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

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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.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80

~ ~ ~

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 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 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. 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 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 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):
Roadrunner
Astral Plane
Old World
Pablo Picasso
I’m Straight
Dignified and Old
She Cracked
Hospital
Someone I Care About
Girl Friend
Modern World
Government Center

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

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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.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10

~ ~ ~

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) 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, 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 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. 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.”

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 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?

TRACK LISTING:
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
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
As
Another Star
Bonus EP Something Extra
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)

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Sublime, by Sublime – Album #130

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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!

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: N/A.

~ ~ ~

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’ 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.

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.

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

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

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“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. 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.

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Is This It, by The Strokes – Album #129

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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.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.

~ ~ ~

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: 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 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 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.

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). 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.

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

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Announcement

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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

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

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

(3 minute read)

~ ~ ~

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.)

TRACK LISTING:
He Lost His Mind to Find His Heart
No Absolution
Momento Mori
Keep On Grinding
Tiptoes
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

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

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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.

~ ~ ~

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!

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Lifes Rich Pageant, by R.E.M. – Album #128

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Lifes Rich Pageant, by R.E.M.
1986, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Gehman
In My Collection: Duped Cassette, 1987; CD, 1995.

(5 minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Lifes Rich Pageant, the 1986 album from R.E.M., is a record that epitomizes the R.E.M. sound. It starts with Peter Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar, but it’s the rhythm section of Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) that really drives the songs. The pair also supply the stunning backing vocals that wind around Michael Stipe’s confident lines. Stipe is the star of this record, his voice finding new wrinkles yet always returning to his distinct, resonant baritone. I can’t forget to mention Mills’ bass lines, as well. His countermelodies underpin most of their best songs, and this record contains many of them.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been lucky enough to have many, many friends throughout my life and no enemies. I’m in my mid-50s now, and over those decades I’ve lived many years in each of three main areas (hometown, San Francisco, Boston). I still remember names and details of friends going all the way back to those first neighborhood friends I had before I started kindergarten. (Steve and Richie – great at sports; Jon, Mark and Deaner – brothers who fist-fought regularly.) I’ve had school friends, and college friends, work friends from about a dozen different companies, not to mention neighborhood/parent/UU friends. Then throw in the music communities and acting troupes and improv groups, and two different stand-up comedy scenes, and it turns out I’ve known and befriended lots of different people.

But the truth is I rarely stay in touch with any of them, except my current crew of regularly-seen people, the ones I go to dinner parties and cookouts with. There are a handful (Dr. Dave, Dan) I’ve known for more than thirty years who I keep in touch with regularly. There’s a larger handful who I’m in touch with maybe a couple times a year, and who remain important links in my life’s chain. And then there’s a huge group of people, any friend from any era who I feel like I could call tomorrow and start a conversation that would be fun and refreshing. But between the memories and catching-up there would definitely be awkward instances where we both try to remember each others’ kids’ names, job situations, and other important details.

And then there is the person I’ve known the longest, Josh. When I discussed one of my favorite high school albums (that I’m still a bit embarrassed to like so much, even now), I related a story in which Josh predicted that the “new Led Zeppelin” record I expected would probably be crap. Josh and I have an interesting friendship in that we regularly go years without speaking or communicating (he’s not much of an emailer), yet whenever we do it’s as though the conversation picked up right where it left off two, three, five years prior. We generally discuss books, TV shows, movies and (of course) music. We’ll reminisce a bit about old times (we met in 7th grade) and catch each other up on any family news. It’s a nice friendship.

The first big lapse in communication was after high school. I think it may have been well into our junior year of college before we reconnected by phone. My theory is that we were both eager to discover ourselves at college without any input or pressure from our hometown, so we didn’t really make an effort to keep in touch with people. (We haven’t discussed this – I’m just assuming.) When we finally did catch up, I recall one of the biggest revelations was that we were both big R.E.M. fans. When we saw each other in person again, he gave me a cassette with Lifes Rich Pageant on one side and Document, R.E.M.’s 1987 release, on the other. (I had Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction, but for some reason stopped there.) I immediately loved both. It was the beginning of the music-sharing phase of our friendship, a phase that lasted well into the CD era.

Two R.E.M. albums landed on my 100 Favorite Album list, Reckoning and Automatic for the People. I gave the backstory of my R.E.M. love there, but basically I saw the band on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 and was hooked. I can’t say for certain that Lives Rich Pageant is my 3rd favorite R.E.M. record, I just know I love it. It kicks off with “Begin the Begin,” and one of the greatest album-opening songs ever.

I love how Peter Buck’s simple, clean lick morphs into sustained feedback while Michael Stipe’s baritone enters ominously. Bill Berry’s drumming is wild but precise – he’s such an underrated drummer. If you listen closely you notice he’s doing lots of cool little beats and fills, all while joining bassist Mike Mills on backing vocals! It’s a very aggressive song for R.E.M., and it displays my favorite aspects of the band. First is the melodic bass guitar. At the end of each verse (0:15) Mills plays a syncopated, ascending line that sits beautifully against the guitar and vocals. Next is Stipe’s voice, one of the most versatile in rock. At 1:03 he ups the energy (“Silence means security!”), and he builds it throughout the song. As usual, his lyrics are rather obtuse (Myles Standish proud?), but that’s just one more thing I love about the band. (By the way, they played an excellent version of this one at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.)

The band keeps the energy rolling with “These Days,” which shares many features with the first song. Mike Mills is particularly strong, with a great bass line and terrific high harmonies. Berry’s drumming is again top-notch. Stipe will rearrange your scales on this one, but his lyrics can sometimes mean something big. Take, for example, my favorite song on the record, “Fall on Me.”

It’s a song about the environment and what humans are losing in its destruction. (In 1986, and well before, everyone knew this bullshit was coming.) Buck opens with a nice acoustic guitar figure, but it’s the vocals that give me chills. Stipe’s wide-ranging tune is lovely, and Mills and Berry sing two different melodies in the chorus. (You can really hear them on the terrific MTV Unplugged version.) In the bridge, at 1:28, Mills takes over the lead. Throughout, Buck’s cascading, chiming guitar echoes the song’s sentiments brilliantly. It’s a short song, but it packs so much into it. The band sticks with the environmental theme on “Cuyahoga.” It’s probably strange that I love the two notes that Buck rings throughout the song after Stipe’s phrases, but I do. More great drums, harmonies and bass!

After a couple mid-tempo numbers, R.E.M. picks it back up with the frenetic “Hyena.

In trying to write a little bit about each song, I’m realizing that all of my favorite R.E.M. songs have the same components: great drums, cool bass, excellent backing vocals. “Hyena” throws in weird noises and piano at the beginning, too. Then Berry’s drum starts driving things, and it really picks up. Mills and Berry sing a countermelody to Stipe’s scratchy growl. This one is also one of my favorites – that riff, the voices, the drums. It’s so good. “The only thing to fear is fearlessness,” Stipe sings, a clue that maybe these lyrics are about community standards and fears? Next up is a little mystery snippet called “Underneath the Bunker,” which has a nice, middle-eastern guitar thing, but is altogether eh. They keep things slow on the sweet “The Flowers of Guatemala,” a sleepy song perhaps about mushrooms? Possibly? At 2:19 Buck plays a simple, cool solo.

“I Believe” throws a banjo in at the beginning, then Buck’s patented arpeggiated chords enter.

It’s another song that drives forward, with R.E.M.’s rhythm section shining yet again. But this song – like much of the album – really belongs to Stipe’s voice. He is an assured vocalist with a unique sound and style. The lyrics are reflective of childhood, and fun to sing along. “What if We Give It Away?” is a bouncy number with a terrific theme of community, and a fun riff. Plus – as on all these songs – there are many guitar noises in the background that makes the song sound big and full. Then the band unleashes their early punk sound on the raucous, totally frantic “Just a Touch.” Mills’ bass is all up and down the neck, and Berry keeps things pumping along. Stipe’s voice again stands out, as does the brief organ solo around 1:45. I can’t understand any of the lyrics, but they seem to be about a rumor running amok? What else could “I can’t see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green” mean?

I don’t always love the R.E.M. slow-paced songs, but one exception is the lovely “Swan Swan H.”

It’s a spare, acoustic number calling to mind a folk song sung around a campfire. Again, it’s Stipe who makes the circular, looping melody work. It’s got nice accordion, too. The song mentions Johnny Reb and wooden greenbacks, and I’ve heard people say it’s about the US Civil War, but I can never tell what his lyrics are about. I do know I saw them sing this on MTV one summer and loved it ever since. The record closes with Mike Mills taking lead vocal duties, with solid support from Stipe, on a cover song “Superman.” It’s a fun number, even though the lyrics are a bit stalker-ish. However, they sounded even more so in the creepy original version.

Someday soon I’ll give Josh another call, and I’ll tell him I mentioned him in this. We’ll talk some about the band, I’m sure, and what books we’ve read recently. Maybe we’ll share a couple memories. Then we’ll go our separate ways and connect again in several months or years. But I think about him a lot because I listen to R.E.M. a lot, and I might not if it weren’t for him.

TRACK LISTING:
Begin the Begin
These Days
Fall on Me
Cuyahoga
Hyena
Underneath the Bunker
The Flowers of Guatemala
I Believe
What if We Give It Away?
Just a Touch
Swan Swan H
Superman

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Daddy’s Home, by St. Vincent – New Release #5

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Daddy’s Home
2021, Loma Vista. Producers: Annie Clark & Jack Antonoff

(3 minute read)

Saturday Night Live was on my childhood TV viewing schedule long before I was old enough to understand it. I know I watched the famed “Mardi Gras episode,” from February, 1977, and, seeing as it aired at 8:30 pm instead of 11:30, it could have been my entree into the show. I was in fourth grade then, around the same time I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS. This means the inappropriate-comedy-for-nine-year-olds time frame checks out. An early episode of SNL featured Art Garfunkel as a “battered, masturbating husband.” Even though I didn’t know what that meant, I figured it was something interesting when my mom immediately ordered me to bed. By fifth grade I was wearing a Rosanne Rosannadanna t-shirt to school.

I watched the show for all the comedy I didn’t understand. But I also loved the music on the show, too. Saturday Night Live famously has a musical guest that performs live each week, and I saw some weird, cool stuff. It’s where I first saw Devo, who became a favorite of mine in middle school. I saw The Talking Heads, who seemed even weirder than Devo, for some reason. I saw Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger, neither of whom I really knew at the time. (I’m sure I had heard of The Rolling Stones, but I didn’t know band members’ names.)

It’s true that the comedy on SNL hasn’t been consistent over the years. And as an early-adapter, I’m always prone to state that “the show’s gone downhill ever since Bill Murray’s first season!” However, even the great early years had some stinker skits. And the new seasons can still be pretty hilarious. My wife and I have been watching a lot recently, since we got YouTube TV and no longer have to stay up ’til 1 am to watch. (Yeah, I know. VCRs have been around for 40 years, TiVo for 20. But whatever.) And the musical guests are often really good. A case in point is the recent show featuring St. Vincent as musical guest. She was great. Both songs. When her new record, Daddy’s Home, was released a few weeks later, I listened right away. It’s a good one.

St. Vincent is the name used by one-woman-band Annie Clark, a great guitarist and all-around musical genius. Daddy’s Home is her 6th record, and the title refers to her father’s release from prison after serving time for fraud. The album is rather mellow, but it really reveals itself in multiple listenings. It’s got great sounds, and lots of cool guitar work. What it lacks in rock it makes up for with groove and style.

The first song, “Pay Your Way in Pain,” may be the best. It’s got a slinky groove, and Clark’s vocals, describing the tribulations of the everyday, twist around it, supported by great backing vocalists Lynne Fiddmont and Kenya Hathaway. “Down and Out Downtown,” and ode of sorts, to NYC, has a sultry swing, with a lilting “I was flying” hook and chorus, and psychedelic-sounding guitars. “Daddy’s Home” is an organ-based splash of slow funk about her father’s return from prison. Clark’s impressive guitar work is buried for much of the record, but the final two minutes of the lush, Pink Floyd-y “Live in the Dream” feature a terrific solo.

Speaking of Pink Floyd, “The Melting of the Sun” references them on another slinking, dripping groove. Much has been written about Daddy’s Home being a salute to 70s Glam Rock. Frankly, I don’t hear it. To me it sounds more like mellow 70s R&B. “The Laughing Man,” a great headphone song, slows things down to a dreamy crawl while Clark describes depression. My favorite song on the record is “Down,” which opens with a groovy, dirty organ. Clark’s voice oozes around taps and clicks and guitar scratches, while the backing singers work their magic. It’s an angry breakup song, and it’s excellent.

Somebody Like Me” is another favorite of mine, with its lilting acoustic guitar and gently driving drums. It also has some sweet pedal steel guitar. I really don’t like “My Baby Wants a Baby,” which repurposes the mind-numbing Sheena Easton track “Morning Train.” As much as I respect St. Vincent, she can’t do it -the song still bites. (But nice try!) “…At the Holiday Party” has a flowing groove, and really shows off Clark’s singing on lyrics about a past romance. It also incorporates great horns on top of fine guitar and bass work. Finishing up the record is “Candy Darling,” a sultry number about a lost love.

It’s a great record that improves with each listen. I could use a few more rockin’ numbers, but I can’t deny that it’s got a lot to offer. I’ll keep watching SNL to see what other new music I may find!

TRACK LISTING:
Pay Your Way in Pain
Down and Out Downtown
Daddy’s Home
Live in the Dream
The Melting of the Sun
Humming – Interlude 1
The Laughing Man
Down
Humming – Interlude 2
Somebody Like Me
My Baby Wants a Baby
…At the Holiday Party
Candy Darling
Humming – Interlude 3

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