but is always out front, no matter what style song he writes – from jam-band psychedelia to three-minute rave-ups. The rest of the band keeps it all interesting. A record with so many great songs that it’s hard to pick a favorite
I have a soft spot in my musical heart for polka. Maybe it’s in my genes, as my family is generations-deep into its initial settlement of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and Pennsylvania and Polka go hand-in-hand. polkapartyMaybe it’s because my grandfather’s band, “Die Lauterbach German Band,” played polkas and oompah songs and so the music is in my blood. Or maybe it’s simply because as a young child of 4 or 5, I had a stack of about twenty-five 45-rpm polka records in my basement, almost all of them from the Chicago-area label “Jay Jay Records,” and I played them incessantly and “marched around the basement” while I listened, as my mom has told me.

records 45sThose polka records were my first experiences in active participation in my own personal enjoyment of music. I’d go downstairs to the little portable record player, take out some 45s, and place them on the turntable. Then I commenced marching (apparently).

The experience of handling the 45s and reading their labels and watching them spin contributed greatly to my enjoyment. I can recall the fascination I felt eyeing those 45s pressed into clear, yellow plastic, and reading the sparse information provided: “POLKA PAL POLKA. (E. Blatnick). EDDIE BLATNICK and His Polka Pals. 237B. Diana Music. 2:24.” Who was Mr. Blatnick? Where did his Pals sit while they made the record? Diana Music?? Who is she? dick allenThe records didn’t have sleeves, they just lay naked and unashamed inside an old candy box, so I couldn’t find any other information about them.

In addition to the polka records, there were other 45s in that candy box as well. The label I most liked from the non-polka selections was “Drum Boy Records,” which was also from Chicago, and was also run by the same guy who ran Jay Jay Records, Walter “Li’l Wally” Jagiello. The song I liked best from this label was “Let’s Go Go Go White Sox,” by Captain Stubby & Buccaneers (with Li’l Wally Orch.). I wasn’t a White Sox fan, drumboy2but I loved baseball – plus it is an excellent song to march to, and I must have appreciated that. Another Drum Boy record I enjoyed was “My Little Josephine,” – a watered-down, decade-late (it was recorded in 1965) “Rock Around the Clock” ripoff performed by The Don Ralke Orchestra. It’s pretty bad, but does feature a pretty awesome lead guitar throughout. But I can’t imagine its orch-rock swing inspired much marching in me.

That box of 45s contained so much joy! Besides the polka records and Drum Boy singles, 45sthere were lots of pop song novelties from the 50s that I enjoyed (again, likely with minimal marching.) Frankie Laine and Jimmy Boyd packed a 1-2 punch with the single “Let’s Go Fishin’” backed with “Poor Little Piggy Bank.” Phil Harris caused my kindergarten mind to run wild with his classicThe Thing.” And my little brain deduced something vaguely sexual in Guy Mitchell’s “Chicka-Boom,” about a woman whose “shoes paddy-wack in the front and the back while her yellow curls go swingin’.”

But the joy wasn’t simply from the sounds of the songs turntablethat I heard, it was also contained in the physical stack of plastic that I could hold in my hands, and swing onto a hooked thumb. There was joy in the words on the labels, the numbers and letters coding secrets to me: “45-JB-1-244” on a Jubilee 45; “9-62033” on a Coral 45; “249 A” on one of those Jay Jay Records polkas. I derived joy from the motivation and physical actions required to hear those songs. I had to go down to the basement, find the box of records, open the record player, select some songs and place them on the turntable. I had to monitor the songs, and be ready to remove the record linusbefore the needle ran into the label and made that dreaded clicking sound. There was a dance that the records and the record player and I performed together, a connection between us, that was accompanied by those songs we produced together. When the music was good – those polkas, the White Sox, the novelty songs – it all felt right. When the music was bad – the Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Julius LaRosa – it felt as if all three of us were disappointed together. Listening to music was more than just listening to music. It was a process that involved my body and my mind.

Of course, 45s and 33 1/3 LPs were the cassettmain medium for listening to music for all of my young life, so the whole-body experience became deeply ingrained. In my teen years, I got into the convenience of cassettes – particularly blank cassettes, which allowed me to record my albums and take them with me and listen through my wonderful Walkman. This process definitely involved a physical interaction with the media, however if I really liked a record I always preferred having the official label release over a pirated cassette. I wanted to read the packaging, to see what the artist wanted me to know about the work, to hold something in my hands while my boom-box hissed along. Sometime in college cdI was introduced to “Compact Disc technology,” CDs. People liked the clear sound and the convenience, and you still had a little something to hold and read while you listened. There was a bit of backlash to the new-fangled things – most people who are into such things agree the sound quality on CD is inferior to albums, although most people NOT into such things can’t even tell the difference. Some artists were reluctant to release material on the new medium. Others complied, but got their little digs in at the rise of convenience over sound. I eventually switched over as well, which must be obvious if you’re reading this website.

CDs began the digital music revolution, but by the time the revolution really took off in the late 90s – win98when the new 1s and 0s of popular music were swept up in the giant tidal wave of the internet, and together they crushed the seemingly indestructible ship, the S.S. Recording Industry – my life no longer had enough time to devote to the ever-changing modes of compiling recorded music. Napster, KaZaa, LimeWire … they all came and went with barely a disruption to my music consumption habits, which remained confined to CDs and the occasional vinyl bought at a yard sale. But at some point around 2006, the file-sharing storms had mostly subsided, the waters had calmed and I decided to dive in among the flotsam and jetsam remaining after the wreckage of the Recording Industry. So much detritus remained, and among such driftwood as Rhapsody, Zune, and Y! Music, I selected what seemed to be the most stable piece of crap on the sea, ignored the fact that it was drifting further and ipodfurther away from the Microsoft shores I recognized, and joined iTunes.

Around this same time, my local Don’t-Call-It-An-Oldies-Station was playing a great song by a singer with a high-pitched voice for a man called “Off The Record.” It was catchy, had some nice guitar … The band was My Morning Jacket – a name I’d heard over the past few years but with whom I was unfamiliar. I liked it enough to buy the band’s CD. Inspired by some twenty-something co-workers who were also music fans, I decided to make this album my first official digital album purchase. Remembering my love for the meta-information in CD booklets and album covers, and wishing to hold something in my hands, I also downloaded the “Digital Booklet.”

z and itunes

It wasn’t the same. As much as I liked the record (and there are only 59 records I like better!) I still didn’t feel connected to it in the same way that I’ve felt with other records – even those I like less. I don’t picture this record in my head the same way I picture others. platformMost records I love feel like a lake or a pond I can swim in, and the physical object – whether a cassette case, album cover or CD package – is like the platform tethered in the middle of that lake. It’s the place I can swim to and lean on, where I jump off to get to another part of the lake. I can hang out on the platform. Or I can spend the day at the lake and never even touch the platform, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I ever want it. And the digital booklet was no substitute – it was more like a small, inflatable raft with a slow leak, tethered to the shore: practically useless, entirely forgettable. Z has always felt like a lake without a platform.

mmj band 2But I loved the music immediately. Naturally, I burned a CD.

“Off The Record,” that first song I heard by the band, is a fun number that begins with a a guitar riff that sounds straight out of an old Western. It soon transitions into a sort of Reggae song with a straight rock beat.

After the verse, there’s another catchy guitar riff, and the song pumps along with a nice groove. Bandleader/guitarist/singer Jim James has a tenor voice, a la Roy Orbison, and it’s the distinctive sound of MMJ. james 1He has fun making these songs, as many songs feature all kinds of weird sounds and other goings-on in the background – such as the scream-along “right, right, right” around the 1:50 mark. The lyrics seem to be a straightforward request for discretion from a partner. The version played on the radio (which has a pretty cool video) ends at about 3 minutes. But the album version demonstrates what it is about this record that really captured me: the final two-and-a-half minute psychedelic instrumental that continues after 3 minutes. It features some organ, conga drums, some more strange spoken word stuff, and subtle guitar work. It’s the type of song that helped the record show up at #23 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “40 Greatest Stoner Album” list.

Another song in the same vein is the 70s-rock-feeling “Lay Low.”

It’s got terrific guitar work through the verse and chorus, pat hallahanbut drummer Patrick Hallahan is the star of this song. His high-hat keeps the beat steady through a choppy rhythm, propelling the song forward all the time. James sings in a lower register this time, prodding a lover to stay in tonight and chill, but his voice takes off around 1:20, just before that cool riff re-enters. The melody is captivating despite its cluttered wordiness. It’s a nice little song that at the three minute mark explodes into a guitar workout,james broemel and by 3:30 becomes a crushing guitar duel between James and lead guitarist Carl Broemel. It’s a song you can get lost in, with a definite whiff of 70s Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd taking over the final two minutes. It’s great to hear a band like this let loose and wail for a while.

The band lets loose on many of the songs on Z, playing with abandon and recorded in a way that gives the record a live feel. A short song that rips nonetheless is the terrific “What a Wonderful Man.”

According to reports, it’s a song about a former friend of James’s who committed suicide. jim james guitarIt’s a great, ramshackle song that sounds like its about to fall apart several times, built on Hallahan’s sloppy (in a good way) drums and Broemel’s 70’s-sounding Southern Rock lead guitar. It’s short and to the point, with a squeal of joy from James closing it out.

James’s voice – squealing, shouting, reaching for highs and bending for lows – is the keystone of this album, and one of the most recognizable in rock over the past ten or fifteen years. It’s used to full effect on what may be my favorite song on the album, “Gideon.”

It begins simply with a kick drum tom band an arpeggiated guitar riff, and James’s subdued vocals. After about 50 seconds the build starts, cymbals crash … only to pull back and introduce the bass guitar, which helps build the song once more … dramatically this time, to James’s howling at 2:00 – truly a vocal expression on par with some of the great rock and roll screams of all time. It’s a song that is built on feeling and suspense, repetitive but natural, containing enigmatic yet spiritual lyrics.

Jim James’s lyrics are of the oblique style in which nothing is stated directly and listeners can make inferences for themselves. And in a song such as the terrificjames 2 fly v opener, “Wordless Chorus,” as the title suggests, lyrics are entirely absent from the chorus – James choosing instead to use his impressive vocalizations to convey meaning. But James can use his vocal instrument subtly, as well, as on the quiet, gorgeous “Knot Comes Loose.” A similar vocal style is evident on the country-tinged, pedal-steel-featuring “How Could I Know.” It’s an example of James’s knack for writing songs that sound like they’ve been around for years – he writes tunes that are simple and memorable. But he can pull off the unusual as well, like the circusy “Into the Woods,” or the lovely, intricate “It Beats 4 U.”

Vying with the aforementioned “Gideon” for title of my favorite song on this record is the straightforward rocker “Anytime.” It’s got a great, ripping guitar intro and the drums once again are sloppy-in-a-good-way, pushing the song forward constantly.

The thumping, ascending bass line in the chorus meld nicely with James’s melody. The lyrics concert 2admit a problem with communication that the singer’s trying to work on, with the help of wisdom from Madonna.

I suppose it says a lot about a record when I call two songs my “favorite.” So in praising Z, I might as well throw a third selection into the ring as my favorite. The eerie, epic, multi-faceted jam of the would-be album closer “Dondante.”

James’s voice once again carries things here, concertparticularly at the beginning of the song where he’s mostly accompanied simply by drums. But as he sings his mystifying lyrics, the song builds to a nice quiet guitar solo about 2:35 that bridges things until 3:30, when the band enters with full force and grows to still another level of urgency and energy. By 5:30, the energy has gone away as quickly as it entered. There’s a dreamlike quality to the song, again justifying the album’s place on a list of Best Stoner Albums. “Dondante” has the feel of one of those epic songs you’d hear on the radio in the 70s late at night while the DJ left the studio to complete a drug buy.

Of course, in the 70s, a DJ would have handled the actual vinyl album, vinylcould have read the liner notes on the record sleeve, might have gotten lost in the cover art; but by 2005 DJs were just clicking icons on a screen. There is so much progress and genius and hard work and wonder inherent in the fact that what 40 years ago took so much equipment – turntable, amp, speaker, wires, electricity, a piece of vinyl or plastic to hold – is accomplished today with a few finger swipes and taps. We’ve come so far and gained so much, but to me what we lost was significant, as well. I don’t think it affected my appreciation of Z – but how can I tell? Might a physical connection with this record have placed it higher on the list? Are there albums in the upcoming 59 whose packaging enhanced my experience with the music, the physical and visual senses bolstering the aural, therefore placing it ahead of Z? Did that candy box full of 45s ruin me for albums made after 2000? These are questions I’ll never be able to answer, and maybe they don’t matter. Z is a record I love, and I’ll enjoy it on any medium – even though I can’t march along to it.

Track Listing:
“Wordless Chorus”
“It Beats 4 U”
“What A Wonderful Man”
“Off The Record”
“Into The Woods”
“Lay Low”
“Knot Comes Loose”
“How Could I Know”

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Filed under Albums 60 - 51

61st Favorite Album

Songs for the Deaf. Queens of the Stone Age.
2002, Interscope. Producer: Josh Homme, Adam Kasper, Eric Valentine.
Purchased 2003.

songs deaf album

61nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, pounding rock and mellow, moody offerings plus everything in between are found on this excellent album. The musicianship is top-notch, featuring Nirvana/Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums and Josh Homme’s terrifically distinctive guitar work. Drums, guitar, melody, diversity – my list’s usual suspects – are once again featured here.
Brains are funny.funnybrain They’re not “funny Ha Ha,” but they’re more “funny weird” [i.e. Not funny at all]. The brain is the most important organ in the body, beating out the heart and lungs on the basis of the fact that while there is something called a “Heart and Lung Machine,” that takes over for the heart and lung when needed, there isn’t a comparable Brain Machine. (I said “Comparable,” so this sweet device, retailing for $25, doesn’t count.) When the brain stops working, that’s the end.

sherlockThe brain stands alone atop the hierarchy of organs in higher organisms because it is the one organ that is so complex, that functions so mysteriously, that nobody knows for sure what all it does, how it does what it does, or, especially, what its potential could be.

Consider for a moment how well we understand other organs. The heart, for example, has a straightforward purpose and a manner of operation, and both can be summed up pretty easily. Purpose: get blood through the body. Manner of Operation: contract and release in rhythmic pattern. The same can be said for the lungs, even heartlungsthough it’s more complex: Purpose: bring oxygen into the body and put it into the blood. Manner of Operation: diaphragm movement causes suction, oxygen moves in and gets to bloodstream through tiny capillaries.

Those organs were pretty simple, I did them from memory. How about if I pick an organ I don’t know much about, google around a little bit and try to summarize it. Pancreas. Purpose: produce and release enzymes to help digest foods. pancreasOkay, that was easy enough. Manner of Operation: uh, okay. This gets just a little bit more complex. Well, a lot more complex. But basically, some chemicals are released in the gut in response to what we’ve eaten, and those chemicals tell the pancreas to squirt some pancreatic juice into the intestines. So, it’s pretty complex, but it’s not hard to understand. And all vertebrates have a pancreas, and they all do pretty much the same thing, so it’s a pretty routine function.

Okay, now let’s think about how the brain works. Guess what!! You already are, just from reading that first sentence! musclebrainIn fact, you were probably thinking about brains and how they work since you first saw that goofy brain with Groucho nose and glasses, above. Your brain is like that – doing shit you’re not even aware of all the time, even while you sleep. Your brain does so much stuff that we still don’t know what all it does. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that you are your brain.

If that’s the case, then when we go through our two-step “Purpose” and “Manner of Operation” process to describe organ function, it’s complicated right off the bat. Purpose: well, how about EVERYTHING. Manner of Operation: let’s try something here. Imagine a large painting of an orange hanging in a museum, orangethe only painting on this particular wall, and that as you stand there looking at it, the color starts to ooze outward until the shape of the fruit is no longer recognizable. You calculate that the fruit had taken up about 60% of the canvas before it disappeared into what is now simply an orange-colored canvas. That orange color continues to spread off the canvas and soon takes up an entire wall, and when it takes up the entire wall, the wall begins to vibrate and then hum. As you back up a few steps, that hum turns into a woman’s voice singing The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun,” but the voice is out of tune, and as the wall sings, it dislodges itself from the surrounding building and begins a slow, soundless, controlled collapse. And as it collapses you watch it retract into an actual orange which plops onto the floor in the middle of the museum where the wall used to be. You walk over to it and pick it up and sniff it, and it smells like an orange, and you peel and eat it and it tastes delicious. And now imagine yourself doing that again when you’re 90.

brainwhatOkay, how the #*$%@!! did your brain just do that?! Visualize the impossible? Conjure an orange smell? Hear a song – out of tune?! Your brain did that without breaking a sweat! Hearts pump, lungs inflate, pancreases respond to chemical levels … But what did your brain just do? Are there elves living within your ears that get a message from a surly witch living in one of those folds in your brain, and do the elves pass pictures behind your eyes, and smells behind your nose, and songs inside your head? That sounds as plausible to me as any other explanation!

Humans have known about the brain for a long time, and for most of that time people – besides me – have understood oliverthat elves weren’t involved in the brain’s function. It’s hard for a simpleton like me to understand, but the fact is that the brain does everything it does through chemicals and electrons and energy, just like every other organ, and scientists are learning more about the brain every day. To better understand brain function, research is often carried out on people whose brains do things out of the ordinary, often due to injury or illness. Like the woman who developed extreme empathy after brain surgery; or the woman who has no fear; or the person who sees beards on everyone. (If you’re interested in reading about weird stuff like this, I suggest the Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.)

brainmusicThis makes me wonder: has anyone ever studied someone with a brain that associates music with every memory of their entire life? Sure, it’s not as debilitating as Aboulomania or as strange as Foreign Accent Syndrome, but it could indicate some sort of brain malfunction, couldn’t it?

Consider the following Case Study. Subject: A forty-nine year old whitemauimap American male, with a history of good health, married, father to two teen-aged children. Symptomatic Episode: In late 2002, subject was thirty-five years old and had been married for six years to a woman, J., and had one four-year old son. J’s family included relatives living in Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands, and frequently mentioned as one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. The grandmother of J., after a long and fulfilling life, fell ill and died. Because the grandmother spent winters in Maui with her grown children, the family planned a ceremony to be held on the island to commemorate her long life and spread some of her ashes.

The Subject flew with his wife and child to Maui in December, 2002, for a week of billeting with relatives, honoring the family matriarch, and general island vacation fun. Subject and his immediate family attended several relatives’ gatherings, including trips to the beach, an excursion to Mount Haleakala, a whale watch, a Christmas/Hannukah gift exchange, and several rousing games of Sardines with the many children in attendance. Subject and his immediate family also spent several hours together exploring the island, driving to Hana, and generally experiencing the natural splendor that is Maui.

Subject and son in Maui. Subject appears to be in a location, and with people (including his wife, the photographer), that will make this trip among the most memorable experiences in his life.

Brain Affliction: As described above, the subject spent a week in Maui, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with his closest loved-ones and extended family celebrating the life of an important person recently passed, and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events with them. However, when asked to reflect on this time, the strongest persistent memory of this trip continues to be (as stated in the Subject’s words) “That trip was the first time I heard the song “No One Knows,” by Queens of The Stone Age.”

Discussion: The Subject’s brain appears to be otherwise normal, although certain functions that were tested did land on the extreme end of the scale. For example, appreciation for both old Three Stooges short films and Bugs Bunny episodes (including all of the associated Warner Brothers cartoons) was extremely high so as to be noteworthy. doctorSubject is also extraordinarily handsome, which doesn’t factor into this research but really must be noted. The subject’s constant internal (mental) and external (verbal) references to rock music and, to a lesser extent, music such as jazz, show tunes, Tin Pan Alley and only the most well-known classical pieces, does not appear to interfere with his life. He has consistently been employed in professional occupations, has established meaningful, caring and reciprocated relationships with others, and generally moves through his life experiencing joy and happiness. While his focus on music is strange to others, bordering on alarming, it does not appear to have hindered him. Others may not understand why a song by a rock band would appear to sit atop a hierarchy of memories of time spent with family on a so-called “Paradise on Earth,” but for the unafflicted masses the best way of processing this information is to just listen to that goddamn song and tell me it’s not un-fucking-believable.


I’d say the researcher above is stretching things a bit – I wouldn’t necessarily say that hearing “No One Knows” sits “atop a hierarchy of memories” from Maui. But it is true that I clearly remember lying on the couch of the guest apartment we stayed in, relaxing in between once-in-a-lifetime events by watching MTV, when the following song showed up.

I love everything about this song. I love the four introductory guitar notes at the beginning, and I love the riff that carries grohl joshthe introduction and the harmonics at 0:13 that signal the beginning of the verse, and the little run at 0:56 that signals the beginning of the chorus. I love singer/guitarist Josh Homme’s singing, and the whispered voice that doubles the vocals periodically throughout the song. I particularly love the drumming by Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who joined the band for this album and tour then left to continue leading his main band, Foo Fighters. I am particularly blown away by his fills during the choruses – for example, from 1:10 – 1:30, and again from 2:35 – 2:58. I love the background vocals beginning at 1:40. I love Nick Oliveri’s direct and pulsing bass throughout. I love the raucous instrumental break, from 2:59 – 3:14, and how it leads into a bass guitar interlude for 5 seconds, giving way to a very unique, Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo from Homme atop furious Grohl drumming for 15 seconds, and then back to Oliveri’s bass pulse at 3:38, and a final verse at 3:47 to a confident final four notes. Homme’s lyrics are about bassistworshiping someone from afar, but don’t seem too creepy. It is one of my favorite rock songs of all time. I’m sure that there are parts of the Maui vacation that I can remember in just as great detail.

I went out and bought the CD immediately after returning from our trip. Songs For The Deaf is sort of a concept album, put together to mimic the experience of changing the radio dial on a long drive through the desert. The first song, “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire,” begins with a car starting and radio commercials blaring. Between songs, DJs from a variety of phony radios stations (including “KRDL,” “KLONE,” and “Banning College Radio”) introduce the next cut. At first listen, I was disappointed by the rest of the songs. I didn’t play it much. But sometime in the mid-2000s I began pulling it out of my CD case more frequently, listening to it a lot in the lab I worked in at the time. The songs are strange but sound cool. There’s a diversity of styles, and all the musicians are talented. Plus it’s a loud rock record, with aggression and power, and records like that – while not always appropriate in every situation – sound particularly awesome when the time is right.

I think the next song that really connected with me was the album’s second single, “Go With The Flow.”

This is a driving, straight-ahead rocker with none of the subtlety or instrumental interplay found on “No One Knows.” But it does have a terrific melody, and a great solo guitar throughout – played by guest artist Brendon McNichol. (Drums are provided by Gene Trautmann, not Grohl on this song.) The lyrics seem to be about the end of a relationship, and Homme’s quiet yet intense voice handles them perfectly.

The band goes back and forth between simple, driving songs and more complex, almost orchestral-sounding pieces – such as “A Song For The Dead.”

This one starts with a cool introduction, including nasty-good fills from Grohl. It sounds like it’s going to be all hellbent fury, josh 1but after a minute the song becomes slow and groove-heavy, featuring excellent guitar fills every two measures from Homme. Josh Homme, the leader of Queens of the Stone Age (aka QOTSA), is a multi-instrumentalist and an interesting guy. He’s also the creative force behind the band Eagles of Death Metal, sadly famous for being onstage during a terrorist attack in Paris in late 2015 (although Homme wasn’t onstage, as he typically doesn’t tour with that band). He’s got a guitar style all his own that he claims is partly due to his training as a Polka guitarist for the first several years of his josh 2tutelage on the instrument. He’s strongly featured on this one, and he’s free to play because he gave up vocal duties to Mark Lanegan, a sometime member of QOTSA who is mostly famous for his Seattle grunge roots with the band The Screaming Trees. It’s a song about driving your car to forget your problems, and like most of the songs on the album, it sounds great loud while you’re going really fast! Homme’s guitar solo from 2:55 to 3:38 is weird and sounds like no one else.

Lanegan also provides lead vocals on the unusual but very cool “Hangin’ Tree.”

I’ve said it several times before, but I always love songs in unusual time signatures, and this one is set to a brisk 5/4 beat. Grohl’s drums are fantastic, as is – once again – Homme’s guitar. But what I love most are Lanegan’s vocals, giving the sparse lyrics a sinister feel that is augmented by the spooky backing vocalizations. The song breaks into 4/4 for the guitar solo at 2:15, then falls right back to the 5/4 groove.

Many of the songs are unusual, but a few are straight-ahead rock songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical rock record – although even these are QOTSA-fied. For example, “Another Love Song,” sung by bassist Oliveri, would sound right at home on most any 60s pop album. Kind of.

You can almost see the Laugh-In go-go dancers dance while oliverithe song plays. Almost. As with most songs on the album, it features cool backing vocals and a great guitar solo. And the bridge, from 1:55 – 2:23, is cool. Oliveri handles the break-up lyrics with ease. He also sings another “normal-sounding” song “I’m Gonna Leave You,” another break up song with a nifty-yet-simple bass line and a great break and guitar solo around 1:54.

The album has 14 songs, and there isn’t really a loser in the bunch. qotsa headsThere’s the arena-rock-style stomper, “Do It Again,” with it’s chant-along “Hey!” The return to the slow-groove of “God Is In The Radio,” another Lanegan-sung song that frees up Homme to range freely on guitar. The noisey-yet-mellow “Sky Is Fallin’” is a finely crafted song with cool harmonies and more great Grohl drumming. The band, and Homme in particular, goes a bit Middle Eastern in “A Song For The Deaf.” As I wrote earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the album when I first bought it, but it really grew on me. One song in particular that I found myself loving, much to my surprise, is the aggressive machine-gun beast that is “First It Giveth.”

josh bassistI like the harmony and backing vocals of the song, and once again, Grohl’s drumming stands out. The video shows a band on the verge of careening out of control, which accurately reflects the song. By the end, the guitars almost sound out of tune. It’s a song that Homme has said is about the effect of drugs on creativity and music.

The final song may be the most interesting of all. “Mosquito Song” opens with a folky acoustic guitar riff that almost sounds lifted from an early 70s Traffic or Led Zeppelin song. The lyrics seem to explain that we are all just a feast for the insects of the world, and the softly distorted voice of Homme sounds perfectly creepy singing them. As the song builds, an accordion joins him, then a piano and violin, then horns and tympani and military drums. It’s a great song, and a mellow way to end the record after so much aggression, power and noise.

Okay, so look – Songs For The Deaf is NOT the most memorable part of my trip to Maui. I swear! I look at pictures from that trip and I’m right back on that island paradise: snorkeling with little fish (that tried to eat my chest hair!), drinking fresh coconut juice at a roadside stand at the insistence of my kid (who took one sip and refused to drink any more!), seeing double and triple rainbows almost everywhere we looked! And also sharing memories of a wonderful woman in her favorite spot on the island: her garden. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I’m so happy I was able to go. But my brain is what it is – and my brain can’t help but remember that song that I heard … I don’t know how, or why, brains do what they do. And maybe mine is malfunctioning. But I don’t want to be cured. I’m happy that mine can remember Maui AND associate it with great music.

Track Listing:
“You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire”
“No One Knows”
“First It Giveth”
“A Song For The Dead”
“The Sky Is Fallin”
“Six Shooter”
“Hangin’ Tree”
“Go With The Flow”
“Gonna Leave You”
“Do It Again”
“God Is In The Radio”
“Another Love Song”
“A Song For The Deaf”
“Mosquito Song”

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62nd Favorite Album

Pretenders. The Pretenders.
1980, Sire. Producer: Chris Thomas; Nick Lowe.
Gift 1984.

pretenders album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, melodic, unusual punky pop rock that sounds unlike anything else. Chrissie Hynde’s vocals and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar work shine on an album that combines power and sweetness and grit and beauty. The band moves from jangle pop to tough punk to slow-dance grace, and never sounds like a copy of anything else.
diaryIf you’ve read this blog before, you’re very aware of what I’m about to type in the sentence after the next one. If you haven’t read it before, the next sentence may be the last of mine you’ll ever read. In this blog about records and music, I write just as much about me and my life as I do about the records and the music.

It’s kind of a weird thing to do – a private citizen who’s celebrityaccomplished nothing noteworthy to anyone outside a few friends and family documenting things that have happened in my life. Who really cares? I’m a huge fan of rock music autobiographies, and what makes them interesting is the fact that the people writing them have done something terrific, moving, outstanding … something that has boredtypically touched the lives of millions, and reading their words can offer insight into their work.

I, however, have not done anything even remotely similar. The closest I’ve come to reaching millions is the time one of my funny phone calls made it on the air on WEEI radio’s old afternoon feature the “Weiner Whiner Line” back in the early ’00s. And (much like this blog) hardly anyone even knew it was me who did it.

importantSo why do I write so much about a bunch of mundane memories, stories so insignificant that very often the other persons featured in them have only a vague remembrance of the events I describe? It’s partially because I have a super-inflated ego, a borderline delusional sense of my own level of importance in the world, which demands I impart upon any unwitting reader an amplified version of all the characteristics that make up my “self.”

monetBut that’s only part of the reason. It’s mainly because this music has always connected with me on a deep level. Music informs my life and helps me make sense of it. There’s a soundtrack playing inside my head while I make my way through my life and, just like a movie soundtrack, it’s full of songs that color the events and enhance my feelings. My experiences are inextricably bound to the music that plays in my head during them, so I can’t really discuss the music I love without also discussing my life events that go with that music. It would be like displaying a black and white rendering of a work by Monet: you’d get the idea, but it wouldn’t really be the same. (Given Monet’s abilities vis-a-vis mine, a closer analogy might be watching an infomercial with the sound off.)

So music is part of all aspects of my life, both the good and the bad. bagheadThis means I’ve written about some pretty unsavory characteristics of myself – or rather, my past selves. I’ve changed a lot over the years. But the music has remained with me. In these posts I’ve talked about my past problems with alcohol and self-control, my past intolerance of others and flat-out bigotry, my nerdiness, and – maybe most embarrassing of all – my love for albums that aren’t very good. However, there are parts of my life that I won’t write about. I don’t write directly about individuals in my family, or other people I know. I try to refrain from writing about how wonderful I am – I figure that will come through on its own. I’m also not going to write about sex.

I’m not a prude, and consider myself pretty “sex positive,” as they say, but my thoughts on the topic are not something I want to broadcast to the world at large, nor do I think I can write well about it. However, this creates a problem for prudeme when writing about music, as music does relate to all aspects of my life, so …

A big issue with writing about sex is the fact that discussing attraction and romance in a thoughtful, respectful manner is a precarious ledge along which to travel, and as a heterosexual male, one stray word from my own personal unskilled hands could easily send the piece off a sheer cliff into a glorified version of a “Letter to Penthouse Forum.” Additionally, this blog is about rock/pop music, which has always been aimed directly at the teen market. So, even songs I didn’t hear as a teen can frequently stir teenage-based thoughts and emotions, and it is simply a fact that teenage feelings of attraction are different than what adults feel. In trying to delve back into those teenage feelings and document what I find, I risk coming up with nothing more than “That chick was hot!” and “I figure I’ll never touch a breast.”

But yet, I want to write about all these records honestly.

Anyway, look: some music, and some musicians, I do associate with feelings of physical attraction, and most of those associations are from a time in my life when I was in my teens and early twenties, and – at the risk of sounding like a sexist jerk judging women like livestock at the Farm Show – even barracudathough I am now approaching 50 and no longer base my opinions of these artists (who are now approaching 70) on what they looked like, I still can remember what I once felt, and songs from that era can still generate these feelings. To boil it all down: when I hear an old song by Heart today, there’s still a part of me that thinks “Man, those two are hot!!” (To be fair to myself, there’s an even larger part that thinks, “Man, this song is awesome!!) So I’d like to write a little bit about sex and music – without discussing sex and without sounding sexist. In only about three sentences, too, since I’ve already wasted all these words on a rambling (though not particularly digressive) caveat. I’ll be as careful as possible so I don’t drop off that cliff.

I remember being grossed out by Cher’s sexy costumes on the old Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour TV show. I was not yet 10, and whenever she came out to sing (and make fun of Sonny) with her belly exposed, or in skin-tight dresses, I was horrified. By middle school, disco music was in full swing, and despite the often blatant sexual nature of the songs, I was clueless about their meanings and didn’t think much about the general attractiveness of the singers. The middle solidgoldschool years were also the era of Blondie, a band with songs I liked but with a singer whose attractiveness – once again – I didn’t really think that much about. Sometime around 8th grade, the pop-music TV showcase Solid Gold debuted, airing locally in my town just before Saturday Night Live, and it featured The Solid Gold Dancers, who … well, I’ll not venture further out onto the ledge: suffice it to say things were changing with me, and I tried not to miss an episode.

As I’ve mentioned often in this blog, MTV was a big turning point in my musical appreciation. It launched in August of 1981, coinciding with mtvmy freshman year of high school – which was right about the time I also started noticing things about girls and women (including The Solid Gold Dancers) that I’d never considered before. In those early MTV years, the channel played songs I liked sung by women who were cute, but that I didn’t find particularly attractive. They also played songs I didn’t particularly like sung by women I found rather … captivating, let’s say. There were also a few videos of songs by women that my 14 year old self just couldn’t fit into its tiny little concept of men and women and attraction – even though – confusingly – I found them rather attractive just because they were making music.

And then there was Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders.
The Pretenders had several videos in rotation on MTV in 1981 and 1982, and all of them featured lots of shots of the band playing, including leader Chrissie Hynde strumming that guitar and singing. To that point in my life, I could have easily pointed out girls and women that I considered “pretty,” but Chrissie Hynde didn’t look like those people. She wasn’t ugly, but she seemed tough and dangerous, like she didn’t give a damn whether I thought she was pretty or not. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. And she played that guitar, and sang so sweetly, but at times with such force and such emotion, on lyrics that were direct, not demure, that were at times shocking to a naive 14-year old boy from small town Pennsylvania.

The band’s biggest hit video to that point was “Brass In Pocket,” andwaitress it featured Hynde acting as a waitress in a diner, serving the rest of the band members and their girlfriends. I hated that video. I didn’t want to see her act, I wanted to see her SING and PLAY! When she acted, she was just another person on TV. When she sang and played, she was CHRISSIE HYNDE. I found her compelling, but I couldn’t really explain why. I’d figure it out soon enough.

Chrissie Hynde has always been the leader of The Pretenders: chief songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist. The band has had some tragic setbacks, including firing original bassist Pete Farndon in 1982 due to heroin abuse, followed two days later by original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s death from a cocaine overdose. Farndon himself died a year later. The band has had lots of lineup changes, but Chrissie Hynde has always been there. And the album Pretenders had the first, and most memorable, lineup.

64 mustangThis was another album that I originally found in my oldest sister’s collection – however not in the milk crate full of vinyl, where I discovered so many other records. Pretenders was on a cassette she owned. I had seen it but hadn’t played it, until dawned on me one day that this was the band I’d fallen in lust with on MTV. Then I played it a lot. I also have a memory of listening to it with my sister while she drove me around in her sweet ’64 red mustang. She eventually moved to California and took the cassette with her, but she sent me a copy for a birthday present.

The album immediately announces itself, and Chrissie Hynde, with the raucous and raunchy “Precious.”

Four drum stick clicks, a little background chatter and that driving guitar riff begins. chrissie guitar 2The bass kicks in around 10 seconds, and the band is off and flying. Hynde’s voice is tough but sweet on a song that doesn’t really have much of a melody, and at times is almost a rap. If you’ve read Hynde’s recent autobiography, you know that she had a pretty violent life as a young woman in Cleveland, associating with biker gangs and doing way too many drugs. “Precious” is about her escape from Cleveland; while others stayed, as she states in one of the most famous “f-bombs” in rock history, she had to “fuck off.” The Pretenders’ songs often have unconventional structures and time signatures, and “Precious” doesn’t hew to the typical “verse-chorus-bridge” pop song format, but just charges ahead. It’s fast and direct, and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar is unusual, with effects such as the flanging, featured at 0:44. It’s a perfect first song for a first album.

“The Phone Call” is up next, and it’s got an unusual sound, too.

For one thing, it’s in the time signature of 7/4 (withchambers an extra 6/4 measure before the chorus (if you will)) which is odd enough, but switches to 4/4 (with stray 2/4 bars every fourth bar, for good measure ) in the instrumental section. It all creates a cool, noisey, aggressive sound within which all those extra beats are barely noticeable. This is a testament to excellent drummer Martin Chambers, who handles it all with no problem whatsoever. I never knew what the barely audible, again mostly melody-less vocals were singing about, but I believe they are also about Hynde having to get the hell out of Cleveland to save her life. It’s evidence of the band’s, and Hynde’s confidence, that she’d place two such unusual songs 1-2 on the first record. It makes a listener wonder what’s coming next. And next up are two songs that have always blown me away.

The first is “Up the Neck.” And it features the inimitable guitar sounds of James Honeyman-Scott.

His guitar riff alarm opens “Up The Neck,” and after 10 seconds he begins to play ascending notes that draw me right into the song. Pete Farndon’s simple, catchy bass joins Hynde’s vocals and by 22 seconds in, jamesa perfect guitar pop song is under way. While she’s singing about what sounds to be a one night stand that turns violent, Honeyman-Scott’s guitar continues to produce little chiming flourishes that are unmistakably his, and unmistakably cool. Honeyman-Scott is one of those guitar players with a sound all his own, who you can identify simply by listening. Others in this category are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham. At 1:15, when the ascending riff returns, he adds even more curlicues to it. It’s the perfect complement to Hynde’s sweet and aggressive (and suggestive: “the veins bulged on his … brow …”) vocals. He plays a coolly simple solo, as well. It’s a song I always listen to with enthusiasm that is only eclipsed on the album by the next song: “Tattooed Love Boys.”

I probably overuse the term “chiming” to describe a certain sound a guitar can make, but it perfectly describes Honeyman-Scott’s chrissieguitarguitar riff on this song. His chimes begin a charging, aggressive song with snarling vocals and a crazy time signature of either 15/4, or 7/4 + [2 x 4/4] (if there’s a difference). That time signature gives the song a hiccuping, rough-edged sound that makes it far more compelling than it would be in a typical time signature, and Chambers again shines behind the drums. The extended guitar section, from about 1:18 to about 2:11, with its stops and starts and one-measure guitar solos, never fails to astonish me. I feel like I could happily listen to this song on a continuous loop.

One of the great aspects of early MTV was how the channel would reward a viewer for watching in long chunks of time. You knew that if you just watched long enough, and sat through enough bullshit and goofy crap (terms I use endearingly, as I enjoyed the bullshit and goofy crap, too) you’d get to see a a video you loved. For me, “Tattooed Love Boys” was such a video. And it wasn’t played frequently, so I had to watch a lot. (I HAD TO!) pretenders_2This video, with the band covered in sweat and manhandling their instruments, drove me crazy. It wasn’t just the playing: much of my fervor was due to Hynde’s performance – her wielding that guitar, dancing and moving, her voice, openly singing about a crazy, rough sexual experience involving what sounded like several men, in which she seemed to brag about, and take delight in, her role. In her recent autobiography, she has deflated my (and I hope everyone’s) fascination with the what-sounded-sexy-back-then lyrics by revealing that the song actually described a brutal gang rape by a group of bikers she thought were her friends, including a boyfriend. It’s still one of my all-time favorite songs, but I hear it differently now.

“The Wait” is another song that floors me every time, again with the crazy time signature, again one of my all-time favorites.

This is a song sung at a furious pace, with Hynde spitting out peteunintelligible lyrics about, well, something, I guess, scratching guitars in the verse, and a terrific walking bass line in the chorus by the under-appreciated Pete Farndon. At 1:47 a quiet, sultry bridge begins, then at 2:14 empties into another excellent guitar solo from Honeyman-Scott, finished off with Hynde’s grunt of approval at 2:47. It’s a song that makes me bounce around whenever I hear it.

Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders don’t just play the crazy-rhythmed, furious punk songs. They also manage the typical pop song quite nicely, as evidenced by the wonderful “Kid.”

Along with great harmony vocals and a driving beat, what I love about this song is – once again – Honeyman-Scott’s incredible solo at 1:35, culminating in a lovely harmonic, and backed by Chambers’s tribal drums. pretenders 3The band also covers The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and serve up their big hit, “Brass In Pocket,” both excellent, straightforward pop pearls. There’s also the instrumental, video game-inspired “Space Invader,” featuring sounds from the old arcade game recorded when it was a newfangled thing! The songs “Private Life” and “Lovers of Today” are a pair that I never loved (although, as always, the guitar work in “Private Life” is top-notch) but tolerated so that I could get to the last song.

“Mystery Achievement.”

It’s a perfect song to end an incredible album. The drums and bass get the song pumping, and soon enough Hynde is singing mysterious lyrics and Honeyman-Scott is throwing in his signature sounds. At 3:00 the band plays an extended instrumental section, with echoing drums and guitars and then an incredibly cool solo that pulls out at 4:23 and breaks into a nifty, ringing two-note riff behind the chrissie2vocals. It’s a song that demands repeated listening, and leaves the listener exhausted but satisfied by the very end.

Some lyrics from that last song, “Every day/ every nighttime I find/ Mystery Achievement/ you’re on my mind,” begin to describe what it’s like when you’re 13, 14, somewhere around that age, and you start to recognize something, some thing, you’ve never recognized before, even though you feel it must have been there all along. Maybe it was a face that inspired it, or a body, or a movie. For me, it was a singer in a band. I couldn’t explain it then, I can’t explain it now. The only thing I know for sure about it – even after all these years – is that it led me to a tremendous rock and roll record.

Track Listing
“The Phone Call”
“Up The Neck”
“Tattooed Love Boys”
“Space Invader”
“The Wait”
“Stop Your Sobbing”
“Private Life”
“Brass In Pocket”
“Lovers Of Today”
“Mystery Achievement”

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63rd Favorite Album

Turns Into Stone. The Stone Roses.
1992, Silvertone. Producers: John Leckie; Peter Hook.
Purchased 1992.

turns into cover

nutshell63IN A NUTSHELL: From sixties-sounding psychedelic pop to hypnotic dance grooves, Manchester’s The Stone Roses pump out gem after gem in this collection of singles and B-sides from the band’s early years. Guitarist John Squire is masterful, drummer Reni conjures sick beats and sweet harmonies, and the band is in top form throughout – except for a couple duds.
“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages.”
– Jack, Lord of the Flies

“Can’t crow before I’m outta the woods, but there’s exceptions to the rule.”
– “Diamond” David Lee Roth, “Little Guitars”
On the whole, in my life, I’ve been a pretty fastidious rule-follower. My parents were rule-followers, and they taught their children to be rule-followers. This obeyhelped my sisters and me grow into conscientious and respectful adults, however, only after several years as boring teenagers. We’ve come to understand, I believe, that rules often have gray areas, subtleties and complexities that make following all of them all the time rather difficult. However, this hasn’t prevented our default rule-worship outlook to seep into conversations between us as adults from time to time, such as the following exchange from a few years back:

ME: This show I’m in is actually making a little money now! I’ve gotten a little bit of pay, a few bucks a night – not enough that I’d declare it on my taxes, but still something.
SISTER (who had just become a CPA): I need to stop you right there. Don’t tell me anything else about this. As a CPA, if I hear of any wrong-doing or attempts to evade taxes, I am obliged to report that information to the IRS.

I was the type of kid who found it frustrating and upsetting that kids around me either couldn’t or didn’t care to follow the rules.

unruly“Please take one handout, and pass it to your left,” a teacher might say, and I’d dutifully do so. Meanwhile, it seemed like everyone around me was asking, “What’s this for? How many do I take? I don’t want this big stack of papers!!” They’d talk while directions were given, goof off while they were supposed to do something, then interrupt the whole class because they hadn’t paid attention. I couldn’t wait to become an adult, when (I assumed) everyone would follow directions like they’re supposed to.

Then, at the first meeting I attended as a young professional, the entire handout scene above was repeated, but only with grown-ups this time.

My mom didn’t have a lot of rules, or methods for enforcing rules, but she had a lot of expectations. What I mean is, we didn’t have chore charts, or swear jars, or rewards for good grades. My sisters and I were simply expected to help out when asked, to not swear and to get good grades.

My mom kept my sisters and I under control by dressing us in hideous costumes as punishment. (Actually, this was fashionable 1976 Easter finery.)

Now that I’m a dad, I have no idea how she pulled this off! My kids have rebelled against every family directive, battled every parental edict, and presented complex foundational and procedural arguments challenging teenboth the internal family logic and the standing in the greater society of each and every rule my wife and I have crafted. It has been exhausting.

When I reflect on these parental challenges, I wonder if we made a mistake in not spanking our kids. (Continuously.) My sisters and I weren’t spanked often, but it happened enough times in our young childhood that it did what spanking proponents advise it does: it made us stay in line so that it didn’t happen again. It was the classic deterrent. In my family, it wasn’t called “spanking,” which sounded fancy to my ears, the kind of thing kids with butlers would get. It was called “paddling,” spooneven though it was always delivered with an open hand, never an implement. (My mom liked to threaten us with a wooden mixing spoon that was extra terrifying because it had been stained with red food coloring, earning it the nickname “The Bloody Wooden Spoon,” a nickname my mom detests to this day because threaten as she did, she never really walloped us with it – that I can remember.)

The discipline led to a pretty strong rule-abiding streak through high school. It’s what kept me from joining most other high schoolers at parties where alcohol flowed. Well, that and the fact that I had no friends. But mainly, it was the rules thing. A fondness for rules is also a big reason I consider myself a punk rock poser, despite my experiences with a rock band.

bonnieclydeMy rule-questioning really only began in earnest when I made the decision to move to San Francisco, which seemed pretty outside-the-rules to me when I did it. It was in San Francisco that I met a woman who at first seemed to be breaking every rule in her path – or at least significantly questioning them. She wasn’t dishonest, and she wasn’t an anarchist, but if there were rules that made no sense she had no qualms about ignoring them. Sure I’d driven over the speed limit and jay-walked a few times, but this woman was the first person who ever made me think about where rules come from, and who it is that is making them and what they mean to me. Her rule-questioning impressed me so much that I ended up marrying her!

Eventually we found ourselves raising two kids, a scenario that elicited the question: how do we go about instilling a healthy understanding of rules to them? finsterWell, I jokingly said above that we should’ve spanked our kids, but I don’t really believe that. We didn’t spank, and my reasoning was always, “I’d never hit anybody else, why would I hit these little beings that I love? (Even when they are huge pains in the ass. Which they can be, let’s not kid ourselves.)” And I think the evidence has backed us up on that decision.

We’ve bought into the late 20th/early 21st century parenting strategy of “consequences.” Of course, this strategy is much easier to implement when you have a two year old who you can outwit, and whose temper tantrum will last 15 minutes until she gets bored and starts drawing or playing with her dolls. It’s orders of magnitude more notobeychallenging when you have a 17 year old with car keys who typically goes to bed two hours later than you do.

We’ve tried to have rules that are consistent with who we are as people. For example, my wife and I have a tendency to swear – perhaps a lot, who am I to say?? But anyway, I don’t believe that words are “good” or “bad,” but rather “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” We’ve instilled in our kids that they can use any words they want, but they’d better be sure what’s acceptable when they use those words. I’ve always said, “I don’t care if you swear, but your teachers do. I’m not going to tell the teacher ‘My kid’s allowed to swear.’ I’m going to take the teacher’s side.”

So, anyway, my kids haven’t (yet) gotten into serious trouble. They’ve been able to follow rulebookenough of the rules around them that we get good reports about their behavior from the schools, their friends’ parents, coaches, etc. They have a lot of time ahead of them, so they might fuck up someday, but so far it’s been good. I think they have a healthier attitude about, and less stress related to, rules than I did as a teen ager.

I bring all this up because there was a time in my life when – in each and every situation involving them – I would have thought, “rules are rules, and darn it – I just have to follow them!” And at that point in my life, Turns Into Stone would not be found on this list of favorite 100 albums. You see, the rules I established years (!) ago plainly state “compilation albums are ineligible.”

Now, it is true that I’ve already had a compilation album on the list, Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA. HOWEVER – alexI didn’t know that it was a compilation album until I started writing about the record! At that point, my rules committee got together, and after several days of careful consideration they reached the conclusion that because of my lack of knowledge at the time of compiling the list, an exemption would be granted allowing the inclusion of the record. This is not unlike the time I was on the game show Jeopardy!, and in answering a question about a Gene Kelly movie, I said “American in Paris,” and Alex Trebek, douchebag that he is, went to the judges for clarification that indeed, this was an acceptable response for a movie titled An (emphasis mine) American in Paris.

In the case of Turns Into Stone, I am fully aware that it is a compilation album, and I DON’T CARE! TAKE THAT, Alex Trebek and your dumb judges!!!

See? I don’t care about the rules! But before you think I’m just an out-of-control Anarcho-Syndacalist with no regard for a decent societal structure, I’d like to offer a bit of reasoning. The Stone Roses, you see, signed two EXTREMELY BAD contracts as a young band in the late 80s. bandofyearOne was with their svengali-manager, Gareth Evans, a bombastic blowhard who’d fit perfectly as that idiotic, bigoted man-baby Donald Drumpf’s running mate. Evans, in turn, signed a contract with Silvertone Records that was so bad that a UK court eventually voided it. During the time that this court case was running its course, the band was precluded from recording any new material. The band’s first record had been a huge success in the UK (and a big hit on US college radio), so Silvertone Records wanted to capitalize on the success. They compiled several of the band’s singles – songs that never appeared on any other album – and released it as Turns Into Stone.

The fact that none of these songs appeared on any other album is what I roses_1like to call a “mitigating factor,” and so I have no qualms about including it. My rules committee, however, was furious about it, and even held an emergency meeting to consider its options. I testified at the meeting and stated plainly that even if they ruled against me, they’d still be left with the problem of STOPPING ME from including it! They did rule against me, and when I announced my decision to include the record despite their ruling, several members of the committee resigned in disgust. It was a tumultuous couple of weeks, but when the band phoned me with their support, I knew I had made the correct decision.

I bought this CD when I was living alone in a really cool part of Pennsylvania called Mt. Gretna. It’s an artsy gretnacommunity in the woods, full of summer cottages, some of which have been winterized, and a big lake for swimming and a big ice cream shop for gorging. I lived there during the summer of ’92, in a one-bedroom cottage, and it was great. I’d go play gigs with my band, go work at the aspirin factory, and come home and listen to records until I went to bed. I listened to Turns Into Stone so much that summer that when I listen to it today, I still smell the pine trees and honeysuckle, and feel the cool night air seeping through the day’s waning, humid sunlight. I can almost see the lightning bugs starting to flicker.

A song that elicits similar warm, carefree feelings is “Mersey Paradise.”

It opens with a nifty guitar figure from John Squire, the drums and bass crash in, and then Ian Brown’s distinctive, Mancunian voice enters. This song has a 60s British Invasion sound, but updated with prominent drums. “Mersey Paradise” exemplifies everything I love about this band, and this album particularly. Squire’s guitar is full (although quite trebley in this song) and fills all the spaces, and his riffs and lines are interesting and sound cool. Brown’s lyrics describe a rather renibrowndepressed young man along the banks of the Mersey River considering suicide in the river (his Mersey Paradise). Dark lyrics for such a sunny song! Drummer Reni, who helped popularize that “Madchester” beat that was so ubiquitous in music from the early 90s, is one of the most creative drummers of the era. And he also is responsible for the band’s “secret weapon”: the killer harmonies evident throughout the band’s body of work. I love Squire’s guitar solo, at 1:51, and how the band comes out of it with harmonies blazing, culminating with Brown’s breathy “Oh yeah …” at 2:20. It ends cleanly and perfectly, as a perfect pop song should.

Another 60s-style guitar pop song is the beautiful “Going Down.”

Singer/lyricist Brown this time spins a lovely description of that joyful lightness one experiences during the early phase of a romance, when everything seems perfect. His love, Penny, who lives just thirty minutes away at No. 9, listens to Jimi Hendrix on her record player, manitastes like sunscreen, and calls to mind great art. He sums up the feeling of new love in the final stanza: “To look down on the clouds/You don’t need to fly/I’ve never flown in a plane/I’ll live until I die.” Reni provides amazing harmonies throughout, sometimes in counter-melody. Squire’s guitar is cool, yet restrained, but the hero is bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield, particularly at 1:43. It’s not intricate or challenging – it just sounds cool. And that’s what I like about all Stone Roses songs: they sound cool!

Guitarist Squire is not well-known in the US, but in the UK he is regarded as one of the greats. He plays a funky style, with great tone and creative licks. “Going Down,” above, mentions Jimi Hendrix, and in the song “Standing Here,” Squire shows his love for the man in his opening riff.

His guitar throughout the song is complex and requires repeated listens squireto catch all the neat little bits he throws into the mix. Drummer Reni provides a shuffling beat that keeps the song bouncing along while Brown sings of unrequited love. I particularly like how the band stops and starts around the lyrics “I don’t think you think like I do,” for example around the 1:28 mark. It’s a subtle thing, one of the many small aspects of the song that makes it so enjoyable to me. The song turns into a different song around the 3:09 mark, with an extended coda with nice bass work and the repeated refrain “I should be safe forever in your arms.”

These 60s style pop songs, featuring clever guitar and groovy bass and drums, make up one side to the band’s recorded material. brownAnother example of this style is the lush “Where Angels Play.” It’s one of Brown’s best vocal performances on the record, featuring a wide-ranging melody and a catchy “there’s something happening” bridge. Brown is notorious for being a disappointing singer in concert, but as a solo artist he’s had several top ten songs in the UK. He’s built a career on stage presence and confidence, and on the Stone Roses’ studio work, he sounds terrific.

Another style of song that The Stone Roses perfected is the catchy-guitar-rock-song-that-also-sounds-sort-of-danceable-but-sort-of-not-really-but-is-regardless-really-cool. Two examples are featured on Turns Into Stone, including “The Hardest Thing In The World.”

This song again has the ripping John Squire guitar, the bouncy Mani bass and classic Reni backing vocals. It’s a song I belt out whenever I listen to it, singing about life on the road, and I play air guitar and air bass and air drums and sing harmonies, as well.

Another in the same vein, and my favorite song on the album, is “What The World Is Waiting For.”

It’s a guitar and bass workout. Reni provides the funky shuffle, and Brown sings about the folly of financial pursuits. It’s getting repetitive, I suppose, but I love listening for all of Squire’s tricks he pulls. There’s so much happening on his guitar, supported by a brilliant rhythm section, that I always find something new each time I listen.


The Stone Roses also were known for lengthy, groove-oriented jams, with repetitive drums and bass and plenty of space for Squire to create his unique soundscapes; these songs were perfect for the ecstasy-fueled raves common in “Madchester” and elsewhere at the turn of the 80s/90s decade. Turns Into Stone contains a number of these, and the most familiar is “Fools Gold.”

This is a hypnotic song that I find can transport me, and make me move. The melody is catchy, with lyrics again featuring an anti-materialism theme. roses_concertThe first 5:40 contains the melody, with vocals and cool guitar, and then the final four-plus minutes are a canvas for John Squire and his wah-wah pedal to go to work. Throughout, Reni and Mani work their magic. Two other songs in the hypnotic-groove category are the rangey, guitar-workout “One Love” and the smoldering “Something’s Burning.”

The other songs on the record include a Peter Hook remix of “Elephant Stone,” from their debut album, that I think sounds ridiculously lame; and a backward version of “Where Angels Play” (another type of song The Stone Roses recorded, thankfully in far fewer numbers than the other genres) titled “Simone.”
So there you have it. My rule-breaking selection. I’m awaiting lawsuits and a barrage of negative press from this selection, but I will hold firm. Apparently those paddlings I had as a child didn’t keep me in line like my parents hoped they would! But this is how I roll. In the words of Ian Brown, from “What the World is Waiting For”:

Here comes the wise man
And there goes the fool
You see that burnt out world that he is living in
I don’t need to look for the rules

“Elephant Stone” (12″ version)
“The Hardest Thing In The World”
“Going Down”
“Mersey Paradise”
“Standing Here”
“Where Angels Play”
“Fools Gold” (12″ version)
“What the World Is Waiting For”
“One Love” (12″ version)
“Something’s Burning” (12″ version)

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64th Favorite Album

Nevermind. Nirvana.
1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.

nevermind album

nutshell64IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
dudesI used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes.

I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud martyof my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.

My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay teachrelationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.

As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? san franThey were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!

Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to ellenawaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”

When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. holding handsBut if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.

cobain screamSo, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”

As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. kidpunkI came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.

In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at sliver diveyour grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.

Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.

Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release withnirvanaband2 a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation, were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us, Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.

Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.

It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after kurt upsideour set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching nirvana watersome spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.

Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.

While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”

The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! kurtsingsBut what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.

The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”

kristThe vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.

“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided grohlexcellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”

“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.

“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feministTerritorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was nirvana band1always pleasing.

I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end.

orlandoJust as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA, were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.

But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. orlando2 I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.

nirvana3Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.

Track Listing
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“In Bloom”
“Come As You Are”
“Territorial Pissings”
“Drain You”
“Lounge Act”
“Stay Away”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)

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65th Favorite Album

Close To The Edge. Yes.
1972, Atlantic Records. Producer: Yes and Eddie Offord.
Purchased ca. 1984.

close edge

hamster nutIN A NUTSHELL: A progressive-rock masterpiece full of music and performances that demand repeated listening to take it all in. There are only three songs on the album, but they are epic, twisting tales reminiscent of mythical sagas. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re of a mind to experience something different, and allow yourself to be carried away by it, you and your fellow travelers be rewarded handsomely at the end of your Quest.
{Blogger’s Note: This is an epically long post. Somehow, it only seems right.}

footballThe house that I grew up in has a good-sized backyard, large enough for running deep post patterns for my dad’s tight spirals. It was a good size for family cookout croquet matches, although the lawn’s gentle slope demanded an accounting by players in the strength and speed of their strikes, or else a seemingly flawless ball rolling toward a wicket could lose steam and curl away in the final foot of approach.

wiffleIt was also perfectly-sized for wiffle-ball games, and featured a (somewhat-but-not-perfectly-maintained) forsythia hedge that bounded the back of the property providing a natural, albeit difficult to reach, home run fence for the backyard ballfield.

Beyond this hedge was an undeveloped lot owned by our lovely neighbors, the Rank family. It was perhaps an acre, groundhog about the size of a large, but not huge, lot for my rural area. The field, which my family always referred to as “The Field,” was an empty pasture of scrubby grass, and The Ranks allowed us to use it for stuff like family volleyball games, pitching a tent for mid-summer “camping,” and the hours of fungo sessions my dad held with me. It also featured a pile of wooden, creosoted telephone poles stacked to one side. Mr. Rank worked for the local electric company, and I don’t know if the forty-foot long poles were pilfered from his workplace (That’s a joke – Mr. Rank was an honest man.) or if he stored them as a favor to the company, but I do know they provided a great cover for the many grundsows who lived among them.

Beyond the The Field, about 60 yards from our hedge, was a decent-sized woods. woodsLarge enough to spend the afternoon exploring, but definitely too small to be a forest, this long rectangle of old trees ran parallel to our homerun hedge, extending about an eighth of a mile, all the way from Kercher Ave. on the west to Kochenderfer’s Church on the east. It wasn’t very deep, but it provided plenty of cover for traveling deer and all the kinds of wildlife associated with a Pennsylvania woods. My family always referred to these woods as “The Woods.”

modhairI was 20, in my sophomore year at college, and I peered over the hedge across The Field, scanning The Woods. The bear was much larger than I thought a bear would be, and it agilely galloped back and forth in front of The Woods from which it had emerged. It was shaggy, too, its black and brown fur seemingly longer than bear fur should be, like a Mod-Hair Ken version of a bear. It also seemed shabby and sloppy, its fur matted in some places, and with swaths missing in others. It was a bear, but there was something strange about how it looked and acted. And it shouldn’t have been in The Woods. Not these woods. A deep feeling of dread welled up within me as I watched this animal in The Field. But I knew that Butch was a Pennsylvania Game Warden, and that he would know what to do. I alerted him and strung my recurve bow while I waited.

All of the men around me in my childhood were hunters. It was the tradition where I grew up, archerysuch that to meet a man who didn’t hunt, at least in some capacity, was a curiosity akin to meeting a visitor from a foreign country. At 20 I was still struggling with my hidden distaste for hunting, but I did enjoy archery. It was something of a pastime in my family. My dad and mom had gone shooting at archery courses while they were dating, and my sisters and I had our own little bows as kids. The Field, with its distance apart from houses and unpeopled woods beyond it, had always been a safe site for a couple of hay bales and a target – often handmade by my sisters and me from the cardboard circles inside frozen pizza packages – for archery practice. So I was comfortable shooting my bow in this field, although I’d never shot an animal with one before.

I nocked an arrow – a target arrow, with a dull metal point and feathers that had been mounted and cut by my dad on his own basement fletching apparatus – buzzardand as I drew back the string, a lazily flying large bird, with a large beak and small wings, caught my eye. It glided high in the air, set against the late afternoon sun like an image from a child’s drawing. An instinct deep within me, vestigial from the genes of scores of generations of hunters before me, took control of my body and sent that arrow flying, scoring a direct hit. The bird fell to earth, pinned to the ground in the middle of The Field, a lepidopterist’s specimen magnified.

I closed my eyes in frustration and fear. gamewardenHadn’t I just called Butch, the Game Warden? Didn’t I know that hunting without a license was a crime? Couldn’t I foresee that Butch would have to arrest me? I had put Butch in a difficult position. As my aunt’s son-in-law, he’d feel compelled to let me off easy, but he also knew that he had a job to do. The feeling of shame was immense, paralyzing: for myself, my actions, my callous indifference. And now that shame colored this entire sequence of events. I returned from the house with my dad’s hunting license pinned to my shirt just in time to see the bear make its charge toward the pinned bird. Or was its target my hedge, my yard, me? I threw my bow to the ground and sprinted into The Field to find out.

antMy heart boomed in my ears and I couldn’t even feel my legs moving as a manic energy carried me toward what felt like certain death. It was exhilarating and frightening, and stood all my hairs on end. The charging bear’s sloppy, shaggy fur horrified me, but the horror dissipated when a tranquilizer dart dropped the beast in a heap. Butch had arrived in penguintime to fire a payload of M99 into its neck. He and I looked at the bear. Before either of us could speak, it began to wriggle and shake. It curled and uncurled, twisted like a wet towel being wrung, and it growled as it grew into an ant the size of a mid-sized sedan – an ant that retained the shaggy, shabby coat of fur. Butch, the game warden, looked at me and said, “That’s the biggest penguin I’ve ever seen.”

I awoke. I laughed to myself.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. daliI generally remember my dreams, at least for a little while, and many – such as this one – have remained with me for years. As a child I learned to appreciate the sagas and images my unconscious brain chose to share with me. Whether the dreams were incredibly wonderful, incredibly scary, or just plain weird, I’d awake and in an instant think to myself, “That was really cool.”

What fascinates me about dreams is probably what fascinates everyone about them. The feelings are so real – the dread of seeing a threatening animal, the shame of breaking the law and troubling a relative, the excitement of rushing toward potential death – while the actions are so absurd, and the information so inaccurate. It’s true my family liked archery, and The Field and The Woods lay beyond my wiffle ball field, but Butch wasn’t a Game Warden. I couldn’t shoot a bird out of the sky. Birds and bears and ants and penguins don’t exist in any way close to how my brain depicted them for me. Dreams seem real and unreal at the same time, and that may be the best way I can describe why I find myself liking Yes’s Close to the Edge so much: it seems real and unreal at the same time.

I got into Yes in high school. The band is 80swell-known for its long history of changing members and musical styles. I became a big fan during their 80s version, a reinvention from their history as a progressive rock, AOR staple to a flashy, top-40 competitor to Madonna/Michael Jackson/Huey Lewis. It was a bad era for music on the radio. Sure, some of the songs are fun to look back on, or fun to hear at an oldies dance, but a look at the top 100 songs of, say, 1984, reveals that, for the most part, even the songs by the respectable artists would – in the parlance of the time – “gag me with a spoon.”

My reaction to the music around me was to start exploring the music of the past two decades, and so, being a fan of the “new” Yes, I decided to check out the “old” Yes. I immediately was sucked in to their musical world of intricate and wide-ranging guitars, complex rhythms, strange lyrics, and harmony vocals. In a simile I’m sure I’m not the first to make, their songs are the aural equivalent of fantasy novels like The Lord Of The Rings or the Narnia books. Their musical worlds draw on the recognizable to create the beautifully bizarre. My attraction to the music was intensified because I was the type of nerdy teenager drawn to remarkable displays of talent – jugglers, magicians, pro athletes – and the virtuosity displayed by the Yes band members was striking and daunting. These guys could play parts on their instruments more complex, and faster, than almost anything I’d heard, AND they’d sing harmonies while doing it!

Yes enhanced the otherworldly feelings conjured by their music by having artist Roger Dean conjure Other Worlds and draw them as album art. This inside gatefold from the vinyl version of Close To The Edge shows a world that's, well, close to the edge.

They were also decidedly NOT of the “Less-Is-More” mindset when it came to songwriting. Why not change key in the middle of a verse? Why not have an organ solo last three minutes, AND have a guitar solo last four minutes … in the same song!! Why not pause an upbeat song and play five minutes of slow, moody passages before returning to the upbeat part again? Yes has always pursued a path that interested themselves yes concert2musically, and what’s resulted are several full-length albums (even double-albums) containing a few 20-minute songs!

Close To The Edge has exactly three songs. Now, you may remember buying several cassingles back in the 80s and early 90s, and so think “What’s the big deal? Lots of cassingles had a third “bonus track” song on them!” But the difference is that Close To The Edge is a full-length LP. The title track is nearly 19 minutes long, and took up the entirety of Side One on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album. Why don’t you run to the bathroom and maybe grab a snack before we dive into this behemoth! And don’t worry: it’s true that dreams can be unusual, hard to understand, even scary, but I will be your guide through this dreamscape of songs, so you have nothing to fear. We will get close to the edge, but I’ll make sure you don’t fall over.

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you this: I’m not sure I’m as huge of a YES fan, as I am a huge STEVE HOWE fan, the band’s extraordinary guitarist. He plays innumerable styles: finger-picking, classical, super-speedy fret-burning, subtle soundscapes … there’s nothing he can’t do. The first part of the song “Close to the Edge” steve howeis titled “The Solid Time of Change.” Indeed, Yes songs are so long, and have such varied parts, that the band actually titles the different sections of the songs to keep things straight!!! “The Solid Time of Change” begins with an aggressive solo by Howe. Actually, the solo starts at about 56 seconds because the band – in typical, over-the-top fashion – begins the song with about a minute of woodland sounds of birds, insects, a stream … The peacefulness is broken by the beautiful cacophony of Howe’s guitar. The solo begins with an introductory cadenza, then reaches full furor at 1:21, as the bass, drums and organs pound away behind him. And it wouldn’t be a Yes song without singer Jon Anderson piping up in the middle of an instrumental section with a vocalization – here it’s an “AAh!!” at 2 minutes. After this, bassist Chris Squire amazingly doubles Howe’s guitar solo part, an ascending digital workout. Another “Aah!!” and more craziness from Howe and the whole band, as the energy increases, straining the limits of rock music (and, frankly, good sense – it’s sections like these that are dreamlike to me) until we reach the 2:57 mark, at which point Howe plays a melody that will serve as a touchstone for the entire 19-minute track.

stopwatchYou see, here we are, three minutes into a song – a length of time greater than some of the best rock songs ever recorded – and Yes haven’t even reached the main melody of the first section of the first song!!! Being a Yes fan takes patience and concentration, but you are rewarded for your efforts. Patience because the songs are so long, and concentration because sometimes – if you’re not paying close attention – it’s difficult to hear how all the parts fit together. Usually the bass, drums and keyboards are each playing ridiculously intricate parts at the same time. But at 3:00 of “The Solid Time of Change,” a very nice section of pop-rock jon andersonnormalcy is exhibited. It’s a bit baroque sounding, with individual instruments playing frilly, light parts. After another minute, just after 3:54, the vocals begin – harmonies by Anderson and Howe, with Squire joining on the chorus. Anderson is one of those helium-voiced 70s singers that pose a large problem for many rock fans. But really, if you’ve listened this far – 4 minutes of woodland sounds, weird guitar, a jumbled knot of instrumental chaos, and faux-baroque powdered-wigcraft – don’t let a high pitched man drive you away.

One of the reasons I find Close To The Edge so dreamlike is that for a good two years of my life, I would come home from college classes and play it in my headphones and fall asleep – well, sort of asleep. I’d travel along that strange sleep/wake border, and Close To The Edge was my traveling music. So Howe’s guitar parts are ingrained in my head, and the solo he plays at 4:54 is one of my favorites. It’s actually two different solos that he plays over top of each other, and when Anderson picks up singing the next verse, he continues to fill in with nifty figures and runs.

We’re now at the 6:00 point, still not as long as “Hey Jude” or “Hotel California,” but then again, bill brufordthis song isn’t yet a third of the way complete!! The song has now entered Section Two, titled “Total Mass Retain.” This is actually a pretty cool, nearly funky section, with syncopated bass and drums. It’s only a bit over two minutes long, but it may be my favorite part of the song. If you listen to only one section of this song, it should be this section. You’ll hear how each instrument plays a different part, how drummer Bill Bruford somehow manages to keep it together, and how they sing harmony while they play this stuff!! It probably sounds ridiculous for me to say, but there’s a fifteen second section – from 7:10 to 7:25 – that gives me CHILLS when I hear it, every time! Maybe it’s from the years of subliminally listening while sleeping. I don’t know. But it has an effect on me, dear reader.

There’s some more powdered-wigcraft from 8:00 to 8:30, rick wakemanand then … Okay, I get it. You’ve been listening to the same rock (ostensibly) song for 8 and a half minutes – about as long as CCR’s “Suzie Q” – but we’re not even at the halfway point. You might need a break. Now would be the time to take it, as we enter Section 3, “I Get Up, I Get Down.” It’s a subdued, magical hippy-trippy section, with water drip sounds and a medieval forest vibe. It has some nice harmonies, but I feel like they could’ve skipped this section and gone right to keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s second (yes, SECOND!!) pipe-organ solo. I’m hoping by now it doesn’t surprise you that Yes would decide on TWO pipe-organ solos in this song, actually played on an organ at a famous church, the Monty Python-esquely named St. Giles-without-Cripplegate church (I shit you not.) This second solo starts at about 13:10.

We now enter the fourth and final section of this beast of a song, this veritable giant, dangerous, shaggy ant/bear-but-really-a-penguin of a song that I’ve listened to a million times and will listen to a million more: the rather heroically, if strangely gendered name of “Seasons of Man.” chrissquireIf you haven’t been listening to the song in its entirety, and you really want the full Bombastic Yes Effect, tune in to 13:10 and listen to the majestic build of the pipe-organ, the tension Wakeman creates up to about 13:55, where a synthesizer takes over and builds things up some more til it all flies apart in a fury at 14:12. (There are three notes at 14:12 – I think on guitar – that always remind me of the bells rung by the Philadelphia trolly cars at intersections in the mid-80s.) Howe reprises the melody he first posited way back in Section Two, this time in a minor key, and at the 15:00 mark, Wakeman returns with a blistering synth solo. We’re approaching the end of the song, and I still haven’t mentioned as much as I should have about bassist Chris Squire. Brother/Sister, if you’re a fan of bass guitar at all, you need to go back to the beginning and just listen to the crazy stuff he plays throughout the whole song, all Four Sections (while participating in three-part harmony, I should add!) What he does is truly stunning.

The song returns to another verse/chorus from Anderson, with harmony vocals and dazzling instrumentation, and concludes with a return to the gentle woodland sounds. Good heavens, I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted!! You’ve just made it through a song even longer than the famed “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and Yes didn’t even pad thingssleep with a three-minute drum solo, like Iron Butterfly did! You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss the song’s lyrics at all. Really, at this point, what is there to say? Jon Anderson writes very strange, yet cool-sounding lyrics, stringing words together like an 8 year old at summer camp with a lanyard and a new bucket of beads. I just listen and think, “Whatever, dude, sounds great …”, but if you’d like more insight into them, here’s an article in which he discusses them in-depth. He says stuff like “[The line] ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace’ – that means your higher self will eventually bring you out of your dark world.” I’ll take his word for it. I like singing along, I like the mood the lyrics create, but I haven’t done enough drugs to allow me to attempt to decipher meanings!

Okay, look, we’ve still got two songs left, and they’re both epic, grand pieces of progressive rock. It’s been a long haul already. I don’t know about you, but I’m moving on. Please join me – we’ll do this together. Let us consider TRACK TWO (which indeed marks the beginning of SIDE TWO of the vinyl/cassette) … “And You And I.”

Believe it or not, this puny 10-minute song single ayaiwas actually released as a single! It was released as “Parts 1 and 2,” with the first quarter on Side A and the second quarter on Side B. It begins with Steve Howe tuning his 12-string acoustic guitar, and at about 1:12 flows nicely into a 70s singer-songwriter type of song with a lilting melody, and (of course) strange lyrics. This first section is called “Cord of Life,” and lasts until about 3:47, when part two, “Eclispse,” begins. Similar in feel to the “I Get Up, I Get Down” section in “Close to the Edge,” this passage is another psychedelic, ethereal journey howe andersonto the center of a British hippy’s mind. I particularly like Bill Bruford’s bass-drumming (of all things) in this slow passage.

Section Three begins (about 5:48) with a return to Howe’s acoustic guitar. It leads to the jaunty section, “The Preacher, The Teacher,” which I love for two reasons: 1) Steve Howe’s guitar, of course; and 2) Anderson’s kooky lyrics, such as “There’ll be no mutant enemy, we shall certify/Political ends our sad remains will die/Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you.” The famous Dr. Dave and I have spent hours giggling over lyrics like these. If you’re gonna be a big Yes fan, you can either defend Anderson’s poetry to all critics, or – like Dr. Dave and me – admit they’re pretty silly, but belt them out nonetheless. Or, like Hollywood impresario Joss Whedon, name your production company after them. Section Four, “Apocalypse,” consists of the final 50 seconds of the piece.

We are almost there, nearly experienced this entire, fantastic sphere of Yessian reality, but I know you must be tired. You may need a break. So here’s a cool clip of the early 70s Monday Night Football theme song for you to watch.

anderson 2The final song on this sojourn to the very edge of … rock music? Rock instrument virtuosity? Human listening endurance? SANITY!!?? Well, whatever the edge is, we are close to it, and as if things haven’t gotten crazy enough in the 30 minutes of music we’ve been enjoying, the band, and Anderson in particular, has now had to make up a new word to properly express what it is that is inside them. Thus, the song “Siberian Khatru.” Jon Anderson says Khatru is a Yemeni word meaning “as you wish.” (How Siberia fits in remains unclear.) Yes fans have other ideas about the word. Heaven knows, the lyrics themselves offer little, if any, insight. But we are in a dreamland, folks, and it doesn’t have to make sense to pick you up, give you a shake and kick you in the ass. And that’s what this polyrhythmic song does just fine.

Again with the Steve Howe Guitar. And again with the Chris Squire Bass. And the Bill Bruford Drumming, and the Rick Wakeman Organ. At about 25 seconds in, Howe begins playing a little riff that he’ll return to throughout the song, and at 52 seconds he hits the main riff of the song, with Wakeman doubling on organ, while Bruford and Squire play around them. It all sort of doesn’t fit, but fits perfectly – like a shaggy bear tranquilized by my cousin’s husband.concert2

Anderson starts in with the melody (he may write goofy lyrics, but he sure writes great melodies) and the guys sing their harmonies. It’s a groovy song, with a strong, strong early 70s feel, and at billboard3:03 Howe blesses us with a brief sitar-esque solo, which ends in some major powdered-wigcraft: harpsichord (!) and bass interplay between Wakeman and Squire. Howe rejoins at 3:30 for an airy, breezy answer that breaks into a traditionally-picked solo at 3:48. It all leads to Anderson, at 4:14, gently inviting us to hold down a window to reveal an unspoken Khatru. (No, really. Look, you’d better be listening to this song, because it sounds WAY better than I can describe it!!) At 4:50 they’re rockin’ again, and you’d think they’d just go with it for a while. But we’ve learned that these dreams of Yes take all kinds of twists and turns, so by 5:21 they’re getting all slow and trippy again, and Bruford plays some furious, FURIOUSLY TIGHT rolls on the snare. At 6:21 they snap out of it, and return with typical abandon to their intricately crafted parts. But then at 7:21 they interject a hiccuping, yesbandvocal section, a part that, if this song really was a dream, is the part where you start to realize you’re dreaming, and if you liked the dream you try desperately to remain inside that world, and if you don’t like the dream you make the firm decision to wake up. It’s a sense that we’re reaching the end. By 7:37, the dream’s landing gear is down, Howe plays some of his coolest shit, as does Squire, and we gently glide our prog-rock ship into its proper berth.

There you go, dear reader! You are out the other side. I hope you didn’t find the dream too disturbing. I expect you may have found it weird, or it may seem like a place you don’t wish to revisit. Some of you may have enjoyed it greatly and hope to return again. I encourage you to do so, and find your own hidden paths and vistas within its alien world. Like our dreams, music is personal. It’s hard to say what it is about music that makes it relatable or moving. Close To The Edge is very different than many of the other albums on my list. But I love this bearantpenguin of an album, and it is with me forever.

Track Listing
“Close to the Edge”
~~i. The Solid Time of Change
~~ii. Total Mass Retain
~~iii. I Get Up, I Get Down
~~iv. Seasons of Man
“And You And I”
~~i. Cord of Life
~~ii. Eclipse
~~iii. The Preacher, The Teacher
~~iv. The Apocalypse
“Siberian Khatru”

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Filed under Albums 70 - 61

66th Favorite Album

Aja. Steely Dan.
1977, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Bootlegged from vinyl ca. 1983; bought ca. 1992.

aja album

66 chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL: Jazz/Pop/Rock fusion that’s complex and gets more rewarding with each listen. The musicianship on display is outstanding and the songwriting is excellent. The lyrics – obscure and strange, yet somehow meaningful – could occupy a semester’s course in American Lit. But intricate though the songs may be, they always retain a pop appeal.
In retrospect, childhood is very much like blacking out from drinking too much alcohol.passed out Maybe you’re one of those lucky, normally-functioning people with typical psychological issues that, 2 fingerswhile filled with traps and binds that can derail important aspects of your life, have at least never caused you to wake up in the lobby of a strange apartment building in your underwear, with no recollection of how or why you went there, your medulla oblongata – the only portion of the brain with some bit of functionality remaining after half a bottle of Two Fingers tequila and a couple six-packs of beer – having apparently made the executive decision that your beer-soaked pants were more necessary to keep your head off the tiled floor, than to keep your flabby legs and tighty-whitie-clad behind protected from strangers’ view. Perhaps – unlike me – you’ve never had the experience of blacking out from alcohol consumption. Well, reflect on your childhood and you’ll have a decent facsimile.

Surely you’ve experienced someone connected to your past – a parent, a friend, a sibling – santatelling a story from your childhood that is confirmed by everyone else, but that you have no memory of. “Really? I hid behind the dryer for the entire party? I couldn’t recognize that Santa was Uncle Bob?!” Maybe you’ve seen photographs to prove it really happened, and maybe your brain has made those photos into fake memories, but no matter how you try, you can’t really piece together what you were thinking or why you made those choices. These fully blacked-out memories of childhood are like myths of ancient gods. The best you can do is memorize them and appreciate they were real to certain people in the past, but there’s no point in trying to make them part of your reality.

More troubling, in a certain regard, are the many parts of childhood that you do remember, but which make no sense in retrospect. These memories peanut butterare scenes from the boozy night that your brain captured before its memory-retaining functions began fully aborting – the lip-synching to old Wham! songs to entertain folks you don’t know; the argument with the history major dude over the legitimacy of the Ancient Astronaut Theory; that jar of peanut butter and the very large spoon. These events from a blackout are like those incidents from childhood that you know happened, but that have never made any sense – your uncle coming to stay at your house for a week; your friend’s mom always insisting you leave his house before his dad came home; your parents suddenly dropping you off at their friends’ house to play with that weird girl, and your aunt picking you up after dinner there and telling you mom and dad are busy, so you’re having a sleepover at her house.

willisThese experiences, the ones that don’t make sense, help make adulthood seem very mysterious to a child. Adults do things that don’t make any sense, and when you ask them why, they say “It’s complicated,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” Or if you do badger them enough to get a story, it’s one that doesn’t add up in your 8 year old brain. “Mom had a procedure, and the doctor helped her, and she’s okay now, but she’ll be sad for a while,” said dad. Geez – I don’t know what a procedure is, or why the doctor helped, but if it was just going to make her sad, why did she decide to have it in the first place??

Kids are generally kept in the dark by parents, just one of the many ways griffinadults treat children poorly. But as a parent, and in defense of parents’ actions, I’d like to say that the fact is that children are self-centered, unsophisticated louts who – even if they are capable of understanding some of life’s complexities – will usually be bored by any serious topic as soon as they realize its impact on their own life is merely tangential. I’m not being mean – it’s just the way kids’ brains are built. So as a parent, you try to give kids enough true information that their brains can handle while avoiding outright lies that a) mess with their heads; and b) are difficult for you, the liar, to keep straight!

So, between kids’ brains, parents’ information-filtering, and the fact that almost EVERYTHING ELSE IN A KID’S LIFE seems really friggin’ cool to a kid, adulthood is a vast, incomprehensible realm of mysterious responsibilities, strange customs and boring “fun,” and kids’ fleeting experiences there – waiting in line with mom at the bank, going to the auto parts store with dad – are so weird and dull that they’re happy to return to their Matrix of childhood.

When I was a kid, probably up through 7th or 8th grade, I never really cared much about the “adult world.” It was full of stuff that didn’t make sense – like barbershop quartet concerts, scheduling septic tank pumping, and an quartetoft-mentioned-yet-unfulfilled desire to visit the Strasburg Railroad. It was a bizarre world, like Narnia, but with far fewer sword fights, lions and centaurs. But, naturally, as I moved through high school, the world of adults became more interesting while remaining largely indecipherable. Sure, everyday concerns like paying insurance premiums and tidying up after myself now made sense, but other facets I’d never considered – relationships (both romantic and with friends), jobs, the future – made adulthood a puzzle that, no matter how much I resisted or how long I procrastinated, I was going to have to delve into and solve.

Through high school, I felt like I was rushing at an inevitable, boring coyoteadulthood just like Wile E. Coyote toward a phony tunnel painted on the side of a desert plateau. Music was one of the ways I resisted. Albums were a deep pool of teenage rebellion I could submerge within. I liked music that the adults around me hated: Van Halen, U2, Rush and R.E.M. and Yes. Nothing too crazy, I know, but then again, I wasn’t all that rebellious. I FELT rebellious, but I was a good student, never got in trouble, never went to parties, obeyed my parents, went to church … But still, my love of music made me FEEL like I was a rebel, flipping the bird at my parents and adulthood. I’ve written before about my oldest sister’s milk-crate of 70s albums that she left at home when she moved to California. That crate was one source of weapons to arm my (admittedly feeble) internal rebel army, containing 70s Arena Rock Classics from bands like Styx and Kansas and Journey

There was one album that was quite different from the others in that crate. Its songs were definitely rock, definitely of a nature that my brass-band and Bacharach-loving parents wouldn’t have cared for. But while the guitars and drums were intricate and cool, there was a complex, jazzy nature to the music as well, making me feel that I’d better listen a second (and third) time because I likely missed something the first. Also, the singer’s nasally, indifferent voice didn’t sound like the seemingly nut-viced, castrati-esque screechers in the other albums. what doesBut perhaps the biggest difference was the lyrics! No songs encouraging me to keep believin’, or asking “…let’s live together,” or encouraging a wayward son. The lyrics were unusual, bordering on incomprehensible, but they drew me in. They definitely meant something, they weren’t the word-salad efforts I’d heard from bands like Yes and R.E.M. There were clearly characters, obviously actions were taking place, or had taken place, but the stories were obscure. As with the music, the lyrics made me want to listen again. I wanted to know more.

This album, Aja, by Steely Dan, reminded me of adulthood. And while it is true that I was diving into music, in part, to avoid it, this record cast a different light on that supposedly boring road of adulthood that lay ahead, and made me think dan_1that maybe there were aspects of it – bends, rough patches, hidden paths off into the brush – that I hadn’t considered. The music sounded like something whose comprehension required a certain level of maturity, and the lyrics – hinting at bitterness and resignation, yet celebrating friendships and good living – reminded me of those inscrutable explanations from mom and dad; but these stories seemed like they hinted at truths about life. Listening to Aja made me feel like an adult, like I was in on that big mystery that had loomed before me for so long. The other records were an escape from the inevitable: Aja offered a new perspective on it.

dan_2Steely Dan are, effectively, the songwriting team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In the early 70s they had a regular band behind them, but as the years went by they stopped touring to focus on recording, so the duo dropped the band and began making records with session players they’d hire – typically jazz musicians, but always people who could read the music charts they’d write for the songs. They’ve built a dedicated fanbase over the years full of the types of people who maintain online dictionaries of the band’s lyrical references and databases of all kinds of Steely Dan content. Some folks consider Aja the best album they ever made.

Becker and Fagen got me thinking about adulthood right off the bat with the song “Black Cow.”

Now, as someone who grew up in rural PA, you can bet I’d seen my fair share of big black cows,black cow but it made no sense for a band to write a song about one. The song opens with a very stylish bass figure, and starts the album with a subtle, “chill” kind of vibe. It’s got a bit of a dance groove, and jazzy guitar chords from jazz great Larry Carlton accenting each measure. When the vocals begin, those guitar chords turn into background phrases that are reconfigured throughout the entire song – the type of sound that made me want to listen again. It’s a mellow song, the type that non-Dan fans might dismiss as “background music,” but a close listen reveals a lot happening throughout. The backing vocals are very strong, as are Donald Fagan’s lead vocals. I’ve read that he never felt he was a good singer, but I appreciate his laconic style. As the narrator tells his story, it becomes clear that the black cow he’s talking black cow 2about isn’t the type I saw down the road at Showers’ Dairy Farm. He tells a tale of being fed up with the party-girl woman in his life. He’s had enough of her druggy lifestyle (“you were high/it was a cryin’ disgrace”), her lies (“you change your name”), the all-night talks to get her through (“I’m the one/Who must make everything right/Talk it out ’til daylight”) … “Finish your childish drink and leave,” he tells her. Coming from a family with parents who didn’t drink, didn’t argue, didn’t lie, didn’t talk things through all night … well, this was a snapshot of adulthood that I found intriguing. Finally it seemed like some adult was letting me in on the way things really were.

The next song, the title track “Aja,” offered even more grown-up sounds, and lyrics that confused more than they enlightened, but still made me think I was on a path to understanding.

This is a song that – for many Steely Dan fans – is considered The Masterwork: the perfect fusion of rock and pop and jazz. I’m not going to spend much time breaking down the song, as it’s too complex a song for me to do well, and other writers have done a find job of it already. But it’s 8 minutes of music that, as with the opener, sounds “chill,” but takes a variety of excursions, with excellent solos by guitarist Denny Dias, an original dan_peanutsmember of the band, super-session-drummer Steve Gadd, and jazz titan Wayne Shorter on sax. The complexity of the music has always drawn me in, as have the strange lyrics that, as with most Steely Dan songs, has a narrator who knows exactly what he’s talking about and seems not to care whether you do or not. I, along with many Steely Dan fans, have spent time trying to decipher their meaning. Lines like “double-helix in the sky tonight/throw out the hardware/let’s do it right” are ripe for interpretation. I’ve always imagined it’s a simple story of a man trying to fit in among glamorous, upper class people (“up on the hill/they think I’m okay/or so they say”) but who finds that he always feels better with his girlfriend, Aja (“Aja/when all my dime dancing is through/I run to you”), who is Chinese (“Chinese music always sets me free/angular banjoes sound good to me”). That’s what I think now, but as a teen-ager facing adulthood the possible meanings seemed endless.

Next up in my peek behind the curtain of adulthood is the paean to losers, “Deacon Blue.”

The song opens with some nice chords and Fagen’s nasal voice, “This is the day/Of the expanding man…” The lyrics go on to describe a man imagining his life as a jazz saxophonist, in which he beds many women, steps up to bandstands to take solos, and drinks enough booze to die in a car crash. But it’s a dream he knows he’ll never attain. My own father dan5seemed forever saddened by perceived lost opportunities and dreams unattained, and “Deacon Blues” spoke to me about adulthood at a gut-level, in a way I didn’t understand intellectually. It made me think there was something sad, yet beautiful, about being a grown-up, that maybe there was more to those people carrying their unattained dreams with them, the “losers of the world,” than I understood. It sort of made them seem like winners just for continuing to carry that baggage. Musically, I love the little guitar licks throughout the piece, again played by Larry Carlton. And, although it sounds like damning with faint praise, I again LOVE the backing vocals. It’s a song to which The Wall Street Journal devoted page space last year, almost 40 years after its release, and probably one of the most unlikely songs to make the U.S. Top Twenty in 1978. I have in my head an idea for a movie script in which a man in his 50s decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. The film ends with him approaching the microphone at his first appearance at an open mike night, and “Deacon Blues” plays over the closing credits. I don’t know anything else about the story, but I know it will be a terrific ending.

Becker and Fagen next do their version of 70s funk in one of their most famous songs, “Peg.”

This is a song that – overplayed though it may be – always puts a smile on my face. It reminds me of being ten or eleven, and listening to songs on AM-1270, WLBR. It’s a “Pool Song,” so designated because it’s the type of song my sisters and I remember being played at the A-C Pool, dan4where we spent many summers in our youth, and where WLBR played over the loudspeakers all day. And although it brings back memories of childhood joys, a close listen of the song reveals it’s as “adult” as all the others. The lyrics, which seem to speak of the narrator’s relationship with a starlet of some sort, are again obscure, and the music is more complex than most of the other disco tracks of 1977. It starts with a cool fanfare set over descending electric piano chords, and a sweet bass guitar backing, then the main song is introduced by perhaps my favorite three snare hits in all of pop music (at 0:13). The drums, by session man (of course) Rick Marotta, keep the song bouncing along, and – together with Chuck Rainey’s popping bass – provide a rhythm funky enough to be sampled by everyone from hip-hop artists like De La Soul, to horrible, videogame-sounding, Norwegian techno doofuses. And of course, only a duo as obedient to their own muse as Steely Dan would interrupt a dance groove with Club Potential by inserting that cool, undanceable intro back into the song (1:26). That break is followed by a phenomenal solo by guitarist Jay Graydon, the 8th or 9th guitarist brought in to try to meet the demands of Becker and Fagen. About the only thing I don’t like about the track is the prominence of full-throated 70s/80s yacht-rock singer Michael McDonald.

It’s hard to pick a favorite song on this album. I really love “Aja” for its drum breaks and style, “Deacon Blues” for the feeling, and “Peg” for the groove. But maybe my favorite of all is the album’s closer, “Josie.”

That guitar opening is so spooky-sounding. I had a friend who used to play those opening chords on his guitar, and they are difficult chords – stretching the hand into stress positions for sure. It’s got a great groove, and again bassist Chuck Rainey shines – throwing in subtle sounds and nice slides. Jim Keltner’s tight drumming carries the song, and Walter Becker himself plays the guitar solos throughout. Lyrically, it’s another song that sure seems to be about something … Sometime in college I read that it was a song about an orgy. If so, dan6it’s certainly the least-sexually-described orgy ever in the history of orgy descriptions. I researched Roman prayer (since Josie “prays like a Roman/with her eyes on fire”) and I guess the orgies of Bacchanalia might be what Fagen is referring to. But since wild parties of all types are often referred to as “Bacchanals,” it seems to be stretching things to say the song is “about an orgy.” To me it sounds like everyone is just really excited that Josie is back! I think – as with almost every Steely Dan song – the lyrics are written quite brilliantly in that, as general as they are, they are sung with a purpose so as to seem specific to each listener. In other words, the guy who said the song’s “about an orgy” had an orgy in mind, so that’s what the song became for him.

The songs “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” are in the vein of the others. Both have a groove: “Home At Last” is a slow jam about finding one’s place (and one of the few songs I’ve heard tip a hat to that piney Greek wine, retsina), while “I Got The News” is a bouncy gem with typically coded lyrics that will mean something to you.

Adulthood is weird. Even as an adult it’s weird. It’s like sobriety after years of blackout drinking. You find yourself doing all sorts of things you never thought you’d do, and – even worse – enjoying things you never thought you’d enjoy!! roadrunnerThe mystery continues to unfold throughout your years, and if you thought it would all make sense by the time you were a grown-up, well, you were sorely mistaken. That tunnel painting on the side of the plateau that you’re rushing towards will become an actual tunnel, and you’ll enter it and run through it and never understand how it happened. And when you turn to look back through it you’ll see your teenage self bracing for impact. I don’t understand how I got here on the other side, but I know that music – including Aja – helped ease the way.

Track Listing:
“Black Cow”
“Deacon Blues”
“Home At Last”
“I Got The News”

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Filed under Albums 70 - 61

67th Favorite Album

Skylarking. XTC.
1986, Virgin Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren.
Purchased ca. 1989.

skylarking album

67nutIN A NUTSHELL: A concept album exploring the cycles of life. Lush orchestration, witty but deep lyrics and full of catchy melodies, this album could be compared to some by a more famous British band, but it stands on its own merits. Some songs run together, some stand on their own – and perhaps their most famous song, “Dear God,” is featured as well.
Consider the term “Beatle-esque.” (Or perhaps it’s “Beatlesque,” which is admittedly easier to type, but just doesn’t look right.) beatlesque It is a word that is thrown around a lot in pop culture, probably the most common Pop-and-Rock-Music Related “-esque” word there has ever been. A quick check of the googles returns 25,400 results for “Beatle-esque,” as compared to a surprisingly small 4,470 for “Rolling Stones-esque,” a stout 10,500 for “Bob Dylan-esque” and a surprisingly strong showing of 7 for “Men Without Hats-esque.”

It’s a term that to this day continues to becheaptrick thrown at artists that you’d expect, like Cheap Trick, artists you wouldn’t, like Stone Temple Pilots and Kiss, and even artists who severely cheapen the term. But like many terms popularized in the media, it is usually a lazy piece of shorthand that without context for the reader could indicate any number of things. The band were innovators in many ways – musically, of course, but also in terms of style and culture and – some would argue – everything! So what does it mean to be “Beatle-esque?”

beatlesI’ve listened to my readers, and both of them have said, “enough with the Beatles stuff.” But the issue of what the term means is supremely important to Album #67. Without delving a bit into the concept, I’d simply be writing some stuff about a record, instead of boring you regaling you with insights and stories from my boring fascinating life. Certainly my interest in the term is largely what brought me to Album #67, so I want to take a little time to consider its meaning.

adeleWhen you consider that The Beatles released their first single in the UK, “Love Me Do,” in October, 1962, and their final album, Let It Be, in May of 1970 it is shocking to realize how many different styles the band packed into such a tiny window. For comparison’s sake, let’s say theirs’ was an 8-year recording career. As I type this, it is now 2016. In February of 2009, the Grammy awards were held celebrating the recording industry’s achievements for 2008. The Best New Artist award was handed to Adele. In the past 8 years, she’s released three albums, and each has been wildly successful by sticking to a winning formula of heartfelt ballads and a few upbeat pop songs sung by an extremely talented vocalist. In the same span, The Beatles released 13 albums and twenty-four singles that weren’t on any album. The hit songs were as diverse as “Please, Please Me,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Lady Madonna,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Come Together.” I’m not trying to make a case for or against either artist. Both have their merits, and the music and entertainment landscape in the early 21st century is not the same as it was in the mid-20th century, so any comparisons will be challenging. However, it is easy to see that – given the breadth of diversity in their respective musical careers – the term “Adele-esque” is going to be a more precise descriptor than “Beatle-esque” will ever be. So let’s look at some of the meanings of “Beatle-esque.”

When The Beatles burst onto the scene, they sort of beatles1combined the sweet harmonies of The Everly Brothers and the greasy stomp of Eddie Cochran with the wild abandon of Little Richard. They were a group of four that wrote their own songs and played instruments while they sang, which was rather unique in an era of mainly vocal-only groups and solo artists with backing bands.

By 1965, the charts were packed with Beatle-esque bands such as mosquitoesFreddie and the Dreamers (seen here doing a dance that was definitely NOT Beatle-esque!) and Herman’s Hermits. And mop-top inspired characters were popping up on shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Munsters. Beatle-esque bands like these have continued through rock history. The line of bands with jangly guitars, a rock beat and harmony vocals stretches from The Byrds through R.E.M. to Franz Ferdinand and college rock bands of today, like The Twerps.

The other very Beatle-esque characteristic of the Beatles boybandsfrom the early-to-mid-60s era was their image as cute-boys-who-sing-and-act-charmingly-goofy-and-a-bit-naughty-yet-non-threatening-to-preteen-girls. While The Beatles made terrific music, they also starred in movies that inflated this image, bantered with reporters in a disarmingly snide manner, and offered witty quips whenever the opportunity arose. They (and the media) established a template for “Boy Bands,” and the chain of unfortunately-labeled “Beatle-esque” boy-bands – from The Bay City Rollers to New Kids On The Block to One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer (and even Boys Who Cry!) – has continued. I guess the band has to take some responsibility for all of them. However, they obviously found the phenomenon troubling. You see, by 1965, they were clearly a worldwide phenomenon, and the entertainment industry was capitalizing on the whole enchilada, music and image. The next year The Monkees debuted on American TV, both singing and acting Beatle-esque. But by 1966, the only thing not Beatle-esque was The Beatles.
The Beatles famously stopped playing live after their August, 1966, performance at Candlestick Park and continued peppersmoving away from the catchy guitar pop they’d mastered, toward a more experimental and studio-affected sound they’d already played around with on songs like “Rain” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” and (most weirdly, so far) “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To.” Songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “I Am The Walrus” got more strange, songs like “Penny Lane” and “The Fool On The Hill” got less rock ‘n roll, and the sound culminated in the formerly-un-Beatle-esque but now definitely a new-definition-Beatle-esque album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. I’m not saying The Beatlessatanic were the originators of psychedelic, orchestral music in rock, but works by new artists like (The) Pink Floyd and established artists like The Rolling Stones were nothing like the Mop Tops of 1964, yet were now being called “Beatle-esque.” This line of Beatle-esquetry traveled through The Electric Light Orchestra, served as the ontogenesis for prog rock, was heard in some late 80s pop songs, and has continued through 90s bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Tame Impala today.

letitbeFinally, after Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles became an anything goes, kitchen-sink, music-first-image-later band, unbound by styles or labels and as such helped engender the use of the term “artist” to describe pop/rock musicians. This Beatle-esque characteristic of dedication to artistry has continued to touch musicians from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to Beck to Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar.

So “Big Fuckin’ Deal,” right? The point is, if you go looking for something “Beatle-esque,” there are very few artists who won’t – in some way – fit the bill. I know from several experiences that you may find something great! But usually not. I’ve written before about the fact that my reaction to the horrible music of the late 80s was to seek out new music from classic rock bands of the 60s and 70s that, unfortunately, turned out to be every bit as horrible as the rest of the 80s music I was hearing on MTV and the radio. As a huge Beatles fan, part of this frantic search (which unfathomably ignored the actually awesome music being produced at the time!!) for good music caused me to search for bands described as – you guessed it – “Beatle-esque.”

As an early-adapter of MTV back in 1981, wmmrI’d been familiar with the band XTC for many years. They were one of many new artists that were suddenly part of my consciousness, and it seemed like their catchy number “Senses Working Overtime” was played routinely. But by 1986 they’d escaped my consciousness. That year I was in the gym playing pick-up basketball at PCPS, in Philadelphia, when WMMR played O and Lwhat I thought was a rather disturbing song called “Dear God,” with children’s voices bashing religion, and when I heard the announcer say it was XTC, I thought, “Wow, that old MTV band is really desperate for airplay, being controversial just to get it.” But I did find the song intriguing and catchy, and I grew to like it. Three years later I kept hearing XTC referred to as Beatle-esque, so I went out and bought their LP Oranges and Lemons on vinyl the week it was released. That album made me a fan of the band. After a drunk guy in a Skylarking t-shirt told me at a party that Skylarking was even better than Oranges and Lemons, I went out and got it on vinyl as well.

Skylarking has many hallmarks of a “concept album:” many songs xtc_1related to a main theme (cycles of life), that are connected to each other (many run together with no break between them), and containing first-person lyrics sung from a definite point of view. The record was produced by longtime artist and producer Todd Rundgren, who suggested the idea of a concept album, but who famously did not get along with the band, causing a rift that exists to this day! I find the album is best-appreciated if one can listen to it from start to finish. However, as with all great albums, the tracks are strong enough that they stand out by themselves, or in any order.

The album opens with nature’s sounds of summer, various chirps, croaks and whistles that eventually set the rhythm for the first two tracks, “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass.”

“Summer’s Cauldron” sounds to me like a hot summer day, when the humidity is so dense that you mouldingjust want to lie in the shade, close your eyes and wish for a breeze. Colin Moulding’s bass is gooey and thick behind the bugs and birds and Todd Rundgren’s melodica, and Andy Partridge sings mostly nonsense lyrics that still perfectly describe the feeling of a summer’s day. After the first verse and chorus, Partridge’s voice is doubled an octave higher, and backing vocals and counter melody from Moulding and Dave Gregory are added, increasing the song’s summer lushness. It builds to the 3:22 point, where the second song, “Grass” begins.

XTC songs are usually written and sung by guitarist Andy Partridge, and the ones that aren’t are written and sung by bassist Colin Moulding. “Grass” is one of Colin’s songs, and it’s an ode to, let’s say, the youthful physical expression of fondness and attraction set in the great outdoors. It’s a natural segue from the first track, and features orchestration (including pizzicato violins behind the verses that sound great) that helps continue the summer feel. It ends with the outdoor orchestra of bugs and birds that began the song, completing one of many cycles on the record.

Another Colin song, “The Meeting Place,” follows, and it’s sort of the enantiomer of “Grass.”

This time Moulding’s lyrics describe a meetingplace winter rendezvous, with coats on the ground, where someone might hear. The song has a nice circular guitar riff, and in the second verse Partridge sings a counter-melody that I love. It’s a great number, and gives the listener a feeling – together with “Grass” – that a love songs may abound on this album. Band leader and renowned prickly cynic Andy Partridge dashes those ideas immediately with the caustic next song, “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”

Nobody writes biting, revenge lyrics quite like Partridge. xtc membersHe’s a very smart man with a gift for words and a righteous attitude, and that leads to great lyrics. It’s a catchy song with cool vocals and more great bass guitar from Moulding. Third XTC member, Dave Gregory, plays a marvelous, bouncy guitar solo starting at 2:06. This song does call to mind for me a breakup I had many years ago with a Supergirl. When I first heard the song soon after I thought, “Yes! This is perfect!” So many years later now, and I don’t remember why it connected. But I still like the song – cruel though the lyrics may be.

The rich, orchestral linked-together songs continue with two rainy spring-themed songs: the lovely “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” and the rather whiny “1000 Umbrellas.”

What I love about both these songs is are the lyrics. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” presents lovely imagery of the colors on a rainy day. And the music behind it sounds like a warm, drizzly late-spring morning. xtc_4At about 3 minutes a very (dare I say??) Beatle-esque string arrangement transitions the tune to “1000 Umbrellas,” a song that I don’t love despite it’s super-clever rhyme scheme and wordplay from Partridge.

The song that was a terrific closing number to Side One when I had the album on vinyl, and that is now just a cool song in the middle of all the tracks, is the celebration of Mother Nature “Season Cycle,” a fun, catchy number with lyrics that manage to rhyme “cycle” with “umbilical” in a way that you’ll love if you’re an Andy Partridge fan, and despise if not.

I love the background vocals on this song, and of course the lyrics. They ask who could be responsible for something so glorious as the world we inhabit. He lands briefly on the idea of a supreme being, but rejects it quickly and finally decides it’s so beautiful that Earth and heaven are one and the same. One of the reasons I took to Partridge’s lyrics when I first heard them is that at the time I was questioning the religious beliefs I’d grown up with, and this song mirrored thoughts I’d come to on my own – that the world around us is so wonderful, why would we ever seek to imagine something better, or more beautiful? The idea of a “better place” sounded silly to me, as it (apparently) sounded to Partridge, as well.

The cycle of life among humans is explored on what was once Side Two. xtc_3Whereas Side One mostly described the world around us, Side Two describes us within the world. “Earn Enough For Us” and “Big Day” both take a rather dim view of the human experience of marriage, while “Another Satellite” takes a similar view of relationships. “Earn Enough For Us” is what passes for a guitar track on this album, a driving pop rock number with a somewhat McCartney-esque bass line and lyrics describing a common worry for men in the late twentieth century and today, despite rising gender equality in America.xtc_1Big Day” is a Colin song that points out that the glory of the wedding can fade pretty quickly. “Another Satellite” is a cool-sounding song on which Partridge uses his venomous lyrics and astrophysical wordplay to target a would-be suitor – and makes the listener think that maybe Supergirl did the right thing in dumping his ass.

The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a nifty jazz piece with lyrics that either argue for more introspection, or advise against it – depending on your outlook. Colin’s “Sacrificial Bonfire” is a deceptively light, tribal take on the deep topic of humans’ historical urge to punish others to elevate themselves. Colin’s other song, “Dying,” is what my friend Johnny might refer to as one of “Colin’s Clunkers.” See, it seems like every XTC album has a song or two by Colin that, well, just don’t live up to the typical XTC standard. Thus Johnny, a big XTC fan, coined the term “Colin’s Clunkers.”

The most famous song on the album, the one I heard on the basketball court back in the day, is Andy’s slam on religion and belief, “Dear God.”

It’s one of my favorite songs, not just because of the lyrics – which thoughdear god biting and focused on Christianity, are an honest questioning of the nature of faith – but also because I like the acoustic guitar riff. This song was incredibly controversial for a song that wasn’t really a hit. It was even controversial among the band and producer Rundgren – though not because of the content. Maybe it’s a little manipulative to the listener to have a child sing a verse, but that’s my only quibble with it. When I first heard it, I thought it was a blatant attempt at publicity by the band. But after I became a fan, I realized it was just an artist expressing his view – one not too dissimilar to that “Smart Beatle,” John Lennon. And as an atheist myself, I find it nice to hear some non-religious viewpoints out there in the media once in a while. Whatever your viewpoint, it’s a song most listeners won’t forget.

So, is the band, and this album “Beatle-esque?” Well, they’re definitely not a boy band, but they do make some catchy guitar pop songs, and they sure threw in a lot of orchestral pieces on the songs, and I think they’ve got an artistic drive to what they do … But really – what does it matter? Being a Beatle fan brought me to XTC and Skylarking, but it isn’t what kept me listening. I kept listening because I love the music.

Track Listing
“Summer’s Cauldron”
“The Meeting Place”
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”
“Ballet For A Rainy Day”
“1000 Umbrellas”
“Season Cycle”
“Earn Enough For Us”
“Big Day”
“Another Satellite”
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”
“Dear God”
“Sacrificial Bonfire”


Filed under Albums 70 - 61