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Odelay, by Beck – Album #134


Odelay (Spotify Link)
1996, DGC Records. Producers: Beck Hanson; The Dust Brothers; Mario Cataldo, Jr.; Brian Paulson; Tom Rothrock; Rob Schnapf.
In My Collection: CD, 1996.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Odelay, by Beck, is a record entirely of its era, an amalgam of genres, ideas, styles and choices from the mid-Clinton-era United States. Beck’s creativity never wanes, and even when he’s channeling his earlier, “Loser” self, he keeps the songs interesting and catchy. Beck demonstrated he was so much more than a one-hit-wonder, and his success into the next three decades confirms what many suspected the first time they heard Odelay: Beck is here to stay.


~ ~ ~

I’m old enough to remember when Beck was the hippest, hottest, most groundbreaking sound around. If you’ve read a bunch of these 100 Fave posts, you’ll know that I can remember farther back than that. A lot farther. And even farther than that. But for now, we’ll just settle into the soft glow of the mid-90s, when the nation ignored the creepiness, crimes, and ugly policies of the President because his opponents were even worse. When Silicon Valley was flexing its muscles and trying to disrupt things, but still mostly whiffing. When my girlfriend and I were buying our first computer together, by far the most valuable object we co-owned, and actually getting married. Oh yeah, that’s right. We got married in 1996.

We’d been sharing an apartment for a year an a half, and getting married seemed like the natural next step. By natural I mean in a practical, step-wise sense. Just like a growing lizard must shed its skin, or CO₂ must enter the Calvin Cycle, after deciding to mingle finances on a home, a couple must both have access to good, cost-effective healthcare. You see, while I was pursuing acting and comedy gigs in San Francisco, I held a job in the biotech/pharma industry that had pretty decent healthcare benefits. My girlfriend was finishing up a Master’s degree and working as an intern for the US government, so she had no healthcare. What better reason to enter into the contractual obligation of marriage (in America, anyway, with its fucked-up healthcare delivery system) than obtaining good healthcare?

So we woke up one morning, called in sick, called her old roommate, a professional photographer, and asked him to be our witness, went to San Francisco City Hall, and found the Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner’s office[ref]In 1996 the city of San Francisco granted marital rights to domestic partners. The City was so far ahead of the rest of America on Human Rights.[/ref]. It was a lovely ceremony, lasted 15 minutes, and cost $110. A friend who was out of work came along, and left an hour later having been made a San Francisco Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner! (She pointed out that her brother in Rabbinical School had to wait 4 years to be able to marry people, and she earned the privilege in a few minutes.)

This little story, to me, is a microcosm of the 90s. You might not realize it today, in 2023, but the idea of getting married without a big plan was pretty strange in 1996. (Later that day we bought plastic rings at a variety store because we didn’t think our friends would believe us if we didn’t have rings.) But ideas of marriage were changing. In 2023, folks are used to seeing all different kinds of people with different arrangements and approaches to creating a family. And in the mid-90s, particularly in places like SF, the seeds of this cultural shift were being planted.

There have always been folks on the edges of cultural propriety, doing things that cause the rest of society to gasp in dismay. But the 90s felt like the time when doing things differently from the norm began to take hold and become the norm. Just as the nerds in high tech were causing Americans to reconsider what was “cool,” Gen Xers were questioning all the unwritten rules of culture, and culture was responding with “You know, you have a good point there.” The Hippies did this in the 60s and 70s, too, but culture continued painting them as weirdos. Gen-Xers were the kids and younger siblings of the Hippie generations, so it was just how we were.

LGBTQ awareness and tolerance was growing, as stars like Greg Louganis (1994) and Ellen Degeneres (1997) came out. It wasn’t perfect, but by 1998 America reacted in horror to Matthew Shepard’s murder, a stark contrast to the indifference shown less than 20 years earlier during the initial AIDS epidemic. The first medical marijuana law was passed in California in 1996, and by ’99 four states had legalized it outright. The spiraling decline in religion over the past two decades began in the 1990s[ref]I generally think of this as a positive development, although it’s clear over the past thirty years that this decline has acted as a kind of zealotry distillation apparatus, in which the kinder, more thoughtful believers have evaporated from a given faith, and the hardcore assholes are left behind, which leads to a Supreme Court with five high priests whose dumbass invisible myth restricts women’s rights.[/ref]. And in music, the genre wars of the past were beginning to end, and musicians were combining all sorts of new ingredients in their melody stews.

I’ll never write about “nü-metal” or “rap-rock” because I never connected with it. (Except for Rage Against the Machine. I guess they’re in that category? Who knows; the whole music categorization thing is so weak.) But even before 90s acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit were metal-izing hip-hop motifs, there had been rap/rock hybrids surfacing every now and then. Metal fan Ice-T featured hard rock guitar in songs in the 80s, and famously led the hardcore band Body Count. Rap/rock collaborations, like 1991’s Anthrax version of the Public Enemy song “Bring the Noise,” crested with the 1993 Soundtrack to the film Judgment Night. But blending hip-hop and rock didn’t simply result in rappers rhyming over metal guitars or metal bands rapping. Many of hip-hop’s production techniques started to be heard everywhere, particularly in popular alternative rock songs.

Cake’s “Going the Distance” featured a tootling synth line, just like the one lifted from Parliament and featured in Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” Foundational elements of hip-hop, like sampling and DJ scratching, were heard on songs from acts like The Verve, and Sugar Ray. Hell, The Beastie Boys even had the privilege[ref]Wink, wink.[/ref] to become alternative rock stars. By the end of the decade, hip-hop motifs were a necessary ingredient for alternative rock one-hit-wonder stardom – just ask Len and Wheatus and Crazy Town.

But to my mind the coolest, perhaps purest, blend of hip-hop and rock (and several more styles than that) was Beck’s 1996 album Odelay. In 1993 I’d pegged Beck for one-hit novelty song status, expecting his 1993 top ten smash “Loser” to land somewhere between “Pac-Man Fever” and “Rock Me Amadeus” in terms of artistic legacy. But repeated listening to “Loser” reveals that there’s much more happening there than simply a fun, sing-along chorus and a few DJ scratches. Beck amalgamated sounds in a way that Buckner & Garcia or Falco hadn’t even attempted. I didn’t buy Mellow Gold, the album featuring “Loser,” but when I heard the first few singles from Odelay, I rushed out and bought the CD.

“Where It’s At,” the first single, is a ramshackle, folked-up-hip-hop singalong that takes all the elements of “Loser,” substitutes an electric piano for the acoustic guitar, and “two turntables and a microphone” for “I’m a loser, baby,” then ratchets up all of the sampling and studio shenanigans.

I always put links to the lyrics of songs. For Beck songs, however, I don’t know how helpful it is to read them. Much like Yes or early R.E.M., Beck’s lyrics tend to live in some space where cool words and catchy phrases carry their own meaning apart from whatever it is that, grammatically and linguistically, the combination of words would typically denote. (In other words, if you know what “Shine your shoes with your microphone blues/ Hirsutes with your parachute fruits” means, well god bless ya.) But the phrases are memorable. (“The jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow.” “Bottles and cans, just clap your hands.” “Members only hypnotizers.”) And the sounds and samples (the robot vocal; “That was a good drum-break;” “I rock the most;” “what about those who swing both ways? AC-DCs?;” “Let’s make it out, baby”) jell perfectly with the mellow groove of the song. Even the little drum break before “Where it’s at!” sticks in my head. It’s a super memorable song. And it has a way-cool organ solo outro (3:14.)

The next single was the lead track on the CD, “Devil’s Haircut.” When I’d heard “Where It’s At,” I thought it sounded like “Loser – Part 2,” but I liked it. “Devil’s Haircut” made me think there was probably more to the album that I’d really like.

For one thing, there’s a melody that’s sung by Beck! The lyrics are as bizarre as ever[ref]Love machines on the sympathy crutches/ Discount orgies on the dropout buses?[/ref] but there’s a catchy, if repetitive, tune to them. And the song is quite repetitive. I’m pretty sure the bass the same four notes for the entire song – but somehow all the noises and samples keep it from driving me insane. Plus the drums, like at 1:06, keep propelling it forward. There’s also a cool harmonica solo after the first chorus. The next single after “Devil’s Haircut” follows a similar script: catchy repetitive hook pumped up with found sounds, and strange lyrics. It seems to be about a woman this time. But somehow “The New Pollution” doesn’t really hold my attention.

Despite those similar tunes, Odelay is actually a stylistically diverse record. Take, for example, “Jack-Ass,” where he really goes into singer-songwriter mode. I think it works brilliantly.

This is a terrific headphones song – so much is happening in the background. For one thing, the bass is doing interesting, simple swirls in the background. And the organs create a spiraling, dreamlike atmosphere. And Beck’s thin voice is actually full of emotion – even if I don’t know what he’s singing about it sounds like he surely does. It’s a nice song, one of my favorites on the record.

But it’s hard to ever know what Beck’s singing about. Is “Hotwax” really about a karaoke weekend in a suicide shack? I doubt it, but it sounds really cool, nonetheless. With it’s old-timey guitar, distorted harmonica, and gross-fart-synth noise, it’s a funky soundscape that repeats the “Loser” vibe with style. (Plus it introduces the “enchanting wizard of rhythm.” (3:17.)) Then again, the slow groove “Readymade” actually seems to have a point, about moving on and freedom. He uses cool self-harmony and what sounds like an actual band, as opposed to a bunch of samples. It’s a mellow singer-songwriter turn, but keeps enough trashiness to be unmistakably Beck.

He turns even more singer-songwriter on the subdued “Ramshackle.”

His voice is flimsy but expressive on this little ode to couples and togetherness. Lyrically, it’s a sort of abstract modernist update of The Beatles‘ “Two of Us.” The song shows off just how wide Beck’s range of influences is. It’s a song you wouldn’t expect to sit next to “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” a straight-up, heavily-sampled hip-hop track. (Which totally rocks, by the way, in a Beastie Boys style.) Then there’s a track like “Minus,” which is kind of heavy rock? It definitely demonstrates Beck’s versatility, but also shows that not everything necessarily works well.

Another genre featured on Odelay is, believe it or not, honky-tonk. Well, Beck-style honky-tonk.

“Lord Only Knows” would sound at home on a 1960s Waylon Jennings record. Except for the freakout opening, studio noise and weird guitar solo (1:31). Also, the lyrics are a bit too indirect – but it’s a great song! Variety is what makes an album re-listenable to me, and Odelay has it throughout. “Derelict” would NOT fit on a Waylon album. It’s creepy slow funk slop, and it just works. It’s hypnotic, Moroccan[ref]I guess? I don’t know Moroccan music, but it’s what I imagine it sounds like?[/ref], and has the standard Beck word-salad lyrics.

Novacane” also rides a funky beat, with a shaggy rap on top. It’s another spin in the “Loser”-mobile, not particularly distinctive. I would pick “Sissyneck” as the most perfect distillation of what Odelay has to offer. It’s got cool samples, a bit of a country flair, a nifty riff, and a great melody. The drumbeat is fun, and the harmony vocals stand out. The lyrics are once again opaque, but Beck delivers them with style. It’s one of my favorites on the record.

Odelay is a kitchen-sink record. It’s got everything. It accepts the world around it, immerses itself in diverse sounds and thoughts, and doesn’t stand on bullshit like tradition and institutional conventions. It’s what the 90s were like. It’s what America is like. Sure, in this era there are scared, whiney-baby trolls trying to fuck it up. But even myth-worshiping judges and hateful bigoted governors can’t stop what we started. Go listen to Odelay and you’ll understand.

Devil’s Haircut
Lord Only Knows
The New Pollution
Where It’s At
High Five (Rock the Catskills)


White Jesus Black Problems, by Fantastic Negrito – Album #133


White Jesus Black Problems (Spotify Link)
2022, Storefront Records. Producer: Xavier Dphrepaulezz
In My Collection: Spotify & Vinyl, 2022.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: White Jesus Black Problems, by Fantastic Negrito, is an amazing blues/soul/funk/rock record guaranteed to make you dance and groove. If I told you upfront that it’s also a history lesson, a love story, and a view into contemporary American society, you might not want to listen. But don’t worry! Fantastic Negrito can write and sing in a million styles and make them all his own. His supporting band is comfortable on a slow jam or a bluesy swing or an R&B soul workout, among others. Don’t let the fact that you might learn and feel some things scare you off – you’ll like this record!


~ ~ ~

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It was amazing. My family and I spent over 4 hours there, and we still didn’t see everything we wanted to see. (PRO TIP: Be sure to start in the basement, which is called “The Concourse Level.” I wish someone had given us that tip!) It is a breathtaking, horrible, moving, exhilarating, educational, powerful experience. All at the same time! What I liked best was the unvarnished[ref]Perhaps “un-whitewashed?”[/ref] history on display.

Although students in backwards-ass Texas probably won’t be allowed to take a trip there, since it might upset some pansy-assed white parents, the museum delves deeply into the long history of the African slave trade and its many repercussions that continue to reverberate today, around the world, and particularly in America. The history lesson is difficult and profoundly sad, but there are uplifting stories told, as well. Overall, the theme of the museum is the miracle of the human spirit and how it persists. A copy of Fantastic Negrito’s White Jesus Black Problems would fit perfectly in its galleries.

Fantastic Negrito is the stage name of Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, a Black, 54-year-old Oakland man, originally from western Massachusetts, who recently won three consecutive GrammyⓇ awards for Contemporary Blues albums. (He has an amazing life story.) Sometime around the last win, for 2020’s wonderful Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, Dphrepaulezz found out an interesting tidbit about his family’s history. He is not, as he’d always believed, 100% black. He actually had a white ancestor[ref]Until the African slave trade, there was no notion of “whiteness” or “blackness.” It’s a made-up distinction, as evidenced by the differing laws in slave states as to what constitutes a “negro.”[/ref].

Given American history, it’s not unusual for Black people to have white ancestors, oftentimes due to the rape of an enslaved woman. However in Dphrepaulezz’s case, it was different: his 7x great-grandmother was a white Scottish indentured servant who was arrested in 1750s Virginia for being “married” to an enslaved Black man. He was so moved and fascinated by their love story that he wrote an entire album about it, White Jesus Black Problems. It may be the best record of the year.

It’s not a Rock Opera or a Musical. It doesn’t tell a narrative story, but it conveys the feelings and emotions of a forbidden love story set against the white supremacist history[ref](White) people often chafe at this description, since it conjures images of skinheads and little weenie dudes in mustaches wearing glorified boy scout uniforms. However, the “Founding Fathers” built America on the idea that White men are superior to all other people (i.e. “supreme”), and that is an indisputable fact that .[/ref] of The United States. Dphrepaulezz has the songwriting skills, and he and his band deliver a performance, to tell this story with a fullness of fun and funk, and a depth of emotion making it a satisfying listen whether or not you know (or care about) the backstory. Fantastic Negrito also made a film for the album, a collection of music videos that help to tell the story.

The album opens with a sort of gospel choir that is just one section of a multi-part song called “Venomous Dogma” that serves as a sort of Prelude.

The song sets up the two lovers’ personae, with orchestral sounds and reverie for the servant woman and pounding laments for the enslaved man. At 3:00 he sings “I know that there’s pressure in the world,” and that seems a bit understated considering the events. But the songs on the album don’t always tell a narrative story, and “Venomous Dogma” weaves contemporary images (standing in line for Air Jordans, police on a stakeout) into the mix. The statement “things are just the same/ as they were 30 years ago today” reflects the legacy of his ancestors’ political and personal environments. It’s a pastiche of a song full of electric piano bursts and bluesy guitar, and Dphrepaulezz certainly shows his vocal chops throughout.

Highest Bidder” has a rumbling, funky groove, and Dphrepaulezz uses his falsetto to great effect. The chorus succinctly expresses the disparities inherent in late-stage capitalism: “Everything goes/to the highest bidder.” (Including humans, in 1750s Virginia.) Again, there are nifty guitars by long-time collaborator Masa Kohama, particularly in the breakdown (1:53). “Mayor of Wasteland” is the first of a few interstitial vignettes throughout the record.

Up next is the beautiful “They Go Low,” a weirdly uplifting, yet sadly devastating song.

It’s a slow, mournful song in which Dphrepaulezz reviews some of the characters in his neighborhood, and their sad lives. From the young, face-tattooed Black gang-banger to the angry, old White man, America’s legacy of slavery is manifested. The churning, gospel-like “they go low” chorus emits a feeling of shared indignation, and becomes a sort of rallying message. It’s an unusual song, and one of my favorites on White Jesus Black Problems.

My MOST favorite song on the album is “Nibbadip,” a blast of neo-soul that just begs to be a hit.

First of all, this is just a bright, bouncy song with big hooks and and a soulful groove. It starts out sounding like classic Motown, with a catchy, whistling little organ curlicue tacked onto the scatted title. It’s a song that doesn’t invite you to dance, but grabs you by the shoulders and forces it on you. The lyrics tell the story of his grandparents’ forbidden love, and in the context (enslaved man, indentured servant woman) include a beautiful description of love: “freedom’s in her eyes.” This song has been on repeat at my house all summer and fall, and if flows right into another song that fills in more of the story. “Oh Betty.”

The enslaved man narrating “Oh, Betty” expresses the predicament of being in love with someone who’s free – or will be in seven years, anyway. This song may be the closest to the “contemporary blues” genre in which Fantastic Negrito has won all those GrammysⓇ, a straightforward swinging march that’s got some nice little guitar licks throughout. Dphrepaulezz’s falsetto is firing, and Lionel LJ Holman’s organ whirls behind it. It’s followed by another vignette, the disturbing “You Don’t Belong Here,” which I’m sure sounds familiar to most Black Americans, and anyone who remembers the Summer of Karen a few years back. “Man With No Name” is another bluesy groove sung from his great grandfather’s perspective, with nice backing vocals.

Up next is the sad, powerful “You Better Have a Gun.”

“You better have a gun/ Living in the land of God …” succinctly sums up the gross hypocrisy of modern America. So many ‘good Christians’ that you need to arm yourself. This one’s also bluesy, and the interplay of the instruments is fantastic throughout, and in particular, drummer James Small shines in subtle, brilliant ways. Dphrepaulezz doesn’t hang on the blues for too long, though, as the Country/Funk/Chant amalgam “Trudoo” demonstrates.

First of all, the guitar intro is cool – an acoustic riff, joined by an electric chop and then at 0:17 a furious run. This song, while repetitive and mechanical, has over time become one of my favorites. The chorus, “Help me now I’m drownin’ in the river …,” is great, and the song’s theme of searching for a love to save one’s self is deeply touching. The guitar throughout, by Kohama, is a treat. “In My Head” is a gospel-tinged jam with a spacey, psychedelic breakdown that’s a bit slight, but does swing. “Register of Free Negroes” is an interlude about perseverance and escape that’s more profound than its 1:20 length would indicate.

The country-gospel-tinged “Virginia Soil” is an uplifting song that perfectly closes out White Jesus Black Problems.

Freedom will come/ I know one day I’m sure that freedom will come.” The freedom promised in the Constitution wasn’t granted so much as pulled, piece-by-piece, from the clenched fist of White men for two and a half centuries. (A fist that is clenching more tightly now.) But the song’s meaning also includes the freedom found in love, the “freedom in her eyes.”

White Jesus Black Problems has many levels. The songs are catchy and fun and make a body want to move. The story is a glimpse at the past, and the power that love can hold, and the lyrics express the timeless desire of humans to be allowed to be a human. Many of us haven’t had to navigate that situation, and confronting that fact is eye-opening, indeed. Overall, it’s an excellent piece of art that belongs in a museum.

Venomous Dogma
Highest Bidder
Mayor of Wasteland
They Go Low
Oh Betty
You Don’t Belong Here
Man With No Name
You Better Have a Gun
In My Head
Register of Free Negroes
Virginia Soil


The Modern Lovers, by The Modern Lovers – Album #132


The Modern Lovers (Spotify Link)
1976, Beserkley Records. Producer: Robert Appere, John Cale, Allan Mason.
In My Collection: Dubbed Tape, 1993; CD, 1994.

(5 min read)

IN A NUTSHELL: The Modern Lovers, by The Modern Lovers, is a record that may not be well-known by the general public, but is revered by critics and musicians alike. Singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman writes simple, catchy songs that pack an emotional wallop. His heart-on-his-sleeve, woe-is-me take on relationships is at the forefront of the album, but I prefer the songs that celebrate his quirky outlook on life. The record gets a bit monotonous, but the band is excellent and the grooves don’t stop, and that’s enough to carry me through multiple listens.


~ ~ ~

Growing up in a small town in the 70s and 80s, new things were usually presented as scary. When the SooperDooperLooper opened at Hershey Park, in 1977, many kids I knew said their parents wouldn’t let them ride it. But it wasn’t because it was the first roller coaster at the park to send you upside down through a loop. It was because – apparently – this new, fancy, expensive ride was actually being run by … a computer! Nobody was going to trust their kids’ lives to some mindless electronic robot thing! (This same fear of computers was why for years my mom cut up her ATM cards and instead went inside the bank to visit a teller. I don’t think she concerned herself with whether or not the teller was relying on a computer.)

In my town, new ideas were always judged to be inferior to old ideas. Then, after enough time had passed, somehow the new idea became established among the old. In this way the culture in my area was always a year or two (at least) behind the times. It wasn’t just computers that caught on late. Fashion, haircuts, music … my town resisted every cultural change. I’d watch movies and TV shows and think “Nobody I know dresses like that,” and 18 months later everybody was. For this reason, I grew my mullet years after Bono did.

My friend Josh was very much resistant to new ideas. He scoffed at new styles, mocked most changes and identified almost any new idea as simply a fad, not built to last. His music choices reflected this traditionalism – through graduation (1985) he listened to Jimi Hendrix, and Jimi Hendrix only. (And maybe one Stevie Ray Vaughn album.) His assessments could be spot-on, as when he assured me during our senior year of high school that the new Robert Plant/Jimmy Page collaboration[ref]The Honeydrippers, Volume 1.[/ref] most certainly would NOT be as good as Led Zeppelin.

When he got to college, his musical tastes started to broaden. I had been a secret R.E.M. fan for years, but Josh discovered them in college (a few years after their 1982 debut EP, Chronic Town, so right on time) and our musical bond tightened. Around this time we started sharing new music – cassettes, through the mail. He was the first person to share a Mudhoney song with me. He loaned me my first Husker Du[ref]The Gutenberg Blocks editing feature that WordPress went to several years ago is so ridiculously trash that it’s all but impossible now to add umlauted letters. I mean, I’m sure there’s a way, but the tutorial for it is also trash, so … sorry music fans, all the cool umlauts used in band names won’t show up in my posts anymore.[/ref] CD. And he sent me a tape of The Modern Lovers.

Granted, this was nearly 20 years after the record was released, after two other monumentally more successful bands featuring Modern Lovers members had already broken up[ref]Jerry Harrison’s Talking Heads and David Robinson’s The Cars.[/ref]. But the music still sounded fresh and bouncy and interesting, and just like my years-too-late mullet, I rocked the CD proudly. It was new music to me.

But even by the time I got the record, it was new music to many people. The band wasn’t (and perhaps still isn’t) a well known act. The Modern Lovers was one of those records by which record store[ref]These were places where people bought records, which played music.[/ref] clerk snobs judged less-enlightened customers. The band is in league with acts like Big Star or The Soft Boys or The Raincoats, artists that rarely, if ever, got radio airplay, didn’t sell many records, who most folks never heard of, but whose legacy grew thanks to the constant mentions by music critics and appreciative later artists.

So in this case, my hometown wasn’t much later than anybody else in getting on the bandwagon. And it’s easy to see why The Modern Lovers wasn’t a big hit record. The singer can’t sing very well, the songs are not flashy, the sounds are quite basic. However, there’s an infectious groove that runs through every song, and there’s an earnestness, a soul, that’s audible in singer/songwriter/bandleader Jonathan Richman’s vocals. It’s a record that makes you want to hear it again and again. And with every listen you think, “Why do I like this song so much? There’s not much to it – there has to be more going on here …”

Take, for example, the unofficial State Song of Massachusetts, “Roadrunner.”

It’s a two-chord song with barely a melody that repeats forever, and yet … it has such a groove! Jerry Harrison’s organ sometimes tootles above the chords, but other than that there’s not much going on. It’s just Jonathan Richman’s charisma and David Robinson’s beat and somehow that’s enough. Of course the lyrics, a paean to the Bay State[ref]It’s where I live and work, and it’s a state that I must say does really kick ass.[/ref] and rock and roll, are full of childlike enthusiasm for Route 128 and Stop and Shop. It goes to show you don’t need much to make a great song.

Jonathan Richman idolized Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, and so he was probably familiar with Reed’s quote about Rock and Roll: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Take a song like “Old World,” a salute to days past. It’s basically one chord having a brief dalliance with a second chord. Yet it has enough of a drive, with cool drumming from Robinson, and guitar to make it bop along nicely. Then there’s “Astral Plane,” which has the same musical features but adds a cool guitar duet at 1:20. Richman’s sad-sack delivery (on “Astral Plane” the theme is poor luck with girls, which recurs on The Modern Lovers) helps give the songs an identity. They can become repetitive over an album’s worth, but individually they really kick ass.

Richman and the boys eschew that second chord on what is perhaps their most famous song, “Pablo Picasso.”

It’s (somewhat) well-known because it was featured in the 1984 film Repo-Man, as performed by Burning Sensations. The Modern Lovers’ version is so much better because it leans into the dark, bluesy riff. Plus, Richman’s woeful voice communicates the frustration of being the outsider, the guy who’s bound to get called an asshole by girls, and not understanding why. And there are gorgeous dueling guitars throughout, including some noises that would make Sonic Youth proud.

“Pablo Picasso” has a slow groove, and Richman turns things down even more on “Girlfriend.” It’s a sad, beautiful song about this young dork who thinks he’ll never find a girlfriend. And as a former young dork who thought he’d never find a girlfriend, it really resonates. (Plus there are more Boston references!) Richman never shies away from exposing his vulnerabilities, as on the lament “I’m Straight.” In it, he complains to his love interest about her current boyfriend, “Hippy Johnny,” who can’t take the world unless he’s stoned. Richman can’t understand why this guy would ever be a superior choice – another sentiment to which I, who vehemently avoided alcohol and drugs as a teenager (to my social life’s detriment), could relate.

Then there’s the haunting “Hospital.”

It’s a love-letter to an ex who’s currently laid up. It almost seems stalker-ish – I get the sense that the woman is unconscious and if she knew he was there she’d be pissed. There’s a fine line between shlubby loser and restraining-order-recipient. But what is clear about this song – and many of these Modern Lovers songs – is that it’s easy to see why they didn’t catch on in their day. I mean, nobody is confusing this stuff, lyrically or sonically, with “We’re an American Band.”

Sometimes Richman does give his loneliness more of a backbeat, as in the groovy “Someone I Care About.” In a similar vein is the one-chord rocker (it does include a couple other chords in the chorus) “She Cracked,” in which once again our hero doesn’t get the girl. But he never gets too down about it – in “Dignified & Old” he sings that despite being lonesome, he’ll keep on living.

The regrets and woefulness can get to be a bit much. I prefer the pieces about other aspects of his life. For example, how much he likes the “Modern World.”

It’s got excellent guitar throughout as Richman paints a lovely picture of early 70s Boston – Boylston St., Route 9, and a plea for her to “drop out of BU!” And the Modern Lovers, as usual, provide great backing shouts. I also dig the 60s-style, organ bounce of “Government Center.” There’s no word of Richman’s love life, just a quirky salute to the office drones.

It’s these fun songs that are the reason I love the record. Richman’s pinings for indifferent women get to be a bit monotonous after a while. As good as the songs sound, at times they seem almost indistinguishable, interchangeable. I like to put this album on in a mix with other records so that I can enjoy each song without having to consider how similar it is to the previous one. Still, it is a record I return to. To this day I’ll ride the SooperDooperLooper, ignoring my friends’ moms’ worries. And I still listen to The Modern Lovers.

TRACK LISTING (1989 CD Reissue by Rhino Records):
Astral Plane
Old World
Pablo Picasso
I’m Straight
Dignified and Old
She Cracked
Someone I Care About
Girl Friend
Modern World
Government Center


Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder – Album #131


Songs in the Key of Life (Spotify Link)
1976, Tamla Records. Producer: Stevie Wonder.
In My Collection: CD, 1997.

(Five Minute Read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder, is a record that is one of my favorites of all time, perhaps the best of all time. (Which long time readers will know I’m loathe to pronounce.) But I didn’t realize its greatness until just recently. I needed to live 55 years to understand the brilliance of what this 26-year-old kid was saying. His melodies, grooves, and inventiveness are unparalleled. He plays most of the instruments on most songs, or assembles amazing musicians to back him up. It’s hard to believe he can remain consistent over 21 songs, but Wonder truly does.


~ ~ ~

It kind of makes sense to me that London Calling, by The Clash, is my all-time, Number 1 favorite album. It’s got a variety of styles of songs, and all of them are memorable and catchy. It’s got songs with pointed messages, but also songs of fun, anger, laughter, sadness … it’s an album about being a human. Plus the songs just kick ass. An album like that has to be my favorite.

I got into The Clash in my 20s, when I still didn’t know much, but sure felt a lot. The visceral connection I made with London Calling was built largely on that young person’s sense of wanting to break free, to be an individual, to carve a new path in that 50- or 60-year (we hope) forest of uncertainty that lay ahead. The songs inspired because they tapped into what I was feeling at the time, and those feelings have remained with me all the way into my mid-50s.

Songs in the Key of Life is similarly a collection of memorable songs of varied styles, all about being a human (as the title clearly indicates!), but I realize now that even if I’d listened to Songs in the Key of Life as much as I did London Calling in my young adulthood, it might not have been a contender for Number 1. I didn’t dive deeply into this classic until recently, during the pandemic, and now I know that I needed to hear it as a middle-aged man, on the downward slope of a career, with kids about fully-grown, and visualizing grandparenthood with my wife (not soon … eventually!) to recognize it as a Favorite Album Contender. Clearly Top 5. It’s a masterpiece of music that, frankly, I worry I won’t be able to do justice writing about.

Stevie Wonder is one of those titanic cultural figures in America who seems unreal, magical – like a classic fictional character who has somehow come to life. He’s like Babe Ruth or Marilyn Monroe, a familiar name and image that kids probably recognize long before realizing who he is or what he’s done. His popular songs are legion, and he’s cranked them out since he was a pre-teen!

As a kid in the 70s I heard his songs all over the radio, even the tiny AM station in my town. I was shocked by his long braids and bobbling head, but I loved the songs. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “For Once In My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” … And I definitely remember him winning all of those Grammy awards (including 3 in 4 years for Album of the Year)[ref]Amazingly, he continued to win Grammys well into the 2000s.[/ref] because his picture was featured prominently in my copy of The Guiness Book of Records. But in all my life, I’d never bought a Stevie Wonder album!

I was late to Songs in the Key of Life. Of course I knew it was a vaunted work of art, and heard the hits innumerable times, but I didn’t purchase it until I was around 30. A guy in a car with me on the way to a picnic, a brother of a friend of my wife, was extolling the virtues of the record. He was much younger than me, a professional musician, and he went on and on about the genius of the record. Based on this, I bought the CD soon after. But I didn’t listen to it very much. I liked the songs, but they didn’t really connect.

But at some point during the pandemic I decided I needed to check out some albums I had that were widely respected but that hadn’t made my Top 100 list. Songs in the Key of Life was the first one I dove into. I’m still in it. I may be forever – possibly because there are 21 (!) songs on the album! (Including the bonus EP Something Extra, which was packaged along with the original album.) There’s no way I can discuss all 21 songs without this post being 100,000 words long (or 1000 words longer than my usual post), so I’ll pick a few. I hope I hit your favorites!

As I’ve grown to middle age I’ve become much more of a softie. (Not to say I was ever particularly hard.) Random experiences and memories nearly (or more than nearly) cause a few joyful, loving tears to flow almost daily now that I’ve passed a certain age. Everything about life seems special these days, and “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the album opener, is a song that probably wouldn’t have registered too deeply 20 years ago. But it does now.

Of all Wonder’s genius-level musical gifts (he’s listed as “musician” on the credits, and plays every instrument on many of the songs[ref]His drumming is amazing. You must see Summer of Soul, Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary, which opens with an extended drum solo by the 19-year-old Wonder![/ref], including this one) his strongest, yet most overlooked, may be his ability to write melodies. After the beautiful gospel-choir opening (sung entirely by Wonder), the song’s ranging melody immediately hooks itself into your brain. Layers of organ and synth have little curlicues of notes, filigree that rewards repeated listens, and the synth bass tumbles beneath it all. Then there are the words – a gentle admonishment to the world to extend some love and kindness to each other. It’s a simple yet profound message, and his incredible voice sells it and removes any hint of sentimental staleness. And he allows the song to linger for a full 7 minutes, improvising amazing vocals throughout. It’s a great album kickoff.

Next he gets groovy on another message of love for those going through tough times, “Have a Talk With God.” Look, it’s not advice I’ll take to heart, but I appreciate his empathy. His harmonica could be enough to convert me, though, especially how it sits atop the sounds he generates on all those synths. It’s a terrific headphone song. He gets even funkier on the awesome instrumental “Contusion,” with a full band[ref]Wonder on keyboards, Nathan Watts on bass guitar, Raymond Pounds on drums, Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Ben Bridges on rhythm guitar.[/ref] featuring lead guitar from future “Maniac” Michael Sambello.

Rounding out perhaps the best 6 songs to ever open an album are the all-time numbers “Village Ghetto Land,” “Sir Duke,” and “I Wish.” “Village Ghetto Land” is a picture of life among America’s forgotten neighborhoods. It’s brilliantly set against a synthetic string quartet, giving it a regal tone that belies its downtrodden characters. “I Wish” is probably my favorite song on the album.

That unforgettable, bubbling bass line by Nathan Watts opens the song (and I swear there’s a synth doubling it), and an organ joins in before Raymond Pounds’ swinging drums tie it all together. That bass groove carries the song, but steering everything is Stevie’s brilliant melody and lyrics full of childhood memories that connect with anyone who ever was a kid[ref]In a cool move, Wonder invites his sister, Renee Hardaway, to utter the words “You nasty boy!” in response to his “writing something nasty on the wall.”[/ref]. The horn section is masterful, the song infectious. No wonder it hit #1 on the singles chart!

But maybe my favorite song on Songs in the Key of Life is one I devoted an entire post to very early on in this site’s existence, then wrote about some more recently. The amazing “Sir Duke,” one of my favorites as a fourth-grader, one of my favorites now. Just listen, I can’t say more about it. I’ll just move onto the next song.

So we’re six songs in and Wonder still hasn’t graced us with a love song? He finally does with “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and it doesn’t disappoint. The piano and drums (that hi-hat!), both played by Wonder, are excellent. Once again, the melody and lyrics are perfect. (It’s so charming that he doesn’t want to bore his love by telling her he loves her!) This should be an American Standard, if it isn’t already. “Pastime Paradise” is an American Standard thanks, in part, to goofball Coolio’s global smash hit from 1995, “Gangsta’s Paradise[ref]And the brilliant hit by Weird Al Yankovic, “Amish Paradise.”[/ref].”

A synth-string section, similar to “Village Ghetto Land,” predominates. But set against African drums, percussion, Hare Krishna bells and voices, and a gospel choir, it takes on a different feel. It’s a song with a groove that has no drum kit. It builds brilliantly toward a final gong. The message is love and a higher power. “Summer Soft” and “Ordinary Pain” are a lovely pair of songs. “Summer Soft” has great chord changes, a cool groove and memorable lyrics. “Ordinary Pain” starts out as a rather pedestrian number, but at 2:42 it transforms into a nasty funk workout!

Okay, I already called out two others as my favorite song on Songs in the Key of Life, but “Isn’t She Lovely” makes me want to reconsider those picks.

I made the mistake of associating this song with the birth of my now-18-year-old daughter, which means that when events happen in her life – like, say, getting accepted to her top college choice – and then I randomly hear this song a day later, I burst into uncontrollable tears. Somehow, Stevie Wonder, playing all the instruments, weaves into the song the immeasurable, indescribable joy and love that are a part of parenthood. I don’t know how he does it! From the baby sounds at the opening, to the recording of his baby daughter, Aisha, at bath time during the extended harmonica solo, to the lyrics about the wonder of parenthood, the song just exudes joy.

And that extended, 4 minute harmonica solo!! It’s amazing – perhaps a bit too long, but it’s like hearing a new parent gush about their infant. You understand and let them go on as much as they want. Oh, and did I mention that the organ and synth bass throughout are brilliant?

There is just so much joy in this record, joy that I couldn’t have appreciated as a boneheaded 24-year-old. I had no idea about childbirth, of course, but also couldn’t comprehend long-lasting love. So a slow jam like “Joy Inside My Tears” just fits naturally next to the upbeat numbers. What connects it are lyrics that are thoughtful and wise. A slow jam, with a cool synth bass, it’s not a song about sex. It’s about the deep love and the emotions that come with making a life together with another human, and it’s gorgeous. He also sings of the simple joy of singing on “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” sung in English, Spanish, and Zulu! Once again, Wonder’s synth-bass is outstanding, and his vocals are simply outstanding.

Then there’s my other favorite song on the record – I think it’s the fourth one I’ve called my favorite? – “Black Man.” It’s a joyful celebration of America’s greatest strength – it’s diversity – with lyrics that might get it banned by whiney-baby white people who are so embarrassed by their history they’re trying to prevent it being told.

If it was simply a list of accomplishments it would be a pretty boring song. But it’s also a masterclass in drumming and keyboards, and as usual Wonder nails the vocals. Then – coolest of all – at about 5:25, a breakdown section and ridiculous[ref]In a good way.[/ref] synth solo serves as an introduction to a call/response that brings chills. Teachers call out questions, and students respond with the names and racial identity of each. It may make the bigoted parents of little white kids uncomfortable, but it’s brilliant.

“As” is another favorite.

It starts out sounding like an 80s light Adult Contempt number – not really my style. But it picks up quickly, and hits one of the best choruses ever at 0:48. The backing chorus is terrific, and Herbie Hancock helps out on keys, playing a killer solo. The lyrics are kind of a summary of the entire album, an expression of what life is all about. I’m struck by how similar this record is to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, not in its sounds, but with its many styles and guest artists. Stevie lets the song run on, and the band is having a blast to the very end. I also have to mention the vocals at 3:45! Excellent!

If It’s Magic,” is a lovely, spare, timeless love song featuring jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. And the record seems to close with “Another Star” another full band effort, this time with a Latin feel. George Benson is featured on guitar, and Stevie plays some great drums, as usual. There are horns, timbales, a flute solo, a backing chorus, all in support of a song of loss that sounds like a celebration.

So that’s a pretty good effort, no? Song after song, hit after hit, and nary a dud in the bunch. So what did Mr. Wonder do? He included an EP along with the record, called A Something’s Extra, with four more great songs!

Saturn, a sad song about getting away as humans destroy the planet really hits close to home, as I consider the world current generations are leaving our grandkids. So much for paying it forward.

“We can’t trust you when you take a stand\ With a gun and bible in your hand/ And the cold expression on your face/ Saying give us what we want or we’ll destroy.” It does end hopefully with the sounds of a jumprope game – presumably played on a planet far away. “Ebony Eyes” is a fun, rolling almost music hall number about a beautiful woman. It’s kind of a toss away number, but his piano and vocals make it fun, as do the cool sounds and vocal manipulations throughout.

All Day Sucker” is one more great funk groove featuring both Snuffy Walden & Michael Sambello on lead guitar. “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)” is a chill instrumental with a lengthy display of Wonder’s harmonica virtuosity. It’s a perfect ending number, simple and reflective.

Holy cow, I can’t believe I wrote about that entire record. It’s an incredible work of art (the album, not my writing!!). It makes me look back at my life in wonder (no pun intended) and appreciation, and look ahead with anticipation. These songs truly are in the key of life, and they make you realize that while some tunes in that key are better than others, there are no wrong notes. Excellent work, Mr. Wonder! I wonder what amazing music of yours I may learn to love in my 70s?

Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
If It’s Magic
Another Star
Bonus EP Something Extra
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)


Sublime, by Sublime – Album #130


Sublime, by Sublime (Spotify Link)
1996, MCA. Producer: Paul Leary and David Kahne
In My Collection: CD 1996.

(5 minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Sublime, the 1996 album from Sublime, isn’t as good as I thought it was 25 years ago. It’s got some fun sounds, and the rhythm section of Eric Wilson on bass and Bud Gaugh on drums is tight and consistent. Bradley Nowell sings bro-ey songs and plays the git-tar like a MFing riot, at times, but at 17 songs the album is just way too long and starts to sound pretty much the same. But there are a few great songs, and they still sound great. I don’t know if I’d classify it as a favorite album now, but it was back in the 90s!


~ ~ ~

When I see the cover to Sublime, I’m immediately taken back to the first time that – as a music fan – I felt old. By 1996 I was comfortable in my knowledge of the new sounds of the 90s. For a while, I had even been a very small part of those sounds. I still viewed myself as fairly hip – even though I had found plenty of folks hipper than me in my city of San Francisco. But I should have realized when I heard the news that Sublime’s singer OD’d on heroin before I ever heard one of their songs that my facade was crumbling. Life Lesson: if a musician’s death makes the news and you’ve never heard of his band, you are clearly lagging, pop-culturally speaking.

But I was 29 and acting in plays while working in a lab in Palo Alto, and I guess I just lost touch. I purchased the Sublime album after hearing a few songs on the radio. My new wife and I played it a lot and we loved it. The second clue I missed was radio airplay. I knew from years of music fandom that by the time something is played on the radio, its time as “cool” has surely passed. But none of these indicators blipped for me when I heard two young, recently-graduated Research Assistants in the lab mention the band. Like an elderly jackass I butted into their conversation with, “That record is so good!”

“It’s great!” they enthused. “But the new one sucks,” one of them continued.

“Oh, really?” I countered, recognizing my gaffe. “The new record’s bad?”

“Totally sucks. 40 oz. was so great, and this new one is just shit.” They were fans of the band’s previous effort, 40 oz. to Freedom. They thought the record I loved was trash, and I became very aware of my new place in life as “older guy.” I’ve grown comfortable with this place over the years, but that first realization was quite a shock. I chose not to share further musical opinions with them that day.

I don’t recall what those guys'[ref]I think they were named Alan and Colin? Maybe Alan and Chris?[/ref] beef with Sublime was all about. I think – like most fans – they just preferred “the old stuff.” But there are a lot of things that might turn people off from Sublime.

The band co-opted a lot of different sounds – ska, hip-hop, punk, latin pop – and I know that can rub folks the wrong way. They also had a bit of dumbass-douchebag-misogyny in them. Plus, leader Bradley Nowell was a California beach kid who sailed and went to college, yet liked to sing about “the ‘hood” and project a kind of gangster affectation, and this is most definitely annoying.

But none of that mattered to me. I just liked the melodies and sounds on the record. And at 17 songs, there’s a whole lot of them on Sublime. They could’ve omitted a few songs and made a better record, but as someone who doesn’t have an editor, and has published some extremely lengthy posts, I shouldn’t be too harsh about that.

I haven’t listened to this album in a long time. My memories of bopping around to it in the kitchen with my new wife, singing along while we cooked dinner, are the reason I selected it, and began writing about it. I have a nostalgia for a very specific time (1996) and place (Coleridge St.) when thinking about Sublime, so it seemed like a good one to pick for this project. But listening to it again after 25 years, I have to say … I kind of agree with those two dudes now. I mean, I wouldn’t say the record sucks. It’s got some catchy tunes, and a few excellent songs. But on the whole, my feeling is “Why was I so into this record again?”

But I’m not going to crap all over it. It seems really burdensome, though not altogether unfunny, to assemble a bunch of insults about a 25 year old record. What’s the point? So I’ll just hit the highlights and try to remember the lesson Thumper taught us all as children[ref]I don’t really agree with that sentiment, generally, but in the case of little-read music blogs, I think it’s quite apt.[/ref].

Sublime opens with a catchy groove of a tune called “Garden Grove.”

Drummer Bud Gaugh sets a shuffle pace, establishing a cool, mellow groove. The minimalist, reggae-style bass line from Eric Wilson has a nice sound. Guitarist/Singer Bradley Nowell, who sadly died of a heroin overdose before the record was released, has a fun-loving-but-poor-decision-making persona that comes across in his lyrics. He veers from the awe over the love that he found (reggae) and his devotion to his Dalmatian, Lou-dog, to stealing anything and putting needles in his arm. Then, after impressively using the word “shit” three times in six lines, he joyfully rattles off a list of horrible living conditions (picking up trash on the freeway, living in a tweaker pad, etc) before finally inviting you, the listener, to join him. It’s a testament to his friendly style that my reaction is to say “Thank you, no,” instead of immediately fleeing.

The song also keenly uses the P-Funk hooting-organ sound from “Mothership Connection” that made millions for Dr. Dre. Sublime’s penchant for adopting hip-hop sounds is best exemplified on the next song, their big hit “What I Got,” which features scratching and samples behind a folk-rock ditty.

This song remains one of my favorites from the 90s. Wilson plays a bubbly bass, and Nowell plays a guitar like a motherfucking riot (according to the lyrics). The cut-and-paste sounds, like the “tip-de-tip from me” and “to charity-ty-ty” lines, sound fun and fresh, even though it’s all kind of a rip-off of Beck. The song even has a nice message of love, even when faced with a mom who “hits the rock.” The official video of the song is nice, too, with the surviving band members watching video of Nowell and some of his favorite things.

Wrong Way” is next, and it was also a bit of a radio hit. There’s a catchy melody. It’s got a bouncy, fun, ska sound, too, and even includes a cool trombone solo. This would make my mom happy, but she wouldn’t like the story of a child prostitute. I’m not too thrilled by the narrator’s annoyance that her tears ruin her makeup, or by his complaints that she continues to want to live the “wrong way.” “Same In the End” is a bit of a rave-up that I remember liking but that nowadays sounds kind of tiresome. Nowell does impressively spout lots of words in a short time, however.

“April 29, 1992 (Miami)” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and not just because of the sound.

The song describes the rioting that occurred after the acquittal of the fuckhead cops who beat Rodney King in LA in 1992. It uses recordings of actual police calls from Long Beach, CA, the band’s hometown, to supplement the song’s lyrics. The lyrics basically celebrate looting, which I don’t agree with, but give an insight into the mindset of some rioters. (The band purportedly participated in the Long Beach unrest. I’m not sure what “Miami” refers to.) The song’s got a groove and a menacing feel that climaxes as Nowell sings, “let it burn, wanna let it burn” at 2:48, and follows it up with a list of cities. That entire event – the trial, the acquittal, the riots – was very formative to who I am as a person, so I’m interested in any media dealing with it. And the song, though simple, rocks pretty hard.

So, the band is doing pretty well on this record so far. Lots of good stuff. And they seem headed for excellence when the next song, “Santeria,” mixes up the style and the pace of the album and provides a catchy singalong ear-worm (in a good way.)

I don’t want to get too over the top, but this song is the kind of changeup that brings to mind London Calling-level diversity of sound. It’s a bouncy number, and Nowell sings it with feeling. It’s a lost-love number that verges into toxic-masculinity-bullshit, but that hangs together on the strength of the melody. The bass is really cool, and Nowell plays a nifty little guitar solo at 1:33. Drummer Gaugh really provides just the right swing to give a Latin/Reggae feel.

To my ears, this is the point at which the band should have made some better decisions. I don’t need annoying songs like “Seed,” “Paddle Out,” and “Under My Voodoo,” or lesser retreads like “Pawn Shop” and “Get Ready.” Or a not-as-interesting remix of a good song, like “What I Got (Reprise).” (Although as recently as 2013 I did, apparently, as I rated the record pretty highly during my Big Listen.) But the band, particularly Nowell, were fans of overindulgence, so it makes sense that they didn’t know when to say “enough.” (Which, again, is something I can relate to!)

But when Nowell is really firing, even a simple song with a single groove and nonsense words really sounds great, as with the song “Jailhouse.”

Nowell’s guitar, in particular, stands out on this track. There are two guitars, at least, in the mix, and each one is doing something a bit different. Then he plays a couple different solos. At 1:50 he sounds very Classic Rock, then at 3:49 he squawks like a funkster. And Wilson’s bass again percolates to constantly move the song forward. It’s Sublime at its best. But then “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” sounds like the same song, only less inspired.

Nowell shows off some real guitar prowess on the raucous “Burritos,” a paean to doing nothing. (Or depression.) But the guitar is really great. “Caress Me Down” is a fun, catchy song that I wish I didn’t like as much as I do. It’s a horny-guy song, with some funny descriptions and some rather impressive bi-lingual rapping by Nowell. It’s a good example of the musical conundrum that is Sublime: an impressive blend of sounds and styles presented with an attitude that makes me roll my eyes.

But when it works, it really hits.

“Doin’ Time” builds around a sample of the Gershwin Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime.” Much like the opener, “Garden Grove,” a groove is established and sounds are layered on top to create a catchy, interesting piece that feels like time spent hanging out with the band. The lyrics bounce between repping their hometown Long Beach and lamenting a girlfriend who won’t be true. It’s a great album closer, a nice bookend.

Sublime is a record that – to my ears – hasn’t held up over the years, at least not as a whole. It’s got some excellent, all-time tracks. But there’s lots of filler, many skips. But you know what? Maybe I’m just getting old.

Garden Grove
What I Got
Wrong Way
Same In the End
April 29, 1992 (Miami)
Pawn Shop
Paddle Out
The Ballad of Johnny Butt
Under My Voodoo
Get Ready
Caress Me Down
What I Got (reprise)
Doin’ Time


“If You Could Read My Mind,” by Gordon Lightfoot. Song 1015*.


“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.

~ ~ ~

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 folks[ref]I didn’t know where to put this, so I’ll throw it into a footnote: a dance version of the song from 1998, by Stars on 45, that scaled the charts in Europe and New Zealand. Yikes!![/ref]. 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.


Is This It, by The Strokes – Album #129


Is This It, by The Strokes
2001, RCA Rough Trade. Producer: Gordon Raphael
In My Collection: CD 2001.

(5 Minute Read)

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.


~ ~ ~

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 America[ref]Although I’ll do it in about half the space and with far fewer detailed tangents about trivial aspects of baby-raising.[/ref]: 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.

Music consumption just after the new millennium was so different from today that it’s hard to remember how I encountered new music without a Spotify “Discover Weekly” playlist or Sound Opinions podcast to guide my way. By that point I had long ago abandoned my Columbia House membership.

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 companies[ref]And artists, which sucks, especially for lesser-known artists.[/ref] 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/drums[ref]For the most part.[/ref] 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.

The Hives. The Shazam. The White Stripes. The Vines. The Libertines. The Von Bondies. The Greenhornes. The Mooney Suzuki. Whenever I heard a new name, I commenced the music-stealing operation, and I got a taste of what these bands were all about. Each of them had a sound and style that was right up my mid-30s alley, and one of my favorites of the definitive-article-named-bands was the one that probably got the most press: The Strokes.

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 bursts[ref]In that regard, he reminds me a bit of The Cars‘ Elliot Easton.[/ref].

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 shortcuts[ref]Which always made me wonder what he thought of the great Pulp song “The Common People.”[/ref]). 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.”

It opens with a riff openly stolen from Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Petty didn’t mind, as he told Rolling Stone. (He even invited them to open on his 2006 tour.) Valensi and Hammond, Jr., work great together, and the drumming is sloppily excellent. The lyrics go back and forth about what really happened last nite – did he walk out that door? Didn’t he? But the list of people (and aliens) who will never understand is a really cool lyrical hook.

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.

Is This It
The Modern Age
Barely Legal
Alone, Together
Last Nite
Hard to Explain
When it Started
Trying Your Luck
Take It or Leave It




I will be taking a break from 100 Favorite Albums while I deal with a small health issue. I hope to return with more posts about all my favorite music sometime in the fall.

In the meantime, maybe spend some time looking through all the old, long, wordy, coulda-used-an-editor posts!

Thanks for reading – ERM


You Won’t Like the Answer, by Buggy Jive – New Release #6


You Won’t Like the Answer
2021, WT3 Records. Producer: Buggy Jive

(3 minute read)

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I listen to a lot of podcasts. I mostly like the ones with good stories, like Reply All and The Constant and Resistance and Decoder Ring. The show Serial (season 1) got me hooked on multi-part crime investigation shows, but most are lousy. They stretch out the story with repetition, and never come to any kind of conclusion. Some exceptions have been S-Town, Accused, In the Dark and Someone Knows Something. I’m also big on history podcasts, like Uncivil, Our Fake History, Noble Blood and The Last Archive.

Also – as you might imagine – I love to listen to music podcasts. There are millions out there, and the range of quality is staggering – from unlistenable to excellent. Among my favorites are Records Revisited, Something About the Beatles, The Album Club, and Rivals. But the music podcast I listen to the most is Sound Opinions, with Chicago music critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis.

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 SimpsonsComic 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.)

He Lost His Mind to Find His Heart
No Absolution
Momento Mori
Keep On Grinding
You Won’t Like the Answer
I Done Toldt Y’all
Pretty Boys and Bushy Beards
She Screams in Metaphor
The Worst of Us
Wishful Thinkers
Ain’t Going Anywhere


“Four Leaf Clover,” by Abra Moore. Song 1014*.


Four Leaf Clover,” – from the 1997 album Strangest Places.
Bouncy, fun, folky.

(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 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!