10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead

Share

The Bends. Radiohead.
1995, Capitol. Producer: John Leckie.
Purchased, 1999.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Bends, by Radiohead, is a mighty collection of guitars and weird sounds and swooping, swerving melodies. The band writes mini-symphonies, and singer Thom Yorke delivers them with power and conviction. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood throws a million different things into the background, rewarding multiple listens. The band evokes many emotions within a single song.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

“Life is Suffering,” they say the Buddha said, but it’s very likely this is not true. Sure, Life IS Suffering – that is definitely true – but it’s doubtful the Buddha said these words. From a historo-linguistic point of view, he most certainly never said those three exact words, as certain as he never said, “Bro, check this out,” before speaking them. He didn’t speak English. But from a less ridiculous, more theological and philosophical perspective, it seems1 that he didn’t mean what those words together connote.

Still, I’ve always found solace in the words, despite my misapprehension of them. The fact that the basic state for humankind, perhaps for any-kind, all the way down to bacteria and viruses2, is suffering is an inspiring thought because it allows one to take pride in one’s happiness and in the simple joys, as they’re evidence that you’ve done work to overcome life’s basic state.

Of course, I’m a man in a (somewhat) advanced Western society, basking in all that my privilege affords me, so I try to stay aware of the myth that my suffering is just like everyone else’s. It isn’t. And the gap between my suffering and that of people in different situations than mine has very little to do with anything I’ve done. I’m the right collection of chemicals fortunate enough to be placed on the planet when and where I was, and then I didn’t fuck up my good fortune.

“What the heck are the blues?”

Still – I’ve had some shitty times. My blues are real to me, and my pains, well, they hurt. I’m lucky that they’re not compounded by the bullshit that society lays on those who don’t look like me, love like me, earn like me, or live like me. But this luck doesn’t do much to lessen the suffering that I, as a member of “Life,” endure. But there is something to help me endure it: music.

As a nerdy teen who listened to nerdy music, I spent hours in my room listening to records. The Blues are probably the natural state of most teen-agers, and it’s useful to find something to help them through it: books, music, comic books … For me, it was comedy – whether TV, movies, radio programs, stand up albums, funny songs – and rock music. In the 80s, when my concerns were acne and school dances and making the basketball team and trying to get out of band practice, well, a little rock music could help me work my way through it all. One meditative excursion through “La Villa Strangiato” or “Starship Trooper” or Gaucho or Van Halen II could perk a kid right up.

It also has helped me in adulthood. When my oldest kid was little, and I was moving into my mid-30s, I started to grow frustrated with almost everything about my life. Like many new parents, I was stressed out, unsure, lost in the care of others, feeling the weight of responsibility, and generally wigging out. My wife and I had recently moved across the country and we were both seriously questioning the decision. Everything about the “old life” seemed golden. Everything about the “new life” seemed horrible.

I was astounded by the deep love I felt for my kid, and this definitely helped guide me. But virtually everything else seemed to suck. My career was boring to me. I was trying to “make it3” in the stand-up comedy business, but family life seemed to be throwing up insurmountable hurdles. I fought often with my wife. And I drank too much, and even felt the pull of opioids, after a tumble down some steps gave me three broken ribs, a chest wall injury and a prescription for Percocet. The usual things that people turn to in such times – family, friends, therapists, community – weren’t really doing much for me.

But music was there for me. In particular, the Radiohead album The Bends.

I’ve probably written this before, but when I first heard Radiohead, in 1992, I thought they sucked. Their song “Creep” was all over MTV and the radio, and I couldn’t stand it. (Although Chrissie Hynde later did a version that I love.) At a party, in 1995 or ’96, a friend told me that The Bends was one of the best new albums he’d heard recently. I kept my mouth shut about how bad they sucked.

Then, in 1997, I saw the strange video for their excellent song “Paranoid Android,” and I picked up their record OK Computer. I became a fan4. I remembered my buddy’s praise for The Bends, so I went out and got it. It was just fine, but I didn’t become obsessed until I had that rough patch of life in the early 00s.

I’d listen to it regularly, always on headphones. I don’t even remember now how it became so important, or when, exactly, I started listening. But I have memories of lying down, baby asleep, house quiet, and letting the music work its magic. It soothed me, expressed feelings that I felt but didn’t understand, and kept me sane. I took to thinking of it as my “CD of Restraint,” akin to a chain that a werewolf attaches to himself while in human form to prevent his horrible, transformed lycanthropic self from running wild through the glow of a full moon.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if, without the record, I’d have gone on some killing spree, or would have awoken to find myself devouring a live goat at sunup. I don’t think I was that desperate. But it definitely helped my mental state at the time, from the opening winds of “Planet Telex.”

Phil Selway’s drums- in particular the strong bass drum – immediately grab the listener. Then Colin Greenwood’s bass enters with a loopy line, and all the sounds build to singer Thom Yorke’s entrance. His thin tenor sings lyrics that, frankly, probably resonate with anyone feeling down and out and wishing to wallow a bit. The chord pattern in the chorus, beginning at 1:20, is beautifully sad. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood adds cool guitar through the third verse, beginning at 1:55. I love the verses, and chorus, and how the band uses dynamics – a characteristic of most all Radiohead songs. When the bass re-enters about 3:40 and the song recedes with a little guitar riff outro, I find myself asking, “Was that the perfect song?”

And the band follows it up with another great song that hits you from the get-go. The title track, “The Bends.”

“The Bends” showcases Radiohead’s orchestral tendencies5 with an opening fanfare full of pomp. They scale things back so Yorke can sing – and once again, listening to the lyrics, I can see why I connected with them at the time. But despite the sad lyrics, the song is powerful and aggressive – as at 1:02, when another orchestral-sounding riff and bass set the stage for Yorke’s pre-chorus, then the guitars play simple chords as he sings. The band builds up to the chorus6 which Yorke sings with more power in each successive verse. This is another song that just sounds perfect to me – all the different pieces – and has one of my favorite guitar solos ever, beginning at 3:03, as Jonny goes back and forth between single notes and chords over top a furious band. It’s simple, but it’s wonderful.

After a couple barn-burning, aggressive songs, the band scales things back with “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” “High and Dry” shows the band can pull off the sad, acoustic numbers with ease – and while adding their own signature: guitar sounds, noises, and dynamic changes. It’s a lost-love song, and Yorke sings it well. The previous songs were sad but powerful – this one’s just sad.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is also sad, although the lyrics are about plastic surgery.

This is another of my favorite songs on the album. I think there are five or six favorites out of 12 great songs. It’s a showcase for singer Yorke, who sings sweetly until he opens things up, about 2:25, when he starts to really emote as the band goes nuts behind him. Then, at 3:34, he wonders if he could “be who you wanted, all the time.” It’s a song that still speaks to me, 25 years (!) after its release. (On a comment on the Official Video for this song, someone7 stated “Radiohead is the one band that can make you cry and cure your sadness at the same time.” I know what he means.)

The next song, “Bones,” returns to the guitar rock sound, albeit with a mid-tempo groove thanks to Selway and Colin Greenwood. I love when Yorke shouts “You got to feel it in your bones!” It’s a straightforward rocker that the band makes their own.

After rocking out, then slowing down, then rocking out, the boys mix things up with a song that seems to be one thing but – gloriously – can’t decide which it really is. It’s called “(Nice Dreams)” and it’s another favorite.

It’s a sweetly-swinging, 6/8 singalong song, almost like something you’d sing at camp as a kid. Swirling sounds support Yorke’s mystical lyrics. There’s great countermelody backing vocals the second time through the chorus, at 2:07. Then at about 2:24, it sort of goes a bit nuts, with Jonny squawking all kinds of squawks – or maybe it’s second guitarist Ed O’Brien. Then the song fades away – rather like a dream. A nice dream, actually. Perhaps a (nice dream).

The next song, “Just,” has a great groove, and nice doubling of the guitar and vocals. It’s one of the few songs on the record with lyrics that seem kind of angry. Jonny’s soaring guitar is really terrific, and the band again goes between soft and loud – they may be the band that does the most with dynamics outside of Pixies. In 2001, the Classical Music critic for The New Yorker magazine profiled the band and made connections between their songwriting and some of the “tricks” used by classical composers. Maybe that’s why the songs sound so good?

My Iron Lung” is another song, like “(Nice Dreams),” that has a section in the middle that comes out of nowhere, as if a different song was dropped in. This isn’t a criticism! I like it. It opens with a cool guitar riff, and a pumping, simple bass line that pushes it forward. It’s mid-tempo and peaceful, and builds in power, but nothing prepares the listener for the raucous section at 1:55. And while the lyrics say “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time,” this album means too much to me for me to agree. Even my least favorite song on the album, “Bulletproof … I Wish I Was,” is a song I like. The final song on the album, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” is another I don’t love … but it’s still very good.

Sulk” has all the majesty and pomp of the best Radiohead songs, its four-note guitar riff chiming like symphonic violins. Yorke emotes and howls the tale of disintegrating love.

“Black Star” is another of my favorites on the album. It has a swerving melody that Yorke sings at the top of his register. Jonny plays some terrific lines behind the verses. This song also has a harmony vocal, which is kind of rare for Radiohead, but it also has a tricky time-signature change, which is more common for them. It’s a song about things falling apart, and when the lyrics “this is killing me” appear at the end, it’s easy to see why it connected with me during the rough times.

I’ve had more rough patches since those days nearly 20 years ago. And I’ve had some amazing patches, as well. Either way, music has been an important tool in helping me through the pain and the glory. I often wonder if I’d like this record as much if I hadn’t stumbled onto it at that particular time. Who knows? Life is suffering, so I try to just accept the good things when I find them.

TRACK LISTING:
“Planet Telex”
“The Bends”
“High and Dry”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“Bones”
“(Nice Dreams)”
“Just”
“My Iron Lung”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
“Black Star”
“Sulk”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

 

Share

11th Favorite Album: Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Share

Damn the Torpedoes. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
1979, MCA. Producer: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty.
Purchased, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Damn the Torpedoes, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, is a collection of just 9 songs, but for Tom and the band that’s plenty to demonstrate their expertise. Petty writes simple songs that seem like they’ve always been in the air, and guitarist Mike Campbell adds exactly what’s needed. The Heartbreakers give each song the right spirit and feel, whether it’s a rockin’ ride or a subtle swing. And the record is only one of many excellent TP&HB albums.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

I’ve only got 11 albums left in this damned list, and let me tell you I am looking forward to arriving at Number 1. You see, when I decided … holy shit, frigging 8 years ago, good heavens … anyway … when I decided 8 years ago to do this, I figured I’d be done in a year or two. Maybe three. I am not a terrific planner.

But looking back over the first 89 albums, I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I’ve only questioned the placement of one record. True, I realized mid-way that I’d probably missed a few of my favorites, and so I dealt with the issue of a static list in a dynamic world. But all-in-all, I’ve felt like I’ve done a reasonable job of listing those albums I love, and why. Number 11, however, marks my first egregious mistake.

I’ll divulge now for the sake of this album write-up: Damn the Torpedoes is the only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on my Top 100. I really don’t understand how that happened. He’s got so many records that I love, that I’ve listened to so much, it just seems like there must be more than one Petty album on the list, right? So for album #11 I’m going to discuss several of his songs and albums, because there’s no way only one of his albums should be on my list.

First let me say that you should all go watch the 4 hour documentary by Peter Bogdonovich about Tom and his band, titled Runnin’ Down a Dream. It’s excellent. It tells the story of Tom, a young Byrds and Beatles fan in the 60s, forming a hard-working, popular local Gainesville, FL, band, Mudcrutch, in the 70s, to World Domination as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Throughout it all, Petty just seems like a decent guy who likes to write and play songs. Who, in fact, doesn’t just like to write songs but admits that he’s never had writer’s block or any trouble at all writing songs. They just sort of come out of him.

And the amount of good stuff that comes out of him is rather astounding. Also rather astounding is the fact that he ended up in the same town, at the same time, as Mike Campbell, The Heartbreakers’ guitarist. Campbell has a sound that is unmistakable, the “Tom Petty sound,” playing leads and riffs that are typically spare, typically simple, and always cool. Take, for example, “Breakdown,” from the band’s 1976 first, self-titled album.

Listen to that little figure at 0:07, and then the main theme, an 8-second riff starting about 0:14. It’s classic Campbell. Also classic on that debut record is one of Petty’s most popular, enduring songs, “American Girl,” featuring another typical Campbell sound, the chiming guitar. Petty’s ability to meld singalong melodies with a ferocious backbeat is on display, as is his gift of telling a story, drawing well-defined characters, in a few lyrics. The band was more popular in the UK at this point, and released the single “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll” there – and lip-synched it on TV! (Plenty of animated stars, but no keyboardist Benmont Tench in that performance.)

One of the great things about Petty is that in addition to all the hits you’ve heard on the radio8, he has so many terrific songs that were never huge. On that debut, there’s “Mystery Man.” On the band’s second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, there’s the rocking’ “Hurt,” and one of my favorite all time songs, “No Second Thoughts.”

I love the bass sound, the gentle drums and the harmony vocals. Also, I’m always impressed by Tom’s ability to write little novels in his songs. His nasally voice is used to great effect here. This album also contains the great radio tracks “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.” An interesting fact (to me, anyway) about the high harmonies on most TP&HB songs: they’re sung by original drummer Stan Lynch!

After Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979, the band kept cranking out incredible albums. In 1981 they released Hard Promises, an album I had for years on vinyl. The band’s classic, “The Waiting,” is found on this album, a song that has some of my favorite Mike Campbell guitar, and great lyrics. But my favorite on the album is “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).”

It’s got the great, subtle, Campbell guitar, cool lyrics, and a nice bass line from guest bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. The album features a duet with Stevie Nicks, “The Insider,” but doesn’t feature the hit “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which was recorded at the same time, but wound up on Nicks’s album Bella Donna. My picks for little-known gems on Hard Promises are “Nightwatchman” and “Letting You Go.” If you love Campbell’s guitar, listen to that “Nightwatchman” song. You’ll thank me!

Up next in the TP&HB discography comes 1982’s Long After Dark. I bought this cassette from the Columbia House Record Club back about 1983. I was a huge MTV fan, and this record featured the Mad Max-inspired MTV hit in “You Got Lucky,” a song that on first listen didn’t sound much like the band’s previous stuff, but still sounded good.

That spare Mike Campbell guitar is heard throughout, but on this song keyboardist Benmont Tench plays a synth, instead of the typical organ, giving a sort of 80s edge to the song. But it’s basic rock, and it has all the stuff I love about Tom and the band. The straightforward “Change of Heart” is also on Long After Dark, and it’s one of my favorites of his. My stand-out unknown track on this one is “We Stand a Chance.”

The next two records, Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), from 1985 and 1987, respectively, scored a few hits, and one huge MTV blockbuster. “Rebels” and “Jammin’ Me” were fine songs that got lots of airplay9, but “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” written with The Eurythmics‘ Dave Stewart, had the iconic video (that in my opinion was better than the song itself!)

I remember my friends and I being impressed with the sitar sound, and I always liked the female backing vocalists. Of course, Mike Campbell’s guitar shines. The band also put out a live album in 1985, Pack Up the Plantation: Live, and included a scorching version of the old Byrds’ hit “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star.”

A few Tom Petty memories: 1) my best friend in high school, Dan, had an older brother he called Nature Boy who looked EXACTLY like Tom Petty. 2) My two older sisters went to Philadelphia to see Tom Petty in concert around 1983, and some would-be mugger attempted to steal my sister’s purse, but my other sister pounded on his back and drove him away! 3) Also, everyone – I mean everyone – in 1989 was listening to Tom Petty’s debut solo album (i.e. without The Heartbreakers) Full Moon Fever.

This record had hit after hit. Of course “Free Fallin'” was huge, but also “I Won’t Back Down,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “A Face in the Crowd” … all were hits. And “Love is a Long Road” got lots of airplay. He also had a few hits around this time with the supergroup he helped form, The Traveling Wilburys, which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O.).

So, that brings us to 1989, meaning he’s still got 30 years of music (almost: RIP Tom) ahead of him. Those first 13 years were incredible, but he kept doing what he’d done all along: put out great rock records. Into the Great Wide Open was a hit album in 1991, and it actually made me angry at Mr. Petty for some time.

A classic TP lyric was lifted from this song.

You see, he ripped off the lyric “a rebel without a clue” from The Replacements’ song “I’ll Be You,” after the band opened for him on tour. But I’m over it now. Anyway, the 90s saw great songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “You Wreck Me.” The 90s through 10s saw great albums: Wildflowers10, the She’s the One soundtrack, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion, a Mudcrutch reunion, Mojo, and Hypnotic Eye. He kept cranking out great music well into his 60s.

I first remember Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as a middle schooler, and in my mind they were lumped in with all the “skinny tie” bands back then. This was around 1979 to 1981, and acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and The Romantics were playing a punk-ish brand of guitar rock called “new wave.” It seemed that any act with a bit shorter hair and decent clothes that wasn’t playing blues-rock was painted with that new-wave, skinny tie brush – from Huey Lewis to Rick Springfield to Quarterflash to Tom Petty. (Even Billy Joel got into the act.)

In 1980, the songs “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” were all over the radio. But I didn’t buy the record until years later, after college, when my cover band with Dr. Dave, JB and The So-Called Cells, began playing lots of Petty songs. It was then that I realized that not only do so many Petty songs SOUND great, they’re also REALLY FUN TO PLAY! This has definitely enhanced my appreciation of the man and his band.

Damn the Torpedoes comes out swinging with the smash hit “Refugee,” a song that will always remind me of playing backyard baseball and football up the street at the Starr’s house – it is the sound of 7th and 8th grade.

It starts with cool organ from Benmont Tench, a nice little guitar piece by Campbell, and then Tom’s signature vocal stylings. At 0:25, there’s a classic Mike Campbell bit where he slides back and forth between 2 notes, a subtle nugget that puts his signature on the song. (At 0:58 the video shows a close up of his left hand playing it again.) Petty sort of scats his way through the verses (albeit with real words), cramming syllables where they shouldn’t fit in as he begs his girl to stop pulling away. My favorite is the last verse where he suggests, “Who knows? Maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom.” At 3:00, he also offers his signature scream, which has always reminded me of 80s shouting comic Sam Kinison.

Petty’s vocal stylings are used to great effect when he mumbles his way through the verses of the next song, the classic “Here Comes My Girl.”

I love the cool guitar slide at the beginning, and the rumble of Ron Blair’s bass. But in the verse, it’s Petty’s voice that carries it, talking the lyrics until 0:50, when he once again spits out the lyrics like a soundcloud rapper, flowing to the lovely chorus. It’s a heartfelt love song in which Petty describes how she makes him feel11. It’s one of his best vocal performances. Let’s face it, he’s not Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury, but his voice is passionate and expressive. Stan Lynch’s harmony vocals through the chorus are terrific, too, as is Campbell’s squiggles and Tench’s piano in the verses. You could listen to most any Petty song a thousand times and hear something new in the mix each time.

On “Even the Losers,” Petty’s at his best in terms of melding great lyrics with great music. His description, through characters’ actions, of first love and how it crumbles is succinct and accurate and connects emotionally.

“It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me?” I love Campbell’s Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo, and once again Stan Lynch’s high harmonies hit the spot. The song brings back many memories of early relationships; as Tom sings, “life is such a drag when you’re living in the past.” (By the way: if you ever get time, and I know I already assigned homework with that other documentary, try to watch this documentary on The Making of Damn the Torpedoes. It’s really good.)

My favorite song on the album is the track “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).”

One thing I’m always amazed by with Tom Petty is his ability to make a very simple riff so damned catchy! In “Shadow of a Doubt,” it’s four notes, played before each line in the verse. For me, those four notes make the song. It’s probably got my favorite Mike Campbell stuff, his wizardry allowing the listener to unearth new nuggets with every play. The band really rocks, and my favorite version of the song is this live version from the old early-80s Saturday Night Live competitor ABC’s Fridays. The lyrics are funny, discussing a girlfriend that Tom can’t figure out, someone who speaks in French while she sleeps! It’s got everything a Petty fan could ask for.

The rave-up “Century City” follows, a straight-ahead rocker about the good times ahead that Petty could probably write in his sleep. The song opens with what I believe are sounds from the old Defender arcade game. Also, I think Springsteen lifted the melody for his song “Pink Cadillac.” The band shines, as always. They also shine on “You Tell Me,” a groovy, piano/bass driven song about a scorned lover with great interplay between Campbell and Tench. Both of these songs are cool, and demonstrate that even the songs that weren’t hits are always worth a spin on a Tom Petty album. Which isn’t to say the hits aren’t tremendous.

“Don’t Do Me Like That” was a huge hit, a top ten Billboard smash, and the biggest hit for the band to that date, peaking at #10 in February, 1980.

The opening drums and piano sound important, the little organ riff sounds cool, and Tom’s fast-talking near-rap vocals about his best girl treating him bad are singalong-worthy, even though they’re hard to sing along to. Stan’s harmonies in the chorus are key, as is his little fill at 0:49 heading into verse 2. Campbell plays some sweet licks behind the vocals throughout, which are necessary, as the song doesn’t have a featured guitar solo. But the genius of Campbell is that he doesn’t require a solo to stand out. On the rocker “What Are You Doing In My Life” Campbell plays a slide guitar. Its honky-tonk piano and vocal harmonies give it a country-rock feel. It’s another deep cut worth hearing from Petty, this one about a stalker fan.

The album closes after just 9 songs, an economy that I wish more artists would strive for. And it closes on the lovely, if lyrically ambiguous, “Louisiana Rain.”

The lyrics are vignettes of a traveling life, and they remind me of Bob Dylan12. In the chorus, the lyrics are reflected in the acoustic strumming, which somehow sounds like rain falling. It’s a simple song with a great melody and cool guitar, including more slide guitar from Campbell. It’s one of those album-ending songs that wraps up the experience neatly, and sticks with a listener, inviting a second, third, and many more listens.

The rhythm section, Stan (L) and Ron (second from right) wear the band t-shirt. That’s dedication.

Look, what can I say. Writing about 100 different albums is challenging, but even more so is SELECTING those records. If I look back at my list, there aren’t any records about which I’d say, “Damn, I should pull that one off the list13.” Yet there seems like there should be more room for Tom. He was a musical gift to rock fans, and as good as Damn the Torpedoes is, there is so much more. Go out and listen to him. I think you’ll agree.

TRACK LISTING:
“Refugee”
“Here Comes My Girl”
“Even the Losers”
“Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
“Century City”
“Don’t Do Me Like That”
“You Tell Me”
“What Are You Doin’ In My Life?”
“Louisiana Rain”

 

Share

12th Favorite: Give the People What They Want, The Kinks

Share

Give the People What They Want. The Kinks.
1981, Arista Records. Producer: Ray Davies.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, is the band’s thumping, guitar-driven version of new-wave rock music. Singer/songwriter Ray Davies is a master of deep, witty lyrics set to catchy melodies, and brother Dave plays a terrific guitar throughout. The songs are angry and funny and full of emotion. I don’t think it was meant to be a rock-opera, concept album, but since I first heard it almost 40 years ago, it’s always sounded like one to me.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

You probably know we are living in The Information Age, but did you know that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary14, the term was first coined by Robert Leghorn in 1960? I first recall hearing the term in 1983, in 10th grade history, when my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, asked if we knew what age we were living in. Some of us guessed the Nuclear Age or the Space Age. She said no, those were generally considered to be just a little earlier, and then she told us, “You are living in the Information Age!”

I was unimpressed. Most of the other ages – Bronze, Iron, Stone, Industrial, Nuclear, Space – conjured images of strong people working hard, or smart people creating new things. Men and women from these past ages seemed heroic15. And even those less-heroic Middle Ages at least included some mysterious, bizarre people and activities that were interesting. But THE INFORMATION AGE? How boring. It sounded like a world of encyclopedia salesmen.

This era is also known as “The Digital Age,” or “The Computer Age,” and these terms provide an image that, while definitely not as cool as a dude in a tunic smelting some copper, would have at least provided more context than “Information Age.” “Information” is a term so inclusive that it loses any meaning. But what I’ve come to understand from living through the transition to the information age, is just how information-starved I really was back in 10th grade. Specifically, a little more information certainly would’ve been helpful in my pursuit of good music.

Billy Joel summed up the problem of pre-Information-Age music fans quite succinctly, and in rhyme, in the song “It’s Still Rock n Roll to Me.”

It doesn’t matter what they say in the papers/ ‘Cause it’s always been the same old scene/ There’s a new band in town/ But you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine/ Aimed at your average teen

-Billy Joel

In those days, the two easiest means of finding out about bands and music were a) the radio, and b) siblings and friends. One problem16 with (a) was that if your family listened to boring 70s AM radio, and you lived in the middle of nowhere, far from big cities and college towns and the diversity of radio formats they offered, you weren’t exactly hearing the cutting-edge new stuff. The problem with (b) was that it all depended on what your sibling liked. You could borrow friends’ music and listen, but again, you only found out what your friends liked.17

But I had a different way to find out about new music. Beginning in about 1979 or 1980, my family was a member of the Columbia House Record Club. Click that link, or do a little web-searching on your own, and you’ll find out all about the club. Basically, it was a mail service. You bought 12 records for a buck18, then agreed to buy 6 more records over the next year. It was one of those deals, like adjustable-rate mortgages, that if you stayed on top of things, you could maybe make work, but if you didn’t pay attention to, you’d get screwed big-time. The deal you agreed to with Columbia House was that whatever crappy record they sent you each month, you would buy – UNLESS you sent them a postcard to say you didn’t want it. I spent my high school years terrified of running out of postcard stamps, diligently rejecting every Olivia Newton-John, Debarge, Alabama, Night Ranger, etc., album they tried to send me.

Each month they also sent a little booklet19 containing a list of hundreds of albums available for purchase. At 12 years old, I had a back door into this exclusive Club (I’ll just call it “The Club”) because my older sisters were members. (I don’t mean to brag.) I pored through that booklet regularly, figuring it was how the savvy music-enthusiast performed research. What I didn’t recognize as a 12-year-old was that the booklet provided the absolute least amount of information possible about a record to still qualify as “information.” The Club had to cram as many album descriptions as possible into a flimsy, 4″ x 6″, 6-page booklet, which included sections for Country and Western, Jazz, Easy Listening, and Soul, in addition to “Rock and Roll,” the genre of listener my sisters had self-identified as in their first purchase. So, the Music Guide editors ruthlessly enforced a character limit per album description20.

Only a few of the listings would include a picture of the album cover. Most just were represented by a bulleted blurb. In either case, the artist and album name would be listed in bold-face, and sometimes truncated. For example, the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album You’re Gonna Get It! might be listed as “T. Petty/Heartbreakers, ‘You’re … Get It’

Next would follow entirely unhelpful bits of reviews from music magazines, literally single words that meant nothing to a music fan. “Exciting!” – Crawdaddy. “Rollicking!” – Cashbox. If no positive words could be culled from any reviews written about the album in any recognizable magazines, then The Club staff would add a few empty, pseudo-tantalizing phrases to the description: “Hitmaker Petty at it again.” “‘American Girl’ rocker impresses.”

Finally, a few song titles would be listed – but only the shortened titles of singles, and then some other few-lettered songs. For example, “Listen…Heart,” “Need … Know,” “Hurt.” These words meant the singles “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know,” and the song “Hurt,” because it’s only four letters long.

I don’t know if nepotism played a role, but by 1982, the spring of my freshman year of high school, I was allowed entree to The Club. I found a 12-for-a-penny offer sheet – probably inside the Sunday Parade magazine, next to a classically unfunny Howard Huge cartoon – and scoured my sisters’ Music Guide for the details that would guide my initial selections.

I quickly realized it was a waste of time. Instead, I just chose 12 cassettes containing songs I’d heard on the radio, or that I knew my friends already liked. I still remember the titles of most of those first 12 selections. And I still remember the date they arrived: Friday, March 5, 1982. I was at a school event that evening, telling my friend Bruce about my new cassettes, when he told me that John Belushi had died that day.

One cent bought me some Greatest Hits cassettes: The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Yes. I also chose Crimes of Passion, by Pat Benatar; Business as Usual, by Men at Work; Permanent Waves, by Rush, and Get Lucky, by Loverboy. And I picked two albums that have appeared on my 100 Favorite Albums: Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police; and Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, the album that sent me down the path of love for hooky, guitar-driven, fast-paced rock..

The Kinks are surely one of the most well-known and important bands of The First British Invasion in the ’60s, not to mention in the entire history of rock music. Guitarist Dave Davies is sometimes credited with “inventing” heavy metal on the song “You Really Got Me.” His brother, bandleader/songwriter Ray Davies, was McCartney-esque in his ability to write songs in most any style, including mod pop, British music hall, even disco. His lyrics could be funny, biting, insightful and moving.

By the early 1980s, the aging British bands of the 60s and 70s were trying to stay modern and MTV-ready in any way possible. The Stones tried disco. The Who cut their hair. David Bowie went full-on Top 40. Paul McCartney, well … I don’t know exactly what that was. But The Kinks, who’d always sort of done whatever they wanted, musically, continued to just be The Kinks.

From the first time I heard Give the People What They Want in full, until this very day, I’ve thought of it as a concept album, as a story of a man’s descent into madness over the pressures placed on his artistic soul by the heavy weight of corporate and economic realities. I’ve never heard Ray Davies speak of it in those terms, but when he writes a blog, he can dispute my take on it. The lead track, “Around the Dial,” begins the tale with a story of a missing DJ.

It’s difficult, in 2019, to express how important radio DJs were in 1950s-80s American culture, but they really were influencers, taste-makers, and local celebrities. The song opens with a radio being tuned21 followed by crashing power chords. I love the sound of Mick Avory’s drums on this record – it’s a live, Albini-esque, In Utero sound. The song’s a driving number, and Dave’s lead guitar nicely answers the vocals throughout the verses. I like Jim Rodford’s bass line, too. The song is basically a punk song, and at 2:00 Dave actually hits some of those ringing, Ramones-style chords. There’s a nice bridge at 3:06, then that radio tuning sound comes back (3:38) and we head to the end. Ray’s voice is excellent, his ability to enunciate and shout in tune is pretty terrific. The character singing the song doesn’t know what’s happened (“Was it something that you said to the corporation guys upstairs?”) but the second song provides a pretty big clue.

The title track indicates that those corporation guys wanted the DJ to play some whack, bullshit, popular crap.

Ray Davies is clearly dubious of entertainment for the masses. “Blow out your brains, and do it right /Make sure it’s prime time and on a Saturday night.” The song has a great guitar riff, and nice dueling guitar parts leading up to the first verse. The guitars sound like they’re in a Replacements song, a band that was just getting off the ground in 198122. It’s a raucous, lovely mess of a song, with great vocals and thumping bass.

The next song, “Killer’s Eyes,” opens softly, and in the Give the People What They Want Rock Opera I’ve built in my head, the DJ is considering his own dark thoughts, and his companions’ are concerned that his leaving his job is an ominous sign. (It’s actually about Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.) It’s got a great chord progression, and more great, subtle lead guitar from Dave, and I love Ray’s last run through the chorus, at 3:30.

Of course there’s biting wit in all the songs, but it wouldn’t seem like The Kinks if there wasn’t at least a bit of light humor in the proceedings as well, and “Predictable” provides it.

Dave’s cool-sounding guitar opens the song, which turns out to be a sort of reggae song with a rock beat. It’s about a man who’s life has gotten, well, predictable. (In my concept album, the DJ is questioning his home life, pressure mounting.) I like how the guitar and bass transition to the chorus (0:30), and the double guitars throughout. Ray’s girlfriend at the time, Kinks-enthusiast and superstar Chrissie Hynde, provides backing vocals. I also think it’s not unintentional that a song called “Predictable” is rather repetitive.

In my story for Give the People What They Want, the DJ is not only feeling “Predictable,” he’s also angry that his wife is too materialistic. (This will be important later!) It’s summed up in the terrific “Add It Up,” one of my favorite tracks on the record.

It’s an aggressive song, with Dave’s alternating chiming guitar and power chords driving it. Rodford’s bass sound is rich, especially on the little runs (0:42) he fills in. Ray’s voice is awesome in this song, ranging across a difficult melody, at times with delicacy and others with rage. Hynde coos the “Cartier! Gucci!” backing vocals, and Dave harmonizes on the “Add it Up” choruses. It’s a pounding song that always prepares me for the next one, the album hit, and the Sound of Freshman Year, Fall 1981, “Destroyer.”

This song was everywhere that fall. It had everything teenage boys of the era loved: loud guitars, shouting lyrics, and a singalong hook. As a fan of The Kinks, it’s cool to hear the band reference both “Lola,” the band’s 1970 hit about a surprising date, and “All Day and All of the Night,” the band’s 1964 hit, from which the guitar riff is borrowed. Dave’s guitar really shines on “Destroyer.” The tone is great on all the little fills he plays throughout. There’s cool piano in the background, and the band’s backing shouts add to the power. Lyrically, the song’s about mental health, and in my story the DJ finally cracks. On the rest of side 223 we will find out what happened to him!

In “Yo-Yo,” the DJ’s wife is realizing something’s wrong with him. Dave’s guitar arpeggiates behind Ray’s voice on what starts as a soft number. But at 1:24 it’s back to power chords as we get the DJ’s crazy take on things. It’s a cool guitar song, particularly through Verse 3 (beginning 2:28). The song transitions into “Back to Front,” a rave-up with excellent guitar. Dave Davies isn’t often mentioned among the Guitar Greats, though Rolling Stone ranked him at #91 all-time, but he’s a furious, inventive talent. In this song, the DJ’s friends have had enough of his bullshit. Everyone has left him.

Even, we find out, his young daughter.

“Art Lover” is one of those songs that, if one doesn’t listen closely to the lyrics, sounds really creepy, if not downright horrifying, as a grown man eyes little girls. By the end we realize he’s a parent separated from his child, trying to get a glimpse of what he’s lost. It’s a sad song. And as someone who finds himself missing the days of parenting toddlers – long days at the playground, relaxing with a coffee while making sure nobody breaks an arm – I do find myself looking at active little kids with a sense of loss, and I try not to look creepy about it.

But maybe The DJ lost the kids for a good reason? “A Little Bit of Abuse” suggests he took out his frustrations on his wife. (At least, in my very specific reading of the album as a story of one DJ’s descent into madness.) It’s a bluesy, gritty guitar song, with great harmony vocals throughout. The lyrics actually offer a very 70s/80s view of spousal abuse, in which the battered partner shares blame because they stay. This idea can come from a place of encouragement (“You DO have the power to leave!”), but it also misses the complexities of the issue.

In any case, “Art Lover” and “A Little Bit of Abuse” are a one-two punch of desperate sadness. What could follow? Well, how about the song that may be my favorite (non-Beatles) song of all time: “Better Things.”

It’s got a cool sound, cool guitars, great melody, and lyrics that offer nothing more than simple kindness and a blessing: “I hope tomorrow you find better things.” Everything’s gone down the shitter for our DJ, but everyone – even he – can hope for improvements. I love how the guitar answers the melody throughout, and the ringing sounds Dave pulls from it. To this point in The Kinks’ career, many had grown accustomed to Ray’s cynical lyrics. It may have been shocking to hear him earnestly wish, “hoping all the verses rhyme/ and the very best of choruses, too.” It’s a song that, when I’m feeling down, can bring me deep, deep joy.

So, I don’t know. It’s true, we’re in the Information Age, but was all of this stuff I just wrote here TOO MUCH information? Does anyone care about my Columbia House memories? Did anyone need to read about a story I invented for an album I really, really love? Maybe not. But this is, after all, the Information Age. I’m here doing my part, the equivalent of an ancient Pict, grooving in a forest, making bronze tools. I’m providing information, and the information is this: Give the People What They Want is a record I love!

TRACK LISTING:
“Around the Dial”
“Give the People What They Want”
“Killer’s Eyes”
“Predictable”
“Add It Up”
“Destroyer”
“Yo-Yo”
“Back to Front”
“Art Lover”
“A Little Bit of Abuse”
“Better Things”


Share

13th Favorite: American Idiot, by Green Day.

Share

American Idiot. Green Day.
2004, Reprise Records. Producer: Rob Cavallo and Green Day.
Purchased, 2004.

IN A NUTSHELL: American Idiot, by Green Day, is a punk rock opera, and the band offers up the variety of sounds and styles that an opera requires, all while keeping their punk attitude and spirit in place. Billie Joe Armstrong can write hooks and riffs in his sleep, and supported by Tre Cool’s frantic drums and Mike Dirnt’s bass and, especially, vocal harmonies, he creates songs I want to hear again and again – even if I don’t really understand the story. But that’s opera for you.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

Ah, politics. How I hate politics. I hate politics because I am, by nature, someone who wants to get along with people and who seeks to avoid conflict. If I can engage someone in conversation about music or books or movies or sports, I can generally steer things away from politics. This tactic reveals something about me that I’m not thrilled with, and that I’d like to improve, but that is true, nonetheless: I can be quite judgmental. I won’t judge you for the sports teams or books or movies or music you like (very much). I probably will judge you for your politics24. It’s a character flaw, and I am working on it and have learned to get past it.

I generally don’t write so directly about politics on this blog. And even though I have done so in the past, don’t worry – you can read this post without feeling the tut-tutting, scolding, finger-waving author on your shoulder, telling you what a lousy person you are because you disagree with him about tax law. You see, this post will not be about politics. It will be about political music.

I was a kid in the 70s, during and just after The Vietnam War, so I certainly was aware of political music from the time I was aware of music. I grew up in a very conservative area in Pennsylvania, and my family was conservative25, and so we just didn’t discuss the political nature or the situations that necessitated writing such songs as “For What It’s Worth” and “War” and “Get Together.” Most folks I knew liked the songs, ignored their messages, and mocked the hippies that sang them.

The vast majority of the political songs tended to come, politically-speaking, from the Left, where a long tradition of protest music wound its way from folk music into rock. There was at least one popular 60s political song from the Right (here’s a second version), but most musical conservative viewpoints came from Country Music, which my family hated, and so which I never listened to (although that’s changing). In the 70s, most “protest” songs (if you will) that commented on The Left came in the form of novelty songs like “The Streak” and “Junk Food Junkie” and “Disco Duck.”

Growing up, and even through high school and college, I disliked the lyrical content of most political songs (except the novelty songs, which I loved). At that time in my life I often disagreed with the lefty sentiments26, and I also felt uncomfortable that many of the songs seemed designed purely to piss off half the listeners. The ones I did appreciate were songs like “Fortunate Son,” by CCR, which seemed to have a message that everyone27 could get behind.

Also, by this point the 80s were in full swing, which was NOT an era of protest. The hippies had become yuppies, and coffee-achievers, and they put Deadhead stickers on their Cadillacs. Popular “protest” songs were now just cheesy pop songs in disguise. The real protest songs were unheard on radio, confined to sub-genres and underground styles. But by the end of the decade, the burgeoning and suddenly popular hip-hop scene brought back a healthy dose of the sounds of protest.

Throughout all this time I was happy that the protest songs had taken a backseat. I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. But in 1991, R.E.M. changed my perspective. I was watching that year’s MTV Music Awards and the band cleaned up for their video for “Losing My Religion.” With every win, singer Michael Stipe appeared onstage in a different t-shirt bearing a statement for a cause he supported: handgun control, rainforest conservation, safe sex, etc. I’d always been an R.E.M. fan, and in watching that show, I understood the desire for certain people to use their platform to raise awareness. Since then I’ve made peace with musical protest. Whether or not I agree with the sentiment28, I no longer feel uncomfortable that they’re putting it out there.

But despite my newfound acceptance of such efforts, the 90s weren’t exactly a hotbed of protest songs. The Gen-X/Slacker/Whatever era was in full swing, and detached indifference and woe-is-me angst were all the rage. Oh Well, whatever. Never mind. Also, mainstream hip-hop had pivoted away from violent (perhaps) protest to pure violence. The Lilith Fair era late in the decade could certainly be seen as a protest against a male-dominated music industry, but the music wasn’t uniformly dissent-rock29, and stuck mostly to the popular 90s personal-problems motifs.

Since that 1991 epiphany, I began to reconsider the nature of some of the music I’d loved my whole life: The Beatles, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Lynrd Skynrd, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. They’d all been political, at least in some points in their musical careers. Some of them were subtle in how they expressed it, some weren’t. But it’s only natural that most artists would feel compelled to put their beliefs and ideas and opinions into their art. It’s just, kind of, what they do. So I’m no longer put off by music with a message. Unless I think the song sucks.

Of all the acts who began hitting the charts in the early 90s, Green Day may have been the least expected to release a political statement album. Their breakout album, 1994’s Dookie, was terrific, but the songs focused on getting stoned, living in squalor and, well, getting stoned. But then again, they came from the East Bay DIY Punk scene which is inherently political, and they were always champions of social causes like gay rights.

Dookie was the first I’d heard of them, and I became a fan right away. Many of my friends dismissed them as a 70s punk ripoff band, and maybe they were, but their melodies and energy had me hooked. And even though they opened the door for a wave of bands ripping off bands who were ripping off bands who were ripping off 70s punk, I thought they were carving their own musical path. Through the 90s and early 00s they put out great records, including 2000’s excellent album Warning, which was, at times, almost a folk-rock album. My wife liked them, too, and for a while she took such an interest in front man and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong that I took to calling him her boyfriend – a nickname I still use when I discuss him with her.

By the time 2004 rolled around, and W. was the USA’s figurehead30, I was ready for more Green Day music, and I was ready for an artistic expression of political outrage and resistance. However, I certainly didn’t expect I’d get both in one package: American Idiot. As with many Rock Operas and concept albums, the story in American Idiot doesn’t always hew exactly to the purported theme. In fact, a very conservative guy I worked with when it came out loved the album because the message was so muddled that he could listen and not even worry much about what he was singing along to31. Even the song “American Idiot” has a title that could describe anyone of any political viewpoint,

The album opens with the kind of catchy, simple guitar riff that singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong seems to write in his sleep. It’s straightforward, and drummer Tre Cool pounds a vicious beat throughout, and changes things up when they need it, like about 1:09. Armstrong plays a catchy guitar solo, and things wrap up nicely. The lyrics bemoan the American media and how it fanned the flames of paranoia after 9/11. It’s an opening blast that can’t be ignored, but it also could’ve been part of any previous Green Day album.

“Jesus of Suburbia” follows, and it’s this 9-minute, 5-song suite, with its multi-part story of alienated teens, that lets Green Day fans know this won’t be a standard, smirking Green Day album.

Part 1, “Jesus of Suburbia,” opens with guitar fanfare, and once again Tre Cool keeps a cool beat. I’ve always thought one of the secret weapons of the band was bassist Mike Dirnt’s playing and harmony vocals. He’s one in a long line of terrific harmony-singing bassists: Paul (of course), Michael Anthony, Randy Meisner, Mike Mills. The album doesn’t feature his playing as much as some previous records, but he provides the backing “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahs” and they sound great.

The song transitions to part 2, “City of the Damned,” nicely at 2 minutes with some piano flourishes. The chorus is catchy, and the shout-along background vocals provide some oomph. The dynamics shift between chorus and verse, then remain loud for part 3, “I Don’t Care.” It includes a fanfare, and, at 4:31, a violent, crunching litany of complaints, then finishes with a hooting “I Don’t Care!” At this point, I always think, “man! That song was awesome!!” Then the terrific part 4, “Dearly Beloved” begins, and I’m a bit more astonished.

It’s a bouncy, folky song with glockenspiel and more Mike Dirnt harmonies. Folks on YouTube, commenting on the video version of this song, say “Jesus of Suburbia” reminds them of a “punk ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.'” I guess I could see that. Especially as part 5, “Tales of Another Broken Home,” plays. It’s an operatic song that really stands on its own. Excellent syncopated drums at 7:00, to begin the pre-chorus, and the continued harmonies, have me singing along whenever I listen. The guitar solo, about 7:55, starts very simply, then moves to a cool riff. The final bit of the song, with soft piano and vocals building to the end, is quite satisfying. The first time I heard this 9-minute opus, I thought, “Holy shit.” And I still think it whenever I hear it!

Even the songs that aren’t part of named suites often run together, for example “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” both of which hit the pop charts, with the latter being Green Day’s biggest commercial hit ever.

“Holiday” is another political song, and this time it connects and captures some of what it felt like in the early 00s to question a war that today has been proven to have been based upon lies. It’s got the classic Green Day/Armstrong riff and melody. The spoken word portion is great, and the refrain “Just cause,” which was a term thrown around quite a bit back in the day, is used to great effect. But it’s the melody, the riff, and the drums that I love.

“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is one of those songs that just stays with you. I don’t know if it’s something about the chord pattern, or the sounds, or the sad-sack lyrics to which anyone who’s had a bad day can relate. This is a song that Dirnt’s harmonies really shine on, and the little touches of piano and a constant feeling of swelling help make it resonate. The outro riff (7:30 in the video above) sounds like Classic Rock 101, reminiscent of The Beatles “She’s So Heavy,” which is perfectly fine by me.

“Are We the Waiting” is a power-ballad of a song, without the mushy love of those 80s power-ballads. It’s got cool girl-group drums and a nice arpeggiated guitar line. The song is one of a few on the album with shout-along lyrics designed especially to connect with angsty teens (and adults who remember being angsty teens!) I’m not sure who the Jesus of Suburbia is, even after listening to this record a million times, but when Billie Joe sings that the Jesus of Suburbia is a lie, the 15-year old in me knows just what he means. And the disgust he feels gets him ready to bang his head right along to “St. Jimmy,” a song about a character in the story. It’s an aggressive punk song, with great drum fills as it changes (4:40) to a Beach Boys-esque number.

At this point in the American Idiot story, I’m not too concerned about whether it’s a cohesive narrative. I’ve decided to just enjoy it. “Give Me Novocaine” and “She’s a Rebel” continue the slow song about sadness/fast song about wild abandon pattern that’s been established. “Extraordinary Girl” is straightforward pop about a girl, with terrific harmony vocals. Then comes one of my favorites on the record, “Letterbomb.”

I like the tinny guitar that opens it, and the energy and melody. I like the guitar line throughout, and (of course) the harmony vocals. But what I most love, as a Cheap Trick fan since middle school, is how Green Day cribs a bit of the melody from Cheap Trick’s “She’s Tight.” The lyrics involve a part of the story where (I think) a realization is made and someone leaves town.

It sets up one of Green Day’s biggest hits, the song of loss (written for Billie Joe’s father, who died of cancer when he was 10) “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Much like the bands 90s hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” this is a song that many punk diehards will detest out-of-hand, despite the thumping choruses. However, it is a testament to the band’s range and power. And it’s understandable why the song became so important to so many non-punks.

After all this, the band still has time for one more epic, multi-part suite that tells the end of the story, and – shockingly – sends the band into near prog-rock territory! It’s the formidable (and somewhat exhausting?) “Homecoming.”

It starts with distorted vocals and guitar on “The Death of St. Jimmy,” and “East 12th St.,” and in both, the band recapitulates all that’s come before: melody, harmonies, cool drums, Beach Boy oohs, shout-along lyrics. “Nobody Likes You” repeats the melody of “Letterbomb,” and “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” gives drummer Tre Cool a few seconds at the mic. By the time “We’re Coming Home Again” ends – with tympani, chimes and as much pomp as punk can muster – I’m reminded of Abbey Road‘s side two medley. I reach the end of American Idiot feeling like I just experienced something great.

And it finishes with a perfect album closer, “Whatsername.”

Despite its dance-beat opening, there’s a kind of sadness, a finality to the song. It’s about an old girlfriend who’s left, a character in the opera named Whatsername. I hear something Westerbergian (songwriter from The Replacements) in the song – a sense of trying to seem fine despite the pain. The harmonies at 2:36 often bring chills to me, and after Armstrong’s last verse the song ends suddenly, which somehow seems fitting after 20 songs of so much drama. “Whatsername” feels like the coda the album needed.

I don’t like discussing politics. I do like discussing music. What’s great about American Idiot, and most of the political or protest songs that I’ve loved, is that you don’t have to agree, or even care, about the themes and statements to appreciate the music. Maybe I’m an American Idiot for saying this, but I think American Idiot is an incredible record no matter what your political beliefs may be.

TRACK LISTING:
“American Idiot”
“Jesus of Suburbia”
~~i. “Jesus of Suburbia”
~~ii.”City of the Damned”
~~iii. “I Don’t Care”
~~iv. “Dearly Beloved”
~~v. “Tales of Another Broken Home”
“Holiday”
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
“Are We the Waiting”
“St. Jimmy”
“Give Me Novocaine”
“She’s a Rebel”
“Extraordinary Girl”
“Letterbomb”
“Wake Me Up When September Ends”
“Homecoming”
~~i. “The Death of St. Jimmy”
~~ii. “East 12th St.”
~~iii. “Nobody Likes You”
~~iv. “Rock and Roll Girlfriend”
~~v. “We’re Coming Home Again”
“Whatsername”


Share

14th Favorite: You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, by Maria McKee

Share

You Gotta Sin to Get Saved. Maria McKee.
1993, Geffin Records. Producer: George Drakoulis.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, by Maria McKee, is nine songs of passion and emotion, of spirited fun and reflections on life, and one song that, well, isn’t. McKee is a tremendous singer, and her voice is the star on songs that range from Country to gospel to folk and even Motown. The all-star band sounds great, and there isn’t a note out of place. McKee writes personal lyrics that connect with the listener, and whether she’s singing her own or someone else’s, she never disappoints.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”

-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Perfection is a popular topic for quotes. (That Tolstoy one popped up immediately.) It is a popular topic for blog posts, and a popular topic for blogs in general. The gist of all of these seems to be that everyone should just relax a little and not focus on being perfect. Striving for perfection may give you problems you just don’t need. But some people can’t help it: they are perfectionists. But there is help for them, too.

There are self-help books for perfectionists32, and more self-help books for perfectionists, and even MORE self-help books for perfectionists. Many of these books are based on the piles of research papers all about perfectionism. There are kids’ books for burgeoning perfectionists. There are Group Therapy sessions, and TED Talks for adult perfectionists. The state of Western Australia offers mental health resources for perfectionists.

This all seems a little overblown, perhaps. But if you’ve ever been around a true perfectionist, you have likely come away with the thought that “This person needs serious mental help.” I had an uber-perfectionist boss whose entire business (which was very successful) ran at about 35% efficiency

because he was so stifled by the thought of making imperfect changes that by 2012 we were still using Dot Matrix printers and having staff hand-deliver hard-copy documents to each others’ desks instead of using email. It worked perfectly in 1995, and he didn’t want to take a chance that upgrades would be less than perfect. Imperfect 2012 technology may have helped his business more than perfect 1995 technology, but that was beside the point. The point, to him, was perfection. He was paralyzed by it.

I myself have never been a perfectionist. With most things in life, I’m a good-enough-ist. And it turns out there are books and articles and posts and etc. all about why this approach to life is just as problematic as perfectionism. I haven’t read these articles in-depth. I’ve read a few paragraphs and thought, “Okay, that’s good enough.” I’m not interested in perfectionism for myself, and I’m not really looking for perfectionism in others, either. But I am sometimes astounded by works that are one giant flaw away from perfection.

There is a podcast called “Heavyweight” in which the host, Jonathan Goldstein, helps people deal with problems they’ve had in their past. In the episode “Marchal” he discusses an incredible movie called Russian Ark, a 100-minute long movie that traces the history of Russia, and which was filmed, unbelievably, in one single, 100-minute long take.

The podcast delves into a four-second part of the movie in which an extra, a violin player in a ballroom scene, breaks the “4th wall” by staring into the camera. In the entire movie, it is the only instance where someone acknowledges the camera, and in fact is the only error in the entire production. Nobody forgot lines, nobody sneezed, nobody tripped, there were no on-set mishaps or lighting or costuming or prop mistakes. It all went perfectly. Except for those few seconds (visible in this clip at about the 9:35 mark). The podcast host, Jonathan Goldstein, is obsessed by this imperfection.

Similarly, I’m interested (certainly not obsessed) with artistic choices that seem to render an otherwise excellent effort, well, imperfect. At least two albums on my list, The Fine Art of Surfacing and Making Movies, have a clunker song that diminishes the album. I’d say “Revolution #9” does the same to The Beatles’ White Album, although “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Wild Honey Pie” are also rather weak33, so it doesn’t really fit the “single blemish” idea.

I’m thinking of imperfections this week because one of the most egregious imperfections on my list of 100 Favorite Albums occurs on Maria McKee’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, and it occurs on the first song. When I heard the first song, I almost didn’t listen to the rest of the album, but I’m sure glad I (sort of) got over it! But first, let’s see how I got here.

Back in 1994, one of my all-time favorite movies was released: Pulp Fiction. It was funny, thrilling, shocking, dramatic … and it had an incredible soundtrack. Many of the songs were oldies by artists like Chuck Berry, The Statler Brothers and Dusty Springfield. I loved the movie, and I loved the music and I went out and got the CD. It became a favorite, and it played almost nonstop in our home. One of my favorite songs was by a woman whose name I’d never heard before: Maria McKee. It was a beautiful, heart aching performance of a sad song, written by the performer herself: “If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags).”

Somehow, I got the idea that Maria McKee was the singer for the lo-fi, Canadian alt-country band Cowboy Junkies. I went out and bought a CD by them and, while it was okay, the singer was not Maria McKee, but was Margo Timmins. Maria McKee had in fact been the leader and singer of the 80s alt-country band Lone Justice. When I got that sorted out, I went out and bought You Gotta Sin to Get Saved so I could hear more of McKee’s stylish, heartfelt vocals, like I heard on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. The first track disappointed me immediately.

I’m Gonna Soothe You” sounds over-produced and sappy, like some record executive’s effort to get “a hit” for a young artist by distilling her voice into simply well-sung notes and adding it to a style and format to which she’s unsuited, leaving out what makes the artist so great: her emotion and style and wild abandon. The song was written by McKee and her Lone Justice collaborator, Marvin Etzioni, with a third person, professional songwriter Bruce Brody. You can almost hear the deal being made: “Okay, you can make an album, but the first song has to be this song, and you have to let Brody add some panache to it!” (This style of wheeling and dealing is touched on in this European TV interview with McKee.) I almost stopped listening right then. I’m glad I didn’t.

The next song is her rendition of Van Morrison’s “My Lonely Sad Eyes,” and it sets things right from the first sung notes.

The simple acoustic riff and swirling organ set the table for McKee’s voice, which is powerful and direct. She’s not really “a belter,” in the style of, say Johnette Napolitano, from Concrete Blonde. McKee’s voice is a bit thinner. She’s more of a shouter, but she controls it really well. And more than that, she has a way of performing the songs that makes them connect with me. This song is a story of two people who both feel like they should have stayed together, and even though I don’t have a personal connection to the lyrical content, it still sounds moving.

Next up is “My Girlhood Among the Outlaws,” one of the best song titles ever.

It’s one of my favorites on the record. The album features Benmont Tench, from Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers, the guys from The Posies, and from The Jayhawks, and also members of McKee’s Lone Justice. I don’t know who plays on this song, but I do like the subtle electric guitar. At about 2:11, there’s also a nice guitar solo break. I love how the song builds through the first verse, then starts a second verse and builds to the wonderful chorus, about 1:06. The lyrics are personal, like all in McKee’s repertoire, and almost confessional. Here McKee claims she’d relive all her evil deeds if it brought her to this place. The song is dedicated to her Lone Justice band mates, so we know who the “outlaws” of the title refer to. She sings the song with great conviction.

She’s full of conviction, as well, in the Country swing of “Only Once,” a tale of giving up true love to pursue her passion for music.

However, the story is more complex than that, as by the end she reveals that she may have made the wrong choice. I’ve written before about my complex relationship with Country music, and this is the style of Country song I like. It’s got a sweet, twangy guitar throughout (check out that harmonic bend at 0:25!), some pedal steel thrown in, and a terrific walking bass line and backing vocals in the chorus (1:21). McKee really sells the songs she sings, connects completely with this listener.

She can do more than Country, as well. The stellar “I Forgive You” has a bit of a gospel feeling to it.

It’s the type of song that, if I’m in the right (wrong?) mood, could bring a tear to my eye. The backing vocals, the horns, and especially the lyrics, in which McKee acknowledges it’s a bad relationship for her, all help to create a sad scene. Even as the Greek Chorus of backing vocalists reminds her not to stand for abuse, McKee admits her man is a habit she can’t quit. The song slows down at appropriate times (2:40, 3:07) to build the emotion, and McKee delivers. Then the break at 3:34 sets the stage for McKee to improvise over swelling instruments and backing vocals. For me, this performance is so many miles beyond the opening track that it’s hard to believe it’s the same artist. Back when albums had two sides, this song was the classic Side 1 closer.

Even in McKee’s fun songs, there’s a sadness to the lyrics. “I Can’t Make It Alone” is a bouncy, pop gem with an infectious chorus and great harmonies. It has a nifty guitar solo and great drums, and yet the lyrics express the sadness of lost love. When she pulls out all the stops and puts her melancholy lyrics together with a mournful tune, as in the haunting “Precious Time,” about the lonely people around us, the effect is quite powerful. (I think of this song as a third-party reflection on the narrator in The Replacements’ song “Here Comes a Regular.”)

But whether doing her own songs or interpreting others’, as in her second Van Morrison song, the celebration of love “The Way Young Lovers Do,” it’s her voice that stars in the show. Check out what she does here.

The control she shows on a ranging melody, the scatting (1:37), the jazzy notes she finds beginning at 2:22 … it is a striking performance. And the band, particularly the bass and drums, is quite up to the task of supporting her. The song fades out, and I get the feeling they kept playing and singing for another 20 minutes. It’s this joy and excitement that was excised from Song 1.

On “Why Wasn’t I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet),” McKee puts her voice to good use on a song that could’ve been a 60s Motown hit.

The band is smoking’ hot on this one: the guitar, the bass, the drums, the horns and keyboards. The backing vocals shine and there’s a terrific guitar solo at 2:50, too. I could imagine Al Green doing a version of this song of regret in 1971. But McKee doesn’t need anyone else to sing her songs: her voice is always up to the task. It astounds me that she’s not better known.

And maybe that’s the feeling the record company had when they got her to cut that first track: “We hafta get this voice out there in front of the public!” But the problem is, they put it to use on an over-produced pop song instead of letting that voice fly high, as it does on the wonderful album closer, “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved.”

It’s a fun, funny, singalong party number, in which McKee tells her longtime boyfriend not to worry about her wicked cheatin’, as it only means he’ll be able to save her later. It sounds as if it was recorded live, and you can feel the spirit, the life in the room of musicians. It’s a performance that connects with me, as the entire album does.

Except for that first song. This is an imperfect album. It came so close to perfection, but it wasn’t meant to be. That one imperfection says a lot about what it means to be a professional creative person, trying to balance art and commerce. There will come a time when you have to make compromises – you’ll have to put out a crappy pop song in order to release the music you want to release.

In other words, you gotta sin to get saved.

Track Listing:
“I’m Gonna Soothe You”
“My Lonely Sad Eyes”
“My Girlhood Among the Outlaws”
“Only Once”
“I Forgive You”
“I Can’t Make It Alone”
“Precious Time”
“The Way Young Lovers Do”
“Why Wasn’t I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet)”
“You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”

Share

15th Favorite: Exile on Main St., by The Rolling Stones

Share


Exile on Main St.. The Rolling Stones.
1972, Rolling Stones Records. Producer: Jimmy Miller.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Exile on Main St., by The Rolling Stones, is a double-album’s worth of straight ahead blues, uplifting gospel, dirty boogie and good ol’ rock n roll.  Mick Jagger’s vocals are top-notch, as are Keith Richards’ harmonies, and the dueling guitar work by Richards and Mick Taylor warrants repeated listens.  It’s a ragged, fun, human collection of songs revealing a great band at their shabby best.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

The author and his pet work on the first post ever on this blog.

On the first few posts ever on this website, 280 years ago in 1979, I rambled on and on about “Greatest Albums” lists. Back in those days I was under the misapprehension that readers the world over would be flocking to a website to read 7,000-word posts about rock albums – the good, the bad and the obscure – fancied by some random, middle-aged, white guy. I’d still like to live in that world – where one can begin to approach a real, human connection through written words and ideas – as long as I don’t have to read someone else’s boring blathering in return.

I now understand that a) multitudes aren’t coming; and b) I might as well honor those who do come by keeping things as short as possible, never more than 6,800 words. So I’ll now briefly recap those first three posts: Greatest Album Lists34 are very annoying.

Art is not a contest. No scores are kept. No statistics are available, except dollars, a measurement by which Spy Kids 3D is a better movie than Doctor Zhivago. “Greatest” will always be a subjective term.

In 2013, NME named The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead the greatest album ever. A year earlier, Rolling Stone magazine gave the honor to a record at #87 on NME‘s list The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On their list at #216 was The Queen Is Dead. NME‘s 7th greatest album was the debut album by The Stone Roses, which was #497 on Rolling Stone‘s list. So, the notion of “Greatest” in the arts has a little, shall we say, flexibility to it.

Calling something “The Greatest” in the arts to me smacks of a kind of arrogant presumptuousness that I’ve tried to eliminate from my personality. Who am I to say what’s “Great?” This is why I’m counting down “favorites.” A Favorite Album may, or may not, be great. Very often what makes a record a favorite is a connection to it that is separate from the music – who you were with when you heard it, or a time in life that it represents. Conversely, an album that you can tell is “Great” might not really resonate with you. For me, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is such an album. I listened, thought, “Wow, that’s really good!” but never listened to it a whole lot afterwards. And I recognize that Bob Dylan is exceptional, the Nobel Prize, etc. etc., but he just doesn’t do much for me.

And these examples don’t even get into the issue of genre preferences. Metallica may well be the greatest metal band ever. Tupac Shakur may be the greatest rapper, Bach the greatest classical composer, and Barbra Streisand the greatest musical theater singer ever. I’m just not moved. I can recognize talent in all of them, but as to their greatness, I’ll have to take your word for it.

Those “Greatest Album” lists are assembled at magazines by “experts” who get together and decide for everyone else what is great and what isn’t. Then they write about the records, saying stuff like “the most pro­phetic rock album ever made,” and “[goes] deep inside himself, without a net or fear,” and speak of “the rustic beauty of the … music and the drama of their own reflections,” and a “declaration of committed mutiny, a statement of faith in the transfigurative powers of rock & roll.” Words like these are pretty, but I often find them more interesting than the music they describe.

To compile my list, I drove around listening to all my CDs, then I ranked them by “favoriteness.” This is a difficult-to-measure, impossible-to-quantify characteristic that involves several sub-categories, such as: good feelings elicited, great memories associated, reflexive urge to call old friend to discuss, cool-sounding music making me want to sing/play along, verklemptiness, excitement-at-hearing-subsequent-song-even-after-the-song-just-played-made-me-way-more-excited-than-the-previous-song, and “greatness.” There has to be some consideration of greatness.

The reason “greatness” was important in compiling my list is that while listening to all the records that I had in my collection, every so often I’d come across one that I hadn’t listened to very much but that really blew me away. These were records that didn’t have many of those first few aspects of my “favoriteness” determination, but whose undeniable … well, greatness had to be accounted for! A few that come to mind – and that, by revealing them here I am admitting that they will not be on my list – include Paul’s Boutique, by The Beastie Boys, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, by Badly Drawn Boy, and Electric Ladyland, by The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

All such records with lots of “greatness” were given high marks during my initial assessment phase. After all my records were assessed, I went back over the highly-rated records and considered how much personal connection I had to the records and adjusted accordingly. Records like Paul’s Boutique dropped. Others moved higher. And one record stayed very high because in the time between my initial assessment and my final assessment, I’d been listening to it regularly and it had become one of my favorites: Exile on Main St., by The Rolling Stones.

Of course I’d heard of Exile on Main St. for many years. As a teen rock music fan in the 80s, it was one of those touchstone albums that you’d hear old people in their 20s mention all the time. Along with records like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Dark Side of the Moon and Hotel California, it was part of The Canon. Still, as I’ve written about before, I was a latecomer to The Rolling Stones, and I never felt compelled to rush out and buy it. And the reason I finally DID buy it might offend the sensibilities of all those Stones fans out there …

I bought it because of Liz Phair. In 1993 her debut album Exile in Guyville came out, and I bought it and I loved it. One of the well-publicized stories about the record was that her 18-song effort was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Since I loved her record, I went out and bought theirs. I played them song-by-song and, to tell the truth, I never really got the connection.

Both albums faded a bit from my regular playlist. Then in the early 2010s, I started playing in a band with some friends. We called ourselves Tequila Mockingbird and played at some friends’ parties. Our setlist featured a big helping of Stones’ songs, and many from Exile on Main St., in particular. Between the band and my 100 Favorite Album project, I began listening to the record more often. And I fell in love with it.

Right from the albums’s first sounds – a classic riff and Mick purring “Oooohh, yeeaaahh” – the album is fantastic.

The first twenty seconds of “Rocks Off” encompasses much of what will follow: great riffs, Mick Jagger’s strong vocals, and the band’s subtle brilliance – in this case, the second guitar harmonizing on that opening riff.  Charlie Watts’s drumming is very strong. His pace is perfect and his short, snappy fills keep the song moving from line to line.  “Rocks Off” also showcases perhaps my favorite unheralded aspect of the Stones:  Keith Richards’s (Keef!) harmony vocals!  They’re reedy and raw and always on the money.  The song’s lyrics describe the fast and loose lifestyle of a young man on the prowl.  But there’s a tragic aspect to the life, a heroin addiction. “I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed/
Plug in, flush out and fire the fucking feed.”  The drug influence is also felt in the trippy section, beginning about 2:11.  Also featured on the song, and the entire album, is the horn section of Bobby Keys35 on sax and Jim Price on trumpet.

“Rocks Off” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and the band kind of duplicates the feat on the rocker “All Down the Line.”  It’s got a strong, simple riff, this time supporting Mick Taylor’s sweet slide guitar.  The song’s three-note riff becomes the framework for terrific horn parts, about 2:55. Jagger’s vocals are very strong on lyrics about having a good time after a hard day.  Jagger has become such an icon, famous for decades simply for being Mick Jagger, that it’s easy to forget what a supremely talented singer and musician the man is.

The album’s slow songs are some of the best vehicles for his talents, for example “Let it Loose.”

He’s got terrific phrasing, and easily ranges between the soft charm heard in the first verse to the barely-contained anguish in the second (1:26).  The song starts with Keef’s watery guitar, and nice piano from longtime Stones keyboardist Nicky Hopkins.  A chorus joins in as the song builds, and their “ooo”s at 2:00, as Keef and Hopkins rise from the background, always give me chills.  Then Watts and the horns come in to lead the song back to Mick wailing with the choir about his lost love until its bittersweet conclusion.

Many of the songs on Exile on Main St. are quite moving. “I Just Want to See His Face,” a gospel groove that almost makes me a believer, is particularly affecting through earphones.  “Loving Cup” demonstrates how brilliantly Mick and Keef work together, both using a Southern accent, with Keef’s harmony vocals particularly strong here. It’s a love song, with a great outro, starting at 3:21, featuring the horns.

But my favorite of the softer pieces is the protest song “Sweet Black Angel.”

Its lyrics are about 60s activist and intellectual Angela Davis, and her alleged involvement in a courthouse shooting, for which she was later acquitted.  The clattering percussion and acoustic guitar give the song a front-porch feel, and Mick and Keef’s harmonies are fantastic.  The song also features Mick’s harmonica playing, which Richards has always raved about.  Mick’s harp is also featured on the honky-tonk “Sweet Virginia,” Robert Johnson’s blues standard “Stop Breaking Down,” and the fun rave-up “Turd on the Run.”  The album has some of Mick’s most brilliant overall work.

I’ve tried to avoid taking sides in arguments that are pointless, but I will say that if pressed to choose in the Mick/Keith dichotomy, I’d come down fully on the side of Keef.  Nothing makes me happier on Exile on Main St. than the Richards standout “Happy.”

Keith played guitar and bass  and cut the song in a matter of minutes with producer Jimmy Miller on drums and Bobby Keys on maracas.  His voice strains and whines perfectly on lead vocals about the type of love he needs, and he plays a nice lead guitar and bass line throughout.  The rest of the band’s parts were added later.  Keith’s harmonizing, I’ll say again, is also phenomenal on the album.  On “Casino Boogie,” he provides the bass line and the harmonies.  “Casino Boogie” is one of the simple, bluesy gems on the record, along with “Shake Your Hips” and “Ventilator Blues.”  They’re songs that, along with the rip-roarin’ stomper “Rip This Joint,” remind you that The Rolling Stones started out as a full-on blues act.

Keith and Mick are perhaps at their best on the popular radio hit “Tumbling Dice,” in which Mick complains about the lowdown ladies in his life.

Mick Taylor plays bass on this song, as regular bassist Bill Wyman was frequently absent from recording sessions.  (Read up on the recording of this album sometime if you want to marvel that such a masterwork ever made it onto tape.)  It’s a terrific bass line, meshing perfectly with Watts’s breezy drumming and the bluesy guitars.  The vocal performance by the backing singers is tremendous, as are (I’ll say it again) Keef’s harmony vocals.

His harmonies are also a pleasure on the Country-tinged “Torn and Frayed,” which describes a band coming apart at the seams.  Literally.

It begins with an acoustic guitar and is filled in with a honky-tonk piano, and Mick again uses his best Country/Western twang on the vocals.  The bass line is terrific, another instance of Mick Taylor filling in for Bill Wyman.  The performance sounds as torn and frayed as the band in the lyrics, creating a sense of wobbly-yet-satisfactory production that provides a charm to many of the songs.  There’s a great pedal steel guitar solo from guest Al Perkins about 1:45, and a subtle organ throughout played by trumpet man Jim Price.

The album ends with two great songs that really bring the entire piece to a  brilliant conclusion.  My only complaint is that I’d have put the closing song, “Soul Survivor,” second-to-last.  It’s a great song, in which current Stones Jagger, Richards and Watts are the only band members to play. The lyrics profess Jagger’s desire to remain with his loved one regardless of the peril.  And it’s got great backing vocals, just like the song I wish was the album closer:  “Shine a Light.”

The song opens with piano by Billy Preston and Jagger’s inspired vocals.  His voice shines on this one, as does Preston’s organ.  Mick’s really good on these gospel-inspired songs.  Given the well-known problems Richards had with heroin, and the imagery in the song, I wonder if this is a song that Mick wrote about Keith.  The bass line rolls along, and there’s dispute as to whether Wyman or Taylor played it.  It’s a moving song, with a great guitar by Taylor running throughout.  As voices and instruments are added, the song turns from a song of concern for a friend to a a song of inspiration. I love the breakdown about 3:00, and how it picks back up.  It’s truly a great one.

And this album is truly a great one.  Look, I don’t try to pick unknown or unloved albums to be on my list. I just pick what I like, and sometimes I like the greats.  Exile on Main St. is a great.

Track Listing:
“Rocks Off”
“Rip This Joint”
“Shake Your Hips”
“Casino Boogie”
“Tumbling Dice”
“Sweet Virginia”
“Torn and Frayed”
“Sweet Black Angel”
“Loving Cup”
“Happy”
“Turd on the Run”
“Ventilator Blues”
“I Just Want to See His Face”
“Let It Loose”
“All Down the Line”
“Stop Breaking Down”
“Shine a Light”
“Soul Survivor”

Share

16th Favorite: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams

Share


Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Lucinda Williams.
1998, Mercury Records. Producers: Roy Bittan, Steve Earle, Ray Kennedy, Lucinda Williams.
Purchased, 1998.

IN A NUTSHELL: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams, is 13 songs about love and life sung by a voice with the heart and soul to match the emotional depth of its lyrics. I call it a country record, as it has the twang and pedal steel and world-weariness one expects of the genre, but I got into it because of its rock ‘n roll heart. Williams paints pictures of the jubilance of life, even when it’s found in heartache and loss.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~
So I guess by this point, 84 albums into my list of my 100 favorite, plus a handful of others I somehow missed, it’s pretty easy to see where my tastes in music lie. There’s not a whole heckuva lot of variety. A tiny bit of soul, a hard rock album or two, a bit of retro garage rock, a dash of prog rock, some Rush, some Steely Dan and an odd jazz/dance hybrid. Besides those records, the list has pretty much been pop/rock 101: guitar/drums/bass with catchy melodies, the basic template set down, then expanded upon, by The Beatles.

I decided early on that my list was going to be confined to the rock/pop genre. The reason for this is pretty simple: I don’t listen to a whole lot else. Well, that’s not exactly true. What’s true is that I’m not invested in other types of music like I am with rock/pop. I like some stuff from other musical genres, but I’ve never felt the urge to dive in deeply, to compare artists and albums, and really consider the creativity and drive that goes into other musical types. Other than rock, I’m quite sure I couldn’t even name 100 albums in any genre.

But I do have favorites! So why don’t I do a little rundown of some of my favorite albums in non-rock categories? I’m by no means an expert in any of these categories – these are just albums I like.

JAZZ
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis. From talking to some folks who are jazz aficionados – at a couple parties, at a record store36, at a concert or two – I understand that this album has been a victim of its own success, an obvious selection akin to picking “Yesterday” as your favorite Beatles song. But damn, “Yesterday” is a fine song! I’ve listened to Kind of Blue a million times and I still love it.

Criss-Cross, Thelonious Monk. This record floored me with its oddly beautiful piano sounds coupled with driving, complex rhythms. I haven’t heard the Thelonious Monk recording yet that I haven’t enjoyed. I found his sound so unique and inspiring that I named my kid after him!

CLASSICAL
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and “Posthorn” Serenade. Sir Charles Makkeras Prague Chamber Orchestra. There is no genre of music on which I am a less-credible source of appreciation and information than Classical Music. It can sound boring to me, and even when I try to concentrate on it, I find that invariably it somehow morphs into background music for my asinine thoughts about baseball players, funny 80s movies, Columbo plots and The Beatles. However, I do own a few classical records, and this is the one I usually pull out if I’m going to play something. I like Mozart. I don’t think he has too many notes. A relative who has classical music bone fides told me this version by the Prague Chamber Orchestra is the best version, so I took his word for it and bought it.

HIP-HOP
Three Feet High and Rising. De La Soul. Other than Classical, there is no genre of music on which I am a less-credible source of appreciation and information than Hip-Hop. My Hip-Hop appreciation was a bloom on the Century Plant of popular music, briefly appearing, only to go dormant for generations to come. De La Soul’s clever, twisted Three Feet High and Rising sounded like 60s hippies took over a recording studio, which meant song after song that I could hum along to.

The Low End Theory, by A Tribe Called Quest, was similar to Three Feet High and Rising in that it sounded like nothing else that I’d heard to that point – except for the jazz that it sampled. These samples created a smooth yet funky sound that warranted repeated listenings. I liked the three personalities in the act. Plus, they introduced the world to Busta Rhymes.

FOLK MUSIC
Landscape of Ghosts. Rob Siegel. It was Louis Armstrong himself who said, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” I find folk music hard to categorize, it can cover so much. Plus I don’t listen to it much on record – I much prefer to see it performed live, as it’s such a personal style of music. And my favorite performer is Rob Siegel, whose recent Landscape of Ghosts is the rare folk record I’ll sit and listen to.

REGGAE
Funky Kingston. Toots and the Maytals. I saw Toots and the Maytals live about 8 years ago, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen. He was about 70 years old, and he danced and sang and had the crowd in a frenzy. He was like the James Brown of Reggae. So I bought a bunch of his records, and this is the one I like the best. It includes the title track, “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop,” and my favorite, “Sailin’ On.”

GHANA HIGHLIFE
Ghana Special: Modern Highlife & Ghanian Blues 1968-81. Okay, okay, I know even less about Ghana Highlife music than I do Classical or Hip-Hop. I heard a song by Nigerian musician Sir Victor Uwaifo on a Sirius XM Radio show hosted by Julian Casablancas. This sent me down a rabbit hole of African guitar pop music from the 60s and 70s, and I found this compilation album. I know compilation albums are ineligible, but songs like Kai Wawa and Sei Nazo are so good, I had to include it.

KIDS MUSIC
Here Come the ABC’s and Here Come the 123’s. They Might Be Giants. Kids music can be really, really annoying, but when you’re a parent and you see your kid so happy listening and dancing to, say The Wiggles, you let it slide. TMBG, though, released kids’ albums that adults could love. Songs about letters and numbers (and more numbers!) that sounded a lot like the songs they always made for adults.

COMEDY
Comedy isn’t music (usually), I understand that, but it’s a type of album I love! Here are a few tied for #1 favorite all time: Shame-Based Man, by Bruce McCulloch. Class Clown, by George Carlin. Strategic Grill Locations, by Mitch Hedberg. Rant in E Minor, by Bill Hicks. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart.

So, what do you notice about all those records? (Besides the fact that for someone who likes music enough to write about it, I sure do have a limited appreciation of the subject.) Do you notice there are no Country & Western albums? This may appear to be an oversight, until you notice that I’m now writing about the fact that there aren’t any Country & Western records on the list, proving it’s not an oversight. The simple reason for its exclusion is this: I dislike Country & Western music.

Okay, okay, that’s a pretty broad statement. The fact is, one of the albums on my list, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison37, is a straight-up Country & Western album. But unlike the white guy at a Trump rally who offers proof of his lack of bigotry by pointing out he works “with a Latin guy,” I’m aware of my biases. And I’m biased against Country music.

I’ve been called an idiot, obstinate, pointed out as a hypocrite for holding uninformed opinions while at the same time chastising others who are willfully ignorant. And I plead guilty to all of these charges. I am well-aware of the fact that my dislike of Country & Western music has nothing to do with the music itself, and everything to do with me and my perceptions.

Sure, I admit, I enjoyed Hee-Haw as a boy in the 70s. Hee-Haw was sort of the dumb cousin to the hip, smart Laugh-In that made my parents laugh so much. I didn’t always “get” Laugh-In back then, but the simple jokes, silly songs and scantily-clad women of Hee-Haw were easily understood by an 8 year-old boy like me. By the time I was about 10, I couldn’t stand its formulaic, obvious yuk-yuks anymore.

The show really played up the “down-home” nature of the Country-Western lifestyle, which I read (and continue to read) as “stupid.” “Down-home”-ness is characterized by a willingness to be willfully obtuse, to cling to the past in a way that seems childish, and to reject learning and education. It values the “simple wisdom” of lessons learned from family, from church and in the field – as opposed to, you know, from research and study. “It was below 0 for two days. What happened to ‘Global Warming’?” is an example of “simple wisdom.” Or “stupidity.”

What I failed to realize about Hee-Haw, however, was that its hosts, Buck Owens and – particularly – Roy Clark, were terrific musicians! Buck Owens wrote songs for Ray Charles and others, was name-checked by John Fogerty, and had 21 no. 1 Country hits38. And Roy Clark … well, just watch the following link: Roy Clark is friggin’ amazing. Spend time finding Roy clark guitar videos; you won’t be disappointed. (By the way, Clark passed away just a couple weeks ago.)

The point is that the music is separate from whatever “down home,” and other objectionable culture surrounds the music. I should really be able to de-link my appreciation of the music from all the other bullshit. And I keep trying. I’ve been listening to the Outlaw Country station on Sirius/XM radio sometimes. I continue to love Johnny Cash. I thought I was making progress. I was challenged a few years ago by a friend on my lack of appreciation of Country music, and I brought up the fact that I love Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

I was informed that “That’s not Country!!” And the truth is, I first heard a song from the album on a San Francisco rock radio39 station in 1998. At that point I’d have immediately rejected anything I thought was “Country.” I was around 30, feeling old, and trying to stay connected to rock music. I bought great albums by Radiohead and Cornershop around that time, and when I heard “Can’t Let Go,” from Lucinda Williams, I went out and bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, too.

The thing is, “Can’t Let Go” sounds “Country-Rock,” but not really “Country.” It’s in the vein of some songs by Linda Ronstadt or early-era Eagles.

It’s got a finger-picking intro with a strong backbeat, then a second guitar enters. In all, three guitars end up bouncing between the speakers as Williams’ sultry voice stings of a love she can’t leave behind. Throughout the album, Williams voice – its phrasing, its many colors – is the star. I love her little subtleties, like in the second verse where she hangs onto the “sh” sound in “feel like I been shot and didn’t fall down.” And I love the guitars. Around 1:44, there’s a slide guitar solo that becomes a slide guitar duet, and it’s terrific.

There’s a bit of swamp-rock to that song, like a Creedence Clearwater Revival kind of vibe. Another in this vein is the slow grind of “Joy,” a song that wants its joy back!

The song once again features great guitar. This time four guitarists appear, including Steve Earle (on Resonator Guitar), Gurf Morlix, Johnny Lee Schell and Bo Ramsay. The four guitars are a reflection of Williams’s reported perfectionism, her desire to achieve a final product that meets her high standards – characteristics not appreciated by everyone. But spending time and money on a song as simple as “Joy” (I think there’s only one chord in the entire song?) to achieve this final product is okay by me. The fabulous solos after the choruses (1:20, 2:09, 3:02) are alone worth all the studio heartache!

In addition to the guitars, I really love Lucinda’s lyrics. She has a gift of conjuring in the listener’s mind a time and place, and many of these scenes are familiar to me. She grew up in Southern U.S. college towns in the 60s; I grew up in rural PA in the 70s; but there are experiences that we seem to have shared, as heard on the title track.

It’s a song whose lyrics evoke memories of my childhood – we even had a sort-of-gravel road adjacent to our home. When you’re a child, events have little context so the memories are purely experiential. Breakfast cooking, going for a car ride to some other town, views from car windows, crying in the backseat. There’s no reason why, it all just happened. The melody is catchy and cries out to be sung by the listener, which has the effect of instilling those lyrics in one’s brain, which makes them all the more like ingrained childhood memories.

As with the childhood memories of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten” brings forth thoughts of warm nights of young adulthood, meeting folks at a bar with no place to be.

Williams used words from real signs she saw in real bars to create a mood, and the subtle dual guitars beautifully help to set the scene. It’s got a relaxed groove, and the slight guitar solo around 2:40 sounds nice. The guitars throughout the album are deliciously subtle. On “Drunken Angel,” a tribute to Country artist Blaze Foley (and other lost-soul musicians) they chime like R.E.M. On “Lake Charles,” a song about long-held desires, guitars twang and twirl and mix with accordion sweetly. The harmonies on this song tug at one’s heart, as well.

It sounds like Country music to me. Take the song “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” a valentine to a loved one in prison.

This is a song that could make me love Country and Western music. Williams’s voice is made for this type of sad lament. And the song is built so that with each verse a new instrument is added. It begins with a simple acoustic guitar and voice. Electric slide guitar is added, drums enter with bass, then accordion, and pretty soon the song’s sadness has somehow become uplifting. It lets me know why folks might love a Country Western song – that melding of emotions. The song “Greenville,” on which country superstar Emmylou Harris sings harmony, is another sad country song, this time about a man that done her wrong, that inspires. It’s a song about a place, as many songs on the album are. “Jackson” is in the same vein, this time about the many places she hopes to go to escape her heartache. It’s also sad and beautiful.

Lyrically, Williams usually laments the lost loves. But she does take time to honor the good love in the warm, celebratory “Right In Time.”

Her voice is sensual, expressive and the twangy acoustic and ringing 12-string guitars behind it provide a reverberating light that keeps the song from getting mushy. The lyrics are a bit risqué, perhaps, but more Leo-Sayer-ish than Prince-like. But in “Still I Long for Your Kiss” she’s back to missing what she used to have.

But even though she’s often sad about the past, she never sounds particularly regretful. In the terrific “Metal Firecracker,” on top of more great guitar, she knows things have changed but she just wants to know her secrets are safe. And in “I Lost It,” she’s confused and hurt, but doesn’t seem to have regrets.

This is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love how the instruments blend, and the harmony vocal, by Jim Lauderdale, is great. It’s a fun song to belt along to in the car, and lots of fun to play in a band. There’s a lilting accordion providing a bit of sadness, but Williams’s voice and spirit make the song’s demand seem strong, not weak.

So is this a Country and Western album? Strangely enough, it won a Grammy in 1998 – for BEST FOLK ALBUM! Really? Who’d’ve thought? I don’t know what genre it is. I’m going to keep calling it Country because it sounds Country to me. But what does it matter what any genre an album falls into? I love the music that I love, so I’ve decided I won’t ever say “I hate Country and Western” again. I love music. I love Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Track Listing:
“Right in Time”
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
“2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten”
“Drunken Angel”
“Concrete and Barbed Wire”
“Lake Charles”
“Can’t Let Go”
“I Lost It”
“Metal Firecracker”
“Greenville”
“Still I Long for Your Kiss”
“Joy”
“Jackson”

Share

17th Favorite: Flood, by The April Skies

Share


Flood. The April Skies.
2005, WiaB Records. Producer: Jeff Feltenberger.
Purchased, 2005.

IN A NUTSHELL: Flood, by The April Skies, is a collection of ten infectious tunes with a terrific sound and an Alternative Rock feel. Bandleader Jake Crawford writes great melodies, and delivers them with a weary, yet determined, style. His guitar lines are always interesting and the band behind him always delivers. Drummer Mark Tritico is a highlight throughout, playing subtly intricate beats and rhythms that always serve the song. It’s a little band on a little label, but the results are very big!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~
I’ve mentioned before that way back in the 80s I played the trombone in high school. I was really good at it, good enough to be in some honors bands and a trombone ensemble with little-to-no practicing. However, I never really liked it so after high school I rarely played it, and by about 25 I was done for good40. At some point in my late 20s, my mom told me she was sad that I’d stopped playing. “I always imagined seeing you as a big, famous trombone player on TV,” she told me.

It’s sweetly charming that my mom, by the mid 90s, figured that, among the rappers, boy bands, girl groups and other oddities in the United States’ cultural consciousness, some space still remained for a celebrity trombone player. The wave of the celebrity trombonists surely crested in the 1940s with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. There’s been nary a ripple since until, perhaps, Trombone Shorty today, whose TV appearances would only just barely, perhaps, qualify him as a “big, famous trombone player.” But still – I know what she meant. She meant the talent I displayed early on portended a larger role for that talent in my life than eventually materialized – a role she’d hoped would land me a spot on TV, I guess.

When I had kids of my own, I got some perspective on the child-activity-based forecasting done by most parents – including my mom. As my kids grew up, I realized that my predictions were based too much on the physical abilities of children. “That kid’s really fast! I’ll bet she’ll go to the Olympics!” “That kid built a Lego bridge! I’ll bet he’ll be an architect!” “That kid plays trombone really well! I’ll bet he’ll be a big, famous trombone player on TV!” However, I learned that those physical traits, even if they continue to develop and bring joy to kids and those around them, don’t account for all that is required to reach the equivalent status of “a big, famous trombone player on TV.” A larger necessity than physical traits is an innate DESIRE TO BE a big, famous trombone player on TV. The fast kid won’t go to the Olympics, but the fast kid who WANTS TO go to the Olympics might.

As a teenaged trombone player, I made lots of friends, I had fun times and laughed a whole lot. I didn’t love the music that we played in band, and I hated to practice. I was happy to be complimented as a talented trombone player, but had it been a talent that never revealed itself, I don’t think my life would’ve been much different.

Eventually I learned to play the bass guitar, and this was an instrument that I actually considered playing professionally – sort of. I was part of a band that wrote and performed songs and played wherever we could and tried to grow an audience and get a recording contract. Had things worked out the way we hoped, I’d have been a professional musician. Had things worked really well, I’d have been a big, famous bass player on TV. (This wasn’t as far removed from reality as one may think. We knew lots of people whose bands had videos on MTV. “Big, Famous” may have been a stretch; “on TV,” not so much.)

However, I myself wasn’t really trying to be a professional musician. I was trying to be a professional rock band member. There’s a difference. The other three members wanted to play their instruments. I just wanted to have some fun.

I’ve read dozens of rock and roll autobiographies. What I’ve learned from reading books by big names like Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Chrissy Hynde; and less-celebrated names like Andy Summers, Dave Davies and Tony Iommi, is that everyone who “makes it big41” loves doing what they do. You get the idea that if these people hadn’t become wildly popular and (for the most part) wealthy musicians, they’d still be in their little hometowns, old and gray, picking up the guitar every day, writing songs and playing music, making themselves happy.

It wasn’t really my deep ambition to create music, so after my band, The April Skies, broke up, I didn’t pursue music with much devotion. I continued getting together with Dr. Dave in our excellent band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, and I joined with friends to form other cover bands, such as Tequila Mockingbird and Two Legs Bad. But I didn’t have the drive to make music my life. The other three guys from my time in The April Skies did.

The April Skies, ca. 1992. (l to r) Cary Brown, Author, Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico. 3/4 of this band appear on Flood.

As of November, 2018, Drummer Mark Tritico is a professional drummer. Singer Cary Brown performs all over Europe with his band Ill River. And Jake Crawford, who led the band long before I joined, continues to put out music nearly 30 years later with The April Skies. He loves what he’s doing, and I love what he does.

So of course, I’ve heard of the band for years and years, ever since Cary, this kid I knew from high school, stopped me in the street while I was delivering pizzas in early 1990, to invite me to come see his band, The April Skies. About fifteen years later, long after I’d joined the band and left the band, I was still listening to everything the band put out. By the early 2000s, Jake had assembled his latest version of the band, and they were hitting the studio with Jeff Feltenberger, member of the roots-rock outfit The Badlees, who’d had some chart success in the 90s. Why don’t I let Jake take it from here:

Flood was the first record where we had a pre-production phase. We rehearsed most of the songs, and worked really hard for 2-3 months while gigging up and down the east coast. There was so much enthusiasm…” I myself LOVE that a bunch of guys with day jobs speak of enthusiasm to create art. “The studio was state-of-the-art. Big sound rooms. Every guitar and amp style you could want. Even a baby grand in the main room. It didn’t take long to see we were putting together something special. We just worked a lot harder at this group of songs than any previous effort. The tempo, the arrangement, the melody, the lyrics and the vocal delivery. All of that was (producer) Jeff (Feltenberger). This record would’ve never happened if not for Jeff.”

As I’ve said, I’ve continued listening to The April Skies since I left the band, and I’ve enjoyed all their music. But something about Flood clicked with me from the first listen. At the time it was released, in 2005, I was working in a lab, and I’d play it on my portable CD player all the time. The album opener, “322,” is an atmospheric, slow-burner that builds powerfully.

All permutations of The April Skies have been able to take a page from the U2 playbook and build an exciting, terrific songs around just 2 chords – as is the case with “322.” The sound swirls between both speakers as Jake’s signature, trebley guitar repeats a simple riff. I think Jake’s always been more comfortable leaving vocal duties to other singers, but I like his voice, and on this album it’s quite strong. “When I heard my voice [on that song], it was life changing. I never sounded that powerful,” he told me. Mark Tritico, who drummed when I was in the band, plays on this record. He’s one of the most creative, yet powerful, drummers I’ve played with. I really like the syncopated rhythm he plays beginning at 1:10. At about 1:50 the song becomes a driving force, with Matt Mazick’s bass and Matt Higgins’s keyboards moving to the forefront. By 2:35, there’s a satisfying resolution, and the song fades quickly. Rte. 322 is a main thoroughfare in the band’s Hershey, Pa., town. Regarding lyrics, Jake says “some tornados had just cut thru this area. The fear and destruction it caused…felt like a great comparison to a few relationships I was privy to at the time.”

Next up is “Crutch,” a song that’s one of my favorites, and that sounds stylistically similar to an act that I couldn’t name. Then Jake told me recently that it was “My attempt at copying Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’.” I myself have always disliked that song. But I love this one.

I’ll be gushing about Tritico’s drums the entire album, and I love them in this song particularly. His snare sound is really great, as are his inventive fills, and his bass drum beat propels it all forward. It’s a catchy mid-tempo number, and the harmonies in the chorus are really strong. I love Jake’s guitar at 1:46 during the bridge, and the harmonies after 3:00. I especially love Tritico’s drums after 3:20 to his final, bubbling drum fill, which is one of my favorites in any song. Both Jake and Mark Tritico were in the band when I was, so maybe it’s because I know them, but I’m a fan of both. Their guitar, vocals and drums help make “You Are The One” a solid song that I would have released as a single.

Jake plays a terrific guitar. I can always pick out his trebley, pinched (in a good way) sound. His playing has always reminded me of James Honeyman-Scott, from The Pretenders. In “You Are the One” it’s less distinctive. But you can hear the typical “Jake” sound on the next piece, the fun, danceable “Long Way Down.”

This song is awesome! To my ears, it’s the lead single – fun, bouncy and danceable. The intro guitar solo sets the stage, and it drives. Regarding the lyrics, “I was lashing out a bit a people who took themselves too serious,” Crawford says. This song also features another member of the band from my years: singer/guitarist Cary Brown sings the high-pitched “Long Way Down” backing vocals. I could listen to this one all day. Jake’s guitar sound is also featured on “A Game,” giving the song a Middle-Eastern feel. His vocals are strong, and the harmonies in the chorus really make it. I love the little organ in the chorus, as well.

I think the melodies this band writes are tremendous. Every song is sing-along catchy. Even the songs Jake doesn’t write, like the lovely “Still,” written and sung by keyboardist Mark Higgins.

It opens with a simple drum beat, with the keyboards and bass, by Mark Mazick, driving the song forward. Higgins’s voice is a strong tenor, and the ranging melody is fabulous – particularly in the second verse. It’s a sweet love song, and Jake adds some nice guitar throughout. Higgins’s keyboards add atmosphere and depth to many of the songs, for example on “Shaking the Tree.” The ethereal organ, along with Jake’s pinched guitar, gives this rocker an 80s British Invasion sound. Tritico again shines here, giving the song a bit of a dance beat while Crawford sings, obliquely, about addiction.

Jake’s lyrics are great. They’re indirect, but clearly purposeful. On the lovely, rather epic, “In the Mirror,” a long-term relationship has ended.

Jake says, “I wanted to paint the not-so-great periods in a relationship so that they’d go away forever. I wanted to isolate those moments where maybe I made a joke I shouldn’t have, or said the wrong thing.” The transition to the chorus is lovely, and Higgins’s harmony vocals are terrific. My favorite parts are Crawford’s guitar solo, about 3:08, and the wonderful bridge, beginning at 4:40, which always gives me chills.

Quick story: when I was in the band, Jake would always play a particular acoustic piece he’d written that was just stunning and powerful, a slow ballad that was clearly personal and that always connected with whomever was listening. We always tried to get him to record it, but he wouldn’t do it. Flash forward 15 years, and the song, “Something to Shine About,” has been transformed into a rocker.

I love the little bass note at 0:13, and the piano. The transition, at 1:07, to the chorus is great, as are the harmony vocals. I also love how the band pulls back, around 3:30, with Tritico’s rimshots carrying the load. Jake plays a cool solo (that could be louder in the mix!) On re-working this old gem, Crawford says, “The band worked up this music. And somehow, the lyrics re-appeared and it seemed to work. Our original intent was for it to be more Pixies/Radiohead with the verses being quiet and the chorus very loud. It sounds kinda Springsteen to me.”

Obviously, my connection to the people who made this record enhances my esteem for it. But I’m sure I’d love this record whether or not I had a friendship and history with Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico and Cary Brown. Would it be #17? I don’t know, or care. What I do know is that the final song, “I Will Surround You,” is one of my all-time favorite album closers.

Mark Tritico has always been able to set a mood with a drumbeat, and the echoes added to his intro deepen the mood here. Jake’s subtle, unmistakeable guitar sound is featured in the introductory solo, at about 0:48. He expands on the solo theme at the end of the song, 4:24. It’s another song that does a lot with only a few chords. It also features Cary Brown on backing vocals again. The lyrics are about a relationship coming to an end. “I had a recurring dream about this song,” Jake told me. “Long before we recorded it, we would jam it out at rehearsals. It would go on and on. My dream, we were playing somewhere out west, at Coachella or some outside event in front of 60,000 people. It was sunny and it starts raining lightly. While we play this song on and on. When I finally wrote the lyrics (long after the music was recorded), it only made sense to plead to keep the life we created together. Didn’t work. But at least I got this beautiful song.”

This last quote, to me, explains why some folks keep hammering away at their art. It says everything you need to know about creative people, and what it means to be “successful” as an artist. To an artist, there are dreams of your art bringing fame and fortune, and there are dreams of your art making a difference on people around you. But in the end, you do it because you could end up with something beautiful – an outcome that’s even better than being big, famous and on TV. The April Skies succeeded with Flood.

Track Listing:
“322”
“Crutch”
“You Are the One”
“Long Way Down”
“Something to Shine About”
“A Game”
“Still”
“In the Mirror”
“Shaking the Day”
“I Will Surround You”

Share

18th Favorite: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

Share


Get Happy!! Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
1980, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, 1998. (Rykodisc Reissue.)

IN A NUTSHELL: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, is jam-packed with 20 songs that sound like 60s Motown and Stax records filtered through white British punks. The band is superheated, its muscular rhythms pumping behind Costello’s deft wordplay. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a standout, but everyone contributes to the party vibe. And even when the lyrics get downhearted, you’ll still Get Happy!!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

My dad (r.) and me (l.) ca. 1969.

My dad died earlier this month. He was 78. He hadn’t been well for several years, and his last few years he spent trapped: confined, physically, to a wheelchair; and wandering, mentally, through the labyrinthine horrors of dementia. His death was seen by all of my family members as a blessing, as something that I thought should have rightfully taken place years earlier, something he should have been able to choose for himself at the onset of his afflictions. However, this was not to be the case.

He was a man from a bygone era. He was a child of the 40s, even though he came of age in the American Rock ‘n Roll 50s. He would have been a contemporary of Richie and Fonzie and the rest of the gang down at Arnold’s Drive-In, but he was not a Rock ‘n Roll guy. Sure, he loved fixing up old cars, the classic American 50s teen boy pastime, but his music was the swingin’ Big Band sounds of his youth: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. (Similarly, I clung to the 70s Classic Rock sounds when I was a teen, ignoring the new stuff around me.) Even in his formative years, he didn’t necessarily go along with the crowd.

The 1950s and 60s were some times of incredible industrial and technological advancements. It was a time of “better living through chemistry,” when science was going to save the “free world” from the commies, JFK promised a “New Frontier,” and the country was still unaware of some of the unintended consequences of such advancements: thalidomide babies, dioxin poisoning, lung cancer42.

But despite the advancements of the day, my dad wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends. He didn’t need the best Hi-Fi technology, or the latest in automotive trends to be satisfied with his life. He had a self-directed outlook, a type of self-possession that allowed him to make decisions with few external influences. Of course, this led to some wrong decisions, and it didn’t diminish the anxiety and guilt he felt over his decisions after the fact (he was the king of the land of “I Should’ve”). But there was something to be said for a man who recognized the inherent bullshit of the marketer’s “New and Improved!” sloganeering, and recognized, too, that so many people around him easily allowed that messaging to permeate all aspects of their lives. He was a skeptic of “New and Improved,” whether it was technological, cultural, societal or commercial.

But he was not a thickheaded dope who would cling to his beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. He was a smart guy. Also, he was very attuned to the people around him. The well-being of his loved ones and the feelings of those around him – whether he knew them or not – were very important. So while he may have been nostalgic for the old ways, he didn’t value the past over knowledge or humanity.

Sure, he may have griped in the 70s and 80s about the pointlessness of these new computers and computerized machines, but as a tool and die maker, when he got to use his first computer-aided machine (the one with the instruction course in Chicago, for which he had to take his first airplane ride ever, as a 37 year old) he recognized its value and acknowledged its advantages over the old machines. And even though he’d expressed the typical late-20th-century, straight, middle-American homophobia into his adulthood, when he saw his own loved ones fall in love he warmly welcomed their sweethearts into his home and life regardless of their gender and orientation. He was more comfortable opening his heart by reassessing his beliefs than using them to build a fortress around it.

Over the years I heard him reassess his thinking on little things, like Thai food, and big things, like race and gender. But at no time was I more aware of his ability to re-examine his beliefs and consider a different perspective than when my wife was expecting our first child, my dad’s first grandchild. I lived far away from my parents at the time, but when I’d call and tell him about all the late-90s preparations we were making – attending birth classes, hiring a doula, getting a gliding rocking chair with a gliding footrest – he seemed interested in all of it; this despite the fact that he’d matured in the Mad Men era of American men, when there were many, many issues about which a man was not expected to care, one of those being childbirth.

My dad got phone calls at work to let him know his kids had been delivered, just as he might have been notified that a new bathtub and sink had arrived at home. The difference would be that he’d be expected to work hard to remodel the bathroom when he got home, whereas the kids were to be almost entirely his wife’s concern, at least until they went to school. But when I discussed my own activities around the upcoming birth, he never mocked me, never said I was foolish, and never expressed a wish for a bygone era of indifference and inaction to return. When I told him about the experience of watching my child being born, he did say he was glad he didn’t see his own kids’ births, but also questioned why he didn’t choose to be at the hospital.

After my baby’s arrival, when my parents took a cross-country flight to visit their new grandson – something I was a little surprised they’d done – and he saw me changing diapers, giving bottles, and fussing over the baby’s cries and temperature and diet and routine, and when he heard and saw me exchanging smiles and baby talk and laughter with my infant, he said43 “Boy, things sure are different for dads nowadays.”

Happy Grandpa, happy grandson, 1999.

I said, “I’ll bet you’re glad you didn’t have to do all this stuff with your kids.”

To which he replied, with a bit of a sad smile, “It would have been okay. I’d have done it.”

He didn’t have to say more – we both knew what he meant. It was classic dad. If he saw the “new ways” were valuable and useful, he’d admit it – in very few words.

I’m thinking of my dad these days because his body recently left us44. And during my experience as a new dad, from preparing for my first child through childbirth and into my new kid’s first year of life, the soundtrack to it all was Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. I’m sure my dad heard it when he came to visit. I’ve written before, a time or two, about my love of Elvis Costello. I spent the 90s diving into his entire catalogue, and by 1998 Get Happy!! was cued up.

Elvis is one of the most perfect songwriters for my taste in music. He’s close to (but obviously well-behind) Lennon & McCartney, on a par with XTC’s Andy Partridge, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Steely Dan’s Becker & Fagan, and a few others45. They’re all artists who write catchy melodies, have terrific lyrics and can pull it off while getting super-energetic. (Well, except for Becker & Fagan, who tend to get super-jazzy instead of super-energetic.)

And his work with his most famous backing band, The Attractions, is some of my favorite recorded music. Each of The Attractions brings a style and vigor to the songs that suit Costello’s twitchy melodies and head-cold singing style perfectly. By the late 90s I was devouring Elvis, and while my wife was pregnant the songs on this record resonated with me. First of all, the album title provided a good reminder to me whenever the situation felt overwhelming or worrisome or scary that the biggest feeling I held was one of happiness. Secondly, the songs themselves are almost entirely upbeat, danceable, energetic songs that are hard to hear without smiling. Thirdly, the lyrical content often connected with me, even when the songs clearly were not meant to be about new families and future dads.

For example, “Opportunity” is clearly not about the opportunity inherent in starting a family, but the first word is “born,” and the first verse does speak of family …

As with many EC lyrics, I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they stick with me nonetheless. His clever wordplay and economy of words (“The chairman of the boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”) are striking, even when they’re obtuse. Musically, the song encapsulates what Get Happy!! is all about: organ and bass and drums. Keyboardist Steve Nieve boops and beeps while bassist Bruce Thomas plays a clean, bouncing line throughout. Along with drummer Pete Thomas, The Attractions really carry the load on this record, with Costello’s guitar only making cameo appearances – some nice strumming in the choruses, a little twist during the fade out.

I love “Opportunity” for its melody, its sound, Costello’s voice – and also my reminiscences of impending fatherhood. But it’s one of the more mellow tracks on this album of 20 tracks, (which Elvis promoted in America with a pretty funny TV commercial.) The record in full is an upbeat salute to 60s Motown and Stax records, with the band speeding ahead, full-tilt on catchy, danceable numbers like the opening track, “Love For Tender.”

Bruce Thomas is a phenomenal bassist, and as a bass-playing hack myself, I find him astonishing. He pumps these songs full of life, like at 0:40, his fast walking bass line in the pre-chorus. This song uses Costello’s considerable metaphorical skills to position himself as the banker of love to someone who won’t make a withdraw. I love the backing vocals, which Elvis provides himself, behind the chorus, and I love the energy of the entire song, up through the four-note finale. It’s clearly an homage to 60s soul, and songs like “5ive Gears in Reverse,” and “I Stand Accused” also carry the Stax/Motown torch. (The latter is actually a 60s British Invasion song that the band perks up, with Elvis coolly spelling out the title at the very end.)

Another soul-sounding treat is the wonderful “Temptation,” whirling organ and all.

This song actually features some of Elvis’s subtle guitar work, but once again the star is the backing band. Nieve’s organ, Bruce Thomas’s Duck Dunn-esque bass, Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drumming … The lyrics are straightforward temptation-based. It’s a dance-fest of a song, just like the band’s furious reworking of an old Sam & Dave slow number, “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down).” The album is chock-full of hyper energy, found in songs like the straight ahead stomp of numbers like “Beaten to the Punch,” and “The Imposter.” (The band could definitely pull off these numbers live, too!)

Elvis and the band do slow things down now and then, and my favorite of these mellower pieces is the atmospheric one-man-band piece “New Amsterdam.”

Elvis plays all the instruments on this fine waltz, keenly strumming his acoustic guitar and adding some sturdy bass lines, and displays some clever wordplay as well. It’s another song about his difficult love life, in which he wonders if he can “step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.” His inventive wordsmithing is also on display in the ballad “Motel Matches,” in which Elvis’s lady friend’s duplicity, and presumably, affections are given away “like motel matches.” “Secondary Modern” has perhaps Elvis’s strongest vocal performance. And in the album closer “Riot Act,” Elvis defends himself against an unwarranted onslaught from what he claims was a slip of the tongue.

These slow songs are all terrific, but it’s the energetic, upbeat ones I’m drawn to, particularly those featuring Bruce Thomas’s bass, such as “B Movie.”

The song has a weird, echoing drum sound, has a little out of time piece just after each verse, and one can actually hear a little guitar throughout. Bruce’s bass line keeps the song bouncing along, and the lyrics are standard Elvis complaints. This is one of a few songs that stretch out the album’s musical theme, straying from the 60s R&B template. Another is the ska song46Human Touch,” a plea to escape the modern world that “looks like luxury and feels like a disease.” “Possession“, with its clever couplet “You lack lust/ you’re so lackluster,” and “Black & White World,” which the band played on the BBC, where pianist Steve Nieve was forced to pretend to play guitar, are a couple super-catchy mid-tempo songs.

But it’s the upbeat, 60s stuff I really, really love – even when I don’t know what they mean. For example, “King Horse.”

It opens with a regal piano riff, then features Elvis singing along to Bruce’s bass. There are terrific harmony vocals, provided by Elvis himself, throughout. The tension builds through each verse, then is released with each chorus by Pete’s introductory snare roll. The lyrics are a pastiche of phrases around relationships that, to be honest, sound great but make no sense to me. But he clearly knows we’re all King Horse. At least the lyrics to “Clowntime Is Over” make sense, even if the tempo change throughout the song doesn’t.

“Men Called Uncle” has a looping melody, with a plea to a woman to give up the older men in her life.

It opens with a great piano, and Bruce’s bass again keeps the song pumping along. The songs on this album just make me want to dance and sing along. I often listen to the SiriusXM 60s soul station, listening for great numbers that I’ve never heard before. That’s what this album is like: it’s one catchy, bouncing, soulful song after the next.

My favorite song on Get Happy!! is “High Fidelity,” a song I was SHOCKED was not included in the soundtrack to the 2000 film of the same name47.

Elvis’s voice is scratchy and torn, sounding like the end of a long night spent on stage, howling out hit after hit. The chorus has great harmony vocals, the lyrics

Me and my dad. September 2018.

are again about a woman who done him wrong; he’s wondering if her new lover expects High Fidelity, as he once did. It’s fun and catchy and epitomizes everything I love about the record.

Get Happy!! is an album in which Elvis Costello and The Attractions tried something new, moved away from the new wave, post-punk sound and embraced a different way of making songs. It worked perfectly. Humans are at their best when they learn to reconsider their beliefs and actions, to peek into what else is out there and incorporate it. This is what my dad did, and it’s one of the things I’ll miss about him. But Get Happy!! will always remind me of him.

Track Listing:
“Love for Tender”
“Opportunity”
“The Imposter”
“Secondary Modern”
“King Horse”
“Possession”
“Men Called Uncle”
“Clowntime Is Over”
“New Amsterdam”
“High Fidelity”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Black & White World”
“5ive Gears in Reverse”
“B Movie”
“Motel Matches”
“Human Touch”
“Beaten to the Punch”
“Temptation”
“I Stand Accused”
“Riot Act”

Share

19th Favorite: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield

Share


Hey Babe. Juliana Hatfield.
1992, Mammoth Records. Producer: Gary Smith.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield, is a straightforward 90s guitar-pop gem. Hatfield writes infectious melodies and the band behind her makes them sound alive and urgent. Her voice can strain at times, but it always suits the song, so I don’t mind. The lyrics are sharp, and offer a new perspective on relationships and culture. Get out your cardigan sweater and retro-Bobby Brady shirt, and re-live the early 90s with Juliana!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
As I begin to discuss album number 19 in my list of 100 favorite albums, and considering the pace with which I am completing each post, I’ve realized I should be at Number 1 sometime around 2022. Since this process is dragging out so long, I thought it might be a good time to review the process and discuss how I got here.

It has also dawned on me that as we reach the Top Twenty, there could be some rather upset readers who begin to notice that A) their favorite record won’t be on my list; and B) their second-favorite record is ranked far lower than some lousy record by some dumb artist they never even heard of. This could cause the feeling among readers that “I just wasted 15 years reading this blog to find out this dude has shitty taste in music!!” (I will refund all the fees I’ve collected from any reader who makes this claim.)

Sometimes I reach an album and even I think to myself: “Really?? This record is this good???” But invariably, after I begin listening again, I realize: “Yes! This album IS THIS GOOD!!” Only once have I had a moment of doubt.

So once again, let’s review the process:

1) I listened to all* my CDs. This probably sounds more impressive than it really is. I know folks who have thousands, even tens-of-thousands, of all types of records. I only own a few hundred. I listened to them mainly in the car as I commuted to work. I only listened to CDs, so albums I have as computer files, or old cassettes, aren’t part of the pool. Sadly, I haven’t owned a turntable in a long time, in particular I don’t have one in my car, so all my vinyl records are ineligible, too.

* – I decided that Compilation Albums and Beatles Albums were ineligible. Compilation albums because these typically cherry-pick an artist’s best songs, which would be unfair; Beatles Albums because it’s me cherry-picking the 10 Best Albums in history ever, and so wouldn’t be fair.

2) I took notes and rated the albums 1 to 5 stars. This rating was based on my feelings after listening to the album. It wasn’t based on a considered, in-depth, song-by-song critique that analysed both the artist’s place in history and the importance of the release in the ever-expanding network of contemporary artistic expression; nor was it based on a fixed list of characteristics that excellent records must possess. It was simply based on how much I felt the old “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!” feeling while I listened.

3) I sorted by number of stars. Five stars on top, one-to-less-than-one-stars on the bottom. This provided what one would think was an objective-as-possible list of records ranked by “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness. However …

4) I accounted for my own self-knowledge. You see, the point of this endeavor was NOT to have an objective list of “best” albums, but to have a subjective list of “favorite” albums. So I had to balance out the “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness with some “I-have-a-soft-spot-for-this-record”-ness and some “Yeah-it’s-great-but-it-doesn’t-really-speak-to-me”-ness. This meant that some truly amazing records that I’d rarely listened to, like Sticky Fingers, ranked lower than some, well, less-excellent records to which I had strong historical attachments. Like Yes’s 90125.

This is because I wanted to write about why I love the records I love. I couldn’t say much about Sticky Fingers beyond, “Wow, I should’ve listened to this record more often!” But I could discuss 90125 for hours. (Sadly). (There was one record, though, that I hadn’t listened to much that catapulted into the Top 20 because of just how amazing it is, and that record is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX48.)

5) The list was set and could not change. This post explains why.

I don’t look at the list, except during a very specific time period: after I publish a post. When Number 20 went up a while back49, I pulled out my list, crossed Ghost in the Machine off, and looked to see what was Number 19: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield.

I can’t say I was shocked, as I’ve raved about this record ever since it came out, and I knew it was on my list. But when I considered some of the hugely popular records, important artists and highly critically-praised albums that I’ve already had on my list, I wasn’t sure this little indie release by this rather-unknown, never-hugely-popular singer/songwriter would really hold up as a Top Twenty Pick. But the thing is: I love all the records on this list so much that at any given moment in time, the 98th record might be number 4 and the 20th record might be too low to make the list. In my mind, there isn’t really a whole lot to separate any of the records on my list. Instead of calling them numbers 100 to 1, I should really count them down as numbers 1.099 to number 1. That would be a more accurate appraisal of my relative consideration for all these records. So if you’re truly aghast that, say, Axis: Bold as Love and OK Computer are ranked so much lower than Hey, Babe, think of them as record numbers 1.049, 1.057 and 1.018, respectively, instead of 50, 58 and 1950.

But numbers-schmumbers … I am NOT aghast by the state of my list! Hey, Babe is an excellent record! I first heard about Juliana Hatfield when her band The Blake Babies had a song or two playing on the old MTV show 120 Minutes. I thought they were ‘eh.’ I was living alone in a little cabin in the woods when 120 Minutes played the first single from Hey Babe, and I was hooked immediately. Kurt Loder did a little MTV News segment on her, and I went out and got the record. I’ve loved it ever since. It was never a huge hit, but it’s gotten some critical love upon its recent re-release.

The single that got me hooked is the first song on the album, “Everybody Loves Me But You.”

I have a history of liking acts with unusual vocalists. The Hold Steady, Sleater-Kinney, Rush … all these bands have somewhat divisive singers. Juliana Hatfield has a girlish, soft voice that strains to hit some notes, but I appreciate the punk spirit of singing the songs regardless. Her voice doesn’t at all hinder the terrific melodies she writes. This song starts with a cool guitar riff, and a descending bass line at about 5 seconds, then the main riff starts. She spits out the lyrics quickly. I’ve heard people criticize her lyrics as having too much “poor-little-girl-won’t-a-boy-save-me” emphasis. But I think this criticism unfair (and perhaps a bit sexist) – I’m a man, and I very-much relate to the first-person narrator that tells most of her stories. For me, most of the lyrics aren’t gendered. Anyone who’s ever felt the heartache of knowing one’s targeted “right person” never feels the same way for you can understand “Everybody Loves Me But You.” And her voice does some really cool things, like at 1:48 when she puts a flourish on the word “tired.” It’s a cool, catchy pop song with a cowbell breakdown at 2:30.

The album has a definite 90s, alternative sound, with distortion and furious strumming carrying the bulk of the guitar sounds. There is very little “soloing.” And the Pixies-ish loud-quiet-loud sound pervades. It’s all put to good use on “No Outlet.”

I like the guitar doodles behind the soft part, around 0:30, and how the song deftly transitions between loud and quiet. Around 1:40 there is a solo of sorts, just some long, held notes, until the song drags to a near stop at 2:40, then moves to a really nice bridge. It’s a really cool song with different parts and lyrics describing (I think) the frustration and regret (which men feel too) of physical connections made without the emotions that make them worthwhile. The riff heavy “Quit” is another dip into 90s motifs, including suicidal lyrics, that doesn’t work as well for me.

The acoustic song “Ugly” was ahead of its time, an introspective, woman-centered song a few years before Lilith Fair. It got a lot of publicity back in the day for its direct approach to the topic of women’s self-image. Then it got a little backlash for being too meek. To me, its just an expression by an artist of one thing she’s felt. And these expressions of self are part of what I love about the record.

For example, “Lost and Saved,” one of my favorite tracks for its music and for its lyrics that capture the craziness of falling for someone you shouldn’t.

It’s got cool dueling rhythm guitar coming from each speaker, and the drums, by Todd Phillips, really move the song ahead. Hatfield’s thin voice strains, but fits perfectly. What’s best about the song, though, is the chorus that swoops in (1:19), features great “ooo’s” and then falls into a creative guitar solo at 1:38 from guitarist Mike Leahy. It’s a catchy, 90s guitar pop song that I sing along with every time. In my mind the song is always paired with its follow-up on the record, “I See You.” It’s a song about obsession, and – like “Lost and Saved” – also features 90s folk-rocker John Wesley Harding on backing vocals.

It has another catchy melody that I find myself singing throughout the day when I hear it. I like the lyrics of this song: “I’m not a loser, I’m just lonely” is a phrase that many people knocked around by their heart’s status can relate to. Most of the songs on the record discuss non-existent, or really bad, relationships. The song “Forever Baby” tells the story of a woman who has settled for a way-less-than-ideal man. The lyrics are Elvis Costello-esque, with lines like “I hold him like a loaded gun/I know he might go off with anyone,” and “I see a long lost home in his eyes/He sees a nice hotel in mine.”

The relationship songs are good, but my favorites on the album are less direct, or, in the case of “Nirvana,” directly about a different kind of relationship.

It’s about Hatfield’s love of the band Nirvana, and it brilliantly expresses the effect that music can have on a listener. The song begins, appropriately enough, with feedback, and continues with crunchy chords from guitarist Clay Tarver. It’s an aggressive song that has a sweetly melodic chorus (1:13) much in the vein of many Nirvana songs. The harmonies are terrific, and I’ve always loved the lyrics “Here comes the song I love so much/makes me wanna go fuck shit up.” It’s the feeling I had when I heard Nirvana. And the bridge lyrics (2:20), about the effect of music, are also just right: “When the sound goes around/and goes in your ear/You can do anything/you have no fear!” It’s a favorite song of mine, and apparently Kurt Cobain liked it, too.

It’s a 90s album full of 90s sounds, 90s themes and 90s guest artists. Head Lemonhead, and fellow New Englander, Evan Dando appears on many songs, including The Lights, a slow meditation on lost love. But the best guest appearance is by Minutemen bassist, fIREHOSE leader, and all around terrific guy, Mike Watt on the song “Get Off Your Knees.”

Hatfield plays bass on all the songs except this one, which she turned over to Watt. And the bass really makes the song. It’s another of my favorites on the record, almost entirely because of the bass. It’s a fine, quick song, about something, obviously, but it’s all about the bass. Plus it serves as a nice introduction to the closing song on the album, the ambitious “No Answer.”

It starts off a bit searching, and unsure, but by 0:45 the sweet guitar by Mike Leahy brings it all back to a nice “doo-doo-doo” chorus. There’s a lingering guitar interlude which is allowed to build slowly to the second verse. At 2:25 Hatfield again salutes the effect a good song can have, singing “I jump in the car/turn the music on/I’m gonna be gone/Don’t know how long.” It’s another lost-love song, that after another sweet chorus breaks into an extended outro that cries out for a long car ride. It’s a terrific album closer.

Hey Babe is a totally early-90s record. In the early 90s I was unsure, changing … a young adult figuring things out and never thinking I’d one day be consumed with counting down favorite records and sharing my connections to them. I didn’t know what I was doing back then, and I don’t really know much more nowadays. I do know I have a list of records I’m counting down, and this one’s on the list. And now that I’m done writing about it I wonder: Shouldn’t it really have been higher on my list??

Track Listing:
“Everybody Loves Me But You”
“Lost and Saved”
“I See You”
“The Lights”
“Nirvana”
“Forever Baby”
“Ugly”
“No Outlet”
“Quit”
“Get Off Your Knees”
“No Answer”

Share