28th Favorite: Star, by Belly

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Star. Belly
1993, Sire Records. Producer: Belly, Tracy Chisholm and Gil Norton.
Purchased, 1993.

IN A NUTSHELL: Star, Belly’s debut record, sounds different enough to be interesting yet retains enough jangle and melody to stay hooked into mainstream rock. It’s truly a showcase for leader Tanya Donelly’s voice, with songs that allow her to vary between sweet purrs and powerful belts while harmonizing beautifully. Guitarist Thomas Gorman’s charming riffs stay in the background so the vocals can shine.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Obsession. [uh b-sesh-uh n] Noun. The domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. (From Dictionary.com.)

I’ve heard stories, both troubling and hilarious, regarding individuals’ struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so I don’t want to minimize this awful disease by claiming my idiosyncrasies are symptoms of it. Also, I’ve had sufficient (mild) diagnosed disorders of my own, and so I don’t want to allege any maladies to which I don’t really have a claim. However, in the everyday vernacular used outside a clinical psychiatric setting, I can say without hesitation that I can get obsessed by things.

Foods, shows, writers … in almost any area of human endeavor I can at times find myself pursuing the same ancient, midbrain impulse that compelled my ancestors toward water and shelter instead directed solely on one more Kurt Vonnegut novel or another tube of Tangy Buffalo Wing-flavored Pringles. I can fixate for days at a time, accomplishing work duties and household tasks using some robot-like space in my cerebral cortex while any remaining mindpower is drawing plans for obtaining, building scenarios for experiencing, and reliving satisfactions I’ve received from well-written, deftly humorous pages, or crunching, savoring and fashioning-duckbills-from those unmistakeable potato-paste pressed chips.

Obsessions of this nature generally aren’t harmful, apart from inducing a series of unpleasant visits to the bathroom and a tongue that feels as though it’s been repeatedly scraped against a cheese grater. (In the case of the Pringles, not the Vonnegut.) The effects aren’t long-lasting and often the obsession isn’t, either. A few days after binging, I’ll usually find myself disinterested in what I once desperately craved, and the balloon of desire that once swelled to inhabit nearly every cranny within my consciousness will have burst and withered to a flaccid swath of plastic among all the disregarded and obscure ephemera of my past. Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles? Did I really ever find these edible?

Some past obsessions leave me regretful, with painful memories. Girls from high school1, disgusting foods and time-wasting TV shows fall into these categories. Some leave me feeling wistful yet confused, as I’ll never again understand what I found so compelling about, for example, word-search puzzles. Others make me happy to recall, as I retain a bit of love for them, even if I no longer feel the magnetic pull they once imparted.

Some of my biggest obsessions have been with individual songs, and these past obsessions fall into all of the above categories. I’ve written many times about my childhood of music and record listening. I’ve been a music fan since I was really young, and I’ve gotten obsessed with many, many songs over the years. The earliest were cuts off my Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert record. But the first song I remember being truly obsessed with, and listening to over and over, was The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which my sister had on a Beatles Greatest Hits (aka “The Blue Album”) 8-Track Tape.

It was sort of spooky sounding, with pinched, distorted vocals and instruments that sounded angular, watery and weird. The drums were somehow spooky, too, particularly throughout the choruses: mesmerizing and tribal. When they combined with the swooping orchestra it created a sound I’d never heard before. I listened as much as I could, which was easier to do – given my proximity to my sister’s 8-Track – than listening to some of the other songs I was obsessed with around that time. I didn’t have the records for Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” or E.L.O.’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” To hear these, I had to listen constantly to the radio, hoping some DJ would find the psychic wavelengths I was sending and answer by spinning the disc. At some point, my other sister recorded “Mr. Blue Sky” from the radio, so at least then I could sometimes sneak a listen. I still enjoy all of these songs, although I wouldn’t say I’m still obsessed.

My freshman year of high school coincided with the launch of MTV, so while I was a fan of heavy rock like Rush and Van Halen, and proggy art-rock like Yes, I spent lots of time watching MTV. And many of my song-obsessions were MTV-video-based. I got obsessed with dozens, I’m sure, the charms of which usually wore off quite quickly. But some have lingered as favorites.

MTV played songs I’d never hear on the radio, so I stayed glued to the screen for hours at a time to catch “Save It For Later,” the ska-tinged English Beat number, with its happy, bouncy beat offset against minor chords from the strings and Dave Wakeling’s distinctive vocal style. Most of the bands with songs I obsessed over were British. When you watched MTV, you had to watch at the top of the hour, as that’s when the VJs would announce, “Coming up this hour videos by Talk Talk and Roxy Music,” bands whose names were never mentioned on the radio stations that reached my antennae. I’d hope for “It’s My Life” and “More Than This,” two songs I couldn’t get enough of. Two songs that were far too weenie and soft and synthesizer-based to share with my hard-rock friends, so I kept my interest to myself. I also obsessed over an obscure single called “Bears” by the obscure metal band Zebra, one of the hair-band clones with a nuts-in-a-vice singer that were becoming popular in the mid-80s.

College was when I really got into The Beatles. I’d say I was obsessed with all of their songs and albums. But what I remember playing most of all was the album Abbey Road, particularly the Side Two medleys, beginning with “Because,” and ending with “Her Majesty.”

These aren’t songs that were played on the radio much, as they are short pieces that blend into others. You’d occasionally hear the Joe Cocker version of She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.” Every once in a while, if a DJ needed a smoke/bathroom break, you might catch the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” medley. But songs like “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Because” were new to me. I practically wore out my Abbey Road cassette. Also during college, I went through a long stretch of playing the Led Zeppelin song “Fool In The Rain” every day. It’s a song I think is just fine today, but my fascination with it is akin to that of the Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles: did I really need to hear it every day? Just after college, it was the Concrete Blonde song “Joey” that burrowed into and resided within me for several weeks. Johnette Napolitano’s voice, the shimmery, distorted guitar, the 60’s Phil Spector drums … I’m over it now, but I still like the song.

So many other songs triggered my faux OCD in the years after college. I’d regularly dive into a song and wallow there through five or ten plays, and dive in again the next day for weeks at a time. There were two on the Singles movie soundtrack, the first and longest-lasting (I’d say I’m still somewhat obsessed, although I don’t play it five times in a row anymore) is Chris Cornell’s solo piece “Seasons.”

It wasn’t just the voice – one of the best ever in rock, I’ve said – and it wasn’t just the acoustic strumming, and it wasn’t just the hazy lyrics. It was all of it together. I’d generally play it along with the epic Singles track “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” from the tragic band Mother Love Bone. Other songs that commandeered my senses during the 90s were “Regret,” from New Order, a band I’d always dismissed but who I grew to appreciate in my late 40s. Another soundtrack song that remains today one of my all-time favorite songs is from the ubiquitous 90s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, Maria McKee’s beautiful “If Love Is A Red Dress.”

Since I’ve had kids, most of the songs I’ve become “obsessed” with are songs that my kids have loved. I guess you could say I was obsessed with The Wiggles and The Laurie Berkner Band in the early-to-mid 00s. Never the type of parent to roll my eyes at my kids’ music, I generally tried to get into it a little bit2, and tried to never mock it. So I found myself listening a million times to the songs they listened to a million times, which meant – perhaps – I did become a bit obsessed with, say, “That’s Not My Name,” by The Ting Tings.

I never loved Mika’s “Grace Kellyor Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” as much as other songs on this list, but they are ingrained in my mind the same way as the others. However, they elicit fond memories of my kids’ childhoods as opposed to fond memories of time spent playing and re-playing them. I can’t really hear them without my mind flipping through an imaginary photo album of my two kids being goofy, funny, wonderful children.

So, you may ask, what’s this got to do with Belly’s record, Star? Well, I made my way to this album through a song I may have been most-obsessed with ever.

Tanya Donnelly, the singer/guitarist/leader of Belly, got her start in the successful 80s college-radio band The Throwing Muses, playing and singing alongside her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. Back in the early 90s I’d heard the band’s name many times. The morning DJs on my local Rock Radio Station at the time used the band as a punchline, incorporating it into lists (“… playing all your favorite rock, from bands like AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Throwing Muses, Aerosmith …”) and fake giveaways (“… first place gets the latest Throwing Muses record; second place gets two Throwing Muses records …”). They were presented as some worthless, sissy, college band, unfit for the macho rock played on the 100,000 Watt Flamethrower, or whatever bullshit tagline marketing had thought up to appeal to the Monster Truck enthusiasts and squealing-guitar fans (myself included) who listened. But I never heard any of their songs.

That is, until 1991, when their album The Real Ramona was released, and I heard Donnelly’s composition “Not Too Soon” played at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ. My band was playing there, and I was drunkenly dancing to Matt Pinfield’s DJ set after the show, and for some reason I heard the song and it immediately grabbed me. It’s the only CD single I’ve ever purchased.

A friend at the time who had some connections in the music industry pointed out to me that The Throwing Muses were “finally putting Tanya’s songs out there,” and said that he thought she was the more talented of the stepsisters. To this day I don’t know anything else about The Throwing Muses except for this song, so I can’t say whether his assessment was accurate. All I can say is that after playing this song a billion times, I was extremely ready to go out and get the first album by Donnelly’s new band3 Belly. When Star was released, I bought it right away.

Belly was getting a lot of airplay from their lead single, the cool, jangly “Feed The Tree.” It’s a good entry point to the album, as it’s got most of everything the album has to offer, plus a super-catchy melody.

For me, the defining characteristic of Belly is Donelly’s voice. In this song, she transitions from gentle, through spirited to full-on belting while providing harmony vocals all throughout. The first two verses are rather quietly, but as she enters the second chorus (1:23) she sings more fully. I also like how she glides up and over the “me and feed” lyrics (1:41), adding an extra note. By the final chorus, at 2:37, she lets loose with a healthy belting voice. Thomas Gorman’s guitar in the song is also really cool, particularly the dripping riff during the first verse (0:26) and elsewhere, and the solo at 1:46 – recorded in an era when guitar solos were about as untrendy as spandex. Her lyrics are also rather Steely Dan-ish in that they tell stories using imagery and indirect phrases (“This little squirrel I used to be/Slammed her bike down the stairs/They put silver where her teeth had been/Baby silver tooth she grins and grins”) but yet still get across a story with feeling – even if you’re never sure what the story is.

A good example of her lyrical style is on the barn-burner “Slow Dog,” which seems to be about a dog that may have been hit by a car and so needs to be put down? According to Donelly, it’s actually about all the ways we punish ourselves. Either way, I sure love singing along to “Maria carry a rifle …”

Gorman’s guitar riff is angular and harsh, and his brother Chris’s drumbeat gives the song an urgency, then turns into a fast shuffle for the choruses. Donelly’s harmonies are really cool over the little guitar figures. It’s a driving song – meaning it’s always driving forward AND I like to listen while I drive. It’s a shout-along melody, with the fun “ah – ah” sections in the chorus. It’s another song that I could see myself being obsessed with, and one of my favorites on the record.

Another song in a similar vein – angular guitars, driving beat – is “Angel.”

This song, however, is much stranger, with starts and stops, and a minor key that gives the song a bit of an eerie sound. I like the guitar line throughout the song and also the harmony vocals. The lyrics are about as obscure as lyrics can get, although the line “I had bad dreams/so bad I threw my pillow away” is pretty cool. This is a record with many odd songs that somehow not only work well, but improve with every listen. “Low Red Moon” is a track that also has an eerie vibe, with Donelly’s sweet voice carrying long stretches (0:18 – 1:14) of empty space that’s afterward filled by pounding drums and shimmering organ, and her full voice. I’ve grown to love this track. “Sad Dress” is another odd one that’s grown on me, a song in 6/8 that bounces above a buzzing guitar. Donelly’s voice is the star, once again, although Tom Gorman does play a nice little solo. The lyrics could be about drug use? Date rape? Simply a bad date? Regardless, if you wish to chew off your foot to get out of a dress, something unhappy is going on.

One of my favorites on the record is a catchy, punchy number that takes a little while to get going. “Full Moon, Empty Heart” features Donelly’s beautiful voice for a minute, then takes off.

There’s a lot of cool guitar feedback and other sounds behind her voice, particularly during the chorus. The lyrics are, well, geez, I don’t know: out the window backwards. It’s an interesting little song that, once again, took a few listens to catch on with me. I think it’s a testament to the record that repeated listens reveal more to enjoy.

One song I’ve loved since I first heard it is the fun, sing-along number “Gepetto.”

The lyrics are all imagery and Pinocchio, with the line “That kid from the bad home came over my house again/Decapitated all my dolls” taking me back to the bullies I knew as a kid. The song has a great beat, and fun “sha-la-la” backing vocals. Belly and Donelly have a penchant for bouncy, fun songs, but they do throw in an aggressive tune once in a while. The ferocious “Dusted” is a good example. It’s short and direct (well, apart from lyrics that may be about a kidnapping?)

I really love the rockin’ and/or weird songs on the album. Some of the slower songs on the album don’t do much for me, although Donelly’s voice and strange arrangements always make things interesting. One gentler song I do love, however, is the ditty about strained relationships (perhaps with frogs and birds?) “Untogether.”

It’s just a simple acoustic guitar with a little steel guitar in the background, but her voice carries it. And the lyrics – once again, I’ll compare them to Donald Fagan’s Steely Dan lyrics – are inscrutable, yet presented as a narrative that the listener should clearly understand. I like how she does that throughout the record. “White Belly” is another slower song that has cool guitar, and once again leaves some empty space for guitar lines (about 1:53) and vocals (2:34) to fill in. Donelly’s voice is great because it can be both airy and powerful, sometimes in the space of a few measures.

The album closes with an entreaty to a significant other, or listener: “Stay.”

The wobbly guitar effects and 60s girl-group riff provide a platform on which the song can build, and it does so subtly and steadily. Donelly’s harmony vocals are outstanding as always, and new sounds are continually incorporated, including a guitar solo about 2:00 that sounds like a violin, and then (I’m pretty sure, though none is listed on the credits) and actual violin. I don’t know who Solomon is, but I’ve grown to love not knowing what her lyrics mean. By about 4 minutes, Donelly proclaims “it’s not time for me to go,” and whenever I listen to this record, this part always makes me want to start it again, back at the beginning.

Most of my obsessions start off intense, then fade away like like so much Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringle-dust in the wind. They’re never long-lasting, and they’re difficult to understand when they’re done. My love for Star is sort of the opposite. It took a little while for me get into the album, but there was always something about the songs and the voice that made me want to listen again. The more I listened, the more I loved it. It’s a different sort of obsession.

Track Listing:
Someone To Die For
Angel
Dusted
Every Word
Gepetto
Witch
Slow Dog
Low Red Moon
Feed The Tree
Full Moon, Empty Heart
White Belly
Untogether
Star
Sad Dress
Stay

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29th Favorite: Automatic For The People, by R.E.M.

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Automatic For The People. R.E.M.
1992, Warner Bros. Producer: Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Automatic For The People is a record that sounds a lot like growing older while retaining your old-school punk identity. Soft yet intense songs take on death, reminiscing and aging parents, yet it’s not a downer by any means. The band plays relatively few traditional rock instruments, and brings in an orchestra, to boot, but the songs sound fresh and somehow R.E.M maintains its independent, DIY spirit throughout.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I have a distinct memory of being a kid, probably about 7 years old, and hearing my mom and grandma discussing a woman whose husband had died, and that he was “only 42.” Now, in my elementary school years – particularly on weekends and in the summers – my mom and sisters and I spent a lot of time together at my grandma’s house. My dad would be home doing weekend car-repair or engine-building or some other manly art whose seductive qualities of oily aromas and physical domination over metal and internal combustion never held sway over me as he might have hoped. Even his enticement of a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco of my own for the day couldn’t draw me to the garage, such was my fondness for trips to grandma’s house with my mom and sisters.

While my sisters and I played fun games, my mom and grandma would sit at Gram’s kitchen table and talk all afternoon, seemingly nonstop. It felt exhausting, so I stayed out of there. Sometimes my aunt or great-aunt would join them, and then it would be loud and exhausting, as they never provided a break in their patter to allow another speaker to enter, and so everyone had to use sheer volume to join in and make a point. These conversations were too loud to pique my interest (every kid knows the good stuff is always spoken about quietly), and their themes were too disjointed to follow in any case. A good conversation requires at least one person to be listening at least some of the time, and this never seemed to be part of the dynamics of the group’s discourse. So I never understood anything they talked about.

So the talk of the dead husband at “only 42” could have been about someone from church, a mother they knew, a character on The Guiding Light, or something they heard on The Fred Williams Show, the only person keeping WAHT-1510 afloat in the Lebanon, PA, AM radio marketplace dominated by WLBR-1270. Whoever it was, I had no idea why they kept speaking of 42 years old as if it was young. It was not young – it was ancient! I knew from reading the backs of my football and baseball cards that nobody who was any good was ever older than about 34. Sure, George Blanda played in the NFL into his 40s, but he’d stopped playing QB long ago and by then was only a kicker – not a real player. Once you were too old to play, you were better off dead, I figured.

As a now-50 year old, I would be saddened to hear that someone died at 42. (A real person, I mean, not a Guiding Light character.) However, I don’t think of 42 years as “young.” Improved diet and exercise has made 40+ year old athletes more common today than in the 70s, but the best of the best remain those in their 20s: i.e. Young Athletes. As for rock/pop musicians, it’s a similar story.

But this blog isn’t so much about artists as it is about albums. So if it’s rare for athletes and musical artists to be good into their forties (and I recognize the slippery nature of the word “good,” but I’m just going to leave it there), I wonder: is it rare for albums to be good into their 40s? Let’s take a look.

First of all, how to tell how “old” an album is? I don’t think it makes sense to look at the age of the artists. People and music mature at different rates. The Beatles made Please Please Me and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and all the records in between) in the span of 5 years, so the age of the musicians (early 20s to late 20s, in The Beatles’ case) doesn’t really correlate to the maturity of the music. I want to look at albums that are the musical equivalent of a 40 year old. So I need a way to compare peoples’ ages to albums’ ages, like folks do with their dogs and cats.

The average human lifespan, according to the googles, is 79 years. However, I don’t think all those years are really rockin’ years. I’d say the rockin’ years are really only between 15 and 65, giving us a rockin’ lifespan of 50 years. (Thirty years ago, the rockin’ years topped out at about 40, but since then the older generations, having grown up with rock music, have remained rockin’ longer. Plus there’s the fact that rock music is now music for the elderly, so 65 may actually be young.)

Now – how to convert those 50 human years to album years? Well, first we have to see what the average number of albums released is for any given band. I selected 30 rock bands somewhat randomly, meaning the bands that randomly popped into my head. I recognize this is not the definition of random, but this experiment isn’t really the definition of an experiment, either, so big whoop. I also chose bands, not solo artists, because solo artists put out all kinds of weird shit on record sometimes that can artificially inflate their numbers. (In the case of Hendrix, Petty and Costello, I only included albums recorded with bands.) Of the 30 bands I selected, the average number of studio albums released was 10.

So 10 albums per 50 rockin’ years equals 5 human years per album year. A band’s 3rd album? Like a 15 year old. Their 15th? Like a 75 year old. Athletes’ peak years of 20 or 30 would then be equivalent to bands’ 4th or 6th albums. This is unlikely to be true for all artists, but just like athletes, bands’ production matures at varying rates. If you’ve ever had a kid play youth sports, you’re familiar with the situation of the 7 year old whose skills are far beyond his playmates’, yet who by 15 years old is just one of the pack and no longer superior. Similarly, some bands have an awesome debut record and never come close again.

So, then, are there any 40 year old albums that are excellent? I mean MVP-caliber: a record operating at Tom Brady-level, not George Blanda-level. Well, there’s at least one on my list: Automatic For The People, R.E.M.’s 8th full-length, studio album. And not only is it a 40-year old album in age, but it sounds very much like middle-age, as well, a record whose excellence lies not so much in energetic, innovative style, but in its richness and depth. It’s the sound of the confident yet self-aware and reflective nature of one’s 40s, without the anxiety of weight gain, hair loss, crazy pre-teens in the house, crazier parents on the phone, looming college bills, declining basketball skills, and everything else negative on the other side of the hill.

I was into R.E.M. from the moment I saw them on Late Night with David Letterman in late 1983.

They were fascinating, with a bouncy, bass-driven, jangly guitar sound and a singer who was unintelligible but compelling. When the band talked to Dave, after they played the hit “Radio Free Europe,” the singer shyly sat on the riser, then they played a song “too new to be named,” the wonderful “So. Central Rain.” I loved them. However, I was going through a musical identity crisis at the time, trying to get into the hard rock and heavy metal sound that was entrancing rural, white, male Northern U.S. teenagers at the time. I didn’t love it, but I wanted to fit in and didn’t want to seem weird, so I kept my secret love for R.E.M. hidden while claiming a fondness for more “acceptable” hard rock artists4. But I always bought their cassettes.

Automatic For The People was released in the fall of 1992, a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind brought college rock to the mainstream. It seemed like everything in rock music was now big and loud, with distorted guitars, howling vocals, pumped up bass and dance-beat drums. R.E.M. had, frankly, lost me a little bit with their 1991 mega-smash album Out of Time, the first album of theirs that didn’t play on a constant loop on my cassette player. Still, I went out and bought Automatic For The People.

And I was disappointed. Where were the jangly guitars? That strong, lead bass? The odd, moaning vocals? This album was all slow songs, mandolins, piano and orchestra. I put it aside. (At least it didn’t have any songs with a guest rapper, something from Out of Time that really confounded me, but that now seems quaintly nifty.) It wasn’t until I revisited it a few years later that it became one of my favorites.

Right off the bat, the album sounds different than anything else happening at the time, and different from what R.E.M. had previously delivered. “Drive” is a slow acoustic song referencing a 70s glam-rock hit that builds to crunching guitar backed by strings, yet somehow manages to put me in a mind of childhood.

It sounds rather menacing, and sets the trend for the album of simple songs that build intensity gradually by adding instrumentation and sounds. You might not notice, but when Pete Buck’s electric guitar pierces the gentleness at 2:00, and violins begin furiously sawing, it’s suddenly a far more intense song than that opening acoustic guitar signaled. As for lyrics, I learned as an R.E.M. fan from the beginning never to worry too much about meaning. Stipe’s lyrics are all about feeling, and this one feels like an older guy wistfully reminding kids to use their youth wisely. Plus, for years I thought he referenced infrequent Bugs Bunny nemesis Blacque Jacque Shellacque, which I loved. (He didn’t.)

It was an unusual song in general, and very unusual as a single. The entire album is unusual, clearly accomplished by a band doing exactly what they want, and it’s this spirit of self-determination that, to me, gives the album a truly punk spirit – even though few punk songs are waltzes that prominently feature a triangle, like the next song, “Breathe.”

Singer Michael Stipe has said the lyrics are about his dying grandmother, and her strength at the end of her life. But the instrumentation and the build of the song make it not sad and mournful but uplifting. Bassist Mike Mills’s backing vocals (“Something to fly!”) at 1:56 mix with drummer Bill Berry’s (“I have seen things/You will never see”) and give the song a touch that elevate it. Buck’s distorted (backwards?) guitar at 2:20 provide dark color, and as the song moves toward its conclusion it truly sounds like the most uplifting song imaginable about a person dying.

These themes and songs were quite unlike anything else in 1992, and I can see why it took me a few years to catch on. It’s a mature record, a 40-year old record, and I needed to be closer to 40 to get it. Closer to a time when one’s parents may be struggling with their health, when a song like the lovely reflection on loss “Sweetness Follows” has more resonance than it might to a typical 25 year old.

For a mellow album, Automatic For The People has quite a lot of feedback and distortion from guitarist Buck. There’s a feedback “solo” from 1:56 to 2:25 that is haunting and beautiful. Stipe’s voice is strong and charismatic, and while it was always Buck’s guitar and Mills’s bass that kept me coming back to R.E.M. over the years, this album is really a showcase for Stipe’s singing. The harmony vocals by Mills are also terrific.

But the album’s not all slow songs about death and loss. From the time Stipe branched out from his early word-salad lyrics, the band has had political songs (“The Flowers of Guatemala,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” “World Leader Pretend“, etc.) and on the rousing “Ignoreland,” they issue a call to action for the 1992 national elections.

This upbeat rock song was one of the songs I liked when the album was first released. It has the characteristic Berry tom-happy drumming, and Mills all-around-the-neck bass line. The rhythm section is supplemented by producer Scott Litt on funky clavinet (heard about 1:40) and harmonica. Buck plays a simple riff, without his usual jangle, that complements Stipe’s (admitted) spleen-venting5. It’s got that upbeat, driving R.E.M. style that I’ve always loved. Similarly, the rather crazy and somewhat mindless but absolutely fun “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” has their early upbeat style as well.

It’s one of Michael Stipe’s, and the entire band’s, least favorite R.E.M. songs, but I like it. I like the seeming nonsense lyrics (which may be about living in a cheap motel), Mike Mills’s organ, and the harmony vocals throughout. Mills and Berry are two of my favorite harmony singers6 in rock. Producer Litt uses their vocals as an instrument on the subtle ode to physical affectionStar Me Kitten,” extending the pairs oh’s and ah’s into unending notes – an homage to an old 10cc song. The band does great stuff without vocals, too, on “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”

The upbeat songs are the exceptions on Automatic For The People, however. Instead of loud songs with thumping beats, the band here finds power in a smoldering energy that builds to a satisfying conclusion. “Man On The Moon,” one of the biggest hits on the record, is a lilting country-western tune that bursts into a full-throated, sing-along chorus. It’s an ode to the surreal 70s comedian Andy Kaufman. In another hit, “Everybody Hurts7,” Stipe’s lyrics hearten the discouraged while the simple song swells into an orchestral storm. (All the strings on the album were written and arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, by the way.)

The record is all about subtlety. It celebrates the gray and undistinguished facets in a world where so many wish to see black and white. This may be why it appealed more to the aging me than it did to the younger me. The perspective gained from several more trips around the sun can enhance the world around you. It can put you in a place where a song like “Nightswimming” can move you nearly to tears.

The simple, circular piano of Mike Mills carries Stipe’s lyrics that somehow conjure both the excitement of childhood and the melancholy of reflecting on those happy memories. Each verse builds gently, adding strings until an an oboe solo and full orchestra enter. It’s the kind of song that I would’ve hated as a kid watching R.E.M. on David Letterman in 1983. But as a middle aged man, it trips a certain nostalgia trigger – not nostalgia as in “this is the music of my youth,” but as described in Don Draper’s Carousel pitch on Mad Men: “a place we ache to go again.” It’s a powerful song (and Mike Mills’s favorite R.E.M. song, according to his Dan Rather interview.)

It’s true the album has all this slow, orchestral, emotional music. But yet, to my ears, it retains that punk/alternative spirit of “we’re doing this our way.” The songs don’t sound like a band just decided to write the same old shit but add some strings. The ode to 50s screen star, and tragic man of his era, Montgomery Clift, “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” uses mandolin, accordion and a thunking rhythm to support a catchy melody. Like the rest of the record, it doesn’t sound like anything else in pop/rock from 1992 – it just sounds like R.E.M. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and one of two songs about Montgomery Clift that I love (the other being “The Right Profile,” by The Clash.)

Ah, middle age. It’s an astonishing place to find oneself, with more past stretching out behind you than future that lies ahead. You look over your shoulder and it can seem like that’s where all the best stuff lies. But Automatic For The People is a middle-aged record (40 years old in human years, remember?) that shows it’s possible to maintain excellence as you age and grow. In the final song on the record, “Find The River,” lyricist Stipe seems to make the point that all there is to life, really, is experience and memories. Maybe the question of whether 40 year olds can be excellent is moot; perhaps experience and memories are where “excellence” lies as our personal river approaches the ocean that awaits us all. (Or maybe that’s just old-man-talk!)

Track Listing:
“Drive”
“Try Not to Breathe”
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“Everybody Hurts”
“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
“Sweetness Follows”
“Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“Ignoreland”
“Star Me Kitten”
“Man On The Moon”
“Nightswimming”
“Find The River”

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30th Favorite: Doolittle, by The Pixies

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Doolittle. The Pixies.
1989, 4AD. Producer: Gil Norton.
Purchased, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Doolittle sounds a lot like every Alt-90s record that came after it, but don’t blame The Pixies for that. Black Francis howls and barks, screams and hollers, and it sounds just beautiful against Joey Santiago’s surf guitar and Kim Deal’s confident bass. The songs are singalong-catchy and downright weird, with lyrics about ancient people and modern problems. It’s a raucous, high-energy affair that still sounds up to date.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It’s true I have a lousy memory. I may have written about this before. I don’t really remember. But while tasks and events and people may slip from my mind as if they’re wearing a Crisco-slathered raincoat, certain items do cling tenaciously to my memory glands (or however that works). In particular, stories I’ve read leave a lasting impression.

However, that’s all they leave: an “impression.” And just like pushing a little green army guy into a wad of Silly-Putty only leaves behind the most basic information on the soldier (Kneeling with bazooka? Tossing hand grenade? Prone with gun?), of all the hundreds of thousands of words I read each month I am generally left with only the bare minimum of what any reasonable person would consider a “memory” of the information. My enthusiastic description to my wife of any 8,000 word essay I read in The New Yorker is usually along the lines of: “It was about this woman whose mom died.”

However, the impression I’m left with is generally distinct enough to describe the larger point of the essay: “Her mom died, and she realized she never asked her about her years as a truck mechanic in the 50s.” Twenty years later I’ll forget where I read the story, and I’ll forget major details of the story, like how she went about discovering the stories from her mom’s truck mechanic past. But when someone brings up the topic “Truck Mechanic,” a little librarian in my mind will race to the card catalog (periodicals) there8, hurriedly flip through it, then send word to my mouth to say, “I read this really cool story one time about a woman whose mom was a truck mechanic in the 50s!”

Then I hope my interlocutor doesn’t ask any questions about the article.

I bring this up because I read an essay one time in the late 80s that, even though I forget many (or most) of its details, it relates to a very specific time in my music-appreciating life. As background for the story, it’s important to recognize that in America, up through the 80s, rock music, though aging into its 30s and experiencing all of the attendant regret, sadness and resignation that early middle-age carries, was still a source of fear and anxiety for many people across the country. The once powerful and kick-ass Heavy Metal – which by the end of the decade had morphed into “Hair Metal,” essentially shirtless, hyper-coiffed middle-aged dudes in leather and spandex singing 90s boy-band style ballads and dancing 90s boy-band style choreography – was particularly viewed with suspicion and distrust.

This was the era of the “Satanic Panic,” when everyone from nursery school teachers to bored teenagers and fantasy game nerds were swept up in a tidal wave of hysteria that envisioned an America populated by The Believers-style Satanist cults preying on our youth. Lives were ruined by this literal witch-hunt9. And music, particularly Heavy Metal music, was in the witch-hunters’ crosshairs. Heavy Metal music was supposedly an avenue that Old Scratch used to infiltrate teens, riding the driving beat, fiery guitar-work and shrieking vocals straight into their lives to stealthily pluck their souls while they banged their heads with abandon.

I’m getting to the article, don’t worry.

It was a downright silly idea that left us music fans shaking our heads over these dorky do-gooder adults’ actions. But it wasn’t really all that funny. In addition to the appalling overzealousness of Satan-addled prosecutors, crazy shit was happening in music, too. Like Judas Priest being sued for causing suicides (the family that sued lost); and Ozzy Osbourne being sued for the same thing (with the same outcome). Times were really out of control. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the media’s role in all of this. The typical human gossip story cycle occurred, in which the papers first published story after story warning “Oh my gosh! Satanists might be here!!” and then a few years later asked, “Why were we all dumb enough to think Satanists were here?”

But anyway, sometime during all this hysteria some small-town boy killed his parents. Or shot a friend, perhaps a neighbor. I don’t remember the details, see, but I know there was violence perpetrated with a gun, and much was made about the changes recently seen in the boy. A story, perhaps in People Magazine or syndicated by UPI, described the boy, the violence and its aftermath. He was an outstanding concert pianist10 with a love of classical music, but the article stated that he’d recently begun listening to Heavy Metal and hard-core punk rock. It was one of many changes of escalating alarm that culminated in homicide. The article made the point that “when his music changed, he changed.”

But this story IS NOT the story that left the impression on me. The impression-yielding story was an essay written in response to the above in which a young woman pushed back against the idea that music was wreaking so much havoc. This young woman knew the boy, and she pointed out what now seems obvious but at the time flew in the face of the national attitude towards rock music and its potentially devastating effects: the boy didn’t change when his music changed, but his music changed when he changed. In the common narrative, she argued, the actual cause-and-effect had been flip-flopped.

This isn’t a difficult point to understand. Few of us remain fans of all of the entertainments we enjoyed as youth or young adults. My sisters’ disco singles and milk-crate of albums didn’t change me into a Sesame Street hater; they just came at a time when I had outgrown my Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert LP. As new people are met and new experiences encountered, as one’s perspective and life changes, it makes sense one’s art appreciation would change as well. There was a time in my life I wouldn’t have given Doolittle a listen. Then I started to change, and a time came when I played it nonstop.

By 1989 I had heard of the Pixies, but I hadn’t heard any of their songs. They remained one of those mysterious, non-classic-rock bands of which I remained suspicious. In the fall of 1989 I was student teaching when I heard/saw their song “Here Comes Your Man” on MTV. It was catchy, but I didn’t buy the album. A year later I heard another track from Doolittle, and didn’t even know it. I was attending a gig in a bar I worked at by a band I would join a few months later, The April Skies. They were playing with another local band called The Sociables. I knew both bands played mostly songs they’d written as opposed to covers, and The Sociables’ songs were, well, forgettable. Then they played a song that knocked my socks off, a catchy, energetic number with a shout-along chorus and varying voices that were mellow and screaming. “Holy shit,” I thought, “these guys are awesome.” Then the rest of the songs were, well, forgettable again.

After the show I said to my friend, Jake, from The April Skies, “They should write more songs like that one!” “Dude,” he said, “that’s a Pixies song. ‘Debaser.'”

Within a few months I’d be playing in a new band, meeting new people, going to big cities, and hearing about terrific bands from all the people I’d meet. My perspective on life was broadening, I was hearing stuff I hadn’t heard before. I bought my first CD player and bought my first CDs, and in addition to albums by The Beatles, one of them was Doolittle. And the first song on the album was that awesome song I’d heard The Sociables play, “Debaser.”

The song opens with a few bouncing bass notes, an ugly, dissonant chord (which is one of the hallmarks of the band’s sound), and then at 0:07 the main riff. The leader, main songwriter and lead singer of the Pixies is a character named Black Francis, the nom de guerre of Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black. His vocal style is unique, a sort of in-tune shouting, at times screaming, and even when it morphs into melody it retains a dark, menacing quality. He also writes unusual lyrics, many with Biblical imagery11. “Debaser” is about his desire to “debase the norm” with his music, and references the surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou, by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, famous for a scene in which an eyeball is (seemingly) sliced by a razor12. It’s one of those songs that definitely sounds better the louder you play it, the better to accentuate the screaming “I am un (pause) CHIEN (pause) ANDALUSIA” lyrics. It also features bassist Kim Deal’s gentle backing vocals (1:44), another common feature of the band’s sound. David Lovering’s drumming is tight, and surf-rock guitarist Joey Santiago’s playing sounds terrific. It is the quintessential Pixies sound.

There was a documentary produced a few years ago about the band, and its title describes another key component of the Pixies sound: loudQUIETloud. Kurt Cobain admitted lifting their sound for the quiet-loud-quiet masterpiece “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A good example of it is in the frantic “Tame,” a song about … relationships, maybe?

Black Francis’s howls (0:22, 0:53) are terrifying, but the drums and bass keep the song pumping and catchy. Also terrifying are the banging metal guitars and Francis’s heavy breathing (1:13), even when it’s sweetened by Deal’s harmonies (1:24). It’s a frightening song, certainly scarier than whatever Motley Crüe or Slaughter were doing at the time to raise Satan-hunters’ concerns. (Although they looked pretty normal on TV.) But what makes the band, and the album, great for me are the band’s abilities to wed catchy melodies to their traumatizing sound. For example, my favorite song on the album: “No. 13 Baby.”

As usual, Deal’s bass sets the listener’s ears so that when the distorted guitars enter behind Francis’s whine (0:15), they don’t sound so discordant. The lyrics are (probably) about a woman he admires, with an interesting tattoo. Santiago’s guitar is unmistakeable, and Lovering’s drums take the band through the song’s changing time signatures with ease. I love their break together, around 1:07. There’s an energy to this mid-tempo song, and it cries out for singing along by the listener. Then it transitions beautifully to an instrumental section (2:07) that is sweetly hypnotic, and features Santiago’s distinctive guitar work.

The combination of loud-QUIET-loud with melody-CHAOS-melody – with a bit of sneakily changing time signatures – is all over the songs on Doolittle. One of the best is the scarily-titled “Wave of Mutilation,” which is actually a description of the weather phenomenon El Niño.

This time the blare of guitar leads the charge and the bass trails behind. Kim Deal is an excellent bassist, finding melodic bass lines that play off the angular chords of Santiago and Francis. It’s got a great chord progression in the pre-chorus (0:39, behind “you think I’m dead” lyrics), and is really just a terrific 2 minute pop song. The band shows throughout the record that their sound definitely has one foot (at least) in the pop genre. Consider the college radio smash “Here Comes Your Man,” which Black Francis wrote as a 14 year old, with it’s lilting melody, odd lyrics and beautiful harmonies. The band also sends up the pop love song genre on the catchy surf-guitar number “La La Love You,” crooned earnestly by drummer Lovering. Its mindless, lovey-dove lyrics are undermined by Francis quietly counting off the first-sex basepath to “home run.” The guitar work on the song is excellent.

Another pop song, complete with string section, yet done in true screaming Pixies style, is the environmental warning song “Monkey Gone To Heaven.”

It’s got a great melody, and the instrumentation is perfect together. Folks may complain about an indy punk band like Pixies using orchestral backing, but it sure sounds damn fine to me. The song also has a break down that fans love to sing along to, and that includes that screaming Black Francis craziness. It’s a simple, cool song.

However, I tend to prefer some of the more raucous tunes and the strange characteristics of them. For example, the menacing laugh of Black Francis in the watery rave-up “Mr. Grieves,” complete with a show-tune ending. (Here’s a cool a cappella version by TV On the Radio.) Or the simmering “Hey,” with cool guitar until the song boils over with “the sound the mother makes/when the baby breaks.”

One of my favorites is the off-the-rails, machine-gun-paced “Crackity Jones,” which blisters through in a minute, twenty-four seconds.

It almost goes by too fast to say anything, but I like Francis’s vocal effects, Santiago’s guitar, the Spanish lyrics. And now it’s probably complete! Other short songs on the record include the driving, distorted Bible story-themed “Dead;” the Pixies version of an 80s power ballad, “I Bleed;” and the kinda-WesternThere Goes My Gun.” “Silver” is a song that I still can’t really get into.

The album closes with the band’s fabulous take on the story of Samson, “Gouge Away.”

It’s got everything the band is known for: loudQUIETloud; Deal’s bass and backing vocals; atmospheric guitars; Francis’s screaming; and a melody that sticks in your head. The album is an unstoppable whirlwind of energy and sound, something that actually sounds dangerous in a real way, not like the cartoon villains of Hair Metal that so disturbed the nation way back when. And it was played by four people who looked like they worked at your bank.

The Pixies, and their album Doolittle, didn’t change me. I think it has powerful music, but I don’t know if it’s that powerful. But when I was finally ready to hear it, it sounded like I should’ve been listening all along.

Track Listing:
“Debaser”
“Tame”
“Wave of Mutilation”
“I Bleed”
“Here Comes Your Man”
“Dead”
“Monkey Gone to Heaven”
“Mr. Grieves”
“Crackity Jones”
“La La Love You”
“No. 13 Baby”
“There Goes My Gun”
“Hey”
“Silver”
“Gouge Away”

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31st Favorite: Moving Pictures, by Rush

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Moving Pictures. Rush.
1981, Anthem. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rush is a band that has divided people for years, but I’ve always been firmly on their side! Moving Pictures is a record that displays the band’s virtuosity, but also packages it in a more radio-friendly, catchy style. It’s still easy to get carried away by the grand displays of talent; it takes me back to my awkward teen years when I knew I had discovered “The Greatest!” Amazing bass and drums, cool guitar, and great songs.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I am not the greatest. Whatever category you have there, I’m not the greatest. I don’t box or play baseball or paint, so I’m certainly not greatest at those pursuits. But even among the things I do, and the things I’ve done and the things I am, I’m not, and never was, the greatest. I’m not the greatest writer13. I’m not the greatest bass player. I wasn’t the greatest comedian or actor or playwright or chemist. I’m not the greatest QA guy or husband/father/son/brother/friend.

Don’t worry! I’m not spiraling down a depressive pit of despair! I’m generally satisfied with my abilities, or my abilities to improve my abilities. It’s just that I think any discussion of a person as “greatest” at anything is, practically speaking, silly and not worth my time and energy.

Perhaps it’s my career in science that provides me with an analytical view of such things, but to my mind the term “greatest” implies something measurable. “Among his friends, Roy has the greatest number of guitars.” We can all get together, count guitars and there can be no dispute. The term “best” is a little more slippery, but in a scientific setting it can be (and is) tied to actual data. Statisticians use “best fit” to assess data points. Drug researchers review study results (data!) to select the best drug candidate.

Given the inextricable relationship between measurements and assessed hierarchy, it’s clear that the further away from science (measurable things) one moves on the continuum of human pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to proclaim something “best” or “greatest.” And since art is about as far from science on that continuum as possible14 calling something the “greatest” in art simply doesn’t make sense. What are you measuring to call it the best?

In this modern, commerce-obsessed, capital-worshiping era, there is at least one measurable aspect of art: sales. However, when most people are speaking of “great art” or “great artists,” I don’t believe they’re basing the assessment on money. For example, the highest-grossing films ever don’t have much overlap with best films selected by critics or the general public. Unless you’re a middle school teacher, you’ll rarely hear many serious debates over whether The Avengers or Furious 7 is the better film. The same goes for best-selling albums vs. critics‘ and listener picks, although there seems to be more overlap in this arena. Best-selling books vs. critical picks align very closely over history, but this is because the books critics love are purchased over and over for centuries. But year-by-year the best-selling books are rarely the winners of well-known literary prizes.

Whenever I hear an artist, or a work of art, called “The Greatest,” or “The Best,” I nod along and grit my teeth like a high school English teacher hearing a stranger use the malaprop “for all intensive purposes.” I understand it’s my own pet peeve, and I have enough wherewithal to keep it to myself that I wish The Oscars® awarded “Most Well-Liked Picture” instead of “Best Picture.” But it’s everywhere you look, particularly in music writing. “Greatest Album.” “Best Guitarist.” “Greatest Songs.”

I get what people mean when they say “greatest.” When people talk about the Great Guitarists, for example, they usually mean somebody whose style and ability blows you away. So I recognize that people will say The Greatest guitarist is Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix or Prince or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Brad Paisley or Albert King or Keith Richards or Randy Rhodes or Yngwie Malmsteen or Catfish Collins or Stevie Ray Vaughn or John Mayer or George Harrison or Billy Gibbons or … or … or … I mean, come on. It gets ridiculous after a while. Especially when you consider the question: “Who gives a shit?” The Ramones did this, and it was awesome, so who cares whether or not Johnny Ramone played a solo? The Edge played three notes in this song, big deal! Technical ability is impressive, and it’s fun to discuss the styles and merits of all types of artists – writers, composers, dancers, sarangi players – but when it comes right down to it, art is not a contest. Artists are not contestants. No artist can be “the greatest15.”

That’s how I feel about it now. But there was a time, as a teen, that I had no doubt about who were the greatest and I had no problem letting you, or anyone else, know who they were and why. And the Greatest Band was Rush. And the Greatest Guitarist, Bassist and Drummer were Alex Lifeson16, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart, respectively. And I would argue all day with you about that.

There is little doubt today why I had so few girlfriends as a teenager.

I’ve written before about first getting into Rush via the drummers in my high school marching band, about long teenage hours spent in my basement, letting their music take me away. Their songs were attractive to a kid like me: socially awkward, interested in puzzles and games, confident about little besides my schoolwork, always feeling stuck on the outside looking in. Their songs and lyrics made them sound like they were just as awkward and outsider-y as I was, yet they reveled in it! They were dorks like me, but were proud to be dorks, churning out album-side-long, hard-rock epics in the days of 2-minute, 3-chord punk songs and repetitive disco beats. They were happy to be respected by their fans even if the cool kids (i.e. critics) mocked them. They were a fantasy of self-confidence brought to life for a kid like me, idols for reasons beyond simply their music.

And when things like “greatest” mattered to me, as individuals they were always ranked highly in all the lists I could find. Neil Peart on drums17. Geddy Lee on bass18. Alex Lifeson on guitar19. This seemed to validate my appreciation of them despite their lack of cool-kid-cred.

The band has embraced their nerdiness, playing it up in a Hollywood movie, I Love You, Man. Their equally-nerdy fans are known to be a bit obsessive and do things like bring glowing drumsticks to concerts to “play” along. Family Guy loves poking fun at the band’s fans, who include the guys from South Park, who produced a video to introduce the band at concerts in the late 00s.

Even though I’ve changed a lot since those teenage years of proclaiming “the greatest!” and even though my tastes have broadened and changed, the deep bond I formed with the album Moving Pictures remains. I’m no longer worried that I won’t fit in, I’m no longer seeking excellence outside myself to validate what’s inside myself. But I still love this record. I still get a tingly sense of awe when I hear that swirling synthesizer chord I’ve heard a million times, the one that opens Moving Pictures, and their most well-known song, “Tom Sawyer.”

That synth growls beneath Peart’s tight drum beat, and right off the bat I’ll just have to say it: You’re going to have to deal with Geddy Lee’s voice. Many folks can’t get over that hump, and if that’s you, well, this write-up is going to seem twice as long as usual. The bass and drums really carry the song from the beginning, on those majestic four-note motifs after each verse (starting at 0:14) and the snaking bass line that begins at 0:39. While playing bass, Lee also plays foot-pedal synths (as shown in a glimpse of his funky shoe at 0:45). You may wonder why you have trouble out on the dance floor with “Tom Sawyer” after the synth solo at 1:39. That’s because during the solo the song shifts out of the comfortable 4/4 time signature into the two-left-feet-generating 7/4 time signature. The song hangs there during Lifeson’s amazing guitar solo at 2:01, while Lee’s pulsing bass and Peart’s flurry of drums move through changes with ease. It builds to a satisfying conclusion around 2:36 and sticks the landing like a gold-medal gymnast back in 4/4 for the final verse.

It’s these instrumental freak-outs, with deft transitions between parts and time signatures, played by three guys who seem to be loving what they’re doing, that endear the band to fans. That and the lyrics, by drummer Peart, which are typically about self and art and people, and sometimes present his convictions very directly. They are lyrics that are at times ripe for parody, but those of us who sang along as teens never found them funny. “Tom Sawyer” was a message to us fans to stay true to ourselves.

Another style of lyrics that Peart writes are stories, particularly of the futuristic, sci-fi variety; for example a society in which driving a car is against the law, and the thrill of breaking that law. That’s the story of “Red Barchetta,” always my favorite on the album.

This is the song that made me want to be a bass player, and for years I thought of it as my “second-favorite song” behind only “Strawberry Fields Forever.” From Lee’s opening runs behind Lifeson’s ringing harmonics all the way through his little bass solos during the outro of the song, I air-bass-guitared along to this one a million times. Lifeson plays a subtle line behind the verses that I love20. The song really kicks in, and I get my flashbacks to youth, after the first verse, at 1:16. The story of the freedom of driving, and the thrilling music behind it – back then it sounded like escape to me, and even though I didn’t realize it, escape was what I wanted. The drums are amazing – the 20 seconds between 1:30 and 1:50 show Peart’s inventiveness, supporting a simple 4/4 back beat with brilliant kick drum fills. It’s got “lead bass” (as opposed to “lead guitar”) throughout, creating a dual lead situation during the wonderful guitar solo of Lifeson at 3:24. Peart’s drums behind the last verse, around 4:00, just swing, with that cymbal on the upbeat and the couplets on the kick drum. This song meant so much to me 35 years ago, and it’s wonderful to listen nowadays and to experience bits of those feelings once again. As hard as those teen years could be, this song brings back only the good vibes.

We’ve established that the three members of the band are quite proficient, but like true nerds everywhere – comparing calculus solutions or topping off their friend’s robot with the perfect flame-shooting nozzle – the band wallows in their virtuosity on the wonderful instrumental “YYZ.”

“YYZ” is the three-letter airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport, the Canadian band’s home airport, and the main riff is actually built on the Morse Code signal for the letters Y-Y-Z. (I told you they’re nerds.) I don’t have much to say about the song other than “holy moley, it’s so fucking good!!!” I love the back and forth, as the band trades solos; I love Lee’s inventive playing; and I particularly love Lifeson’s Middle Eastern sounding solo, beginning around 2:20.

The band returns to a more grounded, standard pop format, yet still with a Rush spin, on the AOR radio hit “Limelight.”

Of course, as “pop” and “radio-friendly” as the song is, once again dancefloor denizens would be stymied by its odd time signatures, switching deftly between 7/4, 3/4 and 6/4 with a few odd 4/4 bars thrown in. It’s got a strong melody, and while Lee’s high-pitched voice is front and center, it’s a tame version, with few screeches. Lifeson’s guitar solo at about 2:42 is one of my favorites of all time21. It begins with long, atmospheric sounds which gently progress, with more distinct notes added. It shows a guitarist who doesn’t hue to the Classic Rock formula of “more notes=better solo.” The lyrics express Peart’s ambivalence about stardom, thoughts on how a shy, introverted man makes his way through international acclaim from millions of fans. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.”

By Moving Pictures, the band, which had been routinely placing album-side-length, 20 minute songs about dystopian futures on their albums, had scaled back these efforts to 10 minute songs about Coleridge poems and nature. On this album, an 11-minute epic comparing New Yorkers and Londoners is featured: “The Camera Eye.”

The song starts with gurgling synthesizers that bubble beneath the entire song. I haven’t pointed out yet, but you may have noticed, the band really likes introductions and fanfares to their songs, and this one is no different. I love how it builds through the first 2:20 to the alarm-bell synth, which begins the main guitar riff. The song stays in standard 4/4 until the verse at about 3:35, where it switches to either alternating 6/4 and 5/4, or simply 11/422. It’s stuff like this that makes us fans love them, as it just seems like they’re having a great time. Plus it sounds really cool! I love stuff like the bass at 4:00, and the switch to a mellow interlude at 4:40. And Peart’s drumming: I mean, come on. I haven’t said much about it, as what can really be said? He’s a student of drum history and technique, and his own creativity and ability are overwhelming. His speed across well-tuned toms is one thing, but check out the perfectly phrased fills between 5:50 and 6:00, slowing the song’s pace with an intricate tap on the breaks, then the funky high-hat and kick drum between 6:10 and 6:20 as the song revs back up. I find it so much fun to listen to.

I think the band is at their best when they’re fun23, and through five songs they’ve been that. However, “Witch Hunt” isn’t fun, and isn’t a song I really connect with. Of course the playing is brilliant, and the anti-hatred lyrics are excellent and particularly relevant today given the state of American policy efforts. But it’s slow pace and repetitive nature leave me a bit cold.

The closing piece, “Vital Signs,” steps up the fun once again.

The band has said they were big fans of all kinds of music, and that fandom was reflected in what they wrote. In the late 70s, new wave and ska were happening, and this song sounds like the band’s spin on The Police or Talking Heads. I love Lifeson’s chopping guitar, and the slinky bass line Lee plays throughout. (As an MTV fan in the early 80s, I loved this video for Peart’s Montreal Expos hat!) The snare sound at about 0:40 is very strange for Peart, very 80s/Casio sounding. After 1:10 it’s back to normal. It’s a fun, catchy song with more burbling synth, and it’s nearly danceable, as it stays in 4/4 throughout! They are living their lyrics here, deviating from their norm!

I’m comfortable with my fandom now, despite the fact that cool-kids of a certain generation may still regard my love for the band as a bit silly. I can laugh about the earnestness with which I devoured their lyrics and learned their sounds, and argued with all-comers about their musical brilliance. I get it – they could overdo it, and we fans could overdo it as well. But the fact remains that they were important to me, and I still love a lot of their music. Back when an assessment of “The Greatest” was important to me, I thought Rush were the greatest. And now I finally understand why: they made me feel great, too.

Track Listing:
“Tom Sawyer”
“Red Barchetta”
“YYZ”
“Limelight”
“The Camera Eye”
I. New York
II. London
“Witch Hunt”
“Vital Signs”

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32nd Favorite: Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet

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Girlfriend. Matthew Sweet.
1991, Zoo Entertainment. Producer: Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet.
Purchased, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Matthew Sweet writes catchy pop songs and beautiful sad songs, and sings perfect harmonies over flowing melodies – and then brings in angular, ripsaw guitars to disrupt everything. And it sounds amazing! 70s punk guitar virtuosos Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd take over most of the songs, and lap pedal steel king Greg Leisz fills out the tear-jerker pieces. It’s perfect guitar-pop that demands I make a Sweet pun.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Damn. I forget what I was going to write about. It was completely relevant, too, and really captured my experiences with this album. That’s what I try to do on this website, give some background as to why I like a record, and how I came to like a record; to help provide an assessment apart from simply what it sounds like. There are a million lists out there of “Best Records Ever,” in which some person (or group) with a modem (or media jobs) tells you “this is awesome because …” as if they can judge works of art by tallying up some checkmarks they’ve made like they’re evaluating participants in a sheep-blocking competition.

But I can’t do that. I can’t remove my own self from the evaluation of the record. And my experiences are different with each record, so none of my imagined checkmarks would ever line up between albums. It would be like judging sheep-blocking where participants also bring pigs and raccoons and fish to be judged. So I don’t claim that I’m ranking these records objectively. I never said they’re the best; I said they’re my favorites.

Great, now I’m further away from remembering what I was going to say than I was at the start. But I am now quite used to forgetting. I’m very forgetful. My wife and kids can attest to the fact that whenever I leave the house there is about a 50/50 chance that I’ll come back in about 30 seconds later because I’ve forgotten my wallet, or the car keys, or my phone, or the shopping list or some combination of all those things, and others. It used to frustrate me. Now I’m used to it. It still bugs/amuses my family.

I forget to complete tasks – leaving half-folded laundry in the living room I’ve walked away from. I forget to start tasks – leaving my wife to call the garage to schedule an appointment a week after she first asked me to do it. I forget I performed tasks – leaving hardware store clerks confused when I call to tell them I lost the tool I rented, and they inform me that I returned it a week ago. Yet my memory for trivia is such that I appeared on Jeopardy! several years ago.

Memory is a strange thing. My wife, J., can remember entire plot lines of shows we’ve watched just by seeing one brief glimpse of it while channel-surfing. Me: “Hey, look, an old X-Files! I don’t remember this one!” J: “This is the one with the missing elephant, and the aliens impregnating the zoo animals.” But she’ll read stuff I write about our relationship and say, “I don’t remember any of that.” She remembers details she sees; I remember feelings from experiences I’ve had. (And trivia.)

Much of my forgetfulness I can’t explain beyond that fact that it’s just who I am. Maybe I had the information in my brain, and then I just lost track of its location in there. And maybe some stuff was never in there in the first place, and literally went in one ear and out the other, if that’s indeed how hearing works and heads are built. (Otherwise, it only figuratively slipped out.) But some stuff I can explain. For example, I don’t remember a whole lot of stuff from my 20s when I often drank so much that I blacked out.

A black out is really weird. It’s a real-life Quantum Leap24, an abrupt shift of reality in which, in an eye-blink, you go from having a normal, if drunken, time and then open your eyes to find yourself transported in space and time. You’ll be doing something … laughing, dancing, talking with friends … and then you wake up. But it’s different than waking up from a normal sleep because it’s generally very sudden and riddled with anxiety over questions like “Why do I still have shoes on?” “Whose house am I at?” and “How did I sleep so soundly lying on their brick walkway?”

In my 20s, those black outs were alarming and shameful, but I disguised my alarm by laughing along in the next-day’s amusing task of piecing together the night’s events25; and I hid my shame by pretending I wasn’t embarrassed by having been rude to some people and incoherent to the rest. I eventually settled down, did some work on my personal issues and as of February, 2018, haven’t blacked out in a long, long time. And now, years later, the alarm and shame of the blackouts has turned to a sadness over all the stuff I forgot.

Some of the best stuff I forgot26 is stuff related to music, specifically around the time I was playing music in a band, The April Skies. We played tons of shows, in tons of clubs, over a couple of years and I remember very little of that time. Some of that is just old age, and if my former bandmates were to say, “Remember the time we played with …” I’d immediately pull up the memory and join the conversation. But some of those memories never formed. I used to laugh about forgetting such things, but 26 years(!) later, it all seems sad and like such a waste. There are many, many shows and events from those band years that I don’t remember, and since memories are really all that’s left of those pre-ubiquitous-video years, I don’t have much.

In 1991, we played the prestigious “CMJ New Music Showcase,” in NYC. We had just gotten representation in New York City, so this was the first of what promised to be many trips there to play gigs. And it was my first time ever in The Big Apple. I took such a big bite of it that I remember almost nothing from the weekend. I do remember meeting Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who spoke with my bandmates and me about his love for “that new Nirvana album.” And I remember (thanks to a little prodding from Skies leader Jake) that we played a terrific set at The Nightingale Lounge. The rest is a blur.

Including Blur, on their first US tour and who we saw perform as part of the festival that weekend. See, as performers we got into all the shows for free, and we went to a bunch. But I only remember snippets. I remember Blur were very loud, and more raucous than their pretty-boy looks and house-beat songs would lead one to believe. I sort of remember Toad the Wet Sprocket nearly putting me to sleep, just like their songs on the radio did. I clearly remember Britain’s Slowdive … but actually I don’t, as I was informed by Jake that we never went to their show. (We did, however, see the tremendous Berserk!) And that’s just a little bit of all I don’t remember from that weekend. My memories are just a few drops in an otherwise empty mug of everything we did.

Worst of all, I remember very little of a performance by a guitarist who I’d never get to see again, performing songs from a new album that, although it had just been released, I’d already played a bunch. The album is Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet. The guitarist was Robert Quine, and even though I don’t remember details of that show, I do know I woke up the next day thinking, “I gotta go see that guitar player again!” Quine was in the 70s punk outfit Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and played for Lou Reed and others. His guitar work, along with that of former Television honcho Richard Lloyd, who also plays on the album, and Sweet’s catchy songs and (dare I say?) Beatle-esque harmonies propelled that album into heavy, heavy rotation back in ’91 – ’92, and it’s never fallen out of orbit.

I first heard of the record from the single that was released that fall, “Girlfriend.” It was all over MTV, which was pretty astounding, as MTV was then transitioning to mostly NOT playing videos.

If you’ve read about other albums I love, you’ll know that GUITAR is very important to me, and GUITAR is all over this song, from the very first rising sound of sustained feedback, which bursts into a boiling solo on the left speaker while some crunchy chords chop through the right. A bouncing bass and oh-so-1991-housebeat drums enter next, and by 33 seconds in I’ve already decided this is one of my favorite songs ever. That guitar player on the left speaker is Robert Quine27, and this song is just one on the album featuring his inventive, ranging guitar work. (He could pull it off live, too!) But it’s not just the guitar. The melody is catchy, and those harmonies, all performed by Sweet himself, are terrific. Check out the “ahh” at 0:50 and the “saw you comin’ my way” at 1:14. The lyrics are a plea, and turn a bit creepy at the end (“I’m never gonna set you free”), but meant something to lonely young men of the era, so I’m told28. Quine’s guitar is great throughout, but his solo at 1:46 is fantastic – swooping and wailing all over the place. The song has so much packed into a guitar-pop record.

Guitar is all over the place on this record, and it’s not just Quine. The aforementioned Richard Lloyd also laces the Sweet sounds with some sour spikes of angular guitar. The opening track, “Divine Intervention,” places Lloyd front-and-center.

That opening riff sounds all wrong, but it sounds so right! And the squawking lead guitar alongside it hits all the weirdest notes possible. Sweet’s voice is tinny and high-pitched, with a tone not too dissimilar from Neil Young’s. The song’s lyrics can be interpreted many ways, but he claims they were his “coming out as an atheist,” although I could see believers taking a different message from it. The harmony vocals he sings with himself – for example the “Divine – Intervention” at 1:47 – really make the song, and his bass line29 and Ric Menck’s sloppy drums boost it from a typical mid-tempo slag. But Richard Lloyd is the real hero, particularly the soloing at 1:55 to 2:30 and 3:30 to the false ending at 4:20. (Sweet uses a Beatle-y “Strawberry Fields” ending on the song.)

Girlfriend is full of catchy little songs overrun with nuclear guitar assaults, as if a painting of kittens was trampled by muddy boots, but the result was way cooler than the original painting. Take one of my favorite guitar bursts on the album, “Evangeline,” another song commandeered by Lloyd’s ruckus.

At 0:15 the loopy riff starts over Fred Maher’s drum beat and Sweet’s playing. It’s a catchy song with lyrics about the eponymous comic book hero Evangeline, as sung by another character, Johnny Six. It’s more of what I love – terrific harmony “Ah’s” and “Evangelines” (2:00!) in the background, and that guitar. The solo at 2:10 is brief and brawny, but the one he pulls off at 3:58 is sublime.

Okay, okay, enough of the guitar lust, right? I hear you. It’s dialed back on some of the album’s slower songs like the sweet, country love-letter NOT to Winona Ryder30, “Winona.” The song features lap pedal guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz, but Mr. Quine does show up for a sweet solo. Leisz and Quine team up again on the sad, sad “You Don’t Love Me,” a tear-jerker on the order of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” My favorite slow song on the album, again featuring Leisz, is the lullaby “Your Sweet Voice,” which reminds me of quiet bedtimes with my kids when they were little, falling asleep in their tiny beds as I read them stories.

As much as I love that softer side, it’s the electric guitars that keep bringing me back. This album came out in a magical year in rock music, and is what the 90s were supposed to sound like: catchy as hell with loud guitars. Instead it morphed into all those Matchboxes and Blowfish and Crows, Counted. That shit sounded week next to a song like “I Wanted to Tell You31.”.

Once again it’s Quine poking his sharp axe through the jangle of Sweet’s pop songcraft. I really like the chorus, starting about 0:54. You could probably read one of the previous paragraphs again here … blah, blah GUITAR; blah blah HARMONIES. It’s a song about regret, and Quine’s solo basically runs through the entire song. But the piece at 2:18 is special; the one at 3:33 is even better. The song has a counterpart, of sorts, in the Lloyd-guitar-fueled “I’ve Been Waiting,” another perfect pop gem, this one about desire. “Does She Talk?,” a rebound-romance questioning song, and “Holy War,” a wish for peace, feature different takes on the guitar/vocals motif.

The album was written and recorded around the time that Sweet was divorcing his first wife, and the blood from the event is splattered all over the record. “Thought I Knew You” is an acoustic breakup song with Sweet’s pal Lloyd Cole strumming along. “Day for Night” has frenzied Quine action behind words of guilt. “Don’t Go” is a desperate plea.

But of course, the divorce songs I like best are the ones with the most guitar and harmonies, like the terrific headphones-enhanced-song about the after-effects of a breakup, “Looking at the Sun.”

I guess the bottom line is this: life is hard, and you’ll need as many memories as possible as you get older. But the memories in your head will evaporate, the edges will fade and increasingly the details will wash out. If you did something stupid, like drink so much alcohol that you forget a bunch of them, the best you can do is to try to recreate some feelings. Perhaps a great collection of songs from the era could trigger those feelings? In any case, take a lot of pictures and videos and look at them when you can. Because, as Sweet sings sadly, beautifully, “Nothing Lasts.”

Track Listing:
“Divine Intervention”
“I’ve Been Waiting”
“Girlfriend”
“Looking at the Sun”
“Winona”
“Evangeline”
“Day for Night”
“Thought I Knew You”
“You Don’t Love Me”
“I Wanted to Tell You”
“Don’t Go”
“Your Sweet Voice”
“Does She Talk?”
“Holy War”
“Nothing Lasts”

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33rd Favorite: Sign O’ the Times, by Prince

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Sign O’ the Times. Prince.
1987, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Prince.
Purchased, 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A double-album masterwork of songs spanning different genres, from psychedelic to funk to slow jam to guitar pop, all played by Prince, with a little help here and there. Prince finds several characters for his voice to inhabit and plays fantastic guitar throughout. The songs may be grooving, they may be rocking, they may be sing-along cute, but they’re always fun. The man’s creativity was off the charts.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I was nine years old, and my taste in music was solely geared towards catchy songs I heard on WLBR AM-1270, I really dug the 10CC hit “The Things We Do For Love.” It’s totally 70s soft-rock shlock, the kind of song I would really dislike today, yet find myself listening to on Sirius 70s on 7 when I hear it because I get lost in memories of bringing my baseball glove and a tennis ball to school and spending recess working on fielding grounders against a brick wall. (It also classifies as a “Pool Song,” a name my sisters and I have for songs we heard as kids while at the community pool in the late 70s summers, a pool that blasted WLBR over the loudspeakers32. There’s always a soft spot in my heart for “Pool Songs,” no matter how lousy or uncool.)

I’d sing the song to myself sometimes, but I never took the time to learn all the words, I’d just sing the ones I knew. “Like walking in the rain and the snow/ When there’s nowhere to go/ And you’re feeling like a part of you is dying.” This was the bulk of my lyrical knowledge of the song, a couple lines listing just one of what I imagined were dozens of “things we do for love” throughout the song: a walk in crappy weather when you don’t feel well. I’d sometimes think, “I wonder what other miseries the song lists? Exactly what deprivations will I be signing up for eventually when I’m in love?” I thought maybe I’d gain some insight into the expectations for a person in love. But when I finally took note of the entirety of the song’s words, I was confused because the lyrics only mention one thing done for love: those lousy walks. I figured there had to be more than that. I was right.

To tally up all the “things” we’ve done for love, we first must consider the word “Love.” It’s a weird one. If we use a definition that includes all romantic interest from big crushes, to first girlfriends, and even short-term girlfriends, well, then I can say I’ve embarked on a self-improvement plan, carried books through school hallways, and unwittingly driven an ex and her new boyfriend home from the airport. But were they really done for “love?” Actually, they were done to interest a girl who didn’t know me; to try to get a girl to make out with me; and to try to rekindle a doomed romance.

The definition for “love” can be really broad, so let’s limit it to a form of “love” that will likely stand up to all linguistic scrutiny: long-term commitment. It’s January, 2018, and I’ve now been together with my life partner, J., for almost 25 years. Technically she’s my wife, but that seems so legalistic. Since we started to fall in love a quarter century ago, I’ve found myself doing many things for love in addition to walks in crummy weather. I’m sure she has her list, too.

Pay Off Student Loan: Soon after we got together and rented an apartment together in San Francisco, through a series of corporate-level occurrences at my day job as an analytical chemist, I came into a rather large sum of money. It wasn’t “retire at 27”-type money, but it was “wow, we could have lots of fun with this!”-type money. I started dreaming of a couple weeks on an island beach somewhere. J., however, noted that the amount of dough would pay off the rest of my student loans, with enough left over for a fancy dinner and night on the town. I paid off my student loan. It seemed lame at the time, but I now (grudgingly) realize it put us in a better financial position in the long run.

Go to Clothing-Optional Spa: San Francisco sits in the southern-central area of a tremendous realm of hippy-dippydom known as Northern California. The region has long been home to all sorts of unusual, New Age and otherwise outside-the-mainstream spiritual pursuits. Among these is The Heart-Consciousness Church, which one must join to attend the famous hot-spring spa they own, Harbin Hot Springs33. J. had heard of the spa and wanted to go. I thought a hot-spring spa sounded delightful, and, being a nice, young man from rural PA, figured “clothing-optional” meant that, sure, maybe a few freaks would be nude, but that most everyone would be wearing some sort of garment. They weren’t. And neither did we! It was actually very relaxing (after a while), but I probably won’t go back. But I’m so happy to have a story with which to quickly embarrass my teen-agers! (This story basically repeated itself – from initial discomfort to mortified teens – 25 years later, except the words “Clothing-Optional Spa” were replaced by “Zumba Class.”)

While we’re on the topic of teen-agers, now would be a good time to mention this one. Become a Parent: It’s not that I didn’t want to have kids, it’s more that I never really thought one way or the other about it. However, after a few years of surface-level discussion, J. told me that her “eggs are getting old,” and so it was time for me to get on-board with the idea. Of the Things I Did For Love, this is the most important. And there’s probably no better reason to have kids than because you’re in love with someone. I’m really proud of my kids and my family – no matter what I might have said (or continue to say (or will say in the future)) during times of frustration and stress!

Buy House. Work: Okay, this is a little disingenuous, as I’m sure I’d be living somewhere, and I’d definitely have a job, regardless of my Love status. But since I am generally lazy, I’d probably rent an apartment. And since I am generally lazy, I’d probably have a lower-level job, perhaps involving a Fry-O-Lator. And although I’m sure J. would love me even if I manned a Fry-O-Lator and we lived in an apartment, making those choices out of sheer laziness would never fly. So one of the Things She Does For Love is help me to not be lazy.

Drive Around San Francisco Looking for Potential Urban Garden Spaces for a Master’s Thesis While Listening to Sign O’ the Times: When J. and I began dating, in 1993, I had lots of respect for The-Artist-At-That-Time-Just-Recently-Known-As-A-Symbol-Instead-of-Prince. He was clearly a musical genius. And I really loved his soundtrack album Purple Rain. I liked some of his songs, particularly “Raspberry Beret34” and “Alphabet St.,” but I wasn’t really a fan. J., who was a fan of music but not interested in obsessing over artists and songs, like I was, had diverse musical tastes that ran from hip-hop and soul to punk and 80s new wave. And she really liked Prince a lot. (She also listened to classical music a lot, which was unsettling to me at the time.)

She was working on her Master’s Thesis, and it required her to drive all over the southeast corner of San Francisco mapping open spaces. I drove her around in her 1984 Chevy Cavalier station wagon so that she could write and think easier. I needed music to accompany the task, the Cavalier had a cassette player, so I looked through our collection of cassettes – nearly all of them dubbed from albums, with hand-written labels. J. honestly didn’t care what we listened to, and since I’d heard all my stuff a bunch I decided to pick one of her tapes for the drive.

She’d been fond of making fancy labels for her cassettes, and they revealed many artist names I recognized, but that I’d never listened to much: Fishbone, X35, Jungle Brothers, 808 State, Tom Waits, Stetsasonic. One cassette stated, in capital letters, “PRINE.” I thought, “Oh, that must be John Prine,” another guy I’d heard of but never listened to.

On closer inspection, the label revealed tiny letters below the PRINE: “sign o the times.” It wasn’t John Prine, it was misspelled Prince, and it was a record I’d heard was great36. I mentioned it to J., and she said, “Yeah! Let’s listen to that!” I was a bit skeptical, but I pulled it out of the case – for love. Then we headed to the car to map potential gardens all over Bayview Hunter’s Point. We took several trips around that neighborhood over the course of several weeks, and my recollection is that most of the time we listened to Sign O’ the Times. And I became a big fan.

After writing about 67 albums37, I have a pretty good idea of the types of records I like. And I’m the first to admit there’s not a whole hell of a lot of variety. But whatever variety there is in my entire CD collection today, believe me when I say that in 1994 there was a whole lot LESS variety. J. has been a big influence in expanding my tastes and getting me to listen to artists I otherwise wouldn’t have delved into. The truth is that even though I gravitate to the basic, guitar-drum-bass rock sound, I really do appreciate variety. And what I really love about Sign O’ the Times is that its songs and sounds are so diverse. It all sounds like Prince, but it’s Prince’s take on different styles.

The first track is the title track, and it’s one of the best on the record. A serious report on the state of affairs in 1987 set to a slow groove and funky guitar38.

The groove is set by an electronic kick drum and bleeps and bloops, then a synth-bass riff and snare are added but they back off by 0:30, allowing the power of the lyrics to resonate. There’s a lot of open space in this song, generating the feeling that “this ain’t a song about a cute girl in a purple hat.” In the second verse Prince starts to add some guitar figures into the mix. I love what he does on the guitar throughout the song. For such a flamboyant guitarist, he really serves the song by keeping things subtle here. After the second verse the guitar joins in the riff and the song starts to move. He keeps playing behind the bridge (1:47), too. His voice is excellent and soulful, and despite the dim view of the landscape, the song ends on a hopeful note, advising folks the best strategy in tough times is to fall in love. At about 3:45 a gentle guitar solo finishes things off. It’s a simple song, but he packs so much into it.

That uplifting spirit at the end carries over into the super-upbeat, happy pop of the next song, “Play In the Sunshine.” It’s a frantic, nearly frenzied song with fun bursting through the speakers.

I can’t tell if the drums and bass are programmed or played39 but either way they’re addictive to the ear. This is the first of several songs on the album in which Prince pulls the terrific trick of making the listener part of the album, for example the multi-voiced background vocals (the first chorus, at 0:53, and throughout) and raw energy to give the listener the feeling of being at a performance. There’s a shredding guitar solo about 2:36, as the fake crowd chants for him to “play.” They keep it up throughout his teasing “No!” responses until he relents at 3:44 with a … xylophone solo? Okay, I’m sure it’s a synth, but imagining Prince pounding the pipes (which I have no doubt he could play) sure is fun. It’s a raucous song about loving your enemies “’til the gorilla falls off the wall,” among other things, with a slow-jam coda. The man’s creativity is boundless.

He can even work wonders with a simple dance beat, as he does next on the full-on electric funk of “Housequake.” I remember J. and me dancing in our seats to this one, drawn into the song by Prince’s insistent lyrics that we do so, and feeling like we were part of the record by his use of studio “audience” sounds. Prince uses horns a lot on this record, particularly on the dance numbers, even on this mechanized beat. He does it again on “Hot Thing,” one of many songs on the album about Prince’s love of women, let’s say. It’s got a Totally 80s sound, but does have a great sax solo about 2:38 and again around 3:20 and 4:40. He blends “real” instruments with synth sounds brilliantly, as on “It,” a cold computer stomp (again about his love of … women) with a surprisingly soulful guitar solo. The beat calls to mind The Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” and throughout the record, the studio vocal tricks give some songs a psychedelic 60s feel.

This sound is explored quite a bit on the record, the prime example being the trippy-lyrics and splash-cymbal pop of “Starfish and Coffee.”

It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. Its four chords, story of kids in school befriending the “weird” kid and singsong melody reminds me of a kid’s song. So it’s not surprising that Prince sang it with The Muppets. The strange snare sound and swirling background sounds add to the psychedelia. He has a gift for melody, such as in the singalong jam of frustration, “Strange Relationship,” and the nifty little “Forever In My Life,” about his love of one woman.

Prince has seemingly thousands of voices inside him, and he continues his focus on the love of a single woman in a falsetto that recalls Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind and Fire, or the old soul group The Stylistics, in the album closer “Adore.” It’s a classic slow jam, with build-ups, releases and a conclusion that sounds like falling asleep in the arms of your love. It’s a style he does well, as heard on the lovely, romanticSlow Love,” where the horns and slow swing recall a standard sung by Sinatra or Ella.

Another bit of psychedelia comes on a song that seems to have its own genre, the weird, wonderful “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

It’s not about last century’s New York witticismist, but instead about a waitress who (apparently) takes a bath with Prince – but he leaves his pants on (?). Okay, it doesn’t make sense, but it sure is a great song. I don’t know what genre song this is – which makes it perfect for this record. It’s obviously R&B, but it’s got more folk-style lyrics (and does reference Joni Mitchell40) and its chord changes seem more like jazz. At about 2:45 he uses a descending melody that he’d build into the hook of a hit song a few years later.

In “Ballad,” and all over Sign O’ the Times, he shows he can use studio tricks to great effect, but just in case you wondered how much of the party he’s created is computer-generated, he also includes the horn-heavy groove of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” (mostly) recorded live in Paris. It’s a foot-stomping salute to fun, with an 80s-style rap from Sheila E., that plays like an homage to James Brown.

This is a double-album, and the story of its origins is pretty fascinating. But I couldn’t discuss all that, or go into as much detail on all of the songs as I’d have liked. I’d have loved (not really – I’d be too embarrassed) to delve into the psycho-sexual meanings behind the freaky, groovy “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” I’d have loved to spend time on the Gospel/R&B/nearly-Metal “The Cross.” Almost every song on the record has some subtle sound, oftentimes guitar, sometimes sitar or weird synth, that makes it interesting. It’s a really terrific blend of styles and sounds.

And let’s not forget about the hits, either! Speaking of Sheila E., her drums41 are all over the smash “U Got the Look,” which featured a memorable MTV video. I think it’s a great song.

Yes, it’s boy-meets-girl-in-the-world-series-of-love, but Prince has shown his lyrics don’t have to make a whole lot of sense to be good and fun. The video features an intro, but the song as heard on the record starts about 1:37 with a Sheila E. flourish on the timbales. It’s a goofy, funny song with a great beat and a terrific co-vocal by Sheena Easton. There’s all kinds of guitar squawks throughout, different voices, weird sounds … I love it. And the chorus of “Your face is jammin’/ Your body’s heck-a-slammin’/ If love is good/ Let’s get to rammin'” … well, that’s just comedic genius. The guitar wails (4:44 on the video) all the way to the end.

Another big hit, with wailing guitar, and also with a video all over MTV in 198742, is the rocking pop of “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man,” in which Prince’s honesty about simply wanting a one night stand is actually a decent move.

I like the drums in this song. They sound real, and Sheila E. isn’t credited, so I guess Prince plays them, along with everything else on the song. The cool little bass riff after every line. The power-chord guitar that enters at 0:40, and the harmony vocal that enters along with it. The breathy background vocals and oohs and ahhs throughout. What I really like (surprise!) is the guitar. There’s a solo that starts about 2:43 that turns into a series of frantic, repeated squeals that I love. I used to think the repetition was created using an echo, but I think he actually played each riff twice, as there are subtle sound differences each time. It then goes into a slow, quiet section of Prince’s jamming with himself on dual guitars before the riff returns to end the song.

One of the most important – perhaps THE most important – effects of being in love is getting changed by love, allowing that gravitational pull between you to rearrange you and expose you so you can discover new ideas and see facets of yourself you hadn’t recognized before. Maybe it’s a naked hot spring. Maybe it’s an excellent album. Whether a relationship lasts a long time or a short time, we’re all better off for the experience. Maybe that’s what that 10CC song was supposed to mean.

Track Listing:
“Sign O’ the Times”
“Play in the Sunshine”
“Housequake”
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
“It”
“Starfish and Coffee”
“Slow Love”
“Hot Thing”
“Forever in My Life”
“U Got The Look”
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”
“Strange Relationship”
“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
“The Cross”
“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”
“Adore”

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34th Favorite: The Cars, by The Cars

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The Cars. The Cars.
1978, Elektra Records. Producer: Roy Thomas Baker.
Cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Cars’ debut record has a sound all its own, yet compatible with everything. They’ve got straight-ahead pop, guitar rock and weird/eclectic covered, and it all sounds great. Guitarist Elliot Easton particularly shines with subtle riffs and awesome solos that are never flashy, but are memorable nonetheless. Ben Orr and Ric Ocasek share lead vocal duties, and both use their distinctive voices to great effect.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“She likes you; but she doesn’t like-you-like-you.”

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out the first time I heard this response from any friend of any cute girl whose feelings for me I’d inquired about as a youth, but the overwhelming number of times I’ve heard it makes identifying the very first time akin to identifying the very first drop of saltwater in a wave that blindsided me and sent me tumbling through the surf.

When I say “youth,” I’m really talking about the Middle School Years – grades 6 through 8, ages 11 through 13. Before sixth grade, I assumed girls were either a) gross; or b) mightily impressed by me, so trying to find out their feelings about me served no purpose. By ninth grade, I’d gained enough insight into girls, high school social norms, other kids’ perception of me, and the variable nature of teenage feelings that I knew better than to ask the question. But during middle school, the question was always, “Does <girl’s name> like me?”

Middle School is a maelstrom of hormones, cliques, discomfort and vague desire through which only a fool (or a genetic freak with early-onset beauty) would attempt to steer the Good Ship Romance. But despite these circumstances, most of us find ourselves as pre-teens stowing the mizzenmasts and battening down the hatches of our hearts, and setting a course for certain doom anyway.

The best protection against that doom is to do some initial legwork to understand the lay of the land. It seems odd as adults to ask the friend of <girl’s name> to ask <girl’s name> if she likes you, and then to have the friend relay the answer back to you. But in Middle School, where feelings are in constant flux, the tactic serves multiple purposes.

The first, and most obvious, is that it’s protection for the inquirer against being humiliated face-to-face. Secondarily, there’s this: it provides protection for the object of the question, too. Most 12 year olds are uncomfortable offering a “yes!” to such a question asked directly by the inquirer, and so may say “no” just because it’s easier. The friend approach helps prevent false answers.

A final benefit to asking ahead is this: such are the vagaries of the pre-teen heart that simply receiving the second-hand information that <boy’s name> likes you could be enough to spur reciprocal feelings in <girl’s name>. It’s nice to be liked. At the very least, such second-hand questioning will cause <girl’s name> to contemplate the prospect of <boy’s name>, vis-a-vis cafeteria seating, bus-riding, popularity bell curve, cuteness, niceness, grossness, and all other Middle School considerations. So even if your efforts are all for naught, just knowing you’re in the other person’s thoughts for a little while can make the inquirer feel good.

Throughout Middle School, my main <girl’s name> was H. Sure, there were some other <girls’ names> who I inquired about, but most often it was H. I was like Kevin, from the TV show The Wonder Years, in his single-minded pursuit of Winnie Cooper. H. was more popular and more attractive than me, so to improve my chances I did what I could from 6th to 8th grade to try to move along to the leading edge of the Middle School Popularity Bell Curve. Given my financial and physical limitations, this effort mainly involved being extra nice and really funny. And it sort of worked!

My concerted effort to be nice and funny worked to move me up in the Middle School social hierarchy. However, 'Nice' and 'Funny' weren't the the romantic levers I'd hoped they'd be.

By the end of 8th grade I was less likely to be picked on by cooler kids, but I was no closer to winning H.’s heart. The word I began to receive now, and the rep that would follow me for so long that it actually became a positive characteristic in my life, was that I was “really nice.” This meant girls like H. “wanted to be friends.” They liked me, but none of them liked-me-liked-me.

Oh, by the way: eventually, in 10th grade, after 5 long years of effort, H. did show a few weeks of interest in me. It ended suddenly when, at the high school after returning late at night on the buses from an out-of-town marching band event, H. asked me if I wanted to “take a walk around the lockers” with her. It was late at night, we were alone in a dimly-lit, secluded area of the school, and she asked me to “take a walk” with her. So I walked with her. That’s it. I didn’t try to kiss her, I didn’t hold her hand, I didn’t even walk extra-close to her. I just walked next to her and cracked jokes. And that was the last of the interest she showed in me. Clearly, many of my romantic wounds were entirely self-inflicted.

The curse of being “liked” but not “liked-liked” reminds me of the band The Cars because they seem to be a band that everyone thinks is great, but few really love. Of course, there are die-hard fans, but while I know people who are enthusiastic, in-your-face proponents of artists from The Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Sleater-Kinney, I haven’t met many Cars Super Fans43. The Cars tend to be a band that comes up late in a conversation about rock bands, that everyone agrees is terrific, that everyone likes just fine, but that doesn’t spring to the forefront when naming Greatest Rock Artists. In fact, they were just named to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 15 years of eligibility – which is a long time to wait, even if it is a mostly bullshit honor. They’re the pudgy 13 year old of rock bands, the one who’s really nice and makes everyone laugh. They go for walks with pretty girls who ask them to go for walks.

Part of the reason they’re overlooked, I think, is that they have a sound that is contradictory – distinct enough to be readily identifiable, but universal enough to be overlooked. Just like I tried to be nice to everyone in Middle School – from the jocks and cheerleaders to the brains to the weird kids – The Cars sound nice with any number of genres. Could you play The Cars next to The Beatles and The Stones? Sure! That’s Classic Rock! How about The Cars with REO Speedwagon? A.O.R., baby. The Cars right after R.E.M.? Why, that’s 80s College Rock – and you could play Depeche Mode next, as The Cars’ keyboard sounds will link them nicely.

The Cars don’t really sound like Soul or R&B. But you know what? Play them after Donna Summer, and you’ve got a 70s station. Play them after Michael Jackson and you’ve got an 80s station. And they’re just edgy enough that you could play them with early punk, like The Clash, and modern enough that you could play them with ’00 rock acts like The Killers and The Strokes.

The Cars are nice to everyone, and so the pretty Middle School girl of music fandom is always going to like them, but never going to like-them-like-them44. By the end of their career, they started to do different things to be more popular – more computer sounds, fewer guitar solos; the musical equivalent of the high school freshman drinking-and-puking and buying-designer-jeans. And sure, it made them a little more popular, but just like barfing and tight jeans, they might regret those choices now. The early records are when they really shined.

The Cars is one of the rare records that I don’t remember buying. It seems like it’s always been with me. I thought it was part of my sister’s milk-crate-of-70s-rock, but I checked with her and she never owned it. I know I was a fan of some of the non-radio songs in early high school, and I know I owned the cassette, so I’m going to make an educated guess and say I bought it from Columbia House during my 1982 freshman-year initiation into their record club.

Considering the comparison I made to the nice-boy-who-doesn’t-get-the-girl, it’s interesting that one of the album’s biggest songs is “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

True, as sung by the distinct, warbly voice of Ric Ocasek, the lyrics state “she used to be mine,” and lovable losers never even had the girl to begin with. But I know whenever H. had a boyfriend I felt like “she used to be mine,” despite the actual facts. The song demonstrates classic Cars song structure right off the top with a musical introduction. The band likes to start each song with something interesting that ties into the main song, but that’s also distinct on its own. In this case, it’s Elliot Easton’s strumming. Keep listening to Easton, because at 0:35, when “Here she comes again” is sung, he shows off another cool Cars song feature – the guitar line that you don’t notice at first because the song is so catchy, but when you listen again you realize is really pretty awesome. Easton is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, and in addition to his nifty, bluegrass-ish mini-solo around 1:00 (which he also plays under the chorus), he plays a great solo at 2:00.

The song shows off all the best of The Cars, featuring terrific harmony vocals, musical drumming by drummer David Robinson45, restrained keyboards from Greg Hawkes46, and Ben Orr’s subtly rolling bass line. Orr also sang lead on many songs, which answered a question I had about the band for many years: how come sometimes the vocals are oddly robotic and sometimes they aren’t? Ocasek and Orr have very similar voices, but when Orr sings lead – as on “Just What I Needed,” – the singing is a bit better.

It starts with another musical intro, this time pulling a trompe l’ oreille (“Fool the ear.” I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I know there is a common art term called “trompe l’oeil,” or “fool the eye,” so I thought I’d look fancy and use it here.) causing the listener to expect the song to start on a certain beat, but have it start on a different one. Easton’s guitar throughout is once again masterful, and even though Hawkes’s swooping synthesizer (0:47) dominates the song, the guitar is worth listening for throughout. Robinson’s drumming is great, particularly the rolls before the chorus (0:45) and his trick beginning at 2:05, where he begins on a typical rock beat, hitting the snare on the ‘2’ and the ‘4’ for four measures then switching to the Native American-sounding beat of the snare on the ‘1’ and the ‘3’ for the next four. I love little things like that! Easton’s solo, at 1:48, is brilliant and concise. His playing throughout the record is a big reason the album is so high on my list.

Ocasek’s voice does provide a certain intangible quality to some of the songs, for example the driving new wave sound of “Don’t Cha Stop.” Luckily, his style obscures the lyrics some – which are a little too direct for my taste. Anytime the words “wet” and “mouth” are used together in a song, I get a little skeeved out.

But anyway, another cool intro, another cool guitar riff. This time there’s a nice keyboard riff by Hawkes, behind the chorus. But as always, it’s Easton’s guitar, once again, that thrills me. What can I say? The solo at 1:22 is a little song all by itself, and his riff behind the vocals around 1:55 sounds great. Like everything on the record, there’s so much going on in each little 3 minute pop song that repeated listens are gratifying.

And the band plays unusual pop songs, too. For example, the slow and weird “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It’s got all kinds of sounds (which the band recreated pretty well live) and lyrics that rhyme “psilocybin pony” with “flick fandango phony.” Ocasek’s voice is required for lines like that. It also adds something to what is one of the mellowest songs ever about having a good time47, “Good Times Roll.” It has a cool, buzzing guitar sound, and the playing and harmony-singing is great all around. It’s catchy and fun, but by 3 minutes, with the repetitive lyrics and mid-tempo beat, it starts to sound like a sad guy in his lonely apartment talking to himself while drinking NyQuil for kicks.

The second half of the record (what we used to call, back in the olden days, “Side 2“) is when the band really starts to shine. The songs are placed close together, almost like Side 2 of Abbey Road. And it starts with another introductory musical phrase in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.”

Flanging drums and guitars open it up, and then Ocasek whines (in a good way) leading up to another Easton guitar part I love that often goes unnoticed: the subtle riff beginning at 0:28, behind the “You can knock me …” lyrics. The harmony “aaahhhs” (0:38) really help build up the tension for the satisfying release of the “You’re all I’ve got tonight” chorus. Hawkes’ synthesizers dominate, but once again, I find the song to be an Elliot Easton showcase. Throughout the song he fills the background with squiggles and lines that make it sound cool, particularly beginning in the second verse to the end. He’s got a great solo at 1:55 and then, beginning at 2:55, he rips off a minute-long solo that’s spectacular. I love his guitar! Lyrically, the song is sort of a nod to the “Love-the-one-you’re-with” philosophy, I suppose, although here it sounds a bit more selfish than Stephen Stills’ 70s number made it out to be.

It ends abruptly and rolls right into my favorite song on the record, “Bye Bye Love,” which has a great little Ben Orr base line in the intro, at about 0:10.

I like how Orr sings the song, and the “Always with some other guy” line fits in well with the theme of lovable loser. (Although, given Orr’s looks, I get the feeling he didn’t have much difficulty attracting pretty girls.) The drum fills in the chorus are really great, and while the keyboards take a bigger role here than in some songs – for example, answering the vocals during the second verse, and the video-game solo at 2:11 – Easton does get to pull off a terrific solo at 3:24. The song also has one of the coolest endings in rock.

And that ending includes the beginning of the next song, “Moving In Stereo,” a looping, whirring synth sound that drops into a simple guitar pattern. Orr’s voice uses an eerie effect, and swings back and forth from speaker to speaker as he sings about how easy it is to “fool with the sound.”

The bass swoops in repeatedly, making the most of its single note. This is a song that, for heterosexual men of a certain age, regardless of one’s standing on any type of curve, cannot be heard without a flashback to teenage interest in actress Phoebe Cates as seen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s another one of The Cars’ weird-sounding songs, spare in instrumentation, mostly synth and open spaces and Orr’s distorted voice, then a repetitive buildup to about 3:56, when bass and guitar play a cool figure. Orr sings one more verse, getting increasingly spacey, until …

“All Mixed Up” begins. It’s got another tricky introduction, with Robinson’s cymbals appearing on the “wrong” beat. Easton’s guitar enters (about 5:11) and plays a subtly tremendous descending run. It’s a very sad-sounding song to me, and about 5:55 it becomes almost orchestral. Robinson’s girl-group, Phil Spector drums at the end of the chorus add some pageantry to lyrics that resonated with a lonely boy who wanted to believe that everything would be alright. I like the background vocals on chorus, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Hawkes’ saxophone solo to end the song is quite fitting.

Luke Skywalker. Rick, from Casablanca. Ducky, from Pretty In Pink. Why, even Brad Hamilton, from Fast Times. Many guys didn’t get the girl. But it didn’t mean we weren’t awesome in our own right, with facets waiting to be discovered by just the right person. It’s easy to overlook some people, and some bands. Maybe The Cars don’t immediately spring to mind when you’re naming great bands, maybe they’re in that second or third wave. Maybe they seem weird or uncool at first. But there’s no doubt they’re one of the best, and The Cars is an album you’ll like-like, if you just give it a little chance.

Track Listing
“Good Times Roll”
“My Best Friend’s Girl”
“Just What I Needed”
“I’m In Touch With Your World”
“Don’t Cha Stop”
“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”
“Bye Bye Love”
“Moving In Stereo”
“All Mixed Up”

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