The show covers new music, classic albums, the music industry and everything music related. Kot has a cooler older brother vibe, and DeRogatis reminds me of The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy. (Sorry, Jim.) Both are excellent writers and thinkers, and together, they make a great team. (Although they seriously disparage Billy Joel, something that most failed-artists-turned-critics do.) My favorite episodes are when they present a theme (“Songs about leaving,” or “Songs about food,” etc.), and when they present Buried Treasure, good songs you might not have heard.
It was on a Sound Opinions Buried Treasure show that I first heard about Buggy Jive. He’s a musician from the Albany, NY, area, and he specializes in home recording. He bills himself as a soul/rock singer-songwriter, and that is about as perfect a description as could be. He also has great lyrics about life in the 21st century America. You Won’t Like the Answer is about a Black artist in America making his way through life during a pandemic, and who has decided the best course of action is to Keep On Grinding.
“He Lost His Mind to Find His Heart” opens You Won’t Like the Answer, and immediately calls to mind Prince. It also sets the template for the record, a funky rock take with cool harmonies and good lyrics. It also features Buggy Jive’s guitar playing on a nifty little acoustic solo. “No Absolution” slows things down a bit, but keeps up the funky vibe, and has a fun chorus, and timely lyrics. “Momento Mori” is terrific singer/songwriter soul with rock guitar.
“Keep On Grinding” may be my favorite song on You Won’t Like the Answer.
It’s got a great hook, and the bass is super cool in the chorus. Buggy Jive has a knack for catchy melodies that stick in your head. And this song has a great message about perseverance. “Tiptoes” features Buggy’s falsetto, and a hilarious phone message.
Next up is another favorite: “You Won’t Like the Answer.”
It opens as a lovely acoustic ballad, which might seem out of place at first. But Buggy has mentioned his love for Joni Mitchell, and the melding of his disparate influences is what makes him such an impressive, touching voice. The song morphs into a brief, Sly & the Family Stone jam, and it all works perfectly. “I Done Toldt Y’all” is a mid-tempo gripe, with cool meta-lyrics and a nice Prince-y guitar solo. The title of the next one, “Pretty Boys and Bushy Beards,” pretty much tells you what it’s about – and it’s very funny.
The fairly amazing “She Screams in Metaphor” opens with a tremendous drum intro, and slinks along with a funky groove until it reaches its catchy chorus. It’s a multi-part piece that is almost prog-rock in its 4 minute construction. Next is “The Worst of Us,” a slow jam that calls for understanding and forgiveness among humans, and returns to the “Keep on Grinding” mantra. “Wishful Thinkers” keeps things slow and soulful, and uplifting as well. Plus it closes with a cool guitar solo.
The last song is the first song I heard by Buggy Jive: “Ain’t Going Anywhere.”
It’s definitely a Prince-inspired jam, and it has a fun video, as well. Buggy describes enjoying the pandemic-mandated quarantine, as it keeps him in the house. And it’s not the virus that he’s worried about … The song is a slow, driving number that gets its power from repetition and Buggy’s personal lyrics.
You Won’t Like the Answer is a great album. I’m hoping the Sound Opinions guys keep turning me on to more great new music! (Even if they are wrong about Billy Joel.)
*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I listened to 70s AM Radio music as a child, so I was trained early to enjoy adult contempo-pop. ACP back then typically included catchy melodies, some acoustic guitar and squonky organ, and maybe some orchestral highlights thrown in. Those are key ingredients for – to my ears – a tasty 70s aural recipe. “Hitchin’ a Ride.” “Love Will Keep Us Together.” “Diamond Girl.” “The Night Chicago Died.” “Moonlight Feels Right.” These songs may be the leftover tuna-noodle casseroles of 70s musical cuisine, but I developed a taste early and I can’t shake it now.
I define ACP as hit music that teens are NOT buying, but adults are. (Maybe this is everyone’s definition.) Adult-contempo has changed over the years, but generally the songs sound a bit like the popular (i.e. teen) music of the day, but a bit, say, watered-down in comparison. So in the early 70s Seals & Croft seemed to have a dollop of Dylan, and a smidgeon of Simon. But only if you were in your mid-40s and never really listened to either of them.
“Four Leaf Clover,” by Abra Moore, is an adult contempo-pop gem from the 90s. It has a vaguely alternative feel, with some nice lead guitar splashes over acoustic strumming. Plus, it came out when woman-led bands like Veruca Salt and Luscious Jackson and Hole were all over the airwaves. It’s the type of song that a 40 year old in 1997 might have heard and thought, “I like these Riot-Grrrl songs,” then bought a Sleater-Kinney record and was shocked.
The song starts with some nice acoustic shuffling, and whispers from Moore. Then it goes right into the hook. Her voice is not strong, but it serves the song extremely well. She sounds enthusiastic, like she truly believes in her Four Leaf Clover. The lyrics don’t really explain what she hopes her talisman will do (though it’s clearly about a relationship), but she makes you believe. That lead guitar (perhaps Mitch Watkins?) is always in the background doing cool stuff. Also, Brannen Temple’s drum beat keeps the song moving nicely.
The song progresses by adding backing voices, and they really help the song to build. Each time through the hook the song gets more urgent. After a guitar solo, a distorted guitar enters (2:24) to add a sprinkle of “grunge.” By the end, Moore’s lead voice, the backing vocals, and all those guitar sounds have created a sing-along urgency that’s infectious and thrilling.
“Four Leaf Clover” earned Moore a 1998 Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. (The award was won by Fiona Apple‘s “Criminal.”) However, it doesn’t seem to be a song that is still lingering around out there in the cultural consciousness. It’s one of those, “Oh-yeah-I-forgot-about-that-one!” songs. But I’ve always loved it, and I find it quite inspiring when I’m feeling anxious. So, thank you 70s AM Radio, for helping me to not overlook good, flimsy pop!
Lifes Rich Pageant, by R.E.M. 1986, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Gehman In My Collection: Duped Cassette, 1987; CD, 1995.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Lifes Rich Pageant, the 1986 album from R.E.M., is a record that epitomizes the R.E.M. sound. It starts with Peter Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar, but it’s the rhythm section of Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) that really drives the songs. The pair also supply the stunning backing vocals that wind around Michael Stipe’s confident lines. Stipe is the star of this record, his voice finding new wrinkles yet always returning to his distinct, resonant baritone. I can’t forget to mention Mills’ bass lines, as well. His countermelodies underpin most of their best songs, and this record contains many of them.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20.
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I’ve been lucky enough to have many, many friends throughout my life and no 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.
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.
“Somebody Like Me” is another favorite of mine, with its lilting acoustic guitar and gently driving drums. It also has some sweet pedal steel guitar. I really don’t like “My Baby Wants a Baby,” which repurposes the mind-numbing Sheena Easton track “Morning Train.” As much as I respect St. Vincent, she can’t do it -the song still bites. (But nice try!) “…At the Holiday Party” has a flowing groove, and really shows off Clark’s singing on lyrics about a past romance. It also incorporates great horns on top of fine guitar and bass work. Finishing up the record is “Candy Darling,” a sultry number about a lost love.
It’s a great record that improves with each listen. I could use a few more rockin’ numbers, but I can’t deny that it’s got a lot to offer. I’ll keep watching SNL to see what other new music I may find!
“Sea Cruise” – single from 1959. Bouncy, exuberant, timeless.
(2 min. read)
*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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You never know when you’ll hear a song that sticks with you. For example, you might be in your early 20s, visiting a douchey high school friend in his Philadelphia apartment a couple years before you realize what a horrible human being he is. He might suggest going to some dive bar nearby, and you might stay when he leaves with some young woman. Maybe you stay because the little blues band that’s playing is really rocking. And that band might play a song you hadn’t heard before, but that is a classic old rock and roll tune that just completely rips.
That’s how I first heard “Sea Cruise.” I don’t know why I loved it immediately, or why it’s since become one of my all time favorites. But I did, and it is.
“Sea Cruise” opens with some nautical sounds to set the stage, then the drums, bass and piano immediately get the ball rolling. A honking sax plays a riff before Frankie Ford starts in wailing. His vocals really make the song rock, and you feel he REALLY wants the woman to go on that cruise. He sings with an abandon, nailing the syncopation and squealing “ooo-wee-baby.” The drums and horn section sound like proto-ska. It’s a beat made popular by The Skatelites, in the 60s, and The Specials, in the 70s. The boogie piano on top of it is super-infectious, and Ford sells those vocals for all he’s worth.
As happened constantly in the 50s, “Sea Cruise” was recorded by a Black artist, then remade by a white man, in this case Ford. In fact, Frankie Ford simply sang his vocals over the instrumental version of the original track. Typically, I’ll find the original version of such songs to be superior. And the original version, by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, is really peppy. But Smith sounds too controlled, with a harmony vocal that takes the edge off the wild urgency of the song. It’s nice, but I prefer Ford. He really delivers some Little Richard-style chaos. It’s pure, old-time rock-and-roll, so it’s a fast-paced song that ends quickly, without changing much throughout. But that’s just fine, the song has everything it needs.
Ford himself was kind of a corny showman, as this American Bandstand clip shows. “Sea Cruise” went to #14 on the US charts, and Ford never hit the Top Forty again. But the one time he did, he really made a splash.
The Swing, by INXS 1984, WEA Mercury. Producer: Nick Launay and Nile Rodgers In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: The Swing, the 1984 album from INXS, is an album that to me defines an 80s sound. It’s got lots of synthesizer, clamoring digitized drums and a pinched guitar sound. These are characteristics I usually dislike, but INXS really makes it work. The songs are catchy and a bit funky, and the Tim Farriss guitar is always interesting and clever. Singer Michael Hutchence has an amazing presence, even on record. He belts and moans and burns on every song. It’s an album that’s not like a lot of others that I love, but I’ve loved it ever since I borrowed it from my sister’s old cassette box.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 70.
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The 80s were a muddled time for rock music. Wholesale technological and cultural changes were under way, and a shiny playground of new sounds and styles – synthesizers, digital production, MTV – left performers and listeners unsure of where things were headed.
Since its 1950s inception, there were two key postures of rock music and musicians clearly at odds with each other. On the one hand (as I’ve written before), it was a genre obsessed with sticking around FOREVER! Since 1958, when Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” the Immortality of Rock Music has been a rallying cry. The Who, Neil Young, and AC/DC are among the Classic Rockers who shouted it loud, and countless others followed with the same message. The Italian heavy metal band Maneskin recently won the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, and announced “Rock and roll never dies!”
On the other hand, rock and roll musicians have constantly pushed the boundaries of its sounds. The Beatles and James Brown shook things up in the early 60s, then psychedelia and prog-rock and funk took things in even wilder directions. An attempt to return to the simplicity of early rock and roll by the 70s punk musicians (i.e. The Ramones) only succeeded in whetting the public’s appetite for more new sounds. True artists are always looking to expand their horizons. Some of the acts that grew out of the punk scene even took the radical step of abandoning their guitars! Then hip-hop bubbled up and confused everyone, as the sounds were nothing like rock and roll, yet the attitude and spirit captured it perfectly.
This all begged the question of the 80s: if hip-hop is the new rock and roll, has rock and roll died? If something changes so much that it’s no longer recognizable, does it still exist?
Frankly, that 80s sound never really worked for me, and I don’t have a great variety of Favorite Albums from the 80s. There are 30 on my list, but 11 of those are from 1980 and 1981, and sound very 70s-ish. Also, fifteen of the thirty are from 7 artists with multiple records on the list. To me, that “80s sound” was sterile and precise, rather phony, and very different from rock and roll.
But as a great poet once wrote, all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted. The key, I believe, is that the machinery has to be part of the band’s internal conception of themselves as an artist. If you’re a guitar band and you try to throw some synths over your songs, it’s gonna sound shitty. But if you’re a band who’s had synths from the very beginning, the sound can really work. The Big 80s sound of The Swing, by INXS, really works for me.
Australia’s INXS were perfect for the MTV 80s. They were six handsome men (I guess dorky guitar/sax man Kirk Pengilly is handsome?), with a lead singer, Michael Hutchence, who was particularly sultry. Their sound was guitar rock, but with a strong dance beat and lush synth parts. They really popped on MTV, and I recall waiting all afternoon hoping the channel would play “The One Thing,” a great song with a video that, well, was quite appealing to the 14-year-old me. (It’s kind of a dinner party. Kind of.) By 1989 they were enormous, but throughout the early part of the 80s they seemed to struggle to gain traction. They were “too rock” for pop radio, and “too pop” for rock. My sister, Liz, owned several of their early cassettes, and that’s where I first heard The Swing. My eldest sister, Anne, had the magic milk crate of 70s LPs. Liz had the attache case of 80s cassettes. I became a fan of The Swing right away.
The opening track was produced by Chic mastermind and 80s uber-producer Nile Rodgers. He perfectly captures the band’s sound on “Original Sin.”
It’s got dance-track drumming from Jon Farriss, Andrew Farriss’s catchy organ riff, a pumping bass groove laid down by Gary Garry Beers, and funk guitars from Tim Farriss and Kirk Pengilly. Then there’s Michael Hutchence, who half purrs, half groans as he smolders all over the song. It’s basically a dance song, with great lyrics about bigotry that remain relevant 35 years on, sadly. I like the simple, shrieking guitar at 1:04, and I also like Beers’s bass sound on the second verse, where he walks up between Hutchence’s lines. There are little sax squawks from Pengilly, and metallic guitar stabs, and of course shimmery, atmospheric 80s synth. The result is a song that sounds like its own genre, a mutant dance/rock hybrid.
“Melting In the Sun” tries to pull off the same trick, but it’s not quite there. Maybe it lacks Rodgers’s funk touch? It’s got a groove, and there are some impressive bursts of guitar sounds from Tim Farriss. The lyrics are rather indecipherable. Mostly it’s a decent song that gets us to the next awesome song, “I Send a Message.”
By the band’s huge 1989 album Kick, the world was ready for riff-based dance-rockers like “New Sensation” and “Devil Inside.” On The Swing (and earlier), INXS established the blueprint. “I Send a Message” is a case in point. After a nice build-up, a riff that seems adjacent to Lee Dorsey’s “Working In the Coal Mine” is pushed throughout the song, while Hutchence finds a catchy melody to moan and growl over. It’s a song about missing a lover, and it’s bouncy and catchy. It’s got all kinds of electronic, synthetic sounds, and for some reason I love it! At 1:45 Hutchence asks Timmy to play it, and he obliges with a simple, sparse solo that fits perfectly. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
While I think of INXS as kind of a guitar band, they aren’t the type that has flashy solos or crunching power chords. But Tim does get to show off his stuff on “Dancing On the Jetty.”
You wouldn’t expect it from the gentle opening, but it turns into a dance stomper pretty quickly. There are lots of cool harmonics and little riffs from both guitarists, and at 2:49 Tim turns in an angry, atmospheric noise solo that would make Lee Ranaldo proud. The chorus is sing-along catchy, and its lyrics try to offer some respite from the daily news of brutality and strife. My downstairs neighbor in college loved this song. He’s the first person I met who I bonded with over our enthusiasm for The Swing.
The album title track begins with the most 80s-ish drums I’ve ever heard. I sprouted leg-warmers just hearing them. The lyrics are about life moving forward, but there’s not much life to the song as a whole. At 2:18 there are some more weird guitars, but they don’t really lift the song beyond its 80s plod. However, “Johnson’s Aeroplane” offers something different on The Swing.
It’s a bouncy shuffle that’s an ode to hard-working Australian farmers. The song leans heavily on Andrew Farriss’s synthetic violins, and at 2:05 sax man Pengilly plays a nice, distorted solo that almost sounds like a guitar. (I believe INXS were the last popular rock act to have a sax player as an integral part of the band.) It’s a nice little song that really breaks up the album.
The 80s drums and synth-bass sound is prominent in “Love Is (What I Say).” It’s got a very catchy chorus, and moves along quickly. It’s an organ-heavy number, and Hutchence sells the thing, his voice as strong as ever on lyrics that, I guess, are a love poem? “Face the Change” is a funk-riff groove number. Beers’s bass is up and down and everywhere. In fact, it’s so snaky, it may be a synth. Jon Farriss can definitely lay down a groove, and Pengilly gets another sax solo. I don’t know what Hutchence is singing about (well, “change,” I guess), but he definitely makes it sound great.
Along with the opener, “Original Sin,” the band hits another dance-rock peak with the fun, driving “Burn For You.”
Once again, I simply MUST point out the very-very 80s touches. First of all, the sampled tribal drum rhythms that open the song, which predate Paul Simon’s Graceland by a couple years. Then, at about 0:50, the synthetic tootles. Those vaguely train-whistle-ish hoots were everywhere in that decade. (For some reason I associate them with movie soundtracks.) It all makes for a nice crescendo to the main track. There’s a great beat, and the background singers on the chorus with Hutchence (1:16) sound great. In the third verse Beers’s bass starts making the song pump a little harder (2:10). It’s a song about desire, and who wouldn’t want Michael Hutchence to tell them “Light me, and I’ll burn for you”? From 4:30 to the end, it gets kind of weird, as Jon Farriss starts playing strange beats, leading up to a creative ending.
The album ends on a low note for me, with the mishmash that is “All the Voices.” It’s got a great message of unity, the chorus is catchy, and there’s a bit of guitar I like, but to me it really sounds like a kitchen-sink of a song.
The Swing is a definitive album for “the 80s sound.” It’s got hooks, synths, drum triggers … everything you hope to hear if you’re into that nostalgia. But for me, it’s the songs that really make the record great. I was an 80s teen who didn’t like the 80s sound, but even I liked this record. I still do. It’s fun and catchy, and when the hits come, they really come hard.
In late summer, 2020, a good 6 months into pandemic living, I turned on the Emerson College radio station in my car during one of my infrequent pandemic drives. As often occurs in TV and movies, but rarely in real life, the young DJ immediately began speaking as if he’d been waiting for my arrival. “This one is the latest from Fantastic Negrito,” he said, and then he played this.
It turns out this “young dude” is a my-age dude, and Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is his third grammy-winning album in a row! His given name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, and although he was originally signed to a label in the early 90s, his career has only taken off in the last few years. Like this latest release, his previous two records, Last Days of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead, both won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album.
But he’s not in the B.B. King/Stevie Ray Vaughn vein of blues. His blues spread into other genres, particularly R&B and soul, and sound somewhat like an updated Sly & the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder with a bit of the funk shaved off. Also, despite the content of his songs, his scratchy voice always has a hint of joy.
Fantastic Negrito may have the blues, but his natural effervescence doesn’t allow them to drag him under. He seems to know that the blues are just part of life, and so he might as well embrace them, too. Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? gets better every time I listen, and I’ve been listening a lot!
There are times I’d like to believe that I’m some kind of music connoisseur, and my appreciation is guided solely by an internal calculus equal parts cold intellect and refined perception. I imagine myself immune to the insidious pressures of savvy marketers, and well beyond the plebeian inclination toward popular sounds and style. But sometimes a Billboard Number One song has a certain something that reveals I am just one of the herd. I’ve enthusiastically agreed with the millions of passive, piped-in-supermarket-music-listening philistines and infrequent music-buyers who help catapult a song to the top of the charts.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” by Tears for Fears, occupies my brain during late spring of every year. The song hit Number One in June of ’85 as I was rapidly approaching high school graduation. I’m sure someone at Mercury Records decreed this record would be released to coincide with graduations around the world. It has that life-lesson title, and a grad-card-ready opening line. (“Welcome to your life”). Plus, the repeated two-note verse feels wistful and unresolved until the satisfaction of a super-sticky chorus, mimicking the overlapping emotions at the end of an era. Also, it’s sung by two attractive men, which doesn’t hurt record sales to teens. The suits’ cynical bet that it would resonate (even though the lyrics don’t really mean much) won big. The song has stuck with me for 36 years.
I led a dual life as a prog-rock fan and secret MTV enthusiast in spring of ’85. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a far cry from prog-rock, and the video is kinda lame. Still, it made an impact on me. I’ve always thought it’s a pretty great song. For one thing, bassist Curt Smith sings the heck out of lyrics that are basically a bunch of phrases crammed together. And as I stated above, the rather melancholy verses combine nicely with the upbeat chorus. The bridge, at 1:35, (“There’s a room where the light won’t find you”) is a meaty transition, and it leads into my favorite part of the song.
What I really like about “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is the guitar work from side man Neil Taylor. That beginning riff is pretty cool, and he repeats it after the bridge (2:00). After a couple measures of keyboard doodles, he re-enters with a great guitar solo (2:33). It’s brief, but combined with the rest of the parts of the song it sounds perfect. Then at 3:36 he plays a solo that’s weird and moody to close things out.
Tears for Fears, duo Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith and a backing band, seemed like a strange group. They made songs that weren’t really Top 40 and weren’t really rock, but got played on both formats. Their Songs From the Big Chair album was huge. They were big on college radio, and they continue to have a lot of songs played on Sirius 1st Wave. I’m still not a huge fan of theirs (although Head Over Heels was pretty catchy, and Sowing the Seeds of Love did a nice Beatle-y thing) but they sure did right on this one.
IN A NUTSHELL:Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the 1969 album from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is one of my all-time favorite guitar records. Young is furious and loud and anarchic and chaotic on songs like “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl In the Sand.” The band behind him, Crazy Horse, is attuned to each other in such a way that they’re the tightest sloppy band ever recorded. But it’s not all flaming guitars, as the band includes some lovely country numbers and some solid rock standards.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
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When I started playing the bass guitar in the mid 80s, I did it the same way everybody else learned rock instruments back then. I listened to the cassettes I loved over and over, and I tried to pick out what I heard. A trombone player for years, I was familiar with how music “worked.” I knew about rhythm and scales, and a bit about keys, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. Also, the trombone is essentially an instrument that is played by ear, so my ear had been training for almost 10 years.
This problem with this technique is that if you’re a bit lazy, as I am, and you have a penchant for bands with virtuosic bass players – like Geddy Lee and Chris Squier and Paul McCartney – you’ll never play the music you love. So I started with classic rock radio songs that were a bit less ambitious for a novice. “Smoke On the Water,” by Deep Purple. “Wild Thing,” by The Troggs. “Good Lovin’,” by The Rascals. The point is, I only played songs I knew. I brought my bass to songs, but songs didn’t come to my bass.
That changed when I met Dr. Dave in college and we formed our band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells. Dave and his brother, John, knew many more songs than me, and they taught me so the band could play them. At the beginning, before I learned hammer-ons and pull-offs, and figured out some scales, songs with easy bass lines were paramount. Two of those songs (which, by the way, have bass lines that are not as simple as I originally played them) were from Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Down By the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Both are from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Young’s first album with this stellar backing band. I bought the CD soon after I heard them, one of the first CDs I owned, and immediately loved it.
Given the depth and breadth of his output, I think it’s hard to imagine loving everything the man has released. For me, however, I can say that I am willing to give multiple listens to anything Neil makes with Crazy Horse as the backing band. In 1969 the band consisted of Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums and Danny Whitten on guitar. They’re a loud, raucous band with just the right level of sloppiness to make Young’s rockingest songs sound immediate and furious. Even the most pop-oriented of their songs sound like your kid’s band in the garage. (But better.) For example, the lead track, “Cinnamon Girl.”
First of all, this entire album sounds best LOUD and on well-separated speakers, or headphones. So much happens on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that you’ll miss things if you don’t listen that way. For example, there are either three guitars on this song (one left channel, and another on the right, with a third that enters with the vocals, buried deep on the right) or Neil’s playing on the right side is such a sonic wonder that it creates the effect of multiple guitars. “Cinnamon Girl,” like every song on the album, features wonderful interplay between Whitten and Young on guitar. The riff is sticky and classic, and Billy Talbot’s bass is nice and bouncy. Neil and Whitten harmonize about a spice-hued woman they’d love to meet, and when they hit the bridge (“Pa sent me money …”) at 1:51, it’s one of the most satisfying changes in music.
“Cinnamon Girl” also includes an oft-repeated, very impressive Neil Young guitar feature, perhaps the first time he put it on record: the one-note solo (2:07). The man can do more with one note than anybody else. It’s such a fun song, you might as well watch them play it live in 1991.
Up next is the western title track, again featuring excellent dueling guitars.
Whitten and Young again handle the co-lead vocals. It’s a song about being sad and lonely in L.A., a common theme in popular music. I want to point out that on every Crazy Horse album, Billy Talbot’s bass sounds perfect. He has a sort of no-bullshit tone that I can’t really describe, other than “no bullshit.” It sounds like your bass guitar sounds when you plunk along in your bedroom. I also really love the “La-la-la” backing vocals in the chorus.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is like one of those salted-caramel desserts. For every flailing, distortion-heavy, salty number like “Cinnamon Girl,” there’s a softer, acoustic, country-tinged piece of sweetness. The first example is “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long).” Robin Lane provides dual harmony vocals, creating lovely three-part harmony with Neil’s thin tenor. It’s a thoughtful song about getting through difficult times, and the value of friendship. It’s acoustic, but I do like the metallic sound of Neil’s right-channel guitar, particularly in the chorus.
Up next is the saltiest song on the record, the (perhaps metaphorical) murder ballad “Down By the River.”
This song is built so simply, but adorned with so much amazing electric guitar, it’s like seeing a souped-up ’57 Chevy on the road. There’s just something cool about it, and I don’t know why. Actually, I do know why – it’s all about Neil’s guitar playing. I will demand now that you listen to this on well-separated speakers (or headphones, although it’s so much better reverberating off the walls) or stop reading now. It begins with scratchy strumming on the right side, then an introductory solo, not really a riff, enters on the left. Then Talbot and Molina enter. So look, Neil’s voice isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, and I get that. If it’s not your’s, pay attention instead to the left guitar, and the careful picking it does. Pay attention to the band’s “Ooo-la-la” backing vocals and three-part harmony, or the nice bass behind the word “rainbow.”
At 1:54, in the right channel, the first of Neil’s epic solos begins with (if my count is right) 38 identical notes, and it is sheer genius. Whenever he solos, Whitten’s left side guitar plays curlicues and varied strumming, and it all sounds so good. You can get lost in Neil’s solos – they last for minutes and just take you away. There’s another at 6:05, and a last weird, shimmery one at 7:07. As for lyrics, the song is either about America’s Favorite Podcast Topic (i.e. a woman murdered by her man) or a metaphor for lost love. (Neil’s offered both theories himself.) When I hear this song I can’t imagine the band could outdo it. But wait …
Before I get to that, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has a couple sweet dollops of Americana for you. “The Losing End (When You’re On)” is a country lost-love lament with nice harmony vocals from Whitten. Throughout, Neil shows off his Western guitar technique, then calls either “All right, Wilson Pickett” or “Wilson, pick it!” (probably the latter, since this is definitely not an R&B tune) before taking a cool solo. “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)” adds violin to the mix on a rather English Folk story song. It has some good vocals and ethereal guitar, but frankly the song doesn’t do much for me. And that screechy fiddle begins to wear on my ears, especially 5-plus minutes of it.
Okay, can Neil and Crazy Horse top “Down By the River?” I’d say they do with the awesome album closer “Cowgirl In the Sand.”
The song sits coiled for 30 seconds, then springs forth with Talbot’s rangey, bouncing bass and Neil’s right channel solo jittering all over the place. That bass drives the song, and he switches it up throughout, always playing basically the same thing – with a touch here and there to keep it interesting. Molina’s cymbal-heavy drumming is sloppy-great, and Whitten’s strumming is fun and inventive. The lyrics are dreamy and vague, and rather dated, and many have tried to interpret them. But I rarely come to Crazy Horse for lyrics.
I come for Neil’s flaming guitar, which solos for nearly 2 minutes before the vocals even begin. (Nice backing vox from the band, once again, by the way.) And when they hit “play this game” (2:32), and pause, it gives me chills. Then they speed up slightly (to my ears) to allow Neil play ANOTHER one-note solo at 2:59. The guitar thrashes and grinds for over two minutes, and Young’s high-pitched voice re-enters, a great counterbalance to the chaos. At 6:08, Talbot plays his own one-note bass line, and it seems to piss off Young, based on the fiery fretwork he offers next! Look, I don’t know how the fuck to write about how amazing this next part is. The band and Young on their own wavelength as they grow and diminish as a single unit. It’s otherworldly. There’s so much to hear in it.
Boy, I think I have to go take a rest after that. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is an album that takes me places. It takes me back to learning my bass, and learning the extreme joy that comes with making music with friends. The energy you hear in the interplay between the four musicians is something you can actually feel when you play songs with people you love and trust. That’s probably why I like the record so much – it helps remind me I’m a human connected to others.