43rd Favorite Album

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

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

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

Because I love the feeling of being impressed, I probably get impressed too easily. I have to be careful that I don’t fall for hype. (I may or may not have exclaimed in the early aughts that The Vines1 were going to be a household name.) But I try to be discerning – as much as I’m impressed by, say, the career of The Coen Brothers, I was able to recognize that Hail, Caesar! was crap. (But only after I saw it on opening weekend.)

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

Bo Jackson. Holy moley. He was an all star in two professional sports. And while he did strike out too much in his baseball career, that just means he was ahead of his time! (Or, possibly, that he was a better hitter than we thought!) He played during a time when I wasn’t following either MLB or the NFL very closely, but he was so supremely impressive that I still remember where I was when I heard he wouldn’t play football or baseball2 ever again; and I remember having a long conversation about it with another person who didn’t follow sports, who was also shocked by the news. Watch the ESPN 30 For 30 about him to get a sense of why he was so impressive. It wasn’t just his feats, it was also his humility3.

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

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. This lengthy novel is by no means my favorite book4, however it was the most IMPRESSIVE book I’ve read. It combined history, future, science, engineering, politics, finance and the computer revolution into a generation-spanning story about … security. That’s right, he made the mundane details of security – codes, passwords, locks – fascinating by including them in a spellbinding mystery. The breadth and depth of Stephenson’s knowledge, and his ability to bring it all together into a fast-paced 1,000-page (gasp) novel was, well, impressive!

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

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

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

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

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

Steely Dan. The first time I heard Steely Dan, I thought they were scary. Actually, let me rephrase that: the first time I heard a song written by Steely Dan, I thought they were scary5. In the 70s, those simpler times before ads for in-home catheters and new, weird pharmaceuticals filled the television airwaves, companies like K-Tel and Ronco sold compilation albums via TV commercials, just like Sham-Wow® and Flex Seal®. My sisters and I were big-time consumers of these records. We didn’t care that they were lousy compilations, featuring either a) the original songs cut down to two-and-a-half minutes to cram as many as possible onto one LP; or b) the songs “as recorded by” studio musicians. In both cases, the deal from the record company was this: “you give us a couple of bucks, we’ll give you crappy versions of your favorite songs.” My sisters and I thought it was a bargain.

Some of these albums had catchy names, like Get It On! or Sound Explosion. We bought those albums, and we also bought the more mundanely titled Today’s Greatest Hits6, which featured hit songs as performed by some dudes called “The Realistics,” and a mis-titled version of Steely Dan’s big hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” For some reason the 7 year old me found that song – with its minor key, lyrical warning and use of some instrument called a “Flapamba” – quite spooky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the very beginning this song is all about the guitar, with a nasty opening chord and a dirty-sounding solo. It’s a song about a dangerous criminal on the run, sung from the perspective of the criminal who crossed his old man back in Oregon. The melody, rather perversely, is very much a catchy sing-along, inviting the listener to belt out about his “case of dynamite.” Carlton adds nice guitar touches throughout, and his snaky little solo at about 3 minutes signals a breakdown, the type Dan throws into many songs, and that always sound useful, not lazy7. Carlton subtly solos along to a satisfying end.

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

A major part of rock and jazz music is improvised soloing, and this piece features the late Paul Griffin on piano and Elliot Randall on guitar, dueling within verses in a song about a distant land (planet??) filled with gangsters8. It’s got a laid-back bounce, with plenty of space for cool fills and noodles by the pair. Griffin’s piano in verse 1 is nice, but I get a big smile every time I hear Randall enter on guitar at 0:45. Each verse adds background vocals, building to the “just another scurvy brother” line at 2:46 (a favorite of mine and Dr. Dave’s!), where Griffin throws in a terrific piano solo, only to be outdone again (in my opinion; I’m a guitar guy) by Randall beginning at 3:37. The way Griffin and Randall work together throughout the piece is amazing: conjuring a yo-yo; answering a reference to Turkish union dues – despite the fact that nobody knows what that means. It’s evident on “Sign In Stranger” why Fagen and Becker hired the best musicians.

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

44th Favorite Album

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

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

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

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

The kids in every family9 have their own special dynamic, a mode of interaction passed on through the brood that sets boundaries on things like appropriate deference, teasing, displays of emotion, connectedness and play. The results of these dynamics are evident to all. Some families have raucous, screaming kids; some families have quiet, reserved kids; some hang out in a big bunch; some appear to be single children unaware of the siblings around them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We didn’t speak much, as long-distance phone calls were pricey back then10, but she sent us cards and letters. And she sent gifts. She sent the gift of music.

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

Another one I got from her around that time featured a song she’d told me about during a phone call or a visit, a song I’d never heard, but that she thought summed up her life as an aging 21-year-old quite nicely: “Watching the Clothes.” The album was Learning to Crawl, by The Pretenders, and even though I’d already heard a lot of the songs on the radio11 I couldn’t get enough of it. My Goddess sister had delivered once again.

I’d been a huge Pretenders fan since I started watching MTV. (Ok, more precisely, I was a huge Chrissie Hynde fan.) But by the time 1984 rolled around, those early MTV days of 1981 seemed like ages ago to me. And so much had happened to the band in the interim: in 1982 original bassist Pete Farndon was fired by the band over his drug use; two days later 25 year-old guitarist James Honeyman-Scott12 died of a heart attack from too much cocaine; then a few months later, Farndon himself died of a heroin overdose. Band leader Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were forced to start over amid all that emotional trauma, and Learning to Crawl was the introduction of the new band.

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

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

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

The song has a bit of a honky-tonk feel, and Tony Butler13 plays a bass line that conjures hard work the way the song “Working In A Coal Mine” did. Billy Bremner14 plays a countrified guitar riff that makes the song, and throws in nice harmonics (about 2:00) that I always listen for. Great song that it is musically, it’s the lyrics and subject-matter (a lost friend, and moving forward) that have made the song improve with age: the more people you meet in life, the more you cherish those for whom you can say “…a break in the battle was your part … in the wretched life of a lonely heart.”

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

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

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

Right away, the drums and riff give the feeling of time, constantly ticking. Hynde uses her sultry voice15 to tell the story of an aging Lothario who’s beginning to realize it’s all slipping away, who’s wondering whether it all had a point. I love the guitar harmony as the second verse starts, and I love the chorus, how Chambers deftly moves the band through the syncopation (at 1:48) of the “Time, time, hear the bells chime” vocals. And the guitar behind the chorus vocals is really cool, particularly the harmonics at about 2:13. Former Pretenders guitarist Honeyman-Scott had a style all his own, using chords, arpeggios and harmonics where others might play runs, and Robbie McIntosh does an amazing impression of him on this song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning To Crawl is remarkable for tackling grown-up subject matter in its lyrics while retaining the band’s youthful, punk-y aesthetic16. I liked it as a teenager, and I like it today. I still like the way it rocks, but I also appreciate it for different, old-man-type reasons, too. It’s a rare record that can accomplish that trick!

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

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

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

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

45th Favorite Album

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

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

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

I worked in the chemistry lab at the aspirin factory, putting to use the chem minor I’d gotten on a whim. It was one of the few pharmaceutical plants in the area, so many of the lab’s scientists commuted an hour or more from big cities like Lancaster and Harrisburg and Reading. One of these Big City scientists, Weenie Bill, aka Limulus17, owned a house outside of San Francisco that needed a tenant, and after deciding that a vacant house in sunny CA was better than finding a place in windy Chicago, I agreed to move there in the spring.

About 70% of the workers at the aspirin plant were high school graduates who worked an 8-hour shift18 standing near big medicine-making machines and helping them as they mixed, formed, pressed and finally spat out pills. (Well, tablets, technically speaking.) Others helped machines that packaged materials or labeled bottles or readied products for shipping. Some drove forklifts, carrying ingredients and other materials to be loaded into the machines.

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

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

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

The ribbing remained all-in-good-fun ball-busting, of the type most men have to learn to either join in or crumple beneath19. However there was now a tinge of true ridicule for my failed band, an I-told-you-so air that mocked not only its demise, but also whatever personal beliefs and interests I’d held that had ever led me to think that playing in a rock band was a worthwhile endeavor. “I guess you won’t go on tour with Poison after all!” My impending move to California was belittled as an attempt to be a movie star, or to “[have sex with] those hot California chicks.” As faux-nasty as they got, however, the burns usually included a put-down of themselves, as well, along the lines of “You’ll be back here with the rest of us losers in no time!”

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

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

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

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

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

In this setting, as your own aspirations are ground down to a tiny, pointless stub, it becomes easy to reflexively respond to others’ dreams with a joke or a dig, both at the other’s dreams (“You’ll be back …”) and at your own perceived failure (“… with us losers”). If someone does set off on a chase, you might graciously wish them luck20; but a part of you hopes they come back defeated, as most of them do, to help validate your decision to leave the dreams behind and just adapt to the shit-hole. After all, the shit-hole has bars and Turkey Hill stores and all those assholes you’ve known since kindergarten who you call friends. And to be clear, it wasn’t only the machine-watchers who felt this way; the experiment-runners did, as well. They just weren’t as overt with their opinions.

The band The Hold Steady captures this conundrum of small town life in their songs and lyrics better than any rock band21 I’ve heard. But while some songs and artists may come down firmly on one side of the “escape/adapt” question or the other, The Hold Steady presents slice-of-life vignettes without judgment. And the album Stay Positive presents them brilliantly. The opening track, “Constructive Summer,” says all this better in less than three minutes than I just did in a few hundred words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throughout the band’s history, Finn’s lyrics have had strong references to his Catholic upbringing and faith22. The mystical sounding “Both Crosses” is such a song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are Steely Dan lyrics. (Who’s he talking to? Who’s bringing the medicine? What happened?) There’s a rocking, straightforward punk tempo. There’s more guitar cranking. There’s another reference to Holly. All three bonus tracks are great23, but this one particularly shines.

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

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

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

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

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46th Favorite Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to my deep, deep research, including watching historical documentaries, arts criticism has been around since the time of Aristotle, Plato and ancient India – proving that humans have always gotten off on talking shit about each other. In its most serious and legitimate24 form, arts criticism can be an academic pursuit undertaken by curious researchers seeking answers to larger questions; or an intellectual pursuit by writers seeking to investigate and understand the arts and artists. I have no problem with these functions, as I’m probably not sophisticated or patient enough to unravel most of these writings, and I’m way past being interested in pretending to be interested.

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

However, from these high-minded pursuits by hyper-focused and, perhaps, hyper-intelligent minds it is a short and slippery slope to writing about arts in a manner that is pedantic, condescending and self-important. Or put more plainly – these critics can easily come off as assholes. They can be not unlike those hipster bullies I met 25 years ago in San Francisco, timid individuals shat upon throughout life who banded together to shit upon others over their culturo-artistic ideas. They can be like the record store gang in the film High Fidelity, extolling arts and artists from a position on high to other people, many of whom are eager to reflect some of that superiority onto friends and acquaintances. This desire to be an expert leads folks to, for example, assume that a record that is unlistenable must have been, based on a few words by some “authority,” misapprehended by themselves and the public at large, and so must, despite what their ears tell them, be, in fact, a work of genius25. Some folks even think rock critics of the past leveraged this blind obedience by some to perpetrate ingenious hoaxes.

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

My issue with the statement “better than The Beatles26” isn’t that Coley believes it. After all, the reason there’s all kinds of music is because there’s all kinds of taste. My issue is that he didn’t state “I think” before the words. Instead, he stated it as if it’s a fact, as if liking The Beatles more than Half Japanese would be akin to believing that the Earth is flat. In reality, Half Japanese isn’t better than The Beatles, and The Beatles are not better than Half Japanese. The truth is some folks like one band better, a few billion more like the other band better. That’s it.

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

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

This isn’t the first critically-acclaimed record on my list. But Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists who was a critical darling before he was a big star (at least in America), causing David Lee Roth, of Van Halen, to famously quip: “Of course the rock critics all love Elvis Costello. They all look like him!!” And this record, This Year’s Model, was particularly well-received, with practically every single music magazine of the day effusively gushing over it27. So I have to be careful: am I just buying into the critical hype of an artist? Has my judgement been clouded by my own desire to appear sophisticated to friends and family?

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

This Year’s Model is Costello’s second album, but the first with The Attractions backing him28. And in my opinion, Elvis always sounds best when he’s backed by The Attractions: Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. They play with a great energy, and they’re also technically really good. Right off the bat on this album, drummer Pete Thomas gets to shine on the opener “No Action.”

It starts with a vocals-only opening29, a technique Elvis used frequently, then the band bursts in in a clamor. Actually, everyone is playing simple chords and notes, except drummer Thomas, who is flailing away, giving the song great urgency. Costello writes catchy melodies, which is undoubtedly a big reason why I – who grew up on 70s AM radio pop – like his songs so much. The chorus features nice harmony vocals, and after 2 quick minutes, in which Elvis claims not to miss his ex, yet sounds unconvincing, the whole thing ends. It’s very compact, and features the clever wordplay for which Costello became famous: “Everytime I phone you/I just wanna put you down.” It’s a bracing opener, which serves to heighten the poppy bounce of the next song, “This Year’s Girl.”

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

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

The video captures perfectly the odd, twitchy persona that Elvis and his band brought to MTV fans of the early 80s. Ill-fitting suits, crooked teeth, herky-jerky movements … they didn’t look, or sound, like Triumph or .38 Special, or other AOR bands of the day. But “Pump It Up” is irresistible, with – once again – Bruce Thomas’s bass carrying the load30. Elvis has a few nifty bent chords in the beginning, and then on top of the ping-pong bass and Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drums he spits out lyrics that I once read were about masturbation, but that seem to me more of Elvis’s standard “what’s the deal with me and the ladies?” frustration. Keyboardist Nieve (who never played in a rock band, and didn’t listen to rock music, until he joined The Attractions at age 19) is the master of the little background fills that help drive a song. I like how the last verse modulates up a step, and “Jock Jam”-y as it may be, I still find it satisfying the way the song builds, then hangs on a note, before the tension is released with Costello’s shouted “Hey!”31

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

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

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

It opens with a drum fill that Pete Thomas admits he lifted from Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell’s performance on “Fire.32” This song really drives home the fact that The Attractions are simply a rhythm section: drums, bass, keys. Costello also plays mainly rhythm guitar, although in “Chelsea” he throws in a cool riff, but the band is basically Elvis singing to a rhythm section. Again, B. and P. shine (Bruce’s slide at the beginning of each chorus a particular favorite of mine!), but Elvis’s mush-mouthed, frantic delivery is what steals the show. The song’s about his disdain for London’s high-end fashion scene, in the Chelsea district, but includes a double meaning (as many of his lyrics do), as England also has the famous Chelsea Asylum33.

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

47th Favorite Album

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

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

Popular music has often celebrated fun, as well. Hit songs from the past 60 years that extoll its virtues include those by Cyndi Lauper, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, Sly & The Family Stone, Madness34, Wang Chung and Tom Tom Club. (Less popular musical artists, such as Bruce Willis and Charles Manson, have also cut tracks about fun). Plenty of other songs describe such fun activities as jumping around, driving around, going on vacation, going to parties, playing basketball, playing baseball, playing cards … even cosplay (sort of). Throw in fun activities like dancing and sex, and it becomes damn difficult to think of a song that isn’t about fun. (Songs by 70s-sad-sack-sap-spewers Bread notwithstanding.)

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

The 80s were a heyday for fun-themed music, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to the scourge of Hair Metal. MJ was always a critics’ favorite, and Madonna eventually got there, but the music of the 80s that The Critics tended to love – more serious artists like Tom Waits, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü – weren’t really all that popular in the U.S. in the 80s; they were niche acts. Popular, fun acts like Huey Lewis and The News and Bon Jovi and all the other Hair Metal acts35 were already starting to sound tiresome to critics (and record buyers) by the time the 90s dawned. The lasting 80s rock bands – U2, R.E.M. – were serious bands with some (at times embarrassing) fun thrown in.

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

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

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

 

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

He wrote about driving around, about school being boring, rock and roll, the USA, and cars – both fast and not so fast. He had a few serious songs, like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” but even they sounded fun36. He had a signature guitar sound and performance style that wowed audiences, and nobody expected him to get very philosophical with his songs. Nobody clamored for “a different side of Chuck Berry,” in which he plumbed the depths of his mind and soul for multi-layered reflections on life’s true meaning. Listeners wanted Chuck Berry to kick ass, and ass is what he kicked.

It’s in this ass-kickin’, fun-havin’, let’s-just-rock-and-roll, Chuck Berry spirit that I love the band Van Halen. They can be as goofy as that duck-walk, and as dumb as a song about playing guitar, but they have a signature sound and performance style I love, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen is an innovator and sound-generator who stands apart even in a crowded field of rock guitar virtuosos. They are my Chuck Berry37

I remember hearing and seeing Van Halen as a middle schooler in the late 70s. There was a pair of brothers who lived up the street, the Starrs, and they LOVED Van Halen. I was still in my disco/pop phase, so I thought the band – with its scarves and poofy hair and loud guitars and tight pants – were just silly. (Somehow, grown men dressed as a Cowboy, Indian, Biker, Construction Worker, Cop and Army Man didn’t seem all that silly to me. Go figure.) As I moved through high school, Van Halen videos would turn up on MTV, and I sort of shrugged. They weren’t really my thing. But that changed when they released their 1984 album in my junior year of high school, and – pop music fan that I was – I bought in. My good friend and high school music guru Rick immediately told me that 1984 was lame, and brought to school the Van Halen Canon to that point, all on cassette tape38. I bought in big-time, and was just becoming a super-fan when lead singer David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth left the band in 1985. Neither his new schtick nor the band’s new direction interested me much, so I kept delving into those cassettes.

Being a fan of the “classic” DLR39-era Van Halen is a bit like being a fan of The Three Stooges, an act I also greatly enjoy. With both acts, you’re just going to have to accept that a) much of the stuff they do is ridiculous; b) some of the stuff they do is going to miss the mark; and c) you’ll meet as many people who hate the act, and judge you for your love, as you will those who understand. But fuck them. An interesting thing about being human is that you can’t really control what it is that’ll make you laugh or tickle your music-receptors. Both tastes, all tastes, evolve, for sure, but I find that certain stimuli abide, and never lose their power to excite. And the opening of the Fair Warning album, the song “Mean Street,” excites me every time.

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

Van Halen appreciation is easiest if – regardless of gender – you are at peace with your inner 13-year-old-boy. You’ll need that comfort to fully comprehend the genius40 of a song like “Dirty Movies,” allowing you to either laugh off or fully embrace the song’s juvenile reflection on pornography and its performers41.

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

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

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

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

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

Another song I love is the (sort-of) “hit” from the album42, the fun, propulsive “Unchained.” It’s classic VH, with excellent guitar, cool harmonies, great drumming, unexpected musical nuggets, and silly-terrific lyrics by Diamond Dave.

This is a song that I think I could listen to just as the isolated Eddie Van Halen guitar track, and I’d be happy. The entire time he’s making simple stuff sound cool with squawks and flanges and other inventive sounds. Musically, the syncopated rhythms during the pre-chorus – about 0:40 to the descending syncopation around 0:53 – once again show there’s more to the songs than just “4/4, play chords.” At 1:49, Eddie unleashes a weird, noisy solo. Lyrics such as “blue-eyed murder in a satisfied dress” are classics. Plus – as with the entire album – there’s a depth of sound on this (and every DLR-era) Van Halen album. My high school chorus director43 loved the sound of Van Halen albums, and credited their richness to producer Ted Templeman, who gets a vocal credit on this song during the breakdown section, beginning about 2:15. Whatever the case, the entire production is perfectly suited to hold and feature Eddie’s guitar heroics.

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

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

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

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

48th Favorite Album

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

IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album that takes the listener on quite a journey through society, this record has so much incredible David Gilmour guitar that I almost lose my mind!! Roger Waters’s voice is as effective as ever, and the whole band sounds great – even through the druggy interludes. I could do with fewer of these slow spots, but the songs and the playing more than make up for it. It’s an album designed for a listen in one sitting.
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I’ve seen fewer than one episode of that wildly popular old 90s TV show Friends. This is weird because, as a 49 year old, I am firmly and completely a part of that limiting descriptor called “Generation X,” and Friends is supposed to be one of our generation’s “touchstones44.” And I’m not ashamed to say45 that I’m a big fan of almost all of our touchstones.

I devoured 70s Saturday morning cartoons, can recite entire Bugs Bunny Show scripts, and know most of the words to most of the Schoolhouse Rock episodes. I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was first released, and I watched the Quincy, M.E., punk rock episode when it first aired. I played Pac Man in the arcade for a quarter a game. I wished I could afford an Alligator shirt, but still never stooped to wearing the Sears “Braggin’ Dragon” brand instead. I watched Late Night with David Letterman when it was still “A Melman Production,” and watched MTV when it only showed music videos. I raved over Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, bought Nevermind the month it came out and had tickets to Lollapalooza #146. I read (most of) Infinite Jest, saw Pulp Fiction in the theater several times, chuckled about the Y2K bug panic, and I felt old about MP3s and iPods and most everything else after 2002.

But I only ever saw part of one single Friends episode, the one where Nana dies twice, which was cutely titled – in that annoying Friends way – “The One Where Nana Dies Twice.” I remember there was a funny bit about someone’s grandma having a bunch of packets of Sweet ‘N Low. Despite the show’s apparent touchstone-dom, I never connected with it. I was never part of a big, close-knit group of friends, so I think the premise never resonated with me47. I’ve always been more inclined to have one or two close friends, who may or may not know one another. Maybe this is part of the reason that I was more drawn to The X-Files during the Friends era. (And why I was one of the fans who DID NOT want Scully and Mulder to get romantic.)

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

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

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

Whatever the source of the friendship, these one-to-one (or at times three-person) relationships have been more typical in my life than the large-group Friends model. This has changed somewhat as I’ve gotten older and my wife48 and I have made friends with our kids’ friends’ parents, and we’ve developed friendships with groups of couples. But despite these changes, the single “buddy” remains my Platonic Ideal49 of the term “friend.” And the buddy I’ve remained closest to the longest is Dr. Dave.

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

As you, dear reader, will likely understand if you’ve had a close friend for thirty-some years, it’s difficult to adequately cover all the big ways in which Dr. Dave has been important to me. Instead, I’ll just list a few concrete examples of the little things he’s done, such as: 1) getting me to try asparagus for the first time; 2) teaching me how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs on the bass; 3) telling me I should give Pink Floyd’s Animals another shot after my initial rejection of it. Another friend in high school, Rick, had duped his copy of the album onto cassette for me as part of a pre-digital-music data-dump of multiple Pink Floyd albums. I’d listened to it once, then never really went back to it. My initial assessment was that it was too depressing, and as a seventeen year-old, rural Pennsyltukian in 1984, I had Van Halen albums to consume and couldn’t be bothered with depressing stuff. (Which today sounds a bit depressing, in and of itself50.)

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

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

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

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

First up are humans as those shaggy, friendly best friends of humanity, “Dogs51.”

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

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

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

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

The song could easily end at about eight minutes, just after the really cool chicken-scratch guitar Gilmour plays during the vocals at 7:30, but this being Floyd, there are about 9 minutes left. And they’re a terrific nine minutes. And of course, this being Floyd, before we get to the terrific part, bongs gurgle everywhere as we sit through three-and-a-half minutes of Gilmour’s voice echoing while Wright holds a few notes, drummer Nick Mason taps a cymbal and those damned dogs bark some more52. At 11:40, Waters takes over the vocals, and the song becomes his – sort of a jaunty melody. Although Gilmour is probably the better pure singer, I sort of like Waters’s voice better. It has more of an edge, a sneer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same song53, slightly different words, a recapitulation of the original point: it’s good to have someone else to help you avoid the pigs’ shit (and the dogs’ teeth, for that matter). That’s the point of friends in a nutshell right there, isn’t it?

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

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

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

49th Favorite Album

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

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

I still have it.

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

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

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

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

I’m not scared by this delay on the part of my preordained glory of consequentiality, for I’m aware that it’s silly to think something so eminently inevitable would somehow not occur. It’s like fretting about today’s sunset being the last. But there are times when I allow myself to consider what it would mean if I were to suddenly die before my prestige was revealed54. Would my life have then been a failure?

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

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

So if it’s true that I was merely creating stuff because it’s fun, then the simple fact that I DID CREATE, and had fun doing so, means that I was not a failure. The occurrence wasn’t omitted, I didn’t fall short, I did succeed, I am NOT one who has failed55! Then perhaps a better question than “Am I a failure?” for me (or any artist) to answer is this: “Why do artists create?” There are probably as many answers to that question as there are artists to answer it56. Some folks say they do it to avoid a day job, or to learn about others. Others just let the audience continue to wonder, “Now, why did he do that?”

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

Another great place to find answers to “why create?” is within the pages of artists’ autobiographies. I am a sucker for Rock Musician autobiographies in particular. (Only “auto-;” I’m not interested in biographies [unless the artist participated in writing the book].) I’ve read dozens, such as Keith Richards’, Pete Townshend’s, Eric Clapton’s, etc., etc., and those of less luminous stars, such as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, The Police’s Andy Summers and The Kinks’ Dave Davies. After reading so many of these books57 the answer to the question is as clear as it was at AVAM: Because They Create.

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

So, then – if you are just doing what it is you do, creating art like other people maintain fingernails, is there any way you possibly can FAIL at it58? I suppose you could create a piece that you yourself don’t like; or you could have the feeling that you never properly put down on paper, or in notes, or in marble or clay, what it was you truly wanted to create. These situations might make you feel like a failure, but I believe if you earnestly continue to work to improve and move your art closer to whatever vision is in your head, then it’s difficult for anyone else to make the case that you, as an artist, failed. Even if nobody buys your albums. (Or reads your blog.) This isn’t to say that any creative effort is good; it just means it wasn’t a FAILURE.

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

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

I first heard The Shazam back in the early 00’s, in the days of Napster and LimeWire and KaZaa and other fancy forms of thievery. Also gaining in popularity at this time were new garage-rock bands whose sound harkened back to the punkish, new-wave guitar music I loved from the late 70s. Bands like The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, The White Stripes, The Mooney Suzuki … these were bands unafraid to showcase catchy guitar lines, and happy to have a definite article before their names, like the good old days. A friend in the comedy scene59 mentioned The Shazam, and I bought the CD after stealing a song from KaZaa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The band had a bit of success in 2003, when Coors launched their “Guys’ Night Out” advertising campaign, which, viewed generously, reduced young men to drunken boobs; less generously to would-be date-rapists. A song called “Goodbye American Man,” from their 2003 album Tomorrow the World, was used, and it seemed like maybe good things were in store for the band60. But they didn’t catch fire, waited 6 years to put out Meteor, and have been on hiatus since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does it all mean? What is the point when a great band releases a terrific album and the world collectively yawns? The fact is, a great band61 being ignored is far more common than a great one being noticed. But being noticed is only a small part of why creators create. I’d venture to say that Hans and his bandmates have to look back at Godspeed the Shazam and consider it a success, even if it’s only unknown-though-Destiny-bound-49-year-old-guys-with-album-countdown-blogs who realize what a gem it is. In the song “Some Other Time,” probably my favorite on the album, the singer tells an ex that the timing just wasn’t right for them. But if you imagine Hans Rotenberry talking to his bandmates, instead of an old lover, the lyrics describe a resignation that reflective artists everywhere understand. Even those of us with Destiny on our side.

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41