Category Archives: Albums 30 – 21

27th Favorite: Van Halen, by Van Halen.

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Van Halen. Van Halen.
1978, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, 1983.

IN A NUTSHELL: Van Halen, the debut album by the band, is exceptional for many reasons: Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, of course, but also Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals, Alex Van Halen’s drumming, the sound of the record, and – perhaps most of all – its musicality. Van Halen is different from other hard rock/metal bands of the era because it adds interesting touches to everything it does. Even front man David Lee Roth’s shenanigans take a backseat to the record’s many charms.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(FURTHERMORE: Fair Warning, VH fans! This post is going to take a little longer than usual to get to the album discussion.)

Dad, ca. 1960. Cleanup hitter and star catcher in the thriving local amateur baseball league.

My dad was born in 1940, a little too late for The Greatest Generation, a little too early to be a Baby Boomer. He grew up in a small house on a small street in a small neighborhood of a small city, but to him it was just a house, a street, etc. Today’s faddish “free-range kids,” who are allowed to walk to a playground or bus stop on their own, experience freedoms that are logarithmically short of those in my dad’s boyhood, when (as he told it) his aging parents and much-older siblings left him alone to take on the world since about age three. This upbringing allowed him to independently figure out a lot of stuff, and the rest he covered up by becoming a powerfully-built man of silent intensity whose intimidating first impression discouraged questioning, and also belied his charming, funny and gentle nature.

Mom and Dad, Ocean City, MD. 1961.

It is April, 2018, as I write this, and my dad’s body is still alive, but the “dad” part of him has been wrung out of that body over the past few years, drip by drip, by the persistent, loathsome twisting of Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. It’s been most difficult for him, and hard on everyone in the family, especially my mom, who’s still spry, still out for a good time, still deeply in love with everything and anything about that man of hers. I started to think a lot about my dad when I became a father and realized our relative experiences in fatherhood were very different, even to the point of where fatherhood began.

Dad and me, 1967.

My dad became a father as a 22-year old in 1962, the instant he got that phone call at work telling him that his wife and new daughter were resting comfortably. Then he hung up and went back to work at the machine shop, receiving, I’m sure, handshakes and backslaps all the way to the time-clock, where he had to punch back in after punching out to take the call. My entree to fatherhood was a gradual transition that began in the 90s, in my late 20s, when my wife and I decided we’d have kids. It wasn’t just having a kid at home, it was a feeling of being part of something larger than myself, of creating my role in this agreement between my wife and me, an agreement that would add two more partners in five years – young children, sure, but junior partners nonetheless. It was simpler for my dad and the men of his generation – a phone call, a smile and back to work.

Dad (l.), me (r.) and deer (front), ca. 1972.

But fatherhood is not simple. Fatherhood in my dad’s era was akin to someone imagining a house, then building a house based on that image and trying to live in it. My generation spent more time drawing up blueprints. There’s no inherent superiority to either path: people have built habitable, wonderful homes for millennia without blueprints; and shitty blueprints make shitty houses. However, my dad’s experiences of having had to figure out everything in life on his own, and his tendency toward self-doubt, meant that he wasn’t up for questions or (heaven forbid!) complaints about the fatherhood-house he’d built. Even simple questions like “why not put a window here?” could be taken by him as a criticism and met with anger and silence, and so were never asked directly.

Sisters and me with dad, in his annual hunting beard, ca. 1978.

So I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions. Certainly not “How should I behave as a man?” He was uncomfortable answering specific questions, such as how to treat girls and women, how to handle the romantic feelings I had about them, even what I should do on dates. My dad had figured out everything on his own, so he probably thought everyone else – including me – would figure it out, too. I observed him and learned to be helpful, courteous, kind, hard-working, and honest. (For the most part.) These aren’t really man-centered, but are qualities that anyone, male or female, from any social stratum or cultural background, could find valuable.

Me (l.) and dad (r.), 1985, before my prom. I know, I know, the gray tux and mullet. But check out the uncomfortable “should men be this close?” side-hug!

I don’t know who, really, could’ve answered the question “How should I be a man?” back then. The folks who feel they know the answers, and who’ve been spouting them forever (“You’re in charge! Show her who’s boss! Just act, deal with consequences later!”) are, frankly, assholes. Without another means to get the information (and not even being aware it was a question in the first place, really) most American men of my era were left to understand norms of masculinity, in particular those around gender, based mostly on what they saw around them. This meant not only the interactions between the people you knew, but also in the movies, TV shows, advertising and the world around you.

Mom and dad, ca. 1995, enjoying the Empty Nest years.

I don’t believe it was a failure on my dad’s part that led me, and most men, to be complicit in what’s now called “Toxic Masculinity,” a pervasive cultural attitude of strict, conformative gender roles that’s been reported to have negative physical and mental health effects on men, and most definitely has had a negative impact on women’s health. It wasn’t his fault that as a young man I found myself seething at a girlfriend who dared to make plans with friends without first consulting me; or surprised that a girl at a party hadn’t taken it as a compliment that my friend pinched her ass; or that I uncomfortably chuckled along with the crowd while a guy told us about his sexual assault of a blacked-out drunk girl in high school. My dad hadn’t told me anything about these situations, but from everything I gathered in the world around me, I was pretty sure I had handled all these situations pretty well.

Dad, ca. 2011.

As a father today, I want my own kids to have a better understanding than I had of the dynamics of society that often go unnoticed. My daughter is going to have a certain path, and for her I can treat her as a person, not as a girl, and focus on listening to her so that she can (hopefully) develop a sense that the men in her life should listen to her, and she should demand they do so. For my son I can try to make sure his perspective is broad enough to understand that his path is much different than many others’ and that he actually has some power to do simple things that will have a larger impact than it may seem. For example, telling a room full of guys that, indeed, that story of assaulting the drunk girl wasn’t funny and was sexual assault. I can help him understand the difference between being a “guy” and being a “man.”

All of these thoughts about my dad and fatherhood have surfaced while considering not just Van Halen’s debut album, but many types of media from my youth. Van Halen is certainly not the first artist, or the only artist, to present women solely as objects of sexual pleasure. And sure, that drive to derive pleasure, shared by almost all people, is what’s kept humans on Earth for all these years – so it seems like something worth singing about. But like many bands of this era, in this hard rock genre, Van Halen’s message to teen-aged boys was that they should be out there bangin’ some chicks, any (hot) chicks, with little regard for said chicks’ opinions on the matter.

Everything about the band – their look, their sound, their actions – pointed toward the pursuit of some type of desire that was outside the terms of manhood I’d seen in my dad. My family didn’t discuss … that. I had friends in middle school who loved the mighty VH, but I always left when they played their records. I felt there was something … bad about them. I felt the same way about punk acts as a pre-teen: I was disgusted by these musicians who seemed to disregard the decorum and dignity I knew my dad (and mom) valued, including issues around, you know … that. I ignored them for many years.

It wasn’t until sometime around 1983 that I heard their version of the classic Kinks’ song “You Really Got Me” at a friend’s house, and it suddenly clicked: this band sounds tremendous! By the time their mega-album 1984 came out, I had all their albums on cassette (many dubbed from my friend Rick’s vinyl) and I was listening near-constantly. Sure, the lyrics and front-man David Lee Roth’s antics continued to suggest that, still made me a little uncomfortable, but I just focused on the amazing guitar, the cool harmonies and depth of sound, and the overall sense of FUN the band exuded! There was, and is, much to love about Van Halen besides (or in spite of) that.

First and foremost is Mr. Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen, now considered a national treasure worthy of a Smithsonian Institution gathering, heard here introducing himself, his guitar, and the band’s version of “You Really Got Me.”

The solo at the beginning is called “Eruption,” and it sure does sound like one. This song introduced Eddie’s famous “two hand tapping” technique, which he didn’t invent but that he sure did master. All kinds of poofy-haired, pouty guitar players of the 80s tried to hijack his style, but what you realize when you listen closely to Van Halen records is that Eddie is so much more than flash. There’s a musicality to his playing that seems to require his technique. It’s like he had a sound in mind and had to learn the flash to get it out of his head; others learned the flash, then looked for some reason to showcase it. “You Really Got Me” has a straightforward, cool rock sound that the band makes their own. It makes use of bassist Michael Anthony’s terrific high harmonies, doesn’t strain Roth’s (let’s face it) limited singing abilities and allows Eddie to have fun throughout and play a solo (3:05 – 3:27) that sounded like nothing else at the time. I was hooked.

Van Halen may be the album I’ve listened to most often in my entire life. It seems like it was on a constant loop in my room from 1983 – 1985. That siren opening the album, leading to Anthony’s pulsing bass (which he pretends to play with his teeth in the clip below!) and Eddie’s unmistakable riff meant I was home from school and “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

A dorkish, do-gooder kind of teen, I never really ran with any devils but this song made me want to. I love Eddie’s simple strumming on the upbeat through the verses, which he nicely embellishes with all his harmonic tricks. Roth’s “singing” through the chorus is hilarious. The only way you’re going to appreciate Van Halen is if you make peace with these two facts: he’s a vocalist, not a singer; and he’s sort of a buffoon. Roth isn’t going to write brilliant lyrics, he’s not going to expressively melt hearts with his voice, but he’ll give you a show. And spout weird squawks, shrieks and phrases like (1:41) “God damn babe, you know you like this, I’m only gonna tell you one time, aaaahhhhhh.” Instead of worrying about Roth, listen to the SOUND of this album. The robust bass sound, and the way the guitar, which is clearly the star of the show, is pushed to the front, loud and clear, is really noticeable in Van Halen records. Eddie’s playing is actually subdued (for him) in this song, although his solos are terrific.

A secondary star, often overlooked because of how brightly Eddie shines, is drummer (and Eddie’s older brother) Alex Van Halen. He has the million-piece drum kit, like so many hard rock and metal drummers, but it’s not how many drums he hits that’s as impressive as how well he swings. In “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” it’s his swinging beat that, to my mind, makes it more musical than if played by a band with a different drummer. He keeps it from being a simple pile-driver of a song.

Eddie’s riff is great, and Anthony’s harmony lyrics in the chorus are strong as ever. It’s a catchy song, with a nice breakdown, at 1:54. The breakdown has great rhythmic punctuations, and some more of those fantastic Eddie harmonics. At 3:00 the iconic “Hey! Hey! Hey!” shouts are heard, and at 3:30 during the coda, the band again shows off their musicality with a fantastic ending instead of a simple fade-out. During that earlier breakdown, Roth asks us to feel sorry for the fact that he’s lost a lot of friends – apparently for having a girlfriend with a disease, with whom he’s not in love? I think it’s a waste of time to look too closely at Roth’s lyrics, which I once heard him state he writes during TV commercials, but I do think it’s interesting to look at Roth’s use of the term “love” throughout the record. Here he states clearly he’s not talking about love, and I don’t think he’s talking about “love” whenever he uses the term. He means that thing I dared not talk about when I first heard the band. I wasn’t talking about sex, and he’s not talking about love.

For example, in the fun and catchy “Feel Your Love Tonight.”

I can feel the love of those dear to me whenever I spend time with them. However, I don’t think this is the type of love Roth means when he apologizes for taking this girl “a little too far” in his car, an incident he seems to have told the fellas about behind the bar. In attempting to feel her love (tonight) he uses various tactics: he flatters (“you’re the prettiest girl I know,” although the modifier “I know” sort of undercuts the flattery a tad …); he makes plans (having gotten into work 10 minutes early, he proposes hitting the town after midnight); he warns of vague consequences (“use it before it gets old,” which seems rather alarmist for someone described as a girl); he disparages (“you’ve let your life grow cold,” which may actually touch a nerve, as her trips up and down his road indicate she may have some compulsive tendencies, and she could be the type to stew over her life circumstances …); and finally he begs (on bended knee, no less, which must seem a little bit creepy to her, right?) Anyway, clearly DLR didn’t spend much time on lyrics, and so defaulted to “let’s get laid” themes. But this nonsense aside, the song sounds terrific, with Anthony’s bass pulsing below Eddie’s riffs and Alex’s thumping swing moving it right along. It’s another song in which Eddie’s playing – even on chords in the verses – sounds distinct. The vocal harmonies are once again terrific, and of course, as a Beatles fan, I love the Fab Four-esque “Ooooh” in the chorus.

Roth doesn’t just want to feel “love,” he wants his gal to “show her love,” which I’m presuming does not mean he wants her to leave a cute note in his lunch bag. This request is made on one of my favorite songs on the album, a real feature for drummer Alex, “I’m The One.”

The lyrics may actually be about the love the crowd shows him at his concerts. But why are we discussing words when Eddie is playing stuff like the intro, from the beginning through the incredible run at 0:31? This is a song that demonstrates why Van Halen is different from all the other fast-fingered guitar bands from the 70s and 80s. That introduction, the descending, syncopated pre-chorus (first heard at 0:50), and even the goofy, yet well-done, “Shooby-doo-waa” doo-wop section (2:50) are musical touches that set the band apart. And Alex’s drumming is both bombastic and subtle (if that’s possible): the triplets heading into the second verse (1:45) are cool, and the way he controls the tempo, pulling back slightly through that pre-chorus. The harmonies are great, as usual, and, also as usual, Eddie’s guitar playing is off the wall.

A few of the songs aren’t as interesting as the rest, but even in the rather mundane songs like “Atomic Punk” and “On Fire,” there’s always Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drumming to keep a listener involved. On “Atomic Punk,” the brothers are locked together, Alex answering each of his brother’s riffs, and Eddie plays a solo (1:30) that isn’t particularly flashy, yet is brilliant nonetheless, finding notes that sound like they shouldn’t fit, yet fit perfectly. And Roth’s lyrics take a science fiction turn that’s rather unexpected. “On Fire” features an Edwin Starr-esque “Good God, y’all” from DLR.

One characteristic that definitely set Van Halen apart from many of the imitators was their reluctance (thank heavens) to record a Power Ballad. They’d play some slower songs, sure, but “Little Dreamer” isn’t a power ballad – no screeching vocals, no “love forever” lyrics. It’s just the VH basics, slowed down: great guitar, great harmonies, and a guitar solo (1:47) that goes in a direction one wouldn’t expect.

I’ve written before that what makes me love VH is their sense of fun, and that sense is certainly evident on the rave-up “Ice Cream Man.”

The David Lee Roth version of the band has always loved playing cover songs (besides “You Really Got Me,” the band would also cover The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” 60s classics “You’re No Good,” and “Dancing In the Street“), and this is a fine example. It opens with acoustic guitar played by Mr. Roth himself, and singing lyrics well-suited to his persona, but he soon gives way to the full band. Alex again shows his penchant for swing, and the bass is fun, but this is a guitar highlight of the record. Eddie plays a solo at 1:42 that shows all his musical gifts. At 2:40, he and Roth do a call-and-response that’s loads of fun. And loads of fun is how I describe the mighty VH.

“Jamie’s Crying” is one of the band’s most popular songs, and it’s easy to hear why.

It’s got a mid-tempo groove courtesy of Alex’s drums, a terrific melody, a memorable riff and those harmonies again. The syncopated bars just before the chorus again show a musicality many lesser hard rock bands lack. After the second verse, the song picks up a dance beat for a few measures, giving it something else a bit different. Eddie generates a number of sounds in the song, and all fit perfectly. The lyrics are really asshole-y, however, mocking a woman who falls for a man who only wants to have sex with her, not a relationship. Her two choices are to feel sad about not being with him, or to have a one-night stand and then feel worse. Roth sings the song through a smirk, clearly relishing the woman’s heartache. I used to hear this song and think, “Yeah, well, it’s a man’s world. That’s how it goes.” Nowadays I think Roth sounds like an asshole. (I still love the music, though!)

Dad (l.) and me (r.), 2017.

Maybe my dad could have done more to make me aware of the world around me, of the privilege I’d been given for simply for having that Y chromosome. Maybe he could have listened to Van Halen with me and pointed out, “You know, these songs about women …” and provided a long discourse on the nature of power and control in human, patriarchal societies. (After all, he did like a few Van Halen songs, including “Big Bad Bill,” “Could This Be Magic?” and their version of Roy Rogers’s “Happy Trails.”) However, this was an impossibility for him for many reasons. But I’d say he did the job well regardless, as he raised three kids who continue to learn and develop and (hopefully!) model those characteristics we observed, even into our 50s. My dad didn’t have any plans for fatherhood, he just had a lot of love. The kind David Lee Roth wasn’t talking about.

Track Listing:
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“Eruption”
“You Really Got Me”
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
“I’m The One”
“Jamie’s Crying”
“Atomic Punk”
“Feel Your Love Tonight”
“Little Dreamer”
“Ice Cream Man”
“On Fire”

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28th Favorite: Star, by Belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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30th Favorite: Doolittle, by The Pixies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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