“If You Could Read My Mind,” – from the 1970 album Sit Down Young Stranger, (aka If You Could Read My Mind) Moving, soulful, folk.
(2 minute read)
*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I have been hearing “If You Could Read My Mind” since I was a little guy in the early 70s. Back then I hated it. I liked peppy songs, like “Crocodile Rock,” and funny songs, like “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” and songs with cool sounds that enhanced the story, like “Knock Three Times.” “If You Could Read My Mind” was none of these things. It was slow, sad, and had no cool sounds. I’m sure I thought the lyrics about a ghost would be enhanced by some spooky laughing from Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
As I got older, it simply became background noise. It’s a tune I could hum along to in the supermarket or the car. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, but I just wasn’t paying attention. Then about ten years ago, I heard it on the 70s station and listened closely, and I was blown away. I’d never stopped to realize a) what an amazing singer Lightfoot is, and b) how moving the lyrics are.
Musically, “If You Could Read My Mind” has great acoustic guitar work from both Lightfoot and Red Shea. The string arrangements, which are probably the reason I didn’t like the song as a kid, enhance the song and never intrude. The melody is strong and elastic, very memorable. But it’s really the voice and lyrics that make the song so good.
Lightfoot’s voice is like warm honey, and conveys a quiet authority, like a well-liked but modest sheriff. Its power, however, comes not only from its sound. He has a way of connecting that feels like it hits you on a molecular level. It’s a very soulful voice. Different, obviously, than, say, James Brown, but both singers reach inside the listener and take hold.
Add to that the heartfelt lyrics, and you have a brilliant winner of a song. They’re somewhat cryptic, but definitely describe the feelings of a romantic breakup. He’s the ghost in her past, and she’s not that into him anymore. (His daughter didn’t like that the song claims “feelings you lack.” She thought it blamed her mom too much. He now substitutes “we” for “you” when performing it.) Sometimes I get a little misty hearing this song, and I haven’t had a breakup in over 30 years!
It’s a song that seems to continue to connect with folks1. If you search YouTube for “Reaction Videos,” where people video themselves listening to music that they don’t normally enjoy, you’ll find a ton of “If You Could Read My Mind.” People go nuts over it. It’s a very human song that resonates with many, including me.
IN A NUTSHELL: Is This It, the 2001 debut album from The Strokes, is a terrific record of Velvet Underground-inspired garage rock. It’s from an era of a return to prominence for the guitar, and Albert Hammond, Jr., and Nick Valensi layer the quick, catchy songs with nifty little licks and leads over driving chords. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture carries some songs with his bouncy lines, and drummer Fab Moretti keep things basic but interesting. Singer/Songwriter Julian Casablancas uses all means to distort both his voice and his meanings, and projects stardom from the first note. Even though the record can feel a bit same-y, there are enough winning tunes to warrant repeat plays.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
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Hey, I’m back! After a little hiatus I’m happy to report that my health is fine. In fact, the way the health scare turned out, the name of this week’s album is entirely apropos: “Is this it?” Anyway – on with the favorite albums.
Boys and Girls in America, by The Hold Steady, landed on my 100 Favorite Albums list at number 100. It was the first record I wrote about so I didn’t have to worry that I was rehashing the same old crap I’d already written about. I had every conceivable angle on Earth available to me with no risk of repetition. Somewhere around record #97, Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass, I decided not to concern myself with this problem. I’ve been repeating myself ever since, and I feel great about it!
So I’m not at all worried that in writing about my interaction with The Strokes’ excellent debut record, Is This It, I’ll essentially repeat what I wrote for Boys and Girls in America2: in the early 2000s, I found myself way out of touch with contemporary rock. I’d been put off in the mid 90s when Alternative Rock started morphing into metal-rap. But as the ’00s began I made an effort to get back to it.
I know I had radios in the house and in the car, which were tuned to “radio stations,” and I listened to them – so I must’ve heard new songs there. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a pandemic (I think that started in 2005, right?), so I actually interacted with humans at work face-to-face regularly, even daily! Those folks shared some information. And then there were these flimsy, book-like collections of stapled-together glossy paper called “magazines” that were mailed to peoples’ houses. Some of these “magazines” were specifically about music, like SPIN and Rolling Stone and Blender. I know I read some of those.
Also around this time, after years of having record companies rip off customers, music consumers began stealing from record companies3 as mp3 file-sharing sites like Napster and KaZaa and Limewire brought music to your desktop through your dial-up modem. This meant that if a co-worker or radio station or magazine suggested (or played, in the case of radio) a song or artist, I could fire up my gleaming Gateway 2000 and in an hour or so have the song right there in my computer.
All these aspects of early ’00s life came together for me in my quest for new music. One of the most exciting new movements I heard and read about was the “garage rock revival.” Guitar-based bands were becoming popular making catchy, poppy, aggressive songs using the tried-and-true guitar/bass/drums4 formula of song craft. Many of them signaled this return to basics by using a style of band-naming that had gone out of style by the mid-70s: the definitive article.
I’ve done my best over the years to set aside the working-class-kid disdain I’ve held for The Strokes’ band members. I think we all now recognize the fiction that America was ever a meritocracy with equal access to the means of success, but still it can be an annoying fact. And sure, the band members are all from extremely wealthy families, and met at expensive prep schools. Rich kids who never did a damn thing to earn their money are just a fact of life. But these guys, as adults, are indeed earning their dough with the polished sounds of sophisticated, two-guitar garage rock.
Is This It starts off with the title track, which, at first, seems like an unusual choice for an opener.
After a little noise, the drums set the pace for a discordant guitar line and singer Julian Casablancas’s distorted, indifferent vocals. The song sort of chugs along, and – deviously – begs the question, “Is this it?” Then the second verse hits (0:52), and bassist Nikolai Fraiture really makes the song pop with a ping-pong bass line that digs into your ear and doesn’t let go. The song also sets the template for the band’s two guitar mode, with both playing different riffs that fit together perfectly. Lyrically, the song might discuss a drunken argument at a bar? It’s hard to say.
The Strokes are certainly not innovators, but they expertly build on sounds of the past, particularly The Velvet Underground. A case in point is “The Modern Age.”
Drummer Fab Moretti thumps the opening, and syncopated guitars join in while Casablancas again sings like he’s describing a friend’s closet. This time, however, he seems to be describing a daydream. But about 1:13, he kicks it into another gear and the song seems to lift off. When guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr., gets to solo at 1:50, the song hits yet another gear. He’s a deft player, unafraid to pack a lot of notes into his brief bursts5.
Bands like The Strokes brought guitar back to rock. Obviously, all the 90s rock bands – the Green Days, the Nirvanas, the Soundgardens – played guitar, but they were mostly content to string together chords played loud, with distortion. Some acts featured a guitar solo now and then, but songs with a signature riff, or an intricate through-line, or cool solo were largely missing. The Strokes, on the other hand, feature Hammond and Nick Valensi, and they often play dueling guitar lines behind Casablancas’s vocals, along with quick, catchy solos.
A great example of the two guitar attack on Is This It is the popular song “Someday.”
It’s a bouncy song that opens with another syncopated riff. Then about 0:11 a second strumming guitar enters. The rest of the song, the lead and rhythm guitars play against each other nicely. It’s nothing spectacular, but it just works, especially against Fraicture’s bass line in the chorus. The lyrics in this one seem to be a plea to NOT stay together. Casablancas’s voice is another one of those love-it-or-hate-it types that I’ve discussed before. But he can really make it work, as on “Soma,” another song in which both guitars play off each other spectacularly (0:20 and throughout). It’s a song about Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it really kicks in about 2:03, when Moretti ups the beat and Casablancas loses his cool and howls.
Something else that’s part of The Strokes’ sound on Is This It is the ability to drop in a great melody just as the song is starting to feel a bit repetitive. Take, for example, “Barely Legal.”
It chugs along nicely, with Moretti setting a good pace, as Casablancas seems to lament his life of luxury (although he does claim he took no shortcuts6). After five verses (1:31) the band plays a brief interlude, then the catchiest of choruses comes in. Just as with previous songs, at that moment it goes from pretty good to great. This chorus alone may make it my favorite. Similarly, “Alone, Together” surfs along nicely on cool guitars and Fraiture’s rangey bass, while Casablancas sings about somebody’s relationship. Then it picks up at Hammond’s great solo at 2:33 and rocks to a terrific ending.
Yet another number in this vein is the nearly techno “Hard to Explain.” It drives forward on a locomotive beat, full of guitars, as Casablancas sings a soothing melody with lyrics that are, well, hard to explain. Then at 1:45 the chorus focuses everything on an excellent, quick tune that is doubled by the guitar. It plays out again to a terrifically abrupt ending.
Is This It is chock full of great songs, and perhaps the most well-known is the stomper “Last Nite.”
My only problem with Is This It is that, even as good as its songs are, it starts to feel pretty same-y by the end of the record. “When It Started” again has a great bass and a cool guitar solo. “Trying Your Luck” has some nice rhythm guitar. “Take It or Leave It” (which is a great song title for the closing number on an album called Is This It) has a cool descending chorus. They’re each competent enough songs, but placed alongside the others on the record, they feel a bit like facsimiles of the real things. And Casablancas’s unique voice and style doesn’t help distinguish them.
But still, I love Is This It. It’s got great energy and packs a lot into its brief numbers. The album just barely missed my Top 100 list. It always takes me back to a time when new music was just a simple 30-minute download away.
The show covers new music, classic albums, the music industry and everything music related. Kot has a cooler older brother vibe, and DeRogatis reminds me of The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy. (Sorry, Jim.) Both are excellent writers and thinkers, and together, they make a great team. (Although they seriously disparage Billy Joel, something that most failed-artists-turned-critics do.) My favorite episodes are when they present a theme (“Songs about leaving,” or “Songs about food,” etc.), and when they present Buried Treasure, good songs you might not have heard.
It was on a Sound Opinions Buried Treasure show that I first heard about Buggy Jive. He’s a musician from the Albany, NY, area, and he specializes in home recording. He bills himself as a soul/rock singer-songwriter, and that is about as perfect a description as could be. He also has great lyrics about life in the 21st century America. You Won’t Like the Answer is about a Black artist in America making his way through life during a pandemic, and who has decided the best course of action is to Keep On Grinding.
“He Lost His Mind to Find His Heart” opens You Won’t Like the Answer, and immediately calls to mind Prince. It also sets the template for the record, a funky rock take with cool harmonies and good lyrics. It also features Buggy Jive’s guitar playing on a nifty little acoustic solo. “No Absolution” slows things down a bit, but keeps up the funky vibe, and has a fun chorus, and timely lyrics. “Momento Mori” is terrific singer/songwriter soul with rock guitar.
“Keep On Grinding” may be my favorite song on You Won’t Like the Answer.
It’s got a great hook, and the bass is super cool in the chorus. Buggy Jive has a knack for catchy melodies that stick in your head. And this song has a great message about perseverance. “Tiptoes” features Buggy’s falsetto, and a hilarious phone message.
Next up is another favorite: “You Won’t Like the Answer.”
It opens as a lovely acoustic ballad, which might seem out of place at first. But Buggy has mentioned his love for Joni Mitchell, and the melding of his disparate influences is what makes him such an impressive, touching voice. The song morphs into a brief, Sly & the Family Stone jam, and it all works perfectly. “I Done Toldt Y’all” is a mid-tempo gripe, with cool meta-lyrics and a nice Prince-y guitar solo. The title of the next one, “Pretty Boys and Bushy Beards,” pretty much tells you what it’s about – and it’s very funny.
The fairly amazing “She Screams in Metaphor” opens with a tremendous drum intro, and slinks along with a funky groove until it reaches its catchy chorus. It’s a multi-part piece that is almost prog-rock in its 4 minute construction. Next is “The Worst of Us,” a slow jam that calls for understanding and forgiveness among humans, and returns to the “Keep on Grinding” mantra. “Wishful Thinkers” keeps things slow and soulful, and uplifting as well. Plus it closes with a cool guitar solo.
The last song is the first song I heard by Buggy Jive: “Ain’t Going Anywhere.”
It’s definitely a Prince-inspired jam, and it has a fun video, as well. Buggy describes enjoying the pandemic-mandated quarantine, as it keeps him in the house. And it’s not the virus that he’s worried about … The song is a slow, driving number that gets its power from repetition and Buggy’s personal lyrics.
You Won’t Like the Answer is a great album. I’m hoping the Sound Opinions guys keep turning me on to more great new music! (Even if they are wrong about Billy Joel.)
*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I listened to 70s AM Radio music as a child, so I was trained early to enjoy adult contempo-pop. ACP back then typically included catchy melodies, some acoustic guitar and squonky organ, and maybe some orchestral highlights thrown in. Those are key ingredients for – to my ears – a tasty 70s aural recipe. “Hitchin’ a Ride.” “Love Will Keep Us Together.” “Diamond Girl.” “The Night Chicago Died.” “Moonlight Feels Right.” These songs may be the leftover tuna-noodle casseroles of 70s musical cuisine, but I developed a taste early and I can’t shake it now.
I define ACP as hit music that teens are NOT buying, but adults are. (Maybe this is everyone’s definition.) Adult-contempo has changed over the years, but generally the songs sound a bit like the popular (i.e. teen) music of the day, but a bit, say, watered-down in comparison. So in the early 70s Seals & Croft seemed to have a dollop of Dylan, and a smidgeon of Simon. But only if you were in your mid-40s and never really listened to either of them.
“Four Leaf Clover,” by Abra Moore, is an adult contempo-pop gem from the 90s. It has a vaguely alternative feel, with some nice lead guitar splashes over acoustic strumming. Plus, it came out when woman-led bands like Veruca Salt and Luscious Jackson and Hole were all over the airwaves. It’s the type of song that a 40 year old in 1997 might have heard and thought, “I like these Riot-Grrrl songs,” then bought a Sleater-Kinney record and was shocked.
The song starts with some nice acoustic shuffling, and whispers from Moore. Then it goes right into the hook. Her voice is not strong, but it serves the song extremely well. She sounds enthusiastic, like she truly believes in her Four Leaf Clover. The lyrics don’t really explain what she hopes her talisman will do (though it’s clearly about a relationship), but she makes you believe. That lead guitar (perhaps Mitch Watkins?) is always in the background doing cool stuff. Also, Brannen Temple’s drum beat keeps the song moving nicely.
The song progresses by adding backing voices, and they really help the song to build. Each time through the hook the song gets more urgent. After a guitar solo, a distorted guitar enters (2:24) to add a sprinkle of “grunge.” By the end, Moore’s lead voice, the backing vocals, and all those guitar sounds have created a sing-along urgency that’s infectious and thrilling.
“Four Leaf Clover” earned Moore a 1998 Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. (The award was won by Fiona Apple‘s “Criminal.”) However, it doesn’t seem to be a song that is still lingering around out there in the cultural consciousness. It’s one of those, “Oh-yeah-I-forgot-about-that-one!” songs. But I’ve always loved it, and I find it quite inspiring when I’m feeling anxious. So, thank you 70s AM Radio, for helping me to not overlook good, flimsy pop!
Lifes Rich Pageant, by R.E.M. 1986, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Gehman In My Collection: Duped Cassette, 1987; CD, 1995.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Lifes Rich Pageant, the 1986 album from R.E.M., is a record that epitomizes the R.E.M. sound. It starts with Peter Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar, but it’s the rhythm section of Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) that really drives the songs. The pair also supply the stunning backing vocals that wind around Michael Stipe’s confident lines. Stipe is the star of this record, his voice finding new wrinkles yet always returning to his distinct, resonant baritone. I can’t forget to mention Mills’ bass lines, as well. His countermelodies underpin most of their best songs, and this record contains many of them.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20.
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I’ve been lucky enough to have many, many friends throughout my life and no enemies7. I’m in my mid-50s now, and over those decades I’ve lived many years in each of three main areas (hometown, San Francisco, Boston). I still remember names and details of friends going all the way back to those first neighborhood friends I had before I started kindergarten. (Steve and Richie – great at sports; Jon, Mark and Deaner – brothers who fist-fought regularly.) I’ve had school friends, and college friends, work friends from about a dozen different companies, not to mention neighborhood/parent/UU friends. Then throw in the music communities and acting troupes and improv groups, and two different stand-up comedy scenes, and it turns out I’ve known and befriended lots of different people.
But the truth is I rarely stay in touch with any of them, except my current crew of regularly-seen people, the ones I go to dinner parties and cookouts with. There are a handful (Dr. Dave, Dan8) I’ve known for more than thirty years who I keep in touch with regularly. There’s a larger handful who I’m in touch with maybe a couple times a year, and who remain important links in my life’s chain. And then there’s a huge group of people, any friend from any era9 who I feel like I could call tomorrow and start a conversation that would be fun and refreshing. But between the memories and catching-up there would definitely be awkward instances where we both try to remember each others’ kids’ names, job situations, and other important details.
And then there is the person I’ve known the longest, Josh. When I discussed one of my favorite high school albums (that I’m still a bit embarrassed to like so much, even now), I related a story in which Josh predicted that the “new Led Zeppelin” record I expected would probably be crap. Josh and I have an interesting friendship in that we regularly go years without speaking or communicating (he’s not much of an emailer), yet whenever we do it’s as though the conversation picked up right where it left off two, three, five years prior. We generally discuss books, TV shows, movies and (of course) music. We’ll reminisce a bit about old times (we met in 7th grade) and catch each other up on any family news. It’s a nice friendship.
The first big lapse in communication was after high school. I think it may have been well into our junior year of college before we reconnected by phone. My theory is that we were both eager to discover ourselves at college without any input or pressure from our hometown, so we didn’t really make an effort to keep in touch with people. (We haven’t discussed this – I’m just assuming.) When we finally did catch up, I recall one of the biggest revelations was that we were both big R.E.M. fans. When we saw each other in person again, he gave me a cassette with Lifes Rich Pageant on one side and Document, R.E.M.’s 1987 release, on the other. (I had Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction, but for some reason stopped there.) I immediately loved both. It was the beginning of the music-sharing phase of our friendship, a phase that lasted well into the CD era.
Two R.E.M. albums landed on my 100 Favorite Album list, Reckoning and Automatic for the People. I gave the backstory of my R.E.M. love there, but basically I saw the band on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 and was hooked. I can’t say for certain that Lives Rich Pageant is my 3rd favorite R.E.M. record, I just know I love it. It kicks off with “Begin the Begin,” and one of the greatest album-opening songs ever.
I love how Peter Buck’s simple, clean lick morphs into sustained feedback while Michael Stipe’s baritone enters ominously. Bill Berry’s drumming is wild but precise – he’s such an underrated drummer. If you listen closely you notice he’s doing lots of cool little beats and fills, all while joining bassist Mike Mills on backing vocals! It’s a very aggressive song for R.E.M., and it displays my favorite aspects of the band. First is the melodic bass guitar. At the end of each verse (0:15) Mills plays a syncopated, ascending line that sits beautifully against the guitar and vocals. Next is Stipe’s voice, one of the most versatile in rock. At 1:03 he ups the energy (“Silence means security!”), and he builds it throughout the song. As usual, his lyrics are rather obtuse (Myles Standish proud?), but that’s just one more thing I love about the band. (By the way, they played an excellent version of this one at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.)
The band keeps the energy rolling with “These Days,” which shares many features with the first song. Mike Mills is particularly strong, with a great bass line and terrific high harmonies. Berry’s drumming is again top-notch. Stipe will rearrange your scales on this one, but his lyrics can sometimes mean something big. Take, for example, my favorite song on the record, “Fall on Me.”
It’s a song about the environment and what humans are losing in its destruction. (In 1986, and well before, everyone knew this bullshit was coming.) Buck opens with a nice acoustic guitar figure, but it’s the vocals that give me chills. Stipe’s wide-ranging tune is lovely, and Mills and Berry sing two different melodies in the chorus. (You can really hear them on the terrific MTV Unplugged version.) In the bridge, at 1:28, Mills takes over the lead. Throughout, Buck’s cascading, chiming guitar echoes the song’s sentiments brilliantly. It’s a short song, but it packs so much into it. The band sticks with the environmental theme10 on “Cuyahoga.” It’s probably strange that I love the two notes that Buck rings throughout the song after Stipe’s phrases, but I do. More great drums, harmonies and bass!
After a couple mid-tempo numbers, R.E.M. picks it back up with the frenetic “Hyena.
In trying to write a little bit about each song, I’m realizing that all of my favorite R.E.M. songs have the same components: great drums, cool bass, excellent backing vocals. “Hyena” throws in weird noises and piano at the beginning, too. Then Berry’s drum starts driving things, and it really picks up. Mills and Berry sing a countermelody to Stipe’s scratchy growl. This one is also one of my favorites – that riff, the voices, the drums. It’s so good. “The only thing to fear is fearlessness,” Stipe sings, a clue that maybe these lyrics are about community standards and fears? Next up is a little mystery snippet called “Underneath the Bunker,” which has a nice, middle-eastern guitar thing, but is altogether eh. They keep things slow on the sweet “The Flowers of Guatemala,” a sleepy song perhaps about mushrooms? Possibly? At 2:19 Buck plays a simple, cool solo.
“I Believe” throws a banjo in at the beginning, then Buck’s patented arpeggiated chords enter.
It’s another song that drives forward, with R.E.M.’s rhythm section shining yet again. But this song – like much of the album – really belongs to Stipe’s voice. He is an assured vocalist with a unique sound and style. The lyrics are reflective of childhood, and fun to sing along. “What if We Give It Away?” is a bouncy number with a terrific theme of community, and a fun riff. Plus – as on all these songs – there are many guitar noises in the background that makes the song sound big and full. Then the band unleashes their early punk sound on the raucous, totally frantic “Just a Touch.” Mills’ bass is all up and down the neck, and Berry keeps things pumping along. Stipe’s voice again stands out, as does the brief organ solo around 1:45. I can’t understand any of the lyrics, but they seem to be about a rumor running amok? What else could “I can’t see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green” mean?
I don’t always love the R.E.M. slow-paced songs, but one exception is the lovely “Swan Swan H.”
It’s a spare, acoustic number calling to mind a folk song sung around a campfire. Again, it’s Stipe who makes the circular, looping melody work. It’s got nice accordion, too. The song mentions Johnny Reb and wooden greenbacks, and I’ve heard people say it’s about the US Civil War, but I can never tell what his lyrics are about. I do know I saw them sing this on MTV one summer and loved it ever since. The record closes with Mike Mills taking lead vocal duties, with solid support from Stipe, on a cover song “Superman.” It’s a fun number, even though the lyrics are a bit stalker-ish. However, they sounded even more so in the creepy original version.
Someday soon I’ll give Josh another call, and I’ll tell him I mentioned him in this. We’ll talk some about the band, I’m sure, and what books we’ve read recently. Maybe we’ll share a couple memories. Then we’ll go our separate ways and connect again in several months or years. But I think about him a lot because I listen to R.E.M. a lot, and I might not if it weren’t for him.
Daddy’s Home 2021, Loma Vista. Producers: Annie Clark & Jack Antonoff
(3 minute read)
Saturday Night Live was on my childhood TV viewing schedule long before I was old enough to understand it. I know I watched the famed “Mardi Gras episode,” from February, 197711, and, seeing as it aired at 8:30 pm instead of 11:30, it could have been my entree into the show. I was in fourth grade then, around the same time I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS. This means the inappropriate-comedy-for-nine-year-olds time frame checks out12. An early episode of SNL featured Art Garfunkel as a “battered, masturbating husband.” Even though I didn’t know what that meant, I figured it was something interesting when my mom immediately ordered me to bed. By fifth grade I was wearing a Rosanne Rosannadanna t-shirt to school.
I watched the show for all the comedy I didn’t understand. But I also loved the music on the show, too. Saturday Night Live famously has a musical guest that performs live13 each week, and I saw some weird, cool stuff. It’s where I first saw Devo, who became a favorite of mine in middle school. I saw The Talking Heads, who seemed even weirder than Devo, for some reason. I saw Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger, neither of whom I really knew at the time. (I’m sure I had heard of The Rolling Stones, but I didn’t know band members’ names.)
It’s true that the comedy on SNL hasn’t been consistent over the years. And as an early-adapter, I’m always prone to state that “the show’s gone downhill ever since Bill Murray’s first season!” However, even the great early years had some stinker skits. And the new seasons can still be pretty hilarious. My wife and I have been watching a lot recently, since we got YouTube TV and no longer have to stay up ’til 1 am to watch. (Yeah, I know. VCRs have been around for 40 years, TiVo for 20. But whatever.) And the musical guests are often really good. A case in point is the recent show featuring St. Vincent as musical guest. She was great. Both songs. When her new record, Daddy’s Home, was released a few weeks later, I listened right away. It’s a good one.
St. Vincent is the name used by one-woman-band Annie Clark, a great guitarist and all-around musical genius. Daddy’s Home is her 6th record, and the title refers to her father’s release from prison after serving time for fraud. The album is rather mellow, but it really reveals itself in multiple listenings. It’s got great sounds, and lots of cool guitar work. What it lacks in rock it makes up for with groove and style.
“Somebody Like Me” is another favorite of mine, with its lilting acoustic guitar and gently driving drums. It also has some sweet pedal steel guitar. I really don’t like “My Baby Wants a Baby,” which repurposes the mind-numbing Sheena Easton track “Morning Train.” As much as I respect St. Vincent, she can’t do it -the song still bites. (But nice try!) “…At the Holiday Party” has a flowing groove, and really shows off Clark’s singing on lyrics about a past romance. It also incorporates great horns on top of fine guitar and bass work. Finishing up the record is “Candy Darling,” a sultry number about a lost love.
It’s a great record that improves with each listen. I could use a few more rockin’ numbers, but I can’t deny that it’s got a lot to offer. I’ll keep watching SNL to see what other new music I may find!
“Sea Cruise” – single from 1959. Bouncy, exuberant, timeless.
(2 min. read)
*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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You never know when you’ll hear a song that sticks with you. For example, you might be in your early 20s, visiting a douchey high school friend in his Philadelphia apartment a couple years before you realize what a horrible human being he is. He might suggest going to some dive bar nearby, and you might stay when he leaves with some young woman. Maybe you stay because the little blues band that’s playing is really rocking. And that band might play a song you hadn’t heard before, but that is a classic old rock and roll tune that just completely rips.
That’s how I first heard “Sea Cruise.” I don’t know why I loved it immediately, or why it’s since become one of my all time favorites. But I did, and it is.
“Sea Cruise” opens with some nautical sounds to set the stage, then the drums, bass and piano immediately get the ball rolling. A honking sax plays a riff before Frankie Ford starts in wailing. His vocals really make the song rock, and you feel he REALLY wants the woman to go on that cruise. He sings with an abandon, nailing the syncopation and squealing “ooo-wee-baby.” The drums and horn section sound like proto-ska. It’s a beat made popular by The Skatelites, in the 60s, and The Specials, in the 70s. The boogie piano on top of it is super-infectious, and Ford sells those vocals for all he’s worth.
As happened constantly in the 50s, “Sea Cruise” was recorded by a Black artist, then remade by a white man, in this case Ford. In fact, Frankie Ford simply sang his vocals over the instrumental version of the original track. Typically, I’ll find the original version of such songs to be superior. And the original version, by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, is really peppy. But Smith sounds too controlled, with a harmony vocal that takes the edge off the wild urgency of the song. It’s nice, but I prefer Ford. He really delivers some Little Richard-style chaos. It’s pure, old-time rock-and-roll, so it’s a fast-paced song that ends quickly, without changing much throughout. But that’s just fine, the song has everything it needs.
Ford himself was kind of a corny showman, as this American Bandstand clip shows. “Sea Cruise” went to #14 on the US charts, and Ford never hit the Top Forty again. But the one time he did, he really made a splash.
The Swing, by INXS 1984, WEA Mercury. Producer: Nick Launay and Nile Rodgers In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: The Swing, the 1984 album from INXS, is an album that to me defines an 80s sound. It’s got lots of synthesizer, clamoring digitized drums and a pinched guitar sound. These are characteristics I usually dislike, but INXS really makes it work. The songs are catchy and a bit funky, and the Tim Farriss guitar is always interesting and clever. Singer Michael Hutchence has an amazing presence, even on record. He belts and moans and burns on every song. It’s an album that’s not like a lot of others that I love, but I’ve loved it ever since I borrowed it from my sister’s old cassette box.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 70.
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The 80s were a muddled time for rock music. Wholesale technological and cultural changes were under way, and a shiny playground of new sounds and styles – synthesizers, digital production, MTV – left performers and listeners unsure of where things were headed.
Since its 1950s inception, there were two key postures of rock music and musicians clearly at odds with each other. On the one hand (as I’ve written before), it was a genre obsessed with sticking around FOREVER! Since 1958, when Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” the Immortality of Rock Music has been a rallying cry. The Who, Neil Young, and AC/DC are among the Classic Rockers who shouted it loud14, and countless others followed with the same message. The Italian heavy metal band Maneskin recently won the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, and announced “Rock and roll never dies15!”
On the other hand, rock and roll musicians have constantly pushed the boundaries of its sounds. The Beatles and James Brown shook things up in the early 60s, then psychedelia and prog-rock and funk took things in even wilder directions. An attempt to return to the simplicity of early rock and roll by the 70s punk musicians (i.e. The Ramones) only succeeded in whetting the public’s appetite for more new sounds. True artists are always looking to expand their horizons. Some of the acts that grew out of the punk scene even took the radical step of abandoning their guitars! Then hip-hop bubbled up and confused everyone, as the sounds were nothing like rock and roll, yet the attitude and spirit captured it perfectly.
This all begged the question of the 80s: if hip-hop is the new rock and roll, has rock and roll died? If something changes so much that it’s no longer recognizable, does it still exist16?
Frankly, that 80s sound never really worked for me, and I don’t have a great variety of Favorite Albums from the 80s. There are 30 on my list, but 11 of those are from 198017 and 198118, and sound very 70s-ish. Also, fifteen of the thirty are from 7 artists19 with multiple records on the list. To me, that “80s sound” was sterile and precise, rather phony, and very different from rock and roll.
But as a great poet once wrote, all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted. The key, I believe, is that the machinery has to be part of the band’s internal conception of themselves as an artist. If you’re a guitar band and you try to throw some synths over your songs, it’s gonna sound shitty. But if you’re a band who’s had synths from the very beginning, the sound can really work. The Big 80s sound of The Swing, by INXS, really works for me.
Australia’s INXS were perfect for the MTV 80s. They were six handsome men (I guess dorky guitar/sax man Kirk Pengilly is handsome?), with a lead singer, Michael Hutchence, who was particularly sultry. Their sound was guitar rock, but with a strong dance beat and lush synth parts. They really popped on MTV, and I recall waiting all afternoon hoping the channel would play “The One Thing,” a great song with a video that, well, was quite appealing to the 14-year-old me. (It’s kind of a dinner party. Kind of.) By 1989 they were enormous, but throughout the early part of the 80s they seemed to struggle to gain traction. They were “too rock” for pop radio, and “too pop” for rock. My sister, Liz, owned several of their early cassettes, and that’s where I first heard The Swing. My eldest sister, Anne, had the magic milk crate of 70s LPs. Liz had the attache case of 80s cassettes20. I became a fan of The Swing right away.
The opening track was produced by Chic mastermind and 80s uber-producer Nile Rodgers. He perfectly captures the band’s sound on “Original Sin.”
It’s got dance-track drumming from Jon Farriss, Andrew Farriss’s catchy organ riff, a pumping bass groove laid down by Gary Garry Beers, and funk guitars from Tim Farriss and Kirk Pengilly. Then there’s Michael Hutchence, who half purrs, half groans as he smolders all over the song. It’s basically a dance song, with great lyrics about bigotry that remain relevant 35 years on, sadly. I like the simple, shrieking guitar at 1:04, and I also like Beers’s bass sound on the second verse, where he walks up between Hutchence’s lines. There are little sax squawks from Pengilly, and metallic guitar stabs, and of course shimmery, atmospheric 80s synth. The result is a song that sounds like its own genre, a mutant dance/rock hybrid.
“Melting In the Sun” tries to pull off the same trick, but it’s not quite there. Maybe it lacks Rodgers’s funk touch? It’s got a groove, and there are some impressive bursts of guitar sounds from Tim Farriss. The lyrics are rather indecipherable. Mostly it’s a decent song that gets us to the next awesome song, “I Send a Message.”
By the band’s huge 1989 album Kick, the world was ready for riff-based dance-rockers like “New Sensation” and “Devil Inside.” On The Swing (and earlier), INXS established the blueprint. “I Send a Message” is a case in point. After a nice build-up, a riff that seems adjacent to Lee Dorsey’s “Working In the Coal Mine” is pushed throughout the song, while Hutchence finds a catchy melody to moan and growl over. It’s a song about missing a lover, and it’s bouncy and catchy. It’s got all kinds of electronic, synthetic sounds, and for some reason I love it! At 1:45 Hutchence asks Timmy to play it, and he obliges with a simple, sparse solo that fits perfectly. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
While I think of INXS as kind of a guitar band, they aren’t the type that has flashy solos or crunching power chords. But Tim does get to show off his stuff on “Dancing On the Jetty.”
You wouldn’t expect it from the gentle opening, but it turns into a dance stomper pretty quickly. There are lots of cool harmonics and little riffs from both guitarists, and at 2:49 Tim turns in an angry, atmospheric noise solo that would make Lee Ranaldo proud. The chorus is sing-along catchy, and its lyrics try to offer some respite from the daily news of brutality and strife. My downstairs neighbor in college loved this song. He’s the first person I met who I bonded with over our enthusiasm for The Swing.
The album title track begins with the most 80s-ish drums I’ve ever heard. I sprouted leg-warmers just hearing them. The lyrics are about life moving forward, but there’s not much life to the song as a whole. At 2:18 there are some more weird guitars, but they don’t really lift the song beyond its 80s plod. However, “Johnson’s Aeroplane” offers something different on The Swing.
It’s a bouncy shuffle that’s an ode to hard-working Australian farmers. The song leans heavily on Andrew Farriss’s synthetic violins, and at 2:05 sax man Pengilly plays a nice, distorted solo that almost sounds like a guitar. (I believe INXS were the last popular rock act to have a sax player as an integral part of the band21.) It’s a nice little song that really breaks up the album.
The 80s drums and synth-bass sound is prominent in “Love Is (What I Say).” It’s got a very catchy chorus, and moves along quickly. It’s an organ-heavy number, and Hutchence sells the thing, his voice as strong as ever on lyrics that, I guess, are a love poem? “Face the Change” is a funk-riff groove number. Beers’s bass is up and down and everywhere. In fact, it’s so snaky, it may be a synth. Jon Farriss can definitely lay down a groove, and Pengilly gets another sax solo. I don’t know what Hutchence is singing about (well, “change,” I guess), but he definitely makes it sound great.
Along with the opener, “Original Sin,” the band hits another dance-rock peak with the fun, driving “Burn For You.”
Once again, I simply MUST point out the very-very 80s touches. First of all, the sampled tribal drum rhythms that open the song, which predate Paul Simon’s Graceland by a couple years. Then, at about 0:50, the synthetic tootles. Those vaguely train-whistle-ish hoots were everywhere in that decade. (For some reason I associate them with movie soundtracks.) It all makes for a nice crescendo to the main track. There’s a great beat, and the background singers on the chorus with Hutchence (1:16) sound great. In the third verse Beers’s bass starts making the song pump a little harder (2:10). It’s a song about desire, and who wouldn’t want Michael Hutchence to tell them “Light me, and I’ll burn for you”? From 4:30 to the end, it gets kind of weird, as Jon Farriss starts playing strange beats, leading up to a creative ending.
The album ends on a low note for me, with the mishmash that is “All the Voices.” It’s got a great message of unity, the chorus is catchy, and there’s a bit of guitar I like, but to me it really sounds like a kitchen-sink of a song.
The Swing is a definitive album for “the 80s sound.” It’s got hooks, synths, drum triggers … everything you hope to hear if you’re into that nostalgia. But for me, it’s the songs that really make the record great. I was an 80s teen who didn’t like the 80s sound, but even I liked this record. I still do. It’s fun and catchy, and when the hits come, they really come hard.
In late summer, 2020, a good 6 months into pandemic living, I turned on the Emerson College radio station in my car during one of my infrequent pandemic drives. As often occurs in TV and movies, but rarely in real life, the young DJ immediately began speaking as if he’d been waiting for my arrival. “This one is the latest from Fantastic Negrito,” he said, and then he played this.
It turns out this “young dude” is a my-age dude, and Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is his third grammy-winning album in a row! His given name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, and although he was originally signed to a label in the early 90s, his career has only taken off in the last few years. Like this latest release, his previous two records, Last Days of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead, both won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album.
But he’s not in the B.B. King/Stevie Ray Vaughn vein of blues. His blues spread into other genres, particularly R&B and soul, and sound somewhat like an updated Sly & the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder with a bit of the funk shaved off. Also, despite the content of his songs, his scratchy voice always has a hint of joy.
Fantastic Negrito may have the blues, but his natural effervescence doesn’t allow them to drag him under. He seems to know that the blues are just part of life, and so he might as well embrace them, too. Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? gets better every time I listen, and I’ve been listening a lot!
In even MORE rock-and-roll-style news, the band is being forced to take a drug test because of allegations about their performance!
This reminds me of a joke that I thought was peak hilarity as a 7 year old. “TED: This is the axe Washington used to chop down the cherry tree. FRED: Really? Why, it looks brand new! TED: That’s because over the years we’ve replaced the handle three times and the axe head twice.” Classic.