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 men1, 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 Whitten2 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 19913.
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.
The song “Undecided Voters,” from Kiwi Jr., popped up in my Spotify feed recently, and, sadly, I’m now familiar with the creepy feeling of having a computer understand my personality and tastes, so I didn’t even think twice. I just heard the song, loved it, and thought, “I gotta hear more of this!”
Cooler Returns, from the Canadian quartet, sounds like a cross of some of my favorite old and not-so-old bands. I hear some Modern Lovers in the deadpan vocal delivery of front man Jeremy Gaudet, and the double guitars of Gaudet and Brian Murphy, with the propulsive rhythm section of bassist Mike Walker and drummer Brohan Moore, call to mind Parquet Courts. Their loose sound and quirky style give them a Pavement vibe, as well. Cooler Returns puts those sounds I like to great use in songs that are catchy, fun and invite repeated listening.
Opening track “Tyler” starts in a singer/songwriter vibe, then introduces jangly guitars and rangey bass as Gaudet speak/sings about some strange events. But the closing song, “Waiting In Line,” might be the best example of what the band’s doing.
Throughout, the lyrics on Cooler Returns are obscure stories told by an outside observer, in a vein of Steely Dan or Belly. “Maid Marian’s Toast” demonstrates the band’s facility with melody, and introduces some harmonica. The songs are all catchy and interesting. “Only Here for a Haircut” is a swaying feast of slide guitar and backing vocals. “Guilty Party” is my favorite song on the record. It’s a bit of a rave-up, with a catchy riff and nice vocal harmonies. The title track is a Strokes-esque piece, but a bit less arch.
The songs are generally under 3 minutes, and the spare nature allows for interesting additions, like the instrumentation (is that an accordion?) and multiple sections in “Omaha.” The song “Nashville Wedding” is a jangle-fest with lyrics expressing a desire to “strangle the jangle pop band.” “Dodger,” in which Jack the Ripper plays “Daytripper” on the bari sax, is a simple, fun number chugging along to a circular riff, before introducing a few new patterns.
The guitars on the record are cool, bouncing off each other playfully, and the vocals and melody are strong, with nice harmonies. The songs are often supported by piano and keyboards to fill out the song. It’s a record I recommend to anyone with a taste for jangly, clever, tuneful bands.
Generally speaking, each musician in a three-piece band has to be doing something noticeable to make their songs cook. There’s too much space to fill for a guitarist to simply strum lightly. The bass player can’t play basic root notes, and the drummer can’t merely keep a beat. There has to be more going on to properly support the song, and “Funk #49,” by The James Gang, is a perfect example of the three-legged-stool of the power trio.
The James Gang consisted of everyone’s goofy guitar-playing uncle, Joe Walsh, with Jim Fox on drums and Dale Peters on bass. Walsh would later join the Eagles, putting a jagged guitar edge onto their smooth country rock, but in “Funk #49,” as with all the James Gang songs I’ve heard, Walsh is the centerpiece. He manages to make both his voice and his guitar sound a third of the way through a case of Carling beer, and I mean that in a good way.
“Funk #49” opens with a sloppy guitar cadenza. This mess of notes in the left channel tumbles across to the right channel, where the proper riff takes up residence. At about 0:10, Fox and Peters enter, and they propel the entire song. Despite its title, it’s not really funky in a Parliament or Prince style, but there is a rawness and bounce to the rhythm that seems to make the title fit.
Walsh starts singing around 0:17, and his voice is unmistakeable. He sings about a girlfriend who appears to be untrue, but it’s hard to take him seriously. “Funk #49” sounds like it was a cool studio jam, but then Walsh realized he needed words. The verses are brief, and there is no real vocal chorus. At 0:28, Walsh and Peters play a descending riff that serves as the chorus, and Fox adds cool fills. The bridge, at 1:33, sounds like a dairy cow lost in a jungle, as cowbell and rainforest screeches accompany Fox’s drums. (Again, I mean that in a very good way!) Then at 2:12, Walsh plays a solo, of sorts. As with the opening cadenza, it’s a sound only he could make. Walsh is like Mike Campbell and Mark Knopfler. He’s a guitarist with an unmistakeable sound, and he lets it fly on “Funk #49.”
The band spends the last minute having a blast on their respective parts. It’s a cool, different song, but not really one-of-a-kind. Earlier, the band had recorded “Funk #48,” which is similar – although this time with a vocal chorus. (I guess “donk-da-donk-da-da-donk-da-donk” qualifies?) But “Funk #49” brings the melody and the sound. It’s a song I never turn off, and I always turn up.
Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair 1993, Matador Records. Producer: Liz Phair and Brad Wood In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Exile in Guyville, the 1993 album from Liz Phair, helped usher in lo-fi 90s rock. It’s a diverse record, with some songs qualifying as rockers, a few as singer-songwriter musings, and some that are downright strange. The production from Phair and Brad Wood, who also drums and plays bass, places Phair’s unusual voice at the center of the proceedings. Whether she’s belting it out, using a lilting soprano, or delivering lines in her slackery, raspy growl, she always sounds good. And the lyrics are varied, too, even if they mostly focus on life as a young woman in music. Sometimes they’re direct, sometimes they tell a story, often they’re simply poetry. Eighteen songs may be a handful too many, but overall, this collection stands the test of time.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.
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The lucky among us will eventually arrive at that nebulous, confusing, perhaps decades-long holding pattern called Adulthood. Before we get there, we spend a lot of time trying to understand it.
As young kids we ape the grown-ups on TV, playing spies or house, as we try to figure it out. We fantasize about becoming mechanics or doctors or basketball players or dancers, but Destination Grown-Up lies in the distant future. Regardless of whether we pursue those childhood dreams through our ever-changing adolescence, an annoyance common to Adulthood gradually reaches into our lives: obligations. We have to pay for things. We have to meet people we don’t want to meet, and be places we don’t want to be, and plan for a future beyond Saturday night, all because it’s what mature people do. Adulthood looms over everything, and we try to keep it at bay in bars and ballfields and video game screens. Still, we know the inevitable awaits.
So how will we know when we arrive? Obligations are always part of the picture. I’ve been buying baseball cards with my own money since elementary school, and was compelled to attend church until I finished high school. As a young man/old boy, I guessed that when all the frivolities of youth were finally stamped out, I’d know I was an adult. When I no longer played pickup basketball, and stopped doing stand-up and acting, that will be the sign. The day I finally blocked up my new-music ears and started the adults-only complaint that “the music today just doesn’t compare to the stuff from my youth” … then I will have, sadly, arrived.
I first listened to Exile in Guyville in late spring, 1994, at an afternoon party, of sorts, in the apartment of an older couple who were friends of my new girlfriend. A recent emigre to San Francisco, I’d been dating Julia about 6 months, and this party was going to be one more new experience in a year full of new and exciting experiences. Determined to evince the persona of an ever-intrepid sampler of new and exotic encounters, I’d offered a resounding “Yes!” when she’d asked me, “Do you want to go meet Sharon and Jim’s newborn twins?” A part of me couldn’t believe I was going to spend an afternoon with a couple of incontinent, drooling, crying weaklings. (The twins, not the parents.) And even though I’d met and enjoyed the company of Sharon and Jim many times, now that they’d become parents, it felt impossible that I’d have anything to discuss with them. But … obligations, y’know?
We sat in the couple’s sunny living room, and Jim handed both Julia and me a swaddled little bundle like he was handing out hoagies from A&M Pizza. (I needed some assistance to properly hold the kid.) He moved to the stereo as we cooed and chirped at the sleeping infants and chatted with Sharon about her new life as a mom. Then Jim put on Exile in Guyville. As a new music fan and longtime subscriber to Spin magazine at the time, I’d heard a couple tracks on the radio and read a few things about Exile in Guyville over the past few months. The song “Never Said” was getting a lot of airplay. But I hadn’t heard much of it.
I don’t want to overstate the impact of the moment, but that’s about when I knew I was an adult. We were doing non-youthful things – handling babies and talking about parenting – but also enjoying new music. I felt as if I was in a scene from some TV program from the 60s, The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched, and instead of placing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the Hi-Fi, my neighbor just slid Exile in Guyville into the CD player4. I liked the record, we discussed it, and I went out and bought it soon after. Even as an adult I could like new music. I kept playing basketball and performing comedy and acting, too.
Exile in Guyville opens with a song that exhibits most of what makes the album tick. The subtly rocking “6’1″.”
It opens with a strumming electric guitar, and the bass and drums entering quickly to propel things along. Phair’s facility with melody and unusual song structure is also on display. It’s bouncy and catchy, but warmly unpolished. The entire record has a lo-fi sound that was popularized at the time by bands like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. Phair’s work is a bit less messy, but still, her thin, inexact voice and rough guitar give the record an immediacy and energy. This isn’t to say I don’t like her voice – I really do! And the harmonies sound great, as well. The lyrics are about standing up to the douchebag boyfriend, in which the 5’2″ Phair acts as if she’s 6’1″.
The same features are on display on the rousing next song, “Help Me Mary.”
This one’s a bit more driving, with Brad Wood’s bass pulsing throughout. The guitar riff is pretty cool, and Phair’s gruff voice is perfect on this song about being a strong, resilient woman in a scene dominated by thoughtless (or worse) men. Her words about locking doors and memorizing rules, and the seesawing self-esteem that such efforts cause, ring true. Meanwhile, Phair plays some great guitar lines throughout.
The album is 18 songs long, and as with many lengthy records (but not all) I think it could have been trimmed down. However, 18 songs is key because that’s the length of The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile on Main Street. In early interviews, Phair claimed Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to that Stones record, an idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (Try it – you’ll see.) However, this type of endeavor is just the sort of thing that gets (mostly male) music-nerds hyped up and arguing over whether or not it’s true. And since the record is partly about Phair’s experience among those music boys, this sounds to me like both a clever joke at their expense and a way to get them to listen. Anyway, “Glory,” a brief cut that may be about either a creepy guy or a lovable dog, isn’t one of my favorites.
“Dance of the Seven Veils,” featuring just Liz and her Fender Jaguar, is also just okay, although I like how she varies her voice as she hits the chorus. It also displays her penchant for using “bad words” (the “C” word here), which caused a bit of controversy back in the day, as well. But when her songs work, Phair really produces gems. For example, “Never Said.”
The vocals are the key to this song, with Phair rasping the lead while also layering background vocals behind it. The music’s ascending chords are simple but catchy, and guitarist Casey Rice rings out a single note over top. It’s a very laid-back sound, perfectly supporting Phair’s vocal delivery. The lyrics actually read as an angry rebuke, but the song has a more Gen-X, slacker “whatever, dude” vibe. “Soap Star Joe” has a really cool strummed guitar pattern, with squawky harmonica and distant drum cracks highlighting sections. It’s an unusual-sounding singer-songwriter piece that may be about the silliness of male models. The harmonica that finishes the song is great.
Phair returns to the quiet place on “Explain It to Me,” a subtle piece with inscrutable lyrics. (I would like someone to Explain It to Me.) “Canary” introduces the piano into Phair’s repertoire, recorded in a lo-fi way that suits her voice. Exile in Guyville was among the first wave of alt-rock records by women. Coming just after Juliana Hatfield and Belly, joining artists like Hole and Fiona Apple, these were welcome voices in a testosterone-heavy rock scene. “Canary” offers a look into what it’s like to be a young woman making a go in a traditionally man-dominated field.
The next song, “Mesmerizing,” builds brilliantly from those slow songs.
It starts off sounding like another slow, dreary piece, but adds a bass drum and maracas, which are enough to kick up the energy. Phair’s voice is watery and distorted, and it sounds great, particularly the “I-I-I-I-I like it” (1:38). The guitar playing is terrific, with a nifty solo from Rice at 2:02. It’s one of the few songs on the record that does kind of reflect Exile on Main St., with the sparse arrangement and a guitar solo overtop. Then there are the lyrics, which seem to comment a bit on “Rocks Off.” In a way, this all reminds me of a softer White Stripes kind of song.
Up next is another number that had folks clutching their pearls in ’93. After decades of men bragging about their varied, numerous sexual exploits, some people weren’t prepared to hear a young woman sing “Fuck and Run.”
Whereas the dudes have always sung about their lack of feelings over these situations, Phair actually explores the emotional impact of the situation. (Something I’m certain those dudes always felt, as well.) The lyrics are great, as Phair asks for a boyfriend (with great self-harmonies), and all that “stupid old shit/ like letters and sodas.” It’s actually a very romantic song. Musically, it’s bouncy and light. I like the transition when she sings “I can feel it in my bones/ I’m gonna spend another year alone” (1:49). “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is almost a companion piece to “Fuck and Run.” It’s a strange little guitar number with creepy vocals responding to the main lyrics, which offer a different perspective of her love life, with Phair now relishing in manipulating men.
My favorite song on Exile in Guyville is “Divorce Song.” Despite its lo-fi production and Phair’s gruff voice, the song packs an emotional wallop documenting what sounds like the last time a couple will have the same fight they always have.
The song takes a long time to finally get to the chorus, but when it does Wood’s bass drives the song forward. At 1:48 the bass rings out some high notes behind Phair’s “you put in my hands …”, and for some reason that really adds to the lonely feeling of being in a fight with a partner. The song sounds great and has a cool little harmonica-led coda, as well. “Shatter” is another slow song, not too distinct from the others, about Phair’s devotion to a boyfriend. “Flower” continues Phair’s efforts to make your grandparents uncomfortable, as she sings her desire to get very physical with a guy she’s into. She proto-raps the dirty (and funny!) lyrics behind weird guitar spikes and an angelic vocal riff, which enhances their effect. Hey, if Robert Plant can say he’s gonna give his lady every inch of his love, why can’t Phair say she wants her man’s fresh young jimmy?
Another favorite of mine is “Johnny Sunshine.”
it starts as a sound-collage, a meditation on one chord. Two crunchy guitars support her as she lists all the shitty things her partner did. The second time through, she adds a lament in a higher register. Phair has a voice that can go many places, and in this song she shows it off. At 1:17 she breaks out her light and airy soprano voice, as the song slows to a turtle pace. It’s really a terrific vocal demonstration, and it’s also a pretty weirdly constructed piece of music. “Gunshy” is a gentle, weird song with great guitar picking. (It also includes a reference to the 70s comic book sensations Sea Monkeys!) It’s the best guitar song on the record, with multiple parts fit together like a puzzle.
As I said earlier, this is a long record, and I’d have liked it better if it was cut down to the 12 best. But it finishes on a couple strong notes. “Stratford-On-Guy” starts with a flange, and describes a flight landing in Chicago, her adopted home town. She delivers her very poetic lyrics in her typical slacker style, and I like the chorus. “Strange Loop” bops along to end the record on an upbeat note. Well, musically, anyway. Lyrically, it’s a precursor to “Divorce Song,” expressing a desire to stop fighting.
Even though I’m now an old(er) man who has supposedly been a grown-up for decades, it’s not hard to recall the confusion of what adulthood would mean. It seemed to click for me when I heard this record, but that doesn’t mean I understand it 30 years later. I’m still not sure if I know what I’m doing, but I still like listening to Exile in Guyville.
Ultra Mono, by IDLES 2020, Partisan Records. Producer: Adam Greenspan and Nick Launay
(2 minute read)
After Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Boltcutters and Naomi Wolfe’s Uncomfortable, this record was my favorite of 2020. IDLES is a British punk rock act called the most aggressively positive band around, and they make loud, violent songs in which singer Joe Talbot sings (shouts?) about peace and kindness and acceptance and love. It’s a juxtaposition that, surprisingly, works really well!
I first caught them on YouTube as part of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series, and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. I immediately identified them as right up my alley. The belligerent tone, the pounding beat, the cool guitars … I wanted more. Then I looked up their lyrics and found they align quite nicely with my own UU-ish ethos, and, well, I was on board. IDLES takes on hatefulness, toxic masculinity, class, immigrant rights, and other social topics, and on Ultra Mono they pound the ideals of love and kindness into your head with ferocity.
A perfect example is “Kill Them With Kindness,” a song espousing radical caring of others set to a smashing thump. On “The Lover,” the band comes close to a dance beat while Talbot defends his compassion with the words “Fuck You! I’m a lover!” He stated, “It’s like a defiant smile in the face of assholes who can’t just accept that your love is real. It’s like, ‘I’m not lying. I am full of love and you’re a prick.’” IDLES want to turn this aggressive positivity into action, too. “Mr. Motivator” implores us to “all hold hands/ chase the pricks away!”
Many songs on Ultra Mono make the case for change. “Carcinogenic,” an infectious groove, shines a light on the plight of the working poor. “Model Village,” another bouncy number, takes a close look at the social tyranny of conformity and hatred in small town life. “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” with guest Jehnny Beth, attacks misogyny and sexual harassment, particularly in the mosh pit at shows. IDLES slow things down a bit with “A Hymn,” another ode to love and kindness. Other songs include “War,” “Grounds,” “Anxiety,” “Reigns,” and “Danke.”
It might sound from my description that the songs are very heavy, or emotionally taxing, but drummer John Beavis keeps things moving and danceable, while guitarists Mark Bowen (a practicing dentist in his spare time) and Lee Kiernan are as inventive as they are aggressive. Bassist Adam Devonshire provides terrific low-end support, and together IDLES sounds like a sonic force. Why not shake your fist and dance and rage about love and kindness? Ultra Mono makes it happen.
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I am not generally much of a lyrics-guy. I’d guess that for each high-end-lyricist on my 100 Fave Albums list, like The Replacements or Elvis Costello, there are twice as many lyrics-aren’t-really-the-point acts, like Van Halen, R.E.M., Jimi Hendrix or Belly. If lyrics are meaningful or clever that’s cool, but it’s not a characteristic I seek out in music. But in rare cases, like with “Freedom ’90,” the lyrics of a song are what draw me in. This is 100% the case with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I’m not an expert on the band, which has been around for thirty years, but I know that they’re basically one guy: John Darnielle. For years he released acoustic albums as The Mountain Goats that he recorded directly into his boombox. Eventually he got a band and toured extensively, and they’ve remained active, releasing two albums in 20205. I also know that people are usually in one of two camps regarding The Mountain Goats. Camp One is “Who are The Mountain Goats?” Camp Two is “I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats.” I’m between camps. I like a lot of what I’ve heard, but for me a little goes a long way.
Darnielle is also a respected novelist, with a National Book Award nomination and a gig as National Book Award judge to his credit6. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is actually a micro-short story set to music. In three brief verses it grabs you by the collar and shakes you up, then leaves you to think about the consequences in its coda.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll just say this: in the song, two (perhaps) Bevis and Butthead types are punished for dreaming a dream of death metal stardom. In the end, the fears of the adults come true, not because of the death metal, but because of the punishment. Darnielle weaves the story with minimal words. The (perhaps) shocking “Hail Satan!” coda speaks volumes in two words. The brilliance of it all is that the story doesn’t turn to violence or spectacle to make the point. But it definitely makes the point that children will carry with them the scars of childhood in ways we may never expect. (By the way – Martin Seay, in Believer, wrote about this song far more eloquently than I could!)
The music is just a scratchy recording of an acoustic guitar, with Darnielle’s thin voice over top. His nasally voice is, I think, the reason I’m not more into the band. But as this live version of the song shows, he is a very compelling performer. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” has stuck with me since I first heard it 15 years ago. Just like a good novel should.
Don’t Say No, by Billy Squier 1981, Capitol Records. Producer: Mack and Billy In My Collection: Album, 1988.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Don’t Say No, the 1981 album from Billy Squier, is a fun rock record and The Sound of Entering High School for this writer. The songs are catchy, and Squier and guitarist Cary Sharaf create Grade A Arena Rock music. Squier doesn’t shy away from flaunting his influences, with sounds of all the hard rock heavy-hitters of the 70s sprinkled throughout. There’s not much original on the record, but there’s a whole lot of good sounds and cool riffs, and sometimes that’s just enough.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80.
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When I wrote about the Yes album 90125, and my love for it despite many of my peers’ disdain, I mentioned that it was hard to divorce my current ears from the memories my brain holds of my teenaged ears. Records like 90125, Rush’s Fly By Night, U2’s War and Van Halen still sound great to me, and a big reason is that they transport me and make me feel young. Not all records of my youth hold up. For this project I went out and bought Asia’s self-titled debut, a favorite of my teen years, and boy, it sucked. Don’t Say No does not suck.
Don’t Say No, by Billy Squier, is what my freshman year of high school sounded like, but only the good parts. There is much about being 14 years old and among the most immature fish in a brand new Little Pond of High School Society that really sucks. For example, the scary senior with a beard who forced me to return his cafeteria tray for a few days, until I switched lunch tables then worried for a week that he’d come beat me up. Or the upperclassmen who suggested I wear a bra when I had on what I’d presumed was a fashionable velour shirt. Or the older kid who saw me reading A Separate Peace for Language Arts class and announced to the whole bus, “Hey! This kid’s reading a romance novel!”
Don’t Say No sounds like none of that bullshit. It sounds like hanging with friends, laughing together, and looking at cute, older girls. It’s teachers who expected more, classes with kids older than me, and hearing about (though not getting invited to) parties with beer7. It sounds like what I thought being a teenager in 1981 & 1982 should sound like: rockin’, catchy, cool guitars, a touch of keyboards and MTV.
As I’ve written many times, MTV began airing my freshman year of high school, and by a fluke my family got the channel almost immediately. Don’t Say No has a particular guitar-guy-rock/pop sound that was all over that channel at the very beginning. Some had big hits, like Rick Springfield and Tommy Tutone, and lesser-knowns, like Donnie Iris and Greg Kihn, got lots of screen time. The channel even tried to wedge Tom Petty and Elvis Costello into that presentation, but they didn’t really fit. I loved all of them. Then I noticed my sister had the vinyl Don’t Say No in her Milk Crate of Classic RockTM. I played it a lot.
What I love about Don’t Say No are the pop melodies combined with the guitar crunch. There’s nothing particularly new or inventive about the album. It has solid, workmanlike songwriting and performances. However, Squier was on MTV and my turntable a lot that fall, and the songs have a sound and style that takes me back in time. That 1981 feeling starts immediately with “In The Dark,” and a shimmering, UFO-sounding note that sets the scene for drums and wailing guitar to enter.
The 14-year-old in me pumps his fist every time, feeling like the guy who announces the band in this clip. The lead guitar throughout the song, by Cary Sharaf, is classic Classic Rock, with little fills accenting the lyrics. Squier has the typical Robert-Plant-esque hard-rock tenor, and he sells every song he sings. In this case, he’s trying to convince a would-be lover to stealthily come meet him. Mark Clarke’s bass guitar and harmony vocals sound cool, and the boopity-boop organ in the chorus is a heckuva hook. At 2:41 Sharaf plays a solo that ends in a weird sound that would make Lee Ranaldo smile. There’s nothing Earth-shattering about it, but man it takes me back.
Perhaps more original and memorable is the album’s big smash “The Stroke.” It’s a simple, chant-along song, with a “We Will Rock You” vibe, and it ruled MTV that first year.
Actually, the guitars after the verses (0:27) sound pretty cool. And while the song does seem to be an ode to masturbation, actually, as a poster on Lyrics Genius points out, it’s a song about the industry-wide open secret of trading sexual favors to get ahead in the entertainment business. Whatever the meaning, the principal at a local Middle School where I grew up canceled dances for the year after he heard this song being played at one. I guess he wasn’t paying close attention to the lyrical nuance. Big props to Billy, however, for incorporating the Russian folksong “Song of the Volga Boatmen” into a Top 20 hit for the first time since Glenn Miller reached Number 1 forty years before. (By the way, the song was sampled on Eminem’s top-five hit “Berzerk” in 2013.)
Don’t Say No keeps bopping along in this Classic Rock, guitar pop fashion with the catchy “My Kinda Lover.”
Once again, it’s nothing spectacular, but man it still sounds good to my ears. I love songs that open with a riff that’s hard to place on a beat. You can’t tell if it’s the upbeat, the downbeat, syncopated, until the rest of the singer enters. It’s got some of those swirly-whirly 70s synth sounds (0:27), with great drum and bass work in the chorus. In the second verse, the bass and organ play a counter-melody, supported by more 70s video game noises. But bottom line, it’s a catchy song about connecting with a partner. The bridge, at 1:47, is super great, with Clarke’s bass noodling and fake horns blaring, building to Billy’s falsetto croon. It’s probably my favorite song on the record.
I don’t love everything about the album. Don’t Say No is a record that definitely has some filler. “You Know What I Like” has a sort of Sammy Hagar feel in sound (and lyrics) that doesn’t connect with me, although it does have a weird guitar solo at 1:12. It also shows off Squier’s penchant for singing a bit beyond his range. He also does it on the ballad “Nobody Knows.” It’s dedicated to John Lennon, which is nice, but lovely as it is the vocals sound very strained. “I Need You” is pretty standard mid-tempo, Arena Rock fare, albeit with nice harmonies.
Don’t Say No wears its influences conspicuously. Many songs sound like they were written to capture the spirit of other, more well-known acts. But when Squier sets a catchy melody to a song made for his voice, and Sharaf adds a ferocious riff, the band knocks it out of the park. Such is the case with the Led-Zeppelin-lite “Lonely Is The Night.”
The first 35 seconds of this song are totally Freshman Year me, and I can almost taste the cafeteria pizza and lima beans. (In a good way.) That riff, that voice, the harmony vocals … Then the drums crash in playing that John Bonham shuffle and I’m banging my head. Squier has a knack for building a song, and in the choruses (1:10) the band ratchets up the tension. The vocals, about desire, are great, and the guitars and the bass throughout the song really rock. At 2:37 the bridge begins a cool section that features a nifty guitar solo (in which the band definitely tries out some Led Zep sounds) and leads to a cool breakdown (3:47). Look, bands could do far worse than emulating Led Zeppelin.
In some ways, “Too Daze Gone” sounds a bit like AC/DC-lite, but again, not in a bad way. I think this was my favorite song on the record back in 1981. It’s a bluesy, riffy number about life on the road. Squier may have known he was emulating classic rockers, but I wonder if he knew that “Whadda You Want From Me” sounds a bit like early Replacements? It’s gussied up a bit, with slide guitar, and the snide lyrics aren’t as clever as Paul Westerberg’s. But still, it’s a rockin’ fun song with a nifty dual guitar solo (1:15).
Don’t Say No closes with the title track, a Faces-type number that moves between styles.
It fades in with nice acoustic strumming groove, and switches to all-out Southern boogie at 0:38. The guitars do lots of creative stuff, and by the breakdown at 1:57, we hear a full-on Allmans-y piano and guitar break. Then, at 2:17, it rather psychotically busts back into a last verse, and adds multiple harmony vocals. Throughout it all, Squier’s hard-rock yowl makes that age-old musical plea to his partner: can we have sex? The song turns out to be a pleasant mash-up of multiple genres, and that’s apropos for this record.
Being a young teen in a new school can really suck, and I feel lucky that I had music to help me feel good despite the anxiety and indignity of it all. Albums like Don’t Say No still have a special place, and still can make an older man feel young.
(New Releases is a different feature for 100 Favorite Albums – just a couple paragraphs about some new stuff I’m listening to.)
This was my favorite release of 2020, six indie-pop songs written and sung by Naomi Wolfe. Her producers, Jesse Trepiak (@shedwisemusic) and Williams Goldsmith (@futureartistwilliams), co-wrote some songs and act as her scorching backing band. And while each song has a new take on the term Uncomfortable, Wolfe sounds perfectly at home behind the mic.
“Stop My Heart” is a soulful, upbeat pop song about losing someone. “Favorite Color,” with its 90s alt-rock feel, is an “are we friends, or what?” song. “6 Feet Tall,” an unrequited love song, sounds like it belongs in a smoky jazz club. “Slide,” my favorite on Uncomfortable, is a sparse, funky track with great drums. It’s about moving on if you’re not getting what you need. “Laugh” is a beautiful, soft acoustic number about dealing with heartbreak. “idk,” an epic closer, again oozes heart and soul as it builds to a powerful ending.
Naomi Wolfe is a fresh singer/songwriter who’s made a great EP, and I hope she has more music on the way. Her voice is deep and warm and personable. She really connects with the listener. The backing band is incredibly talented, and the production is great. There’s nothing uncomfortable about Uncomfortable!